Artemis by Andy Weir – Book

 

Artemis by Andy Weir is the kind of book you want to read in one bite. It is just so much fun that the word yummy would apply if a book was a meal (which, in a way it is). Andy creates for us the small domed community of Artemis on the Moon. He describes it for us through the eyes of his irreverent narrator, Jas (Jasmine), whose Dad came to the Moon from Saudi Arabia when Jasmine was young. There are several domes, each named after the astronauts who first journeyed to the Moon. There are rich folks on the Moon who live in the nicest spaces in the nicest dome. There are poor folks who live in more crowded spaces in another dome. There are domes where businesses operate. Jasmine’s father is a skilled welder who owns a fairly large work space until Jas, in a teenaged misadventure, burns it down. Fire is one of the most feared elements in Artemis. There is nowhere to run to. Jas owes her father a lot.

Right now Jas has a pretty big chip on her shoulder, constructed of guilt, dumb gumption, immaturity, and ambition. We meet her when she is taking her test to qualify to lead groups of tourists in EVA’s (Extra Vehicular Activities) on the Moon’s surface. We see how her impatience to earn her own way and move out of the space that she is living in, which is described as a coffin, without a private bathroom, lead her to neglect a careful inspection of her EVA suit. She almost dies and, surprise, fails her test. Because her impatience makes her careless, people she has known since childhood are leery of trusting her with much responsibility. This doesn’t sound like fun, but Jas is telling the story and she is full of sarcastic humor and she is indomitable. She is unfazed by her screw-ups. She just resolves to push on to the next adventure.

Jas is not totally alone. She still can rely on her father who loves her, but she tries not to. She has had a longtime pen pal in Kenya. Kenya is in charge of Artemis, the KFC (irony, humor?) and most goods ship to Artemis from Kenya. Jas is a porter who delivers goods from shipments as they arrive. This is how she earns her meager living right now, along with a bit of smuggling. But Jaz wants to be rich. She wants to live in the best dome and have her own luxurious bathroom. So when Tran offers to pay Jas 1 million slugs (credits) to do something very destructive, for what seem to be very good reasons, the whole, almost-fatal comedy of Moony errors ensues. Jas does love Artemis and she loves her father and she enlists the help of some very reluctant friends who obviously care about her. In the end we guess that Jas will finally enter a somewhat calmer adult lifestyle and we learn that not all her ventures have been so convoluted as the one we enjoy in Artemis. She has actually found a niche in Artemis.

I bought a membership in Audible because I planned to start exercising and I wanted to be very efficient with my time. If I could read and exercise at the same time I would be one of those people who make every second of their life count. I am having a problem with Audible, though, because I cannot see the spelling of the character’s names. I don’t like to read any reviews before I write mine so you may see some very creative spelling from me sometimes. The Moon community is home to people from almost every nation on Earth and offers a real challenge to Rosario Dawson who reads the book to us (I can listen on my Alexa). There are lots of accents which help to differentiate characters and add character to whoever is speaking. After a while the accents sound too similar and some accents sound less authentic than others. Still Dawson’s reading is suited to the saga of Jas and Artemis and the accents add another layer of entertainment to this tale, which gives us a sort of Moon thriller, and a tutorial in space science. Science is not usually this much fun (except perhaps in The Big Bang Theory with its clever writers). Andy Weir also reminds us that our flawed human nature will go with us wherever we go.

State of the Union – My Take

 

My take on the State of the Union (“Uniom”) would include concerns that will not be discussed in Trump’s address tonight. It would include my deep chagrin that our oval office is occupied by a man that I always thought of as a con man and a crook (with really poor taste in interior design). Subtlety does not work for DT and neither does elegance. He likes in-your-face, flashy, keep-your-eyes-on-me behavior. He trails chaos.

It is not just our President’s style that I object to; it is the substance of the man, if he can be said to have any. He will tell us tonight about all of the great things he has done, which, for the most part, involve implementations of Republican policies. What he will not talk about is the hoops he has everyone jumping through because he is under investigation for obstruction of justice. He may even be worried that he will be found to have committed criminal acts or treason. While he tells us he did not collude with Russia when they interfered in the 2016 election we cannot escape our feeling that he is innocent on a technicality. He may have made sure that he never directly contacted or met with Russians during his campaign. He may have never even directly ordered his staff or family members on his campaign to meet with Russians for him. But I would guess that he does not have to ask. His people know Trump-coded messaging and they can carry out his bidding without a direct order.

It is unlikely that Trump will talk about how the paranoia that fuels his attacks on the investigative wing of our government will, at the same time, make America less secure. The FBI is not a warm, fuzzy institution. It is not an organization that the American people welcome attracting attention from, unless they are the victim of a crime.

But we accept the FBI as a serious and business-like group of super-detectives and we respect and fear them. Mr. Trump has been exposing the human side of the FBI, the side where they gossip about classified information and possibly let individual politics rule the outcomes of their investigations. He is tarnishing an important body that usually gives aid to Presidents. He fired James Comey and McCabe left without even waiting to qualify for his pension. Trump is good at spreading suspicion, at soiling the reputations of reputable people. What can we conclude except that he must be guilty of some crime he doesn’t want exposed?

The FBI has acted in ways that have hurt its own image also. The two flirters who exchanged emails while working with Mueller to investigate Russian matters added to the mess when their emails became public. Whatever they intended, they gave Trump more fodder for his campaign to tarnish the FBI and cast doubts on that integrity which was always their trademark. He has turned the FBI into a soap opera so that if/when his guilt is exposed he can argue that the methodologies were so flawed that we should disregard anything this body says about him.

The fact that we have a man in our oval office who had his people collude with Russia for him so that he could have deniability will not be discussed in Trump’s State of the Union. The fact that we have a President who we suspect has been friendly with various mafia groups both here and abroad in the pursuit of his smarmy deals is unlikely to be one of the bullet points in tonight’s address.

We will not hear about the constant barrage of revelations that have us smacking our foreheads daily. Forty-five will not regale us with memories of the most transparent lies he has spoken, of his strategy of owning those lies, of repeating them loudly and proudly because once they become part of the public record that record lends them credibility.

