Saturday, January 21, 2017

What's Left #10

What's Left
for the week of January 19-25, 2017

This week:

Good News: sentence of Chelsea Manning commuted

Footnote: on the legalities

Clown Award: Reince Priebus

Outrage of the Week: Dems choose Big Pharma over consumers

Protests continue and grow

Climate change: 2016 hottest year on record

And Another Thing: total solar eclipse, August 2017,_2017

Sunday, January 15, 2017

9.7 - Footnote: Russian "hacking"

Footnote: Russian "hacking"

There is an important Footnote to that, which is why I had put Outrage of the Year off until this week: The impact of that stretches into this year and continues, in fact will require more discussion than I can give it here.

There was one other place blame for the Democrats' failure was laid: Russia. Blame Russia! Blame Russia! They hacked the election! They hacked the election! They hacked the election! Scream it over and over and wait for the paranoia to set in.

Now, note at the top that this does not mean that the Russians did not hack the DNC. It also does not mean that what WikiLeaks released did not ultimately come from a Russian source with enough intermediaries to conceal its true origin from the group.

What is does mean - beyond the fact that there is no evidence that even if the charges are true that the hacking made any difference in the outcome - and this is important, it means that the Democrats are so determined to put the blame for their embarrassing failure in losing to the most unpopular major-party presidential candidate in US history on someone else that they would rather ignite a new cold war than look in the mirror.

While it may well be true that the Russians hacked the DNC and perhaps other computers related to political parties, the actual evidence presented thus far is thin and the rhetoric is getting overheated, complete with dark McCarthyist mutterings about other "foreign actors," panicked and totally false reports that the Russians had hacked into the US power grid - it turned out to be a piece of malware found on a single laptop that was never connected to the grid - and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper charging the Russians with the most "aggressive, direct campaign to interfere in our election process" we've ever seen.

But here we come up against two problems, one of judgment, one of context.

The judgement lies in the determination of the spooks that the hacking was the result of a campaign ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin for the purpose of helping TheRump win the election. But how certain is that?

In an interview with the Reuters podcast War College, Mark Galeotti of the Institute for International Relations in Prague denied that such hacking, assuming Russian guilt, was done to help TheRump. Galeotti, whose specialty is the Russian government, maintained that the Putin government, like most others, thought that Clinton was a lock and was aiming to have her enter office as a damaged and therefore weakened president. Part of his reasoning, which I find persuasive, was that what leaders of great powers want more than anything else in their international affairs is predictability. And one thing on which most people would agree is that Trump is not predictable. Now that Trump is going to be president, Putin will try to take best advantage of that, but that doesn't mean it's a situation he actively desired.

And in fact, contrary to the headlines, the evidence backs that up, even if you have to dig to find it as our national media gins up the fear machine and buries the lede.

Consider for one example that on January 5, the Washington Post began an article by quoting unnamed US officials as saying that intercepted communications showed Russian officials congratulating themselves on the outcome of the election; the paper described the reaction as "ebullient."

You have to read down to the 20th graph, farther down that most readers get, to find that "the messages also revealed that top officials in Russia anticipated that Clinton would win" and that "Russian officials 'were as surprised as the rest of the world'" by the election results.

Which would appear to make Mark Galeotti a better judge than our entire intelligence apparatus.

Speaking of that apparatus, there is the matter of context. It's not necessary to justify or approve any Russian hacking, again assuming guilt which I'm prepared to do, to note that when we present ourselves as shocked, shocked to find election interference going on, we should expect to face an entire world rolling its eyes.

For one thing, directly relevant, have we forgotten the NSA? Have we forgotten that the NSA has a unit called Tailored Access Operations, the very mandate of which is to enable the spooks to hack any computer anywhere, any time? "Getting the ungettable" is the NSA's own description of the unit's duties.

And have we forgotten our own lengthy history of interfering in elections in other countries?

According to a database compiled by political scientist Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University, the US tried to influence the outcome of presidential elections in other countries as many as 81 times since 1946 - including, at least once, in Russia. Note well: That number does not include engineered coups such as in Guatemala and Iran, attempts to undermine disfavored governments such as in Chile or the Congo, or general (and open and legal) assistance with the electoral process, such as election monitoring. It is only cases of meddling in presidential elections.

Our history is so clear, our behavior so common, there's even a running joke in Latin America about it:

Q: Why has there never been a coup in the United States?
A: Because there's no US embassy in Washington.

So investigate -  calmly and carefully without all the rhetoric and overheated assumptions  - sure. Tighten your computer security against hacking, sure.

But ignite a new cold war because someone else wanted to play by our rules? I don't think so.

9.6 - Outrage of the Year 2016: Democratic Party presidential race

Outrage of the Year 2016: Democratic Party presidential race

Since I did just did the Outrage of the Week, I suppose now is a good time to finish up what we started last week and announce our choice for Outrage of the Year for 2016.

