Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Blame warming for the cold? Huh?

Blame the cold weather on global warming? That's the contention of a new meteorological society report as explained in a New York Times opinion piece. If that's not creative science, I don't know what is.

I'm willing to concede that the Earth's climate is changing (and give credit to the scientists who have abandoned the phrase "global warming" for "climate change"), but contending that warming causes cold is more than my liberal-arts mind can grasp. This warming-causes-cold theory seems as shallow as the anti-climate-change crowd's pointing to a one-day low temperature as proof that the Earth isn't warming. There's a difference between weather and climate, the scientists say, and I understand that. A cold snap does not constitute a new ice age, nor does a heat wave (like the ones those same scientists blamed on global warming) constitute proof that Earth is turning into Venus.

Maybe this week's snowstorms and the early snowfalls in several parts of the United States and Europe are nothing more than anomalies. Maybe we'll return to "normal" (whatever that is) next year. For all the publicity their forecasts have received, the climate scientists have not had a particularly good track record in providing "results" of global warming. For the last two years, scientists predicted more and larger hurricanes as a result of global warming, but those forecasts fell flat (thank goodness!). This year, not a single hurricane made landfall in the United States. The predicted rise in sea level has not risen to expectations.

Instead of reading catastrophe into every wrinkle in temperatures or rainfall, we should concentrate on what we all should recognize as true: Industrial development has sharply increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We humans breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. More carbon dioxide in the air is not good for us, so we should do all that we can to limit carbon dioxide emissions. We don't have to prove the verity of global warming or climate change to agree that lowering carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is good policy.

That's a lot easier to sell than the theory that warming causes cold.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas delights for every age

People like to say that Christmas is for the children, but I'm not so sure. The breathless excitement and wonder that our grandchildren (ages 1-5) feel this night are not shared by those of us of a more mature age and disposition. We've seen this show before, and so our sense of anticipation is not so keen.

I can remembering shivering, not from cold but from explosive excitement as I waited at the living room door before dawn on Christmas morning, but even that happiness does not match the satisfaction and pure pleasure of seeing that same excitement on the faces of your own children — or grandchildren. When I was growing up, I became convinced that 8 was the perfect age: You were old enough to eat on your own, big enough to play independently with others and too young to have very much expected of you in terms of household chores, academic success and responsibilities. As a young parent, I decided that 3 must be the perfect age — a time past potty training but still delightfully innocent and so full of wonder about every little experience.

Now, with the reflections of six decades, I realize that no age is better than any other. In every age there are wonderful experiences, opportunities and responsibilities. In every age there are disappointments and burdens. All of us face the curse of living in "interesting times." Life, as John Lennon said, is what happens while you're busy doing other things. Seize the day or enjoy the moment.

On this Christmas Eve night, full of uncertainty about whether best-laid plans will be canceled by the often-desired and -envied "white Christmas," we can revel in the memories of Christmases past when we did clutch all of our brood in the warm blanket of our home and intoxicated ourselves on the sweet nectar of family love. If this is to be remembered as the Christmas of altered plans, we will look forward to future opportunities to gather all together, for every age has its delights.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Loss of trees affects entire neighborhood

For all of the 30 years I've lived in Wilson, I have passed by the quiet glade of trees that flanked the site of Farmington Heights Church of God, seldom paying much attention to the mature pines and hardwoods that framed my drive along Raleigh Road Parkway. In the past few weeks, however, those trees have been cut, the entire tract of land scalped of trees and all vegetation, leaving nothing but dirt, mud and silt fences erected by the grading contractors.

The view above is not nearly as pleasant for passing motorists as the trees that had stood there for decades, but the people who are really hurt, and I suspect heartbroken, by this construction are those who live behind the lot on Buxton Drive. Their back yards, once concealed by the thick stand of trees, are now exposed to Raleigh Road traffic. Their privacy has been violated.

