From Around the Web: 30 January 2017

A few links of interest from around the web:

  • Another link to The Coode Street Podcast: Episode 297: Politics and science fiction.  Of note is the discussion on the state of political science fiction, especially given that George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here are selling quite well here in the US.
  • An opinion piece in The Daily Texan, out of the University of Texas at Austin: “National political coverage obscures local threats.”  A reminder from the author that we should keep our eyes on local politics as well as national politics.
  • I’ve mostly written letters to my elected officials–I saw somewhere that this is the most effective method for reaching their staff, though I can’t recall where I saw that now–but I have made a good number of calls as well.  Greta Christina’s post, “Calling Your Elected Officials: Breaking it Down and Making it Easier,” shows us how to take some of the stress out of making those calls.  Putting my elected officials’ numbers in my phone today….

Whose Voice of America?

Though Trump’s recent executive orders speak loudly about his dangerous priorities, he may literally speak to the world through the federally-funded international broadcaster Voice of America (in more than just the usual 140 characters he’s used to communicating in).  From Politico:

President Donald Trump on Monday dispatched two aides to scope out the studios of Voice of America, heightening concerns among some longtime staffers that Trump may quickly put his stamp on the broadcasting arm that has long pushed U.S. democratic ideals across the world.

In an article from last December, NPR reported on recent changes to the governing structure of Voice of America, and the fact that VoA can aim its broadcasts into the US:

For decades, the international U.S. broadcasters were not allowed to present their programs to the United States, but that ban was lifted in 2013, accentuating the concerns of what a Trump administration might bring.

Though the director of VoA told Politco that the broadcaster isn’t “being manipulated by Trump,” Talking Points Memo notes:

Trump’s decision to dispatch aides to the Broadcasting Board of Governors also comes after Voice of America came under fire for tweets about White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s Saturday press conference during which he made false claims about the size of inauguration crowds.

The outlet initially published tweets quoting Spicer’s claims about crowd size without any context, prompting swift backlash. Voice of America then deleted one of the tweets and ran a story fact-checking Spicer’s claims.

And MSNBC reminds us about Bush’s use of VoA and asks: “Now, it’s a brand new Republican administration, led by someone with a keen interest in media. What could possibly go wrong?”


Abortion in Texas: Good News and Really, Really Scary News

First the good news, from The Texas Tribune: “U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks ruled Texas cannot require health providers to bury or cremate fetuses, delivering another blow to state leaders in the reproductive rights debate.”  So the additional cost–both financial and, especially for those who miscarried or terminated wanted pregnancies, emotional–won’t be placed on women who seek abortions.  For now, anyway.

And now, the really, really scary news: one of our state representatives has filed a bill to make abortion a felony in Texas.  From The Texas Observer:

House Bill 948 would ban and criminalize abortions at any stage, direct state officials to ignore “any conflicting federal” laws, and would no longer exempt pregnancies as a result of rape, incest or fetal abnormalities. The bill would remove the exception for abortion in the state’s penal code for criminal homicide, meaning that women and providers could face charges as serious as murder for the procedure.

You read that right.  Both “women and providers” would face punishment.  Though there have been pushes in the past to punish women for having abortions, this bill sounds an awful lot like something we’ve heard recently from Trump, doesn’t it?

No Soliciting. Really. No, Really.

I’ve lived in my neighborhood long enough to expect the Saturday morning doorbell entreaties.  You should let us inspect your roof!  You should buy this magazine!  You should donate to this cause!  Nope, nope, and nope.  Given that those who press my doorbell button usually follow up with more doorbell button pressing if I don’t answer, I try to catch folks on the first ring.

Putting up a “No Soliciting” sign helped somewhat.  It gives me something to point to when I politely tell those on my doorstep not to bother.  But it hasn’t stopped everyone.

Kids, I get.  I don’t expect junior high students selling candy to raise funds for extracurricular trips to know what “soliciting” is, much less that they’re trying to solicit donations.

I’m far less polite to “home inspectors.”  Really, if you don’t notice the “no soliciting” sign less than two inches from the doorbell button you just mashed a half-dozen times, I don’t trust your ability to inspect much of anything.  Also, you’re a scammer, so go away.

Most of the time, I get religious solicitations.  Usually, I just smile and nod and say I’m not interested.  Thou shalt not lie, right?  But this morning, I’ve been stewing on the religious encroachment on our purported freedoms, both in Texas and across the US.  And not just light refreshing vegetable stew.  Heavy, greasy, meaty stewing.  The anti-abortion march.  The abortion felony bill recently filed here in Texas.  The DeVos nomination and prayer in schools.  I could go on.  Bad, bad, overcooked stew.

