Monday, August 21, 2017

The Solar Eclipse—Science, Superstition, History, and Mystery

The Big Event is today.


Note—This blog began an unplanned hiatus for a week and is resuming today.  My apologies for the interruption.  My announced second post ruminating on the distressing events in Charlottesville required significant research and I struggled with my evolving interpretations and views.  I want to get it exactly right so I concentrated on that work and did not attempt to fill days with reprises of old posts, which still can require hours of re-editing and time spent selecting and captioning illustration.  Then late last week I thought that I had lost pages of work in sending a draft by e-mail from my work computer home.  I was finally able to find that and resume work.  I did get this entry together, which is obviously very tied to today’s event.  That long delayed essay on Charlottesville will run tomorrow, I promise.
The U.S. seems to be in the grips of Solar Eclipse mania, and has been all summer.  The media has been abuzz with articles showing the path, describing the best viewing points, telling how to safely view the phenomena, and explanations of the astronomical particulars. 
It is not that solar eclipses which occur when from a viewpoint on Earth the Moon seems to pass in front of the Sun briefly covering it are rare events.  Partial eclipses occur somewhere in the world a half dozen or so time a year and total eclipses once or twice.  But because the orbits of the Earth around the Sun and the Moon around the Earth they are seen rarely in the life of any individual who does not travel just to observe them.  An octogenarian might get a chance to see two in his or her life. 
The eclipse that is causing all the excitement will be visible in its totality over a much longer path in the United States than has been the case for many decades.  A swath about 70 miles wide will be darkened bisecting the Continental United States from near Portland, Oregon to Columbia South, Carolina today.  That will put it over a huge chunk of the population and within a reasonable driving distance of many more.  The entire rest of the Lower 48 states will be able to witness a partial eclipse, the sun obscured in diminishing percentage the further from the center-line of the total eclipse path.

The path across the Lower 48 States.
Those who can view the Totality under clear skies will experience a dramatic event that almost never fails to be awe inspiring.  The Moon will seem to create a crescent bite out of the Sun when viewed safely through special safety lenses to protect the eyes from damage.  Over the course of several minutes the bite will grow.  At first the sun will not seem dimmed.  Even when it is mostly hidden it emits enough light to illuminate the earth.  And then, seemingly quite suddenly, the disk of the Moon will totally cover the sun.  A sudden darkness will drop like a curtain. A golden ring—the corona of the Sun—will surround the black Moon.  A little more than two and a half minutes later, depending on where the observer stands, just as suddenly a corner of the Sun will emerge with what seems like a blinding light and the darkness upon the earth will disappear in the snap of a finger.  

Much of the reporting has gone to explaining the physical details of the motions of the three orbs involved—Sun, Moon, and Earth.  Science, we are assured, knows exactly what is going on which is why this eclipse and other events thousands of years into the future can be precisely predicted as to location on Earth and time to the nanosecond.  
The Connecticut Yankee Hank "summons" the solar eclipse to get himself out of a Camelot jam.

That extremely wise man, Mark Twain, once wrote a book called A Connecticut in King Arthur’s Court.  Today we would call it science fiction, but no one had invented the term or genre yet in 1889.  In the yarn a capable New England mechanic mysteriously awakens in Camelot after a head injury.  Taken prisoner, he is sentenced to death as a sorcerer but saves himself by claiming to be responsible for a solar eclipse which he was able to calculate with the help of his trusty Almanac.  Not only is he saved, but he is elevated to King Arthur’s right hand man and made Sir Boss with the power to remake the kingdom with modern technology.

But eclipses-as-omens played a very real part in history.  The ancient Chinese believed that solar eclipses were caused by a cosmic dragon devouring the Sun and for various mysterious reasons then disgorging it.  The very word for the event—shialso meant to eat.  Around the world many cultures had similar myths.  In Korea it was fire dogs, Vietnam a toad, India the severed head of an immortal demon, the old Norse had wolves, and some North American Amerinds had serpents or the celestial turtle that carried the earth on its back. 