Again this is a bit different from other awards because it looks to an issue that we covered several times over the course of the year rather than something that was the Outrage of the Week once only to be replaced by some other outrage a week or two later.

So even though this was not something that was the Outrage of the Week once, I think a lot of folks might agree that it was an on-going outrage.

So our pick for Outrage of the Year, 2016, was the 2016 presidential race, particularly as it involved the Democrats.

Because I don't cover political races much at all on the show, leaving that to the multitude of others who revel in the horserace the personalities.
In fact, my first mention of the primaries was in February and while making clear my preference for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, I also said that this it might be my only comment on the race.

Okay, that didn't work out. In April, when it had become clear that as a practical matter, Sanders had fallen short of the nomination, even if he had not yet been eliminated mathematically, I was asking "What now for progressives?" because "The political revolution is not about Bernie Sanders."

But by then I had become so disgusted with the Clinton campaign that even though I had earlier said that if I lived in a toss-up state (which I don't) I would "have to choke back my bile and vote for her," I was, I said, on the verge of becoming a Bernie-or-Buster. "The utter ruthlessness" of the Clinton campaign, I said, "has been astounding." Accusations against Sanders of racism, of sexism, of not caring about the victims of gun violence, and more, were becoming daily fare.

In the wake of the New York primary, there was a cacophony of demands that Sanders, as I put it, "quit the race, kiss the ring, and pledge fealty to all things Clinton" and that he was "helping the Republicans" by continuing to campaign; in fact, there were a few voices darkly intoning that helping the GOPpers was his actual intent.

Meanwhile, the so-called "Hillary Victory Fund" acted essentially as a money-laundering scheme to get around limits on campaign contributions and the campaign openly coordinated with the so-called Correct the Record Super-PAC, coordination which is illegal but was justified by a flat-out bogus interpretation of the law but more importantly enabled by the fact that a paralyzing partisan divide at the Federal Election Commission rendered it incapable of enforcing the law, so they knew they could just get away with it.

Then there was the active coordination between the self-professedly neutral Democratic National Committee - the DNC - and the Clinton campaign, including limiting the number of debates and scheduling them at times of low viewership, figuring Clinton's much greater name recognition compared to Sanders' would carry her through to the nomination, and even passing on a prospective debate question to the campaign.

By the end of the primaries, it was obvious what it had all been about: Not about winning a nomination, or rather not just about that, but about defending the political establishment against a challenge by an outsider, by something they couldn't control, by someone, more, by a movement, that was not beholden to them.

The plan was, in just these words regarding Bernie Sanders, "Disqualify him, defeat him, and unify the party later." Note well: They didn't want to just beat him, they wanted to disqualify him. It was not enough to win, they wanted to destroy his candidacy. They wanted to turn him into an irrelevancy, as someone not only shouldn't be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, but who didn't deserve to be taken seriously as one.

Bernie Sanders
That they failed at that, failed rather spectacularly, as it turned out, doesn't change the fact that that was the intent. It wasn't about winning the White House. It was about protecting the status quo. About preventing change. About protecting their privileges and privileged positions.

As evidence, once it was down to Clinton versus TheRump, I listed nine issues I predicted would not be discussed in the fall campaign even though Sanders had made them into issues in the primaries: single-payer health care, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, income inequality, a $15/hour minimum wage, poverty and homelessness, student debt, tuition-free college, "too big to fail," and campaign finance reform. I'd say with the possible exception of the TPP, I was spot on.

Because those are issues the political establishment does not want to discuss and we had just seen a primary campaign geared to "disqualifying" the person who was raising them.

That determination to further solidify the status quo, to continue that refusal to change at all, continued even in the wake of the election, even in the stark evidence of the Democrats' failure, a failure that leaves actual progressives fighting a sort of two-front war: one against the reactionary policies and convictions of the Great Orange One and his administration, an administration the political establishment is doing its best to normalize, and the other against the liberal political establishment represented by the Dummycrats, a party that refused and to this day still refuses to take any responsibility for its own failures.

Democrats have blamed third parties for the loss. They have blamed sexism. They have blamed James Comey.

They blamed WikiLeaks over the leaks of the Podesta emails, refusing to admit that it wasn't the leak, it was what was in those emails, the corruption and bias they showed, that was damaging.

They blamed Bernie Sanders.

They blamed Jill Stein. They blamed millennials. They blamed, that is, pretty much everyone - except themselves.

Because even now it is about avoiding change. It is about protecting the status quo. It is about protecting themselves and their positions.

Which makes the Democratic Party's 2016 presidential race more than deserving of being declared the Outrage of the Year for 2016.

9.5 - Outrage of the Week: TheRump considering panel desired by anti-vaxxers

Outrage of the Week: TheRump considering panel desired by anti-vaxxers

In a post on my blog a bit over two years ago I - I think rather gently - went after the so-called "anti-vaxxers." These are people who are opposed to vaccinations, either of all children or just of their own, on the grounds that the vaccines, or to be more exact a preservative used in them called thimerosal, is related to a variety of neurological disorders, mainly autism. I called such folks "wrong scientifically and wrong ethically and wrong practically."

