Category Archives: May You Live In Interesting Times

Whatever Happened to Puerto Rico?

We haven’t heard much lately about the hurricane damage in Puerto Rico. Maybe by the time Hurricane Maria devastated the island, we were bored with hurricane coverage.

After all, we had already followed Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida. Time to switch to more cheerful stuff, perhaps the latest breakup of a celebrity couple or our Facebook accounts of what we ate for lunch.

Bill McKibben, writing in Sojourners (‘Earth’s New Vulnerabilities,” December, 2017), recounts some of the devastation in Puerto Rico we may not have noticed. “Gone were airports and roads. Eighty percent of the island’s crops were destroyed . . . Almost all the cell towers. . . . Electricity was suddenly a thing of the past . . . Modernity retreats.”

To be sure, the aftermath of all three major U.S. hurricanes, not to mention the wildfires in California, strain our resources.

McKibben draws a deeper lesson. “We’re starting to realize how unbuffered the whole planet is . . . everywhere new vulnerabilities emerge almost daily.”

He calls on us to “staunch the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. Maria is what happens with 1 degree Celsius of global warming. We’re currently on a path for an increase of 3 to 4 degrees Celsius. That would be enough to join the whole planet in a community of collapse.”

Anybody for bringing back those forbidden words “climate change”?

Needed: Another Miracle to Stave off a Nuclear Winter

If you look at photos of Daniel Ellsberg and the events surrounding the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1967, you first note the dated clothes and the men with longish hair and sideburns, but clean shaven faces.

The Pentagon Papers were the result of a top secret study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Before the war’s end, over 500,000 American troops would be sent to that South Asian nation. Ellsberg had worked on the study and came to believe his country had wrongly chosen military action. Not only that, he believed the government had withheld disturbing facts about our involvement, facts which would cause the public to push for withdrawal.

So he released the results to The New York Times, who began publishing them in a series of articles.

The Department of Justice issued a restraining order against further publication. The newspaper argued the case before the Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of the Times. Release of the material was justified under the U.S. Constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of the press.

A new movie, The Post, recounts that episode.

Ellsberg today continues his tradition as gadfly. In a new book, The Doomsday Machine, Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Ellsberg reveals plans for nuclear war carried out under former President Dwight Eisenhower, now seeing new life under President Donald Trump.

In an article in Sojourners (“It’s a Miracle We’re Still Here,” January, 2018), Ellsberg is interviewed by James W. Douglass, a peace activist. Ellsberg talks of nuclear madness.

He says the activation of nuclear war today would cause near-extinction of life on earth. Regardless of the nuclear destruction, Ellsberg says, the resulting ash in the stratosphere would doom most, if not all, of earthly life.

Said Ellsberg: “It will be a miracle if we get through another 70 years without setting these weapons off again on humans . . .”

Alluding to the previous miracle that staved off nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Ellsberg continues, “It will take a miracle for the transformation in the world to take place for another 70 years. But fortunately miracles are possible . . . ”

Play Nice with Dictators

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary has veered in the direction of dictators, including those in the former Soviet Union. Taking a page from their books, he has attempted to control Hungary’s independent news media.

When an official of the United States embassy in Hungary, David Kostelancik, criticized such actions, a former Florida congressman, Connie Mack IV, complained that Kostelancik was interfering in the affairs of a U.S. ally.

According to Thomas Melia, writing in The American Interest (“The Diplomat vs the Lobbyist,” November 23, 2017), Mack appears to be a lobbyist for the current government of Hungary. His attacks could be another example of attempted foreign influence on U.S. policies.

Two other congressional representatives, Andy Harris of Maryland and Dennis A. Ross of Florida, have begun a draft letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with complaints similar to Mack’s about Kostelancik.

Writes Melia: “After most of a year during which the President has consistently denigrated the State Department, our diplomats and diplomacy itself (‘I’m the only one that matters,’ he told Laura Ingraham this month) . . . it is time to celebrate the patriotic Americans who are serving on the front lines abroad—people like Dave Kostelancik, who speak for our nation’s values and interests, not for dollars and cents.”

Getting Rid of the Editors

Most of us use at least one of them, even if we harbor uneasiness about their power. We log on to Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the other digital helpers. We connect with friends and families, carry out research, express our opinions, and follow the latest breaking news.

Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times, acknowledged the good things digital media helps us accomplish. At the same time, he warns, it’s easier to abuse them because no one is judging their output for accuracy. (The Seattle Times, “Hold social media accountable,” October 12, 2017.)

The business model of the digital media, Friedman writes, aimed “to absorb all of the readers of the mainstream media newspapers and magazines and to absorb all their advertisers—but as few of their editors as possible.”

Some enjoy the freewheeling ride of social media. Some don’t like editors who tell them they can’t write certain things—demeaning those different from themselves or spreading false stories.

