Sunday, December 25, 2016

7.2 - Why is New Year's Day on January 1?

Why is New Year's Day on January 1?

So now the natural follow-up: Why is January 1 New Year's Day? Because that wasn’t always true. So why?

In large part, the reason has to do with the convenience of the Roman senate, a calendar almost no one uses any more, and the stubbornness of tradition.

The earliest recorded New Year's celebrations are believed to have been in Mesopotamia about 4000 years ago, that is, about 2000 BCE. Babylonians began the year with the first new Moon after the vernal equinox and greeted it with a multi-day celebration called Akitu. This actually is a logical time to start the year, since the vernal equinox is the first day of spring, in mid-March, and spring is traditionally a time of beginnings, of renewals, of planting crops and the birth of new farm animals.

Some other ancient cultures used different days, but all had some astronomical or astrological significance:

The Egyptians used the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major or the Big Dog. This took place in mid-July and it predicted the annual flooding of the Nile, an event so important to their agriculture.

Persians used the vernal equinox; the Phoenicians, the autumnal equinox, which is the first day of fall; while the Greeks used the winter solstice, the first day of winter.

All these choices carried some meaning beyond the date itself. January 1 doesn’t. So why January 1?

An early Roman calendar designated March 1 as the first day of a new year. This also explains something else you may have wondered about: If March is the first month of year, September is the seventh - and the Latin for "seven" is septem. Likewise, October, November, and December: octo being Latin for "eight," novem for "nine," and decem for "ten." Those months were named as they were because they were the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months of the year.

That early Roman calendar was a lunar one, based on the Moon. The problem is, the average lunar month is about 29 and a-half days and there is no way that can match with a solar year of roughly 365 and a-quarter days. You're going to be off by something like 12 days a year. And it is the solar year, not the lunar year, which drives the seasons.

What’s more, that calendar consisted of 10 months and a 304-day year and didn't even count the days between the end of December and the beginning of the year at the vernal equinox, with the vernal equinox apparently being designated March 1.

The calendar was reformed around 713 BCE to add the months of January and February, creating a year of 355 days, still 10 days off the solar year. To correct this, the Romans from time to time inserted a leap month of about 22 days into February, which served to overcorrect the disparity between the calendars, giving them some time before the error again got so big that another leap month was required.

Next, according to general but apparently not universal agreement among historians, in about 153 BCE the Roman Senate moved first day of year to January 1 because that was beginning of the civil year, time that newly elected Roman consuls began their terms in office, and it was felt to be just more convenient to have the civil year and the legal year start on same day. January is also a reasonable time because January was named for Janus, the Roman god of gates, doors, and beginnings - that is, the god of all transitions - who had two faces so that he could see both the past and the future.

Julius Caesar
Despite all the attempts at correction, by the time of Julius Caesar, the calendar was again seriously out of whack with the solar year. So in 46 BCE Caesar introduced a new, solar-based calendar. This Julian calendar, as it came to be called, also introduced the use of leap years to keep the calendar year from drifting too far from the solar year and came with a decree that firmly fixed January 1 as the start of the new year.

After the Roman empire fell, the generally-accepted year for that being 476, and as Christianity began spread across Europe, the Catholic church, which remember had previously adopted and adapted a fair part of the merry side of Saturnalia, now felt it was in a position to downplay "pagan," "unchristian" festivals such as those that had come to surround the new year in Rome.

In 567, the second Council of Tours banned the use of January 1 as the first day of the new year. Remember, this is at a time in European history when the authority of the church in civil matters, not just religious ones, was all but unquestioned. If the church said do it, governments did it.

As a result, in the Middle Ages in Europe, the official new year started at different times in different places, including December 25, by then the traditional birthday of Jesus; the old day of March 1; March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation and right around the vernal equinox; and even Easter, even though was a different day year to year.

But remember: Julius Caesar had set January 1 as New Year’s Day in 46 BCE - which means that by time the Council acted, the practice of keeping that as the first day of the year had been going on for 613 years and was so well established that a lot of people simply ignored the "official" date and kept to the older one.

Pope Gregory XIII
The Julian calendar also was flawed because the solar year is actually a few minutes shorter than 365 days and six hours, so the use of leap years every four years slightly over-corrects the difference. A few minutes may not seem like a big difference, but again the error accumulates over time and by the latter 1500s it had grown to 10 days.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII oversaw design of new, more accurate calendar, which changed the rule of leap years such that only century years divisible by 400, not 4, would be leap years, the better to prevent the over-correction of the Julian calendar. Thus, 2000 was leap year, but 1900 wasn't and 2100 won't be.

This still leaves a tiny over-correction but it will take over 3000 years for that error to build up to a single day, so nobody really cares.

Most significantly for our story here, Pope Gregory apparently knew a losing battle when he saw one and surrendered to tradition, restoring January 1 as the official New Year's Day for the church.

Catholic countries in Europe were quick to adopt the new calendar, with Spain, France, and Italy doing so the year it came out. But Protestant ones did so only gradually, suspicious that the “Antichrist in Rome” was trying to trick them into worshiping on the wrong days.

A Happy and Peaceful Year to all
Scotland, for one, didn't adopt new calendar until 1600. And England, which had used March 25 as start of year since sometime in the 1100s, didn't finally make change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar - along with its colonies, which included us - until 1752: 170 years later. By that time, the Julian calendar was 11 days behind the Gregorian, which was corrected by removing 11 days from the year: Wednesday, September 2, 1752 was followed by Thursday, September 14, 1752.

There are tales of riots breaking out with people believing their lives would be 11 days shorter or that they had lost 11 days of wages. While such sentiments existed, historians now are of opinion that the story of riots is a myth. However, the change of calendar was an issue in the 1754 parliamentary elections so it's hard to credit the idea that there were no protests of any sort.