The baseline claim, which has been flatly rejected by the scientific community, is that because thimerosal contains a mercury compound, that vaccinations cause mercury poisoning with causes autism.

A few months later I gave the Clown Award to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has long campaigned on a claim of a connection between thimerosal and autism, after he used the term "holocaust" in reference to this imagined link. Kennedy insists he is not against vaccination but continues to spin tales of massive conspiracies among government, Big Pharma, and the medical profession to "hide the truth" about the "holocaust" he claims they have caused.

The fact is, there is no sound scientific basis for any of it.

The whole business arose in the early 1990s, when there was an increase in autism, or, more properly, autism spectrum disorders. People in and out of the medical community were looking for an explanation.

Around the same time, there was a push for more children to be vaccinated earlier and over a shorter time. Aha! said some, embracing the false notion that coincidence equals causality. It's the vaccinations that are causing autism! We know mercury is poisonous, so that must be the cause!

The notion really got going in 1998, when British researcher Andrew Wakefield published a paper linking autism to the MMR vaccine, the one for for measles, mumps, and rubella. It has continued as a fringe belief ever since.

There are, however, a few inconvenient truths for those true believers:

First, it developed that Wakefield's data were fraudulent. In 2010, he was found guilty of professional misconduct by Britain's General Medical Council and his license was revoked.

Next, there is not a single documented case of a connection between vaccinations and autism. Or between thimerosal and autism. Or even between mercury and autism.

In fact, the typical symptoms of mercury poisoning are significantly different from those of autism and under scans the brains of people suffering from mercury poisoning are very different from the brains of autistic people.

What's more, except for flu vaccines, thimerosal has not been used in vaccines in the US for over 15 years - even as the rate of autism in children has more than doubled over that same time.

Bottom line: There is no sound basis either in science or logic to connect vaccination in general or thimerosal in particular to autism. Period.

What there is a sound basis for, on the other hand, is the contention that these fantasy fears have created the community of anti-vaxxers with the predictable result of increases in diseases for which vaccines are routinely available. A 15% increase in whooping cough in the US in 2015, clustered in areas where the rate of vaccination had declined. Some 200 cases of measles that year in a nation from which the disease had been declared eradicated 15 years earlier.

The persistence of this fantasy about the dangers of inoculation is going to cause children to die of preventable diseases - while not saving a single one from autism.

And it promises nothing good to note that among those who question the safety of vaccines is the Great Orange One himself. He claims he's not an anti-vaxxer, just a "slow vaxxer" - that is, have the inoculations spread out over a longer period of time, even though that increases the risk to the children by failing to protect them when they can be. His reason for this is, this is a quote, is that "children are not small horses."

But despite his claim of being "pro-vaccination," TheRump met with the disgraced and discredited Andrew Wakefield and a group of other anti-vaxxers at a donor event in Florida in August.

Subsequent to that event, Wakefield said that one of his two federal priorities as an activist if I can disgrace that honorable term that much is to set up an independent board on vaccine safety.

Well, guess what: TheRump is thinking of setting up a commission on "vaccine safety and scientific integrity." According to who? According to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who met with TheRump on January 10 and came out of the meeting not only saying TheRump was planning on such a commission but that he wanted Kennedy to chair it.

TheRump's team demurred, saying the Great Orange One is "exploring the possibility" of such a committee, but "no decisions have been made." But considering TheRump has repeatedly questioned vaccination and has repeatedly publicly embraced the fringe skeptics who have lost themselves in their fantasies while denying the evidence, that is to put it mildly not reassuring.

The fact that such a committee is even being considered is an affront to reason, a slap in the face of scientific research, an insult to the medical and public health communities, and a danger to the health and well-being of the nation's children.

The possibility that such a committee could be headed up by someone who has termed the practice of childhood vaccination as having caused a "holocaust" is even worse and serves to point up the nature of the delusional, anti-science, fact-free world we appear to be entering as a nation.

And that is not only an outrage - it is frightening.

9.4 - Clown Award: Kellyanne Conway

Clown Award: Kellyanne Conway

Now for one of our regular features, this is the Clown Award, given as always for meritorious stupidity.

We had two standout clowns this week.

Our runner-up this week is Captain Peter Rose of the New York City police.

There were 13 reported rapes in his precinct in 2016, a sharp increase from the year before. Ten of those cases remain unsolved.

Commenting on this last week, Rose said that the increase and the large portion of unsolved cases are "not a trend that we're too worried about" because many of the attackers were acquainted with the victims, and "only two were true stranger rapes," which, according to Rose, "are the troubling ones" in a way in which date rape or acquaintance rape apparently are not.

I thought we'd already dealt with this whole "degrees of rape" crap, the "legitimate rape" and the "real rape" bull. It appears we haven't. Or at least Captain Peter Rose of the New York City police hasn't.

