Sanity Clause II

Remember when the truth was important?  In a previous post (11/8/17), I bemoaned the fact that the country has been sliding into a collective delusional state, where there is a “new normal” and alternative facts can turn everything upside-down.  The truth becomes fluid (or is simply dismissed as inconsequential, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders has done); anything becomes possible; and history can be rewritten before it has even happened.  I had hoped that the Sanity Clause in our social contract would set things straight, but that appears increasingly to be a big pie in the sky.

Michelle Goldberg writes in her Opinion column today, “There is a debate over whether Trump is unaware of reality or merely indifferent to it.  He might be delusional, or he might simply be asserting the power to blithely override truth, which is the ultimate privilege of a despot.”  Hmm– delusional or overriding truth:  which is worse?

Arguing for the former, Dr. Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale Medical School, represents thousands of mental health professionals when he writes:  “We are currently witnessing more than his usual state of instability– in fact a pattern of decompensation:  increasing loss of touch with reality, marked signs of volatility and unpredictable behavior, and an attraction to violence as a means of coping.  These characteristics place our country and the world at extreme risk of danger.”

Timothy Egan, in the NY Times, points out that our Chaos President still questions Barrack Obama’s birth certificate; does not believe his own words on the infamous “Access Hollywood” sexual assault videotape; still thinks (without any evidence) that three million fraudulent votes caused him to lose the popular vote; endorsed a website that says the Pope uses magic to mastermind world events; and “gave a thumbs up to a media outlet that claims NASA runs a child labor colony on Mars.”

No kidding.  For those unfamiliar with Alex Jones’s Infowars channel, he’s the apoplectic guy who claims that the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren and teachers was a staged hoax.  A guest on his show claimed that NASA has secretly kidnapped children and is keeping them as sex slaves on Mars, forcing a NASA spokesperson to deny the existence of such a colony.  It’s just incredible, the kind of insanity that passes for conspiracy theory (already a very low bar)!

Here’s some Fake News from my sci-fi novel Fourth World:

“When had Tharsis One and Two dropped off the map?  Shortly after the Great War of Unification.  Mr. Otis Walker, Benn’s second-grade teacher, had explained it many times- often in heatedly emotional terms- to his young, impressionable students.  From the Martian (that is, Tharsis) viewpoint, the centralization of Earth’s government in 2096 marked the beginning of the end:  birth of the Pan-World Electorate.  What was it like, his teacher wondered, receiving the news that your home government no longer existed; that your country had been all but destroyed in a cataclysmic global war?  That NASA, an agency of the former United States of America and your lifeline to Earth, had suddenly vanished?”

What, no NASA?  It must have been brutal, hearing that there would no longer be any kidnapped sex slaves…






Trickle-down Ecology

On the same day that the House passed their version of tax “reform,” it was announced that the Trump administration is lifting an Obama-era ban on the  importation of ivory and other elephant body parts from Zimbabwe and Zambia.  The ban was meant to eliminate demand and thereby help to protect this threatened species.  Who wouldn’t want that, right?  The rationale for declaring hunting season for elephants open again, according to US Fish & Wildlife, is that allowing wealthy trophy hunters to pay for killing elephants will raise more money for conservation programs.  So killing more elephants will generate money to protect elephants (assuming those hunting fees actually end up in conservation efforts and not the pockets of corrupt officials)!  I’m sure all the dead elephants will appreciate that their sacrifice was not in vain.

This way of thinking is a metaphor, although imperfect, for the GOP tax plan.  Higher taxes for working families and ultimately for the middle class (after a temporary modest reduction) in order to benefit the wealthy— including huge permanent tax cuts for corporations— is supposed to generate more growth for the economy.  According to an already-disproven theory, the accumulation of wealth in the top 1% will trickle down to help everyone else.   It hasn’t happened before, and even prospectively, corporations are not planning on spending more capital to “grow the economy.”  These tax cuts will not pay for themselves, as the GOP claims.  The plan also explodes the federal debt, placing entitlement programs such as Medicare in danger, along with tax breaks for having children, for tuition, for mortgage interest, for state and local taxes, university endowments— all for a plan which will “pay for itself.”  And while the Senate is at it, why not launch yet another torpedo at the Affordable Care Act?  The zombie rises again (see my previous “Kill Bill” posts), and when they tacked elimination of the individual health coverage mandate onto the bill (which would remove health coverage from 13 million people and raise premiums for everyone else), I thought that would be the death knell for this tax proposal; after all, Repeal and Replace in its various guises had failed so many times before.  But now, because of shrewd maneuvering in Congress, I’m not so sure.

