The Politics of Obstruction

Alan Zendell, March 17, 2023,

“The minority wins when Congress accomplishes less.” Long time Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD) attributed that statement to former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA). In a nutshell, it summarizes the philosophy of obstructionism that has dominated Congressional politics whenever Republicans have been in the minority since Gingrich gained control of his House caucus in the 1980s.

Political differences have always been fierce in Congress; one led to the Civil War. But obstructionism as a political weapon has only been a major force since the ’90s. Strong opposition is normal and healthy in public debate. The alternative is one-party domination, a slippery slope to Fascism and autocracy. But obstruction is opposition on steroids, to the point at which the line between partisanship and responsible governing is blurred to insignificance.

Both parties practice obstructionism, but it has become a mantra for Republicans. It was Gingrich who introduced the idea of using the annual increase in the federal debt ceiling as a cudgel, taking an outdated procedural rule and weaponizing it. He engineered two shutdowns of the federal government during the Clinton administration in failed attempts to blackmail the White House into accepting serious cuts in welfare and Medicaid spending.

We use the same strategy in war, in athletic competition, and in the games we play. I did it myself as a fourteen-year-old when I was shamed into playing chess against the youth champion in the state where I spent the summer. I knew I had no chance to win, but I was just barely a good enough player to frustrate the hell out of my adolescent opponent. Instead of trying to win, I spent the entire game obstructing him, upsetting him enough to force a draw.

In chess, that was fair game, because there was nothing at stake but our youthful pride. When two football teams do it, we sit on the edges of our seats as they fight out a low-scoring match that goes down to the wire – but here, too, there’s nothing at stake except which team wins. With politicians, it’s a very different matter. If a game ends in a zero-zero tie, we put it in the record books and move on to the next one. But if every vote in Congress maintains the status quo, the country is in grave trouble.

That mentality has metastasized in recent years. Donald Trump’s Big Lie and his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election were based on similar tactics. January 6th was an attempt to re-interpret a symbolic vote to ratify the votes of the states’ electors to unconstitutionally imbue it with the power to change the outcome. We might have lost both our Constitution and our Republic that day, because some of our leaders cared more about power than living up to their oath to defend them.

Threatening to shut down the government or actually doing it has never been a successful strategy because the consequences are severe enough that only the most radical and irresponsible Members held out till the end. Mitch McConnell, one of the worst practitioners of obstructionism in our history, distanced himself from the latest round of threats, because he knows that shutting down the government can do irreparable harm to the country. But the radicals of the MAGA movement, enabled by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s lust for power: Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, et al, are either too ignorant to understand or craven enough not to care how much damage they do.

Failing to raise the debt ceiling and sending the nation into default could be the feather that causes our markets to crash, a crippling blow to our waning influence in the world with the threat of nuclear war looming in Europe. If we manage to avoid the worst, obstructionism can lead to a slower, more agonizing death. The immediate effect of stifling the legislative process is governing through executive action, a process that can only be effective over the short term. Every executive action can be erased the next time the majority changes. Thus, no one, not individuals, not business owners, not local governments, and most seriously, not our allies can count on the longevity of American policy.

This outs the real Big Lie of MAGAism. Far from assuring America’s greatness, this kind of irresponsible politics is the surest way to destroy it. The best thing it can result in is chaos. Once people lose confidence in the government, life savings and investments could disappear overnight, millions of jobs could be lost, major industries could be devastated.

In Joe Biden we have a President whose hand is steady on the wheel of government, who never lowers himself to that kind of politics. I’m confident that there are enough people in Congress who share his commitment to governing that the crazies won’t win – this time.

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Financial Instability

Alan Zendell, March 13, 2023

The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and its subsequent shutdown by California regulators and the FDIC brought back nightmarish memories of the financial crisis of 2008. That one happened so fast, we didn’t have much time to panic before the federal government stepped in to bail out banks that were too big to fail. It was only after things had been stabilized that we were told the whole truth – that our entire financial system had come close to collapsing.

The most convincing evidence of how serious things were was the way the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama people worked smoothly together to institute reforms and restore confidence in the system. In a time of already heightened divisiveness, the relative lack of partisan sniping and finger-pointing was a clear indication of how much jeopardy we were in.

The banking crisis was also a poignant reminder that those on the far right who advocate weakening the federal government and giving much of its regulatory authority to the states are playing politics with the financial security of our country. Without the resources of the federal treasury and the government’s flexibility to react globally in a timely manner, we might have found ourselves in the middle of a second Great Depression. It’s also a hopeful reminder that when the chips are really down, most of our leaders are able to put partisanship aside and govern.

