Monday, July 24, 2017

Out with Selfies, In with Wonder

You can also read it in the Mercury News 

At the Montgomery Hill Observatory of Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, there is a public stargazing night on the first Friday of every month. It is here that a decade ago I first saw Saturn through the observatory’s 7” refractor telescope. I will never forget that magical moment. The “Lord of the Rings” planet 750 million miles or so away from the earth seemed so inviting that I wanted to reach out and touch it.
With Jupiter and Saturn gracing the night sky now, I decided to visit the observatory after a hiatus to renew my acquaintance with the two planets.

About fifty of us gathered at the observatory recently to take in the beauty of the starry sky. The line was long for the domed building that housed the telescope focused on Saturn.
What I witnessed, however, was unexpected and, frankly, shocking.
Most of the “stargazers” spent more time taking selfies than looking at the planet. Parents held their babies close to the telescope and snapped photos as the unnatural light of their smartphones lit up the dark interior of the building. They photographed the telescope’s view of Saturn, experimenting until the image was to their satisfaction.
What I found incongruous was that everyone acted as if this was normal, that unless Saturn was captured in the circuitry of their hi-tech gadgets, the physical experience of observing the ringed planet through a telescope wasn’t worth much.
It was the same with Jupiter in the adjacent roll-off roof building. Jove and his moons took a backseat to the selfies, to the document-by-camera excitement that gripped so many of the visitors. A remark I overheard put the selfies in perspective. A man turned to his spouse and said, “It’s already on Facebook and Instagram.”
The standalone selfie was apparently not worth much by itself, unless authenticated by social media and “liked.”
I managed to see Saturn, its ring tilted at a steeper angle than when I saw it last, magical and awe-inspiring as always. But the flash and whirr of the cameras seemed so pervasive that afterwards, when I looked up with unaided eyes outside, I half-expected to see the image of a partially-eaten translucent silver apple dominating the night sky.
The selfie syndrome is everywhere, not just at public events and tourist spots but in parks, woods, shores, malls, stadiums, restaurants, museums, even at graveyards and funerals!
How is it that we have so casually surrendered substance to shadow, real to virtual? Why are we so in thrall to our devices 24×7?
One reason is that smart gadgets and social media allow us to unleash our very human instinct for self-expression to a degree unprecedented in history.
But pushed to extreme, self-expression can devolve into narcissism. In particular, in the presence of the sublime and the transcendent, self-expression through selfies, rather than engaging through the senses, can be foolish and short-sighted. It is like ignoring the eternal for the ephemeral.
How to subdue this abnormal selfie craving? One way would be to renew our acquaintance with nature.
“The world is too much with us,” lamented Wordsworth at the dawn of the 19th century when the poet felt that people had lost their connection to nature because of their growing attachment to materialism. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:/Little we see in nature that is ours/…/For this, for everything, we are out of tune.”
Next time we go to the woods, the shore or the observatory, let’s leave behind the devices with the flickering screens so we can experience with our five senses the music of songbirds, the lullaby of surf, and the pageantry of stars and planets.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Two Centuries Later, We Need Thoreau More Than Ever

You can also read the article here.

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, two hundred years ago today. Why is remembering and honoring Thoreau important? Because America needs him now more than ever. With president Trump waging a relentless war against the environment, Thoreau’s essays, books and the way he lived offer a focus to the resistance movement rippling across America.

“Civil Disobedience,” his 1849 essay and blueprint for radical reform that inspired the likes of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, should be required reading in these difficult times, if only for a new generation of Americans to become acquainted with Thoreau’s ability to speak truth to power for achievable results.

When we read in “Civil Disobedience” that, “There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived,” we in the resistance movement against our current U.S. president are inspired to continue. 

What calamity has Trump wrought so far regarding the environment?

Here’s a partial list:
·        Appointed Scott Pruitt, a bona fide climate change denier, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
·        Proposed a budget that will cut EPA funding by nearly a third, with climate and clean energy programs taking the biggest hits.
·        Opened up federal lands and water for drilling.
·        Instructed the interior department to review dozens of national monuments to see if they can be scrapped to allow access for oil and gas drilling.
·        Lifted a moratorium on coal mining on federal land and is reviewing a ban on offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast.
·        Has also called for drilling in the Arctic national refuge in Alaska.
·        Demanded rapid approval of the Keystone and Dakota Access oil-carrying pipelines that will violate the rights of Native Americans and expose the environment to potential oil-leaks.

But these pale before the most serious damage Trump has set in motion on the environment and on America’s standing in the world: His declaration on June 1 that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

The agreement was reached in 2015 between 195 countries and took effect in November 2016. The goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the main reason for global warming, that raises sea levels and unleashes major droughts. Trump, clueless or indifferent to the unimaginable security threat of climate change, has called man-made global warming a hoax. At the recently-concluded G-20 summit in Germany, leaders of 19 of the 20 nations reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris accord. Trump was alone in abandoning it.

Thoreau is relevant today because we continue to confirm and learn from his observations. He taught us that treating the environment with respect not only made economic sense, it made even more sense as a moral imperative. “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander,” he wrote. “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

He was prescient about the concentration of power and America’s shrinking role in the world that could result from misguided policies or policies driven by considerations of commerce alone: “If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonal experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations.”