Anyway, that's it: January 1 is the first day of year not due to any special meaning or relevance of date itself, but due to the convenience of the Roman Senate, the Julian calendar which almost no one uses anymore, and the surrender of Pope Gregory XIII to persistence of tradition.

So in the spirit of Constantine, let me say Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Chanukah, Happy Festivus, for all the atheists like me and all the pagans out there, Happy Winter Solstice, and to all of us, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. Like the man in the story said, we are halfway out of the dark.

7.1 - Why is Christmas on December 25?

Why is Christmas on December 25?

This show, for most of you anyway, will be seen in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. So I’m going to give myself a holiday of sorts and take the week off from heavy-duty politics to devote the show to two segments of our occasional feature called And Another Thing. That’s where we step away from political stuff in favor of something else. Usually it’s some cool science stuff, but this time it’s some cool history stuff.

So for the rest of the show I’m going to be answering two questions: Why is Christmas on December 25? And why is New Year’s Day on January 1?

To answer about Christmas, right at the top, you have to realize something. Based on how we celebrate the season, based on how we - and by that I mean Americans and to a perhaps even greater extent Europeans - engage and embrace the season, the traditions we follow in our celebrations, Christmas is expressed in symbols such as Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, brightly-wrapped presents, candy canes, wreaths, and mistletoe, along with local traditions.

It is not expressed by a creche.

Because you know those people who go around saying that "Jesus is the reason for the season?" He isn't. And he never was. Now that half of you are composing nasty emails, let me explain. The season is because of astronomical patterns.

Until relatively recently, people were much more aware of the movements of the Sun and Moon and stars than we are now unless you are either a dedicated stargazer or an astronomer.

Such movements were necessary signs of the changing of the seasons, of when to plant, when to reap, when seasonal rains were coming, when game would be plentiful, and so on. The sky was their almanac, their seasonal calendar.

Some of that awareness lives on in popular expressions and mythology. For example, did you ever wonder why the hot humid days of July and August still sometimes are called "the dog days?" Ancient peoples by their observations were able to realize that the star we call Sirius, which is at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the night in the middle of winter, is at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the day in summer. Sirius is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, or the Big Dog, and is known as the Dog Star. So the middle of summer becomes the dog days.

In prehistoric times and even well into recorded history, people believed that things like the Sun acted willfully or were controlled by gods that acted willfully - and each year watching it get lower and lower in the sky each day as winter approached, a fear developed that one year, one of these great cycles, the Sun would keep sinking until it disappeared below the horizon, leaving them in perpetual darkness and cold. So each year, when the Sun stopped sinking and began to rise higher in the sky each day, it was reason to celebrate.

This is the time of the winter solstice, which occurs in the Northern Hemisphere, depending an exactly where you are, around December 21 or 22.

"Solstice" is derived from two Latin words - sol and sistere - which together mean that "the Sun stands still," which is what it appears to do at the solstice: to come to a stop and then reverse.

All over the Northern Hemisphere, this was a time to celebrate: Ancient Egypt had celebrations, as did ancient Greece - in fact, in the earliest days, theirs involved a human sacrifice.

The Druids celebrated, it was celebrated in Iran, Native American peoples of North America, including the Pueblo and the Hopi, had their celebrations.

In pagan Scandinavia the winter festival was called the Yule. Great yule logs were burned; people drank mead around bonfires listening to tales of great stories of the past. A boar was sacrificed to the chief god Odin, who donned a broad-brimmed hat and magic blue cloak and sped around the world at night on his great white horse. Mistletoe, which was a sacred plant because it grew on the most sacred tree, the oak, was cut and a spray given to each family to be hung in doorways as good luck.

That is our first reminder that a lot of our holiday traditions - including the term "Yuletide," the time of the Yule - are drawn from pagan ones, including decorating with garlands, wreaths, and the Christmas tree itself, along with the man who can magically fly around the whole world in one night.

For the date of Christmas, though, now we're getting into the space that lies between history and interpretation.

No one knows the date Jesus was born, no one even knows for sure what season of the year it was - or even what year it was. To the extent that the Bible can be trusted as a source we can be very confident that it was not in the winter since shepherds did not watch their flocks by night at that time of year; the flocks would most likely have been corralled.

In fact, "watching their flocks by night" was most commonly done in the spring to protect the newborn lambs from wolves, which had lead some to argue he must have been born in the spring. But that is an awfully thin reed on which to try to build a foundation, much less a conclusion.

What's more, the earliest known use in English of the word "Christes-Maess," or the Feast of Christ, or Christmas, was in a list of Feast Days with Mass Days that was set down in England in 1038, a thousand years after Jesus died. No Saint's day listed for December 25th.

In fact, not only did early church leaders (I'm talking 2nd and 3rd centuries here) argue about when Jesus was born - the options included January 2, March 21, March 25, April 18, April 19, May 20, May 28, November 17, November 20, and, yes, December 25 - some, such as Origen, argued that the whole thing was pointless and wrong because it shouldn't be celebrated at all. Celebrating birthdays, he said, was for pagan gods.

Still, by the mid-third century, the idea for having a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus was getting established. Nonetheless, it took some time for that notion to become formalized and for a date to be fixed.

In 313, Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan, legally allowing Christianity in the Roman Empire - actually, he went considerably beyond that; the text actually says it was "proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best."

Which shows a lot more tolerance than many here do today, especially among our right-wing so-called Christians, the fanatics who get such a kick this time of year every year out of playing the oppressed victim under the relentless assault of the atheistic socialistic hordes - even though Christians make up over 78% of the US population.

Oh, and as a sidebar and contrary to popular belief, while Constantine considered himself “an emperor of the Christian people,” he did not actually formally convert by getting baptized until shortly before his death in 337 and Christianity did not become the official religion of Rome until 380, 43 years after his death.