Major bank failures are always scary, but the Biden administration acted quickly to avoid panic. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen coordinated the rapid emergency response that enabled the President to speak reassuringly to the nation this morning. Does that mean everything is fine, that there’s no risk of a financial collapse?

There’s more than one right answer to that question. On one hand, I learned in thirty-seven years of working for the feds that every high-level speech and press release is entirely about spin and influencing public opinion. I’m not implying that Biden was lying, although assuming that his assurances are a hundred percent reliable, or that there’s not a lot more information out there that wasn’t revealed would be naïve. Every president weighs what the public is told, whether it’s about a financial crisis, a war, a pandemic, or an investigation of wrongdoing. It’s like a scene from one of those disaster movies about an asteroid causing an extinction event. The president says to his cabinet, “We’re all doomed, but only we know we have no chance of surviving. What would be gained by telling everyone?”

So maybe the world banking system is secure and maybe it’s like a huge dam with serious cracks. We can only be sure that our best financial people are working on it, and the more serious the problem turns out to be, the more likely it is that everyone – the White House, the Congress, and the Courts, if necessary, will work together to fix it.

The problem I see is that a potential banking crisis cannot be isolated from every other major policy decision. In today’s world, they’re all inextricably tied to each other. What if the cost of shoring up our financial system is a trillion dollars or more? How do we, as a nation pay for it? We’re already facing serious challenges from House Republicans on whether to approve an increase in the debt ceiling and what measures should be taken to reduce our current deficit.

We all know the drill. Do we repeal the Trump tax cuts that cost the treasury almost three trillion dollars? Do we severely reduce services for welfare, education, Medicaid, and Medicare? Do we cut back on our essential investment in converting to renewable energy so we’re no longer dependent on Russian or Middle Eastern oil? Or do we decide we can no longer afford to support Ukraine in repulsing Russia’s invasion, thus setting up a Neville Chamberlain-like scenario in Europe, increasing the likelihood  of nuclear war?

Whether you’re a tax-hating Conservative, a Progressive, or a Libertarian, it’s time to realize that extremist solutions won’t solve this problem. In the end, there’s only so much to go around. In the event of a serious looming catastrophe, the world economy, in the short run, is a zero-sum game that will require a careful triage analysis. The wealthiest among us who have benefitted greatly from the growing influence of the far right will have to step up and pay their share, simply because no one else can. And the Bernie Sanders advocates who want every social problem fixed, today, will have to accept that the survival of the country and the world economy take precedence.

The failure of the Silicon Valley Bank could be a helpful development if in the end, it forces us to refocus on our real priorities and put politics aside.

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A Matter of Perspective

Alan Zendell, March 5, 2023,

I just had a milestone birthday, the kind that makes you step back and think. My family made it really special for me – one son bought me a ride next to a NASCAR driver taking curves at the Daytona Raceway at 180 mph, my wife hosted a wonderful dinner at one of Central Florida’s finest restaurants; and my other son gave us round trip plane tickets to visit him in California. I had a party with my grandsons, and I netted $52 from the lottery tickets people gave me.

My sister gave me a wonderful gift, a beautiful, hardbound book filled with New York Times front pages from the day I was born and each of my subsequent birthdays. It’s especially fitting. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and those pages reminded me of what life was like in the city where I grew up.

The first page, from the first day of my life, was a startling reminder of how different the world was. I was born sixteen months after Japan destroyed our Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Europe was overrun by the Fascist/Nazi armies of Germany and Italy, and most of east Asia was occupied by Japanese forces. March 3, 1943 was a dire time for Americans. We were at war, but most of those sixteen months was needed to rebuild our Navy and gear up every factory capable of producing warplanes, tanks, and every kind of munition and weapon.

The British were carrying most of the combat load in Europe, but American industry had enabled them to halt the Nazi advance, and a rapidly growing force of newly trained American soldiers and sailors were itching to join the fight. In the Pacific, in addition to massive gains on the Asian mainland, the Japanese occupied every strategic island within bombing distance of their homeland, until the American, British, and Australian navies halted their expansion.

We’ve spent the last few years in an environment of constantly worsening divisiveness. We’re still experiencing the worst pandemic in a century, and after living with nuclear weapons for my entire life, we are engaged in an existential fight for survival with revisionist elements in Russia and a more subtle, but equally critical struggle with China. My life began twenty-four years after the end of “the war to end all wars,” yet, one generation later we were involved in an all-out battle for world domination.

Today’s headlines are about finding a way to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine without setting off a nuclear conflagration, about a worldwide struggle between authoritarianism and democracy, and about an insurrectionist element in our own Congress who seem to treat the January 6th, 2021 attack on the U. S. Capitol as the starting point for a second civil war, rather than the one-time act of madness it was. But overall, despite our very serious problems, Americans are far better off today than they were in 1943.

