Thursday, March 27, 2008
Scientists Locate Original Sin
The movie Quest for Fire depicts the start of the "Anthropocene" era.
IT'S THAT DAY AGAIN. A mixed bag of topics today, from the ridiculous to the sad and back to the ridiculous again. First up is a report in Wired.com which puts the "climate change crisis" in a whole new light:
Our epoch needs a new name. You're familiar with, say, the Jurassic? It started 200 million years ago and ended 55 million years later, give or take. For the past 12,000 years, we've been living in the Holocene. But in 2000, the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen pitched a new name for our times: the Anthropocene, the epoch affected by people. He dated it to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s — in other words, when we started messing things up. William Ruddiman, a retired climatologist at the University of Virginia, likes the name Anthropocene, too. But he thinks it started much, much earlier — as far back as 6,000 BC, when human beings first discovered agriculture. That's when we started razing forests and burning lots of wood, pumping enough carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere to alter the world's climate.
What's the difference? Scientists still argue — though not as much as deniers would have you believe — about the extent to which climate change is the result of human activity. And they still argue — quite a lot, actually — about how quickly the climate shifts in response to new conditions. As I understand Ruddiman, we humans may have been screwing up the climate for far longer than anyone thought. [emphases added]
Talk about a stretch. How many human beings were there on earth in 6000 BC? Maybe 10 million? That's like scattering the population of London all over the planet. And they were already changing the climate. Right. So how is it that with a world population of 6.5 billion today, we still have reputable scientists (and we do, despite the pompous qualifier in the Wired.com piece) unconvinced that human beings are changing the climate right now?
The answer lies in that "anthropo" prefix in the preferred new name for the holocene. A more accurate suggestion would be the "anthropocentric era." The contemporary religion of scientific materialism, including its bombastic atheism, tracks closely with the oldest principles of Old Testament religion. In their view of all the vast wonders of nature and the cosmos, the only thing they regard as vile is the species of mankind and the fruits of his efforts to build civilization. In other words, the very scientists who decry the Judeo-Christian insistence on putting man at the center of creation as a monolithic exception are doing exactly the same thing. When the Christians do it, it's an act of irrational superstition. When scientists do it, it's the assertion of an objective fact. In this context, it's easy to identify the new Original Sin of the evil creatures we are as fire, the invention that finally gave man the edge in his battle to survive and prosper. How ludicrously retro can you get?
We'll leave it at that, but for those who think we're overstating the case against contemporary scientific zealots, here's a highly literate and thoughtful review of the leading new gospels of atheism (long but well worth the reading), and here's a glimpse at how professional scientists are trying to use the tools of their trade to finally hunt down and exterminate God. Just for fun after all that, here's another humorous recutting of Quest for Fire excerpts.
All those simian bullies with their bones and grunts can't help but remind us that the great scientist and writer Arthur C. Clarke died last week at the age of 90. We noted his passing at the time, but since then by an odd coincidence, we have also lost two other fine contributors to the arts, one in his 90s and one in his late 80s.
The New York Times has a fine obituary of Richard Widmark, who managed to have an incredibly long and successful acting career while maintaining his personal privacy and a 55-year marriage to the woman he wed before he ever became a star. He never once appeared on a talk show but preferred to let his work speak for itself. Which it does. He rocketed to fame in his first movie role, playing a character so creepy that the performance remains riveting to this day.
Studio heads literally drafted him (via contract trickery) in the wake of that role to come to Hollywood to play a series of deranged villains, but he escaped the typecasting to become a leading man and an unselfish character actor. Here's a scene from one of the most star-studded movies in Hollywood history. Note Widmark's almost invisible entrance and the way he subsequently becomes the center of gravity in the courtroom, despite the knots of pain and hatred that surround him. You can still feel him as a steady-eyed presence anchoring the orbit of emotion even when he's not on camera.
The reasons for that unassuming but potent gravity are nicely presented in the Times piece, along with a long list of movies you might want to rent from Netflix or whoever your flick provider is.