That is damn clownish, but also a little too nauseating for a Clown Award, which is more devoted to mockery than disgust.

Kellyanne Conway
So our winner of the Big Red Nose this week - I have been trying to avoid going here, it's just way too easy, but this time I just can't resist - our winner is chief TheRump mouthpiece and all-around goofball Kellyanne Conway.

In Meryl Streep's speech at the Golden Globes, she mentioned the time TheRump mocked reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has a physical disability. TheRump of course responded by tweeted his previous denials that he did any such thing despite the video evidence that he did exactly that.

So Kellyanne Conartist goes on CNN to defend her F├╝hrer and whined that the media wouldn't give him "the benefit of the doubt" when he lied about what he'd done.

Here's the quote: "You can't give him the benefit of the doubt on this? And he's telling you what was in his heart. You always want to go by what comes out of his mouth rather than look at what's in his heart."

That's right: TheRump's chief media mouthpiece is whining that the media pays attention to what he says.

It doesn't get any better than that. I'd say we have a contender for Clown of the Year for 2017, but much of the year is still before us and she'll have plenty of opportunities to outdo herself, which I suspect she will.

Kellyanne Conway: Good gosh, what a clown.

9.3 - Not Good News: internet consumer protection rules under attack

Not Good News: internet consumer protection rules under attack

Okay, more Not Good News, something I bet more of you will be interested in than the suffering in South Sudan. Which was very likely a very unfair thing to say but I said it anyway.

Anyway. Tom Wheeler, who surprised many with his pro-consumer leadership, is set to leave his position as chair of the FCC. Drooling at the prospect of TheRump becoming president and a shift in power at the FCC, the mega telecomms - including Comcast, Charter and Cox - are rushing to call on the agency to undo the historic win for consumer privacy achieved last fall.

Those rules are meant to keep Internet providers from abusing the data they collect on their customers as they use the Internet. Your Web browsing history, your geolocation logs, even the content of your emails are all available to your IP and when combined with your health and financial information, that is an enormous source of potential advertising revenue as well as the money to be made by selling that personal information to marketers and data brokers who will in turn sell it to others, spreading that personal information even more widely.

The FCC restricted the ability of IPs to amass, use, and share that information. And that is what the telecomms want to undo as their first strike in undoing the gains that have been made not only in privacy but in net neutrality.

Meanwhile, reports say that TheRump has asked Rupert Murdoch to make suggestions as to who should be the new chair of the FCC.

These sort of efforts have been blocked before and perhaps they will be again, but it will be an uphill battle. We could be, without hyperbole, facing the end of the Internet as we have known it.

9.2 - Not Good News: civil war continues in South Sudan

Not Good News: civil war continues in South Sudan

If that didn't bum you out, how about this:

Armed rebels in South Sudan claim that a significant number of pro-government troops have defected to the rebels.
It's not the defections that are the Not Good News - it's the reminder that the civil war in South Sudan, the youngest nation in the world, drags on.

I don't know exactly why bring this story up as I have four times before since I know few if any of you are interested in this except perhaps philosophically. It's just that I have followed this story at least to some degree for years, from Sudan's civil war to the settlement - complete with multiple near-breakdowns - that created an independent South Sudan, to a breakdown of its new government into a South Sudanese civil war, to a new settlement, to a new breakdown, to a hope for a new settlement - to more civil war.

The whole thing just breaks my heart. And this news just served as a reminder.

So thanks, reality. And screw you.

9.1 - Not Good News: bumblebee listed as endangered

Not Good News: bumblebee listed as endangered

I always like to start with some Good News, it's sort of a tradition here, but this was not a good week and I didn't find much of any good news, so we'll have to start the week with some Not Good News.

These are in no particular order, so let's start here.

I remember the quiet hum of bumblebees being part of my summers as I grew up. But at some point it occurred to me that I just didn't seem to see them around much any more. Maybe it was just a failure to notice, maybe it was that adult requirements involved having less time outdoors in the summer. I didn't know. But it seemed damned odd.

Of course, it has become obvious over the last several years that it was not my imagination or the lack of outdoor time. And it has only gotten worse.

And now, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has made the rusty patched bumble bee the first wild bee in the continental United States to be listed as an endangered species.

To make it even more Not Good News, the move came almost three years after two environmental groups threatened to sue the feds for a failure to act on a petition to get the bee listed as endangered.

Being listed provides some protection for the bees. The questions now are is it enough, is it soon enough, especially given a three-year delay in acting, and what will be the consequences for agriculture -  not to mention the pleasure of our summers and the fields of wildflowers - if it is not?

What's Left #9

What's Left
for the week of January 12-18, 2017

This week:

Not Good News: bumblebee listed as endangered

Not Good News: civil war in South Sudan continues

Not Good News: internet consumer protection rules under attack

Clown Award: Kellyanne Conway

Outrage of the Week: TheRump considering panel desired by anti-vaxxers

Outrage of the Year 2016: Democratic Party presidential race

Footnote: Russian "hacking"

Sunday, January 08, 2017

8.10 - A closing note

A closing note

We're out of time for this week and you may have noticed that we have not named our choice for Outrage of the Year, a category somewhat different from the others because it looks for something that is not a single event or an isolated incident but a story that we have addressed several times over the course of the year. As an example, last year we chose the Tamir Rice case.