War news back then was more government propaganda than facts. President Roosevelt’s assurances that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, and Winston Churchill’s exhortation to every Brit to fight on the beaches to the bitter end needed to be backed up with positive news. Thus, the headlines on March 3, 1943 were about the RAF staging a massive bombing raid on Berlin, 900 tons of bombs in thirty minutes, and American forces in North Africa pushing the enemy back in Tunisia. They were about rationing meat, cheese, sugar, butter, and gasoline, and practicing air raid drills. We applauded advances by Russia’s forces on three fronts, but those fronts were the same ones we read about today in Ukraine. 2022 wasn’t the first time Ukrainians had to defend their territory against an overwhelmingly superior force, and they did so brilliantly. General Douglas MacArthur was lauded for disrupting Japanese convoys, and way down in the lower left-hand corner of page one was a warning that New York was about to be inundated in heavy snow.

It was a terrifying time, whether you were directly involved in combat, or a wife, mother, or child of someone who was. German and Japanese submarines lurked off our coasts and wreaked havoc with our shipping and troop transports. Today, the defense of Ukraine has cost us in increased defense expenditures and higher prices for energy, but more Americans have jobs, enough to eat, and a safe place to live than ever before. Despite the risk of allowing Russia to continue its expansionist policies, some of our elected leaders prefer to use that struggle for political gains.

In 1943, Americans accepted the need for sacrifice, because the threat to our nation was visible and imminent. But there was another difference. It may have been misguided, but we believed almost to a person, that we were in the right. We knew America was where the good guys lived, and that freedom comes with a price.

I was lucky. My father and my uncles got home safely. They celebrated a great victory. Today, we gripe about taxes and the cost of gasoline, when back then a good day was one on which no one received a letter from the War Department informing them that their loved one had died bravely defending his country.

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Politics or Treason?

Alan Zendell, February 23, 2023

In the past week, several events in the global struggle to defend democracy and freedom occurred virtually simultaneously. In no particular order, they are:

  • President Biden made a secret trip to Kyiv to stand with Ukrainian President Zelensky amid the blaring of air raid sirens set off by a Russian MIG fighter approaching Kyiv’s airspace.
  • Chinese leader Xi Jinping promised a peace plan by week’s end that would resolve the dispute between Russia and Ukraine and respect every nation’s sovereignty, while hinting that China may provide military support to Russia. China already provides financial support by importing much of the oil Russia can’t sell to Europe.
  • A bipartisan delegation led by House Republicans visited Kyiv to stand with Zelensky. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was part of the delegation, said that defeating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the single most important thing happening in the world today.
  • Matt Gaetz, one of the small group of extreme right-wing House Republicans that refuse to support Speaker Kevin McCarthy, proposed a resolution stating that we are suffering from “Ukraine Fatigue,” suggesting that the commitment by Biden and the majority of Republicans cannot be counted on indefinitely.
  • Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, in a speech that coincided with Biden’s visit to Kyiv, said we should not be defending NATO’s eastern border with Russia when we can’t defend our own border with Mexico, while former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who is already running for president, argued for a more aggressive stance against Russia.
  • Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene said red states should secede from the United States. DeSantis, while not advocating the breakup of the United States, argued strongly in favor of intensifying the culture wars which have already caused irreparable differences among Americans.

My chief takeaway is that the actions of the radical right-wing of House Republicans have reached a new high in irresponsibility, bordering on treason. They are the same people who still cling to the lie that Biden stole the 2020 election from Trump, who played active roles in the January 6th insurrection and supported dozens of attempts to undermine the Constitution when they refused to certify the electors who were required by law to confirm Biden’s victory. On the other hand, while their politics was spawned by Trump, they seem to be marching to their own anarchistic tune and ignoring Trump’s campaign speeches, further dividing their own party.

I expect no less from Gaetz and Greene, but DeSantis? There’s a long-standing, unwritten rule that you never undercut the president when he’s on foreign soil negotiating on behalf of American national security interests. But DeSantis, who is coy about his intent to challenge Biden in 2024, delivered a message that might have undermined NATO’s entire effort to defend Ukraine, had other Republicans not simultaneously spoken in unison in support.

DeSantis is a very smart man. Unlike Trump, whose diplomatic acumen redefines the cliché about bulls in china shops, he understands every nuance of foreign and domestic policy. He has decided that his path to the White House is essentially a search and destroy mission. In 2016, Trump’s backers understood that there was a very angry minority of Americans who would respond positively to his reckless attacks on the establishment. DeSantis obviously believes there is an even larger group of Americans who encompass Trumpism and are so anti-Washington and anti-Biden, that he can use their anger to overthrow the status quo both domestically and diplomatically.