Right now we have Devin Nunes, who is supposed to have been removed from the Russia investigation in the House, waving an enticingly secret memo under our noses, implying he has a piece of information that will exonerate the President, indict the Democrats, destroy the FBI, and perhaps even prove that Russia is now our best friend. The Justice Department does not want the memo released but I am guessing if it seems to meet even a tiny portion of the goals Nunes implies that it does we will find it is leaked soon enough. Devin Nunes has become the President’s most passionate and inept defender. I keep thinking we’ve heard the last of him and then there he is again. So far we have learned nothing substantive from Mr. Nunes.

Right now we have the bad taste in or mouths left by the lack of good faith in the bargaining over DACA and CHIP and the government shutdown. That was clearly a setup designed to embarrass the Democrats and confuse Americans about who to blame for the shutdown. It worked because Democratic leaders in Congress came under fire from their own people and lost “face”.

The State of the Union won’t mention that the divisions in America are not being healed but are instead being whipped up into frenzied arguments by Trumpers who refuse to hear any criticism of Mr. Trump. I received an article in my mailbox yesterday that described a hissy fit by one of the co-founders of Home Deport against Democrats because of what Dems see as flaws in the new Republican Tax plan. In fact, the first article I saw said that Democrats would not be allowed to shop at Home Depot (surely a very poor business decision). I heard the rest when I did a fact-check on the story. We understand why Mr. Marcus is happy with the new tax plan, but why does he get so exercised when Democrats disagree with the plan?

We surely will not be regaled with tales of the disarray in Washington, of the State Department veterans being sent to the basement to fulfill FOIA requests, that have never been considered the most important task of a formerly very busy State Department. We won’t expect to hear a cogent explanation of why the State Department is being gutted.

We know there is more, so much more; we are loaded down with daily nonsense. But that nonsense could change our government so much that it will be like that Humpty-Dumpty from our childhood, so broken that we can never put it back together again.

We will hear about how America’s economy is roaring back as a result of Trump’s executive actions overturning regulations on businesses and rules intended to address environmental concerns but we won’t be reminded that government policies always involve conjecture. Governments decide what policies will produce the outcomes they want but there are no guarantees that the future will comply with the predictions. Everyone is guessing about what will bring about the future they wish to see.

Republicans are not even using past practice to help them predict the future. They are still selling “trickle-down economics” which evidence says has never yet produced any appreciable tickle-down. If it did our economy would not have allowed so much wealth to concentrate in the hands of so few. The tax plan Congress just passed sends more money up the chain. Money never comes back down the chain. Why did the Republicans do something that seems so counterproductive? How can an economy come roaring back if you have no consumers except the 1%? Look at the new consumers just beginning to buy in cultures with far larger populations than we have in America. There are few incentives to bring lots of business back to America. Even a 21% corporate tax rate will not counteract a supply chain that moves too far from the marketplace where products actually are bought and sold. None of this will be discussed in tonight’s SOTU address.

I will not be able to listen to the State of the Union address because I might be tempted to throw something at my TV which I cannot really afford to replace at the moment. I will wait and hear the cooler commentary about the speech tomorrow. However, no rosy picture of the current state of America can possible convince me that the policies we are pursuing will benefit the American people, will keep our government intact, or even will coincide with the United States Constitution.

New Feudalism or Enlightened Planet

 

It seemed like we all just got “woke”. Things were looking like they might coalesce into some kind of concerted effort to ensure things like an adequate food supply, plenty of potable water, clean oceans. We seemed to have generated some real interest in being good caretakers of our tiny planet spinning in space at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy, soon to be home to 9 billions humans (and as many species as we can keep from extinction). Younger people seem to have some interest in global cooperation, extending human rights – perhaps an evolutionary leap to a more enlightened planet.

Now we suddenly find ourselves in a white nationalist cul de sac which, if it becomes our permanent abode, certainly will put paid to our dreams of global nirvana. Our dual nature, of course, makes global nirvana just about impossible unless they design a drug to tamp down negative human traits (but the side effects would probably be brutal). Doesn’t matter. We have been turned away from that global future into this isolationist cul de sac. Will our sojourn here be brief or long? Will the world join us here or move on without us?

We were on the cusp of the future predicted by or copied from science fiction – except for the tiny hiccups like hating to share our country with people of color, or Muslims, and a weird insistence on doubling down on fossil fuels (that we are pretty sure are harmful to us because they harm this planet we are not able to leave – our lovely home, earth). However there are tendencies towards that still-possible global future developing alongside us as we get steered into that dead end where Trump wants to take us.

Progress in technology is relentless. AI may change everything. Adventurous sorts with money are still trying to reach the stars (Elon Musk, Tesla). We may still end up with cars we don’t have to drive and space elevators. Will these parallel trends save us from revisiting the Dark Ages? Will tech trends interrupt the economic trends that could turn most of us back into serfs.

I find myself awake sometimes in the middle of the night wondering what forms government might take in the future. I guess a brain sometimes wants to be entertained, although I wish it would choose a more opportune hour. But I am a science fiction geek, not so much the new stuff, with exceptions, but the classics, so my mind takes me to the future. I wish my understandings were mathematical, or as an expert in engineering or physics, but beyond comprehending that tesseracts involve dimensions and folding space (which we can’t actually do), I will never be joining any NASA  tech team. (I also know tesseracts, used in this way, are from Margaret L’Engle’s book A Wrinkle in Time, which just became a movie).

My real interest in science fiction is political, sociological – about the mechanics of human organizations in space. Since none of us have been in space (not including the Moon) the writers of science fiction create the ways people behave in space, the governmental structures in space, the wars in space, even the day-to-day activities of humans in space. If/when we go to space will the schema we have placed in our brains limit the kinds of government we can imagine? Maybe.

Isaac Asimov, in the Foundation Trilogy (which ended up as more than a trilogy), depicted an entire universe plunged in a Dark Age with one lonely think tank/foundation of enlightenment hidden in a distant and rarely traveled corner in space. The trilogy tells what happens when the secrecy ends, which is a pitted struggle between, of course, the forces of evil and those of good, or corrupt reactionaries v. insightful progressives. The form of government favored by Asimov in this trilogy involves a sort of mind-meld of all living things into “one harmonious living entity in which all beings and the galaxy itself would be a part.” This is so far from our current cult of the individual as to seem far-fetched and not terribly enticing, although it seemed more beckoning in the Age of Aquarius when these books were widely read. At least it was not simply a rehash of the government types we already knew, but it also involves a mental transformation which is beyond our current capacities. It does coincide with the idea of a more global approach to organizing life on earth in the 21st century.