As Friedman reminds us, “An editor is a human being you have to pay to bring editorial judgement to content on your website, to make sure things are accurate and to correct them if they’re not. Social networks preferred to use algorithms instead, but these are easily gamed.”

Social media has connected us with different viewpoints and given us freedom to explore. They’ve also given us greater ability to spread untruths. Fake news was not invented in the digital era, but it spread its wings there.

To cope requires what is so often lacking in these times: self-discipline. Self-discipline curtails our temptation to treat news as entertainment, an attitude tailor-made for social media. Instead, if we are wise, we will exchange some of that time for reading hard news and analysis, gathered by journalists who are paid to investigate and kept to strict standards of what is true.

Today’s Glorious Autumn; Echos of Another Fragile Season

In western Washington State, we are enjoying one of the most beautiful autumns in several years. The maple tree across the street has retained that brilliant scarlet, known only in autumn, far longer than I thought possible.

I hold on to the beauty a bit tighter because of several novels I have read recently, set around the First World War. The years 2014 to 2018 mark one-hundred-year anniversaries of events in that war. Today’s authors have written a number of novels in that time frame.

A Fine Summer’s Day, by Charles Todd, is one of them, set mostly in the months just before the war began. The book sets the stage for the post-war Ian Rutledge detective novels about a shattered veteran returning to work for Scotland Yard after his traumatic service in that war.

Todd captures the bitter-sweetness of the spring and early summer of 1914, before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria-Hungary, began the blood-letting.

Young men and women fall in love and plan marriage. Fields are planted as they have been for millennia. Times seem as golden as the trees of this autumn.

Then the war came, a surprise to many Europeans, who thought the modern world had given up that sort of thing. Many of them were positive it would last no more than a few months. They believed their leaders were too wise to allow a prolonged conflict.

Unfortunately, a refusal to understand the limits of human wisdom and an inability to corral national pride contributed to an inhuman slaughter. It did not stop until an uneasy armistice came into effect over four years later.

I hope we do not take our blessings for granted. Humans still make foolish decisions.

From South Korea: “What Are the Churches in America Thinking?”

I don’t know how close North Korea is to actually sending a nuclear weapon to devastate some city on my own Pacific northwest coast.

I’m pretty certain, though, that North Korea could now, at this instant, use weapons, conventional or otherwise, to snuff out the lives of millions of South Koreans and perhaps Japanese as well.

While we deal with our own problems, serious as they are (shootings, hurricanes, wildfires), South Koreans wonder if their entire population will be obliterated in the next few seconds.

The conflict with North Korea is not a movie dramatization of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Leaders hurling street bully insults at each other are as helpful as gasoline on a California wildfire.

One visitor to South Korea, an American Christian leader, asked a Korean Christian what the churches in his country were thinking about the situation.

He responded: “We’re asking, ‘What are the churches in America thinking?’”

I Stand for the National Anthem, But I Respect Your Right Not to Stand

On Memorial Day, 1991, I stood with other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and joined them in the pledge of allegiance to our flag, flying over our mission in a foreign country. It was a “lump in my throat” kind of moment.

We had just come through the now barely-remembered first Gulf war. An alliance, led by the United States, had driven out Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Watching from next door Saudi Arabia, we were proud of how our country had handled the crisis.

The pledge and the national anthem are useful for such moments of patriotic feeling. They should not, however, be a test of citizenship or of respect for our nation or our military. They are simply one expression, useful for some, less so for others.

Some American Christians believe attachment to such symbols borders on idolatry. They refuse to say the pledge out of concern for their primary allegiance to God.

I respect their belief. I also respect the beliefs of football players who kneel or sit during the national anthem. One player said his Christian conviction regarding justice compelled him to act as he did. It was a non-violent protest, the sort of act American soldiers have died to protect.

We do not live in a dictatorship where school children assemble each morning to pay lock step allegiance to a great dictator. Instead, non violent expressions of concern for certain practices of our country are a sign of healthy citizenship.

God knows we have a few other things to worry about: North Korea, a hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico, and an opioid epidemic, to name a few.

Death by Small Cuts

Apparently, United States military forces now are going to stay in Afghanistan until we win the war there.

When will we know that we have won it? Is it when the last terrorist is dead?

But what if our activities there increase the number of people who hate us and continue to feed terrorism networks? And what about the terrorists in Syria and Yemen and Somalia and a host of other nations? Are we going to fight wars there, too?

Two wars “against terrorism” have already ballooned our national budget beyond anything imaginable in previous eras. The costs of our wars are choking off investments even in those programs favored by both political parties, like infrastructure.

Perhaps this is exactly what our terrorist enemies have in mind. They will siphon off our national treasure by turning on many small spigots. They will tempt us to fight “wars against terrorism” in a dozen different countries.

They will not aim one single mortal blow. They will slash at us with many small cuts until our resources bleed away.

