Monday, February 18, 2013

Seeing the man on the moon

Friday, I went to the monthly astronomy lecture at Maikalani expecting to hear more about Fermi's paradox. It turned out the paradox (more about that later) was only a stepping stone to the big news, which is that astronomers are plotting to build the largest telescope ever to search for habitable planets within 50 light-years.

Jeff Kuhn, the lecturer and head of the Haleakala Observatory of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, modestly described himself as just a cog in an international venture to build The Colossus, but he's the project director and, I suspect the concept is mostly his. is already a private corporation with an (unnamed) capitalist backing it. I was surprised to learn from Jeff that for the past 150 years, all the successive largest telescopes have been built with private money and that the cost, in constant dollars, has remained the same -- the Yerkes was $6 million and the Colossus will be about a billion, which is what $6 million was a century ago.

(Apparently Jeff does not count the Russian 6-meter telescope, which was larger than Palomar when finished, but since it was built in the cloudy Caucasus Mountains was never used for anything much.)

Russian theory is better than Russian practice, and Jeff takes off from a half-century old idea about advanced civilizations. As they advance, they need more and more energy. The Colossus is intended to spot an extrasolar planet whose inhabitants use 1% or more of their star's energy. (Earth is at about 0.4%.)

The inner Solar system (only terrestrial planets) as seen at 50 light years away from the Sun by the Colossus. The Sun to Mars distance will be seen at the angle of about 100 milliarcseconds. The sizes of the planets and the Sun on this image are not scaled with the distance.
Civilizations acquire more and more information and storing it takes energy -- think of Google's server farms and their huge air conditioning bills, multiplied many times. The laws of thermodynamics require that light energy, once absorbed, be re-emitted as heat. ("The real global warming," says Jeff, like me a skeptic about what might be considered AGW-lite that people are demonstrating against.)

As a result, a planet in its star's habitable zone will, once it acquires a sufficiently advanced life, be dim in visible light and bright in infrared. Even if the aliens don't want to signal their presence to the nearest, perhaps hostile advanced lifeforms, they cannot help it.

No telescope can even almost spot this optically dim, bright infrared planet, in part because even the biggest is not big enough, and in part because each successive biggest telescope is built to see more and more of the Universe.The Colossus would be designed to focus on something as small as a planet at 50 light-years distance -- it could also see a man (your size) on the moon, or the surface of a distant star. (This is why I suspect Jeff is behind the concept; Haleakala Observatory is a solar specialist.)

To do the job, the team has designed a group of 60 8-meter mirrors arranged in a circle about 250 feet across. Ideal sites would be the same as ideal sites for other giant telescopes, Hawaii or Chile.

The cost is estimated to be half that of current proposals for next successive biggest (general) 'scope, about a billion.

With money, it could be up in 5 years, but it would require nightly observations of the 60 nearest stars for several years to accumulate the tiny differences that would spot the planet.

Which brings us back to Fermi's paradox, which asks why, if life is common in the Galaxy, we don't hear from those other guys? Jeff notes that as discoveries have accumulated, each successive one tells us that Earth is nothing special. If Earth has life, then lots of other stars should have planets with life.

I buy this argument, if you consider the statistical event under scrutiny to be the likelihood of advanced life. If Earth is like billions of other planets, then at least millions ought also to have life. It's the old Drake equation.

The thing about the Drake equation, though, is that it is almost all unknowns. Usually it is said that the only known factor is that there is life on Earth -- the factor for life-in-the-universe is 1.

But I am more interested in biology than in physics, and there is another known factor hidden in the Drake equation (though I have never seen it discussed). We know how long it took from the beginning of one-celled life to multi-celled life.

If we guess that, once multi-cellular life (or something close to it) occurs, intelligence necessarily follows (through the power of natural selection, which we  know operates wherever there is life), then advanced life should be common.

However, there's an "if" that the astrophysicists do not (so far as I know) worry about. What if the 3 billion years it took to reach eukaryosis -- a hard fact -- is fast? Our experience must be on either the short side or the long side of average. We don't know which, although it is more likely we were on the fast track.

The reason is that the lifespan of the Galaxy is finite. It might be that given enough time, advanced life almost always results, but we are not given unlimited time. Compared to 3 billion years, we have only a little time to work with. If the average time to eukaryosis is, say, 6 billion or 9 billion years, then advanced life will be scarce, because not enough time has passed yet.

