Thursday, April 28, 2022

The Zoo

 


While visiting Indiana, I went to the Indianapolis Zoo with my 2- and 4-year-old grandchildren. There was a lot of excitement about cheetahs wrestling with each other, orangutans swinging from ropes, and dolphins performing athletic tricks. But I found the visit depressing.

As a kid, my parents took us to the Bronx Zoo, at that time a world-class zoo. Since then, zoos have transformed themselves from exotic animal incarceration facilities to thoughtful educational institutions, replacing cages with landscapes, building environments which mimic natural settings, and rescuing instead of capturing wild animals. The headline on the Bronx Zoo’s website says “Saving Wildlife and Wild Places”. Still, I can’t get over seeing eagles confined to enclosures barely large enough for one beat of their wings, observing fellow primates behind glass with nothing to do, and clapping for dolphins as a circus act.

I have not forced myself toward a firm position on animal rights, but I no longer get a thrill from the human ability to put wild and wonderful creatures on display for our viewing pleasure.

The educational messaging of the Indianapolis Zoo was the most depressing aspect of my visit. Over and over again, at many, perhaps most stations with carefully worded signs, we were told in plain language about the predictable results of our murderous heedlessness toward other life forms. Humans kill large, complex animals just for “fun”. Rich men pay enormous sums to fly to faraway places, so they can sneak up on unsuspecting animals and shoot them. I find that impulse sickening.

But big game trophy hunters are not the main problem for the world’s wildlife. Elephants and rhinos are regularly hunted for their tusks and horns, which some people believe have magical curative powers. Extinction is on its way.

Even more destructive are the normal human processes of making land “useful”, cutting down rain forests to create farms and grazing land. Signs all over the Indianapolis Zoo repeated the warning that animal habitats are being transformed into human habitats, driving the Earth’s living diversity toward irreversible extinction.

Human heedlessness, or better selfishness, is demonstrated every day by the unnecessary pollution of the atmosphere and the oceans. These vast reservoirs of life-giving resources have been human garbage dumps from the earliest societies until the most “advanced”. Now that our “civilization” has developed more technologically sophisticated methods to promote human convenience, now that humans have multiplied beyond sustainability, we are not only killing the world’s animals, but are hurtling toward mass suicide.

Humans have the unique capacity to rationalize the mass killing even of our own species. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is merely the latest instance among countless human wars against ourselves, never about survival, always about human hatred for other humans, justified by the most elaborate systems of “moral” or “religious” belief. “Useful” always means useful for us, regardless of earthly consequences.

I am not trying to be cute with quotation marks. The words I have modified in that way are tendentious, although I have taken a long time to recognize that fact. Moralities can rationalize mass murder with abstract syllogisms. Religions whose texts condemn killing in plain language find ways to bless murderous enterprises on a grand scale. Other ways of thinking are possible.

The uniquely human creation over the past few centuries of a detailed understanding of the world we inhabit appears to be no match for much older stories that humans have made up about how our inherent superiority allows us total control over all forms of life and death. The messages the Earth is sending us are no less clear than the printed signs at the Indianapolis Zoo about what “human impact” means for all life forms.

As the plastic pollution of our oceans threatens us on land, as the modern great extinction picks up speed, as the weather predictably endangers life and property, the biggest adherents of divine human right are barely discomfited by the clash of reality with belief. The zoo should remind us that humans have the power over life and death for everything on Earth. Thus far our species has not been pro-life.

Steve Hochstadt

Boston

6 April 2022

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Treason in the 21st Century

 


We are at war with Russia. Economic war certainly, political war at the highest level, military assistance but no actual fighting for us. Yet.

The fighting is being done by our ally Ukraine, to whom every administration has given economic and military aid since the last time Russia invaded Ukraine to carve off Crimea in 2014. Like modern wars, the Russian attack on Ukraine is televised. Everybody knows what is happening, except perhaps the few remaining Russians who still believe the lies their governments have been telling them their whole lives.

Until two weeks ago, Russia was merely our global adversary. Shooting changes everything. For our military and all the militaries in NATO, for our government forced to respond to invasion of our ally, for populations and governments around the world, Russia is now the enemy.