Nonsense, you may think, but even most of these people understood these stories as a metaphor for something mysterious and powerful—so powerful that an eclipse had to be an omen of something grand and terrible—the fall of a dynasty, the death of a king, a catastrophic loss in battle, or a natural disaster.  Both the ancient Chinese and Babylonians became careful chroniclers of sky events, especially eclipses, and today we can accurately date many historical events and the reigns of dynasties and kings by those observations.  They also became adept, without apparently understanding anything of a Copernican system, at developing precise calculations that could reliably predict future events

More than two thousand years ago, the Babylonians were able to calculate that there were 38 possible eclipses or syzygys both lunar and solar within a period of 223 months which is about 18 years.  Not quite perfect, but pretty damned good.  They especially needed these calculations because they believed a solar eclipse foretold the death of the King.  Armed with this knowledge a ruler temporarily abdicated and a substitute King placed on the throne who was given all honors and lavished with wealth until the eclipse arrived and then was quickly dispatched allowing the old king to return safely.  Clever, those Babylonians.

But this kind of record keeping and prediction may go back far earlier than can be found in Chinese scrolls or Mesopotamian clay tablets.  Archeologists recently discovered Neolithic stones at a site in Cornwall from between 3,000 and 2,500 years ago that seem to record, predict, and trace the paths of a couple of hundred years of eclipses.  Stonehenge as long been thought to be used to calculate eclipses as well.  

This New Mexico petroglyph may be the first ever image of the sun's corona during an eclipse and record the one seen there on July 11, 1097.

In the New World a petroglyph on the south face of Piedra del Sol, a free-standing rock in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, may depict the solar corona observed during the total solar eclipse of July 11, 1097 CE.  

Clearly a lot of folks were gazing at the sun and searching for answers to big mysteries.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus on May 28, 585 BCE a solar eclipse that had been predicted by the philosopher Thales of Miletus interrupted a battle between the Medes and the Lydians causing them to immediately cease fighting and make peace in their long-running war.  How reliable Herodotus was is debated, but scientist/science fiction writer Isaac Asimov described this battle as the earliest historical event whose date is known with precision to the day and described the prediction as “the birth of science.”
Heroditus claimed that a solar eclipse during the Battle of  Halys between the Medes and the Lydians in 595 BCE stopped the battle and ended the war.  The event had accurately been predicted by the philosopher Thales.

But we sophisticates are beyond all of that myth and omen business, aren’t we.  Yet it might not take a deep analysis by a social psychologist to recognize that some of the extraordinary attention being paid to our eclipse is due to the deeply unsettling times in which we live. We find ourselves with President/king who has made sweeping changes to decades of policy in every conceivable era, who is regarded by some as a despot and/or mad man and as a literal savior by others, and who is playing nuclear chicken with a tin pot dictator.  Might not some corner of our psyches hidden behind our seeming rationality, look on the celestial event not as a science lesson or entertaining diversion but as an omen?

I once wrote in a different context:


Wheels turning within wheels—
     an astrolabe,
          Tycho’s observatory,
               gears in some fantastic machine,
                    electrons—atoms—molecules,
                        moons—planets—stars—galaxies—universes.

Today, just today—
     Point A on Wheel X, spinning urgently,
     comes to kiss Point B on Wheel Y,
     rotating on its own good time,
     for just a nano-second
     having just brushed by
     Point C on cog Z.

These precise events will come again,
    I suppose—
     you do the math if you wish.

But if I wore stars on a pointed hat,
    I might conclude that there was something
    beyond mere physics at work here.

Call it an omen, if you wish,
     or the flat hand of something Greater
     slapping us up side our
     merely mortal heads
     and scolding us—
               “Spin as you will,
                you spin not alone.”

Patrick Murfin from We Build Temples in the Heart, Beacon Books, Boston, 2004.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Charlottesville On My Mind—Part 1

Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.


