Climate Change Denier

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Part I

As the climate change End Time-ism appears to grow inexorably, I keep reading and hearing good debunking attempts. Most don’t do me lasting good, however, because they require me to know, or to gain knowledge of, rudiments of physics, and of other sciences of which I am mostly innocent. It seems to me that it’s not right, that it’s not fair even, that deciphering these technically expressed instances of skepticism must be a distraction for the average citizen, as it is for me.

After all, when I take my car to the repair shop, I don’t really have to know much auto mechanics. Similarly, I don’t study dentistry before I choose a dentist, or entrust myself into his hands. And when I had a pacemaker put in, there was no requirement that I know where the surgeon planned to place it, or why. Nevertheless, everything went fine. Both my heart and my car run well, and my teeth are in reasonably good condition for my age.

Americans have never wanted to be ruled by experts. The experts work for us. We are not their subjects.

Incidentally, the American citizenry has maintained for 230 years a fair version of representative government. We achieved this in spite of (or because of) the paucity of individuals with advanced political science degrees in our midst. We relied mostly on our ordinary intellectual and moral faculties. What I personally bring to all these crucial choices of a car mechanic, of a dentist, of a heart surgeon, of a president, is intuition fed by experience, sometimes a capacity for quick reasoning, a willingness to apply elementary logic to new situations, and all-round skepticism. I am pretty fair at assessing others’ credibility, thanks to my possession of a good detector of what they would call in French caca de taureau. I suspect that other ordinary citizens do more or less what I do. Specialized training should not be required to make the most important choices imaginable.

We Americans have never wanted to be ruled by experts. I think we still don’t want to be ruled by experts. The experts work for us. We are not their subjects. They have to convince us rationally that their positions are right. Trying to panic us is not convincing us rationally. Quiet persuasion is the only way compatible with representative government.

So it seems to me that there exists, upstream from scientific debunking, another potential critique of the general doctrine of apocalyptic climate change, one that relies on the same basic skills we use in everyday life. It seems to me also that skeptics who allow themselves to be drawn into the debate on specialized scientific grounds are falling into a kind of trap. I mean, for example, discussions of sunspots and controversies about the speed with which glaciers melt. By now, the dogma of climate change is so deeply and widely established, so many resources have been expended and continue to be expended to support it, so many careers are at stake in the media, in politics, in science, and in academia, that the only effective strategy of skepticism must start with a loud comment that “the King is naked.” I try to do this below.

Trying to panic us is not convincing us rationally. Quiet persuasion is the only way compatible with representative government.

A word of warning: at several points, my own comments may seem overly technical, thus betraying my self-awarded mission. I ask you to believe that they only seem technical. This essay, like most of my writing, is not intended for the technically trained but for the intelligently ignorant.

Although I am trying to reach a more general position, I have learned from several examples of climate change skepticism with a libertarian point of view. I am thinking, for instance, of “Global Village Idiots,” by Steve Murphy, and of Murphy’s vivid discussion of mindless and aberrant climate-change blaming, “Butterfly Police.” Others have commented on the astounding contortions climate change reformers perform to push their policy proposals. The Paris Accord would be an example. It was widely claimed that it was vital to sign and implement it although there was little disagreement with the view that it was unenforceable and would make no difference anyway. As Robert H. Miller has said, “But most of all, the dispute is about increasing government power.” (All in “Climate Change Wars.”)

Definition

The subject of this essay is the current idea of human-caused climate change. By this I mean the narrative that describes the global climate as changing more or less permanently, as a result of human activities, with severe adverse consequences for people and for the world itself, in magnitudes requiring immediate attention.

At the heart of this narrative is the so-called “greenhouse effect,” the release of gases that amplify the warming of the earth by the sun. Singled out among such gases in the versions of the narrative presented in mass media is carbon dioxide (  CO2).  

It was widely claimed that it was vital to sign and implement the Paris Accord although there was little disagreement with the view that it was unenforceable and would make no difference anyway.

Some other gases are also said to be responsible for the greenhouse effect, including methane burped and passed by cattle, but CO2 is usually considered the most worthy of attention. I am not sure if anyone makes the case that this gas is the main contributor to the greenhouse effect, or if it’s singled out because it’s the most convenient to manipulate (to decrease), or if it’s emphasized for some other reason.

My Credentials

I have previously discussed various forms of irrationality surrounding the climate change narrative. (See the list of links that follows this part of the essay.) Now it’s time for me to be more thorough than I have been so far. It’s also time to gather in a single essay the several sources of my skepticism. This isn’t going to be pretty! Here are my nonspecialist qualifications toward this endeavor.

I know as much about the physics of weather as the average observant person who pays attention to the daily weather forecast. I may know slightly more, because I was a sailor for 50 years, which implies an interest in winds and tides. Probably none of this adds up to much.

In addition, as a result of living for a long time, I know a lot about viciousness, ludicrousness, gobbledygook, inconsistencies, bad faith, and plain old deceitfulness. For 30 years I was a teacher, a good observation point. A few years in the graduate program of an expensive university gave me clear ideas about what constitutes good scientific design in general, and also about sampling. Finally, I gained from my past occasional service as a referee for American scholarly journals an exquisite sensitivity to measurement issues. Because of the malevolent inquisitiveness linked to the same past scholarly activity, I am keenly interested in what should logically be there but isn’t — what for all the world ought to be there but can’t be found. You tell me there is an elephant in a dark room; I grope for a trunk. If I don’t find one after reasonable effort, I begin suspecting there is no elephant. Then I ask myself why you told me there was an elephant in the room, when there is not.

I am optimistic about both air and water, which have become cleaner in prosperous European and North American countries during my lifetime.

Excuse me if it sounds like bragging, but I think that’s quite a bit. Reminder: I am still innocent of “climate science,” whatever that is.

Let me add that I am a retired citizen and that I have much more time to remain informed that most other citizens. I do it routinely. I follow the media and I read daily. I travel on the internet, in two languages. I do it for six or seven hours a day. This is not by way of boasting. I am just building up the case that if something important escaped even my attention, other, less well-situated citizens are likely also to remain unaware of it.

The Scope of my Skepticism

My skepticism is only about global warming and more, generally, about the human-caused climate change (HCC) narrative as described above. I am much in favor of clean water and of pure air but for other reasons. Incidentally, I am optimistic about both air and water, which have become cleaner in prosperous European and North American countries during my lifetime. I also think plastic trash in the ocean is a disgrace, but it’s a problem that could be solved at little cost: just make the discarded plastic valuable so that it either will not be thrown away or will be collected if it is. As for energy sources, I am taken by the sheer elegance of power production from sun, wind, tides, and waves. I also like the potential of the first two to separate individuals from the grid more or less at will. And it’s true that my wife and I, both old, don’t often need more than a hundred miles of transport autonomy. So I would sort of wish electric cars well, if only they did not require so much in public subsidies, a kind of admission of failure.

If you break something that belongs to the people in general, you should pay for it. Period.

If I were young and starting off in life, I would do my best to give myself an energy-efficient house with some ability to produce power. That’s because I dislike both waste and dependency on public organizations, especially on organizations that are excused from competing in the market place.

So, all in all, I am not one of those who miss the good old days of LA smog, chemical rivers, and filthy beaches. I am acutely aware of the general economic problem of externalities: if you break something that belongs to the people in general, you should pay for it. Period. Finally, and before the question arises nastily, I want to affirm here that I am not on any Big Oil payroll, at least, not yet. (I keep hoping though.) But I am casting a wide net in this essay. It’s possible that I am factually wrong on something or other. Please, draw my attention to any error of fact. I will be gracious and even appreciative.

The following is a systematic catalog of the reasons I am skeptical of the HCC narrative and the corresponding political agendas.

