Sunday, April 23, 2017

Earth Day and the March for Science

We didn't participate in the OKC March for Science - mostly because we're still recovering from our recent respiratory problems.  I'm pleased to know it was reasonably well-attended and our absence only subtracted a negligible portion. 

The widespread disrespect for science within the Trump regime and inside the halls of Congress is a component of a national malaise that didn't begin with Trump.  This trend could bring our secular democracy down.  If we lose interest in the facts, preferring lies, myths, slogans, and propaganda to a fact-based, logical understanding of the world in which we live, then our destiny is to become a second-rate nation, perhaps sliding farther toward third-rate, or worse.  A societal ambience that devalues education, science, and civil discourse is likely to fall prey to authoritarianism.  Facts will be ignored or distorted, as myths and superstitions will hold sway.

Contrary to what many people say, science is not a belief system, in the sense that science does not depend on a particular set of beliefs that are untestable and beyond question.  Scientific facts don't depend on anyone's beliefs;  whether you "believe in them" or not doesn't change the truth of their being facts!  Science uses logic and evidence to propose explanations for why the natural world is observed to be the way it is.  Experience has demonstrated repeatedly that logic and evidence work to achieve increased understanding.  Scientific explanations are always provisional, never final or "settled" in some way.  You don't have to accept them as a belief system, because they work!

Explanations based on evidence always are subject to re-evaluation and possible revision in the face of new evidence or when another explanation is proposed that does an improved job of explaining the facts as we know them at any given moment.  You certainly can choose to believe or not believe the explanations that science offers, but you can't choose to believe or not believe in the facts that were used to support an explanation.  If you disbelieve in a scientific explanation, what's your alternative explanation?  The more rigorously an explanation has been tested (often by collecting new evidence), the more likely it is to be an acceptable hypothesis.  Some ideas have been tested so many times and so thoroughly, the consensus among subject matter experts is that they go beyond a mere hypothesis to the level of a scientific "law" or "theory".  Note that the use of the word "theory" is not like some barroom conversation where someone says "I've got a theory about that!"  A scientific theory (e.g., Einstein's Theory of General Relativity or Darwin's Theory of Evolution) is a thoroughly vetted explanation.

Given those explanations of how things work, science permits the exploration of further ideas based on those explanations; if we accept an explanation, what other things can be implied using that explanation?  Validated explanations are the foundation upon which technology is built.  The fact that our technology works the way we have come to expect it to work is mute testimony to the solidity of that scientific foundation.  Our society has come, for better or for worse, to be based heavily on technology.  Those who deny the validity of science are, at their core, either (a) uncaring about the negative impacts of undermining support for science and more concerned about power or profit, or (b) they're so profoundly ignorant, they fail to grasp the significant parts of what science has given to us.  Possibly both may apply.

The evidence has shown that investment in support of scientific research is repaid many times over by the value created as a result of that research.  Yes, there are some scientific projects that seem awfully far removed from any practical application.  And no, not all scientific projects are destined to become important.  But overall, our position as a prosperous world superpower has been made possible in part by the large investments we've made over time in support of science.  Skeptics should review the book "Science - the Endless Frontier" written by Vannevar Bush after the end of WWII.  Sometimes, the most seemingly useless and impractical hypotheses can turn out to have some purely unexpected value that no one anticipated when the original research was done.  In some cases, it might be many years before some piece of research comes to practical fruition.  To limit science only to those topics that can be of immediate value is to cripple the science in the long run.  We as a nation have become obsessed with the short-term "profit and loss" analysis, and many topics that might prove valuable in the future are not being pursued for lack of funding.

Unfortunately, science is becoming a casualty in the political wars being fought over whose ideology is going to run this nation.  Topics like global climate change have become tainted with the miasma of politics, to the point where scientific facts are being denied or grotesquely misused to serve this or that political view.  This has put our nation's leading position in science at great risk.  If we fall victim to that apparent tendency, then we're doomed to fall from our world leadership position and slide down the slope toward scientific mediocrity and dependence on others to do our science for us.