Perhaps it's unrealistic to think those trees could stand up to development pressure on the heavily traveled street, but developing a lot or building a house or other structure does not require the destruction of every living tree on the lot. The city of Wilson, which touts its "City of Trees" image and has a tree on its official flag, needs a tree ordinance that prohibits unnecessary destruction of mature trees. Trees or other barriers are required as buffers between different development zones, but regulations need to protect other trees, too. The folks on Buxton Drive know the impact of tree-cutting on adjacent lots — their privacy and their backyard environment are forever changed because the trees that hid and shaded their yards are gone. It will take another 20 years to grow replacements for those mature trees. Developers could leave trees along property lines that give shade and protection to neighboring properties. Property owners could be required to go through a review process before cutting down mature trees that add shade and charm to entire neighborhoods. Wanton cutting of trees affects every property owner in the neighborhood, so protecting trees is a collective, neighborhood interest.

Many years ago, residents of Cavalier Circle objected to the development of commercial properties on Ward Boulevard. The cutting of a small forest there for construction of offices threatened the value of their homes. That development left more trees and more privacy than the site above, however.

City officials, standing behind Wilson's Tree City USA image, have failed to address the protection of trees and, with it, the protection of residents' property values, privacy and neighborhood charm. Either give up the tree imagery or get serious about it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

God bless us every one!

We are in the final daze. The Christmas rush is on. C-minus-four and counting.

Christmas will arrive whether we're ready or not. It might not be perfect — What is ever perfect? — but it will be Christmas, which in itself is cause to celebrate. At Christmas, we cling to memories of the past, which is a good thing, so long as we don't try to force the past upon the present. For 30 years, I followed the family tradition I had grown up with — an extended family gathering at my grandparents' (and later my aunts'). But when that era ended, we found new and wonderful ways to celebrate Christmas, and I realized what I had been missing. Now we have our own extended family, and we are the grandparents. We would like to gather our children and grandchildren around us early on Christmas morning as my own grandparents did. We would like to have a house full of the people we love the most. But even in years when that is not possible, we celebrate Christmas with the ones who can be present or with those who invite us to their homes in a role reversal my grandparents never knew. My parents used to ask, amid the clutter and chaos of predawn Christmas morning, "Did you get what you wanted?"

Every year, I get more than I deserve. As Tiny Tim would say, "God bless us every one!"

Monday, December 20, 2010

Chicken plant controversy divides neighbors

The News & Observer has finally weighed in on the controversy over Sanderson Farms' plans to place a chicken processing plant in Nash County near the Wilson County line. The Raleigh paper takes an in-depth look at the Nash vs. Wilson issue in a long Sunday article.

I've found the issue intriguing for several reasons. My father worked for many years in a chicken plant, known in our household and in the community as "the turkey plant." The plant in Marshville was originally locally owned but later went through a series of corporate ownerships. He was a production worker, standing in waterproof boots to shovel ice onto freshly killed chicken carcasses. It was hard work and was seasonal at first as turkey demand peaked before Thanksgiving but declined through much of the year. It was hard, dirty, physical labor for low wages.

In the 1960s, a number of farmers in the area, including some of our neighbors, got into the chicken business. They built the long, straight, shiny-roofed chicken houses and raised tens of thousands of birds at the time. The wood shavings that covered the ground inside the floorless houses became quickly drenched in chicken poop, and the farmers would clean out the old shavings and replace them with fresh shavings after a few generations of chickens had been raised. The excrement-filled shavings would be spread on farm fields as fertilizer, which was apparently pretty effective at boosting crops. The chicken houses also came with a repugnant odor. For a long time, my parents couldn't sit outdoors when the breeze brought the smell from neighbors' chicken houses. About 20 years ago, when I took a ride on a country road in my native county with the top off my car, I nearly gagged on the odor from chicken houses. A friend I met later in the day defended the farmers: "That's the smell of money," she said. People in this area who have dealt with the odor from hog farms know what it's like.

