The Man Behind Trump

As usual, Trump is in the news for incredibly childish antics and unfounded claims. Trump has shown himself, predictably, to be a bumbler and a buffoon. But not everyone in his immediate circle can be described that way.

Trump’s chief adviser is Steve Bannon of Breitbart infamy. And unlike Trump, Bannon does have a worldview, although it is an especially frightening one.

In brief, Bannon’s belief is that “white, Christian civilization” is locked in a death struggle against the brown, black, and other non-white races of the world. Not surprisingly, Russia is seen as an important partner in this fight, because ethnic Russians are white and Russia is heavily Orthodox Christian. This would explain much of the Trump Administration’s positive orientation toward Russia (though of course, there might be a lot more going on).

This viewpoint is irrational and disgusting. Certainly, it would be wrong to make such accusations if there were no supporting evidence. But there is. One pathway into Bannon’s mind is to analyze what he reads and, in this instance, a specific book he has cited on many occasions. I encourage everyone to read this piece at the Huffington Post:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/steve-bannon-camp-of-the-saints-immigration_us_58b75206e4b0284854b3dc03

A fool for the ages

Over the past weekend, I noticed a link to a video entitled “America First, Netherlands Second”. Out of curiosity I gave it a click to see what it was about. Perhaps some of you already know or have seen other versions of similar videos. I tried to embed the one I saw, but the sharing was blocked for copyright reasons. However, you can also follow this link to find links to over 10 videos and growing that all mock our current president for his announcement that he was going to ensure that America was always first.

When the page opens, click anywhere in the European map to open a page that will include a list of 11 different countries in Europe that have produced their version of the “America First My Country Second” videos. Each touts the worthiness of their country to at least be second if America must be first. They use Trump’s easily identified verbal quirks, his poor use of grammar and his constant use of superlatives. Some do a good job of imitating his voice. I’ve noticed that a large number of other countries have had comedians produce additional videos. They may eventually be listed on this page, but you can also find them on YouTube.com by searching for “America first”.

It has become a comedy contest around the world to see who can do the best job of mocking him and promoting their own countries in a self-deprecating and hilarious fashion. Here we are, less than one full month into his presidency and he has achieved world wide wide fame not for setting a standard for leadership, but for being an uninformed, chauvinistic dunce. I always thought giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama early in his administration was a bit premature at best, but now Trump has achieved a position of world wide leadership which cannot be denied and is completely earned.

I recommend taking the time to watch at least one or two more of the videos. You will get good laughs from all of them.

Time to Stand

I tried posting on this blog earlier, but it didn’t work, so I wrote the following for my personal blog. So this is a test: let’s see if this works!

Time to Stand
Posted on January 28, 2017 by Brian Vroman
So over the last several months I have gotten a bit lazy and have ignored this blog, but now it is time for anyone with any kind of a voice — no matter how small — to speak up. Trump and his minions are already doing great harm, and present an enormous threat to American democracy.

I could write about many issues — his stance on immigration, his orders to expunge facts he opposes from federal websites, his vanity, his unfounded assertions that over three million “illegals” voted for Hillary Clinton, and on and on. But today I want to discuss the Voice of America.

The VOA is a venerable organization that has historically played the positive role of providing reliable information to those in other countries where the media is controlled or intimidated by their government. VOA was presided over by a non-partisan board of directors. But now, buried deeply in a defense bill, was a provision which changed VOA in two important ways. First, the board of directors was replaced by a CEO who serves at the pleasure of the President of the United States. Second, VOA will now be authorized to broadcast to the American public.

What does this mean?

The Trump Administration is doing all that it can to discredit the media, because the media is in a position to question what he says and does. So it appears that as part of this war on the media, Trump and his henchmen are creating their own, separate “media” organization which will be under the direct control of the POTUS. In other words, they intend to use a once respectable organization with its fine public image to further propagandize the American people. We do not need a state controlled media outlet — we need an independent media that will hold Trump, and anyone else who holds power — accountable.

