Thursday, February 19, 2009

Racial Cowardice

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle in the media over Attorney General Eric Holder's maladroit criticism of what he perceives to be the reluctance of Americans to talk about race:

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," said Holder, the nation's first black attorney general.

Race issues continue to be a topic of political discussion, Holder said, but "we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race."

He urged people of all races to use Black History Month as a chance for frank talk about racial matters.

"It is an issue we have never been at ease with and, given our nation's history, this is in some ways understandable," Holder said. "If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."

I say Holder was "maladroit" because "cowards" hardly seems the appropriate word to use in this context. People don't talk about race because they're afraid, rather they don't talk about race, at least in racially mixed company, for the same reason they often decline to talk about politics and religion in mixed company: They don't wish to offend nor do they care to abase themselves.

Discussions about race can go badly for two reasons. First, many people don't know what to say. What's there to talk about, exactly? Most whites don't think much about race and they read even less. It's not something they're interested in, particularly, and to expect them to engage in a conversation about it is like someone who never reads the financial pages being pressed to engage in a discussion on the global banking system.

Moreover, a lot of whites feel that any conversation with a black interlocutor is only going to wind up with the black venting about white racism and oppression. At this point the white knows that he'll have two options. He can either nod his or her head in agreement, which many see as an act of servility, or he/she can take issue with the charges, which leads to the second reason such conversations go wrong.

As soon as a white person disagrees with a black person about race, many whites are convinced, their racial bona fides will be called into question and suspicions will be raised about latent racism lurking in the white person's heart. If the disagreement continues then the suspicions mount until the R-word is trotted out and that's the end of that conversation.

Holder wants Americans to have "frank conversations" about race, but it's not clear to me that that would be a good thing. Genuinely frank conversations, I'm afraid, are too often too painful for one party or the other to endure with equanimity.

Better to avoid the unpleasantness altogether, many conclude, by simply not talking about it. That's not cowardice, it's good manners.



Yet another Democrat has been found to be suffering from ethical difficulties. This time it's the new senator from Chicago, Roland Burris. Mr. Burris was apparently less than candid in his sworn testimony before an Illinois state House committee weighing whether to impeach Governor Rod Blagojevich for allegations that he sought to sell President Obama's senate seat.

It's getting hard to keep track of all the miscreants among our political ruling class, particularly those in the President's party, and especially those from Chicago or those the President has himself appointed. Obama cannot be blamed for the fact that yet another (allegedly) dishonest pol sits in our nation's capitol building, of course, but the long string of tainted nominees to his cabinet is another matter.

It's hard to say exactly how much responsibility President Obama actually bears for the incompetence of his vetting team, but surely he has been poorly served by those he has entrusted with the job of making certain his appointments have no ethical or legal skeletons squirreled away in their Georgetown closets.

At some point his inability to find Democrat appointees who have a clean record with the IRS has got to become a severe embarrassment to the president. Indeed, the joke is that the reason he picked a Republican (Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire) to head up the Commerce Department was that he wanted to have at least one cabinet secretary who pays his taxes. Now that Gregg has withdrawn, the challenge for the Obama team is to find somewhere in the country a Democrat to run Commerce who can pass an ethics investigation.

Now word has it that the investigative spotlight is shining on Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. It turns out that he may have tax problems similar to those of Tom Daschle.

Where does it end? Pretty soon the only Democrats who will qualify for a job in the Obama administration will be high school students who never made enough money to have to file a tax return.


Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin*

Edward Schumacher-Matos at The Washington Post thinks that despite having won a referendum that removes term limits and effectively allows him to be president for life, Hugo Chavez's days as president of Venezuela are numbered:

Venezuela is suffering from the worldwide recession, low oil prices, high inflation, and Chavez's mismanagement. Schumacher-Matos thinks that he will soon go the way of so many other socialist leaders in South America who drove their country to ruin.

There is a lesson here for the new Obama administration. It should not engage Ch�vez in public quarreling and certainly should not work privately against him inside Venezuela. Both approaches are a fool's errands, ones that leftover Cold War warriors foisted on George W. Bush during his first term. The clever Ch�vez verbally made Bush into a laughingstock south of the border and badly damaged hemispheric trust in the United States when the Bush administration seemed to endorse a 2002 coup against Ch�vez that failed.

Well, yes, but that's not the only lesson for the Obama administration. High inflation and economic recession are in the offing here at home as well, and these two apocalyptic horsemen have a way of trampling those who have the bad luck to be responsible for them.