He may not have used the same words as Representative Greene, but the message was the same. The right wing’s desire to focus on the culture war that pits white, male Americans against everyone else, regardless of the obvious damage the divisiveness in the country has caused, knows no limits. In just a couple of days, their loudest spokespersons openly advocated formally splitting the country in two and undermining support for NATO and Ukraine, putting political gains at home ahead of the existential threat of nuclear-armed adversaries who have shown that they intend to reset the world order.

I’ll leave the legalisms to people qualified in constitutional law, but in purely lay terms, what could be more treasonous than advocating a new civil war or deliberately undercutting your Commander in Chief during wartime? The people who advocate such things presage the dissolution of everything Americans were raised to believe in, but there’s hope.

The State of Georgia is close to issuing indictments against some of the worst offenders, and the foreperson of the Special Grand Jury convened to study the efforts to overturn Georgia’s choice of Biden in 2020 hinted that Trump and more than a dozen of his loudest supporters may face serious criminal charges. We can only hope that presenting clear evidence of criminal acts will set Americans back on course.

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Ukraine and China

Alan zendell, February 18, 2023

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reaches its first anniversary…I find it difficult to even finish this sentence. The very idea of a vicious war raging in Europe for a full year with no end in sight is horrifying. And this is more than just a war. The Russian military vastly outnumbers and outguns the Ukrainians, and while Ukraine is fighting a defensive battle for its survival, Russia is razing cities to the ground, targeting and killing civilians by the thousands, and its only justification is Vladimir Putin’s assertion that Ukraine has no right to be an independent nation.

That’s because it wasn’t independent until the dissolution of the Soviet Union thirty years ago. The fledgling nation has struggled with corruption, organized crime, and economic instability, in large part because of Russian infiltration. But what began as Putin’s pipe dream of restoring the former Soviet empire has become an embarrassing debacle. His military, thought to be one of the most formidable in the world, has shown itself to be badly trained, unmotivated, and poorly equipped with mostly obsolete, badly maintained equipment. Beyond that, the unprovoked brutality of Russia’s tactics are visible for the entire world to see. Except for rogue regimes like North Korea, even governments that feel supportive of Russia in general have not spoken out in support of the invasion.

Russia has seen its military hardware decimated and its supplies of missiles, drones, and ammunition run out, so it is reduced to begging assistance from countries like Iran, North Korea, and China, and even re-supplied with munitions and hundreds of thousands of recruits thrown into the fight, the media talking heads are nearly unanimous in predicting that Ukraine will beat back the new assault planned for Spring – unless Russia resorts to using nuclear weapons. The war has turned into a dangerous game of chicken with Putin under attack domestically and a pariah in the eyes of most of the world, and his country’s economy badly suffering from sanctions.

While no one completely discounts the possibility that Putin might be obsessed and crazy enough to risk all-out war with NATO, most observers believe he will lose politically and ultimately be blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths, the destruction of entire cities, and the displacement of millions of people, not to mention a looming possible economic collapse at home. Russia’s allies see that as well as we do, and no one wants to be on the losing side, even if it’s their friend who’s losing.

I believe Putin is continuing the war, and will be even more brutal in its second year, because he believes the Trump wing of the Republican Party will undermine American support for Ukraine, which could well result in the dissolution of NATO that President Biden did such an amazing job of shoring up. As NATO prepares to expand by including Russia’s neighbor, Finland, the question is whether Putin is so committed to his war that he’s willing to risk total destruction. Perhaps that’s why leaders of nations like India, Iran, and China are not speaking publicly in Putin’s defense. It’s almost certainly why China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed the Munich Security Conference about the need to end the “warfare” in Ukraine.

Observers who like to parse such things note that it was the first time a representative of the Chinese government used that word concerning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Wang went on to say the raging war must end, and that China will soon propose a peace settlement that respects the sovereignty of all nations. On its face, that statement sounds far more supportive of Ukraine than Russia, because Ukrainian President Zelensky says Ukraine will fight until all Russian forces withdraw from Ukrainian territory. But not so fast…is it likely that China will live up to that statement, given its own threats against Taiwan? China’s attitude toward Taiwan is very similar to Russia’s claim that Ukraine has no right to be a sovereign nation.

If China follows through and is willing to throw its weight behind respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, it could be a crucial contribution to the future of a stable world order. If it’s true, and not just diplomatic spin, China’s intervention at the ministerial level could be the most constructive initiative of the twenty-first century. Whether or not Putin can rein in his ambitions and accept the humiliation of defeat, Russia’s allies clearly have no interest in being the collateral damage of a third world war, assuming such a conflict would leave enough standing to rebuild.