Getting back to the point, the first recorded date of the birth of Jesus being celebrated on December 25th was not until 336, 300 years after Jesus died. And it wasn’t until 350 when Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December.

But that just brings us back to the start. How did the chosen date, why did the chosen date, come down to December 25? That was the question, after all.

To answer that, first remember that these developments were taking place in Rome, which had become the nerve center of organized Christianity.

The date brings us back to the winter solstice. The Romans, like many other ancient peoples, had solstice celebrations. In Rome it was called Saturnalia.

This was originally a feast day to the god Saturn, but over time it grew to a gigantic fair and a festival of the home. It began with sacrifice of a pig and involved riotous merry-making, feasting, and gambling. Houses were decorated with laurel and evergreens. Schools were closed; the army rested; no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, incense, and more. Temples were decorated with evergreens. Processions of people danced through the streets, with masked or blackened faces and wearing fantastic hats.

Masters feasted with slaves, who could do and say what they liked - supposedly, anyway. I doubt they really felt free to push the privilege very far since a day or at most a few days later they would be back to just slaves, but hypothetically they could.

(Notice, by the way: traditions including decorating your home. Laurels. Visiting friends. Gift-giving. Holiday parties. Not Christian traditions, Roman ones. Pagan ones.)

The old Roman goddess of the solstice was Angerona, whose festival day was, logically enough for a goddess of the solstice, December 21st.

But when Mithraism, personified by the god Mithra, was introduced to Rome in the mid-2nd century, the goddess was largely supplanted in favor of Mithra's day of seasonal rebirth, which was December 25. Mithra, himself a composite of earlier beliefs, became amalgamated with a Roman sun god named Solis Indigeni, a god which in turn came from the Pelasgean titan of light named Helios.

This new being, this combination of Mithra and Solis Indigeni, this composite of two composites, was Sol Invictus, the invincible or unconquered Sun, and Mithra's day, December 25, became Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the birthday of the unconquerable Sun. When the emperor Aurelian proclaimed Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in 274, the day became an official holiday.

Sol Invictus
So, put it all together. Before Constantine the Great issued his Edict of Milan, being a Christian in Rome could get you killed. Refusal to participate in the Imperial cult was considered treason.

During the Great Persecution carried out by the emperor Diocletian from 303 to 311, Christian buildings and the homes of Christians were torn down, their sacred books were collected and burned. Christians themselves were arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved, and condemned to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators.

So if you wanted celebrate the birth of the man you regarded as your savior - and the idea of having such a celebration was by then pretty widely accepted among Christians - you had to hide it. So since the time is purely symbolic and basically arbitrarily chosen because no one knows the actual date for certain and it's really based on tradition and nothing more, what better time to do it than during Saturnalia - when everyone else was celebrating and so no one would notice? And what better day to pick than December 25, when the birthday of the unconquerable Sun could be thought of as the birthday of the unconquerable “Son?"

Indeed, according to St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, writing in the late 4th or very early 5th century, just a few decades after Christianity had become the official religion of Rome, the "Roman Church purposefully placed the keeping of Christmas between two popular folk festivals, Saturnalia and the Kalends of January, in order to give Christians something to celebrate about [undisturbed] while others were engaged in secular merrymaking."

"Chrysostom," by the way, is I believe Greek for “golden-mouthed,” in praise of his eloquence.

By the year 354 CE, four years after Pope Julius I had designated it as such, December 25 had been accepted in Rome as the date of the Feast of Christ, or Christ-Mass, Christmas. Gradually most of the Christian Church agreed.

Once Christianity became the legal religion of Rome in 380, the church began appropriating what old pagan customs it could, with the result that the merry side of Saturnalia was gradually adopted and adapted to the observance of Christmas.

And so that is why Christmas in on December 25: Because Christians hid within, then adopted, then adapted, pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. By 1100 Christmas was the peak celebration of the year for all of Europe.

But let me finish up by saying that even then the idea was not universally accepted. Origen's conviction that celebrating the birth of a god was for pagans persisted among conservative Christians for centuries, including among the separatists and Puritans who settled Plymouth and Boston here in Massachusetts. They regarded Christmas as a pagan celebration with no Biblical justification. In fact, there were laws against it.

As an illustration of the attitude, we have the journal of Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford, who in the entry for 1621 recalled what he called a passage "rather of mirth then of weight." (Spelling in the excerpt has been modernized.)
On the day called Christmas day, the Governor called them out to work, (as was used,) but the most of this new company [Here is referring to some people who had arrived the month before, in November 1621, on a ship called “Fortune.”] excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep to their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly.
Recall that Bradford is writing here in about 1631 or 1632, about 10 years after the fact.

And not just here at home. In 1647, Great Britain's Puritan-dominated parliament abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun, known in the US as Pentecost.

Back in the US, in 1659, the MassBay colony - that is, Boston - banned celebrating Christmas
altogether. The ban remained in place for 22 years, until 1681, and even then it was a governor appointed by the restored British monarchy who revoked the ban.

Despite the lifting of the ban, the first recorded celebration of Christmas in Boston wasn't for another five years, in 1686. For many years thereafter, Thanksgiving remained the important seasonal holiday in New England.

In the wake of the revolution, interest in Christmas in the former colonies faded because it was seen as a British holiday. In fact, Christmas did not become a major holiday in the US until a religious revival in the early 1800s spurred interest in the day, particularly in the South. As a result, it was Louisiana, in 1837, which became the first state to make the day a holiday.

Even then, New England continued to lag behind: In Plymouth, the first time Christmas was mentioned in one the town’s newspapers as far as anyone can tell wasn't until 1825. As late as 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that “The old Puritan feeling prevents [Christmas] from being a cheerful hearty holiday” in the region, but, he added, "We are in a transition state."