The attacks in New York, Washington, and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, did not cripple us or threaten our infrastructure or render us helpless.

It was a despicable act against innocent victims that called for a response but not for endless war.

During our past conflict with a much more formidable foe, the Soviet Union, in the Cold War, our biggest mistake was going to war in Vietnam. Better if we had concentrated more on what finally did win the Cold War for us, an economy that benefitted most Americans and the growing inclusion of all classes of citizens.

U.S. diplomat George Kennon, writing from Moscow in the early days of the Cold War, advised his country how to win that war:

“Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. . . Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow . . . the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

You Don’t Have to Know Russian to Read Russian Propaganda; Try U.S. Social Media Sites

Reports are surfacing that Russian interests paid for numerous adds on Facebook before the 2016 U.S. election. These adds reportedly focused on divisive issues in an attempt to polarize the elections to Russia’s advantage.

Facebook says it has identified hundreds of fake accounts connected to Russian groups known for trolling on social media. Facebook says it is cooperating with U.S. investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Social media sites have an obligation to weed out hidden political advertising masquerading as news. However, as the comic strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We are the ones who stopped reading newspapers and began depending on social media for our news. Too many of us ignored actual news gathered by professionals.

As long as we prefer to find our “news” from tweets and Facebook, we risk electing officials just as unprofessional and ill prepared to govern.

Hurricanes and Earthquakes: What Do We Care About?

Our overly active hurricane season illustrates how unprepared most of us are for natural disasters.

In our seismically challenged Pacific Northwest, studies indicate insufficient preparation for a major earthquake.

An extensive drill found that the region would be unable to cope with the three million or so survivors who would need food, water, shelter, and medical aid ( The Seattle Times, October 23, 2016).

“Everything we depend on to live our 21st century lives is going to be significantly degraded or eradicated,” one official said. “The needs are going to be immediate, they are going to be urgent and they are going to be overwhelming.”

These warnings are similar to those sounded as major hurricanes approach.

Smartphones and Facebook helped rescuers find trapped families in Texas, but electrical power outages, lost computers, and damaged cellphones begin to limit digital use.

What do we depend on when these fail us?

We depend on basic networks so often neglected in our wired age. We depend on families, neighborhoods, and face to face friendships. And also on the kindness of strangers.

Battle of the Handshakes

In Western societies, the handshake became evidence of a binding contract to buy and sell. It could also signal a truce or peace agreement between warring parties. Informally, it was a way of welcoming a stranger.

Like many other practices, President Trump has upended this friendly gesture of respect. In shaking the hand of recently appointed Supreme Justice, Neil Gorsuch, Trump appeared to want to pull Gorsuch off his feet.

Handshakes between President Trump and the leaders of our allies have descended to wrestling grips. Some appear to cause actual physical pain to Trump’s handshake partner.

As leaders have wised up to Trump’s apparent understanding of handshakes as another form of warfare, they have developed strategies to deal with it.

French President Emmanuel Macron gripped Trump’s hand as hard as Trump gripped his. Trump appeared to slightly wince while Macron grinned. Macron later commented, “One must show that we won’t make little concessions, even symbolic ones.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, an amateur boxer, also came off well in the handshake match.

Since most leaders of our allies are younger than Trump, time would appear to be on their side.

What To Do When Neo-Nazis Come to Call

When far right protestors picked Charlottesville, Virginia, to hold a rally, Leah Wise, who lives there, wondered what her response would be. She finally chose to go to her church, St. Paul’s Memorial, the evening the rally took place. (“Dispatches from Charlottesville: What Happens When Neo-Nazis Are Outside Your Church Doors,” Christianity Today, September, 2017.)

That evening a standing room only crowd of all religions and colors came together. “We came because we were scared, or at least confused. We didn’t know where else to go. We came because we shared a call to social justice and we knew we needed each other,” Wise wrote.

While protestors gathered in the city, the church group sang “This Little Light of Mine,” clapping and stomping as though in some Appalachian revival service. Their reaction to the chaos outside their doors provided peaceful encouragement to those opposed to hatred and racism.

In other commentary, Danny Westneat (The Seattle Times, “Stop Feeding the Neo-Nazi Beast,” August 16, 2017), cautions against shouting matches with the protestors or attacking them.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “Fight fanaticism with fire? No, with modesty and moderation,” (as quoted in The Seattle Times, August 20, 2017).

“Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes; it’s made by finding balance between competing truths—between freedom and security, diversity and solidarity,” Brooks wrote.

When the times are out of joint, dysfunctional groups take advantage of fear and uncertainty. It’s doubtful these groups will go away any time soon.

Moving society in the opposite direction—step by step, election by election, good work by good work—requires long term commitment. The missionary preacher Paul summed up this kind of activity in his letter to the Ephesians: “Be angry, but do not sin . . . ”