This is all part of a larger right wing War on Truth. For many on the right, when the facts don’t conform to your beliefs, you don’t modify those beliefs, you change the facts. Thus, when science shows that species evolve and that climate changes as the result of human activity, you don’t take those things into account — you trash science! Likewise, when the media broadcasts inconvenient truths, instead of responding appropriately, you work to undermine the media.

It is almost certain that some leaders on the right know good and well what the truth is, but see it as opposed to their interests. For example, there is a lot of money to be made by ignoring Global Warming, even though human society will ultimately face a reckoning. But one suspects that the rank and file on the populist right — as well as, quite likely, Trump himself — either no longer no what truth is or never did. For them, there is no objective set of facts, just assertions, which allow anyone to have their own “alternative facts.” Thus, rules of logic and evidence no longer matter, and we find ourselves ever more adrift in a sea of nihilism.

So it is time for everyone who can to stand and be heard and to push back against this nonsense any time we have a chance

Make plans to see “Spotlight”

I didn’t watch the Oscars this year and I haven’t watched them much for several years. But this year a picture I wanted to see won the Oscar for best picture. I hadn’t seen it because it never played in Grand Rapids during its initial release. Now, all of a sudden after the Oscar win, it shows up in town. So Carolyn and I made a very rare middle of the week trip to see it on Tuesday night. I was concerned that it would be gone before the weekend and didn’t want to miss our chance. It was well worth taking the time. I’m still puzzled as to why it was so delayed in coming to Grand Rapids. I suspect the Catholic church is very unhappy with it, but I don’t know that they would have raised a stink in town that the theater operator would care about.

The movie documents in a dramatic format the pursuit by the Boston Globe newspaper of a story about the abuse of children by pedophile priests in the Boston area. This occurred in the early 2000’s and involved an investigative reporting team name Spotlight. A team of four journalists who are asked to take on the story by a new editor who has just taken over the news operation. He is responding to some information he noticed in the paper about a single case of abuse that seems to point to a larger problem and wonders why the paper didn’t pursue the story further. The answer is that no one thought it would amount to anything – just a single bad apple priest. The editor challenges them to find out if that is true.

Eventually the team realizes that the problem is massive involving more than 80 priests in the Boston area, hundreds of victims and a community wide effort to suppress the story involving not just the Catholic Church, but government attorneys, the police, a host of public figures and, most disturbing, Cardinal Law and others in the upper reaches of the church hierarchy. Also embarrassing, the Spotlight team realizes that some of them also contributed to suppressing the story when they were in other positions at the paper. They had followed everyone else in deciding it was a limited problem and the church shouldn’t be subjected to further embarrassment for the “good of the community”.

This story is compelling and the dramatization of it is straight forward and feels completely honest. No one comes off as a unblemished hero, but the willingness of the Spotlight team to follow the story to its end regardless is admirable. Almost all of them are portrayed as lapsed Catholics, but we are left to wonder if this story put the nail in the coffin of their faith for good. I also wondered how badly the church in Boston was hurt by this story. The level of disgust and disappointment with the church seems intense at the end of the film. It would be nice if some details on the impact for the church were easily available. Maybe they are, I just haven’t looked hard enough I suppose.

In the end, Cardinal Law is pulled out of Boston and hidden away in the Vatican where he remains. As I recall, the whole scandal fueled the flames of investigation all over the world and we now know that the Catholic Church has been complicit in thousands of abuse cases with hundreds of abusive priests and nuns. It is now suspected that the retired Pope Benedict was up to his ears in the cover up of the problem and resigned to avoid further problems for himself. I’m not sure that the current Pope, Francis, isn’t also guilty at some level. The Vatican is clearly a criminal organization at this point.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is intense and compelling. I don’t know how long it will be in town. Go see it if you can.

A Dubious Saint

Many of you are no doubt aware that the woman known in her life as Mother Teresa has been canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.  The process of canonization is filled with woo — of course, what else could it be — requiring “proof” of at least two miracles.  But this is not what concerns me at present.  The credulity of believing in “miracles” is matched by the credulity of an uncrtical public.  Among probably the majority of Westerners, Mother Teresa is uncritically accepted as a kind and compassionate person.  But this was not the case.