So it should be no surprise that Wilson officials are objecting to the Sanderson Farms plan to spray chicken waste on fields in Wilson's watershed. The plan calls for a pipeline to pump the effluent from Rocky Mount's watershed to Wilson's — a decision particularly galling to Wilson officials, who had supported supplying water to Rocky Mount when the latter city's reservoir ran low during a drought. The city has joined a lawsuit brought by some residents. Some Wilson officials are incensed by the proposal, seeing the plan as a bad economic decision that could harm all of eastern North Carolina and keep this area shackled to factory-scale agriculture and low-wage jobs that could permanently hinder industrial recruitment. Sanderson will need scores of chicken farms to feed its processing plant, and that will mean pungent odors will hamper development and progress in much the same way that the state's hands-off attitude toward hog farms a decade ago left eastern North Carolina freckled with hog waste lagoons.

Some Nash County residents seem just as angry about Wilson's "interference" in the county's effort to provide 1,100 jobs. The acrimony took me by surprise recently when I was in Rocky Mount. Caught in the middle are residents along N.C. 97 and N.C. 58 near the Rocky Mount-Wilson Airport and the Tar River Reservoir. Owners of palatial homes on the reservoir worry about their homes' value and the potential for water pollution and odor. "Stop the chicken plant" signs abound there.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Harbingers of upheaval?

How soon before the Barbarians are at the gate?

Our modern society forgets just how fragile civilization is. All around us, we are seeing civilization threatened by the uncivilized or falling apart from within because of self-indulgence. Consider a few news items that might be harbingers of something bigger than a one-paragraph news brief:

1. The documents posted by WikiLeaks reportedly contain a listing of the United States' 10 most essential strategic sites, things such as computer servers, natural gas pipelines, air traffic control centers, transportation infrastructure, online banking centers, etc. Regardless of what you think of WikiLeaks, the publication of this document could be an invitation to terrorists or international enemies to pick a strategic spot or spots to plant a bomb or two. Disruption of credit transactions or automated teller networks for a few days could create chaos. It wouldn't be long before desperate people began doing whatever it takes to survive.

2. Drug gangs have taken over some cities in Mexico, killing off local elected officials, running the police out of town and replacing social and governmental networks. Parts of Mexico, the United States' next-door neighbor, are looking more and more like Somalia or some other "failed state," in which government ceases to function and the law of the jungle replaces legislated laws. This violence is already spilling over into the United States.

3. The institution of marriage is slipping among the demographic groups that were once its strongest supporters. A recent poll found "Middle America" losing its respect for marriage and young people seeing no point in marriage. Out-of-wedlock births are approaching 50 percent of all births, and the trend cuts across social, ethnic and economic strata. Children reared without the security of a two-parent household are less likely to succeed in school and careers and are more likely to suffer emotional and criminal problems. This outcome is especially acute among boys raised without a father, who, without the discipline and role modeling of a father, tend to revert to force and violence. More than 40 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was alarmed by the potential harm to society when illegitimate births among one ethnic group was under 25 percent.

4. The decline of civic clubs and civic responsibility has been well documented. Americans have reverted to "cocooning," spending time alone or with a limited cohort of like-minded friends or relatives. Few take seriously collective responsibility for the "greater good." Even Congress seems incapable of seeing collective needs and creates gridlock over individual wants, each person or interest group unwilling to share and compromise for the whole.

5. Riots in France over delayed retirement pensions and in Britain over higher college tuition offer examples of how uncompromising anger and violence can subvert legislative processes and hasten the day when mobs take over from democratically elected officials.

6. Expatriate Muslims in Europe are demanding that they be allowed to plant their society in their adoptive countries, even to the point of ignoring local laws or establishing their own religious laws and courts. The disassembling of national authority leads to the unraveling of the social fabric and even the dissolution of nations. We have seen in the former Yugoslavia and the former Czechoslovakia that long-established nations are not inviolate and can be dismembered from within.