From the point of view of the United States, I’ll be watching to see if new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy retains enough integrity to separate himself from Trump and crazies like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene. America has a long tradition of uniting and putting its differences aside when the nation’s security is at stake. If we don’t, the entire world is in great jeopardy.

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State of the Union, 2023

Alan Zendell, February 9, 2023

Article II of our Constitution requires that the President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” It’s a simple, expository decree that tells us a fair amount about how the founders pictured it happening. The first thing that jumped out at me was that the President is referred to as “he.” Does that mean that if Hilary Clinton had won in 2016 she’d have been exempt from having to address Congress?

More to the point, the formal, yet casual phrasing suggests a sedate process in which the President executes his duty to keep the country informed and takes responsibility for initiating the debate on what projects ought to be funded in the coming year. It’s almost as if Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton foresaw a Congress populated by responsible adults whose primary concern was governing the country. Congress would eagerly await the sage advice of the nation’s leader, and “he” would deliver it in sober unemotional tones.

That’s a sweet fairy tale. As we know, our founders weren’t shy about expressing their differences, as their heated arguments over federalism proved. The competition for power between states’ rights and central authority and between the Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government was in full swing in the 1780s. Given the tradition of loud, often acrimonious debate in Britain’s House of Commons, which was the model from which our Congress was designed, they surely understood that the annual State of the Union would not be a paragon of harmony and unity.

I doubt, however, that they imagined the spectacle the SOU has become. In my lifetime, it was usually an opportunity for the President to tout his accomplishments and express his goals for the coming year. The tradition of Representatives and Senators rising with polite applause to signal their agreement or silently sitting on their hands to express disapproval took on the form of an annual ritual. As such it was predictable, with a rhythm of its own, and since we generally knew the positions of all the key players in advance, rather boring unless you find rites of passage inherently fascinating.

I’m of two minds about this year’s SOU. On one hand, President Biden gave a pretty accurate reading of the accomplishments of his administration, working with the previous Congress, to reach bipartisan agreement whenever possible. The speech was powerful and effective, reaching out to several constituencies, communicating how the last two years of surprisingly robust legislation affected each of them. The audience rose and cheered or sat mum predictably. But what was most apparent was the degree to which the divisions in our country have come to dominate our politics.

On display was a Democratic Party that, at least for that one evening, put on a show of unity rarely seen in recent years. Also on display was a Republican Party looking like an iceberg about to calve into fragments. In January, the world watched Kevin McCarthy demonstrate that the only thing he cared about was being elected Speaker of the House, regardless of what it cost both his party and the country he’d sworn to govern responsibly. We saw him compromise his principles and integrity daily, as the most rabid adherents to Trump’s MAGA philosophy ripped him apart like sharks going after a kill, then danced and mocked him on their pet media outlets.

Regardless of which side you favor, it was apparent to everyone that McCarthy does not now and probably never will be able to control and unify his party. That means the party has no platform, no plan for the future except obstructing everything the President and his party put forth. That’s not a political statement, just an obvious conclusion. While McCarthy sought to have his party conduct themselves with decorum, showing respect for the institutions of government if not for a President they despise, the gang of Trumpers, led by Marjorie Taylor Greene behaved like rude, unruly children.

The result was a party and a Congress in disarray. Equally unseemly were reports that White House staff cheered and fist-bumped when Biden baited the MAGA crew and they went after him with bared fangs, while he smiled benignly. As a performance on the world stage, it was embarrassing, and perhaps worse, with the world watching to see whether America still has what it takes to lead the Free World, it was chilling. How can we expect our allies to have confidence in us when we openly parade our dysfunction for everyone to see?

The State of the Union was never intended to be a gladiatorial fight to the death, nor was it intended to be a contest of crude, vulgar behavior on the part of those who govern us.

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Global Priorities

Alan Zendell, February 6, 2023

If you read my recent post, Connectedness, you’ll recall that I ended it by suggesting that we, as Americans and citizens of Earth may have our priorities upside down. Most of our stress during the past year centered around political dysfunction, craven politicians putting greed and power ahead of governing, domestic gun violence, and the war in Ukraine. Those are all very serious problems that threaten our very existence, but one event that the news media quickly put to rest represented a far more serious threat than all of them.

Two weeks ago, Mother Nature reminded us who or what controls the real power over our lives. Though most of us never gave it a thought until Morgan Freeman, playing the President of the United States, informed us that Mom had arranged a mass extinction event, as a large asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, such potential catastrophes could occur at any moment. In fact, the near certainty that one day Earth will be devastated by such a collision is a major motivating force driving our exploration of space and neighboring planets. Humanity may need another place to live one day.