This year's Earth Day March on Science around the nation is a reflection of the concerns within the scientific community for what we see happening to devalue science in our society.  Sure, it has some roots in concern for our jobs.  But of all the careers someone might pursue, I know of no scientist who chose to become a scientist purely for the profit motive, and most of use are not counted among the rich.  What we possess in abundance is a concern for the importance of truth and evidence-based critical thinking in the USA.  That's worth marching for and not based solely on our self-interest!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Wordsmithing the watches and warnings is not the path to improvement

Hard on the heels of some unnecessary storm chaser fatalities, now social media are calling into question the use of the "particularly dangerous situation (PDS)" wording in watches, and the so-called impact-based warnings (IBW) that use terms like "tornado emergency" in them.  I expressed my concerns about the initial IBW experiment a few years ago, here and here.  The juggernaut of IBW has rolled on, nevertheless.  A recent situation involved an event with a tornado headed toward a big city that triggered a "tornado emergency" warning, but the tornado dissipated soon thereafter, doing only relatively minor damage.  It's precisely this very uncertainty about tornado tracks and intensities that makes warning forecasters agonize over their decisions.  And people in the "general public" often get upset and some inevitably start whining about "crying wolf".  [I've never understood the mindset of people who become upset about not experiencing a major disaster!]

The big issue is now, and always has been, the challenge to convey uncertainty in a way that people understand the reality of the difficulties we face in issuing storm forecasts, so their decision-making actually will benefit from the added uncertainty information.  A major obstacle we face is that we as yet have no large dataset derived from interviews with a representative sample of the public.  In the absence of such information, we're reduced to guessing how to improve things.  NWS management feels the pressure to respond to the growing number of people who advocate the involvement of social scientists.  Instead of supporting extensive survey efforts to create that representative sample, all we get is hollow talk and ill-considered management decisions, like the IBW experiment.  There remain many questions to ask in surveys:  How is the current system working?  What do people consider to be a "false alarm"?  If we include uncertainty information, what's the most effective way for that information to reach and be understood by the most people?  What if we had a component in our watches and warnings that caters to reasonably sophisticated users (like emergency managers) and a different component to reach the broadest possible audience?  A watch or warning doesn't have to be either X or Y, after all - it could include a multiplicity of options.

Personally, I don't believe that wordsmithing watches and warnings is likely to be very productive.  Words have a nasty and virtually inevitable tendency to mean different things to different people.  No specific choice of wording is ever going to be universally accepted.  Even within a limited region of the nation, the diversity of the "general public" represents a serious challenge.  Further, constantly-changing technology within the "social landscape" causes that landscape to change constantly, as well.  What worked in the past may not work so well today or in the future.  This isn't a one-time challenge we can solve forever with one big push. 

We're beginning to realize that the use of PDS watches (and "tornado emergencis") may well result in people seeing "ordinary" watches as something less important than those given the PDS label.  The verification of PDS watches is somewhat better than that for regular watches - evidently there's some skill in making the choice to use (or not use) the PDS designation.  The "tornado emergency" form of the IBWs doesn't have a very good verification track record at all.  There are just too many storm-scale uncertainties for this product to exhibit much skill.  Its failures stir up controversy and there's no hard evidence to suggest that the IBW system has been a successful solution to conveying uncertainty.  What people like or don't like doesn't necessarily track with what actually works to bring about some desired outcome.

That brings up another challenge:  What's the outcome we desire?  Do we really want to be telling people what to do, and seeking a magic bullet to make people do what we want them to do?  Personally, I believe telling people what to do, say via "call to action" statements (CTAs) is not a good idea.  What people need to do depends on their specific situations, about which we as forecasters know nothing!  People should develop their own specific action plans to meet the situations they're likely to experience in a hazardous weather situation (at home, at school, at work, on the road, engaging in recreation, etc.) well in advance of the weather actually developing.  With severe convective storms, there isn't time to make such preparations when the storm is minutes away.

It's no secret that probability is the proper language of uncertainty.  It's the optimum mechanism for conveying confidence in various aspects of the forecast.  For an example of probability-based forecasts, I encourage people to review the "severe weather outlook" products from the Storm Prediction Center as an example of how to show what I call "graded threat levels" - the probability is derived subjectively and is associated with the confidence the forecasters have about their threat forecasts.  Big numbers imply high confidence, small numbers imply low confidence.  They actually have different probabilities for each of the three severe local storm event types:  tornadoes, hail, and strong winds, and they distinguish the cases with a threshold level of confidence for "significant" severe weather:  EF2+ tornadoes, hail 2+ inches in diameter, and winds of 65+ knots.  This is not just a black-and-white statement that some event will (or will not) happen - it's a complex picture that forecasters deduce from all the information they have.  There's a rather similar but less complex system for the severe thunderstorm and tornado watches.