Breaches of Decency and Common Sense

The word “denier” was chosen deliberately to stigmatize skeptics like me by evoking “Holocaust deniers.” It refers to those who maintain that the mass assassination of Jews during World War II never took place. Holocaust deniers are underinformed, deliberately so in most cases, semi-literate, intellectually stubborn, and anti-Semitic. I am none of the above. This word choice is vicious. Repeating it makes one either an accomplice in viciousness or a moron.

I have to ask myself what would prompt such viciousness? Have I encountered it before, either personally, or in my broad reading? I have. More on this later.

“But,” other people ask me, “how can you deny the reality of climate change when 98% [or 95%, or 97%, same thing] of “climate scientists” agree that it’s real?” Between the lines: “Who TF do you think you are?”

This word choice is vicious. Repeating it makes one either an accomplice in viciousness or a moron.

Well, there is not a single instance, in the whole history of the world, of a survey returning 98% “Yes.” None; you can check for yourself.

There must be some confusion here with the presidential election results in some central African republic. If indeed, there were a 98% consensus, by anyone about anything, there is no way we would know about it. To be able to state this, you would have to:

  1. rigorously define the whole relevant population (in this case, I imagine, climate scientists, worldwide);
  2. actually circumscribe, delineate the population;
  3. gain access to all of it, or to a random sample of it;
  4. administer a clear and unbiased questionnaire that produces near zero unusable responses. (Or actively remedy the problems that unusable responses and non-responses pose for correct inference.)

Do the calculations in your head: suppose the survey produces 10% unusable responses, an excellent, low result by any standard. How then do you treat the 2% of disagreeing responses that are one-fifth of that figure?

The reality is worse than this. The published scholarly paper link from which the 98% figure (or 9X% figure) seems to come is referenced below in Note 1. The article admits to a whopping 86% nonresponse rate. Out of 8,457 persons identified as climate scientists whom the authors contacted, only 1,189 provided usable responses. Of those, nearly all said they believed in human-caused climate change. That’s the source of the 9X% figures. The question remaining is: what do the 86% who did not respond think of HCC? That’s a big 7,268 scholars whom the article’s authors, on their own, using their own freely chosen criteria, had determined to be real climate scientists.

The nonresponders cannot simply be considered irrelevant. Suppose that 20% of them, 1,454, are firm “deniers” who have not responded because they are gun-shy, suspicious of an ideological trap, or simply too busy to respond. Suppose further that the remainder, 80% of nonresponders, actually have no opinion. The percentage of those who have an opinion and believe in climate change is now 1,189/1,189+1,453 = 45%, instead of the astounding 98%, 97%, or more, when nonresponses are ignored.

There is no reason to think the survey sample is representative of the whole population from which it is drawn.

Now, obviously I chose nonresponding deniers to be 20% for my own demonstration purposes. I don’t know what the percentage of deniers among nonresponders is, any more than the authors of the study do. It might be much less than 20%; it might be zero percent. The percentage of deniers among those who are not represented in the article might also be much higher — 97%, or even 99%. I don’t know, and, again, the article’s authors don’t know either. It’s plausible that the percentage would be high, because of a common positive bias among survey responders in general. Those who are on the positive side of the answer to a survey question appear generally more motivated to answer than those who are on the negative side. So the climate change skeptics could easily be underrepresented among those who responded.

There is worse. The original 8,457 climate scientists contacted are, in fact, a sample of an unknown population of real, credentialed climate scientists that may be much larger, possibly several times larger. It’s a sample arrived at in a principled (and even ingenuous) manner well described in the article, but it’s not a random sample. There is no reason to think it’s representative of the whole population from which it is drawn. Thus, one conceptual problem piles up on top of the others.

The authors could have easily avoided this latest, unavoidable criticism. They could have simply asserted that the number 8,457 — all those contacted — constituted the whole relevant population. That would have avoided my second criticism of their sampling method. The fact is that they did not. I am guessing that they did not because they wanted to stake a much broader claim than their data legitimately allowed. What other explanation is there?

Much humility is in order here; it has not been forthcoming from the authors of the study, and less from those who have followed them blindly.

Here is the real finding expressed in traditional, nontriumphalist scientific manner: >97% of a possibly biased (possibly grossly biased) sample of a nonrepresentative sample of a loosely defined population of climate scientists affirm the reality of human-caused climate change.

I don’t fault the authors’ craftsmanship at all. They worked well with what they had. I blame their conceit, (or their unexamined zeal) and even more, the conceit of their nonscientist followers. Much humility is in order here; it has not been forthcoming from the authors of the study, and less from those who have followed them blindly.

The consumers of percentage-based pronouncements should always ask forcefully: “X% of what, exactly?” An earlier article in the respected peer-reviewed Organization Studies claims that fewer than 40% of geoscientists and engineers agree that humans are creating a global warming crisis. Change the population of reference, change the percentage! (“Science or Science Fiction? Professionals’ Discursive Construction of Climate Change,” Lianne M. Lefstrud and Renate E. Meyer, November 19, 2012.) That study was performed in oil-rich Alberta, which may, of course, have affected it. Other extraneous factors may have affected other surveys, in opposite directions.

One more issue of credibility with statements of the form, “9x% agree . . .”: someone — not necessarily me — has to have access to the list of all actually surveyed, someone relatively neutral, or better, someone a little hostile, to check that the list is clean, that it does not include, for example, 40% high school dropouts, 10% environmental activists with no scientific credentials, or all the mothers of the researchers and their activist friends. Normally, this kind of scrutiny is performed by scientific journals and by the referees or reviewers they appoint. (If you are not familiar with the way in which scholarly and scientific journals work, see my didactic essay on the subject.)

If there is one rotten apple in this barrel, there are probably more; possibly the whole barrel is rotten.

I don’t know whether this precise degree of scrutiny has occurred in the survey we are examining, although the article of reference was apparently published in a peer-reviewed journal. My own limited experience says that only somewhat hostile reviewers can be solidly expected to perform thoroughly the kind of verification I describe above. And, no, I am not accusing the authors of cheating. I just think, again from experience, that one tends to be indulgent toward what confirms one’s viewpoint. I know this from having been brutally yanked back to reality by several peer reviews during my own research career.

As it is commonly used in the non-scholarly big media and on social media, the widespread appeal to a 95%, or 97%, 98 % consensus is simply ludicrous.

This is one of the many cases in which the rotten apple in a barrel concept may apply: if there is one rotten apple in this barrel, there are probably more; possibly the whole barrel is rotten.

It’s tempting to move on. But by the way: science does not advance by consensus. Just ask Charles Darwin. (See his struggle against the consensus of his day in Adrian Desmonds and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How A Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution [2009].)

Lack of Clarity

Next, I will try to do my homework about what should happen, on a proximate basis, practically, to a belief in the HCC narrative. The semi-official spokesorgan for the climate change movement seems to be the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC or IPCC for short). That organization publishes periodic reports — some of them stained by little scandals. (Once, a photographer was found to have inserted his uninformed but firm opinion about the speed of glaciers melting in an allegedly scholarly summary.) I took the trouble on one occasion to read in its entirety the special summary of an IPCC report aimed at government decision makers. It was incomprehensible. I take the position that whatever I don’t understand will not be understood by most (or any) members of my city council. (Why, the former mayor is a former student of mine!) But those are the very people to whom the summary is addressed. I don’t know why the directive summary for decision makers was so poorly written, whether because of incompetence, or for some other reason. (Hold that thought.) At any rate, it was gobbledygook, exactly where clarity should have been expected.

Science does not advance by consensus. Just ask Charles Darwin.