Note: Barrels of Ink and enough electrons to build an alternative universe have been spilled on the racist White Nationalist violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend.  And I have been chewing on it for days now.  .The first of at least two, maybe more
The vast cesspool that includes multitudinous Ku Klux Klan outfits, Neo-Confederates, White Nationalist, Neo-Nazis and outright Nazis, aging Skin Heads and Biker bullies, and I-wanna-be-Rambo Militia have been growing in numbers and ratcheting up the vileness and threats in their rhetoric for some time.  Check the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Group roll call for confirmation. 
But they have remained so splintered into relatively tiny groups divided by nuances of racist ideology, style and to what extent they want to disguise their intent, and—let’s face it—by fashion differences and life styles—that they have consistently failed to come together in movement that could be dangerous not just to individuals and communities but to the very fabric of civil and democratic society.  If you are a Nazi, everyone wants to be Fuhrer or Klansman everyone their own Klegal.  These visions of grandiosity means that new groups pop up instead of people joining a well-established national organization.
There have been numerous attempts to rally the so-called Alt-right in recent years and until now they have failed laughably.  Of hand I can think of three or four marches on/motorcycle rides to/rallies in Washington that were supposedly going to dwarf the mammoth crowds turned out in events like the Women’s March and couldn’t muster a bedraggled corporal’s guard on the National Mall.  Grand pan-Klan events in Southern cities drew dozens.  No one heeded the calls to reinforce the Minuteman with armed border vigilantes or come to the rescue of the Cowboy militia who daringly seized control of a bird sanctuary.  The West’s White Nationalists sputtered in their attempt to invade a small Montana town where local Jewish lady made Richard Spencer’s mom feel bad. 
But this time the whole squabbling mob successfully came together for the first time in the Unite the Right events in Charlottesville.  So what the hell happened?

Trump campaign rallies made it pretty clear to the Alt-Right where their potential constituency was.
First, last year during the Presidential campaign Donald Trump began getting the huge adoring crowds that any would-be Hitler would envy.  He hit all the key emotional appeals of the fascist right—anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, attacking and discrediting the press, attacks on an elite conspiracy that was reminiscent of smearing “cosmopolitans,” calls for law and order to crack down on dissent like Black Lives Matter, sympathy for the protectors of Southern Heritage and the Stars and Bars, a dash of homophobia, misogyny by example, and old fashion flag-waving jingoism.  At first Trump did it with a sly wink-and-a-nod but as the campaign wore on he discovered that the more red meat he threw, the larger and more devoted the crowds.  Un-able to stifle the siren call of adulation, he relentlessly stepped it up, day after day.
Early on Alt-Right mouthpiece Steve Bannon of Breitbart, a blousy, alcoholic who dreamed of “bringing the whole thing [American Democracy] come crashing down”, recognized it, gave Trump free run and encouragement on his web site and showering him with flattery. He soon found himself the top strategist of the campaign, the candidate’s closest advisor even pushing aside Trump’s children. 
When Trump won the White House, Bannon was installed on the Right Hand of the Golden Throne.  In the first weeks of the administration he was widely seen as the very ill concealed mastermind calling the shots.  He set a dizzying pace of policy announcements meaning to immediately dismantled every achievement of the Obama administration, helped recruit the most rabidly right persons for Cabinet and top administrative jobs, and pursued a saber rattling belligerent foreign policy that was contemptuous of long time allies. 