Yesterday, in case we failed to get the message, Mom sent us another reminder. A series of major earthquakes struck the area around Turkey’s border with Syria. The death toll, based on bodies recovered in the first twenty-four hours was nearly 4,000, and likely to go much higher as whole cities and towns were turned into piles of rubble, burying countless innocent people. That initial death count already far exceeds the number of people killed on nine-eleven and if casualties pile up as expected, it will easily surpass the annual number of U. S. deaths from mass shootings per year, and will very likely surpass the total of more than 7,000 Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Do we need more reminders? We all learned about the evolution of climate cycles in school. A couple of billion years ago, Earth’s surface temperature was far too high to support most life. As the planet cooled, life of every form and type flourished. Earth’s climate went through many changes since then, too. Left to her own devices, Mother Nature brought us ice ages and extended periods during which deserts expanded to cover most of the surface. Sea levels rose and fell, and our polar ice caps increased in size and shrunk again as conditions changed. Whole seas dried up, continents moved, some islands disappeared, and others suddenly rose from the ocean floor.

Events like those of the last two weeks may have reminded us where the real power in the universe lies, but if the past is any indication, we’ll conveniently forgot those lessons as soon as they leave our television screens. Our politicians tear their hair and clamor each time a lunatic with a gun mows down innocent people and then breathe a sigh of relief that they didn’t actually have to tackle the problem when the public moves on to more important things like which team makes the playoffs this year. In the same way, since Nature’s warnings are few and far between, we express horror, today, at the scenes of devastation in Turkey, but a month from now, half our politicians will still find it in their self-interest to deny that climate change is an equally serious existential threat.

It’s difficult enough to convince people that the gradual increase in average surface temperature on Earth is a threat when 100 million people spend a week under record-low winter temperatures and ice storms. Yet, the science is clear – every responsible scientist not in the pay of people who profit from maintaining the status quo accepts it. Rising sea levels, melting ice caps, thawing tundra in the arctic and Antarctic releasing huge volumes of methane and biological terrors all pose serious threats to our children and grandchildren. Climate change threatens food production and ocean currents like the Gulf Stream that keep land masses more than about forty degrees north or south of the equator habitable. It results in more frequent and violent hurricanes, tornadoes and extreme swings in local weather patterns.

There are some things we know with certainty. While climate change is a natural phenomenon, we know that carbon emissions and heat pollution accelerate the process from one that takes thousands of years to events that can occur in a single generation. The worldwide use of fertilizers and the burning of fossil fuels change our atmosphere, causing it to retain heat from the sun, rather than allowing it to radiate back into space.

It’s really a simple process at the macro level, yet we never seem heed the old adage: “Don’t f**k with Mother Nature.”

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Alan Zendell, January 29, 2023,

Eastern philosophies like Hinduism and Buddhism treat spirituality differently than Western religions. While each applies its own spin, what they have in common is a belief that everything in the universe is connected. Life and death are a continuum, not a beginning and an end, and there’s the idea of karma. Not to put too fine a point on it, karma is about fate or inevitability, that we are responsible for what befalls us, based on how our actions measure up against what the universe considers good or bad.

Raised in the Judeo-Christian part of the world, we see things differently from people who grew up elsewhere. As westerners, we tend to focus on individuals, our personal destinies and fortunes. Asian cultures think more collectively; ideologies like Communism aside, eastern societies think more in terms of the masses than individuals. Similar differences relate to time. We tend to live in the present and the immediate future – how we feel, what we’re doing, what may occur tomorrow. Eastern cultures take a longer view, thus the pan-Asian tradition of each generation sacrificing for the good of future ones.

Perhaps that’s why western governments tend to be transitory. The combination of democracy and individualism produces governments that can change sharply every few years, while Asian countries tend toward stable, more autocratic and therefore, predictable societies. The same is true for the way people relate to their families and ancestors. The point is, our planet is split into groups that think about their lives very differently from each other. Those differences struck me in a surprising and unusual way this month.

Consider the idea of threats to our existence. Our news media have reported them at four very different levels in the last few weeks. In the United States, we’ve seen a record number of mass shootings so far in 2023. reports 78 deaths and 176 injuries that also changed the trajectories of the lives of the thousands of people they touched. Politically, we hear cries from both sides – from the left that the MAGA movement is an existential threat to democracy, and from the right, that progressivism is a threat to individual rights.