7. The rise of extra-national groups, such as al-Qaida, makes national governments both powerless and irrelevant. The Soviet Union could not subdue the Afghan insurgency, and the United States is having a tough time there, too. Pakistan maintains a hands-off policy toward some of its territory, which is ruled by tribal groups allied with Islamic terrorists. In Somalia and some other Third World countries, warlords have replaced national governments, which have become governments in name only. If this trend spreads, world trade and cooperation could be crippled.

8. American tax policy is increasingly favoring the "haves" over the "have-nots," with potentially dire consequences. The last time American wealth was so concentrated among the few gave rise to the Populist movement. More than a century later, the have-nots might be less willing to pursue political solutions in a system more closed than it was in the 1800s and will revert to violence instead.

The survivalists of a generation ago worried that the world would fall apart, and each man would have to defend himself and his family. The survivalists' stockpiled food and hoarded weapons and ammunition seemed comical, but today, we all have reason to be uneasy. Rome was the unchallenged ruler of the world for centuries, but it gradually collapsed from internal corruption and external attacks, and the great civilizing force of Greco-Roman culture was nearly extinguished.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Progressives need a candidate against Obama

As the Senate begins debate on extending Bush-era tax cuts, many Democrats are still venting their anger over President Obama's deal with Republicans that extend the cuts of the wealthiest Americans in exchange for extending unemployment benefits and other deficit-raising programs. Some Democrats are even talking openly of challenging Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries. This nascent movement was a topic of discussion on NPR Wednesday. The problem is, the angry Democrats have to find a viable candidate to hang their hopes on.

The solution to this problem should be quickly obvious: former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is available. John has received a boost in publicity recently with the death Tuesday of his estranged wife, much-admired suffering spouse and author Elizabeth Anania Edwards. John should fit the mold of the "progressive" Democrats because he spent two presidential campaigns talking about the poor in this country and identifying with the common folk. Edwards' stock speech was all about helping the poor and striking back at the oligarchs and big business. He even ran an anti-poverty think tank, which was intended to keep him occupied between presidential campaigns.

Not only would he fit the mold and have the progressives' sought-after list of priorities, but Edwards would also have the sympathy vote on his side, thanks to his wife's death from cancer. That sympathy would help him with the women's vote — after all, Elizabeth encouraged him to continue his presidential campaign even after she received her cancer diagnosis. His affair with a campaign videographer might add a few votes from the wayward husbands voter bloc, thereby covering all the key electoral constituencies.

Edwards will need a running mate of course, and I hear Al Gore isn't doing much these days. Gore would bolster the "progressive" ticket. In 2000, his speeches always included pedantic rants against big business, big pharma, big insurance, big oil, big coal, big trouble and Big Macs. The campaign theme should be apparent: Against the big boys; for the little guys.

For progressives, it's a dream ticket: Edwards-Gore in 2012.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Marriage loses ground from unexpected angle

That marriage is in trouble is no surprise — a pundit recently commented that only gays appear to be interested in getting married these days — but the fact that marriage is in trouble among traditionally conservative, working-class Americans is a bit of a shock. This "Talk of the Nation" report took me by surprise Monday. A new study indicates that Middle Americans, the majority of the population who have high school degrees but no college diplomas, are falling away from marriage. More and more Americans are not just "living together" out of wedlock but raising children, too, and, essentially, thumbing their noses at what was once a societal mandate — that marriage would come before child-rearing.

And they're perfectly happy with the new arrangement, and society seems, at worst, indifferent to the shift in mores. The callers to "Talk of the Nation" are very much like some of the callers I heard from when I was writing for a newspaper and wrote a column about the decline of marriage. The gist of my callers' argument was: We've seen marriages fall apart, and we want no part of it. It's nobody's business if we have children without being married.