White Nationalist media guru Steve Bannon got a seat at the Table at the White House and kept it against odds.
It was only when he drew too much attention to himself, stirred too many pots, and began to rattle even Republican loyalists that Jared and Ivanka Kushner were able to stage a palace coup and depose the Grand Vizier.  But they never forced him completely out.  He kept his office and his title.  If his mastery of the administration was limited, he was content to lie low and bide his time.  And he had already salted administration with other Alt-Right and White Nationalist darlings—super hawk and Islamaphobe General John Kelly at Homeland Security to manage the Muslim Ban and immigration sweeps; Senior policy adviser Stephen Miller who despite being the decedent of immigrant Jews bears a frightening physical and ideological resemblance to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels; and deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka who has ties to the Hungarian Nazi collaborators Vit├ęzi Rend.  These three and lower level moles also pulled in their horns for a while.  But as if on auto pilot the Cheeto in Charge continued to promote their hobby horses in increasingly deranged daily Tweets.
In an astonishingly short period of time the Trump presidency seemed to go into a death spiral fuled by his Tweets on the toilet and bizarre public appearances and escalating incoherence.  But it was the steady and relentless unraveling of his personal and campaign relations with Vladimir Putin and Russia that kept creeping closer and closer to his inner circle, family, and himself that became terrifyingly perilous.  
The messy details of that third rate TV political thriller are too complex to go into here.   You know them unless you have been hiding under a rock or depending on Fox News and Breitbart for your information.  Suffice it to say that various expendables and fringe players were thrown to the wolves—and into the eager hands of Robert Mueller, the FBI chief  Trump dumped and became Special Counsel investigating the Russian shenanigans and related scams and corruption.
Unable to acknowledge that the pickle he found himself in was largely the product of his own impetuosity and pathological lying, Trump raged around the White House seeking to fix the blame.  He turned his malevolent glare of his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, a lap-dog loyal certified old time Southern bigot, who was his most effective cabinet member in dismantling the Obama legacy and attacking immigrants and voting rights.  Sessions should have been the apple of his master’s eye.  But Trump was enraged that he had been forced to recues himself from the Russia investigation and could not fire Mueller.  The President went on an extraordinary and relentless two week public rampage against Sessions who remained mostly discretely mum but refused to resign.  Sessions also had too much support from hard-line Congressional conservatives to be summarily fired.
Next in the President’s sights were the more vulnerable members of his own staff, a pack of squabbling back-stabbers who were leaking details of Oval Office chaos right and left.  The pathetic incompetent Press Secretary, who had already been benched, was an easy target.  Harder were the supposed Republican insiders adults in the room” like Chief of Staff Reince Priebus who Trump felt failed to protect him and were not aggressive enough.  They also tried, without success to “keep Trump from being Trump”—recklessly stupid and impetuous.  The president was sick of it and increasingly angry at Congressional Republicans who supported them for not advancing his Obama care repeal. 
That’s when he called in loose cannon, Anthony Scaramucci as his hatchet man.  The Mooch bragged about “firing the first guy I saw” to assert his new authority than turned his attention to Priebus who was gone within days replaced by General John Kelly lately of Homeland Security.  Other rats had their tails set on fire or jumped ship.  And the “moderating” voice of son-in-law Kushner, who had been accumulating portfolios that he was not remotely qualified to handle, was being isolated.  

White House hatchet man Anthony "The Mooch" Sacramucci may not have lasted long and may have had Steve "Self-Falacio" Bannon in his sights, but he cleared out Banner's biggest enemies before he got to him.
But the Mooch was even less disciplined than his boss and his swaggering bit him in the ass before it had a chance to properly warm his desk chair.  After a profanity laced interview in which he threatened to fire the entire White House staff if he could not identify a leaker and proclaimed that “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock.”  Bannon might have been in his sights, but he never got a chance to pull the trigger.
The first thing that Kelly did as Chief of Staff was to fire Scaramucci after only six days on the job.  He also called Kushner and Ivanka to heel by requiring them to report to and through him instead of enjoying unlimited access to the Oval Office.  Kelly supposedly represented discipline in the White House, but he was also an ultra-rightist with more than passing fascist tendencies who quietly let Bannon and the other top Alt-right aids, back into the inner circle.
With the noose still tightening in the Russia investigation, which was spreading to his family’s finances and business dealing, Trump began to be convinced that the only chance for his personal and political survival lay in whipping up his old base and relying to the Alt-right as a possible source of armed intervention should his back get to the wall.

Stephen Miller was trotted out to outline a xenophobe's dream immigration proposal and in the process insulted Emma Lazarus.
As a signal, Trump trotted out both Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka to make important public policy statements for the administration.  Miller announced the administration’s new immigration plan, the RAISE Act which would sharply limit legal immigration and favor immigrants with high English proficiency and substantial assets, and virtually end family reunification immigration. Not only was this the perfect music for White nationalist and racist ears, but as an added bonus Miller insulted the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazerus’ poem and accused a reporter of being a “cosmopolitan”—the classic veiled slur for a Jew.  That the reporter in question was not a Jew and Miller actually was made no difference.  Every one noted with horror or appreciation that Miller looked and sounded like Joseph Goebbels.
All of this was publicly noted and appreciated across the Alt-right including appreciative remarks by the high profile figures former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke and media gadfly Richard Spencer, the two figures most often interviewed and quoted in the mainstream press, but he also got cheers from radio and sub-basic cable raver Alex Jones and The Daily Stormer, both red meat to the most rabid neo-Nazis, Klansmen, skin-head punks.
The entire Alt-right, along with the older Klan and Nazi movements, thrived under the beaming approval of Trump and the social permission he gave for overt racist statements and harassment.  All of these groups swelled with new recruits—and more were being founded almost daily.  But, as noted, all attempts at effective cooperation had failed.
Until, that is, the large crowds that responded across the South to taking down the Stars and Bars and attempts to remove Confederate monuments.  These “attacks on Southern Heritage” converted latent and marginal racists—and many Trump votersto angry activists in the streets. Not only did this issue have broad appeal across right wing movements and ideologies, it seemed the key to finally becoming a mass movement, not just a noisy fringe.