Frank Herbert fathered the Dune books which had one of the most intricate governmental structures, basically feudal in nature. The Butlerian Jihad had dictated the destruction of computers and machines and robots that “think”, (our suspicions about AI are a recurring theme in sci-fi). Mentats, human “computers” take the place of machines. There are royal families (the Houses), the Spacing Guild, the Bene Gesserit sisters trying to genetically engineer a superhuman male called the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen who control the sandworms that produce spice. There is the spice with all its parallels to our fossil fuels, although with religious overtones. Many feel that the Dune books were so popular because they went along with the environmentalist movement, still a sort of fringy, but hardly new movement, which appointed us as the caretakers of our planet. Although the feudal governments in Dune do coincide with our current moves in the direction of feudalism and a new dark age, that probably was not the real point of the series.

Star Wars gave us the Empire and the Rebellion but as the prequels were added we saw that this was intended to be Democratic government, although so enormous that corruption seemed inevitable – and it was. Star Trek had the Federation and its nemesis the Klingon Empire, a malignant imperialist military state, but we don’t learn much about how the Federation governs beyond the rule that its space peace enforcers should not meddle in other civilizations, a rule that may influence how we would like to conduct ourselves if we ever become a presence in the universe beyond our planet.

We have the systems of governance we have already tried – barter, monarchy, dictatorship, communism, socialism, democracy/republic, social democracy – and perhaps even some examples of anarchy. Every system we try tends to end the same way with plenty of economic inequality and the inability to keep at bay our negative traits. I could go on with my sleepless ruminations about whether or not science fiction may offer us some answers about human government and social structures, but it is just a symptom of my desire to part the curtain of time, to see how we will govern ourselves if we avoid being led into the wilderness and find our way back to global governance, or at least global cooperation. What we might get, if we accomplished this seemingly impossible feat, is a sort of microcosm of how we might interact with each other, or even with alien cultures, in space. And may I say, “yikes”, it doesn’t look like we will ever get the hang of a government framework that provides long-term stability, fairness and peace.

But if we will be sidelined into some grim nightmare of feudalism, of endless work – some nouveau Evangelical ethic which says that if you are not wealthy then you are inferior and you belong to the wealthy. You will be expected to labor, reproduce, get sick, and die. If such a future is where we are headed then I don’t have any desire to take any time machine to see it. I do not want to lose the fine freedoms we have enjoyed in our nation, an ideal of governance which has convinced much of the world to go along with it, and has, so far, been the most promising of any system of government that the human mind has devised on earth.

There may be some better design in the future but let’s not throw our republic away before someone imagines it. If we don’t conquer the issues of wealth inequality, the corruption that big money has bought to our republic, and the reactionary slide of our current politics we could easily descend into a society that turns the poor into slaves or convicts. We fear an Orwellian future or a return of gestapo mentality because we see these tendencies on the rise, and shockingly, it looks like America may go there first. No wonder I am having nightmares. Aren’t you?

Dems Have No Power

As things stand right now, Dems have no power. Not only did they lose the 2016 election, they lost the House and the Senate. For the past year Republicans – operating under Reconciliation rules (simple majority to pass anything) – did not need the Dems and the Democrats were not welcome. They were not consulted on Health Care (“Better Care”) on the tax package, or on anything. These things were hammered out in Republican-only closed meetings, the bills were kept secret until almost time to vote on them. Now suddenly the Republicans are back under regular rules where they need 60 votes. They don’t have 60 votes. They need Democrats. You would think they would make nice with the Dems (who disagree with almost every stated GOP policy). But the Republicans were the winners, and they refuse to give in the Democrats even on small things. The Democrats have no choice but to hang tough – to not blink. They could not represent their constituents and also keep the government open. Trump and the GOP put the Dems between a rock and a hard place. Their playbook is slim. They used the only play they have.

Perhaps the GOP will be successful in wiping out the Democrats and creating a one-party government but they have had to resort to using children and young adults as hostages to try to force Dems to accept pills that are bitter to them. The Republicans don’t even want to renew DACA or pass CHIP so their whole deal is disingenuous to begin with. The Republicans will not be kind to “we the people”. If the Dems are destroyed, America as we know it is destroyed.

The Republicans did not win in 2016 without cheating and trickery. The Republican coup. – well-planned in Conservative think tanks and “foundations” – used very effective but bloodless weapons to “steal” the American government. They passed laws that allowed them to funnel unmatchable dollars, from the Koch brothers and other millionaires and billionaires at the center of the Conservative web, to buy elections and sway opinions with advertising blitzes. And they did this at all levels – national, state, and right down to local districts and precincts (and they are still doing it).

They had their own media turning some Americans into Republican “pod” people, a reference to the old movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, although in this case it was minds that got snatched. They are still buying up media outlets. They had talking points that were repeated so often we all have them memorized. The had and still have rabidly inflexible gatekeepers enforcing the no-raised-taxes pledge and their 2nd Amendment insanity. They were, and still are, collecting state governments and even using ALEC to write laws they favored, which were passed verbatim in state legislatures.

They had a Supreme Court that was not quite as packed as they would have liked but which still often skewed right. They kept beating the baby-murderer drum to keep anti-abortionists riled up. They overturned a key section of the Voter Rights Act so they could suppress Dem votes. They used extreme gerrymandering to suppress Dem votes. They tried to pass voter ID laws and “clean up” voter rolls. They created a false meme about widespread voter fraud.

And finally, they accepted a partnership with the most flawed President ever, a bully to boot, and they besmirched their party to take over the US government. (I wrote a book about this although I did not foresee Trump– http://notabene718.com – The US Republican Constitution). Perhaps you heard Paul Ryan proudly announce the US Republican Government when the 115th Congress convened.

But Republicans may have made a deal with the devil and allowed Russia to interfere in the very election they worked so hard to win and they may be in bed with mafia/s. They will never know if their coup would have succeeded because it got Trump-ed.

