Disrespecting Science

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W.J. Astore

I grew up on science and the American space program.  My favorite character on “Star Trek” was Mr. Spock, the eminently logical Vulcan science officer.  I loved physics in high school and ended up majoring in mechanical engineering in college.  Later, I got advanced degrees in the history of science and technology, especially as these subjects relate to Christianity.

Suffice to say I have a deep respect and a fond affection for science.  That’s why it pains me to see the U.S. government taking positions against science, and specifically against global warming/climate change.

What disturbs me (among other things) is the denial of facts — the disparagement of science — by high officials in our government.  Denying global warming is like denying evidence of evolution.  People do the latter as a matter of faith — they take refuge in Creationism and Biblical literalism, partly because it’s easier, partly because they’re “true believers,” partly because they don’t trust experts, and partly because it’s flattering to their own self-image as being made in the image of God.  And there are certainly ministers within Christian sects who encourage their followers to reject science — it’s one way for these ministers to bolster their own authority.

The denial of the science of global warming is for some of the same reasons (it’s easier, lack of trust in experts) but largely due to capitalism and the desire for profit.  The ministers of capitalism are not about to cede authority to scientists, not on this issue at least.  There are trillions of dollars of fossil fuels still in the ground, and who wants to leave it there when there’s so much money to be made in extraction?  Damn the long-term costs to the environment and to vulnerable peoples worldwide — full speed ahead on short-term profits!

But as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, the global environment won’t be deterred by our denial of facts.  Environmental blowback is guaranteed — and will grow increasingly severe — as long as our government continues to ignore or downplay the high costs of burning fossil fuels.

In the aftermath of Sputnik and in the context of the Cold War, our government pushed science as a bulwark to democracy and freedom.  Now that same government is disrespecting science in the name of profitability and economic competitiveness.

As Mr. Spock might say, dissing science is not logical.  Nor will it end well for ourselves or our planet.

The Biggest National Security Threats

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Trump, surrounded by the military, vows to give it more (and more!) money

W.J. Astore

Today at 2PM, the Trump administration releases its National Security Strategy.  It’s already making news because Trump is dropping climate change (added by the Obama administration) as a threat.  Instead, Trump is placing new emphasis on economic competitiveness and border security (“Build the wall!”), which are two corporate-friendly policies (read: boondoggles).

I’d like to cite two threats that Trump won’t mention in his national security strategy.  These two threats are perhaps the biggest ones America faces, and they are related.  The first is threat inflation, and the second is the U.S. military itself, as in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military-industrial-Congressional complex.

Threat inflation is a huge problem in America.  The threat of terrorism is vastly inflated, as is the threat from North Korea.  If we wanted to focus on what threatens Americans, we’d be redoubling efforts to help those with opioid addictions even as we work to cut deaths by guns and in road accidents.  Roughly 120,000 Americans are dying each year from opioid overdoses, road accidents, and shootings.  How many are dying from terrorism or from attacks by North Korea?

North Korea is a weak regional power led by an immature dictator who is desperate to keep his grip on power.  Kim Jong-un knows that any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would end in his death and the annihilation of his country.  He also knows that nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent and a symbol of prestige domestically and internationally.  Does he need to be deterred?  Yes.  Should Americans cower in fear?  Of course not.

Cyberwar is certainly a threat–just look at Russian meddling in our last presidential election.  China and Russia are nuclear powers and rivals that bear close watching, but they are not enemies.  Indeed, since the end of the Cold War the United States hasn’t faced serious peer enemies.  We should have been cashing in our “peace dividends” for the last 25 years.  Why haven’t we?

Enter the military-industrial-Congressional complex.  Ike warned us about it in 1961.  He warned about its misplaced power, its persistence, and its anti-democratic nature.  Ike, a retired five-star general who led the allied armies on the Western Front in World War II against the Nazis, knew of what he spoke.  He knew the Complex exaggerated threats, such as missile or bomber “gaps” (which didn’t exist) vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.  Ike knew the military, its corporate feeders and enablers, and Congress always wanted one thing: more.  He did his best to control the military, but once he left office, it was the Complex that took control, leading America into a disastrous war in Vietnam, the first of many “wars of choice” that ended in American defeats, but which proved highly profitable to the Complex itself.