At the international level, the world is struggling to come to terms with a recalcitrant Russia that seems determined to pursue its war in Ukraine, regardless of how many other nations are united against it, raising the specter of the existential threat of nuclear extinction we’ve lived with since World War 2. And just in the last few days, we were reminded of an even worse threat that effects us all, one that makes all the rest seem petty and almost trivial, and reminds us that everything really is connected to everything else in ways we rarely think about.

The effect of the death of every person from needless gun violence spreads like ripples in a pond to friends, relatives, and everyone who sees it played out endlessly in the media. Political divisions have split our country into opposing armed camps bent on destroying each other. The war in Ukraine already affects a billion people in North America and Europe – we’re all involved whether we like it or not. But two days ago, I began to see all that differently.

Early this week, a Ukrainian telescope maker and amateur astronomer, who had previously discovered the first known interstellar comet, made another startling discovery. Gennadiy Borisov, working in Russian-occupied Crimea, discovered a previously unknown asteroid the size of an SUV, in near-Earth space. A couple of nights ago, it passed within 2,200 miles of Earth, the closest near-collision with a significant astronomical body in modern times. We were never in danger from the asteroid, and had it entered our atmosphere, it likely would have turned into a spectacular fireball that sprayed a few chunks of rock into the South Atlantic.

But – in 2013, an asteroid roughly three times its size created a shock wave over southern Russia that shattered windows for hundreds of miles. What if this new asteroid had been even bigger, and it had been on a collision course with Earth while a battle for control of Crimea was underway, preventing Borisov from discovering it? What if, unchalenged, it impacted Kyiv, Moscow, Berlin, or Paris? Millions could have died, with consequences affecting the entire planet.

Western religions tell us God works in mysterious ways to effect His plan for us. Eastern philosophies say basically the same thing, attributing those effects to the unknown forces that control the universe. I’m struck by the connectedness of it all, and that makes me wonder if our priorities are all wrong. Perhaps we’re focused on the wrong things, fighting the wrong battles, when we should be concentrating our resources on the long-term survival and welfare of all of us.  

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Alan Zendell, January 24, 2023

Several scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War 2 established the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and its iconic Doomsday Clock after atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Midnight on the Doomsday Clock represents the annihilation of life on Earth, and every year since 1947, scientists have reset the Clock’s time to reflect current world conditions. Originally, the Clock was used as a signpost for the risk of nuclear war, but in recent years the time resets have also reflected the incidence of plagues and pandemics, the likelihood of biological warfare, the condition of the world food supply, climate change, and the stability of major governments.

When the Soviet Union exploded its first hydrogen bomb in 1953, the Doomsday Clock was set to two minutes to midnight, the first time it had been that close to The End. As the Cold War dragged on, the minute hand gradually receded until, after arms limitation treaties were put in place and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was set to seventeen minutes to midnight. Since then, however, the rise of terrorism, nine-eleven, and ever-increasing tensions with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, caused the time to creep back toward midnight.

In 2018, nuclear tensions and inaction on mitigating climate change resulted in the clock being set to two minutes to midnight for the second time, where it remained in 2019. Trump’s trade war, the weakening of NATO, and a huge increase in cyber-attacks and the spread of false information caused the Bulletin to reset the clock to 100 seconds to midnight in 2020; COVID and its resulting impact on world economies kept it there through 2022. Today, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the daily risk of escalation of that conflict came home to roost, as the Doomsday Clock was set to ninety seconds to midnight for 2023, the closest it has ever been to total annihilation.

Does that mean we’re doomed? Certainly not. The Doomsday Clock is a metaphor, but one we ignore at our peril. In the minds of some of our most brilliant scientists, we are closer to destroying ourselves than ever before. The good news is that Europe and the NATO alliance are more united than they’ve been since the Berlin Airlift in 1948. That’s surely a better situation than one in which Putin is allowed to create havoc throughout Europe, with China, Iran, and North Korea licking their lips in anticipation of the fall of the West. But it also increases the risk of direct confrontation between the world’s nuclear powers, and Putin rattles his nuclear sabers every time his military suffers a setback in Ukraine.

There are also a lot of other ominous signs. Since Trump’s MAGA movement took hold, our democracy has been under siege, and it’s not just in America. Hungary leans more toward Fascism every year. That and the recent attempted coup in Brazil, mimicking Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election are warnings we can’t afford to disregard. If you’ve felt that the world seemed to be spinning out of control lately, perhaps what you’ve been sensing is the minute hand moving ominously closer to 12:00.

We don’t have to look beyond our own borders to see worrisome signs. America is in the throes of major change, and it’s impossible to know where it will lead in the end. Will MAGA recede into the annals of history, or in the worst case, will it come storming back to wreck our democratic institutions? Less chilling, but still very dangerous, is the likelihood that our political divisiveness will paralyze our ability to act decisively, or worse, convince our allies that they can no longer rely on our leadership. If the newly elected Republican leadership in the House is willing to threaten to limit military aid to Ukraine, to bring us to the edge of default, and to prevent any meaningful legislation from being passed, that can only embolden our enemies, and emboldened enemies are prone to making rash decisions that blow up in everyone’s face.