The IPCC document is not an isolated case of opaqueness in HCC communications. In fact, it’s routine. HCC partisans habitually speak with the thick tongue of mornings after. Take the term “renewable energy.” It implies that barring the adoption of some restrictive HCC-driven environmental agenda, humanity will run out of natural gas, of petroleum, of coal, in some foreseeable future. None of this is true, of course. We have seen known reserves of petroleum grow prodigiously in our lifetimes, even as we were burning oil with abandon. And why would the modifier “renewable” be used at all, if not to imply forthcoming shortages?

Inconsistencies and Bad Faith

I believe that if I hate the way something is done, hate it so much that I want everyone to stop doing it whatever the cost, hate it so much that I am willing to use force to stop them from doing it, then I am first morally obligated to try to promote other ways of doing things.

So climate change advocates tell us that the greenhouse effect — fed by human produced CO2 — will raise global temperatures to catastrophic levels. Many add that this will happen very soon, that there is extreme urgency. Well, it turns out, there is a sure way to produce unlimited amounts of energy — including electricity to power electric cars — that results in zero CO2 emissions (none). I refer, of course, to energy produced by nuclear plants. The French have been getting more than 80% of their electricity that way for 50 years. Japan’s share was about 40% until 2010. A detailed record exists for both countries. So, climate change partisans should be in the forefront of those advocating for the multiplication of nuclear plants. In every locale, at the state and city level, they should be insisting on a simplification of many of the superfluous regulations that now obstruct such expansion. They should even demand the elimination of some of those regulations that currently make building nuclear plants artificially expensive. They are not doing this, to say the least.

The vague, and in fact seldom well expressed, objection is that nuclear energy is dangerous. That belief used to be plausible; it’s not anymore. The worst has happened, and nothing happened. Three Mile Island did not amount to much, although a good, dramatic movie was shown at about the same time (The China Syndrome). The Fukushima plant was hit in 2011 with one of the worst of unexpected forces: a full blast tsunami. The resulting nuclear accident did not amount to much in terms of fatalities, or in terms of anything. (“The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and World Health Organization reports that there will be no increase in miscarriages, stillbirths or physical and mental disorders in babies born after the accident”: Wikipedia.) Many people confuse the death toll from the nuclear plant with that of the tsunami itself — deaths by drowning, for example. That’s wrong, but I have not noticed any HCC advocates condemn the confusion. Maybe I missed it.

Climate change partisans should be in the forefront of those advocating for the multiplication of nuclear plants.

The International Atomic Energy Agency lists 33 serious incidents, total, for the whole world, since the beginning of nuclear energy production. The seriousness of only two merited its highest score of seven. The first was Chernobyl, naturally. The second was Fukushima, where this highest score seems to have been given by the Japanese government, for somewhat bizarre reasons. The plant itself was put out of commission, but the tsunami alone would have probably done that. Evidence of specifically nuclear damage, as opposed to destruction from flooding and the physical force of the tsunami, is hard to find.

Even the Chernobyl accident turns out, even on superficial examination, not to have been what it was cracked to be. Sixty-three people died directly from the accident. Beyond the 63, estimates of additional deaths, of deaths above and above the expected, of deaths above the number from the natural death rate, vary widely enough to cause me to dismiss out of hand the methodologies involved. Thirty-three years after the event, I see no evidence that anyone died of radiation effects. The large area around the entombed Chernobyl plant, prudently evacuated by the Soviets at the time of the accident, remains uninhabited by humans. It’s now the largest de facto game preserve in Europe. Animals of all kinds thrive there. Does this tell us anything about the safety of that area for homo sapiens?

Would you guess that nuclear safety techniques have improved since 1986? Since the demise of the shaky Soviet Union? That’s a good bet. But while you’re computing the few nuclear-related deaths caused by the Three Mile Island accident, the destruction of the Fukushima plant by a tsunami, and the Chernobyl disaster, you may want to consider how many deaths are due to the production of energy by other means, in amounts equal to those produced by the nuclear plants just mentioned. Would these traditional modes of energy production cost fewer or more lives? How many more or fewer? I am thinking coal, petroleum, natural gas. I am also curious — and open-minded — about the comparative lethal dangers of hydroelectric, wind, and solar power. In the meantime, even France is making confused energy production choices under the influence of the HCC narrative. (“La France fait de mauvais choix technologiques,” by Gérard Kafadaroff and Jean-Pierre Riou.)

Offering a forceful denial of absurdity once in a while would go a long way toward making them appear more trustworthy.

Questions regarding the absence of nuclear solutions to alleged climate problems are worth asking, unless you care little or not at all about intellectual and moral consistency. Yet public figures identified with the climate change narrative are nowhere to be found when it comes to opining on the desirability of nuclear power. It makes me think that they are gravely flawed intellectually, or that they wish for something other than a reduction in CO2 emissions, or that the reduction of CO2 emission is only a means to some other end. Their absence in this matter is a major reason why I don’t trust HCC experts. At the very least, some of these experts should appear in the same media they inhabit day in and day out and explain, like this: “Some people think that nuclear energy production is a solution to global warming because it emits no greenhouse gases. However . . .” Their failure to appear, the fact that rank-and-file believers do not ask that they appear, makes me see the whole movement as existing in bad faith.

Failures to Intervene on the Side of Virtue and Reason

Bad faith is also demonstrated by omission. When loud voices insist that the world is going to come to an end in about 12 years unless we take radical measures, no audible contradiction comes from the HCC side. (Correct me if I am wrong; I will publish the contradiction right here, in bold letters.) When a newly-minted politician of no particular intellectual distinction affirms that we must eliminate jet-plane travel within 30 years or at least not much later, the silence of responsible HCC advocates is deafening. When multiple declared presidential candidates of the largest political party join her publicly . . .

More prosaically, there is not a day that goes by when I don’t read or hear in the media absurd and unsupported pronouncements attributing this or that untoward event to “global warming” or to “climate change.” Once I even heard a television weather reporter blame climate change for an (imaginary) increase in the frequency of . . . earthquakes. OK, this was on the international francophone television channel TV5 but, so? The HCC narrative seems to me to have further advanced toward uncontested truth in France and in Belgium than in the US. That might explain its mindless audacity. I paid much attention afterwards, and I think no correction was ever made on TV5. So, somewhere in West Africa, there may be some alert school kids who watch TV5 to improve their French and are now affirming that climate change causes earthquakes.

Before such stupidity, I expect climate scientists, the real ones with scholarly credentials, to reach down from their ivory towers to administer contradiction. They must know that unsupported and unsupportable statements like these give their cause a bad name among the thinking and the rational. They may not be able to do it often; transgressions of this kind are daily and probably worldwide. Yet offering a forceful denial of absurdity once in a while would go a long way toward making them appear more trustworthy. If they don’t, it suggests to me that they don’t care to persuade the thinking and the rational. It might be that after a certain point, persuasion becomes irrelevant because there are other means, forceful means, to achieve their desired ends. Their inaction makes me suspicious.

Climate change narrative folks, if you could lose the semi-literate, untruthful and frequently embarrassing, giant-energy-footprinted Al Gore himself, your collective credibility would soar.

I am aware of only one case when contradiction was actually meted out, when a climate scientist with scientific credentials reached down to try and straighten out the record. In 2007, when Al Gore received his Nobel Peace Prize, the media made next to nothing of the fact that it was awarded jointly with the UN International Panel on Climate Change. One little known scientist from IPCC, maybe piqued for being left in a dark corner while Gore was bathing in the limelight, wrote a brief, timid, mildly corrective op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. That’s it! Some readers may have noticed other corrective interventions that escaped my attention. I would like to hear about them, too.

And by the way, HCC narrative folks, if you could lose the semi-literate, untruthful and frequently embarrassing, giant-energy-footprinted Al Gore himself, your collective credibility would soar. Just my opinion but, ask around.