And so it was: By 1860 that same Plymouth paper was filled with ads for Christmas presents and by the end of the century Christmas was as much a part of Plymouth as it had become in the rest of the country.

What's Left #7

What's Left
for the week of December 22-28, 2016

This week:

And Another Thing: Why is Christmas on December 25?
"The Christmas Connection," lecture at Plymouth Antiquarian Society, Plymouth, MA, November 15, 1979

And Another Thing: Why is New Year's Day on January 1? our-eleven-days/

And so this is Christmas

Happy Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

6.10 - The end of the battle for Aleppo

The end of the battle for Aleppo

On December 13, Russian ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin told the Security Council that military action had ended in eastern Aleppo. A deal had been reached for the rebels to leave the city. The rebels confirmed the deal had been made.

The Battle of Aleppo, the battle and the siege that became the symbol for the humanitarian disaster that is Syria, the battle which since 2012 had pitted the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against an array of disorganized opposition rebels in what was essentially a standoff until massive Russian bombings turned the tide and enabled government troops and Iranian-sponsored militias to break through, that battle appeared to be over.

The news came in the wake of what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called "reports of atrocities against a large number of civilians," including summary executions and even burning of people alive, atrocities committed by government troops and particularly by the militias in the final days of the battle.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights referred to "butcheries" carried out "every hour" and Jens Laerke of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs called it "a complete meltdown of humanity."

But at least it appeared it was over and the haunting question "What would you do about Aleppo," the question to which no one had a good answer, the question that could only bring the heart-shredding realization that sometimes there is nothing you can do, nothing that will not just increase the suffering, the death, the bloodshed, it appeared that question was finally silenced.

Except - the temptation is to say of course - it wasn't. The ceasefire agreement fell apart in less than a day.

It had been negotiated by Russia and Turkey and apparently Syria and Iran were ticked off they they weren't involved. As a result, the Iranian-backed militias refused to allow the evacuation even of the wounded, much less the rebels, to proceed.

The bombing, the destruction, the death, resumed, even intensified, only for another ceasefire to go into effect a day later, achieved after a concession to - notably - not Syria but Iran, involving arranging for a similar evacuation of two villages where Iranian-supported militias are under siege by rebel forces.

This time, it seemed to work. In the very early hours of Thursday, December 15, the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that the evacuation of the wounded from Aleppo had begun and Russia’s TASS news service said the evacuation of 5,000 Syrian rebels and their families was also under way.

So maybe it really is finally over. Over, that is, at least for the moment, at least for a few.

On a more if you will practical level, this is undeniably a military and perhaps more important political victory for Assad, for Russia, and perhaps even more for Iran. Aleppo was the last major urban center held by the rebels against the Assad regime.

But this does not mean in any sense that the war is over. Rebel forces in their varying forms, which include, we need to keep reminding ourselves, a variety of terrorist groups including some - such as the al-Nusra front - the US has supported as "moderates" solely because they say they oppose ISIS, still hold a significant amount of territory and the fact is, Assad is now almost entirely dependent on Russia and Iran for his survival.

Meanwhile, Daesh - that is, ISIS - has retaken the city of Palmyra and launched an attack on a major Syrian airbase.

The future of the war and the future of Syria is a very different question from the end of the battle for Aleppo. The blood continues to flow.

6.9 - Update: Ohio Gov. John NotOKsich signs 20-week abortion ban

Update: Ohio Gov. John NotOKsich signs 20-week abortion ban

One last Update. Last week I mentioned that Keith Faber, the president of the Ohio State Senate, had said that the election of TheRump was what prompted the Ohio legislature to pass the nation's strictest anti-choice measure, one that would ban abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy, as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected, a time when many women won't even realize they are pregnant.

As a quick sidebar, it's worth mentioning that "fetal heartbeat," as applied to such a law, is medically inaccurate: The proper term is "fetal pole cardiac activity" and what is being detected isn't actually a heartbeat, as there is at that point no heart.

But getting back to the bill, the Update here is that Gov. John NotOKsich, in a move happily endorsed by Ohio No Right to Choose - aka Ohio Right to Life - vetoed the six-week ban but signed the bill the anti-choicers really wanted, which had been passed at the same time: a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, which right now matches the strictest ban in the country.

See, the forced birthers know full well that the fetal-heartbeat bill didn't have a chance of being sustained in court, particularly since the two states to enact such a law were shot down in court in no uncertain terms.

But they wanted Ohio to join the 18 other states which have at some point passed a 20-week ban and with the passage of the fetal-heartbeat measure, NotOKsich was presented with the opportunity to do what he so loves to do: appear moderate by adopting the supposed "middle" course - the ban after 20 weeks - while actually seeking to advance the agenda of the reactionaries.

Three states - Arizona, Georgia, and Idaho - have seen their 20-week bans challenged in federal court. All three lost and in all three cases, the Supreme Court refused to take the case. But because that just let lower-court rulings stand, no national ruling has been made and the forced birthers are hoping the 20-week standard at some point will prove to be a wedge to get SCOTUS, thickened with one or two reactionaries attained during the regime of the Great Orange One, to overturn Roe v. Wade entirely.

It's also important to note that none of this happened without resistance. On Saturday, December 10, protesters descended on the Ohio statehouse and hung coat hangers all along the statehouse fence. Naturally, the hangers were taken down by officials - but the protesters came back on Sunday the 11th and put more up.

The symbolism of the wire coat hanger is a potent one. I have said a number of times that I am old enough to remember without being prompted the meaning of that symbol. And I say again that I have no desire to return to those times.

6.8 - Update: DACA students advised to be in US on January 20

Update: DACA students advised to be in US on January 20

This is a relatively quick Update. The bare facts speaks for themselves. Or as much as they can in the fact-free world of Donald TheRump.