The same is unfortunately not true of the week's other huge loss, Paul Scofield, who died last Thursday at the age of 86. Compared to other great actors -- of which he was absolutely in the first rank -- he had a fairly short filmography in which many of his roles were but brief appearances or in hard-to-obtain British TV productions. He spent a lot of his career on the British stage, where he was known as the greatest King Lear of his generation. And while he did make a movie of Lear, the production was so dark and eccentric that it did little to showcase his brilliance; it also seems very difficult to locate a copy of in any form. Mostly, what we've been left with is his fine performance in The Train and the movie that made him famous in the U.S., A Man for All Seasons.
In terms of the kind of career he chose to have, he seems a throwback to an earlier time, before the movie star lionization of great Brit actors like Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Nicol Williamson, and Anthony Hopkins. The irony is that his demeanor as an actor is curiously more modern than that of his more famous colleagues, less histrionic, more deeply involving. With him we're not seeing a pyrotechnical show, but the interior drama of a mind grappling quietly with eternities. Above all there's that miraculous voice, with its hint of passionate tremolo, so precise that even its pauses become one with its meticulous tone, as inevitably perfect as Glenn Gould playing Bach.
It's a crying shame we don't have more to remember him by in this over-loud and over-exposed media generation.
Did someone say "loud and over-exposed"? Yes, the media are too much with us, especially in this feverish election cycle, and so we'll close out this entry with a hilariously brave and doomed attempt by a print journalist to immerse himself in the TV-radio-Internet ocean of punditry. Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post chose Valentine's Day for a 24-hour assignation with the blogosphere's leading pundits, the continuous news/commentary broadcasts of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and CSPAN, as well as the 800-lb gorillas of talk radio. His tools were a laptop, five TVs, two radios, an endless supply of coffee, and a universal remote. His mission was to liveblog what he calls the "firehose" of the information media. With becoming formality -- and perhaps a smidgen of the solemnity of a sacrificial victim -- he wore a tuxedo for the occasion.
Along the way he encountered a true diversity of opinion and subject matter. He experienced "the Drudge Report, Daily Kos, The Fix, the Corner, Captain's Quarters, Buck Naked Politics, Instapundit, the Page, the Hotline, Michellemalkin.com and, of course, Memeorandum" in the blogosphere, as well as Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, Larry King, James Carville, Hannity & Colmes, Ann Coulter, Keith Olbermann, and a continuous stream of politicians, over-hyped events, and cable-news talking heads on both sides of the aisle. He found the ordeal overwhelming, dispiriting yet sometimes exhilarating, and finally exhausting. It's actually quite a good piece, and we have no desire to carp. If it weren't for the fact that this is YouTube WednesdayThurday, we'd probably stop here with a recommendation to read the whole funny story and draw your own conclusions.
But it is YouTube WednesdayThursday, and we were struck by the three individual encounters he seemed to find most traumatic. An admitted "liberal" (and even "lefty"), he was quite frankly discomfited by Rush Limbaugh:
AT THE START OF HOUR SIX, I realize I am doing something no one else likely has ever done before, something no one should ever do again. I am listening to both Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly simultaneously, on two radios.
Both Rush and Bill start out by disclosing that, earlier that day, Jane Fonda had used the c-word live on NBC's "Today" show; it went unbleeped and at least initially unapologized for.
Somehow, I'd missed it. Fortunately, the gaffe is all over the Web in streaming video, and, yes indeed, here she is, Hanoi Jane herself, the bete noire of right wing radio, flagrantly uttering the unutterable. Clearly, Rush and Bill are courageously willing to address this shocking and distasteful subject even at the risk of driving their audiences into multi-orgasmic rapture.
Limbaugh joyfully eviscerates Fonda and moves quickly on to other things, but O'Reilly is in high dudgeon and is all over this reprehensible event. He's morally outraged, and seems to want to wring all he can get out of it, as though it were, say, a luffa sponge.