One of the possible reasons "Talk of the Nation" offered for this revolution is the portrayal of marriage in popular media. Today's television series (and I'll have to take their word for this because I don't watch these shows) do not extol marriage. Current situation comedies and "reality shows" portray divorced pairs, stepchildren, unwed moms, unwed dads, unhappy married couples, etc., etc. That's a seismic shift from the way families were portrayed a generation ago on "Father Knows Best," "The Waltons," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "Cosby" and other popular shows. Media portrayals do affect culture and ethical standards.

If there is any glimmer of hope in this report, it is the revelation that among college-educated professionals, marriage is more popular and marriages are more stable than was the case a generation ago. If what Karl Marx called the "intelligentsia" are actually opinion leaders, perhaps the Silent Majority of Middle America will come around, led by the better-educated. But I've seen nothing in recent years to make me think the popular majority are following the lead of the better-educated or better-informed. On the contrary, it seems more likely that we will all be dismantled to the lowest common denominator of ethics, compassion, responsibility and restraint.

Monday, December 6, 2010

If you care about ideas, read this

Before you skip quickly to another blog or back to Facebook or Tweet your latest update, please read this. This column published in Sunday's News & Observer analyzes the impact of today's digital communications, which are increasingly demanding shorter, more frequent and more "seamless" contacts. Unfortunately, as author Neal Gabler observes, quick is not conducive to serious, and he worries that "ideas" — the thing that distinguishes civilization, knowledge and intellect — are being left in the dust of the digital world. I addressed this same issue last month.

Gabler cites Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death," one of my favorite books, which warns of the impact of a television-centric society. Television, Postman says, endangers conversation and turns people into zombies, or at least couch potatoes. The medium is particularly hazardous for young children, he warns. Written language is the catalyst to learning and the glue that holds together society. Postman worried that as written communication loses ground to spoken or visual communication, hard-fought civilizing advances will be endangered.

Now, after Postman's death, Gabler sees a new threat to human intelligence — the character-limited and ubiquitous text message in whatever form. Texting or its successors have replaced television in jeopardizing serious conversation, intelligent communication and, yes, ideas. Says Gabler: "To the extent that ideas matter, we are no longer amusing ourselves to death. We are texting ourselves to death."

It's a long column, but it's well worth reading.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Democrats don't have to give in

The speculation is that President Obama will give in to Republican demands to extend tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. Although extending the cuts for everyone making $200,000 or less ($250,000 for couples) can pass the House, Republicans in the Senate are adamant that it's their way or no way. Without legislative action, the cuts approved in 2001 and 2003 will expire at the end of the year. Obama and other Democrats are desperate to get the tax cuts for the middle class before the end of the year, and tax planners and employers, as well as taxpayers, want some certainty about 2011 taxes. So Obama is apparently willing to give in rather than see all of the tax cuts expire.

Maybe Democrats should rethink their strategy. They don't want to be blamed in attack ads and on Fox News of raising taxes on the middle class, but there's another way of spinning that outcome. Obama might say something like this: "Rather than allow millionaires and billionaires to enjoy lower taxes and see the greatest shift in American wealth to continue, we have chosen to begin closing the federal budget deficit. Allowing the tax cuts to expire will reduce the federal deficit by $4 trillion — that's TRILLION! — and will go a long way toward the goal of our deficit commission of reducing the long-term federal debt. Allowing the tax cuts to expire for working people will cause some personal pain, and it might temporarily stagnate our economic recovery, but in the long term it will benefit the economy by reducing federal borrowing and will benefit taxpayers by preventing debt from overwhelming our budget options and pushing up interest rates.

"We would have preferred to extend tax cuts for the working people of America, but Republicans refused to allow this without simultaneously extending tax cuts to those who need it and deserve it least. Prevented from passing our preferred option, our second best option is to allow all tax cuts to expire and let the added revenue help solve our deficit problem."