The reason for the delay is that the Outrage we have chosen has extended beyond 2016 into 2017 and so involves some current issues that need addressing. So we will take care of that next week.

Can't you just feel the tension rising.

8.9 - Clown of the Year Award 2016, Total Jackassery Category: GOPper Rep. Steve King

Clown of the Year Award 2016, Total Jackassery Category: GOPper Rep. Steve King

Our other Clown of the Year Award is the Total Jackassery category and oh, my did we have some competition.

For example, we had right-wing attorney and self-described "no fan of government" Kory Langhofer, who said in February that Justice Antonin Skeletor's opinion on cases then pending before the Supreme Court should still count even though he died before the court took its final vote.

To repeat, in case you're wondering if you heard right: Langhofer is proposing that Skeletor should have gotten a vote on cases still pending before the Court despite laboring under the handicap of being dead, as deceased as Monty Python's parrot.

Then there was the case of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, or, as we know him around here, Voldemeort, who proved you can be a crybaby and a bully at the same time.

A woman named Cara Jennings gave him quite an earful when she encountered him in a Starbucks one day, berating him for not doing enough to help people and for a failure to create good jobs. Someone videoed part of the encounter and posted it. Jennings had nothing to do with that.

Nonetheless, a video hit piece on Cara Jennings quickly appeared. The clear result of some quick oppo research, the video was done by Voldemort's political action committee and was put up on his official YouTube channel. That is, the governor of Florida used the resources of his political campaign machine to launch a personal attack on an individual private citizen because she had the temerity to mouth off to him in a Starbucks.

What could top examples like those? Who could be a bigger jackass than either of those two?

Well, early in the year New Hampshire state Representative Josh Moore almost looked like a shoo-in, but he had to settle for Dishonorable Mention.

New Hampshire, it develops, is one of the 33 US states that do not have a law against women going topless in public and this, amid all the other problems facing any state, this is the crisis that Moore determined needed to be addressed. He introduced a bill to make a woman showing her nipples in public a case of "lewdness" and "public indecency" with repeat offenders having to register as sex offenders.

When State Representative Amanda Bouldin objected to the bill, Moore responded on Facebook by saying "If it's a woman's natural inclination to pull her nipple out in public and you support that, then you should have no problem with a man's inclination to stare at it and grab it."

Stare? Grab it? What kind of numbskull pervert would even propose such a response? What is wrong with you?

Actually, we do know what's wrong with Josh Moore. He's a jackass.

Now obviously, someone would have to reach way up to beat that, but someone did, someone who is a true champion at being a clown.

So the winner for Clown of the Year, Total Jackassery category, is GOPper Rep. Steve King of Iowa.

Rep. Steve King
During the GOPper national convention in July, he was on an MSNBC panel moderated by Chris Hayes along with White House correspondent April Ryan and Charles Pierce, a writer for Esquire.

When Pierce said that the convention hall "is wired by loud, unhappy, dissatisfied white people," King said Pierce should "go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you're talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?"

Hayes, clearly taken aback, asked King "Than white people?" to which our champion clown said "than Western civilization," which he then described as "rooted in western Europe, eastern Europe and the United States of America" - in other words, essentially white people - "and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world."

Beyond the fact that the roots of the very concept of "civilization" as we understand the term lie in Mesopotamia, the site of the world's first settled communities, and leaving aside such non-Western creations as, to cite just a few, astronomy, monetary systems, ink, paper, clocks, the compass, hospitals, the first university, and oh, yeah, our modern system of mathematics, which has made our entire modern world possible, unless you would rather be balancing your checkbook in Roman numerals, there is something else that the non-western world contributed, something that Steve King would surely regard as a contribution: Christianity.

My gosh, looking at Steve King it is hard to believe that so little rational knowledge could be in such a fat head.

Steve King, Clown of the Year 2016, Total Jackassery Category.

8.8 - Clown of the Year Award 2016, Basic Stupid Category: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

Clown of the Year Award 2016, Basic Stupid Category: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

For the Clown of the Year Award, we have two categories. The first is Basic Stupid, which is for people who say or do things that as just so transparently stupid that it leaves you wondering how such a person could manage to master the concept of breathing.

So, for example, we have right-wing trolls. There was the occasion early in the year when, as they have done every year since 1976, the faculty and staff of Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, published a list of words and phrases to be "banished" because of overuse or general uselessness.

It's a lighthearted chance to express irritation at overused-to-the-point-of-cliche words and phrases.