This sort of product is what we need to develop for the short-fuse threats associated with warnings, but the difficulty I foresee with that is the rapidity with which severe convective storm threat probabilities change - they can increase or decrease markedly in a matter of a few minutes!  It would take a very close monitoring and updating procedure to capture the variability of the threat, and even if it's technically possible to do (say, using automated algorithms), with the threat changing so rapidly, would users find that helpful or simply confusing?  I suspect the latter.  The recent event referred to above exemplifies this challenge.  With a tornado headed toward a city, the "tornado emergency" call seems pretty obvious, but the reality is that the threat vanished in short order and the resulting forecast sure looks like a false alarm.  The threat was real, but it wasn't realized because of uncertainty in the storm.

We have lots of work to do, and are not well-served by hasty decisions made more or less in ignorance of the relevant facts, both in meteorology and in the social sciences.  The existing system has worked well for decades, despite its imperfections.  If we make changes, let us be confident we aren't making things worse, rather than better!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

More on "extreme" storm chasing, part 3

Another tragic storm chasing incident has occurred:  a traffic crash on rural roads in the Texas Panhandle.  There were three fatalities - 2 in a vehicle that ran a stop sign, and 1 in the vehicle into which they collided.  All three victims of this were storm chasing at the time.  I wrote about an eerily similar incident that happened in 2015, here.  The evidence is mounting that being on the highways is indeed the most dangerous threat to chasers (and others).  I wrote a guide to safe, responsible storm chasing decades ago, and I rated being on the roads as the #1 threat before anyone had been killed.  At least 7 people have died in road wrecks during storm chases, that I know of.  Additional fatalities are inevitable.  It only takes a few seconds of inattention to the task of driving to result in terrible consequences.

I am not somehow invulnerable to all this.  I could be distracted by something while driving on a chase and be responsible for a fatal crash.  Like the tragedy of the 31 May 2013 deaths of the Twistex team:  Tim and Paul Samaras, and Carl Young - bad things can happen to anyone, even someone trying their best to behave responsibly.  However, these recent traffic fatalities both involved a chaser running a stop sign.  It might be possible to do so in relative safety on a rural road, but even on rural roads, it's both illegal and foolish to do.

These are unnecessary deaths.  The so-called "chase community" (which really isn't a "community" at all, but rather a group of people with a shared hobby) needs to take a long look at their behavior during their chase activities.  If someone has done some irresponsible driving in the past, this might be a good time to resolve to discontinue such practices for good.  This is the 2nd recent wake-up call, folks.  The time is long overdue to get serious about ceasing illegal and unsafe driving during a storm chase [or any other time, for that matter!]  No one gets a free pass on the roads, and this includes people chasing for TV.

Supplement:   Some news media have gone into attack mode on storm chasers as "thrill-seekers" as a result of this tragedy.  If someone can witness the grandeur and beauty of the atmosphere and NOT get an adrenaline rush, I would have to wonder for what reason they're chasing.  I see no problem with being a thrill-seeker - as I noted in my 2014 talk at ChaserCon. That doesn't mean we all have a death wish or are intentionally putting ourselves in imminent danger.

The media narrative they always pre-suppose is that the people who do this are all crazy fools with a death wish. They struggle to grasp why people choose to chase and their pre-supposition blinds them to what chasers actually say. They look for a sound bite to support their already-written storyline about crazy storm chasers. Their usually crappy stories show they don't get it and likely never will ... see here

Friday, March 24, 2017

What does the public want from a weather forecast?

Note ... this is a slightly modified re-post of a guest blog here.

I’m among the first to complain about people offering their opinions about what “the public” wants from weather forecasts, rather than collecting evidence through a process of literally asking a representative sample of people.  However, the latter is not something easily done.  “The Public” is not a homogeneous block of people with equal needs and expectations.  Rather, it’s quite diverse and it’s not obvious to me even how to go about collecting a sample that might be accepted as representative (by those whose expertise is in doing such surveys).  There are some social scientists who have such expertise, I’m sure.  I might even know some of them.

Nevertheless, I’m going to go ahead and offer my unvalidated opinion regarding this issue, anyway.  I’m working with the notion that “the public”  in this context excludes all meteorologists and those who already are adept at using weather forecasts effectively.  My perception is that most people don’t pay much attention to the weather most of the time, and know little or nothing about how it works, or what we meteorologists can claim legitimately to know about the atmosphere.  When they hear a forecast, if they think it might actually matter to them on a particular day (for whatever reason), they want the forecast to be perfect so their lives will be spared (if hazardous weather is possible) and/or they won’t be seriously inconvenienced by the weather as they go about their business.