So how on earth would Dems win one fight for any policy important to their constituents, when the Republicans control our government, without using their tiny edge – that Republicans in the Senate don’t have enough votes to win except where a simple majority will suffice. Democrats must use this tiny wedge or simply give in to the GOP agenda. The GOP agenda, however, is backwards and stingy. If the Democrats give up without a fight America loses a stake in the future of our world and perhaps there will be no democratic ideal, no human rights left, only greed and theft, ignorance and lots of work. (The Democrats also have this.)

Grant by Ron Chernow – Book

 

Grant by Ron Chernow is not a book; it is tome. He writes a very contemporary biography of Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps unclouded by the political passions and machinations of the 19th century. We often hear more that is negative about Grant than what was positive. We hear he was often drunk, that he headed one of the most corrupt governments in our history, that he was a gullible and simple man, without social graces or persuasive public speaking abilities. Writers in the past accepted, for the most part, that Grant had strong military successes, but opinions of his abilities range from a lazy leader to a military savant (which Chernow feels is much closer to the truth).

Prior to the Civil War, America was experiencing a time of great divisiveness (perhaps even worse that what we are seeing in the 21st century). Slavery and state’s rights were the issues that most passionately divided the nation (and they still are 151 years later). Strong abolitionist movements in the northern states enraged the South whose lifestyle and economy revolved around slave labor. The South claimed that the Federal government had no right to make laws in this matter. The verbal battles were bitter and the differences irreconcilable. Whatever you may feel is the reason for the Civil War (the GOP still cites the state’s rights issue; while Dems tend to cite the issue of keeping human beings as slaves), Grant evolved on the issue of slavery until he came to believe that it was an anathema and absolutely the point of the war. The Union considered the South to be traitors who wanted to dissolve the Republic. Although it may drive you crazy, you need to remember that in the 19th century Southerners were the Democrats and the abolitionists were Republicans.

Chernow does not sidestep graphic descriptions of the terrible tragedy of human destruction left in the wake of every victory and every defeat in the brutal Civil War. Grant, who seemed unable to be a successful businessman, proved to have a genius for warfare, a focus that seemed to appear only when battle loomed, and a broad and long view of the overall geography, scope, and strategy involved in any given battle. Since Grant was educated at West Point, he knew many of the officers on both sides in the Civil War and he had personal insight into how they would behave. Try not to read about these battles while eating.

I can never cover all of the information imparted in this biography. It is minutely comprehensive and still, somehow, eminently readable. It is long but well worth the investment in time. What I appreciated most about Ron Chernow’s tome is the attention he gave to what happened in the South after the war. Perhaps Grant was too sympathetic to the officers and men when the war ended at Appomattox. He did nothing to humiliate them. He let them lay down their weapons and leave without persecution to go home to their land and families. But perhaps this allowed the South to keep too much of its pride and they secretly kept alive the resentments that had caused the rift to begin with. Chernow does not skirt the details of the ways Southern slave owners took out their anger on freed Americans of African Descent.

According to Chernow and his exhaustive research Ku Klux Klan activity was far more prevalent and deadly in those years of Reconstruction than represented in the stories we tell ourselves today (and in our school history classes). Current events teach us that those feelings kept alive in the South and imported to the North still inform our politics, and the feelings of white supremacy that seem to have been resurrected, but which never actually left us. Grant earned the lasting respect of black folks by sending troops to try to stop the carnage and the total unwillingness of slave owners to accept the freedom of their former slaves. He supported programs to educate former slaves and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed while he was President. Frederick Douglas remained a loyal acquaintance of Grant and expressed his gratitude again and again for the support Grant provided to back up freedom for all Americans. If Grant accomplished nothing else, what he accomplished in the arena of freedom and equality for formerly enslaved Americans should move him far above the rank he held until now in the pantheon of American presidents. He deplored the fact that Reconstruction did not end racial hatred in Southern whites.

Mr. Chernow does not buy the tales that make drunkenness a key trait in Grant’s life. He finds a pattern to Grant’s binges and gives him credit for fighting against the hold alcohol had for him when he was without the comforts of his family (as soldiers often are). He admits that Grant was connected to a number of corrupt schemes while he was President and later when he resided in NYC. But if you follow the money you find that Grant never was at all corrupt himself. He was guilty of being unable to see through people, especially when they were friends. Since many people had been his fellow soldiers he tended to give them credit for being loyal friends when they were actually involved in collecting payoffs in scams such as the whisky ring, and the Indian ring, and other scandals of the Gilded Age. Juicy, interesting, and deplorable stuff. Many government rules were different than they are today and corruption was easy if you valued money over morals. Probably a number of rules and protections in our current government were passed to fight the human impulse to corruption which exists, of course, to this day.

It’s a wonderful biography, well researched and full of quotes from primary sources and although it may put a crimp in your accounting of the number of books you get to read this year it will offer such in-depth quality that you will not mind the hit you take in terms of the quantity of books you get to read.

 

 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng – Book

Celeste Ng writes about families. In her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, one of her characters, the family’s oldest child Lydia, who is found dead in a lake, takes us on an exploration of the dynamics in her mixed race (white mom “Oriental” dad) family. In her second book, Little Fires Everywhere Ng introduces us to two modern families, one that may look like a classic nuclear family (except for the fact that their house is on fire), and another that looks like anything but. In this second book we focus, in flashback, on Elena Richardson, her husband and their four children (Lexi, Tripp, Moody and Izzy). Elena is a mom who never realized her dream to be a famous journalist, a mom who may think that she limited her future by settling down and putting her family first and her journalistic goals second. But it is quite possible that it is her inability to untie herself geographically from the Shaker Heights neighborhood into which she was born (where the author also was born) that kept her in a position on the local paper instead of in a big city news room. Elena loves Shaker Heights because it is a neighborhood founded on principles of security and stability and community involvement that she finds comforting.

