Friday, February 22, 2008

If "We Are the Change We Have Been Waiting For," Why Did We Wait?

Overall, it isn't the most original analysis of the presidential campaign. But New York Times columnist David Brooks manages to get in some great one-liners, and a bit of insight, about the two Democratic contenders.

He observes that as time goes by, Obama's most dedicated supporters have needed "more and purer hope-injections just to preserve the rush. They wound up craving more hope that even the Hope Pope could provide, and they began experiencing brooding moments of suboptimal hopefulness."

As the faithful began to come down from their initial mania, some began wondering if Obama's "stuff" actually makes sense. Giving his pronouncements calmer scrutiny, Brooks suggests, they might wonder, for instance: "if we are the change we have been waiting for then why have we been waiting since we've been here all along?"

And this even causes some Obama devotees to "experience slivers of sympathy for Hillary Clinton. They see her campaign morosely traipsing from one depressed industrial area to another--The Sitting Shiva for America Tour. They see that her entire political strategy consists of waiting for primary states as boring as she is."

Then Brooks gets to the true heart the Democrats' quandry. Doubts that Obama's preaching has any substance beyond the inspirational might lead people "to the question that is the Unholy of the Unholies for Obama-maniacs: How exactly would all this unity he talks about come to pass?

"How is a 47-year-old novice going to unify highly polarized 70-something committee chairs? What will happen if the nation's 261,000 lobbyists don't see the light, even after the laying on of hands? Does The Changemaker have the guts to take on the special interests in his own party--the trial lawyers, the teachers' unions, the AARP?"

Hillary's supports think they know the answers. They believe she has a better chance of cajoling these stubborn forces into cooperating than he does. But it appears that the majority of Democratic voters have stopped listening to them.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Radical Islamic Extremism Is Not "The Transcendent Challenge of the 21st Century"

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. says that John McCain is wrong in his claim that "the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is radical Islamic extremists"--and that deflating that notion undermines the best rationale for electing him:

"Presumably, he's saying that Islamic extremism is more important than everything else--the rise of China and India as global powers, growing resistance to American influence in Europe, the weakening of America's global economic position, the disorder and poverty in large parts of Africa, the alienation of significant parts of Latin America from the United States." I'd certainly add global warming to the list.

But, Dionne asks,"Is it in our national interest for all these issues to take a back seat to terrorism?" He says no.

He cites early neoconservative Owen Harries' argument that viewing terrorism as an ideological challenge akin to Nazism or Soviet communism is neither accurate nor prudent. Quoting Harries:

"I think it's to belittle the historical experiences of World War II, not to speak of the Cold War, to equate the terrorists of today and the damage they're capable of with the totalitarian regimes of the previous century."

Dionne concludes: "Underestimating our enemies is a mistake, but so too is endowing them with more power than they have." Unfortunately, the years since 9/11 have given free rein to the latter. McCain really needs to explain why more of this same failed policy makes any sense.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hillary Does Better in States That "Look Like America," Where Diversity Breeds Realists

Syndicated columnist Jonathan Goldberg, another whose thought processes I don't always find persuasive, seems to be onto something when he notes contrasting demographics in the states where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have done well among Democratic voters.

Obama has done very well among black voters in states with large black populations, and very well among white voters in states with few black residents. "But in states that actually 'look like America,' he tends to get beaten by Hillary Clinton. He lost melting-pot states such as Nevada, California, Massachusetts and New York largely because he couldn't accumulate nearly enough white or Latino votes."

Goldberg suggests that Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, might have explained why this is so in some controversial findings he released in 2006. Goldberg says Putnam told the Financial Times: "In the presence of diversity, we hunker down. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it's not just that we don't trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don't trust people who do look like us."

This could be taken to mean that diverse communities breed racism and ethnic resentment. Goldberg suggests another option: "increased diversity breeds not so much resentment as realism--at least among rank-and-file voters."

Having been deeply inspired by John F. Kennedy while I was in high school, then deeply disappointed later by revelations of his personal antics in the White House, his mistakes in authorizing the Bay of Pigs invasion, his reluctance to join the civil rights movement, and above all foreign policy blunders that led directly to the Vietnam debacle, I might add that experiencing diversity also includes experiencing disappointment with political crusades.

Thus even though I can be moved by Obama's vision and rhetoric, I am wary of his ability to achieve them. We need to heed the warning of Old Testament writers about the hazards of putting our trust in princes. Goldberg's closing words ring true:

"It's easy for upscale liberals to talk about the glories of diversity because they live at Olympian heights, above the reality of multicultural America. For Obama's wealthy, white, liberal supporters, diversity is knowing a rich black lawyer, a wealthy Latino accountant and lots of well-to-do gay folks.