Omitting the Good

The climate change narrative includes other striking sins of habitual omission. But there is little doubt that if the various scenarios linked to climate change — global warming specifically — are correct, some good things will follow, in addition to the bad ones. This matters, because rational decisions are normally made after consideration of the pros and cons. Not to know the pros is to be condemned to making bad decisions. Two significant such omissions come to mind.

The first concerns shorter polar routes linking Europe and East Asia to each other and to North America, as ice melts near the North Pole. This means cheaper transportation, cheaper goods and, besides, a decrease in fuel consumption and therefore an abatement in CO2 emissions! I think this has already happened. It seems worth the occasional mention.

Rational decisions are normally made after consideration of the pros and cons. Not to know the pros is to be condemned to making bad decisions.

The second omission is warmer temperatures, which would undoubtedly ensure that the global area where cereals can mature will push northward. More wheat, for example, will be grown in Canada and in Siberia. This will mean more food and cheaper food. Perhaps it will even delay the moment when we must stop raising cattle because of their gross gas-processing manners. The warming of northern regions of the Northern Hemisphere may also give humanity some agricultural flexibility. Areas where cereals are grown under conditions favoring CO2 emissions might be retired, to the benefit of new areas, less favorable to them. Serious climate researchers frequently try to frighten us with the prospect of more malaria, a rebirth of the bubonic plague, species extinction, and desertification. That they omit to mention the good side of the same coin looks simply like another form of bad faith.

And then there is the simple fact, which the moderate environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg pointed out in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago, that many more people die of the cold than from the heat.

It would be fine for HCC publicists to omit the favorable stuff about global warming if we had a real adversarial debate going on. We don’t have one because the climate change proponents overwhelmingly insist that there is no opposite side, that there is only their side, and elsewhere there is simply a mass of uneducated, illiterate imbeciles who are probably also evil (“deniers”). After all, 98%, or 97% of climate scientists, etc. . . .

Deviousness and Nonchalance

And then, there is what looks like cheating and is at least devious. Let me say first that so many people are involved in doing research, quasi-research, vulgarization of research, and promotion of the climate change narrative that it’s expected that some would be dishonest. So I am less interested in describing the liars and cheats than in gauging the response to dishonesty — or cutting corners, or manipulating data, or concealing data — of what has become, deliberately or not, a social movement.

Serious climate researchers frequently try to frighten us with the prospect of more malaria, a rebirth of the bubonic plague, species extinction, and desertification.

In 2009, hacked (stolen) emails sent by climate researchers at the University of East Anglia seemed to show coordinated attempts to suppress adverse research by deniers, by mere skeptics, and by simple rivals. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University were also implicated. See, for example: “From Phil Jones [University of East Anglia] To: Michael Mann (Pennsylvania State University). July 8, 2004: ‘I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!’” [Emphasis mine.]

About more suppression, see: “Climategate 2.0: New E-Mails Rock The Global Warming Debate,” by James Taylor, in Forbes, November 23, 2011. There was also an unexplained mass destruction of data, including publicly accessible data, after questions were raised about findings on which they may have been based; this, although keeping the same data involved little or no cost: “Scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have admitted throwing away much of the raw temperature data on which their predictions of global warming are based. It means that other academics are not able to check basic calculations said to show a long-term rise in temperature over the past 150 years.” A government-supported outfit admitted to having thrown away a large amount of climate data because of a “lack of storage capacity.” This prevents others, of course, from trying to duplicate their findings.

Here is an articulate summary of what an alert and critical layman could have read about what came to be known as “ClimateGate” — I mean a literate interested person with no training in physics or related fields, a citizen, like me: “What’s Up with That”: “Men Behaving Badly — a Short Summary for Laymen.” See also another work by the same author, and yet another by Fred Pearse, in the British center-left Guardian. Note: Pearse was also sometimes a debunker of the climate change debunking.

So many people are involved in doing research, quasi-research, vulgarization of research, and promotion of the climate change narrative that it’s expected that some would be dishonest.

So, it looked for all the world as if there were an international conspiracy of people with real scientific credentials — not publicists — to censor and to steer research in ways supportive of the HCC narrative. Soon, prestigious associations of scientists, their own universities, and some respected scientific journals responded by reaffirming the reality of climate change without, however, explicitly denying the apparent cheating or condemning the apparent cheaters. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, concluded: ‘based on multiple lines of scientific evidence that global climate change caused by human activities is now underway . . . it is a growing threat to society.’”

After following this complicated story for 15 years, I am left with the impression that no one with any public intellectual credibility has addressed the following: however correct many of the HCC findings are, no matter how real global warming may be, top climate researchers did repeatedly violate scientific and academic norms, as well as basic individual ethics. This speaks, of course, to future credibility, to the post-scandal credibility of the scientific basis of HCC.

Ten years earlier, another climate scientist and his colleagues had produced a striking graph showing an abrupt and dramatic rise in temperature for the period more or less from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to today. Thus, the “hockey stick”: from left to right, flat, flat, flat, and then steeply up (to the right side of the graph, the last hundred years or so). He excluded available data for the period immediately preceding his period of observation. Had those data been included — extending the period to earlier times — the graph would have represented global temperature change over time as a sort of shapeless U instead of the striking “hockey stick.” The resulting graph might still have been interpretable as supporting the HCC narrative, but much less spectacularly than the hockey stick. It would have made more room for honest doubt. The alternative graph, with full data, could have been used in the way graphs are intended: to make information readily available to others — including the untrained — so they may make up their own minds. For a hostile view of the hockey stick, read: “Climate change: this is the worst scientific scandal of our generation,” Christopher Booker, The Telegraph, November 20, 2009. “Our hopelessly compromised scientific establishment cannot be allowed to get away with the Climategate whitewash,” says Booker.

The piece includes a graph that, to my eye, shows mean Northern Hemisphere temperature around 1050 as the same as in the 1950s.

The scientific transgression involved in the hockey stick graph is a subtle one, but the relevant rule is clear: researchers are supposed to include all the relevant data available, or they must say why they don’t. If they don’t follow this rule, they must at least signal clearly the existence of data they exclude so that others may try alternative formulations. (See note 2 below.) In their rebuttal of the widespread criticism accompanying their initial report, the chief creator of the hockey stick and his colleagues published a response with more complete data — through an interview with Chris Mooney of The Atlantic. The piece includes a graph that, to my eye, shows mean Northern Hemisphere temperature around 1050 as the same as in the 1950s. They insist nevertheless that they were right all along.

The graph entitled “Reconstructed Temperature” (which uses several measurements) in the Wikipedia entry, “Hockey Stick Controversy” shows about the same thing.

This, the most relevant Wikipedia entry, gives wide coverage to the associated issues and it is abundantly referenced (to mostly scientific journals). It gives an impression of scholarly thoroughness. It must also leave the noncommitted reader with the view that after much back and forth, the controversy has now disappeared, to the benefit of the hockey stick creators’ viewpoint. Nevertheless, the last, concluding sentence in this long Wiki entry reads as follows: “Marcott et al. 2013 used seafloor and lake bed sediment proxies to reconstruct global temperatures over the past 11,300 years, the last 1,000 years of which confirmed the original MBH99 hockey stick graph.” (Italics mine.) So, the data before 1012 do not support the hockey stick graph? Pretty much the suspicion I started with.

The controversy began when a handful of researchers violated good research practice about including all relevant data.

None of the above demonstrates to me that there is no HCC. There is however an unfinished controversy, a healthy debate around complicated issues of statistical analysis and of even more difficult issues of measurement. I think it’s far from over. The controversy began when a handful of researchers violated good research practice about including all relevant data. They thereby drew unwanted attention to themselves and to their alleged conclusive findings. Why they would have adopted such a cavalier attitude toward good practice is anyone’s guess, but the fact makes this citizen consumer of such news suspicious.