As someone in the broadcasting business, he says, he doesn't want to become "the scold police," but he wonders just the same if someone ought to call the FCC and demand punishment. (Later at night, on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor," he will devote an entire segment to the issue, practically sputtering in exasperation when he can't persuade his guest, lawyer Anita Kay, to agree with him that heads must roll... The peril of listening to Limbaugh and O'Reilly at the same time is that you tend to compare them, and these are dangerous waters for an unapologetic, unreconstructed New Deal liberal like me. The comparison makes you actually like Rush. He's funny; O'Reilly is not. Limbaugh teases and baits his political adversaries; O'Reilly sneers and snarls at them. Limbaugh is mock-heroic; O'Reilly is self-righteous. So, when Limbaugh speculates that the Democrats in the House committee went after Roger Clemens because liberals hate cherished American institutions such as churches, the Boy Scouts and baseball, you know he's sorta kidding. When O'Reilly says liberals who oppose torture of prisoners just don't care how many people will die in a terrorist attack, you know he's as serious as an aneurysm.
Of course he manages at length to quell the panic he feels at momentarily liking Limbaugh -- although to be fair, he seems to allow that he might be straining at straws even in this -- but one can't help surmising that the real reason for his surprise about Limbaugh is that he, like so many of Rush's most ferocious critics, hadn't ever really listened to the man in person. The first 30 seconds or so of the clip below summarize what is probably an epidemic phenomenon (although the rest of it is illustrative of what Limbaugh has been subjected to, if not of his usual cheery mien):
Then Weingarten has a moment of genuine horror when he listens to the Michael Savage show, obviously for the first time, and finds himself roaring through the thesaurus in search of a word even stronger than "shameless." There isn't one. Most of us can sympathize with his reaction to Savage. But many of us will also have to laugh at the next moment of horror that freezes his bones. It's much later at night. He's still flipping channels. He goes to CNN:
Here's Ann Coulter. I'm not listening to what she says. Don't care.
I'm exhausted, but taking sides again. Savage put me there.
Switching stations. Here's Keith Olbermann doing an extended editorial on MSNBC. Olbermann's a reliable lefty, so I listen.
His subject is a rift between President Bush and the House Democrats over whether to extend a bill giving the government the right to wiretap suspected terrorists without a warrant... The issue is probably a little too important to be a tempest in a teapot, but it's also not that big a deal, because everyone knows it's mostly without substance -- grandstanding and brinksmanship on both sides. Call it a tempest in a crockpot.
Uh, here's the exact Olbermann clip he's watching:
The building tirade takes Weingarten completely by surprise:
Olbermann begins strongly, addressing himself directly to Bush that he's only protecting his cronies, the powerful telecoms. Yay!
Now he compares the bill Bush wanted to other bad laws, including the Alien and Sedition Acts, which I actually think might be just a little over the . . .
Uh, now he's comparing it to . . . slavery.
Now he's addressing Bush directly, and he's . . . oh, God.
"If you believe in the seamless mutuality of government and big business, come out and say it! There is a dictionary definition, one word that describes that toxic blend. You're a fascist! Get them to print you a T-shirt with FASCIST on it!"
Now he's, he's . . .
". . . and if there's one thing we know about Big Brother, Mr. Bush, it is that he is -- you are -- a liar!"
I've already checked the thesaurus, so I know there's no help there.
"You are a liar, Mr. Bush. And after showing some skill at it, you have ceased to even be a very good liar!"
"You said that the lives of countless Americans depend on you getting your way. This is crap! And you sling it with an audacity and a speed unrivaled by even the greatest political felons of our history!"
I mute it.
I send an e-mail to a friend who I know is online. This is what it says:
o s, s brtu dytpmh [rtdpm/
I realize I had my hands on the wrong position on the keyboard. I have to resend it. It says: "I am a very strong person," more of a plea than a statement of fact.
Truthfully, we salute Mr. Weingarten. He seems like somebody one could talk to. That's encouraging.
Which is an excellent note on which to bid you all adieu.