Regrettably, forecasters never know with absolute certainty exactly what’s going to happen – high uncertainty typically is present on a day when the weather is changing rapidly.  I’m not going to go into a long-winded discussion of the sources for weather forecast uncertainty, but they generally arise from the fact that the weather evolves from some starting structural state to some other state according to atmospheric physics that we know only imperfectly.  We don’t even know the starting point with absolute accuracy.  It’s sort of like putting together a complex itinerary for a trip, where we don’t know exactly where we’re starting from, and we have incomplete and imperfect knowledge of how the transportation system operates.  We will almost certainly wind up in a different place than what our original destination was thought to be, although in the case of weather forecasting, it usually turns out we come fairly close most of the time, despite being forced to use incomplete information.

Wanting forecasts to be perfect is natural and very understandable.  We think our own lives are too complex to be completely and accurately predictable, but if we can rely on the weather forecasts to be perfect, it makes our decision-making a lot easier.  Re-schedule that picnic if it’s going to rain.  Water your garden if it’s going to stay sunny and dry.  Go to the pharmacy to refill your prescription before the heavy snow flies.  In fact, this is just what's happening on most days as a result of the existing imperfect forecasting systems we use – people can and do make use of our forecasts for just this sort of decision-making despite the imperfections of the forecasts.  If someone makes a bad decision and everything goes bad for them because of the weather, they can always blame the damned forecaster!  Some surveys I’ve seen make it clear that many in the public know and understand our forecasts aren’t perfect, but still some people become upset when the weather doesn’t follow precisely what they heard in the forecast(s).  Note that in the real world, one thing forecasters do is to update their forecasts based on new weather information.  Hopefully, it won’t come as a surprise to most people that our forecasts get worse, the farther ahead they are predicting.  Conversely, we improve as the “lead time” gets shorter.  Don’t expect the forecast for weather a week in advance to have the same level of accuracy as one 12 hours in advance!

When the forecasts are changing frequently as a result of new information, this is usually because of large uncertainties on that day.  Not all days are equally difficult to forecast, of course; our forecast uncertainty is not a constant.  In fact, our uncertainty is also not perfectly predictable!

Let me tell a personal anecdote that I’ve used often to illustrate the value of knowing and using the uncertainty information in a weather forecast.  Some years ago, on a fall football weekend here in Norman, there was a slow-moving, strong front in the OKC area (about 20 miles north of Norman).  On the south side of that front, skies were mostly clear and temperatures were expected to rise into the mid-70s (in deg F) in southerly winds, while on the north side of that front, skies were overcast with low clouds and rain with temperatures in the upper 30s or so, and a strong northerly wind.  It was about equally likely the front would stay north of Norman or push a few miles south of Norman by mid-day (around the time the game kicked off).  The forecaster didn’t have the option of saying that the weather that day had about a 50% chance of either option, so the forecaster was forced to make a choice.  As it turned out, the forecast decision that morning was for warm and sunny, whereas the real weather turned out to be miserably cold and rainy.  Tens of thousands of football fans were caught in summer clothing because they accepted the forecast, and they were not happy!  Since I understood the situation, I dressed for the warm option, but carried cold weather rain gear in my backpack.  It was a simple matter to prepare for both possible outcomes!  I’ve often told this story and then asked the audience:  “Would you prefer to be offered the whole story of the forecast, including the uncertainty, or do you just want the forecast without any uncertainty information?”  I almost never get anyone who chooses the latter option!  Is that surprising to anyone?  Nevertheless, many people just want to know what’s going to happen, even though most of them understand the science doesn’t allow them to have absolute certainty.

Every forecast that doesn’t include uncertainty information is tantamount to withholding critical information from the public!  And the public needs to accept some responsibility to learn how to use that uncertainty for their own purposes – they have to set their own thresholds regarding uncertainty.  If the worst thing that could happen to you is getting a little wet, you can accept more uncertainty than if you stand to lose your life if some hazardous weather potential exists.  Unfortunately, low uncertainty, highly confident forecasts are just not possible in some situations.  We can’t predict precisely the path and intensity of a tornado, so a tornado warning generally always has relatively high uncertainty.  The same can be true for deciding just when and where winter storm weather will occur.  From a meteorological standpoint, getting the heavy snow band to within 50-100 km of its eventual location is an excellent forecast.  But that might mean the difference between heavy snow mostly in rural areas versus in a major metropolitan area.  Expecting that forecast to be perfect is just asking to be frustrated.  People can want a perfect forecast, but people in hell want a glass of water, too.  Are they going to get it?  Nope.  Likewise for perfect weather forecasts. 