Neither instance of academic nonchalance proves anything in itself, but both give us the right to wonder whether they are the tip of a giant iceberg of intellectual dishonesty. Personally, I can’t put these stories to rest because the critical examination by the legitimate upper scientific establishment was too weak, given the implied tremendous policy stakes. I feel as if the relevant credentialed persons had just closed the door instead of cleaning the room.

If the watchdogs are doing their watching indulgently, why should I — who am unable to perform my own watching — believe that what is being watched is legitimate?

The article continues in Part II.

Notes

1. “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”: To cite this article: John Cook et al (8) 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 024024 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 (2013) 024024 (7pp). I thank my friend and FB friend Vernon Bohr for the link.

2. I have performed this kind of longitudinal research myself. My old coauthored sociology articles on the history of the Irish press and of the Argentinean press would have shown different things, and possibly more interesting things if we had had the luxury of deciding which years of observation to include, which to exclude. Instead, we performed statistical operations on all data available, from the very first newspaper to be published in each country. This proper inclusion might have cost me tenure! No regrets here though; both articles were published in one of the best journals available (Jacques Delacroix and Glenn Carroll. "Organizational foundings: an ecological study of the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland," Administrative Science Quarterly, 228:274-291(1983); Glenn Carroll and Jacques Delacroix, "Organizational mortality in the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland: an ecological approach," Administrative Science Quarterly, 27:169-198 (1982).

My postings on climate change:




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Remembering the Great War

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As the world prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I on November 11, 1918, director Peter Jackson accepted a daunting commission: to create a documentary that would honor the soldiers who fought in the trenches, using the original footage that was filmed 100 years ago.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war. Jackson would not interview modern historians about the significance of the war or provide any scripted narration. Instead, Jackson would bring these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

The result is a magnificent piece of work, both in the story it tells and in the technology Jackson used to tell it. This is a film made entirely in the editing room.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war.

To create the storyline, Jackson and his team reviewed over 600 hours of interviews with survivors, conducted during various commemorations of the War to End All Wars. Jackson then began selecting portions of the interviews, taking a snippet here and a snippet there, until he was able to cobble together a narrative line that begins with young 16- and 17-year-old boys sneaking off to lie about their ages in order to join the army; follows them into the trenches, villages, and battlefields; and ends with the survivors returning home, many of them injured, many of them “loony” (an earlier term for PTSD), and many of them (according to one of the narrators) facing employment signs that said “Army veterans need not apply.” Their remembrances, told with voices that are cracked with age, are moving and authentic. No historian’s expertise could tell their story better.

Once the storyline had been established, Jackson reviewed 100 hours of footage from the war, selecting the best scenes to match the narration. Much of the footage was third- or fourth-generation, meaning it was a copy of a copy of a copy, each generation becoming less and less crisp. Much of it was either too dark or too light to be viewed clearly. And all of the movements were jerky and unnatural as the filmmakers had to crank the film through the camera by hand, trying to keep it steady at approximately twelve frames per second, which is only half the number of frames per second that we are accustomed to seeing in today’s movies.

And here is where the magic begins. Jackson used computer technology to add frames to the footage, smoothing out the action and making it feel as normal as any film you would see today. Then he colorized the film, using actual uniforms, tanks, and other artifacts from his own considerable collection of WWI memorabilia to help the artists get the colors just right. Next he enlisted professional lipreaders to figure out what the men were saying in the footage, and hired voice actors from the actual regions of each regiment, so the accents would be authentic. He added sound effects made by recording actual tank movements, mortar explosions, bayonet affixions, and other background noises. Finally, he created a natural musical score largely based on whistling and other natural music of the battlefield. The result brings these antique films to life. We simply forget that cameras couldn’t do this 100 years ago.

Jackson brings these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

I’m not usually a fan of colorization; while it does make a film feel more natural for modern viewers, it neutralizes the skillful play of shadow and contrast designed deliberately and carefully by directors of the ’30s and ’40s. They knew what they were doing, and they did it well. However, in this film the colorization is a masterful addition. It brings out details in the film that in black and white were hidden or completely lost. Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

We also see how terribly young these soldiers were, marching off to war and grinning for the cameras. Although we never know their names, Jackson edits the footage so that several of the men come into view several times, and we begin to identify with them. We see not only the war, but how they lived, what they ate, how they slept, and even how they played. And in many cases, we are seeing them just before they died. It is a sobering, respectful, and impressive film.

They Shall Not Grow Old is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it simply asks us to consider the cost of war — not in the billions of dollars that are spent, but in the millions of lives that are lost. The title of the film is based on a selection from Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance called “For the Fallen,” which has been used as a tribute to all who die in war:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

Lee Teter’s painting “Vietnam Reflections” pays a similar tribute to the fallen, but from a different perspective, that of the grieving survivor. It depicts a man, clearly a veteran though he wears no uniform, mourning at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, where the names of all the fallen are etched on a long, low wall deliberately situated below ground level. His head is bowed in quiet anguish, his arm outstretched and his hand leaning heavily against the wall, willing it to reach inside and touch his comrades on the other side. Unseen by him, because his eyes are closed, several soldiers seem to be standing inside the wall, their reflections ghostly as they reach out, hand to hand, to console the man who, having survived the war, continues to carry its burdens. His guilt is understood by the clothing Teter chose to give him. He is dressed in a business suit; the soldiers wear army fatigues. A briefcase rests on the ground beside the veteran; the soldiers carry field kits. The businessman’s hair is flowing and tinged with gray; theirs is dark and crew cut. The fallen soldiers shall not grow old, start businesses, or have children.

 Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

And therein lies the survivor’s grief. “We that are left grow old,” as Binyon says in his poem, but survival is neither a reward nor a relief. It is a burden. Age does weary them, and the years do condemn.

No one knows the true story of war except those who experience it, and even then, it is a private, individual grief that none of them can truly share or understand. Consequently, using the voices of the actual soldiers to tell their story was a brilliant narrative strategy for They Shall Not Grow Old. They speak next to one another, but not in conversation with one another. The viewer remains enveloped in the currency of the story and simply observes their experience without explanation, editorializing, or the distraction of a modern historian’s modern interpretation.

The film is moving and impressive, but you’ll have to find it on Netflix or another platform because its theatrical release was limited to just December 17 and December 27. And that’s a shame, because the moment when Jackson switches from the jerky, original, black and white footage to his colorized and edited version is breathtaking. I’m so glad I got to see it on a full-sized screen. If you do see it, make sure you watch the director’s cut with Peter Jackson’s interview explaining how he did it. It’s like listening to a magician’s reveal.


Editor's Note: Review of "They Shall Not Grow Old," directed by Peter Jackson. WingNut Films, 2018, 99 minutes.



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Presidents Will Be Presidents

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With the passing of former President George H.W. Bush, we’ve heard a multitude of eulogies. Though the media often savaged him when he was president, calling him a wimp and claiming he was out of touch with ordinary Americans, he is now being held up, by his associates and many in the media, as a man of sterling character. And they consider it rude if we disagree.

Particularly after they’ve left office, presidents are reassessed in a kinder light than they merit. It’s great if they were nice to their family, fraternity brothers, or fellow politicians, but what about the people whose lives their administrations affected? Our view of them is often different. How come they do us like they do?

Not only us, but people in other countries. Sometimes especially people in other countries. Do those on the receiving end of bombing raids or drone strikes regard the president who ordered them as a stand-up guy?

It’s great if they were nice to their family, fraternity brothers, or fellow politicians, but what about the people whose lives their administrations affected?