That is global news, but a few people here at home openly support the other side. On the wide and colorful right fringe of our national tapestry, the news is hard to swallow. Their years of public admiration for the Russian strongman and his government, led by our own fawning circus strongman, now suddenly look naive at best, and certainly stupid.

But stupid can also be dangerous. If “loose lips sink ships”, then shouting public voices can aid the enemy. For years, RT America, set up in the US by Margarita Simonyan under Putin’s control in 2005, has been proselytizing for him. Simonyan served on Putin’s reelection team in 2018, after informally helping to elect Trump in 2016. The obvious Russian media project to interfere in our elections forced even the Trump administration to make RT register as an “agent of a foreign government”. Now Simonyan on RT explains that Ukrainians greeted Russian troops with homemade pies, and the line of tanks is “a standard parade rehearsal”.RT reports Putin’s claim that Russia is attempting the “denazification of Ukraine”.

According to a social scientific study by Mona Elswah and Philip N. Howard, “RT is the most richly funded, well-staffed, formal organization in the world producing, disseminating, and marketing news in the service of the Kremlin. RT is used as an instrument of state defense policy to meddle in the politics of other states. The channel has been established in the shadows of the Soviet media system and its organizational behavior is characterized by Soviet-style controls.” The EU personally sanctioned Simonyan two weeks ago, along with many Russian people and entities, calling her “a central figure of the Government propaganda”.

War is always an opponent of freedom of information and opinion. RT is a paid arm of the enemy trying to derail the current American war effort. It may reach millions of Americans with enemy propaganda disguised as news. Can they masquerade under the banner of freedom of the press?

I care more about the outsized influence of right-wing Americans flirting with treason in alliance with RT. RT’s current BFF is Tucker Carlson. When the bombing of cities was still in the future, Carlson constantly promoted his preference for the Russian leader over our own President and VP, who are “a senile man and an imbecile”: “I think we should probably take the side of Russia, if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine.”

The idea of Ukraine possesses enormous negative significance for conservatives who have never seen it: they tried and failed to make Hunter Biden’s questionable activities in Ukraine a bigger moral and political issue than Donald Trump’s. So Carlson explained his understanding of world politics at the beginning of February: “Texas is a state that’s had well over 1 million foreign nationals pour into it illegally over the last year. Right over the border. That is a far bigger invasion than anything Vladimir Putin is planning in Ukraine.” Worry about desperate impoverished families who would love to live in America, carrying their belongings on their backs, not Putin. The policy of the Biden administration, as in everything else, is “lunacy”. Hours before Russia’s invasion, he tweeted: “Ukraine isn’t a democracy. It’s a State Department client state.”

Russian state television has been delighting Russian officials and the official media by broadcasting translated Carlson clips. Russian senator Alexey Pushkov claimed the West is “provoking war”, and cited his source: “This isn’t just my opinion. Prominent Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson says that the mainstream media is getting us ready for war, demanding war.”

Russian media rebroadcast Carlson’s friendly portrayal of Putin himself: “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?”

So RT loves Tucker. Simonyan raved about one of his video clips shown on Russian airwaves: “You showed the clip of wonderful Tucker Carlson, who, by the way, is dreaming of interviewing Vladimir Putin, simply dreaming about it! He is the most popular host in the United States, who understands everything the way it should be understood.”

The extreme right committing treason for the Russians is a double historical irony. Right after World War II, American conservatives, led by Joe McCarthy and Robert Welch, propagated the nonsensical story that the whole political establishment to their left, including President Eisenhower, was in league with the Russians, then called Soviets. Richard Nixon pioneered the winning use of “pink” in California politics. American conservatism has proclaimed its unique loyalty to America for my whole lifetime. A weaponized patriotism was directed at everyone with the flimsiest links to Russia or whom the right didn’t like. Now the far right is in bed with the enemy and it is Russia.

Some are scrambling to get out. Others are hiding under the covers. On February 25, Carlson retreated: “Vladimir Putin started this war. He is to blame for what we're seeing tonight in Ukraine.” That only lasted a day, as Carlson said “the invasion of Ukraine is a humiliating defeat for Joe Biden.” The biggest shots can’t bear to recant.