In my mind is the image of a vast elephant graveyard, abandoned by wealthy conservation programs.   More money, it turns out, does not help the dead elephants.  Nor does it help those who will bear the tax burden and feel the pain under this GOP bill, in order to make the rich even richer.  The elephant graveyard, in that case, might well be Congress, in the aftermath of the 2018 midterm elections.

Ready Or Not

Ever have that dream– you know, the one where you’re in a classroom, it’s the day of the final exam, and you suddenly realize you haven’t attended a single class all year long?  Or maybe the worse dream, where you find yourself naked at noon in the middle of the town square?

Both of these, in my experience, tend to come at challenging times (like the last day of medical school), when we feel insecure about being exposed as unprepared or incompetent.  Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to Fourth World, a dream sequence in which Benn Marr argues with the little voice of his subconscious mind:

“… there’s a clear impression that he’s acting a role, passively following a script in some holo-play.  In that context, the director, after yelling “Emote, Benn, emote!” has suddenly disappeared on his lunch break, leaving Benn completely unprepared.  You should have studied, Benn, the small voice scolds.  Should have been paying closer attention, it piles on needlessly.”

These are certainly challenging times; how prepared are the President and Congress?  Are they standing naked in the Mall (sorry for the image)?  When efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act came up, it turned out that they were totally unprepared and had no feasible alternative plan ready– despite seven years of yelling and posturing.  The only way to repeal Obamacare would be to deprive millions of their constituents of health coverage.  And, if not for a few brave Senators, they would have done just that, in order to pay for…

… their tax reform!  Republicans have been agitating about this for years too; cutting taxes for big business and the wealthy has always been the GOP’s top priority.  So when the time came, were they ready?  Well, Repeal and Replace failed, so paying for tax cuts required raising the nation’s debt by $1.5 trillion dollars, which I thought would go deeply against the grain, for Republicans– but apparently not.  Even after ballooning the federal deficit, they still have to cast about for other ways to save money:  including, you guessed it, safety-net and entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, which are now threatened, along with child tax credits and other targets.   Bypassing public hearings and scrambling to pass their tax bill ASAP, the GOP wants the “win” that eluded them with healthcare.  Who says we lack the ability to compromise in such partisan times?  Between our Chaos President and a GOP majority lacking the courage to displease his voter base, the government has managed to severely compromise our collective vision of America, let alone our standing in the world and the well-being of future generations.

Speaking of compromise, Chief of Staff John Kelley has blamed the Civil War on the lack of compromise between North and South, whereas historians tell us precisely the opposite:  that it was decades of compromise over the treatment of slaves that led to the Civil War.  Middle-school students are taught this!  As Benn’s subconscious would say:  You should have studied, John Kelley.  Should have been paying closer attention.  His ignorance of history parallels the Administration’s willful ignorance– in fact, denial– of science.  When it comes to protecting human rights, the environment, and world peace, it is perilous to govern by individual, subjective beliefs about the truth rather than documented, demonstrable facts.

However, beliefs do seem to rule right now, rather than knowledge of the historical, scientific and geopolitical facts.  In that case, I wonder, how prepared are our leaders to face an immensely complex world?  The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration brings to mind the enlarging crisis in the Middle East– connecting, at one end, Israel and the Palestinians to Iran, Syria and ISIS at the other end.  The belief that sending more military to kill terrorists will solve the problem is simplistic and dangerously naive.  It’s a bit like fighting global warming by turning up your air conditioner.  Is Trump ready for China’s One Belt, One Road expansion?  The re-emergence of Russia as a world power?  Brexit?  Population migration driven by climate change in central Africa?  Corrupt elections in South America?  We know by his Tweets that Trump doesn’t have a clue how to contain the nuclear threat from North Korea.  In fact:  Name the issue, and I doubt anyone in this Administration would be ready to deal with it effectively.