"Meanwhile, for working-class white liberals who live in places such as Iowa or Maine, its easy to see our racial divide in almost purely theoretical terms and therefore believe that purely rhetorical responses are sufficient; Obama says the right words, and that's all we need.

"But for much of the rest of the country, people are more skeptical that high-flying talk about diversity and unity, married to fairly conventional liberal politics on affirmative action, immigration and the like, will do much to solve the real problems we face. They may have never heard such rhetoric delivered so well. But they've certainly heard it before."

Friday, February 08, 2008

Global Warming Solutions: Biofuels Foolish, But Other Options Are Better and Faster

The Los Angeles Times says that two studies published yesterday in the journal Science have found that the rush to grow biofuel crops is actually increasing greenhouse gases rather than reducing them:

The first study looked at the amount of carbon in forests and grasslands that is released into the air when soils are overturned and existing vegetation rots or is burned away. It found that "clearing forests and grasslands to grow the crops releases vast amounts of carbon into the air--far more than the carbon spared from the atmosphere by burning biofuels instead of gasoline."

The second study found that "Even converting existing farmland from food to biofuel crops increases greenhouse gas emissions as food production is shifted to other parts of the world, resulting in the destruction of more forests and grasslands to make way for farmland."

The second analysis said a cornfield devoted to producing ethanol would have to be worked for 167 years before it would start to achieve a net reduction in emissions.

The Times said several scientists believe the biofuel industry needs to focus on sources that do not increase pressure on land, like municipal trash, crop waste and prairie grasses. Alex Farrell, professor of energy and resources at UC Berkeley, summed it up: "We need better biofuels before we need more biofuels."

Meanwhile, two researchers from Rice University have compiled a list of alternatives that actually will achieve real results, and faster than biofuels.

In line with the studies above, they put curtailing world deforestation, especially tropical deforestation, at the top of their list. They say it causes 20% of global carbon emissions each year.

They also suggest an international agreement to ban natural gas flaring, which adds about 400 million tons of carbon a year--"the same scale of emissions from all vehicles in the United Kingdom, France and Germany." The leading contributors: Nigeria, Russia, Iran, Algeria, Mexico, Venezuela, Indonesia and the U.S.

They say U.S. fuel efficiency standards which Congress passed in December will reduce greenhouse emissions by 185 million tons, or about 25%, between now and 2030.

They also favor phasing out non-sensible subsidies for corn-based ethanol as well as consumer-friendly fuel subsidies by China, Iran, Russia and Mexico.

The Associated Press also reports that researchers have developed a device that generates electrical power from the swing of a walking person's knee. By helping the leg to decelerate it generates power without requiring much additional energy from the person walking. Potential applications include powering cell phones and portable GPS locators, motorized prothetic joints or implanted drug pumps.

The article doesn't mention it. But is it too far-fetched to imagine that the same kind of device might eventually be adapted to bring power to a small electric bicycle motor?

In short, there is a whole portfolio of alternatives to biofuels. And unlike biofuels, they do not have to make climate change worse before they help make it better.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Pope and Galileo: Benedict Fails Whitehead’s Theory of Limits, Once Again

In a posting May 24, 2007, I commented on misstatements Pope Benedict XVI made about religious freedom and the forced conversion of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Applying Alfred North Whitehead’s Theory of Limits, I argued that the pope had pushed his assertions well beyond accuracy and truth.

In January the media gave much attention to a Rome university’s charge that the pope, in 1990 remarks as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, defended the Catholic Inquisition’s 1633 condemnation of Galileo. They found that position an affront to science and to academic freedom.

A group of professors and students from Rome’s La Sapienza University, including the entire physics faculty, wrote a letter protesting a planned January 17th lecture by the pope for the opening of the academic year. The pope eventually cancelled the appearance.

It strikes me that the 1990 remarks which the university protested and the January episode that Benedict failed to handle productively are other occasions where he could have learned from Whitehead’s theory.

Whitehead’s Theory of Limits provides an important tool for weighing the importance and accuracy of assertions. His oft repeated formula, “All things work between limits,” means that the truth or falsehood of an assertion depends on its scope of useful application. In other words, a given assertion is true only within strict limits; if those limits are forgotten, the assertion begins to do the work of a falsehood.

The 1990 remarks were delivered when Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the lineal successor of the Inquisition. His overall theme was that the Galileo verdict could be defended because the church was trying to emphasize the limits of science and the horrors science could produce if the limits were ignored. He sought to portray the church as being well ahead of science in appreciating “modernity’s doubts about itself.”

To bolster his argument, he cited the opinion of Ernst Bloch that by abolishing the notion of absolute space, the Theory of Relativity had made it impossible to say whether the heliocentrism advocated by Galileo or the geocentrism of his opponents was a more accurate description of reality.