Those endless wars that feed the Complex persist today.  Elements of the U.S. military are deployed to 149 countries and 800 foreign bases at a budgetary cost of $700 billion (that’s just for the “defense” budget).  Spending so much money on the military represents a tremendous opportunity cost–for that money, Americans could have free health care and college tuition, but who wants good health and a sound education, right?

Ike recognized the opportunity cost of “defense” spending in 1953 in this famous speech:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

What Ike said.  The point is not that Ike was a perfect man (look at the Iran coup, also in 1953), but he sure as hell was a sound and at times a penetrating thinker, a mature man who knew the awful burdens of war.

And now we have Trump, the opposite of Ike, an unsound and shallow thinker, an immature man who knows nothing of the awfulness of war.  Add Trump himself–his immaturity, his bellicosity, his ignorance, and his denial of reality–as a threat to our national security.

So, a quick summary of three big threats that won’t make Trump’s “strategy” today:

  1. Threat inflation: terrorism, North Korea, Iran, etc.
  2. The Complex itself and its profligate, prodigal, and anti-democratic nature.
  3. Trump.

And add back one more: climate change/global warming.  Because flooding, fires, droughts, famines, etc., exacerbated by global warming, are already creating security challenges, which will only grow worse over the next half-century.  Denying that reality, or calling it “fake news,” won’t change Mother Nature; she has her own implacable ways,

The Climate Change War

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Mother Nature doesn’t care about your denials (Josh Addessi at Blogspot.com)

W.J. Astore

It seems Americans can’t rally support for something without declaring a “war” on it. The war on poverty. On drugs. On gangs and crime. On terror. And these wars have become open-ended, or “generational” in Pentagon-speak, with a dynamic of crisis-surge-“progress”-new crisis-new surge-repeat that sustains large bureaucracies and huge government spending.

To these “wars” we must add a new one, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com: the climate change war.  As Texas and Florida were being clobbered by powerful hurricanes, the U.S. military and Homeland Security took the lead role in responding to these disasters, notes Klare.  Yet, even as the U.S. National Security State was mobilized to respond, identifying and seeking to mitigate a root cause of this “war” — the role global warming plays in exacerbating these storms — was and is very much forbidden by the Trump administration.

This is nothing new. As with so many other wars, the U.S. military is deployed to address symptoms rather than root causes. Worse than that, we often deny our own role in creating or worsening those root causes.

With respect to climate change, we Americans have made our choice. We’ve come to believe the advertising slogans that “we can have it all.” We’ve dismissed the dangers of wanton fossil fuel consumption, and indeed wanton materialism in general. Corporations have worked hard to persuade us that global warming might just be a hoax, or at the very least dodgy science. Many of us have willingly bought the message that coal is “clean,” that fracking along with new pipelines are safe and create jobs, even though it’s clean(er) energy like wind and solar that is the better job-creator.

Those are facts that lead me to a different “war” in America, the one being waged against truth.  Basic truths are denied (e.g. that human activity contributes to global warming) in the interests of profits enjoyed by powerful industries. But denial in “war” is not a path to victory (except for the profiteers). Denial is a path only to generational conflict, one that is sure to lead to more disasters and end only in defeat.

So, two things are most definitely certain: the climate change war will be generational. And, much like that other generational war — the war on terror — our military won’t win it. For no one wins a war against Mother Nature — not when we’re going out of our way to piss her off.

Preventing Doomsday

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I well recall walking in and out of this tunnel.  (You could take a bus too.)

W.J. Astore

It’s hard to think of a higher priority than the prevention of doomsday. Global catastrophe could strike in quick-time via nuclear war, or in slow-motion via global warming. Yet our leaders persist in rattling and sharpening the nuclear saber while denying the very reality of global warming (even as state-size chunks of ice break off from the polar ice caps).

Global catastrophe: What, me worry? It’s a MAD world indeed.

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Today at TomDispatch.com, I return to my days working in Cheyenne Mountain, America’s nuclear command and control center, tunneled out of a massive granite mountain in Colorado. I argue that it’s time to overcome our lockdown, shelter-in-place, mentality, before that fear-filled mindset leads us all to catastrophe. You can read the entire article here. What follows is an excerpt:

Duck and Cover, America!

