The Family Dinner


Political centrists such as Bill Maher, the television talk show host, firmly believe that in order for Democrats to defeat the current president in the 2020 election they must choose a centrist candidate. In a recent debate on his show with documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, Mr. Maher, among his other claims promoting his view, stated that President Barack Obama ran as a centrist in his 2008 campaign and that is why he won. Mr. Moore disputed this, stating that Mr. Obama ran as a progressive populist and had the courage to list his middle name “Hussein” on the ballot. The two bet the cost of a trip to Hawaii on the resolution of their dispute.

Norman Rockwell Mural (Marion County, Oregon scenic images) (marDA0166)
A mural replica in Silverton, Oregon, of Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want painting, one of a series he did in 1943 illustrating the Four Freedoms articulated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Photo from the Oregon State Archives. While Mr. Rockwell was depicting an ideal promulgated by a liberal Democratic president, his choice of models and their placement in a hierarchy at the family dinner table fits in well with the current conservative mythos of how Americans should look and comport themselves.


It’s not clear who was right about the middle name issue and therefore who won the bet, but in any event it hardly matters since the important point is that Mr. Obama ran his campaign from the left of center and then governed from the center. In national defense matters, such as expanding his predecessor’s drone attacks around the world and vindictively pursuing whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, Mr. Obama was to the right of center. His stance toward governing should have been clear early on from his appointments of Wall Street insiders like Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers to oversee the economy.

Barack Obama was never a fire-breathing liberal and never claimed to be one, though he did allow a lot of wishful thinking from liberal Democrats who wanted to believe he was more liberal then he was. They projected their wishes and hopes onto him, and being a politician he naturally turned that to his advantage. That wishful thinking can be glimpsed in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Obama in 2009 after he had done hardly anything to merit the award other than not being President George W. Bush. Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee do not vote in American elections, of course, but like liberal American voters weary of the belligerence and disregard for human rights of the George W. Bush administration, they were eager to project their hopes onto Mr. Obama.

Bill Maher has similarly profited from the projections of many liberals, who seem to think a person who is for the legalization of marijuana and against the policies and tenure of the current president cannot possibly be as reactionary as he really is in many ways. He is reactionary in his statements about Muslims and about gender politics and about how he believes political correctness is more corrosive to our democratic republic than the rapaciousness of capitalist exploitation. Most of all he is reactionary in his repeated assertions that no one to the left of himself among the Democrats can defeat the current president in 2020 because he believes most Americans are firmly in his, Bill Maher’s, camp on most everything that matters.

From Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall, a diversity of viewpoints and attitudes, some more subdued than others.


Mr. Maher is wrong about the politics of most Americans, as he is wrong about his other more distastefully retrograde beliefs. Michael Moore pointed out in their debate how Mr. Maher’s assessment of where most Americans reside on the political scale was wrong, and that they are more liberal within the Democratic Party than the Party establishment cares to acknowledge. None of Bill Maher’s views would matter if it weren’t for how they are often cited by conservative media and politicians as supporting their agenda and given extra weight by them because they are supposedly expressed by a liberal. It suits their cause to have a “house liberal” of sorts.

The fiction of Mr. Maher’s liberalism is propped up also by uncritical viewers on the left who give his pontifications on Democratic politics more respect than they deserve. Reactionary centrists such as Mr. Maher are uncomfortable with the infighting that always prevails among Democrats, and they see it as giving aid and comfort to the other side while weakening their own. People like Bill Maher may as well decry the spots on a leopard. Dissension is in the nature of liberal Democratic Party politics; it’s what differentiates them from the other side, too many members of which fall obediently into line like good little authoritarians.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald in a December 2016 appearance on The Jimmy Dore Show. Warning: one naughty word.

Bill Maher is like the brother-in-law at a large family dinner where all the members are squabbling in a free wheeling manner, and he sits there with a slight smirk, believing he’s smarter than he really is and eager to toss out a snarky remark to show he’s superior to what’s going on around him at the table. He and people like him, with an authoritarian streak in their character despite the liberality of some of their views, cannot understand how argument and dissension strengthen, not weaken, Democratic Party politics, and ultimately democracy itself. Falling in line without questioning is for autocrats and their followers. The ancient Athenians were not without their fair share of faults, but today most people recognize their society, noisy and argumentative as the scenes at their family dinner tables might have been, as more worth honoring and emulating than the authoritarian society of the Spartans, who fell in line and did as they were told by their “betters”.
— Ed.


A Low Profile


Last week there were reports in astronomy news of the detection of anomalous fast radio bursts from another galaxy for only the second time ever. That doesn’t necessarily mean the bursts have happened only two times in the history of humanity, merely that it was the second time humanity has detected them. Astronomers have no explanation for the source of the bursts, only conjectures, among them the possibility of intelligent origin.

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The Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) Observatory atop Mount Haleakala on the island of Maui, Hawaii, where astronomers first observed and then named the interstellar object, Oumuamua. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.


Intelligent origin of unexplained phenomena can never be ruled out until it is, of course, otherwise explained. All the same, there are likely and less likely explanations based on experience. The scientific method narrows down the possibilities, and it saves time, money, and energy to investigate the most likely possibilities first, rather than looking into unusual ones. Is a tuft of hair snagged on a tree branch from a bear or from Bigfoot? Everyone already knows of bears, while the existence of Bigfoot remains the source of speculation. It makes more sense for an investigator to analyze the tuft of hair to see if it came from a bear than it does to try linking it to a being for which there is no other physical evidence, and then to move on from there.