Ratzinger quoted Bloch favorably: “From the moment that…movement is no longer produced towards something, but there’s only a relative movement of bodies among themselves, and therefore the measurement of that [movement] depends to a great extent on the choice of a body to serve as a point of reference, in this case is it not merely the complexity of calculations that renders the [geocentric] hypothesis impractical?”

So Ratzinger used Bloch’s interpretation to say that the church rightly condemned Galileo for claiming heliocentrism was an objective truth, when in fact its objective truth could not be empirically demonstrated. Summarizing Bloch’s interpretation, Ratzinger said “The advantage of the heliocentric system over the geocentric, he suggested, does not consist in a greater correspondence to objective truth, but solely in the fact that it offers us a greater ease of calculation.”

Ratzinger also quoted agnostic-skeptic philosopher Paul Feyerabend: “The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just…”

Ratzinger then iced that cake by saying that “C.F. von Weizsacker takes another step forward, when he identifies a ‘very direct path’ that leads from Galileo to the atomic bomb.”

It is true that Ratzinger characterized Feyerabend’s opinion as “much more drastic” than Bloch’s and seemed to refer to all three commentators when he said at the end of his remarks “It would be absurd, on the basis of these affirmations, to construct a hurried apologetics.” But he never disavowed their positions.

It is no wonder that the faculty and students at La Sapienza found these 1990 remarks so incendiary. The observations push beyond valid limits in so many directions, it is difficult to know where to begin.

The limit exceeded most egregiously is historical accuracy. It would be convenient for Ratzinger’s 1990 analysis if the church had shown any concern in 1633 of anticipating Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by two centuries. But where is the evidence that the church ever raised this concern in the Galileo case?

Instead, the Inquisition’s verdict was: "The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.” The 17th century Catholic Church misread several scriptural passages as requiring geocentrism: Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, Psalm 104:5, 1 Chronicles 16:30, and Ecclesiastes 1:5. It was disingenuous for Ratzinger read any other motives back into the condemnation of Galileo.

Another limitation Ratzinger failed to recognize was the partiality of Bloch’s description of relativity. The fact that the earth and the sun are both in motion with respect to other bodies in no way rules out the sun as the gravitational anchor of our solar system. Calculations become easier with heliocentrism because the sun is the object around which all of the planets orbit. The sun and other planets do no orbit around the earth. Relativity does not change the objective truth of that observation.

Perhaps Ratzinger’s most careless and annoying failure to respect limits was his cavalier use of language. He tries to have it far too many ways. Like an attorney trying to make a jury aware of prejudicial information that the judge has ruled out of bounds, he wants to highlight the outrageous positions of Bloch and Feyerabend and Weizsacker but deny that he is trying to make a case for them, or with them.

What in fact he was trying to do was to suggest that the Inquistion had some valid reason to condemn Galileo. That, of course, flies in the face of the last three centuries, when the church gradually decided it had been wrong.

That trajectory began in 1718, when the ban on reprinting Galileo’s books was partially lifted. It continued in 1737, when Galileo’s body was moved from an obsure room off a back corridor of the Basilica of Santa Croce to a monument erected in his honor in the main body of the basilica. In 1741 Pope Benedict XIV authorized publication of Galileo’s complete scientific works. In 1758 all books on heliocentrism were removed from the Index of Forbidden Books except for those of Galileo and Capernicus. Theirs were finally removed in 1835.

Just after his election to the papacy in 1939, Pope Pius XII told the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that Galileo was among “the most audacious heroes of research…not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks along the way…” And in 1992, as the result of study conducted by the Pontifical Council for Culture, Pope John Paul II officially conceded that the earth was not stationary and expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled.

Thus the wise motivation and constructive role Ratzinger tried to attribute to the Inquisition’s verdict in 1633 are a throwback to a defensive position that no other reputable leader in official Catholicism salutes.

What is disturbing to scientists is that it renews the specter of the pope trying to block scientific research when it suits him and inhibit the academic freedom which is the raison d’etre of any university system.

Benedict could have taken advantage of the uproar at La Sapienza as an opportunity to show that he “gets it,” i.e., that he realizes how seriously his 1990 assertions go beyond reasonable limits and if he wishes to be taken seriously, how much he needs to reign them back within the bounds of accuracy and truth.

Instead he chose to continue his relentless march backward from the best discoveries of the postmodern world.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Pope Rewrites Prayer for Jews, But They Must Still "Acknowledge Jesus Christ"

The New York Times reports that yesterday Pope Benedict XVI issued a replacement for a prayer in the Latin version of the Good Friday ritual that referred to the "blindness" of the Jews and asked that God "may lift the veil from their hearts."