Remember those old American Express card commercials with the tag line “Don’t leave home without it”?  If America’s Department of Homeland Security had its own card, its tag would be: “Don’t leave home.”

Consider the words of retired General John Kelly, the head of that department, who recently suggested that if Americans knew what he knew about the nasty terror threats facing this country, they’d “never leave the house.”  General Kelly, a big bad Marine, is a man who — one would think — does not frighten easily.  It’s unclear, however, whether he considers it best for us to “shelter in place” just for now (until he sends the all-clear signal) or for all eternity.

One thing is clear, however: Islamic terrorism, an exceedingly modest danger to Americans, has in these years become the excuse for the endless construction and funding of an increasingly powerful national security state (the Department of Homeland Security included), complete with a global surveillance system for the ages.  And with that, of course, goes the urge to demobilize the American people and put them in an eternal lockdown mode, while the warrior pros go about the business of keeping them “safe” and “secure.”

I have a few questions for General Kelly: Is closing our personal blast doors the answer to keeping our enemies and especially our fears at bay?  What does security really mean?  With respect to nuclear Armageddon, should the rich among us indeed start building personal bomb shelters again, while our government continues to perfect our nuclear arsenal by endlessly updating and “modernizing” it?  (Think: smart nukes and next generation delivery systems.)  Or should we work toward locking down and in the end eliminating our doomsday weaponry?  With respect to both terrorism and immigration, should we really hunker down in Homeland U.S.A., slamming shut our Trumpian blast door with Mexico (actually long under construction) and our immigration system, or should we be working to reduce the tensions of poverty and violence that generate both desperate immigrants and terrorist acts?

President Trump and “his” generals are plainly in favor of you and yours just hunkering down, even as they continue to lash out militarily around the globe.  The result so far: the worst of both worlds — a fortress America mentality of fear and passivity domestically and a kinetic, manic urge to surge, weapons in hand, across significant parts of the planet.

Call it a passive-aggressive policy.  We the people are told to remain passive, huddling in our respective home bunkers, sheltering in place, even as America’s finest aggressively strike out at those we fear most.  The common denominator of such a project is fear — a fear that breeds compliance at home and passivity before uniformed, if often uninformed, experts, even as it generates repetitive, seemingly endless, violence abroad.  In short, it’s the doomsday mentality applied every day in every way.

Returning to Cheyenne Mountain

Thirty years ago, as a young Air Force officer, Cheyenne Mountain played a memorable role in my life.  In 1988 I left that mountain redoubt behind, though I carried with me a small slab of granite from it with a souvenir pen attached.  Today, with greying hair and my very own time machine (my memories), I find myself returning regularly to Cheyenne Mountain, thinking over where we went wrong as a country in allowing a doomsday-lockdown mentality to get such a hold on us.

Amazingly, Barack Obama, the president who made high-minded pleas to put an end to nuclear weapons (and won a Nobel Prize for them), pleas supported by hard-headed realists like former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, gave his approval to a trillion-dollar renovation of America’s nuclear triad before leaving office.  That military-industrial boondoggle will now be carried forward by the Trump administration.  Though revealing complete ignorance about America’s nuclear triad during the 2016 election campaign, President Trump has nevertheless boasted that the U.S. will always be “at the top of the pack” when it comes to doomsday weaponry.  And whether with Iran or North Korea, he foolishly favors policies that rattle the nuclear saber.

In addition, recent reports indicate that America’s nuclear arsenal may be less than secure.  In fact, as of this March, inspection results for nuclear weapons safety and security, which had been shared freely with the American public, are now classified in what the Associated Press calls a “lockdown of information.”  Naturally, the Pentagon claims greater secrecy is needed to protect us against terrorism, but it serves another purpose: shielding incompetence and failing grades.  Given the U.S. military’s nightmarish history of major accidents with nuclear weapons, more secrecy and less accountability doesn’t exactly inspire greater confidence.