While he was alive, Christopher Hitchens delved into the life and actions of the supposed saint.  His findings were compiled in his well – known (and infamous to Catholics) Missionary Position.  Hitchens’s findings have since been verified by scholars.  Rather than give a litany of them, here is a link to an interview with HItchens conducted by “Free Inquiry” magazine.

Hitchens on Mother Teresa

 

 

The “prayer vigil” – dealing with state/church issues locally

As most of you probably know, the Sheriff’s department in Itasca County sent a letter out ostensibly from the department’s chaplain (who knew they had a chaplain?). The letter was on official letterhead and gave the clear impression that the “vigil” was sponsored by the Sheriff. The “prayer vigil” was to be held on November 21st at the courthouse and was scheduled to last 24 hrs. The praying was to “benefit” the law enforcement, fire department and medical first responders in the community. What benefits were to be received was a bit vague.

Since sponsorship by the Sheriff would constitute a state/church violation of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, I contacted FFRF and provided them with a copy of the letter. They wrote to the Sheriff and other county officials advising them of the problem and requesting that the vigil be cancelled and the chaplain position be abandoned.

Nathan Bergstedt who was still with the newspaper did some interviews including the County Administrator in plans for publishing an article on the situation. He also interviewed me as a representative of GRAF. While there was plenty of time for the paper to publish the article about this prior to the 21st, the article never appeared, until this Wednesday, the 2nd of December.

The article was a bit late and out of date since the vigil either did not occur or was moved to some undisclosed location. Several GRAF members drove past the courthouse on the morning of the 21st and saw no evidence of any vigil although the street was partially blocked off and various equipment that might have been used was setup on the sidewalk and street. There were no signs indicating what happened with the planned vigil.

So, chalk one up for the county abiding by the requirements of the first amendment. Give the Herald Review a D- for waiting so long to publish “news” and neglecting to find out what happened. The community was left to wonder if the vigil was held, whether the county had responded to the FFRF letter and requests, etc.

Dino-Doodle-Doo

Jurassic Park is the story of humans playing god and bringing extinct creatures back from Death’s chilly embrace.  As with all of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi novels, it doesn’t go well for us.  But it’s just that, right?  Science fiction, not a kernel of truth anywhere to be found.

Well, maybe not.  Jack Horner (the paleontological advisor to the Jurassic Park movies) has had a little pet project going on for a while now: reverse genetically engineering a chicken into a dinosaur.

chickenosaur-dreamstimecomp_22240810

Not as cool as we’d hoped.

Ok so it’s not a lawyer-munching Tyrannosaurus rex, but this chickenosaurus (as Horner is calling it) does have some exciting implications for the field of genetics.  Creating a dinosaur out of a chicken is, at least cosmetically, a surprisingly easy feat: teeth, arms and hands, a long tail, and a modified snout.  That last entry was actually achieved through experimentation of chicken embryos by Horner’s team.

skulls-chicken-dinosaur

A standard chicken, a genetically modified chicken, and an alligator.

You see, as dinosaurs evolved into birds, certain genes were modified.  By analyzing two genes involved in facial development, Horner’s team found that they behaved differently in birds than in reptiles.  By altering this behavior, their chicken embryo developed a reptilian snout as opposed to a beak.  Not done there, they found to their complete surprise that the embryo had also developed a reptilian palate (the roof of the mouth), a surprise find as they were only expecting to alter the outer structure of the beak.

This development is promising, but there are still unanswered questions.  Even if we were able to genetically construct a dinosaur from a chicken, would it work right?  There’s no guarantee that by simply reactivating the genes for reptilian features like snouts, arms and tails that the nervous system will wire itself accordingly.  The brain may not be able to communicate with these limbs.  What if the resulting creature possesses the body of a dinosaur but the absurdly misplaced instincts of a chicken?

There are many questions to be answered, but the first signs seem promising.  Through the power of genetics, even a “glow-in-the-dark unicorn” [Horner] is not impossible, but now ethics get involved.  To quote the Jurassic Park movie: “Your scientists were so concerned with whether they could, they didn’t stop to consider whether they should.”