The statistic of interest then is not something close to 1 (life almost everywhere), but the number of microbial interactions that have to occur before one microbe absorbs another without digesting it and also manages to incorporate its machinery in its own output.

Put that way, the number of missed opportunities before our success must have exceeded the number of particles in the universe, and life begins to look most improbable. "Accidental" as Jeff expressed it when I asked him about it.

In that case, Jeff said, the Colossus would find nothing, and that would tell us something.

My own sense of it, based on the fact that almost every time we learn more about a biological process it turns out to be way more complicated than it looked, is that the progression from one cell to many probably required an intermediate step, perhaps evolution of a virus that coated a microbe and prepared it for absorption without digestion. Or something.

Anyway, Fermi's paradox is like the question of theodicy. Religionists ask themselves, if god is good, how can there be evil, and tie themselves in knots trying to put constraints on a putatively omnipotent Big Spook. Much easier to answer if you propose that god is not good. Fermi's paradox fades if life is scarce.

Bad timing

Senator John McCain continued his tirade against Chuck Hagel Sunday, again scolding him for predicting that the "surge" in Iraq would be the worst foreign policy mistake since Vietnam. McCain picked a bad day for it, since a coordinated series of bombings across Baghdad killed dozens of Shiites.

Just like before the surge.

Commentators from all angles of the political spectrum usually treat the surge as a success. Often, until he got caught with his zipper open, using its alleged success to praise General Petreus.

It is only stating (but, regretably not restating) the obvious to say that the surge was a failure.

If its goal was to give our defeated Army time and space to retreat in orderly fashion from the battlefield, then you could call it a success. But that wasn't what it was sold as.

Before the surge, Iraq was having a civil war, with Sunni rebels successfully paralyzing a mostly Shiite central government. And now, Iraq is having a civil war, with Sunni rebels successfully paralyzing a mostly Shiite central government. Not that the Sunni had to do much, since the Maliki government was barely functioning anyway.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Book Review 269: The Big Rich

THE BIG RICH: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, by Bryan Burroughs. 466 pages, illustrated. Penguin, $29.95

The men profiled by Bryan Burroughs in “The Big Rich” were four of the least interesting businessmen America produced.

They did not innovate in business organization, like Rockefeller; or in operations, like the first Howard Hughes; or in research, like Thomas Watson. All they did was find oil or, just as often, manage to acquire rights to oil somebody else had found.

The only thing that distinguished them from a smelly, ignorant prospector tugging his mule through the High Sierras was lots and lots of money. And they may have been even more ignorant, with the partial exception of Clint Murchison, who had some interests beyond oil, cattle and cards.

Burroughs tells their story with zest, although his claim to be a Texan is suspect. He calls a steer a heifer. And there are some other howlers. He has Joe McCarthy, a senator, chairing the House Un-American Activities Committee; and moves Estes Kefauver from Tennessee to Kansas.

We would not be interested in H.L. Hunt, Murchison, Sid Richardson or Hugh Cullen if they hadn't used their money to try to influence politics. Here Burroughs fails his reader, by not putting these Texas yahoos in context.

In “The Big Rich” their ignorant ideas appear to rise from the prairie, fully-formed like a reverse of Athena rising from the head of Zeus; but, of course, they were boys of their time. Their ideas, if they can be said to have had any, came out of the same backwater that produced senator and governor Pappy Daniels and the governors Ferguson.

When, late in life, all four, but especially Hunt, decided to try to influence American political thought, they brought knives to a gunfight. Burroughs says, “America in 1950 had not a single leading politician who could be termed conservative by today's standards.” He overstates, as Senator William Jenner was as conservative as anyone and influential, even if forgotten now.

But it's true that all four did their best to add sludge to public life. That they were largely ineffective was due more to their lack of skills in publicity than to a lack of bad intentions.

It's true that American political discourse is more self-consciously rightwing than it used to be, but the intellectual origins of that change were in the East, not Texas.

Much the most interesting part of the book is the collapse of the second generation of the Big Rich. America has been friendly to money dynasties, starting with the du Ponts. Some families continue to be potent social, political, cultural and, occasionally, even business forces into the fourth, fifth, even sixth generations.

Richadson had no offspring, but the families of Hunt and Murchison attempted to get even richer and failed, while the Davis fortune and influence was dissipated, in part by philanthropy.