Elena is not a real hands-on mom, but her sort of distracted style seems to suit her first two children, at least until the decisions of puberty begin to challenge their judgment. Her style does not suit her two younger children quite as well, and, in fact, put her at odds with her youngest daughter Izzy, an impulsive and creative child who needs affection and approval, as opposed to the disapproval and dismissal she experiences from her mom. Izzy does not take her mom’s tempers and slights quietly as her brother Moody does; she acts out to make sure she gets attention, even if that attention is mostly negative.

When Mia Warren enters the lives of this geographically planted family she brings with her a whiff of a sort of gypsy existence, and she brings her daughter, Pearl, the fortunate recipient of her seemingly effortless warmth and affection. Elena hires Mia to help in the morning and cook dinners in the evening, and Elena’s children bask in the parental interest exhibited by Mia, while Pearl longs for the geographical stability of the Richardson family. Mia and Pearl have moved too many times, but this time Mia promised Pearl she would stay put. Eventually Elena becomes jealous of the attractions between her children and Mia. She sees a clue in a photograph in a museum, a photo of Mia with a baby and she uses journalistic research techniques, and resources she has not needed for years, to investigate Mia and to expose her secrets. Why does Mia seem to have no roots – a burning question to a woman to whom roots have seemed all important? Is Mia someone who could be a danger to Elena’s children?

We, as readers, also understand that Mia has a secret in her past and that even Pearl does not know what that secret is. We find Mia likeable but we don’t totally trust our judgment which is based on too little information. We don’t think her secret could be anything terribly bad, but we don’t know. Elena Richardson earns our censure for invading Mia’s life and our gratitude because she unlocks the secrets that Mia guards so carefully. Mia also gave up what could have been a successful career for her daughter but until we get the facts we are not sure why. (Can’t tell you.)

There is another story within this story about an Asian immigrant mom, befriended by Mia, who loses her job just after the birth of her baby. Since the father has bowed out of the relationship the mom, Bebe Chow, finds she cannot care for her baby. She leaves her at the local fire station. The baby is subsequently given to a long-time childless couple, friends of Elena Richardson and her husband. When Bebe gets a new job, she tries to get her child back and finds she must fight this affluent and loving couple in court. (Interesting note about Audible, it encourages creative spelling of characters’ names.)

We are asked to think about what makes someone a parent. Is blood stronger than any other bond? Are children ever born to the wrong parents? Should children sometimes get to pick their own parents? We see the supportive relationship that has developed between Mia and Izzy. What happens in this relationship is one event in this book that raises many questions in our minds and hearts, but I would spoil the book for you if I discussed it here. (Moody’s role in the family is another matter that we continue to contemplate after finishing Ng’s book.) I did find that I liked Celeste Ng’s second book, Little Fires Everywhere, better than her first one.

 

 

Immigration Policy Crisis in America

 

 

No doubt there are many Americans who resent recent waves of immigrants because they worry that they will begin to feel like strangers in their own land. Since immigrant groups tend to form communities of folks from their parent nations, since they have struggles that they hold in common such as finding employment, learning a new language and new customs, there is comfort in struggling together. Assimilation always takes time. The problems immigrants must deal with in a new land are multiplied when they are in that land without having gone through the proper channels. They may only be able to find employment with fellow immigrants who came before them, or employment that pays under the table and offers no security or benefits. They need to keep a low profile so that they will not draw attention to their status. These factors and more (economic and geographic) tend to keep new immigrants separated from middle class white Americans. Since new immigrants do not get to mingle with very many suburban Americans the groups fear each other and put up defenses against what they may feel are existential threats.

This has been true as each new wave of immigrants settled in America driven by challenges in their home nations to find more economic security or freedom. People did not welcome Chinese immigrants or Japanese immigrants, Italian, German, or Irish immigrants. And there was never a question that these folks would change the language or the “complexion” of America. Recent waves from Spanish-speaking countries and tropical nations with folks with more pigmentation are forcing Americans to face the fact that we might have to learn more than one language and accept an American that looks more like the melting pot that we have always claimed to be.

There is another aspect to this and it is that these “new” arrivals are competing with already established Americans for jobs opportunities that are more limited than in the past and that people believe the government is giving out benefits to these folks paid for by our tax dollars. Even worse, Americans feel that people who are here without permissions are also partaking of benefits even as our government is threatening to cut or do away with them altogether. People worry that the pie is being cut into too many pieces and people are standing in line who have no right to a piece of the pie at all.

But coexisting with what we do and say and feel are the ideals we treasure as Americans and that we praise ourselves with when we are feeling patriotic. We still hold to the plaque on the Statue of Liberty which classifies us among the most humanitarian of nations, with a compassionate heart for the suffering people living in nations that seem not as blessed as ours (the war torn, the poor, the starving, those struck by disaster).

We cannot be both champions of human rights and white nationalists. I hear people trying to disown the words on the Liberty plaque. I hear people applauding a campaign to roust immigrants who have been here for years and send them home to uncertain fates. I feel the parallel to the Nazi round-up of Jewish people which we now find abhorrent. We always told ourselves in our American hearts that we could never hunt people down and take away their belongings and eventually their lives. But it is happening right now all over America in the early morning hours when ICE agents raid 7-Elevens to haul away people working without documents or in the late-night hours when they arrest someone out for a walk and some father just never comes home to his family who wait and suffer.

I know that the world is chaotic. I know that there are those who like to terrorize us and plant fear in our hearts. I know that right now most of these terrorists happen to be from Muslim or Middle Eastern nations, nations that have been destabilized by us and our allies, nations where ancient animosities have been set free to be pursued again in modern times. This sets the stakes of immigration even higher. A nation has a right to have rules about immigration.

We have had terrorist attacks on American soil, starting with the horrific attacks on 9/11. I understand the urge to safety, to expel recent immigrants without documents from our shores, to build walls. I see Europe paying a price for their humanitarian decisions, although not as all-encompassing as we might fear. Are we as brave as the Brits or the French, are we as defiant in the face of mayhem? I believe we are? Europe is not threatening to build a wall or send people back to war and death.