After the US declared war on Germany in 1917, the Trading with the Enemy Act gave a newly created Office of Alien Property Custodian the power to confiscate the property of people whose actions could threaten the war effort. The president has the authority to restrict trade with “hostile” nations or with their allies. Those provisions are now solely applied to Cuba, where actual fighting has only taken place when the US invaded in 1961, another irony.

Have FOX News and its even less scrupulous epigones on the right, like Breitbart and Infowars, who have been spreading and amplifying RT’s message, all committed treason? Should their property be confiscated?

I wonder why any American would follow stupid, traitorous people who have been making a fortune sleeping with the enemy? Maybe this finally is the wake-up call.

Steve Hochstadt

Boston

9 March 2022

Monday, January 31, 2022

Where Are The Masks?

 

 

We watched the NFL playoffs last weekend. As everyone has already commented, the football was unusually thrilling, with all four games decided on the final play. 

Exciting also was the glimpse that the TV provided into the future, when COVID will be just a bad memory. On the field, in the studio, and during the commercials, the pandemic had disappeared. So there was no need to wear masks.

For hours I watched carefully for any sign of a mask. Naturally the players didn’t wear masks. Neither did the coaches, although just a few weeks ago, NFL coaches were all wearing masks. Since December 16, masks have only been required at indoors training facilities.

 In July, the NFL mandated masks for all fans in stadiums. All sideline coaches had to wear masks, and three coaches were fined for not being properly masked during Week 2 games. Those rules are gone. I saw no masks on the sidelines this weekend and few in the stands. The two commentators during the game and the five guys in the Verizon Halftime Report also had no masks. NFL football is a mask-free environment.

NFL world is hardly real life. But the never-ending commercial breaks might be expected to portray more familiar environments: hanging out with friends, mealtimes, shopping. I watched carefully for hours and saw barely any masks.

The “Star Trek” movie concerns another place and time, so masks were probably inappropriate. The silly DirecTV ad where Serena plays tennis against a horde of Matrix-inspired avatars is also other-worldly. The Agatha Christie drama “Death on the Nile” could pretend that COVID is in the distant future. The three medical professionals in an ad for the hospital drama “Good Sam” were wearing surgical masks. But in all the imagined advertising scenes of normal life, masks were absent: the motorcycle guys in a GEICO ad; Progressive Insurance ads helping you avoid becoming your parents, even in a grocery store; the growing list of FBI programs; all the fleeting images from the lineup of CBS shows, from Queen Latifah to Stephen Colbert.

Pfizer paid for an ad congratulating itself on how their vaccine allows people to lead a more normal life, with a scene of people crowding into a restaurant without masks. State Farm showed Patrick Mahomes and “Jake” in a shoe store without masks. Indeed’s ad for job recruiting included a brief shot of a commercial setting without masks. Other ads in hospital settings showed no masks. AT&T displayed one of its stores filled with customers without masks.

There were a few masks. I saw one mask briefly in a Verizon ad. An actor with a mask appeared in the background of an ad for “NCIS Hawai’i”.

TV ads have changed over the past two years. Scenes of casual dining have been replaced by ads for safer food delivery. Indoor scenes were replaced by outdoor shots. Every scene I saw with unmasked actors could presumably be defended as conforming to CDC guidelines. But life on TV does not follow any pandemic guideline except lust for profit and fear of loss. Showing people in masks is a loser. None of us look good, or even friendly in a mask. Living behind a mask is unnatural, anathema to those who live by images.

We took a long break from TV to eat dinner. The fellow who delivered our dinner wore a mask. My wife said that he stayed as far away from her as possible. Both sets of my grandchildren are at home in different states these weeks, because daycare is dangerous. Many, maybe most people I see when I walk in my Boston neighborhood every day wear masks outdoors. On the bus or subway, in the whole MBTA system of vehicles and stations, only the rarest person is not masked.

That’s real life. I don’t expect real life from my TV – everything is highly produced, whether it is supposed to be real or not. But displaying life as maskless, presenting masks as unusual, unnecessary, even aberrant, normalizes the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers.