So when a couple elderly women rang my doorbell this morning, I wasn’t in a mood to deal with more religious encroachment.  I opened the door and explained that my family had just sat down for lunch.  No apologies, just one of the women opening with, “Well, we’d like to share God’s word with you.”

I inhaled and stopped myself.  These women were not the cause of the issues I was nearly boiling over about. I cut her off and said, “We’re not religious.  And we have a ‘no soliciting’ sign that says no religious soliciting.  Thank you.”  They left.

Hours later, I’m left wondering if I should have had some canned response ready.  These visits come regularly, but not often enough for me to have a response in mind whenever they do come.  Dealing with religious solicitations, for me, compounds activism fatigue.  I’m tired.  Many of us are tired, exhausted by contending with what keeps getting heaped up on our plates.

So I’m not answering the door anymore.  Perhaps it’s not the best solution, or even a good one.  But it’s what I have to do for now.

Texas Governor Threatens to Remove Elected Official From Office Over Sanctuary City Policy

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, falling in line with Trump, wants to “drain away” elected officials who disagree with his views on sanctuary cities.  From The Texas Observer:

Governor Greg Abbott threatened to “remove” Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez from office and cut funding for the agency on Wednesday in response to a policy she’s planning to enact that would limit the local jail’s cooperation with federal immigration officials.

“We are working on laws that will ban sanctuary cities, remove from office any officeholder who promotes sanctuary cities and pose criminal penalties as well as financial penalties,” Abbott said during a live Fox News interview.  “… if [Hernandez] doesn’t [cooperate], we will remove her from office.”

Fortunately, there are no laws in place yet that would allow for removing Sheriff Hernandez. Unfortunately, the Texas brief legislative session has just started up.  So rather than focusing on, say, restoring school funding and other important issues, our legislature could well take up ousting elected officials, right after they’re done patting themselves on the back for the bathroom bill….

From Around the Web: 24 January 2017

Here are a few links from around these parts and around the web:

  • After this weekend’s Women’s Marches, I’d hoped to see more concrete steps from the organizers that we could take to carry forward the momentum.  Glad to see their 10 Actions, 100 Days campaign.  I’m getting my postcards ready for later this week (along with more letters).
  • And you’ve probably already seen a number of posts around FtB about the Go Fund Me page for the Carrier suit.  Chip in if you can.
  • Let’s end with a distraction.  Series 15 of the BBC Radio 4 program The Infinite Monkey Cage is under way.  Science!  Comedy!  Goodness!

Reading Group: The Left Hand of Darkness

The first time I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness years ago, I focused on the way in which gender, sex, and sexuality were portrayed in the novel and how they affected the ways in which the off-world envoy, Genly Ai, interacted with the people of Gethen.

This time around, I was primed to read the novel with a view to politics.  The Left Hand of Darkness is a novel about gender, but it’s also an exploration of governments and their machinations, and how those involved in politics can destroy one another for personal gain.

As I noted in an an earlier post, Estraven’s view of patriotism is a dark one.  Later in the novel, Ai meditates on the views of this former prime minister of Karhide:

And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, and how that yearning loyalty the had shaken my friend’s voice arises, and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry.  Where does it go wrong? p. 300

Though Estraven is proclaimed a traitor by his political enemies, we see that he is far from it.  Rather, his attempts to prevent war between Karhide and Orgoreyn– as well as his belief in Ai’s mission–that appear to work against the sovereignty and strength of Karhide are acts of loyalty to the nation.

But even this exploration of patriotism wasn’t the most poignant and politically relevant section in my reading.  Instead, it’s when Ai is jailed, and he is languishing after interrogations near a dying fellow prisoner in Pulefen Farm in the bureaucratic nation of Orgoreyn.   For days, Ai and Asra share tales from their respective homelands.  Ai reveals the differences between the genders and sexual expressions of the people of his planet and those of Gethen:

A night or two after that, he went into a coma, and presently died.  I had not learned what he had been sent to the Voluntary Farm for, what crime or fault or irregularity in his identification papers […..] p. 197

It’s easy to read the second line in light of Texas Senate Bill 6, the “Bathroom Bill,” which, if passed, would legislate use of bathrooms based on biological sex, which the bill defines as follows:

“Biological sex” means the physical condition of being male or female, which is stated on a person’s birth certificate.