When an article about the new list was published on AOL, the comments included hundreds and yes I do mean hundreds either mocking the students of the university as "morons" who will never get a good job (the project is done by faculty and staff, not students), ranting about "political correctness," or posting something along the lines of "[blank] trying to destroy free speech" with the blank filled in with "liberals" or "socialists" or "Democrats" or, most frequently, some version of "Barack Obama."

Then there was the case of federal immigration judge Jack Weil. There was a class action suit against the federal government, seeking to have the government provide appointed counsel for every indigent child who can't afford a lawyer in immigration court proceedings.

In a deposition as part of the government's defense, Judge Weil argued that providing such counsel is unnecessary because "you can do a fair hearing" even with toddlers representing themselves in court, claiming he has "taught immigration law" to 3- and 4-year-olds.

Most recently, there was CNN reporter Christina Alesci, who positively gushed over a panel being assembled to offer monthly advice to TheRump on the economy and taxes. She called it "really historic" and said it provides "some very diverse viewpoints" - even though it consists entirely of corporate CEOs, providing diverse viewpoints ranging from that of GE to that of GM.

But before we announce the winner, we have to make note of a Dishonorable Mention, which goes to Idaho Governor Butch Otter, who apparently has the IQ of his namesake without the compensation of the nice coat of fur.

About 78,000 folks in Idaho fall in the coverage gap between Medicaid and Obamacare subsidies - a gap the Medicaid expansion, of which Idaho has not taken advantage, was designed to fill.

Gov. OtterHisMind said he'd like to see something happen on that, but isn't really worried about it because he doesn't agree with the claim that people in Idaho are dying because they fall in the coverage gap and so can't get health insurance and so can't afford the health care they need.

After all, he said - and here it comes: "I see plenty of people in hospitals and they have insurance. And they're in the hospital. But they still die."

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley
That is, because people with health insurance can have incurable conditions despite having insurance, people without health insurance are no worse off in obtaining health care because after all, we all die eventually.

He certainly could have been Clown of the Year. But it was not to be.

Because the winner of the Big Red Nose for the dumbest thing said in 2016, the Clown of the Year, Basic Stupid category, is South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

In January, Governor Vacant Eyes gave the GOPper response to the Amazing Mr. O's State of the Union address and got some pushback because she said something about not following "the angriest voices." In defending herself afterwards, she said this:

"[W]e've never in the history of this country passed any laws or done anything based on race or religion. Let's not start that now."

That, my friends, is some powerful stupid.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a very worthy winner of Clown of the Year 2016, Basic Stupid category.

8.7 - RIPs of 2016

RIPs of 2016

Next, we're going to run through the RIPs we did this year. We don't do a lot of them; usually it's for someone with who I feel some sort of connection, even if it's just a 60s generational one. Be that as it may, these are the folks whose passing we noted during 2016:

John Trudell, Native American activist, poet, and author. It's a shame he didn't get to see the movement at Standing Rock.

The artist David Bowie, who I call "the artist" because it seems much too limiting to call him a musician or a singer.

Alan Rickman, a fine actor who I think was generally underappreciated for most of his career.

Glenn Frey, a founding member of The Eagles.

Paul Kantner, a founding member of Jefferson Airplane and later Jefferson Starship.

Signe Toly Anderson died the same day as Paul Kantner. That's someone you likely do not know. She was the original lead singer of Jefferson Airplane but quit the business because she didn't want to take her infant child on the road to tour. She was replaced by Grace Slick.

I also did an RIP not for a person but for an organization. Al-Jazeera America closed its doors in 2016. Al-Jazeera is an internationally-respected news organization that thought that in addition to news with an American slant or maybe a European slant, Americans might be interested in news with an Arab slant, a view of how the world looks when looking from the Middle East rather than at the Middle East. It was probably a foolish enterprise from the start.

Another RIP this year was for Keith Emerson. If you don’t know the name, think Emerson, Lake & Palmer. If you still don’t know, look him up on YouTube because you are missing something. He was one of the finest keyboardists of his generation.

Another loss was that of Ben Bagdikian. Again a name you might not know but if you were in journalism, you would. He was perhaps best known to most as author of The Media Monopoly, a book about how a small number of corporations controlled the majority of US print and broadcast media. In the first edition, in 1983, there were 50 such corporations. By the time of the last edition in 2004, the number had shrunk to five.

Patty Duke, who I assume needs no identification, died last year.

We also lost Dan Berrigan. Priest, poet, playwright, philosopher, but best known as protester, he and his younger brother Phil were perhaps the most - and surely among the most - notorious antiwar protesters of the 1960s.

I had another RIP that was not for a person. This one was for a career as Vin Scully announced his retirement after 60 years of broadcasting baseball. Since I grew up listening to him do Brooklyn Dodgers games in the 1950s, I had to note the ending.

Another name you won’t know is John Zacherley, or Zacherley, or Zach, as he was known. He was “the cool ghoul,” and he essentially invented the sort of TV program showing old scifi or horror movies hosted by a zombie or a vampire or an alien or whatever who would do some sort of shtick through the show. Everyone from Elvira to the Crypt Keeper in Tales from the Crypt to the gang at Mystery Science Theater 3000 to all the local cable access hosts doing such shows around the country, all of them can to at least some degree trace their roots to John Zacherley.