C’mon people!  You know we can’t make forecasts with absolute certainty, so why keep complaining when it turns out we can’t make perfect forecasts?  The forecasts have been improving steadily, and are much better than we were even 10 years ago. The public is being well-served, as I see it.  Where we have a problem is communicating our uncertainty and the public is remiss in not working very hard in trying to learn how to use any uncertainty information we do provide.  It would be nice to figure out this bottleneck.  Sadly, I have no easy solutions to offer.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

My tribute to Dr. Edwin Kessler

Edwin Kessler came to be the first director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), when he was appointed to the posting by Robert Simpson in 1964.  He was a relatively young and inexperienced man for such a position, so for someone as distinguished as Robert Simpson (more well known for his work on tropical cyclones) to have such high confidence in him reflects his recognition as both a scientist and as a leader in the science of severe storms.  More information about the early history of NSSL can be found here and here.

I arrived in Norman in the fall of 1967 to begin my Master's degree studies with Dr. Yoshi K. Sasaki as my advisor.  This was during the time of the Vietnam war and shortly after beginning my grad work, the student deferment from military service was abolished for grad students and I became a prime candidate for the draft.  The Director of NSSL was impressive to me and Dr. Sasaki's support allowed me to add Dr. Kessler to my grad student advisory committee!!  I finished my M.Sc. in haste (3 semesters), owing to the imminent threat of being drafted.  Dr. Kessler asked some tough questions during my thesis defense in 1969, but I managed to pass it, and so began my Ph.D. studies the following semester.  I was drafted in the summer of 1969, while working as a student trainee at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC) in Kansas City (for the 3rd consecutive summer).  You can read about some of my military experiences here.

Upon returning to my graduate studies in 1972, Dr. Kessler remained on my committee to the end of my student days.  He was responsible for delaying the completion of my doctoral program,  noting that he felt I had not done enough to satisfy his high standards for a doctoral dissertation.  I can't say that the additional requirements made me happy, but in retrospect, it was not a completely unreasonable request.  At my dissertation defense, he was satisfied with what I had done and I was relieved to be finished.  It was during my time at NSSL that I got the idea for my dissertation research.

I note that after I returned to the pursuit of my doctorate, Dr. Sasaki was leaving OU for a year of sabbatical leave, and he informed me I had to find a way to support myself for the year he was going to be gone.  In this 'crisis' I turned to NSSL and Dr. Kessler for help.  I applied for a part-time NSSL position and had the benefit of a military "veteran's preference".  I was hired for 30 h per week in August of 1974, remaining there until I graduated.  My supervisor was Dr. Ron Alberty, but it's clear that my opportunity was supported by Dr. Kessler.  He supported many other students and early career scientists beside me, of course.

After working again in Kansas City in the Techniques Development Unit of NSSFC for six years, I moved to Boulder and worked with the Weather Research Program there for four years, led by Dr. Robert Maddox.  When Bob moved to Norman to be the new NSSL Director, following Ed's retirement, I followed Bob soon thereafter.  I finished my NOAA career there in 2001.

It was after I moved back to Norman in 1986, that my path was crossed again by Dr. Kessler, who was now retired but who was very active in politics as a champion of liberal, progressive ideals.  Thus, we shared the experience of "living blue in a red state".  Ed and I both were not pleased with commercial weather modification, so on one occasion, he and I were partners in challenging a weather mod operation in west Texas.  It was a slam dunk for us to show the locals what a sham the cloud seeding operation really was, so the county voted afterward to cease funding commercial cloud seeding operations.

Then came the fiasco associated with state support for building the so-called National Weather Center (NWC) to house most of the weather-associated organizations operating in Norman.  I won't say a lot about this, but more information can be found here.  Ed and I were on the same side, opposed to the process as a matter of principle.  It was rather ironic that his memorial service was held in the NWC atrium, since he had been so adamantly opposed to the process by which the state found the money to live up to their part of bargain between NOAA and the University of Oklahoma by robbing the oil storage tank cleanup fund.