Two weeks ago, I noted that hundreds of college and university presidents from across the US had signed a statement calling for continuing the policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. That policy, begun by executive order in June 2012, allows certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation.

The Update is that advocates for immigrants are now advising folks covered by the program to make sure that they are not traveling abroad when President Xenophobe is sworn in on January 20 because they are afraid that he might immediately rescind the program, with the result that they might be barred from returning to the US.

That is how deep, how real, the fear is; how deep, how real, the threat it.

Because no one can say that fear is an irrational one. TheRump made immigration the cornerstone of his campaign, promising to build a wall along the Mexican border and to deport undocumented immigrants by the millions.

Then later it was oh, no, he wants to focus on those who have committed crimes - which is exactly the Obama policy that he denounced as too soft during the campaign, even though the Amazing Mr. O deported more people than any previous president.

Continuing his pattern of spewing whatever bilge happens to be flushing through his sewer system of a mind at a given moment, during a recent magazine interview, TheRump expressed sympathy for the 741,000 people in the DACA program - despite having called it "illegal amnesty" during the campaign.

On top of that, no matter what he said, his advisers would rush out to walk back his comments almost as soon as they were published.

All of which gives those who had lived in hope and tried to build a life in the country they knew as home good and legitimate reason to fear that they will be forced back into the shadows - or worse.

And it gives the rest of us good cause to stand with them - because as the saying goes, no human being is illegal.

6.7 - Update: Court delays ruling on Standing Rock

Update: Court delays ruling on Standing Rock

Next up, a couple of Updates and the first one is another case of taking your good news where you can find it because the news isn't all good.

Last week, in discussing the victory at Standing Rock, I mentioned that Energy Transfer Partners, the developers of the Dakota Access Pipeline, were suing in federal court in Washington, DC, insisting that the court should order the Army Corps of Engineers to grant the easements the company desires. The good part of the Update is that on December 9, the judge in the case, James Boasberg, denied a motion by Energy Transfer Partners, or ETP, for an immediate ruling in the company's favor, preferring to order the company and the Army Corps of engineers to submit additional motions and pleadings by January 31, 2017.

What this means is the the court is prepared for a full hearing on the matter, meaning a decision would likely not be delivered for a couple of months or even more. As I said before, I know of no particular reason to just assume the decision, when it comes, will be a bad one, but the fact is, this is a case where delay is good, delay works to our benefit.

The bad part of the Update - and it is bad - is that NBC News is reporting that it wasn't actually the Corps of Engineers that turned away the application for easements. In fact, the Corps recommended granting the easements. But the agency was overruled by Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy.

The problem is, that position makes her a management-level "political appointee" whose tenure will end with the end of the Obama administration unless she is re-appointed by TheRump - and considering that he claims an intent to "bring back coal," he wants the CEO of Exxon-Mobil to be Secretary of State, and it turns out that Rick "Oops" Perry, his pick for Energy Secretary, is on the board of directors of ETP, that seems to put it mildly highly unlikely. With some new, more agreeable Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works in place, the decision to overrule the Corps could be undone within days and what's more, the Corps could go into Judge Boasberg's court on January 31 and say it is declining to offer a defense to ETP's suit, which could easily lead to a summary judgement in ETP's favor.

Now, that would not be the end of it because, as I said last week, the attempt to simply undo the decision to do more environmental review of the project would most certainly spark its own lawsuits, which could tie up the project for years.

So the news only emphasizes that the fight is not over - but I have to admit that nonetheless it brings a certain sense of discouragement, a sense for which there is only one cure: renewed people power. I look forward to seeing it, taking part as I can even though that is limited, and celebrating it wherever and whenever it happens.

6.6 - For the Record: Castro had faults, but we have Gitmo

For the Record: Castro had faults, but we have Gitmo

For the record...
...when Fidel Castro died, it was immediately clear that in the US media that the old chestnut about not speaking ill of the dead did not apply to him. Accounts were filled to the brim with denunciations of his "communist dictatorship" and other sins.

And yes, there was enough to condemn, although it seems to me some room could have been found to comment on the improvements in health care and education which were also part of that history.

But what I wanted to quote here was the pointed and worthwhile observation of blogger Avedon Carol, who said:
Whatever else you may know about Cuba, you should certainly remember that there is a prison on that island where people have been held and tortured for 14 years without charges. And Cuba does not run that prison.
Something else that largely has slipped down the memory hole.

6.5 - For the Record: website dishes out sexist advice to women

For the Record: website dishes out sexist advice to women

For the record...
...a site called, one of those smirking "however you are living your life, you're doing it wrong" sites aimed at women, recently had a piece entitled "Grow Up Already - 20 Trends You're Too Old to Wear."

That's right, it was actually laying down age limits for certain sorts of clothing or fashions punctuated with "fashion advice" about "timeless" looks that amounted to "act your age, which means looking like everybody always has before."

Well, for my part I would say that women would do better by dumping that kind of sexist "guidance" and reading Jenny Joseph's poem entitled "Warning," which begins
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me
and realize you don't have to be old to wear purple.

6.4 - Not Good News: Eight of nine tech companies refuse to pledge not to help with Muslim database

Not Good News: Eight of nine tech companies refuse to pledge not to help with Muslim database

That is a kind of Good News we can really use because it comes on the heels of some Not Good News.

In the wake of TheRump's election and his embrace of raging xenophobe Kris Kobach, with the resulting claims that TheRump was serious about the Great Wall of Orange on the Mexican border and about a registry for Muslim immigrants, the online magazine The Intercept contacted nine different American technology-related firms to ask if that company would, quoting the question, "if solicited by the Trump administration, sell any goods, services, information, or consulting of any kind to help facilitate the creation of a national Muslim registry, a project which has been floated tentatively by the president-elect’s transition team?"