Today, the Cheyenne complex sits deactivated, buried inside its mountain, awaiting fresh purpose.  And I have one.  Let’s bring our collective fears there, America.  Let’s bury them under all that granite.  Let’s close the blast doors behind us as we walk out of that dark tunnel toward the light.  For sheltering in place shouldn’t be the American way.  Nor should we lock ourselves down for life.  It would be so much better to lockdown instead what should be truly unthinkable: doomsday itself, the mass murder of ourselves and the destruction of our planet.

Trump Is Sending Us All to the Cornfield

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Let the 6-year-old rule, unless you prefer the cornfield (Twilight Zone)

W.J. Astore

Let’s state the obvious: Donald Trump is a climate change denier.  And this is for political as well as petty reasons.  When it comes to his investments, his resorts, he is not stupid enough to deny the evidence of his own eyes.  As I wrote a year ago:

On global warming, Trump is essentially a skeptic on whether it exists (“hoax” and “con job” are expressions of choice), even as he seeks to protect his resorts from its effects. Along with this rank hypocrisy, Trump is advocating an energy plan that is vintage 1980, calling for more burning of fossil fuels, more drilling and digging, more pipelines, as if fossil fuel consumption was totally benign to the environment and to human health.

His climate change skepticism is politically motivated and calculated to appeal to his base.  No surprise there.  But Trump also revels in anti-intellectualism, which has a strong tradition in the U.S.

Sure, intellectuals mess up, and more than a few can find a fourth side to every three-sided problem.  But Trump only sees one side to every three-sided problem.  His side. Like a temperamental child, he thinks he can create his own reality, regardless of facts. And the rest of us now have to put up with the spoiled brat until 2020 (or impeachment, which is unlikely before 2018, at the earliest).

Trump reminds me of the spoiled kid in the famous “Twilight Zone” episode, “It’s A Good Life.”  In that episode, a six-year-old kid prone to temper tantrums and getting his own way rules with absolute power over his parents and the townfolk of “Peaksville.”

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Don’t offend this kid (Bill Mumy, the child-tyrant in “It’s A Good Life”)

Anyone who offends the petty tyrant (played memorably by Billy Mumy) is punished, often in gruesome ways.  A more merciful result is to be “sent to the cornfield,” a euphemism for death.

Welcome to Peaksville, America.  And think only good thoughts of our six-year-old leader.  Unless, of course, you prefer the cornfield.

More on Trump’s Generals

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W.J. Astore

In a longer article for TomDispatch.com, I recently wrote about Donald Trump’s team of generals for national defense and homeland security. Trump wants four senior retired generals, two from the Army and two from the Marine Corps, to serve as his senior civilian advisers in matters of defense and security.

Here’s the point: You simply can’t have civilian control of the military when you appoint senior generals to these positions.

I’m astonished more Americans aren’t outraged at this. It’s a sign of how much militarism has gripped our nation and government, as well as the sweep and scope of the national security state.

I was reading Samuel Hynes’ excellent book, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War, and came across two passages that resonated with me. In talking about war as a culture, Hynes notes that “Military traditions, values, and patterns of behavior penetrate every aspect of army [and Marine Corps] life and make the most ordinary acts and feelings different.”

The generals Trump is hiring are all military careerists, men whose “traditions, values, and patterns of behavior” are steeped in the ways of the Army and Marine Corps, affecting even “the most ordinary acts and feelings.” Their behavior, their commitments, their loyalties, their world views, are the antithesis to civilian culture and to the ethos of democracy. (For example, General James Mattis, Trump’s selection as Secretary of Defense, is most often described as a “warrior-monk,” a man with a Spartan-like dedication to war.  But would Athens have anointed a Spartan, even as its minister of war?)

Again, the point is not to attack the military. It’s that the U.S. government already has plenty of generals in charge, wielding enormous authority. Trump’s decision to add yet another layer of military authority to his government makes it less of a democracy and more of a junta.

A second point from Hynes. He notes how most citizen-soldiers in America’s military past were not war-lovers, but that a few were, notably General George S. Patton. In the same breath, Hynes notes that dictators like Hitler and Mussolini “loved war.”

Which American general does Trump profess to admire the most? George S. Patton. And who among his generals most resembles Patton as a “real” warrior? According to Trump, it’s General Mattis.