The move is signficant because it is at least an implicit admission that the pope should not have authorized more widespread use of the Latin ritual without first updating wording that conflicted with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which affirmed explicitly that the Jews have a unique and unsurpassable role in salvation history.

As observed in my January 15th posting on this topic, the admission increases pressure on Rome to revise additional Latin wording that conflicts with other official teachings of Vatican II.

However, the rewrite is deficient because the revised prayer still departs from the Vatican II position that God has a special relationship with the Jewish people which can never be abridged.

The unofficial translation of the new prayer reads: "Let us pray for the Jews. May the Lord our God enlighten their hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men. Almighty and everlasting God, you who want all men to be saved and to reach the awareness of the truth, graciously grant that, with the fullness of peoples entering into your church, all Israel may be saved."

Rabbi David Rosen, who has worked with the pope for 20 years on Jewish-Catholic relations and is presently director of Inter-Religious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, says he is disappointed in the wording, especially because he knows for a fact that Benedict does care about Catholic-Jewish relations.

Quoting the Times: "Rabbi Rosen, while saying he was pleased that language he found offensive was removed, objected to the new prayer because it specified that Jews should find redemption specifically in Christ. He noted that the standard Mass, issued after the liberalizations of the Second Vatican Council, also contained a prayer for the Jews' 'redemption' but did not specifically invoke Christ, stressing rather God's original covenant with the Jews."

I agree with Rabbi Rosen. The wording so closely associates the salvation of the Jews with acknowledging Jesus Christ as savior and entering the Catholic Church that it seems to leave no room for Vatican II's teaching that the Jews are able to experience redemption on their own, within the covenant God offered them. Among other things, the teaching was designed to deligitimize any Christian basis for anti-semitism.

But this, of course, is the inevitable fruit of Benedict's larger positions that there is no salvation for anyone outside Jesus Christ and his one true church (Roman Catholicism). Those positions also contradict the clear teaching of the world's Catholic bishops at Vatican II, officially promulgated by Pope Paul VI. Benedict has yet to explain where he gets the authority to override that official teaching.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

How the Super Tuesday Primaries Changed from a Blessing to a Curse

Two syndicated columnists from widely divergent places on the conservative-liberal spectrum agree in op-ed pieces that for multiple reasons--some foreseeable and some not--today's Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses have turned out to be a very bad idea.

Though I am generally loath to agree with him on anything, ultra-conservative Robert Novak has a cogent analysis of how the Democrats painted themselves into a corner. He places most of the blame on their 35-year experiment with proportional representation:

"Under proportional representation, a candidate collects delegates by achieveing the 15 percent viability level either statewide or in a congressional district. In a four-delegate district, Clinton could win 59 percent of the vote and still split the delegates with Obama, two to two. The impact of California consequently is dissipated..."

Thus Novak says that despite the Clinton campaign's belief that it could guarantee her nomination by front-loading the primaries, it turns out there is "no mathematical possibility" that Democrats voting today in 22 states for 1,681 delegates can gain Clinton or Obama the 2,025 delegates needed to sow up the nomination. Novak argues that the two candidates are so close in the polls that the outcome may not be decided by March 4th (the Texas and Ohio primaries) or even by April 22nd (Pennsylvania).

He regards this and "Clinton fatigue" as more or less foreseeable factors. Less foreseeable were Obama's recent surge in popularity and "the surprising list of senators who endorsed Obama after Clinton won the New Hampshire primary." This suggests to Novak that Clinton is more distrusted by her Senate colleagues than anyone realized, and that many of the 796 "super delegates" may remain undecided right up to the convention in Denver.

Writing from the more moderate-liberal end of the spectrum, David Broder says the national geography involved in today's voting, so soon after the single-state contests in South Carolina and Florida, does a real disservice to the Super Tuesday voters. There is no way the candidates of either party can do justice to so many far-flung voters at once:

"What has developed in this election cycle is a system in which the best-informed people have the fewest votes to bestow, while the people with the most votes have the least chance to examine the credentials of the candidates. Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada had graduate-school time to study the field, while the voters in the Feb. 5 states got only a CliffNotes version of the campaign."

The wise states were the ones that avoided the temptation to join the Super Tuesday stampede and opted instead to have their primaries later in February, March or April. Broder would like to hope that this experience will slow the race to join the Super Tuesday model. But even though the Super Tuesday voters have become the losers in the process, he is not optimistic that any state will volunteer to leave "the first tier" or that more won't be lured to join it.

Another element is the elements. Neither columnist mentions it, but today's weather is forecast to be snowy and bitterly cold in several of the Super Tuesday states--to the point that it may keep significant numbers of voters from getting to the polls. This, of course, is not abnormal for February 5th. But it is another factor that those who hyped Super Tuesday failed to take into account.