Friday, December 3, 2010

Christmas silently arrives in my home

It's December and all around the house, little decorations are sprouting like mushrooms after a spring rain. Only these are much more colorful than mushrooms. An elf in a red jacket and striped tights sits on the living room bookcase. A pair of angels are roosting on the mantel. Carved Santa statuettes are atop the TV cabinet. A picture of my dad days before his last Christmas, wearing a Santa cap and a red scarf at the nursing home, is on the end table. A spray of mistletoe hangs in the archway. The plain, everyday sofa pillows have been replaced by pillows with bright snow themes, evergreens and reds. A collage frame of photos from Christmases past has replaced the Currier and Ives print on the wall. A collection of Christmas-themed books lies on every table or trunk lid. A spray of greenery tops the bathroom mirror. A sleigh bell hangs from a doorknob. Christmas mugs have replaced the everyday kind as we drink our coffee in the morning. Christmas china sets the table.

The Great Decorating has begun, appearing almost magically as my wife scurries silently through the house, knickknacks in hand, looking for the right spot to plant her trove. Every room has something that says "Christmas." It's a two-week project, accomplished in stolen moments between dinner and bedtime or between awaking and heading to work. And this does not include the big project of erecting and decorating the Fraser fir in its corner spot.

For 11 months, give or take, these mementos have lain hibernating in a half-dozen plastic bins in the attic. The most obvious signs of the transformation of our house are those big bins sitting at the foot of the attic stairs waiting to be emptied or, having been refilled with all the nomenclature of the rest of the year, waiting to go back in the attic until Epiphany, when the undecorating will take place, and Christmas' symbols will go back into the bins and back into the attic.

For the next few weeks, our house will hum with the look of a 1950s department store window — Christmas everywhere you look. Christmas music, both sacred and secular from a collection of hundreds of songs, will waft from the stereo speakers. The smell of wassail and evergreen boughs will warm the house against the winter chill. Lights from windows, trees and railings will fight against the lengthening darkness.

My wife does this not so much for the two of us, the only occupants of this Winter Wonderland, but for the children and grandchildren who will spend little time here, if any at all, and for the neighbors and friends we invite to share our holiday excitement for a few hours on one dark night. It is a tactic for opposing the gloom of darkest winter, the lack of solar warmth and the drabness of a landscape without the bright leaves and flowers that cheer us the rest of the year. If the outdoors have turned dark and colorless, she will make the indoors as bright and colorful as she possibly can.

Christmas has come to my home, and I hope to yours as well.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Some information need not be public

I spent most of my adult life arguing in favor of the "public's right to know," so it might seem contradictory to find myself appalled and deeply troubled by the release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks. But there is a fundamental difference between, for example, a city council hiding from constituents its plans to offer a tax incentive to a company to open a toxic waste dump and international diplomats expecting to have their analyses and assessments of actions and individuals kept confidential.

The federal government's transparency of information is governed by the Freedom of Information Act, which makes most government documents public. North Carolina has the Public Records Law, which makes all documents of whatever type, with a few explicit exceptions, available to the public. But neither state nor federal law makes all information held by the government available to the public. Certain information, including diplomatic cables, legal advice, grand jury testimony and emergency contingency plans, remain confidential for the simple reason that release of these details would undermine the government's ability to act, would endanger innocent people or would not serve the public's interest.

The WikiLeaks trove of secret cables reveals some details about the thinking of world leaders and the advice provided by diplomats to Washington, but there seems to be little information that is truly shocking. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says lives could be endangered by these leaks, and that's probably not hyperbole. It is almost certain that diplomats' activities will be curtailed by this release. Foreign Service officers and foreign diplomats are likely to be less candid in their assessments of international situations, and that could make U.S. foreign policy less cogent and successful.

Although WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gets most of the blame for the damage done by the WikiLeaks release, U.S. security policy is also to blame. News reports indicate a low-level military intelligence official (a private!) was able to download the hundreds of thousands of confidential messages and pass them on to Assange. That should never, ever happen. The United States must fix its leaky security system and reassure governments around the world that what they say in confidence will remain confidential. Otherwise, diplomatic negotiations might grind to a halt.