Thoreau’s work is also helping scientists monitor global warming, more than 160 years after the publication of his timeless Walden. In that, he was the first climatologist. Thoreau began keeping meticulous notes in 1851 about when and where plants flowered in Concord. By comparing these historical data with the data of the flowering species now, scientists were able to conclude that spring was arriving earlier now than in Thoreau’s time, a direct consequence of global warming.

There are, fortunately, many Thoreauvians among our leaders who have rejected Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord and are determined to forge ahead with sustainable and innovative environmental policies.

California governor Jerry Brown, who will be hosting a global summit on climate change in San Francisco in September, released a video message to tens of thousands attending the Global Citizen Festival in Hamburg, site of the G-20 summit. In it he told listeners, “President Trump doesn’t speak for the rest of America. We in California and in states all across America believe it’s time to act. It’s time to join together.”

In explaining his motivation to move into the cabin he built by his own labor on Walden Pond on July 4, 1845, and where he would spend the next two years, Thoreau wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Whether or not it is clear to us, future generations of Americans will judge us by what we did to overturn Trump’s policies and the steps we took to address the threat of climate change. Will they indict us for having made a Faustian bargain, as many republicans have, passing our days like the living dead, or will they be grateful for having used our constitutional rights to front the fundamental challenge of our time, the physical well-being of the one and only planet we call home?

The Bard of Walden is waiting, watching, listening.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Americans Confront a Dangerous Crossroads on Independence Day

On the 241st anniversary of America's independence, we find ourselves at a crossroads unlike any other in our history.

Two words sum up the danger that confront us at this crossroads: Donald Trump.

Since he became the president a mere six months ago, a dark curtain has descended on America. We regress with every policy and tweet he hatches in the darkness of his heart and unleashes on the world. The bar for decency, civility and respect for the rule of law sinks lower and lower with every passing day.

Everyone on the planet, including (I am sure) the few dozen or so inhabitants of Internet-enabled Pitcairn Islands, Britain’s smallest colony in the South Pacific populated by the descendants of the mutineers of HMS Bounty in 1789, have read president Trump’s vicious and misogynistic tweets directed against Mika Brezinski and Joe Scarborough, co-hosts of MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ TV program.

What has stretched the patience of even some of our fellow-Americans willing to give Trump a chance was the bald-faced lie and below-the-belt hit in the president’s tweet: “… how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with psycho Joe, came … to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift.”

It turns out that Mika and Joe did no such thing, as clarified in an article they co-wrote for the Washington Post. Their conclusion: “Donald Trump is not well.”

It also emerged that the president is a blackmailer as well. White House officials have been calling the two hosts for weeks, apparently to kill an unfavorable story the National Enquirer - a tabloid dedicated to sensationalism - was about to run on them. “They said if you call the president up and apologize for your coverage, then he will to pick up the phone and basically spike the story.” (Enquirer owner David Pecker is a dedicated Trump chum.)

The two hosts refused to fold. The Enquirer ran the story as “Morning Joe Sleazy Cheating Scandal,” which turned out to be another damn lie as well.

Trump’s obsession with women, his boast of grabbing women’s private parts, his
past-ownership of the country’s first in-casino strip club called ‘Scores’ when he built the Trump Taj Mahal in 1990, suggest that misogyny runs deep in this man’s vein. Women matter to him only to the extent that they can be quantified as sex objects. If they turn out to be smart, independent and strong-willed, on the other hand, this unprincipled man feels threatened and is compelled to expose his virulent misogyny.

If this were only a character flaw of the rogue president, the damage could perhaps be contained, but it is not. It is the same flaw that is at the root of some of his policies: expansion of the Global Gag Rule that restricts women’s access to comprehensive health care, his elimination of federal funding for Planned Parenthood, his sabotaging of law against gender discrimination in education.

It is the same mindset that is at work in his crude attempt to replace Obamacare with the cruel Senate Health care plan (dubbed “Relief for the Rich Act” by Warren Buffet) that, if it becomes law, will throw 15 million Americans off Medicaid that covers 40 percent of America’s children and essentially leave 22 million Americans without health care over the next decade. It will take about $700 billion from the poor and the middle class and transfer it to the wealthy in the form of tax cuts.

It’s the same mindset that made Trump withdraw for the Paris Climate accord. This will significantly weaken global warming that threatens our very survival. Trump, of course, regards global warming a hoax. It is the same mindset that propels this president to wage a relentless war against the media, as his latest crude video tweet against CNN demonstrates.

We now have a president who revels in his misogyny, who sends current of excitement through his support base because many of these men also look at women as sex objects too, who feel threatened by professional, smart, high-achieving women who will kowtow to no one. Trump speaks to their insecurity, which is why it is so difficult to reason with them.

There was always a toxic subculture of misogyny in America. President Trump has brought this to the surface. He coarsens our culture on a daily basis by attacking our values with his vile instinct and boorish behavior.

With his dangerous policies and roguish rants, Trump tarnishes the image of the United States every day and in every possible way. That is why it is important that on this 4th of July in the year 2017, all of us, irrespective of party, faith and color, resolve to legally, intelligently and vigorously continue our resistance until this scourge is forced from office.