Ed Kessler and I were not what I consider to be close friends, and I didn't always agree with his professional decisions as NSSL Director.  Nevertheless, I can without hesitation say that I admired his work as a scientist:  his work presented in the AMS Monograph "On the distribution and continuity of water substance in atmospheric circulations" is pure genius in its use of simple mathematical and numerical models to explore an apparently simple topic in great detail.  It's now out of print, but it contains the essence of the so-called "Kessler microphysical parameterization," the pure simplicity of which has led to its extensive use in numerical convective cloud simulations for decades.

Not being a radar specialist, I won't comment much about Ed's massive contributions to the operational implementation and research use of Doppler radars.  He probably would chafe at the title given to him posthumously by some as the "Father of Doppler Radar" - he readily acknowledged the valuable contributions by colleagues and would likely argue that Doppler Weather Radar as we know it is the child of many fathers, not just one man.

I'd be remiss in not acknowledging his support during the early days of scientific storm chasing (see here and here for my perspective on that early time in chasing).  Like most of the senior science staff at NSSL in that era, he was pretty skeptical about the value to science of chasing storms, but he nevertheless supported the project with real resources, without which the project might never have gotten started.

Thus, although not a close friend, Dr. Edwin Kessler was a person who played a significant role in shaping my life and my attitudes.  He was a mentor rather than a friend, and I always valued and respected his professional (and political) perspectives.  He was a generous man who made a positive difference in many lives and championed causes that have saved countless lives from severe weather events.  No doubt he leaves this world a better place for his time here.

My condolences to his family and close friends.  Many of us are grateful for their sharing of this great man.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Democracy being legislated out of existence?

Recently, GOP lawmakers around the nation are introducing legislation to make many sorts of protest illegal. I have news for these lawmakers: making some action illegal changes nothing. If someone's concerns about the loss of our rights as American citizens leave them willing to be arrested for defying an unjust or unconstitutional law, this legislation has no impact. If someone is willing to let our rights be eliminated one at a time via legislation, then they'll have to bear a large share of the responsibility for the destruction of American democracy.

Protest is a time-honored tradition of the USA.  The Constitution's Bill of Rights (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, due process, restrictions on search and seizure, etc.) became the law of our land because the framers of the Constitution were concerned about the tyranny of the majority.   If a sheep and two wolves vote, the majority will be eating mutton for dinner!  The real key to democracy is not majority rule - it's protection of the rights of minorities!  Peaceful protesters in our history have been attacked by police and police dogs, shot by soldiers, shot with water cannons, tear gassed, arrested, and sent to jail for their efforts.  As MLK has shown us, an unjust or evil law can and should be broken, to draw attention to the injustice being perpetrated.  This also reveals the evil that results in the injustice. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s eventually created enough national revulsion over the states with Jim Crow laws and legal segregation, the people of our nation seemingly repudiated that injustice.  Now, it seems, the Trump regime has "normalized" bigotry of all sorts:  misogyny, racism, LGBTQ persecution, discrimination against religions other than xtianity, discrimination against atheists, and so on.  The bigotry never went away - it was simply not accepted in public discourse for a while.  The very notion of a progressive, a liberal, has been demonized and vilified.  It seems that our painful progress in seeking equal justice for all of us in our nation is vulnerable to it being cancelled by hostile lawmakers.  Legislation embodying such discrimination is being proposed at federal and state levels.

There's no need to do anything more in terms of the law than enforce trespassing laws in many cases of protest if you just want to silence dissent.  There's this false notion that a peaceful protest should never include breaking any law.  That's actually contrary to the long tradition of non-violent protest in our democracy.  Yes, trespassing is a crime, but the bigger issue is the injustice against which protests are organized.  Remember that in our nation's history, slavery was perfectly legal at one time.  Aiding slaves in their attempts to escape was, in fact, illegal.  Antisemitism was the law in Germany during the Hitler regime.  Dissent in autocratic regimes like Soviet Russia, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South African apartheid, etc. is often declared to be illegal.  Does this mean that protest about unjust laws is somehow tainted when laws are broken in a non-violent way?

A disturbing issue is the implication that some protests are being infiltrated by agents provocateur - people who either commit violent acts or try to induce others to do so.  This then is used to justify violent suppression of the protesters.  I don't know the extent to which this may be occurring, but it's an indication of profound evil whenever and wherever it occurs.  I also know that some people who join protests are not willing to play by the non-violent rules.  They may not be police agents but they are people whose agenda is not what the protests are all about.  Their actions also induce a violent response in some cases.