Again, the point is not to attack the military, but rather to note the U.S. national security state already has plenty of warriors and warfighters in charge. Putting an alleged Patton-clone in charge of the Pentagon represents an abrogation of two centuries of American tradition that insisted on civilian supremacy over the military.

Given his inflammatory tweets about nuclear arms races with their “bring it on” mentality, Trump has all the makings of tinpot provocateur, an unstable military poseur who likes to speak loudly while swinging a nuclear-tipped stick. Will Trump’s generals, his Pattons and MacArthurs, serve as a check to his provocations and his posturings? It doesn’t seem likely.

Congress should reject Trump’s choices for Secretary of Defense (Mattis) and Homeland Security (Kelly). Not because these retired generals are bad men, but because they are the wrong kind of people. If you want civilian control of the military (and don’t we still want that?), you need to hire true civilians. Men and women whose identities haven’t been forged in armories. Independent thinkers and patriots with some history of dissent.

How about someone like Daniel Ellsberg for Secretary of Defense? And, since global warming is a huge threat to the U.S., how about Bill McKibben for Homeland Security?

After all, whether they’re in or out of uniform, the U.S. government already has plenty of generals.

Trump’s system will gorge itself until it collapses under its own weight. Too bad it’ll take the planet down as well

richardfeynman
Richard Feynman (copyright Tamiko Thiel, 1984)

W.J. Astore

Conflicts of interest characterize Donald Trump and his cabinet even before he and they take power in January, so we can safely predict a lot of corruption will be forthcoming. I always love the way both parties, but especially the Republicans, vow to fight for smaller government and lower deficits — until they get in power. Then it’s bigger government and larger deficits in the service of crony capitalism. Kleptocracy, in a word.

A good friend put it concisely: “It makes me sick!”

But of course that’s why she’s not in Washington. The Washington-types don’t find it sickening. For them, “Greed is good.” They convince themselves that: 1) The more they have, the better. 2) They deserve more because they’re better people. 3) The little people are schmucks who deserve to be exploited.

My parents liked the saying, “Birds of a feather flock together.” So the greedy are easy to find. Just look for them in the corridors of power, clustered together. For example, why do so many generals and admirals cash-in at retirement, joining corporate boards and making millions? They have six-figure government pensions, so why do they need more? They think they deserve the money. And they want to continue to play the power game, preening among the flock in the process.

As another friend of mine put it, “Money is the only thing the American elite really cares about. And I always think of Sinclair Lewis’s line that poor Americans never think of themselves as poor, only as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. One of our neighbors and friends told me he was voting Trump because with lower taxes he will be free to make a lot more money. Really? How much does anyone really think taxes will go down for people making what we make?”

The reality for us is that our taxes will probably go down by only a few hundred dollars. It’ll help us pay our air conditioning bills next summer, but that’s about it. Modest tax cuts are not going to turn us all into budding Donald Trumps (thank god for small mercies).

Yes, for people in Trump’s crowd, money is the measure of success. But so too is access. And power. Some of these people will kill themselves to be seen at the right parties, among the “right” kind of people. “Players.” “Operators.” Not people like you and me.

Trump’s government will gorge itself until it collapses under its own weight. The big question is whether its collapse will take the rest of us with it. Consider global warming, and consider the climate change deniers and fossil fuel profiteers that Trump is empowering. How long does our planet have left until we confront true disaster? A few decades, perhaps?

I always told my students the big problem with global warming was that its most serious perils – real as they are – lurked decades in the future. Problems that are decades away are difficult to address when America is driven by a quarterly business cycle and a quadrennial election cycle for the presidency. Now, under Trump, these problems won’t be addressed at all because the business moguls as well as the president simply deny their existence. Why? Because it’s convenient for them to do so. Because they stand to make a great deal of money by doing so. And because they don’t care about decades from now; they care about quarterly profits and getting reelected.

As I grow older, the words from a commercial of my youth have found new resonance in my memory: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Not only isn’t it nice: it’s incredibly foolhardy. For the words of Richard Feynman about the space shuttle Challenger disaster ring true here:

Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.

Trump and his cronies may fool some of the people all of the time, but they’re not going to fool Nature. Sooner or later (and sooner under Trump), nature’s bill will come.