In sum, “The Big Rich” is gossipy and fun and not too reliable. What I got most out of it was the resurrection of the career of Glenn McCarthy, who almost made the Big Rich but flamed out.

He was, in many ways, more interesting that any of the four who made it, but he did not have the dinero and American popular culture has thrown him down the memory hole.

Book Review 268: "Only a Poor Old Man"

Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge: 'Only a Poor Old Man,' by Carl Barks. 240 pages. Fantagraphics

Uncle Scrooge was my favorite comic when I was 8 or 9 years old, although my favorite character was Gyro Gearloose. I never could get enough of him.

I did not know that the author-illustrator of the comic was Carl Barks – Disney was careful not to allow credit to accrue to anybody but Disney.

Barks was a westerner, born in 1901, one of the last of that great generation of free spirits that also produced Linus Pauling and Eric Hoffer. Barks's accomplishments were less ambitious but, as it has turned out, still full of ideas for later readers to mine.

This volume has commentary by a gaggle of American and, curiously, Italian scholars, mainly academics.

This volume, 12th in the Fantagraphics catalogue raisonne of Barks but first in terms of the McDuck legend, introduces the skinflinty but honest Scotch duck and explains where he accumulated his “three cubic acres” of money.

My boyhood reading came a little later in the series, and I was surprised to see how hard-edged the original Barks conception was. Scrooge, though honest, was ready to take advantage of the unwary (and was consequently often taken advantage of because of his own reluctance to pay a reasonable rate for services); and the Beagle Boys were not only vicious but cruel and murderous. Those qualities softened as the Eisenhower years rolled on.

Barks was not political; none of the monarchism that makes Disney so unpalatable ever seeped into Duckburg, but his attitude toward wealth and the getting and spending of it was complex, as befitted a child of the frontier, where great disparities of wealth were usual and where Barks himself was one of the have-nots.

Scrooge liked money for its own sake. He was not one for luxury, except the luxury of swimming in money. But he also was not the pinched and querulous miser of classic aspect – he was not like Ebenezer Scrooge. He did not hate and fear people with less money (though he feared the Beagle Boys' schemes), which distinguishes him from today's rich. Scrooge McDuck just liked money.

Much of the appeal of the great comic artists was their subversive intent. Barks's subversion centered on Huey, Dewey and Louie, young ducklings who consistently showed more common sense and foresight than any older residents of Duckburg.

As with all Fantagraphics reprints, “Only a Poor Old Man” is done in first-rate style all the way. They are not cheap, and Scrooge would be loath to buy his own book, but in the long run they are worth it.

Grappling with competition

If wrestling isn't a sport, according to the Olympic organizing committee, what is?

There has been some speculation that the decision was political, to make way for something called modern pentathlon. I am sure the reason is the same as the reason for the rearrangement of every other public event, from State of the Union addresses to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade – if it does not televise well, kill it.

Or change it till it's as good as dead, which means arranging for sponsor plugs. That is why, for example, the Macy's parade changed from a mildly amusing shared spectacle to an unwatchable infomercial.

However, with sport – unlike the Macy's parade – there is a social-philosophical question: What is sport?

Sport is competition against time, distance or weight, or against another person. Everything else is pastime.

So, golf is a sport but mountain climbing is not. Swimming races are sport but diving is not. Wrestling is sport, gymnastics is not.

More generally, if style points are awarded, it cannot be sport.

Television is also responsible for eliminating one of the other markers of a sport, the tie.

Ties, when between skilled opponents, are the most exciting outcomes in sport. The Laver-Newcombe match that led TV to kill ties in tennis was, without question, the most exciting sporting event ever televised.

I watched it, and was willing for the match to go on until the sun set, if need be; but it isn't really necessary. It makes sense to establish a time limit. If one of two opponents cannot prevail after a set time, then the verdict is that, on that day, they were equal.

If they are equal at the supreme level of effort possible, then, that is a good thing to be able to say.

College football used to understand this. Several “games of the century” between unbeaten untied teams ended in ties. What's wrong with that?

The most dramatic, heart-stopping sporting event I ever watched in person was a tie, back when I was a sportswriter, before I lost interest in sport and pastimes as practiced today.

It was a college swimming race, something of a stunt set up by the coach, who had two All-America distance men. It has been nearly 50 years and I cannot recall their names, but I recall the race vividly.