Alt-right media star Richard Spencer's May protest at the Charlottesville Lee statue set the stage for Unite the Right.
The far right began to home in on Charlottesville when the city announced plans to remove a heroic equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee and re-name the small park where it stood Emancipation Park.  Richard Spencer led a highly publicized Take Back Lee Park rally on May 13 where protestors surrounded the statue carrying torches.  Local religious and civil rights leaders mounted a peaceful counter vigil with more participants but Spencer felt he had won the night. 
Klan factions planned their own rally on July 8, but in a repeat of many other failures could only muster 50 participants who were dwarfed by over a thousand counter demonstrators.  That is when it became apparent that the small and splintered Klan and Nazi groups, with their inherit public relations problems would never be able to pull off a major event without the participation of the so-called Alt-right, less overt groups that tried to put a more favorable face on White Nationalism.
Jason Kessler of the Neo-Nazi Daily Stormer was the principle organizer of the Unite the Right event.  Among the organizations that quickly signed on were the neo-Confederate League of the South, the pseudo think tank National Policy Institute, the openly Nazi National Socialist Movement, various KKK groups, the Oath Keepers and armed militia groups, new Proud Boy groups, Nazi-motorcycle clubs, and a dizzying array of tiny sects.  The call also drew people who simply proclaimed themselves Trump supports, and frat-boy College Republicans.
In the end, somewhere north of 1000 participants came to Charlottesville, hardly an overwhelming number, but the largest display of far right muscle in decades.  Officially the planned march and rally was to be peaceful.  But chatter on social media made clear that many came hoping that they had numbers enough to respond violently to “provocations.  Explicit threats were made against Jewish and Black city leaders, the large contingent of religious leaders mobilized interfaith group Congregate Charlottesville, Black Lives Matters, the media, anti-fascist groups, and, of course, Jews.
Charlottesville and Trump--what possible connection could there be?
After court battles over permits for Emancipation Park and as the ranks of both sides swelled, the city felt like a powder keg.  Violence was almost universally expected.  The White House refused to join city and state leaders in denouncing Unite the Right or making any appeals for peace.    The Right took it as “a wink is good as a nod.”
We will explore some of the details of what happened in the next essay. 
In the aftermath the relation between Trump and the so-called Alt-right finally became clear.  It took Trump until Sunday afternoon to make a public statement that referred to “violence on many sides” and steadfastly refused to denounce the neo-Nazis, Klan and Alt-right by name.
Duke, Spencer, and the Daily Stormer all registered approval of the statement.  That added to the firestorm of criticism over Trump’s tepid response, some of it coming Republicans terrified they were going to be permanently publicly branded as racists, Vice-President Mike Pence was forced finally to call them out by name.   That was not enough.
On Monday Trump “clarified” himself in carefully chosen words which finally did manage to say that racism and Nazis are very bad things.   That elicited undeserved praise from Republican,   incredulity by almost everyone else—just a day late and a dollar short.   But it was enough to irk both Spencer and Duke who hinted that their troops might not have his back if he betrayed them.
That was enough to terrify Trump and along with pique for not having been lauded in the press for his Sunday statement.  That was enough to walk back virtually everything he had said and hit Alt-right talking points in an angry, rambling confrontation with the media at Trump Tower in New York yesterday. 
At Trump Tower in New York Tuesday the Cheeto in Charge removed any doubt where he really stood.
The mask not only has been torn off, it has been torn up and can never be worn again. Trump is now beyond anyone’s doubt a racist and ally of racists.  He is shedding defenders faster than a mangy dog sheds fur.  He is more isolated than ever.  Which, of course, make him dangerous and unpredictable. 
Will he try to rally support by going to war with North Korea, Venezuela, or some other convenient target?   Will he try to dodge the Russian noose by finally firing Sessions and investigator Muller precipitating a possible Constitutional crisis?   Will he turn to his last allies and summon them to Washington in arms to protect him?  
We hold our breath