Finally there was singer/songwriter/composer Leonard Cohen.

There were two other people who died last year but for some reason I missed doing doing the RIPs I should have done for them, so I wanted to mention them here quickly. Muhammad Ali died in 2016, as did Arnold Palmer.

8.6 - Good News of the Year, 2016: peace settlement in Colombia

Good News of the Year, 2016: peace settlement in Colombia

Since we've been doing Good News, we'll start off our look back at 2016 with our choice for Good News of the Year.

The choice this year was not as obvious as it was last year. The Good News for 2015 was easily the historic Supreme Court decision saying bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. This year it didn't seem to me that there was one story that stood out so clearly from the rest.

Nonetheless, we did have some Good News this year, although at times it might not have felt that way.

We did, for example, see three developments on health and science news that we covered here.

One was a potential breakthrough in treating Alzheimer's based on the fact that inflammation of the brain, often associated with advancing Alzheimer's, now looks to be a driver of the condition rather that a result of it.

When mice with an Alzheimer's-like condition were treated by focusing on immune cells related to the inflammation, the progression of the disease was stopped.

Understand: This is not a prevention or a cure, it's a treatment that if it comes to fruition could severely retard or even halt the progression of the disease. It also needs to be noted that it's too soon for celebrations.

But it's not too soon to move to developing medications based on these discoveries, marking this as one of the most hopeful discoveries about Alzheimer's in over a decade.

Another health story was reported progress on a cure for Type 1 diabetes.

With Type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce the insulin the body needs, as opposed to Type 2 diabetes, where the body does produce insulin but can't use it properly.

Researchers have worked on a treatment involving transplanting insulin-producing cells into the patient's body, so the body can produce its own insulin. This works well - except for the fact that the body's immune system sees those cells as invaders and destroys them.

Now, researchers are trying what they call an "invisibility cloak" to keep the immune system from seeing the implanted cells as foreign bodies. In tests, this has worked in mice for nearly six months. That has lead to optimism that an improved "cloak" combined with transplanted insulin-producing cells could, within the foreseeable future, effectively cure Type 1 diabetes.

The third health and science story was progress against the Guinea worm, a parasite found mostly in Africa that rarely kills its victims but leaves them in debilitating pain.

In 1986, the Carter Center began a campaign to end the affliction. At that time, the number of people affected was around 3.5 million.

By 2012, the number of cases was down to 1100. In 2015, that number was down to 22 - and in the first half of 2016, the number of confirmed cases was two. From 3.5 million to two in 30 years.

The Guinea worm is on the verge of being only the second disease after smallpox and the first parasitic disease to be eliminated from the human population.

On a more immediate and more obviously political issue, there was the Good News that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, is dead or at minimum comatose.

There were also a number of scattered victories, too many to go through, victories legislative, judicial, and by ballot initiative, on matters like voting rights, gun control, privacy, the minimum wage, there was even a win for unions at the Supreme Court. Even where the sky seems darkest, there were a few breaks in the clouds.

But what I suspect many among us would consider the Good News of the Year would be the - again at least temporary - victory achieved by the courage, determination, faithfulness, and sheer bloody-minded stubbornness of the water protectors at Standing Rock.

I didn't devote as much time to that as I should have, partly due to my own shortcomings involving getting caught up in week-to-week events rather than following an on-going story and partly due to a sense that the story was being told well enough elsewhere.

But surely it was one of the top news stories of the year, and its true value, at least in my mind, lay not in the story itself, not just in the events themselves and not even in the success in at least delaying and perhaps killing the DAPL, but in the movement that made it a story, a movement that showed that the passion for Native American rights is still there, the passion for the environment is still there, the passion about global warming is still there, and most importantly, a passion for justice that can still drive people into the streets in large numbers for the long term is still there, a passion that showed again that people power can face down the massed might of the state.

Despite all that, Standing Rock is not my choice for Good News of the Year for 2016. Understand this, as is true of all the awards, is a personal decision, related to how I reacted to the news.

I'm often struck by how insular we are, how narrow our American worldview is, how little we know about the world around us, how unaware we are of events that do not, as far as we think, affect us more or less directly. So when I myself become aware of such a case, ruing my own ignorance I tend to feel it more strongly.

So my choice for Good News of the Year, 2016, is the peace settlement reached between the government of Colombia and the rebel group known as FARC - in English, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - putting, if all goes well, an end to a civil war that has been going on for something like 52 years. Over a quarter of a million people have been killed, I don't know how many more wounded, somewhere between 5 and 8 million driven from their homes. And now it may be ending. And how can that not be Good News.

Especially because it almost wasn't: The deal was announced in August but nearly fell apart when a national plebiscite on October 2 narrowly rejected the pact by a margin of 0.4%.