President Obama's misnamed stimulus plan requires that we choose from among three unpalatable alternatives to get the money to pay for it: Either we raise taxes - which would strangle in the crib any nascent recovery; or we borrow trillions - if we can find lenders - and go into enormous debt for generations; or we just print the money we need to pay for all the spending the stimulus authorizes - which means we inflate the currency to close to Zimbabwean dimensions.

Whichever we choose we could easily become the next Venezuela, and Obama could be the next Chavez. He has until the summer of 2010 to make the stimulus work. If he hasn't done it by then - and few think he will - if unemployment is high and the value of the dollar is low, the writing will be on the wall. Voters will have weighed the Democrats in the balance and found them incompetent. Republicans will likely take back control of the Congress, if not numerically, at least in terms of being able to block any further manifestations of Democratic recklessness, and if that happens, Obama will either have to bend to Republican will and policies, as did Clinton with welfare reform, or risk being a one-termer.

As of yet it's not clear how Obama expects to pay for all the goodies he's loaded onto his sleigh - although from what I hear the printing presses are running merrily churning out crisp, new inflated dollars - but when we find out it will tell us much about what the next couple of decades will be like in this country.

* See here


Many Earths

There could be one hundred billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy. So says Dr Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Science at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. According to a BBC report:

[T]elescopes have been able to detect just over 300 planets outside our Solar System. Very few of these would be capable of supporting life, however. Most are gas giants like our Jupiter; and many orbit so close to their parent stars that any microbes would have to survive roasting temperatures.

But, based on the limited numbers of planets found so far, Dr Boss has estimated that each Sun-like star has on average one "Earth-like" planet. This simple calculation means there would be huge numbers capable of supporting life.

"Not only are they probably habitable but they probably are also going to be inhabited," Dr Boss told BBC News. "But I think that most likely the nearby 'Earths' are going to be inhabited with things which are perhaps more common to what Earth was like three or four billion years ago." That means bacterial lifeforms.

Dr Boss estimates that NASA's Kepler mission, due for launch in March, should begin finding some of these Earth-like planets within the next few years. Recent work at Edinburgh University tried to quantify how many intelligent civilisations might be out there. The research suggested there could be thousands of them.

Well, maybe. Dr. Boss is an expert and I'm not, but the experts I've read would, I think, say that his optimism is unwarranted. The article makes it sound as if planets suitable for life are commonplace in our galaxy, but all the astronomical discoveries of the last couple of decades point to the conclusion that life-sustaining planets are probably very unusual if not very rare in our galaxy.

In the first place, for the opening sentence above to be true, each star in the galaxy, not just each sun-like star, would have to average one earth-like planet in it's gravitational field, but astronomers know that most stars are completely unsuited for sustaining life.

In order to support life in its solar system a star must be located within a fairly narrow region in the galaxy. It can't be too close to the center, where radiation would be intense, nor too far away where it would revolve at dangerous speeds around the galactic pinwheel. The star has to be rich in heavier elements, and has to be fairly remote from other stars in the galaxy. It has to be a middle-aged star of relatively constant luminosity, not too big and not too small, not too old and not too young.

In other words, stars suitable for sustaining life are relatively unusual in our galaxy, but this is just the beginning. The star has to possess a planetary satellite capable of generating and sustaining life and this means it has to have perhaps hundreds of precisely-tuned properties. The planet has to be just the right distance from its star which means it has to revolve around the star at just the right speed. It has to have a nearly circular orbit and the right tilt to its axis. It has to be just the right mass so that its gravity will hold oxygen in the atmosphere but not hold slightly lighter noxious gases like ammonia. It has to rotate on its axis at the right speed, lest the temperature differences between day and night be too great, and it must possess a shifting crust. It must also have ample water and carbon, among other things, and also a large moon which has to be at just the right distance from the planet to stabilize its wobble. It must also be in a solar system where it's protected from meteorites by large gravitational vacuum sweepers like Uranus, Neptune, Jupiter and Saturn, and so on.

As the number of parameters that must be just right in order for a planet to be able to support life increases the chances of such planets existing in great numbers in our galaxy decrease.

This is why Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee titled their book on this subject Rare Earth. It's why Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards titled their book on a similar subject Privileged Planet. Life, so far from being widespread throughout the Milky Way, may well exist on only one planet in the entire galaxy, indeed in the whole universe --- ours.