The murder victims on the crime shows I like are killed by individuals who nearly always get caught. The 2000 people who now die every day, mostly unvaccinated, mostly unmasked, are being killed off by their political leaders and professional polemicists, who commit their crimes against public health in public without accountability. They are supported by the “apolitical” media displaying a fictional world without COVID, a world I could only wish for.

Steve Hochstadt

Boston, MA

January 31, 2022

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

American Fallacies

 


The Republican Party is being taken over by an extremist fringe.

Among Republicans, the Party’s extremist fringe is not represented by Matt Gaetz, Paul Goslar, or Marjorie Taylor Greene. They are Republican heroes. The Republican fringe is Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, the only Republicans willing to investigate the January 6 insurrection. The Republican fringe is the minority of 64 Representatives who voted, just after that mob had been dispersed, to accept the 2020 presidential election results in Pennsylvania, as against the 138 who objected to accepting the November results. Only 2 of the Republican Representatives who had announced that they would object changed their minds after the pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol.

 

Conservatives are concerned about a liberal “war on Christmas”.

Traditional American Christmas is well represented by two postwar Hollywood movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947). These iconic films portray a Christmas of secular generosity, love of neighbors, and belief in the goodness of humanity, redeeming harsh capitalism through love and kindness. Today’s American conservatives reject these virtues as typical liberal weaknesses, which they label socialism. Although they complain about a war on Christmas, the phrase has no meaning for them, because, as the Christmas cards of Reps. Thomas Massie and Lauren Boebert demonstrate, Christmas is politics and politics is war.

 

Race is just one of the issues that motivate conservative unhappiness with American life.

Racial fear is the overriding source of conservative hatred for liberals. Long before Barack Obama embodied the danger of Black power, conservatives chafed at the political correction of racist language. The fight against traditional American white supremacy always required government intervention. When presidential candidate Ronald Reagan said, “I believe in states’ rights,” at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980, and asserted that government was the problem, not the solution, he offered the latent supremacist beliefs of white Americans, especially in southern and rural communities, a political home, where their traditional discriminatory prejudices would be respected and encouraged. Trump rose to political prominence because white racists thrilled at his dishonest attacks on Obama. Now nearly half of Republican voters say that Trump was an even greater President than Reagan. Trump’s open racism is one of his greatest attractions.

 

There is a partisan battle about how to tell American history.

Historians of the American past have never offered a more accurate and truthful historical narrative than they do now. Conservatives do not want to debate history – they want to substitute the discredited myths that made white people feel good for real history. Concern for how white children might feel about themselves, their families, and America is behind the racial focus on critical race theory and the 1619 project. In his final year in office, Trump charged that American education is “left-wing indoctrination” which led to the widespread urban protests against racism. His 1776 Commission was designed to promote teaching about “miracle of American history”, not the history itself. The Commission is dead, but Republican politicians across America are legislating patriotic stories into public school curricula.

 

America is the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Americans of color were never free and the Americans who violently, often murderously persecuted them were never brave. Now that certain elements of American government are working to realize that anthemic promise, millions of Americans are arming themselves against their elected government. Freedom for many, maybe most white Americans has always meant freedom to dominate and exploit other Americans, and to use force to destroy the brave Americans who opposed them. Conservatives are amassing an unprecedented arsenal to assure the survival of traditional white power.

 

As Joe Biden said in his inaugural address, “We have never, ever failed in America when we have acted together.”

The fallacy there is not in the literal meaning of those words, but in what Biden claimed to be success. Americans acted together to successfully preserve slavery in 1789. Americans acted together after the Civil War to successfully preserve racial disenfranchisement and segregation. Americans acted together to successfully preserve racial discrimination for a half-century after the Civil Rights movement. Now that such success finally appears to be threatened, conservative Americans once again are acting together to preserve white power.

 

Thus far, Americans have failed miserably at the ultimate task of surviving today’s two greatest natural disasters, climate change and COVID. We show no sign of acting together in either case. COVID has both revealed the depth of our national delusions and exacerbated them. The fallacies of American political thinking are killing Americans now and threatening our futures.

 

Steve Hochstadt

Boston

13 January 2022