Are we facing a time when birth certificates becomes identity papers of a sort?  Ones that are not only descriptive, but that help legislate a type of patriotic ideal?  What unnerves me about politics in the US at present and the supposed “greatness” national and in some cases, state, governments aim for is that this “greatness” implies a homogeneity within the population.  To be patriotic, to love and serve this great nation, implies that one must look like, must act like a patriot.  Any deviation from this “norm” is not merely a personal matter; rather, it’s an affront to the nation.  It’s criminal.  And this is where the purported love of country turns into “so foolish and vile a bigotry.”

As LeGuin asserts in her 1976 introduction to the novel, “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.”  That is, SF functions as a way to for the author to present a critique of the world as it is through the lens of speculation and metaphor.  So too the reader brings their present to the imagined future.

Climate Change is Real, Y’all

After the last few days of confirmation hearings, I’m wondering if something’s in the water, or in the environment anyway.  Anyone else think it’s odd that climate change deniers Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, and Rick Perry have all changed course on their total skepticism about anthropogenic global warming?

One can hope that it’s because they’re listening to scientists on this issue.  But I fear other forces may have contributed to these reversals.  I suppose we’ll find out when we see what policies are put into place by the agencies they’ve been nominated to head, and, ultimately, who those policies favor.

Open Book for 19 January 2017

Most recent stack of letters that went out to elected officials.

The most recent stack of letters that went out to elected officials yesterday.  Yes, that’s a Star Trek stamp above the New Horizons stamp. 

Though I’ve been writing quite a bit lately, the bulk of what I’ve written has been to my elected officials regarding the confirmation hearings and the Affordable Care Act, among other things.  The same for reading: it’s all been about proposed bills and potentially disastrous nominees.

That said, I am trying to read more poems, especially political poems.  There’s something energizing about political poems that manage to capture both the urgency of the situation as well as the personal, even if the speaker of the poem isn’t the author.  So it was with this morning’s poem from Rattle, Abby E. Murray’s “Poem for My Daughter Before the March.”

Which brings me to the first of the Open Book posts, in which I ask, “What are you reading?”

From the Archive: Space, Science, Stamps, and Storytelling

Just used up the last of my stamps on letters to elected officials.  Time to order more.  This post on postage stamps is from January 2016.  I’ll order more flag stamps, given my audience.  Though I have thought about going with Wonder Woman next time….

Admission: I buy far more postage stamps than I’ll ever need for the cards and letters I mail. Something about the imagery—these neat presentations of nature and history and culture—combined with the utility of stamps makes them irresistible. To me, anyway. So, of course, I was excited to see the preview of the USPS’s 2016 stamps, specifically the ones that feature present and former planets and the moon.

Messenger stamps, still unopened

Mercury Messenger stamps, still unopened

The images on these stamps are fascinating, but the visuals interested me less than what I’m hoping their presence signals. Given that many in the US Congress engage is so much science denial, for instance, it’s good to see images of the eight planets and Pluto accompanied by information on the missions and technology that made these images possible. We as citizens need to support this sort of research. And putting eye-catching representations of the results of that research on something as public as stamps will, I hope, bring this need to our collective attention, if in a small way.

Here’s where you’re probably wondering why I’m writing about something as trivial as postage stamps, even if they can promote the wonders of science. Letter writing is essentially a luxury hobby engaged in by a rather small subset of the US population. And most stamps won’t be used for letters but for mailing bills and other business correspondence in circumstances wherein the imagery most likely won’t be noticed.

That said, let’s look at another of the 2016 stamps: those celebrating Star Trek. Yes, Star Trek is science fiction, not science. It’s become part of our national mythos, part of the story that we tell about ourselves as Americans. We’re willing and able to go to the moon; we’re contemplating going to Mars. Why not further out? Why not work—peacefully, with other nations, with a focus on discovery—toward the sort of future Star Trek allows us to imagine ourselves in?

This story telling is the sort of conscientious activity that letter writing is: we craft who we are, who we want to be. Sticking a stamp on a letter may be a minor part of that process, but it is very much a part of it. So yes, there are postage stamps with images of planets and information on how those images were obtained, and that’s a good start. But it’s not enough. Quite often, people deny scientific claims for religious reasons, and religions abound with stories that their respective followers can find themselves in. Anecdotes function in much the same way to promote unfounded health claims. What we need as a nation is more ways of getting ourselves individually and collectively into the stories science tells us.

Can a postage stamp do that? Probably not. But it’s a start.