One of the things I most appreciate about libertarian principle is its bedrock-level moral soundness. We don’t believe in hitting people or taking their things. We do believe in behaving ourselves, instead of telling others how to behave, and, whenever possible, in simply minding our own business. This makes those rare libertarians in public life stand-up guys and gals. It also gives the rest of us a reliable yardstick by which to measure them.

By our yardstick, George H.W. Bush was a pretty typical president. He stuck his nose in everybody else’s business. Not content to regulate the lives of those in his own country, or to raise our taxes (after promising he wouldn’t), Bush 41 also wanted to run the show in other countries. From his “New World Order,” no one was exempt. On a person-to-person level, there were plenty of people to whom he wasn’t very nice.

We libertarians are loath to accept the opinions of those for whom political power is the only consideration. What can we do to help change the way elected officials are evaluated? We can tell the truth about who does what to whom. We can call what our elected officials do exactly what it is.

George H.W. Bush was a pretty typical president. He stuck his nose in everybody else’s business.

All presidents in recent memory have ordered military hits on people in other countries. They have dealt death to innocent civilians. If we did that to other human beings, we’d be locked up and possibly even executed. No matter how wonderful someone may be, when that person runs for president, we can reliably predict that if victorious in the election, he or she will become a murderer. By the law binding on the rest of us, the one who orders the hit is guilty of the crime.

I mean to draw a distinction, here, between the sort of killing that defends lives and the sort that results from a war in which we are the aggressors. I’m also letting off the hook people who take the lives of those attempting to take theirs. Nor would I begrudge the right to self-defense to anyone — in or out of uniform.

Libertarians want our presidents (and Congress) to stop killing people who aren’t trying to kill us. We tell the truth about the crimes they commit. For the sake of winning elections, should we do otherwise? If we don’t tell the truth, who will?

No matter how wonderful someone may be, when that person runs for president, we can reliably predict that if victorious in the election, he or she will become a murderer.

Crimes against humanity continue to be committed in our name, and on our dime. We can do little about this except to vote against it. I joined the Libertarian Party because active participation in the party is, I believe, one of the most important ways my voice can be heard. And I’m totally willing to be rude about it. Fake decency and fake civility are vastly worse than fake news.




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A Newer, Sleeker Santa

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If you’ve had your fill of Christmas movies involving “Bad Santa,” “Bad Moms,” bad romances, bad vacations, bad neighbors, and bad families, move over. I’m with you. And don’t get me started on the pseudo-romantic claptrap that passes for Christmas music these days. If I have to hear one more diva warbling her new rendition of “Silent Night” as though it was the National Anthem at a basketball game or one more ingénue singing that all she wants for Christmas is a new boyfriend, I’ll, I’ll — well let’s put it this way: I’ll deserve that lump of coal in my stocking.

But just when I despaired of ever again seeing a worthy Christmas movie, along came a superb film in the unlikeliest of places: a made-for-Netflix production starring Kurt Russell as that right jolly old elf — only don’t call him “old,” and don’t call him fat!

The film begins with a video montage of joyful Christmases Past enjoyed by Doug (Oliver Hudson) and Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and their two children, Teddy (Judah Lewis) and Kate (Darby Camp). But this is not going to be a joyful Christmas. It’s the first one without Doug, a firefighter who lost his life by saving someone else’s. Kate, 10, still possesses an innocent belief in the magic of Christmas, but Teddy, 15, is at that age when it isn’t cool to believe in anything or like anyone in one’s family, and his cynicism is worsened by the recent loss of his father.

If I have to hear one more diva warbling her new rendition of “Silent Night” or one more ingénue singing that all she wants for Christmas is a new boyfriend, I’ll deserve that lump of coal in my stocking.

When Claire has to work at the hospital on Christmas Eve, Teddy is assigned to watch over his sister, and the Adventures in Babysitting begin. Kate, an avid videographer (as all young women seem to be these days) hatches a plan to catch Santa (Kurt Russell) on film, and through a series of unfortunate events they end upnot only stowing away on Santa’s souped-up sleigh but also causing him to crash the sleigh and lose his hat, his toy bag, and his reindeer. Unless they can fix the sleigh, corral the reindeer, recover the presents, and deliver them before sunrise, Teddy and Kate will have ruined Christmas. For everyone.

Kurt Russell is a delightful Santa. He isn’t all-knowing. He isn’t all-powerful. He isn’t fat (as he tells anyone who’ll listen), and he sings a mean bluesy “Santa Claus is Back in Town” while he’s sitting in a jail cell. In fact, he’s kind of like the perfect dad. Wink wink.

While Santa is busy saving souls and restoring the spirit of Christmas at the police precinct, the kids have to save the reindeer, the presents, the elves — and each other.

Vivacious, 10-year-old Kate has the innocent glow and easy wonder of childhood. Nothing is beyond her ability to believe, so she has nothing to fear — not when she’s clinging to a flying reindeer, not when she’s trapped inside a toy bag, and not even when she’s surrounded by a hoard of creepy elves. She’s sweet, spunky, and endearing.

Unless they can fix the sleigh, corral the reindeer, recover the presents, and deliver them before sunrise, Teddy and Kate will have ruined Christmas. For everyone.

Teddy is endearing too, but for different reasons. He has lost not only his belief in Santa but also his belief in God. He is lost and broken, and you just want to reach out and fix him. On the steps of a church where a choir is singing his father’s favorite hymn, “Oh Christmas Tree,” Teddy questions the meaning of sacrifice. “He had a wife and two kids, and he gave it all up to help some random strangers,” he laments bitterly, remembering how his father lost his life running into a burning house. I couldn’t help but think of Brent Taylor, the National Guardsman who left his wife and seven young children behind in Utah to serve a fourth tour of duty in the Middle East and was killed by an Afghan infiltrator last month. Shouldn’t some choices and responsibilities preclude other choices and responsibilities? When you choose to have children, especially that many children, shouldn’t you give up risky behaviors like skydiving, motorcycle riding, and fighting a war in some random nation on the other side of the world?

Of course, everything turns out right in the end. Christmas isn’t ruined, and we have a touching, sentimental moment to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas. Unfortunately, many a harried mother has been heard to utter those infelicitous words sometime during December: “You’ve ruined Christmas!” (I might have uttered them myself a time or two over the course of producing 45 Christmases for my family.) It stings, and children feel it. Moms feel it even more. But Christmas is a time for binding wounds, not picking at scabs. We all have the power to ruin Christmas, or to save it. The Christmas Chronicles prepares us to understand the truth about Santa — that his helpers don’t all live at the North Pole. They live in every house, every family, and in every heart where love is.

If you’re yearning for a Christmas movie that isn’t treacly and childish, isn’t cynical and offensive, isn’t about falling in love, and isn’t about dysfunctional families (all families have troubles, but that doesn’t mean they’re “dysfunctional”), this one is for you. It’s witty, sophisticated, adventurous, uplifting, and fun. Better yet, this first-rate, first-run film is available on Netflix in the privacy of your own home. I hope its title, The Christmas Chronicles, suggests another installment next year. Kurt Russell is a Santa to be reckoned with.

Just don’t call him fat.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Christmas Chronicles," directed by Clay Kaytis. Netflix, 2018, 144 minutes.



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Not to Praise, But to Bury

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As another elder statesman dies and the nation is caught in the grip of another bout of panegyrics, it’s worth stepping back to concentrate on the individual lives that they touched during their time in the halls of power. For George Herbert Walker Bush, specifically, that means considering also the plight of Keith Jackson.