At the end of a routine intercollegiate competition, the home coach staged a race at a rarely used length – I cannot recall whether it was in yards or meters, and I forget the length. 10,000 yards, I think.

The entrant from the other school quickly faded, leaving the two home men to fight it out in front of a small audience of mostly teammates and a few friends.

One man was tall and slender, the other short and compact. But, as their coach knew, they were perfectly matched.

The race took something over 20 minutes, freestyle, and during that long time, neither man ever got more than a head in front of the other. The tension was crackling. Each man was going all-out because, as the coach had plotted, the winner was probably going to break the intercollegiate record.

They did. By minutes. In a dead heat.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

White mischief

I agree with every word of Sam Tanenhaus's New Republic piece about how the Republican Party changed from a party of  civil rights to one against civil rights. His history is precisely what I observed in the South.

I have never read a piece of political journalism before that I didn't disagree with at least part of.

I would add just three points:

Although Tanenhaus is no doubt correct as he traces the intellectual history of the transformation in ideology in the national Republican Party, Southerners didn't need any Eastern pointy-head intellectuals to revive the political thought of John Calhoun. We took that in with our mother's milk. My grandfather, born in 1890, was named John Calhoun Eagar.

Second, though Tanenhaus does not mention it, his history explains the desperate GOP opposition to the Voting Rights Act (and exposes the libertarians as just rightwingers who won't admit to it).

Three, the reason the Republicans were not concerned as they lost the Latino vote was that they were certain, for ideological reasons, that Latin immigrants, as they became citizens, or their children grew old enough to vote, would vote their social conservative views and not their economic interests or their desire for self-respect. This was obtuse when contemplating a social group that puts so much emphasis on respect.

The more or less simultaneous disappearance of the Republican black vote was a feature, not a bug, and the party was happy to see them go.

Nut graf:

But that history, with its repeated instances of racialist political strategy dating back many decades, only partially accounts for the party's electoral woes. The true problem, as yet unaddressed by any Republican standard-bearer, originates in the ideology of modern conservatism. When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun. This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun's ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Dodging a bullet

We haven't heard much from Sarah Palin lately, which is a shame, because she's almost always good for a laugh.

But not every time. Now, in the kind of gratuitous slap at the president that passes for policy among Republicans these days, she is demanding that Obama make some sort of gesture for Chris Kyle, and condemning him (Obama) for not ordering the nation's flags down to half-staff when Kyle died.

"We may never know to what extent Chris kept us free or how many lives he saved by his brave actions in the line of fire. But his fellow warriors know how important he was," Palin wrote.
Yeah, we know one he didn't save. His own. Because the gun nut provided a weapon and ammunition to a man who was -- Kyle thought -- mentally unbalanced. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, yeah. The man shot Kyle. You could say he was asking for it. Too bad about the bystander who also got shot to death, though.

Scary to think about that mean-spirited, small-minded woman in high office.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Infantilization of firearms

In 1950, when I was 4 or 5, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church held a bazaar, and there was a raffle for a Hopalong Cassidy two-gun cowboy outfit. I didn't win, but I was so bitterly disappointed that my Aunt Elizabeth, who couldn't afford it, bought me one.

In 1950, all the little boys had toy guns, but almost all of us grew up and put them away. A few of us, hunters, acquired real guns. They were, and looked like, sporting arms. In the '60s, you could buy military semi-automatics from surplus stores for a few dollars. Gun nuts then spent a lot of time and effort sporterizing them to look like expensive hunting arms.

They cut down stocks, blued the metal and altered the sights. It would not have been cool to go into the field or to the range (not that many of us could afford to waste ammo at a range) with a cheap military weapon.

Tactical” was then, and for long after, a technical term used by soldiers.

1960 was the year I first encountered a dangerous gun nut. Up to that point, all the people – all older than me – who had firearms, so far as I knew, had them as tools and treated them the way a workman treats his other tools. They were much too casual about where they kept them, and about leaving them loaded, but they did not worship them any more than they did hammers and screwdrivers.

There must have been crazy gun-drunks and paranoid nuts, but until I got to high school, I had not encountered any. Then I met John, and I briefly thought we were friends.

I knew John had long guns and that he customized them; his fingers were always stained with bluing.

We all wore uniforms at St. Pius X High School, so nothing in his dress revealed John as a crank, and in company he seemed conventional.

One day, he invited me to his home. John showed me his workbench and explained what he was doing to an array of carbines and military rifles. So far, so good.