After two weeks of calls and emails, six of the nine companies - Facebook, Google, Apple, IBM, SRA International, and CGI - wouldn't even provide an answer. Booz Allen Hamilton did answer - if you regard "declined to comment" an answer. Microsoft said the company would not discuss "hypotheticals" before offering the deeply disturbing observation that, quoting, "it will remain important for those in government and the tech sector to continue to work together to strike a balance that protects privacy and public safety in what remains a dangerous time." (Has it ever struck you that every time someone talks about a "balance" between privacy and security it always means we should have less privacy and more government surveillance?)

Of the nine, only one company gave a flat-out no: Twitter, which referred to a company policy statement saying, again quoting:
We prohibit developers ... from allowing law enforcement - or any other entity - to use Twitter data for surveillance purposes. Period.
This was apparently done in the wake of reports that police around the country were using people's social media feeds to track and surveil anti-TheRump activists at protests in the wake of the election.

Writing for the Intercept, reporter Sam Biddle notes in fairness that the lack of an answer from the other companies does not mean that they are tacitly endorsing TheRump's agenda in general or a Muslim registry in particular.

Even so, he wrote, it's hardly asking a lot of tech companies "to go on record as unwilling to help create a federal list of Muslims."

But apparently, for a lot of them, it is asking too much.

So good on Twitter, and that is good news - but the silence from the others except for a bit of creepy blather about "balance" definitely comes under the heading of Not Good News.

6.3 - Good News: Tech-sector workers say they will not help create Muslim database

Good News: Tech-sector workers say they will not help create Muslim database

Okay, next up, we have something we actually can call Good News.

On December 13, more than 100 employees of technology companies including Google, Twitter, and Salesforce published an open letter in which they pledged not to help the coming Donald TheRump administration to build a data registry to track people based on their religion or assist in mass deportations.

The employees, a mix of engineers, designers, and business executives, drew on comparisons to the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to declare their opposition.

Quoting the letter:
We are choosing to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans, immigrants, and all people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the incoming administration’s proposed data collection policies.

We refuse to build a database of people based on their Constitutionally-protected religious beliefs. We refuse to facilitate mass deportations of people the government believes to be undesirable.
The signers also pledge, also among other actions, to work within their organizations to minimize the collection and retention of data that would facilitate ethnic or religious targeting - and in the event they discover within their organization illegal or unethical misuse of data, they will engage in "responsible whistleblowing" and resign rather than take part themselves.

By early evening on December 17, the number of signers had grown to over 2100 and was still climbing. And that just makes the Good News even better.

6.2 - Footnote: drone war in Yemen continues

Footnote: drone war in Yemen continues

Oh, and as a very quick footnote to that: Yes, the US is still carrying out drone strikes in Yemen.

The military acknowledges four drone strikes in Yemen this year, all supposedly targeted against AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), which controls some territory in east-central Yemen. On the other hand, relying on published media accounts, New claims there have been 38 such strikes in 2016.

The actual number is uncertain, particularly because the US usually only announces such strikes if either some "high-value target" is killed or the admission is forced because of the civilian casualties it caused. But no, the drone war hasn't stopped just because we don't hear about it as often amidst the roar of war in Syria and western Iraq.

6.1 - War in Yemen; US begins to back away

War in Yemen; US begins to back away

We're going to start with something that eventually, believe it or not, turns into a sort of good news kinda.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. It has been in a bloody civil war since late 2014. Even as the world was distracted by Syria, the death and destruction in Yemen mounted.

It is estimated that upwards of 10,000 have died in what the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs calls "the forgotten war." The health service there has "completely collapsed." There are 1.5 million malnourished children the country, 370,000 of them severely malnourished. UNICEF reports that of the total population of 27 million people, an estimated 21.2 million, nearly 80% of the total, need humanitarian assistance of some kind. Half of that number is children.

Of that 27 million, 3.3 million, over 10 percent, have been forced from their homes. Over half are "food insecure," meaning they don't know from one day to the next if there will be enough food to eat. Over two-thirds lack access to safe drinking water, which is connected to a recent outbreak of cholera, with the World Health Organization recording almost 5,500 suspected cases a month ago.

I'm not going to even try to disentangle the history of the war, especially since this is hardly the first internal conflict Yemen has experienced. I will just notice that the actual fighting broke out when Houthi rebels seized control of Sana'a, the Yemeni capital, in September 2014. A few months, later, they seized the presidential compound, forcing President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee the country in late February 2015.

Since then, the fighting between supporters of the Hadi government - with outside aid coming from the US via drone strikes and from Saudi Arabia - and the Houthi - with outside aid from Iran - has continued and gotten more vicious over time. As a quick aside, to show how messy civil wars quickly become, among those supporting the Houthi are supporters of Hadi's predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh - who was forced from office by an uprising supported by the Houthi.

Despite the on-going brutality and suffering, neither side has gained a decisive advantage.

Okay, so what's the sorta kinda good news? Because I'd say we could use some about now.

The Good News is that there is actually - or at least it appears there is actually - a limit to the atrocities our government will tolerate for the sake of "stability" and in the name of "fighting terrorism."

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading what we call so euphemistically call an "air campaign" in Yemen. It has consisted of attacks on hospitals, schools, markets, factories, and other clearly civilian targets. It has consisted of, that is, war crimes.

And now, belatedly and after multiple protests, but finally, the United States has decided to limit its military support to Saudi Arabia's campaign by cutting off supplies of certain weapons.

Just what weapons are involved is not certain, but it involves precision-guided munitions which the US had been supplying under the notion that such weapons can minimize civilian casualties - only to have them used by the Saudis, it appears, to more accurately target civilian and non-combatant targets. It finally got to be too much even for the cold hearts of the US military establishment.