Our President is feeding our fears. He is feeding our resentments. He is promising to keep us safe from terrorists and people of color and bring to our shores only the best and the brightest people provided they are Europeans (why would these folks want to come here?). What will the American people settle for? Do they insist on sending everyone who entered without documentation or overstayed their documents home? Do they insist on the wall? Do they insist on sending home the children who came here in all innocence and to whom promises were made? Do we send home people we promised to give Temporary Protective Status (TPS) to (Salvadorans, Haitians)? How do we rip them from their lives now? They are embedded in our culture. They have businesses, jobs, children in schools. Do we really say “out, get out”? How do we square this with our consciences? How do we square this with our American ideals? Will the damage to the world’s image of America be temporary or permanent? How will we like being a global social pariah? Isn’t this kind of safety and identity protection cowardice? Won’t we eventually pay a price? Isn’t it better to throw our future in with the rest of the planet instead of trying to wall ourselves off in a world full of planes and drones?

Here is how this thing looks on a very personal level. This is the contents of an email I received from the local resistance which puts a face on the President’s immigration pogrom.

 

“Community Outreach & Defense urgently calls your attention, this week, to the work of the coalition’s Rapid Response Committee. The Rapid Response Committee exists to immediately respond to immigrant detentions in the city of Syracuse and to provide support to those who are facing possible deportation. Just days before Christmas, on December 21st, 2017, the Rapid Response Team responded to the detention of Workers’ Center member Hector Navarro, husband of Arely Tomas. Later that day, the family’s ongoing fundraising page was updated with the following statement:

“Today on December 21st, Arely’s husband Hector–father to their 3 kids, a worker, and longtime community member, was detained by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) outside of their home after taking Arely, to work. He was taken to and detained at the immigration office at 401 S. Salina Street (which is right behind Katko’s downtown office) this morning. The Syracuse Rapid Response Team and the Workers’ Center of CNY held a protest outside demanding Hector be freed and to speak out against this grave injustice. It is completely and utterly unconscionable that this barbaric and unjust immigration system will be keeping Hector away from his wife, Arely, and their three kids on Christmas. This is a double blow as their family has already been rocked by Arely’s fight against deportation as well. We have increased the fundraising goal as Hector and Arely’s family will now need funds to help cover rent, utilities, and other necessities for their family. Please show your solidarity with their family in this truly harrowing time.”

Hector is currently being held in immigrant detention in Batavia, NY.

There are three ways the broader coalition can amplify the work of Rapid Response and directly support Hector Navarro:

1) Please consider contributing to Arely’s fundraiser to pay for legal fees for herself and Hector, as well as for basic living expenses. You can donate to the fundraiser by clicking here. It is also possible to pay by cash or check made out to Arely Tomas, which can be dropped off at or mailed to WCCNY/Hector and Arely Fund at 2013 East Genesee St. Syracuse NY 13210.

2) At this Sunday’s full Coalition meeting, a letter will be circulating for folks to sign in support of Hector. For those of you who do not know Hector personally, here is some more background information about him and his family, written by Rebecca Fuentes, director of the Workers Center of Central New York:

“Hector has been a source of strength and support for Arely on her own immigration case. Both of them have complied with everything ICE has asked of them. Hector case was administratively closed on January 2017, so his detention was totally unexpected and devastating for their three US children who live in Syracuse and their two children who are in Guatemala. Hector has volunteer his time at the Workers Center in events like our yearly soccer tournament and workers rights trainings. He likes to play with his children and spend time with his family as much as possible. Hector does not have any criminal record. He has lived in Syracuse since 2009.”

3) If you know Hector or Arely personally, we are encouraging individuals to write your own letters of support if you have not done so already. We are trying to collect as many letters as possible so that we can show the judge that Hector is a cherished and vital member of our community and his family.

As a reminder, a key value shared by the members of the Community Outreach & Defense Committee is that those most directly affected by an issue are the ones that know the best solutions to that issue, and for that reason we must center and uplift the work done by immigrants to defend themselves and their community. The Rapid Response Team works closely with the Workers Center of Central New York and makes efforts to remain accountable to immigrant leadership. If you are interested in getting involved in the Rapid Response Committee, please email me at dragonettij2@gmail.com. We need all the help we can get.”  (Since this email asks for support I assume it is acceptable to repost it.)

 

What I don’t understand and can’t understand is why we must disrupt people who have already found a productive place in America, regardless of how they got here. This is a case where the treatment is worse than the disease. We’re doing this because some Americans are ticked off and jealous and because our white supremacist President wants to turn America lily white again, which is apparently what Make America Great Again (MAGA) means. We’re doing this even though 2/3 of Americans are vehemently opposed to it and ethically embarrassed by it. We’re doing this although it undoes all the shock and horror we felt when our troops liberated the concentration camps after World War II and we could no longer deny the genocide, the pure inhuman carnage.

If we cower behind a wall and empty our country of these people who have become our neighbors, or our employees, or our colleagues, and fellow students will we lose our collective soul?

This is a view from the cheap seats.

 

 

Facebook Community Standards – Censorship?

 

Background

I have a Facebook account which is a public account, but only my friends, family, Facebook, and advertisers can post on my timeline. I keep my politics separate from my main Facebook account. I do have a second Facebook account for my blog, The Armchair Observer.com but it is walled off from the account for family and friends. I found this perfectly acceptable because politics is such a hot button issue right now and I don’t want to have to block family and friends or be blocked by them. My blogs are not automatically published to my timeline so family and friends do not have to read or even see them. It’s a bit sad when you can’t share what you do with family but it works and I am OK with it.

Facebook likes to make money from its business sites (which is how they categorize a blog site). They will push my blog posts out to a target audience for a fee to help me “sell” more. Sometimes I use this feature to try to find more readers. I find that most people only look at the title and the pictures and then either like a post or not. I have slowly increased my number of followers, very slowly. For the most part, the most active responders are “pod” people, right wingers who like to label my posts as “fake news” and then try to sway me with their brilliant Fox-generated arguments. I engage for a while to try to convince them to see another point of view but it is too frustrating, and will continue indefinitely because they always need to have the last word. The Facebook “sales” model doesn’t work as well when you are selling words (ideas, opinions). I feel that I base my opinions on facts, but of course right wingers have their own facts. I don’t feel quite right selling my opinions and I don’t have enough readers to make it profitable so I haven’t tried to monetize my blog.