In 1989, Jackson was a high school senior in Anacostia, southeast DC, living in one of the worst zip codes in the country. Like many of his peers, Jackson was a low-level drug dealer, one of the smallest cogs in a larger machine, like the Baltimore towers in The Wire. Crucially, he had reached his 18th birthday when the federal government started setting him up for a presidential publicity stunt.

See, George Bush, seemingly desperate to prove he was man enough to live up to his successor, wanted a set piece to kick off his own extension of Reagan’s War on Drugs. So his staff came up with the idea of busting someone for selling crack cocaine—still the drug warrior’s enemy of choice—in the shadow of the White House.

Bush demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts.

DEA agents offered up Jackson as a patsy. He’d been on their radar for months—so if selling drugs in and of itself was really such a big deal, they could have grabbed him at any point (and then he’d be replaced by another young slinger with no other prospects, and then another, ad infinitum). No, he was only worth it if he could be sacrificed for a higher purpose, like making a weedy, “wimpy” Massachusetts desk-occupier look like a tough guy. That purpose in hand, the undercover DEA agent on Jackson’s case asked him to meet at Lafayette Park, promising an extra premium to lure Jackson to Northwest DC, where black residents of the city almost never went. (As a measure of how stratified and segregated DC society was at the time — not to mention how complete the failure of the educational system — when the undercover DEA agent asked Jackson to meet him in the park across from the White House, Jackson didn’t know where that was until piecing together that it was “where Reagan lives,” and he was hesitant to make the trip because one thing he did know is how much greater the police presence would be in Official DC.)

The purchase took place on September 1, and on September 5 Bush was holding up a plastic baggie of crack cocaine during a White House address, noting that it had been “seized” (not bought) just across the street. He demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts. He got all of those things, often in connection with mandatory minimum laws that eliminated judicial discretion in sentencing (and which perpetuated a nonsensical divide in sentencing between powdered and crack cocaine, the burden of which fell almost entirely on the black community).

If George Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it.

Keith Jackson was one of those who fell prey to a mandatory minimum. The DEA arrested him, not at the sale for whatever reason, but immediately after Bush’s speech. After his first two trials ended in hung juries, a third trial saw him convicted and sentenced to a legally-mandated decade in prison without parole. The judge in the case, uncomfortable with the mode of Jackson’s entrapment, urged him to ask the president for a commutation. But Bush had almost immediately washed his hands of the matter: facing criticism from a variety of sources including even those had a stake in the Drug War’s continuance (like the head of the city’s police union), Bush said, “I cannot feel sorry for [Jackson]. I’m sorry, they ought not to be peddling these insidious drugs that ruin the children of this country.” And so, for the crime of selling 2.4 grams of crack cocaine to another consenting adult in a place where there had been no recorded drug busts in the past, Keith Jackson served almost eight years in prison.

What happened to him after that point is not known. One doubts that Bush ever dwelt on Jackson or any other of the thousands affected by yet another surge in the War on Drugs—young men and occasionally women losing their futures to ruthless sentencing guidelines and the economic incentives of incarceration, or often just their lives to police enforcement or to the criminal turf wars that invariably follow the artificial limiting of a highly in-demand substance. Add in the families and communities that depended on this suddenly absent and incarcerated generation, and it’s hundreds of thousands if not millions.

But if Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it, as the Iraqi people had ample opportunity to learn. In the rush to war with one-time American ally (indeed, almost appointee) Saddam Hussein over the invasion of Kuwait, Bush infamously allowed himself to be swayed by the testimony of a supposed refugee of the conflict, known only as Nayirah, who spoke of Iraqi soldiers raiding Kuwaiti hospitals, pulling prematurely born infants out of incubators and tossing them aside to die. By the time it was discovered that Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., and the entire thing had been organized by an American PR firm in the employ of the Kuwaiti government, the war was already over — though its repercussions will persist long after our lifetimes.

Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair.

An estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and an unknown number of civilians were killed in that first Gulf War, with the particular highlight of the Highway of Death, in which American forces blockaded and massacred retreating Iraqi forces, as well as any civilians unfortunate enough to be within cluster bomb range. Content with this level of slaughter, Bush called off hostilities the next day—a point in his favor, perhaps, when compared to those overseeing the unceasing carnage of today’s forever wars. But Bush hardly had clean hands before this, having already orchestrated an illegal invasion of Panama. Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair; it will be decades though, if ever, before we learn just how deeply he was implicated.

There’s much else to dislike about the elder Bush and the legacy he is leaving behind, in particular his enablement of many awful people. You can draw a direct line from his campaign manager Lee Atwater and his infamous Willie Horton ad to the race-baiting scare tactics used by Donald Trump. A look at Bush’s administrative appointees reveals many of the big names—Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld — who would go on to botch the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, all the while pushing for ever more wars on ever more fronts. (Which is not even to mention his son who, in signing off on Gulf War Redux, committed what is thus far the greatest geopolitical blunder of the century.) You could talk also about his surrender to the tax-and-spenders on budget issues, or to the Religious Right about gay rights. You could also give him credit where it’s due: for handling the end of the Cold War with flexibility and grace, for committing himself to promoting volunteerism and community service, for not following in the footsteps of his father, Prescott Bush, and signing on to any half-baked fascist coups against the US government.

All this, at least the good stuff, or the bad stuff that various media figures want to recast as good, will be gone over ad infinitum. But when you see the footage of his funerals, when you take in the official outpouring of grief that is increasingly mandatory on such occasions, when above all you hear anyone talking about how George H.W. Bush advocated for a “kinder, gentler conservatism,” spare a thought for Keith Jackson. It’s more than Bush ever did.



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Plus Ça Change

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Día de los Vivos

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Looking for a new holiday film and you’ve had it with watching scripted Hollywood families bicker around the dining table? Pixar’s Coco is one of the best films of the season. Never mind that it’s animated. Grab yourself a niece or a nephew (or just rustle up the courage to go to a “kid movie” without a kid) and enjoy. This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

The story centers on 12-year-old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) who lives with his parents, his overbearing Abuelita (Renee Victor), and his sweet doddering great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia). Miguel is a typical Mexican boy in a not-so-typical Mexican family where music has been banned from the home and the mere sight of a guitar engenders shrieks of anger. But Miguel loves music. He has been surreptitiously learning to play the guitar by watching videos of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), “the greatest musician of all time,” whose statue stands in the town plaza. Miguel wants to enter the town talent contest, but Abuelita forbids it. When Miguel shouts that he hates his family and wishes he weren’t part of them, it sets off a chain of events that will teach him the importance of family, tradition, and remembering the dead.

This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

Coco is set on Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — when Mexicans honor their departed ancestors with a three-day fiesta of reminiscing, singing, feasting, and decorating graves. Families build small altars with photographs of their ancestors and offer incense, fruits, nuts, and candies, plus toys for relatives who died as children and tequila for the adults. Traditions include eating muertos (the bread of the dead) and sugar-candy skulls, hanging cardboard skeletons and colorful tissue paper decorations, and planting yellow marigolds. It is thought that the pungent fragrance of marigolds will attract the souls of the dead.

These Mexican traditions are presented in a surfeit of rich colors and sounds as Miguel is mystically transported across the marigold bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead. On the other side he discovers a land not unlike his own — the same town plaza, the same town heroes, the same kinds of holiday preparations being made by families who just happen to be dead. There’s even a very funny scene with TSA agents deciding who can and can’t cross the bridge, and a skeletonized Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge. Miguel is befriended by Hector (Gael García Bernal), a delightfully comical skeleton, who helps Miguel in his search for his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, who seems to hold the key to Miguel’s return home.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for the young children who accompanied me. In fact, it makes death somehow comforting and even joyful when one considers the family reunions that await on the other side of the bridge. “Coco,” in fact, is the diminutive form of the common name “Socorro,” which means “to succor, aid, or comfort,” and this film offers much comfort about dying. It even suggests what happens to our pets when they die.