We’ll need to take better care of our own welfare, our own futures, and each other.  Heed the little voice:  study the issues.  Pay closer attention.  And above all, vote!


Now Is The Time

Much is made of freedom of speech, but equally important– and largely unmentioned– is freedom of dialogue, of conversation.  On the NYT Opinion Page this morning, David Brooks said, “You can’t have a civil conversation with people who are intent on destroying the rules that govern conversation itself.”*

In this ever more divided nation, you are free to make a statement, but good luck getting a meaningful response, an exchange of ideas from which both sides may come away a bit wiser.  His editorial got me thinking about several recent examples of the decline in conversation.  When Texas and Florida were inundated by hurricanes and rising sea levels, those who wondered whether global warming had worsened the storms’ effects were roundly scolded by Scott Pruitt and the Administration:  “How can you be so insensitive?” they were admonished.  Now is not the time to talk about climate change, not while people are still recovering!

After the mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas, some (probably the same insensitive miscreants as above) brought up the subject of sensible restrictions on firearms, only to be scolded again, this time by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who acted disgusted by the concept and righteously repeated the gun control mantra (the one chanted after Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Orlando and many other mass shootings):  This is a terrible tragedy!  Now is not the time to talk about…

Likewise, the playing of the national anthem at a sporting event is not the time to call attention to racial inequality and police brutality toward African-Americans by sitting down or taking a knee.  It’s not the time, even if you emphatically explain that you are not disrespecting the country, the flag or the military.  That explanation will not begin a conversation; it will only draw derision and threats of boycott, as though you had said nothing at all.

When we are standing at the edge of nuclear war because two national leaders with oversize egos are calling each other names, that is not the time to have a conversation about impeachment, when we must bravely face death by nuclear holocaust with national unity and patriotism.

When the Chaos President, fuming and frustrated at the repeated failure of Repeal and Replace, launched a couple of gratuitous torpedoes at the Affordable Care Act, aiming to sabotage his nation’s healthcare, very few in Congress spoke up.  Now is not the time to speak up against Trump– not when they still have to pass big tax cuts for the rich, not to mention having to appease Trump’s unshakeable, fearsome voter “base,” which might hurt shaking, fearful incumbents in next year’s midterm elections.

Only in times of national emergency do former presidents speak out against the sitting POTUS, so it’s not a good sign when both George W. Bush and Barrack Obama make speeches in the same week to denounce reneging on national commitments, white supremacy, nativism and divisive politics– unfortunately without naming the Great White Nativist, the Divider-in-Chief they obviously have in mind.  Nor does John McCain mention Trump, although his speech about the poorest Americans serving in Vietnam while the wealthy were able to get deferments for such reasons as bone spurs clearly points an accusing finger at the Donald.

Why not name him?  Steve Bannon has been running amok for years, saying anything he likes (even trumpeting the fact that he intends to destroy the careers of all Republican senators except for Ted Cruz– which actually makes Lyin’ Ted look bad)!  So why shouldn’t Republicans in Congress, who are known to hate Bannonism and Trump, pull off the gloves?  Now is the time!

Kudos to Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and John McCain:  you waited until there was nothing more to lose, but you did finally voice what most Congressmen have been thinking.  Maybe more of them will be emboldened to speak up now, before we all have nothing more to lose.


* This is taken out of context; he goes on to advocate for the argument Yale Law professor Stephen Carter made in his book “Civility”– that one has to confront fanaticism with compassion.

Let’s Take A Closer Look

One evening in 1978, when I was in medical school, I described to a few dinner companions a fantasy/sci-fi machine for diagnosing illnesses.  CT scanners (which provide multiple computer-generated cross-sectional views, or tomographs, of the body using x-rays) had only recently been invented, and MRI (using NMR technology taught to us in physical chemistry classes at the time) was still a few years away.