I was shocked and disgusted when we went to his room, which was full of Nazi stuff. John played me speeches by Hitler – something not readily obtained by a 13-year-old in Georgia in 1960 – and sang the Horst Wessel song. He went on a tirade, in mixed German and English, that I couldn't follow, except that he kept spitting out the word “Juden,” in a voice filled with hate.

I began to think of John's hobby of sporterizing military firearms in a different way. That was the first time I had ever thought of firearms in a less than positive light. (I have elsewhere written that I stopped hunting when it dawned on me that all the people in the field with me were drinking and that might not be the safest kind of recreation; but that came later, when I was 17.)

It was the South. Guns were everywhere. I don't recall anybody talking about Second Amendment rights (never duties) before I got to college. Then it was generally in the context of defending the home, although the American Opinion bookstore was around the corner from the rooming house I lived in, and I was aware that there were Birchers arming themselves against the day the commies started their putsch. But the college boys didn't talk like that.

The zealots, the “red berets,” talked about the short work they would make of the gooks when they graduated and got their ROTC commissions, although I noted that when we cadets were asked to list our three preferred branches of the Army (one of which had to be a combat arm), nobody but me listed a combat branch higher than third.

The red berets were my first close encounter with the infantilization of firearms, except the red berets weren't issued any live ammunition for their M-14s. The real weaponeers on the campus held them in contempt.

I knew the rifle team, which the red berets invited to play the “enemy” in a “tactical exercise.” Some of the riflemen were veterans, or at least in the National Guard. The exercise used flour sacks to mark targets. The riflemen massacred the red berets.

In college, there was no school uniform, so if you wanted to signal your politics by dress, you could. But still at that point, people who had firearms or who cared particularly about the Second Amendment did not dress the part.

You begin, I think, to get my drift, so let's jump forward a few decades.

Today, you can go to Uncle Jesse's on Maui and buy “tactical” anything. Camo underwear, for example.

How weird is that?

Silly, but a sign of a more profound delusion. Camo underwear is, in fact, the gun nut version of the Batman underwear that 5-year-olds wear. Batman everything, camouflage everything. It reveals a disproportion in thinking and outlook that people leave behind when they grow up.

The new meaning of the word “tactical” signals the same infantilization. Just as the 5-year-old obsessed with Batman had, in addition to his Batman underpants, Batman bedclothes and a Batman lunchbox, today's infantilized gun nuts put camo on everything – underwear, flashlights, trucks.

If the object of their affections weren't something that has been used millions of times to kill Americans, no one would care, any more than we do more than merely smile at the sports nut who paints his truck with Steelers insignia, drinks out of Steelers mugs, wears a Steelers shirt etc.

The conversation about firearms – which was not much of a conversation in 1950 – has become a heated, childish, dangerous delusion, like the idea that caped crusaders protect the city from evildoers. The conversation about firearms – from the gun nut side, anyway – is equally delusional, with extremists strapping on guns and donning camo and “guarding borders” and stalking black teenagers in condominium developments and carrying semi-automatics into church services.

Significantly, the practice of sporterizing military weaspons has been reversed. Now people hunt defenseless deer with rifles that are, functionally, the same sportsman's weapon of my youth but are now decorated to look like submachine guns.

Non-gun nuts are frightened by these “assault”-looking guns, as the gun nuts intend. The gun nuts jeer and say, correctly, that the Bushmaster is no more deadly than an M-1 carbine or a Remington deer rifle.

The most popular long gun in the country, the Bushmaster, is marketed as a way to “reclaim your man card.” The infantilization is in full scream.

I have not addressed the issue of sexual anxiety. The Bushmaster ads confirm the idea that guns are substitute penises for men who are worried their natural equipment is substandard.

But extreme and long-lasting sexual anxiety is also a marker of the infantilized personality.

Probably all this was latent in the gun culture I was introduced to around 1950. What has changed is that what was latent is now celebrated.

It's true, as the Wayne Lapierres say, that banning assault-looking guns would not prevent, or even slow down, a mass murderer who could do as much damage with a sportsman's style hunting rifle.

The conclusion they draw, though, is incorrect. If what they say is true, then what needs to be banned is the semi-automatic.

I hunted with a single-shot .22 rifle. That's all you need for varmints.

The gun nuts are being successful in distorting the source of the mayhem. It isn't long guns. It's pistols.