Likewise the investigation of interstellar anomalies. For now, astronomers could attribute the fast radio bursts to an extraterrestrial intelligence, but since any evidence for the existence of such intelligence remains in dispute, astronomers will no doubt look into purely natural sources first. A case in point was the appearance in the solar system in 2017 of the interstellar object Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word meaning “first messenger”, given it because a University of Hawaii observatory discovered the object and astronomers conjectured it was the first interstellar object observed by humanity to transit the solar system.

News reports latched onto musings by some astronomers that the object could be a scout sent ahead by an extraterrestrial civilization. Certainly it could have been that, and the object’s unusual size and behavior as it moved through space prompted the astronomers’ musings. But the conjecture was never more than an aside in otherwise sober scientific report. It was interesting speculation which was ultimately debunked by observation of Oumuamua when it came nearer the inner solar system before leaving the neighborhood in 2018.

It is still best to keep an open mind to the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence either broadcasting a signal of its existence or taking notice of the Earth and investigating. It goes without saying that the universe is a such a vast place that it would be folly to think life exists only on this one planet. The intelligence of some of the life on Earth remains open to interpretation. The Hawaiians lived on the most isolated archipelago on the planet, and yet one day in 1778 two strange ships appeared over the horizon of the vast ocean surrounding their home islands and the Englishmen aboard those ships, led by Captain James Cook, changed their lives forever, and in many ways not for the better.

People have only their own experience by which to judge how a first contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence might develop; anything else is conjecture about less likely outcomes, like guessing whether Bigfoot might prefer classical music over hip-hop. Is there anything in the human experience to suggest that first contact of a less technologically advanced civilization with a previously unknown, more powerful civilization would be anything but traumatic for the former? And considering that humanity is still taking baby steps toward the stars, it is perhaps wise to guess a first contact at this point would put Earth’s people at a disadvantage. There is no evidence on which to base the conjecture that more advanced civilizations would also be more benevolent than we ourselves have been in dealing with the less powerful. Experience of people on Earth with each other suggests otherwise.

Robinson Crusoe Wyeth 1920
An illustration of Robinson Crusoe by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) for a 1920 edition of Daniel Defoe’s classic fictional tale of a sailor marooned on an island off South America. Crusoe has the island to himself and yearns for human company, yet when he encounters the primitive man whose footprints Crusoe discovers unexpectedly in the beach sand, he abuses his greater power in order to enslave the man.

The Hawaiians living in splendid isolation in 1778 did not have the advantage of being able to see farther than their own eyes could see. It’s ironic that partly because of the isolation of the islands they make nearly ideal posts for astronomical observatories which can see light years into interstellar space. It seems nothing can stop progress, however, whether good or bad. Even if the Hawaiians had seen Cook’s ships coming from farther off than the horizon, they could not have stopped them. At most they could have prepared themselves for the inevitable, if such a thing is possible. It’s highly unlikely they would have signaled the ships since it appears the Hawaiians were generally content and had no need of strangers. Some people on Earth feel differently about the situation now after humans have fouled the nest, but still it is perhaps best not to look abroad for saviors since their good intentions are not assured, and instead limit ourselves to quiet observation and keeping a low profile while gathering evidence. In the meantime, we had best act as our own saviors here on Earth, imperfect as we are, or future generations will condemn our stargazing as a fool’s errand.
— Ed.


Where Have All the Bees Gone?

Imagine going to the grocery store as usual and discovering after ingesting some of the food you brought home that it made you ill, weakened the immune system of some of your family, and killed others. You had no way of knowing what was about to happen, and if you want to eat you have no choice but to return to the same grocery store next week, taking your chances. There is no alternative. This is the situation for bees and other pollinators, whose grocery store consists of the flowers they have visited for thousands or millions of years. Massive die-offs of bees and butterflies have been in the news for many years now, and recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the yellow-faced bees of Hawaii on the Endangered Species List, the first bees to be included.

Bombus veteranus - Trifolium pratense - Keila
Sand bumblebee on red clover. Photo by Ivar Leidus.

Pollination Bee Dandelion
Pollination of dandelion by a bee. Photo by Guérin Nicolas.

Use of broad spectrum pesticides in agriculture is partly responsible for the decline in bee populations, but an often overlooked contributing factor is the part homeowners play when they distribute similar pesticides on their lawns and gardens. Unlike the use of pesticides in agriculture which is done in the name of food production, homeowner use of pesticides is solely in the interest of aesthetics. Individuals can change this behavior more readily than they can the practices of large agricultural concerns.

Change starts in our own yards, and it starts with a change in perspective about what is acceptable and beautiful. Instead of insisting on a monoculture of grass in the lawn, change the definition of the lawn to include some flowering plants. Look on dandelions and clover as beneficial for the bees, rather than as weedy pests to be exterminated at whatever cost in time, money, energy, and collateral damage. An important aspect of Integrated Pest Management is tolerance of a certain amount of pest damage, however “pest” is defined, and the realization that perfection is neither attainable nor even desirable. Nature is messy. The bees prefer it that way, and will thank you for your part in letting it be. The hard part will be in convincing your neighbors of it while fluff from your dandelions drifts into their yards.

– Izzy

Dandelion fluff
Dandelion fluff. Photo by Djordjer.