My dream machine, I explained to my dinner mates– whose eyes I could see were beginning to glaze over– would compile all the tissue cross-sections to generate a 3-D picture, a hologram.  At that time, CT’s limited resolution showed us the organs and tissues, but what if we could greatly increase the resolution with a different type of energy beam, something other than x-rays?  Radar?  Microwaves?  Cosmic rays?  Who knew?  We would see not only tissues but cells, then drill down to the level of cell nuclei, mitochondria, chromosomes, even individual genes.  The resolution of the imaging technique was the rate-limiting step.

With my dream machine, abnormal cells would stand out right away; combine that information with indicators of tissue metabolism (PET scanners would come along later) and even images of gene sequences, and before you knew it, surgical biopsies of live tissue– for example, to diagnose cancer– would no longer be needed.  “You could examine the hologram from all different angles, then perform a virtual biopsy!” I exclaimed (stimulated by the excellent wine we had with dinner).  The computer, having obtained all necessary data from the high-resolution scan, could “biopsy” pieces of the 3-D image, then project them on a screen for the pathologist:  this could be repeated over and over, without any pain to the patient.

Well, the dream machine is one step closer.  This week– only 36 years later– a newsletter from the dean of Yale Medical School announced the arrival of a high-resolution cryoelectron microscope with tomographic capabilities, enabling researchers to view specimens in 3-D from multiple angles (unfortunately you still have to obtain a specimen, as nobody has figured out how to put a whole patient into the machine).  It can tell us the atomic structures of membrane proteins– now that is small!  By the way, the three scientists most responsible for developing cryo-EM received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month.

(Not making any claims to the Nobel Prize– just saying).  Here’s an excerpt from my science fiction novel, Fourth World:

Lora stepped out of the Pan-Bio Analyzer, commonly known as the Probot, and reached for her paper robe.  Her skin was flushed and tingling- it felt like a Sonicspray, she thought, only without the blowing sensation.  The Probot scan, which produced a detailed analysis of anatomy and organ function- it would have detected a gastric ulcer, sinus infection or brain tumor, for example- was the final part of the physical evaluation required of all students, and she had passed without a hitch.  So had Benn and Sool, who were already on their way to the first formal lecture for the incoming class of interns, scheduled to begin in Cushing Hall in just a few minutes.  After a week of organizational meetings and introductory talks, it was a much-anticipated moment.

Lora nodded to the technician seated at a control panel, hurriedly crossed the cold Probot Chamber to the adjacent dressing room, and exchanged the robe for her standard-issue orange bodysuit.  Almost everyone attending YaleConn Med- not only the lowly interns- wore those bodysuits to class, so Lora shrugged off their resemblance to the prison uniforms worn by PsySoc reformees back at Tharsis One.  In a way, Lora was disappointed that the computer hadn’t found anything wrong with her:  no explanation for the distracting noise, that persistent insect buzz that had kept her up for part of the night.  It was faint, but intermittently took on a pronounced throbbing pattern- quite annoying.  Neither Benn nor Sool seemed to hear that noise, whatever it was:  A blood clot?  Eustachian tube dysfunction?  Seizure activity?  The Probot said no, no and no.  Meaning that there wouldn’t be an easy remedy.



Ejection for Personal Fouls

A political football is a topic or issue that is seized on by opposing political parties or factions and made a more political issue than it might initially seem to be. “To make a political football” [out of something] is defined in William Safire‘s Safire’s Political Dictionary as “To thrust a social, national security, or otherwise ostensibly non-political matter into partisan politics”  — Wikipedia

Implicit in the term “political football” is the back-and-forth, unresolved nature of an issue from which both sides seek an advantage, and yet for which neither side accepts responsibility.

For example, our Chaos President’s rescinding of DACA.  Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and a large majority of the population, seem to agree that these young, undocumented immigrants should be given a pathway to citizenship in the only country they have ever known.  It’s the right thing to do, regardless of politics.  But Trump purposely exposed 800,000 young people to deportation, upending their lives, flooding them with fear and anxiety.  Then out of supposed compassion, he struck a deal (minus the Great Wall of Mexico) with Democrats to safeguard the Dreamers, passing the responsibility on to Congress to “fix DACA.”  Now he has reneged by demanding that the Wall be part of the deal.  In this football game of his creation, Trump is wearing the uniforms of both teams.