It isn't resistance to government tyranny. It isn't defense of the home or the person.

The issue is the excessive access to and use of firearms in everyday settings.

In law, there is a concept calling balancing the interests. The idea is Millsian – try to do the least amount of harm overall.

Repealing the Second Amendment would harm genuine sportsmen, and in rare – exceedingly rare – instances stop a law-abiding citizen from using a firearm to protect himself. On the other hand, disarming the population would cut out the slaughter of millions of our fellow citizens.

It's the grown-up thing to do.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Book Review 267: The Pineapple

THE PINEAPPLE: King of Fruits, by Fran Beauman. 315 pages, illustrated. Chatto & Windus

I live on a former pineapple farm on Maui, and I thought I knew something about pineapples. But I was surprised to discover from Fran Beauman's “The Pineapple” that pineapples were grown in England in the 18th century.

It was a social, not a gustatory phenomenon, despite the praise heaped on the fruit. “In its first 150 years of celebrity, never has a food been so eulogised,” she says.

It was a feat to grow and ripen a pineapple in cold, rainy England, and the cost of each was equivalent to the price of a new coach. Like a Hermes purse today, you could rent a pineapple for parties to pretend to other people that you were rich.

Today only one pinery still functions in England, and apparently all the ones that existed in colonial America have disappeared. Beauman claims to be the first to have recovered the history of pineapples in revolutionary America, where competing social claims vied for supremacy.

As a symbol of the hated (by some) English aristocracy, growing pines was disparaged, but as a sign of continental sophistication, it was aspired to.

Unfortunately, rather than writing a straight social history of the pineapple, Beauman tries to present the plant as an active player, using its skills to seduce Europeans into spreading it throughout the world. She is not skillful enough to carry off this conceit.

That the pine was endowed with social significance is certain; that is was quite as important in the overall social scene as Beauman makes it seems doubtful.

Her theme is that from a royal fruit – the very rare early examples were always given to kings – democratization robbed the king of fruits of its eclat.

Steamships made it possible to export fresh pines to rich countries and canned pineapple everywhere.

So? You could write a similar history about mutton.

Since people did not start eating pineapples (in Europe) until late, it is not strictly correct to call it an example of conspicuous consumption. It wasn't consumed.

It would be more convincing to describe the English production of pineapples as a form of Georgian potlatch, where the pine was passed from table to table until it rotted.

People who could not afford real pineapples made imitations out of stone, pottery, iron and wallpaper, and this could have been presented as an example of a cargo cult of a rising middle class anxious to attract real aristocratic pineapples.

But Beauman is not witty enough to do that. 

"The Pineapple” is full of tasty tidbits but, like a plate of the fruit, does not amount to a satisfying meal.

Beauman winds up with a tantalizing social factoid, which, however, she does not explain. In 2000, the Parisian fashion house Chloe put out a line of swimsuits for women decorated with a pineapple on the crotch. This is evidently supposed to show the lingering power of the fantasy of the royal fruit, but in what way is not explained.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Whitewash at the laundry

America seems not to be paying much attention to the exposure of the Magdalene scandal in Ireland.

Tom Wolfe, in "The Right Stuff," wrote about the press as the Genteel Beast. It is the most trenchant criticism of American journalism anyone has ever made, including Mencken and Liebling. Yet I have never heard any journalist, myself excluded, refer to it.

I think that Genteel Bestiality is part of what keeps the Irish Magdalene story out of American journalism.

My friernd Mark Adams has written a sort of prayer or eulogy for reporters:

And one day God looked down on his planned paradise and said, "I need a chronicle of all that this is."

So, God made a reporter.

God said, "I need somebody to get up before dawn and read the overnight news feeds and milk their sources and work all day in the trenches, milk sources again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board and tell people what it really means." So, God made a reporter.

God said, "I need somebody with strong hands writing strong words. Strong enough to bring light to a crowd, gentle enough to deliver love to our grandchildren. Somebody to call out society's hogs by name, tame cantankerous political machinery by writing of its wrongs, come home hungry and have to wait for lunch until his wife is done feeding and visiting with the ladies and telling them to be sure to come back real soon...and mean it." So, God made a reporter.

God said, "I need somebody that can shape a debate, shoehorn hoarse truth into reports on car tires, build a career out of ignoring false wires and fake PR smoke stacks, building real news out of press conference scraps. And who, during tragic times and election seasons, will finish a 40-hour week by Tuesday noon. Then, pain'n from that bone-deep drive to 'always go back,' put in another 72 hours." So, God made a reporter.