However, the reason this is kinda sorta good news is that while we can be glad of the decision, it not nearly enough. It is not the cut-off in support that folks had hoped for. For example, the US will keep refueling the aircraft involved and will continue some other arms sales to the kingdom, including a $3.5 billion deal for Chinook cargo helicopters, which the US insists would not be part of offensive actions in Yemen.

As a result, William Hartung of the Center for International Policy called the decision to stop supplying precision-guided munitions a "weak signal," while Samah Hadid of Amnesty International said the move "falls far short of what is needed" and Rep. Ted Lieu from California called the decision to continue the re-fueling "completely bizarre."

There is one other point to consider: This is not the US's first hesitant step away from its embrace of Saudi Arabia's war crimes.

In May, Washington suspended sales of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia and in August, the US military began to back away from supporting to Saudi Arabia's campaign, pulling out a planning team that was coordinating with the bombing campaign.

Some have suggested that those moves, and this latest one, are less about any moral judgement on Saudi Arabia, an important regional ally we historically have tried very hard to avoid offending, but are more about concerns among some US officials that by not acting, the United States could be implicated in Saudi Arabia's war crimes.

Whatever the reason and yes, however weak the signal, we still should be glad it happened. Now it's time to pull the plug on all military aid and sales to the repressive regime of Saudi Arabia. Now, that would be Good News.

What's Left #6

What's Left
for the week of December 15-21, 2016

This week:
War in Yemen; US begins to back away

Footnote: drone war in Yemen continues

Good News: Tech-sector workers say they will not help create Muslim database

Not Good News: Eight of nine tech companies refuse to pledge not to help with Muslim database

For the Record: website dishes out sexist advice to women

For the Record: Castro had faults, but we have Gitmo

Update: Court delays ruling on Standing Rock

Update: DACA students advised to be in US on January 20

Update: Ohio Gov. John NotOKsich signs 20-week abortion ban

The end of the battle for Aleppo

Sunday, December 11, 2016

5.8 - Latest Clintonite excuses for losing: blame Jill Stein and millennials

Latest Clintonite excuses for losing: blame Jill Stein and millennials

I keep trying to get away from this, this being post-mortems of the election, but they keep dragging me back in with the stupidity.

But wait, that's not right. There's nothing stupid about it. Rather, it's what I called it before: a reflection of, an outgrowth of, the desperate desire of the political and media establishment to declare that nothing has changed, everything is as it was, this is all "normal," the usual politics, and at the end of the day we - the establishment - are still in control.

The result is an overwhelming desire on the part of that establishment to normalize Donald TheRump and the collection of cronies, wackos, and reactionaries he is surrounding himself with.

This is why we keep getting told in one way or another that TheRump didn't actually mean a lot of the bigoted crap he said or the wild claims he made on the campaign trail and his admitting that he forgot that he ever promised to keep those Carrier jobs in Indiana was treated almost as a charming eccentricity.

This is why the media is recasting the flaming racist anti-Semitic bigot and soon-to-be "Special Advisor to the President" Steve Bannon as a "provocateur" and a "fiery populist."

This is why columnist Chris Cillizza, who regards Bannon - along with conspiracy-tweeting Islamaphobe and soon-to-be National Security Advisor Michael Flynn - as merely "controversial," is so eager to show that TheRump's Cabinet choices "reflect a political savviness."

And it's why the Democratic party establishment and its fellow travelers in the media continue to blame the failures of the Dummycrats and the Hillary Clinton campaign on anyone and everyone - except the Dummycrats and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Why it continues to insist "we didn't do anything wrong, we don't need to change anything, except maybe we need to 'sharpen our message.'"

Because, to paraphrase what used to be said about conservatism, the party establishment can never fail, it can only be failed.

Thus we get, for one example, yet another variation on the "blame third parties" - or, to be more exact, "blame Jill Stein" - argument.

The online politics magazine The Hill ran a piece declaring that
[i]n two key states that President-elect Donald Trump won, his margin of victory was smaller than the total number of votes for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.
So you see, it was Stein's fault Clinton lost those states because if she had only somehow gotten all of Stein's votes - truly a delusional fantasy - but if somehow that had happened, she would have won!

Except, um, no, she wouldn't: The two states were Michigan and Wisconsin with a total of 26 electoral votes between them. Had Clinton won both, she still would have lost the electoral vote 280-258. So what is the point of the article?

The point is that originally, the article said there were three such states. The third was Pennsylvania, with 20 electoral votes. So if Clinton had gotten all of Stein's votes in Pennsylvania, it said originally, she would have won the election 278-260. The hitch is that when more votes came in, it turned out that TheRump's margin in Pennsylvania was greater than the number of Stein's votes which meant first that the article had to be clumsily edited to make it two states and second even if Clinton had gotten every one of Stein's votes in Pennsylvania she still would have lost the state and the election.

It would have been reasonable in view of the changed numbers, which undermined the entire premise of the piece, to go "oops" and drop the article. But they weren't about to give up on a chance to slam a third party candidacy as "how dare you even hypothetically affect one of the two enshrined, sacred, parties!"

So consider what they did instead. Quoting the article:
In Wisconsin, Trump’s margin over Clinton was 22,177, while Stein garnered 31,006 votes.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Stein’s total of 49,485 votes was just slightly smaller than Trump’s victory margin of 67,416 votes.
Okay, in Wisconsin, Stein if you will beat the margin - exceeded TheRump's victory margin - by 8800 votes, a figure apparently considered large enough to be significant. But in Pennsylvania, she fell short of the margin by a hair under 18,000 votes, more than double the difference in Wisconsin and that figure - 18,000 - was equal to 36% of her entire vote. But that total is considered to be "just slightly smaller" than TheRump's margin.