There’s even a skeletonized Frida Kahlo, who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge.

Moreover, many of the characters in Coco need comfort and aid. Miguel is far from home and at odds with his family on both sides of the bridge. Abuelita needs to face the true source of her pain and let go of her bitterness toward music. Her grandmother, Miguel’s departed Mama Imelda (Alana Ubach), must also overcome her bitterness toward her late husband — a bitterness that has followed her into the next life. Miguel’s new friend Hector is in danger of “fading away” because almost no one remembers him. Miguel learns to succor them all.

The marigold bridge becomes a powerful symbol of family connection, as Miguel learns to bridge the gap not only with his dead ancestors, but with his living family members as well.

It might be a little risky amid today’s rampant accusations of cultural appropriation for a company directed mostly by white males to release a movie set in Mexico focusing on intimate Mexican traditions and beliefs. The humor, accents, costumes, and traditions could have gone awry, veering into the realm of stereotype. But there is an authenticity in Coco that transcends political correctness and simply feels right. The characters are voiced almost entirely by Chicano actors, and background conversations and idiomatic phrases are presented in Spanish without subtitles, contributing to the cultural authenticity. The musical score is presented as a natural part of the story when Miguel, Ernesto, Frida and others sing and perform in public, so the story isn’t superimposed on a European or American musical genre. The vivid colors and family dynamic are simply the flavor of Mexico, without caricature or disrespect. It’s just about perfect.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for young children.

One thing that is definitely not perfect is the 21-minute animated short that accompanies most screenings of Coco. Based on the characters in Disney’s 2013 megahit, Frozen, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” tells the story of the orphaned Princesses Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) searching for Christmas traditions they can adopt, now that they are living together again in the castle. The characters are flat, the situations are corny, and the premise — that you can somehow create instant traditions by copying others — completely misses the point of what a tradition is. At 21 minutes it’s three times too long, and its production values are so weak that you might be tempted to go home before the feature film actually begins. I recommend a trip to the snack bar after you find your seats.

Families are the oldest and simplest of social communities, yet they can often be the most complex to navigate. They are a topic that Disney has explored in numerous animated classics, from the competitive and vengeful stepmothers in Snow White, Cinderella, and Tangled to the trauma of maternal separation in Dumbo and Bambi to the teenage rebellion in The Little Mermaid and The Lion King to the complete redefinition of family in Jungle Book and Tarzan. The ability to address serious issues within the framework of kid-friendly animated films has been Disney’s forte for nearly a century, and it’s the reason Disney films continue to attract generation after generation of viewers, especially through its new partnership with Pixar.

Coco is among the best of these films, for so many reasons. I expect that many families will pull it out to view again when a beloved great-grandmother crosses over the marigold bridge — or even when a pet passes on, no matter what their literal beliefs about the afterlife. As Howard Canaan writes in Tales of Magic from Around the World: “Myths express not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth.” And the truth is, we will be happier if we give up our grudges, embrace the beauty in our lives, remember those who came before us, and recognize the individuality in each human being. Coco makes this point magically.


Editor's Note: Review of "Coco," directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. Pixar, 2017, 109 minutes.



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Now and Ever Shall Be

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Job Faire

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Nathaniel Branden, R.I.P.

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On February 22, a memorial will be held in Los Angeles for Nathaniel Branden. Branden (1930–2014), a close associate of Ayn Rand during the writing and initial success of Atlas Shrugged, remained a brilliant interpreter of her philosophy and a strong influence on libertarians and individualists. He was also a controversial and perennially interesting personality.

Old friends of Rand and Branden have had much to say about him. Liberty asked two younger friends to comment, the writers Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian.

Garin:

A half century ago, when he was a student at UCLA, Nathaniel Branden wrote a letter to Ayn Rand. Many years later, when I was a student at UCLA, I wrote a letter to Nathaniel Branden.

I had discovered Objectivism through my friend Alec Mouhibian. In high school we had read most of Rand's writings. We had read Branden’s writings, too. We had become good disciples, I think, although there are some reports of our arrogance from those years. In the tenth grade we published a political newsletter called "A Dose of Sense."

It was Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand" (and later Barbara Branden’s book The Passion of Ayn Rand) that had alerted us to the possible excesses of our passion. Nathaniel had raised important questions: was there a “principle of benevolence” in addition to the “virtue of selfishness” praised by Rand? Were we guilty, in our endless debates with classmates and teachers, of an “appalling moralism”? Had we become bad and unkind people?

There is a time in life when one is certain of things and then there is a time when one is not, and for me and Alec the transition between those times was marked by Nathaniel Branden and his essay. That is why I had written to him. It was one of the last letters I wrote to anyone from my college e-mail address: rational@ucla.edu.

The following week Nathaniel took me out for a cheeseburger. Some time later, Alec met him, too. And then we met together. I will let Alec finish the story here and to tell you who Nathaniel was for us.

Alec:

When I first met Nathaniel Branden, a full decade ago, I had a good sense of how Ayn Rand felt when he walked into her home for the first time in 1950. What a day that must have been for her! Some writers, if they are lucky, get to see their creations come to life on a movie screen. Rand’s highly idealized, very unrealistic hero stepped right out of the pages of The Fountainhead and through her front door, destined to convert the peculiar genius of her stories into a cultural force that would never die. That is what Rand thought, during the next 20 years of her life, until her disastrous break with him over matters that had little to do with culture.

He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both.

One must talk of movements in a memorial of Nathaniel Branden. He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both. (Movements tend to call for that.) His work with Rand, and his reflections on it, were also vital to the modern libertarian movement. His essay, “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,” offered all aspiring martyrs for liberty a priceless, personal account of how a passion for ideas can become a slavery to ideas, if one forgets the more mysterious values of human life.

Like so many people over the years, I had a strong desire to meet Nathaniel Branden, and in 2004, at the age of 19, I was lucky enough to get the chance. I was introduced by my comrade Garin Hovannisian, who had written about Nathaniel and subsequently met him for a cheeseburger. I showed up at his front door without a cheeseburger, but with many, many questions to ask. I asked him about Rand, of course, and I asked him about Iraq, torture, the meaning of death. We even discussed some dark subjects, like self-esteem and sex.

There is a reason the Q&A sessions after Nathaniel’s public talks invariably set off a stampede to the microphone, with brutal consequences for anyone in the audience who had forgotten to wear steel boots. Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small. I asked him everything on my mind that afternoon. Most of all I longed to know, not disinterestedly, how he had recovered from that glorious time when he once knew everything. Our conversation itself was his answer, not that I fully appreciated this at the time. We parted on warm terms.

Who was Nathaniel Branden? Objectivist, psychologist, therapist, or God forbid, “public intellectual” — none of these labels, in my view, measure up. Ideologues, even good ones, tend to be transparent and predictable, whereas Nathaniel remained a mystery to adversaries and admirers alike. I myself have tritely attempted to liken him to a character in a novel, for I believe that a profound love of liberty, and that elusive ideal of objectivity, were alive and pure in his soul. One of the last times I saw him was at a screening of the first Atlas Shrugged movie. Barbara Branden, his former wife and eternal friend, was also present, and there was nothing trite at all about how exhilarated they were by the long-delayed illustration of their early intellectual dreams. The poem had survived.

Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small.

When news of Nathaniel’s final illness began to surface, Stephen Cox, a longtime friend of his, wrote this about the ever-surprising question of influence: “We literally do not know what we are doing.” An unexpected epitaph for a man dedicated to rationality, and also a perfect one. Nathaniel Branden was ultimately a monk of the mind, whose thoughts, like the prayers of a religious monk, performed wonders far beyond what anyone could track.




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