God had to have somebody willing to ride life's rows at double speed to get the truth in ahead of the rain clouds and yet still stop at mid-field and race to help at the first hint of danger to a colleague or a cause or a neighbor's place. So, God made a reporter.

God said, "I need somebody strong enough to expose the lies, highlight fraud, eliminate doubt, yet gentle enough to celebrate the pureness of young lambs and pigs and tell stories of pink combed pullets ..and who will in an instant stop writing for an hour to mend the broken leg of an innocent meadow lark." So, God made a reporter.

It had to be somebody who'd seek the truth by plowing deep and straight...and not cut corners. Somebody to seed and weed, feed and breed all that's right and rake and disc and plow and plant fairness and goodness, tie the gold fleece and strain the white milk of untainted knowledge shared with all.

Somebody to replenish the self feeder of a day's wins and losses by tallying rights and wrongs -- and then finish a hard days work with a five mile drive to church. Somebody who'd bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who'd laugh and then sigh at attempts to keep the world awash in light and truth and justice for everyone, and then respond with smiling eyes when his son says he wants to spend his life "doing what dad does."

Smiling eyes like those of all women and men who do the same work and hear the same words, because it's all we know and what we love. To make a difference, highlight injustice, celebrate victory, share loss, review the planned rows of paradise and chronicle it all -- because we simply must.

And so, God made us reporters . . .
Not how I see it or saw myself. I admire reporters, but there were always vast areas where we were sadly deficient. The religious blight that poisons American (and not only American) life was the place were we failed the worst. Still do.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bad press for gun nuts

A constant theme of the gun nuts is that the press suppresses news about good done with firearms. All I can say about that is that during 45 years in the newspaper business, I never had to suppress any good news about firearms, because I never encountered any.

Bad news, on the other hand, was as regular as the sunrise. Today's Washington Post is typical.

Now that the Second Amendment and stand-your-ground enthusiast who kidnapped the 5-year-old is dead, we learn more about him:

Ronda Wilbur, a neighbor of Dykes who said the man beat her dog to death last year with a pipe, said she was relieved to be done with the stress of knowing Dykes was patrolling his yard and willing to shoot at anyone or anything that trespassed.
“The nightmare is over. It’s been a long couple of years of having constant stress,” she said.
Right next to that is a teaser to the second-most popular story of the day in the Post:

Police records: Iraq War vet charged in Texas shooting deaths had been in mental hospital.
Adam Lanza, now the guy who shot the champion sniper: mental cases whose friends and loved ones thought that giving them guns and teaching them to shoot would be good for their mental health. What could possibly go wrong?

Catholic church not getting it

I had been going to post a simple, obvious point -- not restating it, since I haven't seen it stated elsewhere -- but waiting a day or two allowed the Catholic Church to reinforce my point in a way even I -- ever pessimistic about the religion I was raised in -- could not have foretold.

The obvious point is the Gomez, the cardinal who relieved the previous cardinal, Mahony, last week, has no objections to what Mahone did to protect child rapists in the Los Angeles archdiocese. If he had, he'd have suspended Mahony two years ago, when Gomez found out about Mahony's rape mill.

Gomez did not act until Mahony was outed by the legal process. Therefore, we can be sure that if press and lawyers had not forced his hand, he would not have acted ever.

To date, so far as I have seen evidence, no member of the Roman Catholic Church management actually disapproves of child rape. If they did, they would act otherwise.

This morning, the Los Angeles Times -- minor heroes in this story -- has a story about the congregration at Mahony's church after Gomez's pastoral letter was read. Msgr. Gallagher, the pastor (and, if you are not a Catholic, you may not realize what a high mucketymuck a monseignor is), is quoted as telling his sheep:

"I'm sure some of you are still mightily angry, some confused, some would like to see something done differently," Gallagher said. "The important thing for us to remember, I think, is that there have been victims . . . young people whose lives were ruined.... They need a sense that they are being invited back into God's grace."
Words fail me at this point. They are being invited back into the organization that raped them and that is still protecting the rapists?

Well, RtO could have said that Catholic priests are clueless criminals, but far better to have one of them say it for me.

Royal pain

So the body buried under the parking lot belonged to King Richard III? Darn. I was hoping it was Jimmy Hoffa.