Facebook has been under pressure from the Trump administration to track down “fake news”, trolling behaviors such as hate speech, and phony posts representing foreign meddling in American politics. Due to government pressure Facebook has been posting new rules. For example, the folks at Facebook ask lots of questions on my timeline about my privacy settings. I usually post inane things on my timeline such as images I think family members will enjoy, mostly of nature, florals, and gardens, birds and music/dance videos. I comment on the posts of the grandchildren and the great grandchildren and enjoy keeping in touch with distant family members. Once in a while, I post a glimpse of my personal life, but rarely.

Why I am Worried About Facebook Community Standards

Recently Facebook posted (on my timeline) their new Community Standards and these standards leave lots of room for subjective judgements made, I assume, by algorithms and/or people at some undisclosed location. Hopefully the policies will be applied to the most egregious offenders, but only future practice will reveal whether this will be a useful information sorting tool or arbitrary censorship. Offenders can be suspended from using Facebook, which I suppose is not the end of the world. Facebook sent me one of those memories they like to post on your timeline from something I posted a year ago. My niece sent out a plug for her travel website and I reposted it. So, when the memory (I imagine generated by Facebook) appeared I shared it again, since her website is still up and running.Facebook sent me a return message asking if my post was spam. Are they using a form of entrapment? IDK

Although I am mystified by my inability to grasp the intricacies of the privacy policy that Facebook keeps posting on my timeline, I more leery of their Community Standards. A lot can go awry when algorithms are used to attempt to make judgement calls by parsing complex content using code and mathematical methodologies. Even if there is an employee panel somewhere that is also involved in these judgements Facebook is likely to face personal pushback and, perhaps, legal issues. Depending on the stringency with which the standards are applied, free expression by sincere Facebook users may be censored along with posts by abusers.

You can find the Facebook Community Standards here: https://www.facebook.com/communitystandards

The most problematic section of the standards says:

“Our mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. Every day, people come to Facebook to share their stories, see the world through the eyes of others and connect with friends and causes. The conversations that happen on Facebook reflect the diversity of a community of more than two billion people.

We want people to feel safe when using Facebook. For that reason, we’ve developed a set of Community Standards, outlined below. These policies will help you understand what type of sharing is allowed on Facebook, and what type of content may be reported to us and removed. Sometimes we will allow content if newsworthy, significant or important to the public interest – even if it might otherwise violate our standards. Because of the diversity of our global community, please keep in mind that something that may be disagreeable or disturbing to you may not violate our Community Standards.

We remove content, disable accounts, and work with law enforcement when we believe there is a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety. Learn more about how Facebook handles abusive content.

 

  • Overview
  • Direct Threats
  • Self-Injury
  • Dangerous Organizations
  • Bullying and Harassment
  • Attacks on Public Figures
  • Criminal Activity
  • Sexual Violence and Exploitation
  • Regulated Goods”

There is more to the Standards and you can follow the link above to see the entire document including instructions for reporting material that you think breaks the rules. I guess that most of this does not apply to me except the “attacks one public figures” standard. It is unclear what is meant by an attack on a public figure. Does this include writing that is critical of the decisions, behaviors, or actions of a public figure. If I push out a blog post and a right winger objects can they file a report about my post? How close to the censorship line is Facebook likely to walk? Could this possibly squelch legitimate free speech? I do not believe that Facebook would have to make such a set of standards if our politics were not so fraught. I am interested to see how this plays out. Will I feel the sting if I am suspended by Facebook? Will I try to fight it? Will I just let it go? I do have some sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg, caught between a rock and hard place.And I would miss Messenger the most because it allows a far flung family to stay in close touch with each other, especially in times of family events or family crises.

 

 

 

 

Unseating an American President

Many Americans find our President crass, an ego-driven male drama queen, and an embarrassment. He has us frequently careening along a risky edge, using tactics (or reactions) that might be either purposely or accidentally brilliant, or exactly as overly inflammatory as they appear to be. Are we being led over the brink into World War III or will 45 somehow turn authoritarian world leaders into devoted Trumpers (heaven forfend). Just what we need, an alliance of sharks. What could go wrong? Perhaps we have taken our freedoms for granted. Perhaps we have demanded too many human rights.

Unseating an American President

Many of us like to think that we can find a way to unseat a President we feel is unfit to serve and who we feel will teach us hard lessons about how important our freedoms are and how there is no such thing as asking for too many human rights, until all humans own the rights to a productive life. We pin our hopes on the only Constitutional measures we have, impeachment or the 25th Amendment (a President can be removed if he proves unfit to serve). But you cannot impeach a President unless Congress wishes it and will vote for impeachment. With the Republican Party in charge of Congress and becoming more and more the President’s party, we understand that impeachment is not a possibility. The problem with the 25th Amendment is the pesky little detail that the President’s unfitness to serve must be provable. Proof of someone’s mental state is highly subjective unless they are incoherent or involved in harmful anti-social behaviors (and most adult Americans would have to agree about this).

Since this spoiled man-child also seems to have done an end run around the emoluments clause in the Constitution which prohibits a President from making money from foreign entities while in office, our next move has been to get shut of a person who does not have the moral fiber to be President. Previously Presidents have made trusts for their businesses to wall them off so that their personal money cannot be used as a lever of power against American interests. Previously Presidents also have been willing to present their tax returns in the interests of transparency. It bothers many of us that Trump flouts Constitutional law and tradition as he does, but our documents do not suggest repercussions.

There is also the problem that this American President, even before his election, stepped around our allies and embraced America’s enemies. He asked a nation like Russia, who we have no reason to want to be beholden to, for favors, and then used his favorite way out – consistent and vociferous denial –  until we question our own sanity. We worry that we may have elected an actual crook, involved in money laundering, to sit in our oval office. We look to Robert Mueller to prove that our President did anything at all that could be proven to be illegal, or, perhaps, treasonous, but many warn us that Trump may not be caught in this web and that he does have ways to stop this investigation however terrible the optics of this would be. Mr. Trump seems unconcerned about optics.

Other strategies

Since we seem unable to inspire our President to use a style of governing that is less hair-raising, less slash and burn, the Democratic Party has put in some solid work to recruit new, younger, and more diverse Americans to run for office on the left and to flip the majority in, at least, the House – to take back one branch of government, to restore our system of checks and balances. Will it be too little too late? Have the Dems let the GOP get away with their seditious machinations for too long? The 2018 election looks to be the best of all our options, a “blue wave” as they say, is essential to keeping this President and the GOP from wreaking havoc on our Democracy, a path he is already blazing with a vengeance.