But a quickly renegotiated deal between the government and FARC was passed by the Colombian Congress in early December, putting things back on track - at least hopefully.

There are still potential snags: For one big one, the failure of the plebiscite, which had been widely expected to pass easily, threw a monkey wrench into planning for the demobilization of FARC. Originally, some 16,000 FARC fighters were to turn in their weapons by December 31 but because of the lack of government-built infrastructure at the UN-monitored camps where that is supposed to happen, which was caused by the delay, the deadline has been pushed back to January 10.

But progress is being made on that front, along with legislative issues such as the passing of an amnesty law, which was accomplished just three days before the deadline for action.

At the same time, there is another rebel group in Colombia. It's the ELN, or in English the National Liberation Army.

ELN, which is much smaller than FARC, having an estimated 1300 fighters as compared to FARC's 16,000-20,000, is now in the early stages of having peace talks with the government.

In March, both sides agreed to talks to start in October, but that broke down when the rebels failed to release a hostage. However, a fresh attempt at talks is to take place in Ecuador later this month.

All of which means that there are still hills to climb, particularly to overcome the mental scars of decades of war - but just a year ago those hills looked like mountains. Which makes the prospect of the end of 50 years of civil war in Colombia my choice for Good News of the Year, 2016.

8.5 - Good News: 120 million acres of federal waters protected from fossil fuel exploration

Good News: 120 million acres of federal waters protected from fossil fuel exploration

Finally, you likely know about this so I'll just mention it quickly.

On December 20 Obama used his authority under a 1950s-era law called the Outer Continental Shelf Act to ban new oil and gas drilling in nearly 120 million acres of federal waters in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

His environmental record surely could have been much better - but at least he's going out on a high note.

8.4 - Good News: Obama signs law to include non-believers in protections against religious persecution

Good News: Obama signs law to include non-believers in protections against religious persecution

Next: A couple of weeks ago, President Obama signed legislation that for the first time extended protections against religious persecution to people with non-theistic beliefs, including those who subscribe to no religion at all, including, in the words of the bill, "non-theists, humanists, and atheists."

Note what's particularly important: This is not some executive order, this is a law passed out of Congress with bipartisan support. It intends to offer greater protection to believers of all sorts around the world, but the specific inclusion of non-believers in that protection is an historic first.

The inclusion of that language was the result of a four-year lobbying effort by the American Humanist Association, which celebrated the bill's passage.

8.3 - Good News: public support for transgender rights

Good News: public support for transgender rights

For some more Good News to take us into 2017, here's another poll from Pew Research, this one with results that really surprised me.

A slim majority of Americans - by a margin of 51% to 46% - say that transgender people should be allowed to use the restroom that accords with their gender identity rather than being required to use to one for the gender they were assigned at birth.

Now, given the margin of error, you can't really say it's a majority, but you can say that the country is more or less evenly split on the idea.

Why this is both Good News and surprising is that usually, it takes time, often a generation or more, for an idea that affects social roles and identities to become accepted by a significant portion of society. That the relatively new idea of respecting gender identity - new  in the sense of something new to most of the public - already has become not only mainstreamed but accepted by half the country is surely encouraging.

8.2 - Good News: Americans support tougher environmental laws

Good News: Americans support tougher environmental laws

Next up, some good news on the environment: A Pew Research poll taken the first week of December shows that 59% of Americans favor stricter environmental laws and say they are worth the cost.

A majority of all age groups under 65 and at all levels of education agree with that contention.

8.1 - Good News: support for the death penalty continues to decline

Good News: support for the death penalty continues to decline

This being the first show of 2017, we are going to spend most it engaging in one of those "a look back at the past year" deals. But before we get to that, I'm quickly going to run through some bits of Good News - both because we always like to start the show that way and because after a lot of us were glad to see 2016 go, I thought we'd try to get 2017 off to a good start.

One piece of Good News is that both use of and support for the death penalty continue to decline. In 2016, a total of 20 inmates were executed. That's the fewest since 1991 and just five states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas – accounted for all those sanctioned murders.

What's more, the number of death sentences imposed by the courts in 2016 also declined substantially. The year there were 30 death sentences, down from the modern peak of 315 in 1996.

A plurality of Americans still support the death penalty; it's 49 in favor and 42 opposed. However, that's the lowest support in over 40 years and support dropped seven percentage points between mid-2015 and late 2016.

That is a trend I hope will continue this year.

What's Left #8

What's Left
for the week of January 5-11, 2017

This week:

Good News: support for the death penalty continues to decline

Good News: Americans support tougher environmental laws

Good News: public support for transgender rights

Good News: Obama signs law to include non-believers in protections against religious persecution

Good News: 120 million acres of federal waters protected from fossil fuel exploration

Good News of the Year, 2016: peace settlement in Colombia

RIPs of 2016

Clown of the Year Award 2016, Basic Stupid Category: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

Clown of the Year Award 2016, Total Jackassery Category: GOPper Rep. Steve King

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.
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