Put bluntly, they maximized the meaning where Stein beat TheRump's margin and minimized the meaning where she didn't, still hinting that Stein was the cause of Clinton's failures - emphasized by the fact that later in the article, it said that if Clinton had won all three states, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, she would have won the election - despite having been forced to admit that even with every one of Jill Stein's votes, Clinton still would have lost Pennsylvania.

But it's not just blame Jill Stein, no, of course not, it's blame anyone you can come up with.

The latest nonsense - this is a new one at least as far as I'm aware - comes from Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, who claimed on December 2 that the people really to blame are - get this - millennials.

The argument is based on something I pointed out before: She did five points worse with voters 18-29 than Obama did in 2012. But where I saw a failure on her part to give them enough of a reason to vote for her, Mook and senior Washington Post political reporter Aaron Blake, who supported Mook on this, see a failure by those voters to support her even in the lack of such a reason. In their eyes, young voters failed in some kind of unspoken responsibility to uphold the preferred candidate of the liberal establishment.

What makes the argument really asinine is that Clinton won the 18-29 vote by 55%-36%, a margin of 19 points. It was her highest percentage and the biggest margin of any age group.

You could blame those 45-64. Clinton lost that group by 8 points. Nope, blame the young folks who voter for her by 19 points. You could blame those over 65, she lost them by 7 points. Nope, blame the - you'll pardon this old dude for the term - kids who supported her more than anyone else.

This would be almost funny in a bitter sort of way if it wasn't for the fact that it's part of the overall drive by yes the political and media establishment to say nothing needs to be changed, nothing needs to be done differently, because we are still safe in our privileged enclaves.

Which is exactly why it must change.

5.7 - Clown Award: Christina Alesci of CNN

Clown Award: Christina Alesci of CNN

Now it's time for the return of one of our regular features but which hasn't been seen here for a while. This is the Clown Award, given as always for meritorious stupidity.

This time, the winner of the Big Red Nose is CNN reporter Christina Alesci.

On December 2, CNN carried a story about how TheRump is convening a panel of prominent CEOs to meet with on a monthly basis to discuss the "big issues" around the economy and taxes.

Christina Alesci
Alesci reported excitedly that the panel, assembled by the Blackstone Group's CEO Stephen Schwartzman, will be made up of a "who's who" of "bipartisan CEOs."

She called it "really historic," gushed "I've never seen anything quite like this," and said the list provides "some very diverse viewpoints."

The list includes the CEOs of GM, JP Morgan Chase, Blackrock, Disney, WalMart, and, one assumes, Blackstone, and the former CEO of GE.

For the media, it's the very definition of corporate diversity: the entire spectrum of opinion, from GE to GM.

The spectrum of opinion about Christina Alesci is just about as wide: It runs from clown to clown.

5.6 - For the Record: the rich are not like us

For the Record: the rich are not like us

For the record... remains true that yes, the rich are not like you and me.

About two weeks ago, the Washington Post carried an article about what it called the haute horology world - that is, the world of people for who watches are not a means to tell the time, they are a way to declare your importance and flaunt your wealth.

They are "timepiece connoisseurs" who will tell you "You don't need a watch to tell the time" and if you do, a Timex will do just fine. They attend watch events with - quoting the article - "expertly lighted booths that make the watches sparkle like diamonds" and dealers who "resemble charming Bond villains in dark clothes and black gloves."

They will spend tens of thousands of dollars for a watch, in fact $15,000 models are deemed "middle-class" timepieces and a Rolex is regarded as a starter watch. Luxury watches, the article says, "are Porsches for your wrist, Birkin bags for boys that speak stacks of cash about the owners."

They are, that is, a means to show off, to impress others, and to be able to recognize those not worth your time, those too déclassé to realize the superior quality of what is on your wrist.

Collecting such watches is, in the words of one collector, "basically a silly hobby." A silly hobby involving useless baubles each of which costs more than most of us will make in a year (or two, or three) being pursued by people with more money than they know what to do with.

5.5 - For the Record: another state finds the poor are not drug abusers

For the Record: another state finds the poor are not drug abusers

For the record...
...Michigan just completed a year-long pilot program to ferret out drug users among welfare recipients - without finding a single one.

Of the 443 applicants for or recipients of what the state calls its "Family Independence Program," 14 were chosen for "suspicion-based screenings." Only one was found to have "a reasonable suspicion of use of a controlled substance" and that person dropped off the rolls "for an unrelated reason" and was never tested. So not only did they not find any drug users, they didn't even find anyone to test.

Michigan thus becomes the ninth state that I know of - the others being Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah - that has instituted some form of drug testing program for the poor only for these states to find, without exception, that people on or applying for public aid are less likely to be using drugs than the general population.

5.4 - For the Record: harsh anti-abortion law in Ohio

For the Record: harsh anti-abortion law in Ohio

Okay, we are introducing a new occasional feature this week. It's called For the Record and it involves items that I will cover briefly, no more than a minute or a minute and a-half, but which are things I just want to make sure get said.

To illustrate, we are kicking it off this week with three examples.

For the record...
...the baleful effect of TheRump is visible even now.

According Ohio Senate President Keith Faber, it was TheRump's election and the prospect of a reactionary Supreme Court that prompted Ohio GOPpers to pass the nation's strictest time-based abortion law, one that would ban abortions from the moment the heartbeat of a fetus can be detected - which usually occurs about six weeks into a pregnancy, a time when some women may not even know they are pregnant.

Typically, they did it by attaching the measure to another one intended to accomplish some good, one intended to streamline the process by which medical professionals report child abuse.

Two other states - Arkansas and North Dakota - passed similar fetal heartbeat abortion laws. Both were found to be unconstitutional in federal court. But the reactionaries don't care about things like the Constitution. They only care about power.
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