Another example is Trump’s antipathy toward fighting climate change, a cause which would seem to be a no-brainer (especially in light of this year’s severe hurricanes, floods and droughts).  Economic factors, such as the number of jobs in the methane and CO2-producing industries, do not change the science behind climate change, but they do change the politics.  To tackle this political football, the Administration’s strategy is to remove scientists from the EPA and deny the science altogether, rather than create new industries that don’t generate heat-trapping gases.  Now Scott Pruitt is trying to justify repealing Obama’s Clean Power Plan by lying about its costs and benefits.  As always, Trump is an extremely short-term thinker, and his first priority– even over world survival in the long term– is to pander to his political base.

Healthcare has been (and may still be, despite the apparent demise of Repeal and Replace) another political football.  How did taking away health coverage from millions of lower-income Americans for the benefit of the wealthy even get to a vote, let alone several rushed attempts to get Repeal and Replace passed?  Without considering the greatest good for all of the people, Trump appeals to his base (even though many of them would be among those losing coverage) by trying to fulfill a campaign promise.

But stepping back from each of these issues and looking at the whole of Donald Trump’s presidency, you begin to see a much larger game going on, in which immigrants, global warming and healthcare, along with the upcoming tax reform, threats of nuclear escalation in North Korea and potentially Iran, are all isolated plays called from the bench, with the ultimate goal of exciting Trump’s base and reliving the WIN of the 2016 election.  His support for white supremacists and the NRA, his heartless remarks made in Puerto Rico, and his ceaseless campaign rallies complete the picture for those benighted folks (sometimes spelled with a V).

Voices of dissent coming from within the Chaos President’s own camp are welcome news:  GOP Sen. Bob Corker has taken the biggest step so far by pointing out that Trump tweets lies, is volatile, unstable, incompetent, needs to be contained, and could set the nation “on the path to World War III”– but Rex Tillerson calling Trump a “f___ing moron” isn’t far behind.  It’s time for action:  hopefully more Republicans in Congress will muster up similar courage and not only speak up, but also take care of the Dreamers, rejoin the Paris Accord, stop sabotaging the Affordable Care Act, and pull us back from the brink of nuclear war.  Maybe when Trump calls on his team to throw the final Hail Mary pass, they will eject him from the game, or at least opt to take a knee.




Welcome to Our Planet

Eight months ago, coincident with our Chaos President’s dark and threatening inauguration speech about “American carnage” (see my previous post, Inauguration Blues), six people entered an isolated environment on the Big Island of Hawaii, a NASA-run simulation of life on Mars.  Amazingly, their eight months separated from the world have passed, and yesterday the four men and two women emerged to discover that Donald Trump is still the Chaos President, still denying climate science, still unable to build the Great Wall of Mexico.  They will find the world unsubtly and unsettlingly different, however:  while they were gone, the US has withdrawn from TPP and the Paris Agreement, circling its wagons and surrendering its leadership position worldwide; multiple hurricanes, boosted by warm ocean waters and rising sea levels, have laid waste to the Caribbean and parts of Texas and Florida; DACA has been rescinded, exposing 800,000 young people while 11 million undocumented immigrants continue to live in fear; North Korea has launched missiles over Japan and tested a hydrogen bomb; the President has blustered at the United Nations that we may have no choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea; he has also doubled down on his statement that neo-Nazi white supremacists and those protesting against them are equally to blame for violence; a parade of White House officials have departed in disgrace; a special prosecutor is closing in on the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia to influence the election; the GOP is cynically trying for the fifth (or is it the sixth) time to bring their cruel and destructive healthcare agenda back from the dead (see my previous posts Vive le Healthcare and Kill Bill 3)– Trump wants this bill, which would result in millions losing healthcare coverage, passed by next week, before the Congressional Budget Office and other expert groups can provide any analysis of its dire consequences.

In Inauguration Blues, I advised the six Martians-in-training, when they finally came out of isolation, not to utter the classic line, “Take us to your leader.”  But I’ve changed my mind; they should absolutely see our Chaos President, if only to demand of him, “What’s happening to our world?  Why are you doing this?”