The Trump regime (including federal and state GOP legislators) has shown us strong evidence in its first month in office just what he and his cronies represent.  They're quite willing to trample on the principles and traditions of our democratic republic, inflicting harm on disadvantaged peoples, enabling the destruction of the environment we all must share, creating more and more income equality favoring the tiny, but wealthy minority.  This is an administration and Congress that may eclipse anything in our nation's history in terms of both incompetence and corruption.  They see the judiciary as their enemy, in blatant disregard for the checks and balances incorporated in the Constitution.  They see a free press as their enemy, ignoring its traditional important role in bringing attention to misdeeds by the government.  Dissent is deemed to be unpatriotic when in reality, dissent is one of the most patriotic things one can do in a democratic republic.

That so many Americans feel the need to protest this turn of events seems both natural and a positive good, even as the crypto-fascist oligarchy clearly pushes their personal greed out as their top priority and to hell with the needs of the rest of us.  How many protesters already have been arrested and detained in prisons?  What will happen if the chorus of dissent becomes louder and more vigorous?  Are internment camps and gulags and, yes, gas chambers in our future?  The current regime offers me no indication that they could not easily follow down a path that history has shown leads to cult-of-personality dictatorships, autocracy, oligarchy, and massive loss of rights by ordinary people.

Monday, January 30, 2017

My perspective about the poltical situation - 30 Jan 2017

A friend has asked me to compare what we're going through now to other political crises you've experienced in the US.  An interesting suggestion.  So here goes ...

I was born at the end of 1945, so my adult family members went through WWII and are widely considered to be members of the 'greatest generation'.  As in all wars, the crisis of WWII led to the nation running roughshod over the Constitutional rights of some Americans, notably the Japanese-Americans.  Since I have no direct experience with WWII, I can't say much about that crisis, except to note that the suspension of at least some Constitutional rights has happened several times in the history of the US wars.  I've read a lot about the Civil War, WWI, and WWII and the associated politics, but that doesn't make me a proper historian.

I was barely old enough to have much grasp of the Korean War, especially early on.  This was the opening conflict of the Cold War.  I remember seeing news from the 1953 peace talks at P’anmunj┼Ćm and how happy everyone was that the war had ended - with an armistice (not a peace treaty).  Technically, the Korean War never ended; North and South Korea are still at war.  This war was the time of Joe McCarthy and the House Unamerican Activities Committee - he was characterized by a sort of crypto-fascist extreme nationalism.  McCarthy overreached his mandate and was repudiated for his extremist views.

When I was in junior high, I had a Social Studies teacher who was a rabid anti-communist.  He harangued us with frequent fear-mongering rants about the dangers of soviet and Chinese communism. This fear caused me to do some investigating on my own, so I literally read dozens of books about soviet communism.  I wanted to understand why the soviets hated us so much, even as we were being taught to hate them.  The Cold War went on for many more years, and I remember being drilled about "duck and cover" in school in the event of a nuclear war.  I was raised at a time of intense suspicion, fear, and paranoia based on what I was told about the soviet threat.  You lived every day of the Cold War under a constant threat of nuclear annihilation.  My readings convinced me of two things: 1. the Russian people didn't really hate us, and 2. most Americans were ignorant about Russian history.  Like many wars, the Cold War was a clash of ideologies, not between ordinary people.  All of us were in constant danger of being killed in a nuclear war - for something as foolish as a clash over ideology.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 occurred when I was in high school.  It was to take the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust, and that fear was quite real for many days.  JFK and Nikita Khrushchev finally negotiated a settlement that ended that terrifying threat.  To us, it seemed the evil soviets had been forced to back down. The real negotiations were not at all consistent with that perspective, but both populations were fed a bogus narrative that was politically expedient for the politicians who had threatened our very existence.

The Cold War became hot again when we engaged in the Vietnam War - a tragic error in judgment by the US (including choices made by JFK and then LBJ).  Like the Korean War, the Vietnam War was not declared formally - in the jargon of the age, it was described as a "police action" fought not by police but by the military forces of the US.  Ostensibly, it was a matter of "containment" of communism - the so-called "domino hypothesis" that if Vietnam fell to communism, that evil ideology would spread across all of southeast Asia and on to the rest of the world.  By the time when the US was defeated in that war (after winning most of the battles decisively), it had divided the nation.  Conservatives felt we should have "won" the war by any means possible (even though there was no clear way to define what "winning" such a war would mean), but toward the end of our Vietnam troop presence, so many Americans were so opposed to the war that LBJ chose not to run for re-election.  The anti-war riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago happened under eyes of the media - as the chant went "The whole world is watching!"  I watched the TV coverage of that event.  Nixon (before he was forced to resign as a result of the Watergate political scandal and subsequent cover-up) tried to cast our departure from Vietnam as "peace with honor" ... but it was a defeat, pure and simple.