Threat Levels and “Spidey” sense

Should Democrats and their allies be setting the threat level of the Trump-GOP government at Def Con 1 or are the Dems overreacting? Government-by-Tweet is one facet of the Trump Presidency that ups the threat level, but it’s difficult to tell if this is dangerous or just un-Presidential. However, our “Spidey” sense tingles.

We see our American President seeming to cozy up to Russia, China, Turkey, the Philippines, all nations with authoritarian leaders, and excoriating our old and loyal allies and world organizations that have backed and multiplied our power, such as the UN and NATO. Up another threat level.

We see a man who honors no bargains made by anyone except him, willing to alienate anyone in the interests of negotiating simply to prove how good he is at “the art of the deal”. The Paris Climate Agreement Accord, an admittedly toothless agreement, at least consolidated a global commitment to acknowledging and attempting to address possible causes of global warming and climate change, has been abandoned and disrespected by our chief deal maker. This seems like another attack on the other 190+ nations who signed on. He puts his marker on a denial of science, but what if he is wrong (which evidence suggests he is)?

In fact, insulting friends and even some of our rivals seems to be our President’s main MO for keeping everyone riled up, while fomenting uncertainty, and even astonishment, seems to be his sole negotiating style. He is not a nimble negotiator, switching tactics or using subtlety; he is a thug using language to belittle and then clubbing away at whatever matter he wants to change, hoping to beat everyone around the head and shoulders and pout and accuse until he gets his way. What do we gain by alienating everyone on the planet? It seems we don’t get good deals and we lose anyway in the end (as in win a battle, lose the war). Are your senses tingling yet? Does this kind of thing raise the Def Con level?

Our President cannot even seem to honor a tiny promise made by a previous President to a group of children and young adults, brought here by parents when they were too young to even understand their parent’s actions, the Dreamers. When did we start backing out of agreements made with children, a promise to let them stay in America if they are in school or have a job? Why is the DACA agreement being used as a bargaining chip to force Democrats to stop trying to block policies that are against their ideological mindset; to coerce them to look like there is bipartisanship when it is convenient to the GOP, even after the shoddy treatment offered up by the GOP over the entire duration of the Obama administration? (You could replace Dreamers and DACA with CHIP and this would still make sense.)

We are back to threats such as shutting down the government as another way to coerce Dems to look like they will bend over when even a very small, withered carrot is held out (although there is always the possibility that it will be yanked back at the last second, like that football that Lucy taunts Charlie Brown with). Do we dare extend a hand when it will likely be rejected? If we allow ourselves to be insulted at a moment when power is so one-sided, when our anger is likely to be unrequited, how much face do we lose. Should the Democrats knuckle under and let the Republican/Conservative way play out? Will it be as disastrous for America as we think it will be? Even if the Conservative way will play out regardless of what Dems do isn’t it better to be on record with our heartfelt objections and our warnings about the dangers faced by our Constitution and therefore our Democracy/Republic? Perhaps we are only at Def Con 2.

We wish that the book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House had been written by a more reputable person than Michael Wolff. It is telling that so many insiders seemed to make the same judgements about the President’s unfitness to serve. But since we are not sure about the author, and it is difficult to prove that insiders said the things that the book claims they said, this book is unlikely to get us any closer to unseating this President than have his refusals to honor the traditional interpretations of the Constitutional admonitions for proper Presidential behavior.

Not Everyone is On Board

Clearly, from my recent interactions with family and friends over the holidays and a few other family rituals, there are many Americans who are not at Def Con 1 or even Def Con 5. They claim that they hate politics, that they are not political (although they are, and vehemently, if you offer up any criticism).

They use evidence from what they see around them in their everyday lives, lives which are circumscribed by their finances and their neighborhoods. They see an improvement in the economy and they see rising employment. They are almost all retired. They do not have to work. They have health insurance. They have grandchildren who are turning out well, with a few worrisome exceptions. Most of the parental generation did not go to college but their children did. Their children were too young to be parents of millennials and just old enough to have stepped out of college into the job market while it was still strong. These offspring possess skills that have kept them employed. The “kids” have been promoted and their salaries have risen with their promotions.

Members of the parental generation are worried about rising health care costs but they blame Obamacare and immigrants/refugees and are happy with Trump’s hard line on immigration, although they may no longer be quite so gung ho about repealing Obamacare.

Their conclusions about America are based on anecdotal observations in their everyday lives and by their own feelings of well-being. It’s a small sample, perhaps 100-200 individuals and not a very diverse sample. But there are other circles of friends and family all over America who describe the same experiences, which offers them proof that Trump and the GOP are doing a good job.

Too many of them listen to FOX News or are too busy to pay much attention to any news. Their desires are simple and involve hanging onto financial and physical comfort and enjoyment of their growing small family dynasties. Vacations and socializing play a big role in the life of retirees who can afford it, which adds to their sense that all is well Their “Spidey” sense is not tingling. The contentment and complacency, along with effective propaganda which supports it, make it more difficult to communicate a sense of the danger. It is difficult to convince people who have not yet experienced even the future negative effects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that our Democracy seems to be under a rather extreme renovation, a reconstruction, which could leave us with an America which would be unrecognizable to our forefathers and eventually even to us.

Where Does that Leave Democrats?

So, the hair-on-fire Democrats, the Democrats who feel the threat level rising are finding the resistance movement or even a clarion call for a blue wave is missing people who should be on board but who have not had enough of a shift in their fortunes, or who have been convinced to blame those who have already felt that shift. We cannot count on most of white America to assist in the blue wave we need in 2018. Fortunately, there are many folks with college educations and minority folks already impacted by Conservative racism and “othering” to turn the tide given a fair election. Although things feel quite urgent, our Democracy may prove to be more resilient than we think. But if we become the CSA (Conservative States of America, funny, same as Confederate States of America) it may be decades before we are able to turn things back around to offer opportunities to advance for the middle classes and the poor.

This is a view from the cheap seats.