We could take the view that there’s nothing we can do to keep the Clock from ticking toward midnight, but that would be a tragic mistake. There’s a lot we can do as individual Americans, because America is the most important stabilizing force in the world. We must find a way to silence those who seek public office, not to defend our Constitution, but to undermine it for their own profit and power. Pundits like to tell us all politics is local, but if fringe districts with petty grievances keep putting people in Congress who don’t even recognize the sanctity of our elections, then maybe we are doomed, after all. Even the cockroaches might not survive this time.

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The Land of Opportunity

Alan Zendell, January 19, 2023

Once upon a time, there was a mythical place called America, where the free and the brave lived, to which everyone looked as the Land of Opportunity. Each generation of Americans, especially those not far removed from immigrant status, lived the promise that their children would have more and live better than they did. In an evil, oppressive world, America was where the good guys lived. Flush from victory over the Nazis and other Fascists, it was the savior of the Free World. It and its neighbor, Canada, were the only major nations that were relatively untouched by the war, no bombed-out cities or devastated industries, and no one could threaten them because only America had the atomic bomb.

In school, I learned a sanitized version of America’s history of slavery and genocide, and the Russians soon had thermonuclear weapons of their own. Third world countries who America claimed as allies turned out to be supplicants run by brutal dictators we helped keep in power. After revolutions in countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Iran, after the French were evicted from Indochina (Vietnam) leaving the vacuum we foolishly filled, and after our “friends” in Saudi Arabia allowed the ISIS movement to gestate and flourish, culminating in nine-eleven, the myth of America was replaced by reality.

Still, conditions in most of the world were so bad for so many millions, people continued to flock to America in droves, turning it browner, yellower, and blacker each year, and we learned some truths about ourselves. We are not homogeneous in our openness and generosity. We do not universally welcome others with open arms and treat everyone as equals, nor do we all believe everyone should have the opportunities we have.

Among the people who first recognized that was Roger Ailes, an ambitious television executive with a talent for reading and influencing masses of people. Ailes perceived that much of America felt disenfranchised, left out by the wave of progressivism that was leveling the playing field, promoting education and health care systems, and building a national retirement system. He understood that the disaffected third of America was comprised of two disparate groups: the wealthy, who feared they would have to finance all that progressivism, since only they had the resources to pay for it; and at the other end of the spectrum, evangelists, racists, white supremacists, xenophobes, misogynists, extremists, anarchists, the chronically unemployed, and everyone who felt cheated by “the system.”

All of them, and this was Ailes’ true genius, were angry and looking for someone to blame for their circumstances, and many of them were well armed. He convinced Ruppert Murdoch to create the Fox News Channel, which wouldn’t be about news or journalistic integrity, but a propaganda machine to activate and energize the angry masses. His final stroke of genius was to recruit Donald Trump to lead his social revolution.

Remember how shocked we were when Trump won the presidency? Remember how it felt to realize that more than a third of us supported everything Ailes and Trump stood for, and they were able to stir up enough anger and hatred for the Clintons among the rest of the population that suddenly America wasn’t sure who it was anymore? And what did progressives and decent moral people do? They screamed in ineffectual protest, hoping America would figure out what a terrible mistake it had made and that Trump would ultimately destroy himself, if he didn’t destroy America first. As we know, he came dangerously close to destroying America, even as his own star waned.

Now, we’re faced with the destruction of another myth, that once Trump lost power, everything would return to normal. We made a good start, electing Joe Biden in 2020 and giving him a razor-thin majority in both houses of Congress. There’s nothing like dodging a bullet to make us realize how fragile everything we hold dear is, but the bullet of Trumpism turned out to be a fragmentation grenade spewing shrapnel everywhere it touched, and those fragments may be as deadly as Trump.

One is Marjorie Taylor Greene, who proclaims that she represents the face of the Republican Party, not the fringe her critics relegate her to. Another is Matt Gaetz, who after leading the movement to disembowel House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, after getting concessions McCarthy swore he would never accede to, mocked him publicly, claiming that the only reason he stopped demanding changes was there was nothing more to ask for. Our House Speaker, who is second in line for the presidency, is completely emasculated and serves at the mercy of a gang who supported the January 6th insurrection and refused to acknowledge the election of President Biden.

I probably should have begun with the standard disclaimer – any resemblance between this America and the mythical one I grew up in is purely coincidental.

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