I will have only a little to say about the civil rights movement as it had developed around the time of the early beginnings of the Vietnam War.  It's evidence of another source of division in America. White privilege made much of that divisive clash invisible to me:  I was raised in a lily-white bubble, so I had virtually no understanding of what was happening at the time.  One couldn't help but feel ashamed of what was happening to black people in this nation, as shown nearly nightly on TV.  My time in the Army (including in Vietnam) began a process of clearing away the white foam that so limited my comprehension.  For the very first time, in that war, I actually talked with and worked with and played with black Americans  That clearing process continues to this very day, as racism has not ended in America - not by a longshot!

My nation has a long history of cyclic swings of the political center - sometimes left, sometimes right.  My perspective is that the conservative v. liberal struggle has changed from having a spirit of mutual respect and compromise for mutual benefit, to become so divisive and downright dirty that many people have grown deeply disillusioned with our government.  The government is paralyzed by uncompromising political ideology conflict.  It's become acceptable to propose unconstitutional policies in the political arena to gain political ascendancy.  Gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement have solidified the dominance of the conservatives (GOP) in Congress.  Many people have lost faith in the principles laid down by our nation's founders.  Many are willing to be racists, to be chickenhawks (willing to send our troops into battle but unwilling to fight in those battles), to murder those who violate their personal sense of what is moral.

We've gone to war several times on the basis of an exaggerated fear for the threat posed by terrorism - which concedes victory to the terrorists.  Fear is their goal, and when we give in to that fear, they celebrate.  The reality of our continuing wars is what former President Eisenhower warned about:  those in the military and those engaged in war industries coming to dominate policy decisions regarding going to war to maximize profits.  In no war in my lifetime has there been a credible threat to freedoms in the USA against which to defend on foreign soil.  The biggest threat to American freedoms is neither foreign nations nor terrorist groups.  Rather, the threat to our freedoms comes mostly from the willingness of people to give up their freedoms for the illusion of security.  We seem to be able to tolerate NSA monitoring of email, social media, phone conversations without any warrant or probable cause.  The politicians passed the Patriot Act, ostensibly to combat terrorism.  We operate a prison in Guantanamo that is manifestly illegal, and contrary to American law as it is supposed to be practiced.  We have employed the discredited and widely disavowed practice of torture to obtain information from prisoners of our wars.

 My readings of history have shown me that many Americans are inclined to believe that we somehow are immune to becoming a fascist police state, an oligarchical kleptocracy, or even a theocracy.  I see no evidence to support that delusional belief in American Exceptionalism.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  I see evidence we're quite vulnerable to dictatorial fascism.  The belief that "it can't happen here" is pervasive - it opens a wedge in which a demagogue can enter at a critical time and win a power battle that results in a fascist cult of personality. The rest will follow ...

This brings me finally to the Trump regime.  Despite what my stubborn conservative friends believe, it can happen here.  We're facing a threat I see as quite comparable to that of Wiemar Germany in the years leading up to Hitler's appointment as Chancellor by Hindenburg in 1933.  Within a short time, Hitler pushed through legislation that gave him absolute power, and the rest of the tragic story of WWII follows from that.  Note that Hitler never actually won a democratic election - whereas we Americans actually have elected a pathological liar and narcissist who's already attacking the foundations of our secular, Constitutional democracy.  From where I sit, the threat is more frightening to me than anything I've ever experienced personally.  No, Trump has yet to suppress dissent with violence and he has not yet been granted dictatorial powers.  There are as yet no concentration camps.  If Trump's policies are fully implemented, it seems all too likely that where he and his GOP cronies are taking us is into a fascist cult of personality.  I hope the American people will come to their senses and repudiate this Trump regime.  Destroying our Constitutionally-based rule of law is not a sensible path toward improved governance by our elected officials.  As I see it, the Trump regime poses the greatest threat to American democracy short of a full nuclear exchange.