Mon, Apr

The Bill of Rights: There Are Those Who Would Destroy It.


GELFAND’S WORLD - This month represents the 90th year since Hitler and his Nazi cronies took over the German government. Hitler was appointed Chancellor on January 30 of 1933, and a whole series of events transpired over the next few weeks. You can read about those events including the Reichstag fire, which happened later in February. Early 1933 was the foundation of much of the evil of the 20th century. There is reason that we ought to be aware of this history, that we ought to commemorate the tens of millions who died as a result of those seemingly localized events, and that we ought to be concerned that a substantial number of people -- Americans included -- could fall for similar demagogues. 

I invite you to consider a recent article in The Conversation written by Tarah Williams, Andrew Bloeser, and Brian Harward, in which Americans of all stripes responded to survey questions intended to tease out their underlying anti-democratic tendencies. Although the methodology will be criticized by those who don't like the results, there is some evidence that a substantial fraction of all Americans will respond positively to a question such as the following: "If political leaders believe that a news organization is attempting to undermine American values, they should take action to shut down that news organization." 

That's about as direct as you can be in expressing negativity about our First Amendment defense of freedom of the press. And one-third of strong Democrats agree with the statement. That's pretty bad, but 72 percent of strong Republicans also agree. The combined result ought to be terrifying to patriotic Americans who support the Bill of Rights. 

An aside: The past decade has been unusually dense in such commemorations. Back in 2011, we began to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. In 2014, we noticed the 100th anniversary of the First World War. I suspect that there will be planning and discussions leading up to a prolonged commemoration of the whole tragedy that was the mid-20th century, including the ugliness of the Nazi era (1933 - 1945), the brutality of the Asian wars including the conquest of Manchuria, and so much else. 

Why take up the topic at this moment? I can't point to one single event, but there has been too much going on over the past few years that reminds us that fascism and its equivalents are perpetual threats. Most of us were raised to believe that the United States of America is wedded to the idea of representative government chosen by We the People, yet the January 6, 2021 riot featured lots of people who fought their utmost to undo the results of lawful elections. Even now, there are many of them who continue to deny that Biden was properly elected president. Many continue to support the idea that Trump should replace Biden in the White House based on nothing. Their leader, meanwhile, continues to make arguments suggesting that he ought to have essentially unlimited power. Or Remember Richard Nixon? "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal." It turns out that the rest of us have to be mindful that such people exist and some of them weasel their way into power. 

Speaking of anniversaries, we somehow missed, or at least didn't do much about, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. 

It would have been May 8 of 2020 (Victory in Europe) and August 14 of 2020 (Victory in Japan). We have an excuse, which was that the Covid-19 pandemic was ramping up at exactly that time, but now that the Covid is somewhat in remission, perhaps we can take a moment to think about the fact that many of us are alive but might not have been had history played out a little differently. Perhaps a father or grandfather was a soldier, or some relative was a European refugee. I knew a couple of men who survived the Bataan Death March, even as many of their colleagues did not. I have friends whose parents survived the concentration camps and the mass murder in Warsaw. 

So we might stop for a moment on February 27 and think about the Reichstag Fire and how it was used to lock in the murderous regime that set half the world on fire. 

That football game 

Well, we had Super Bowl MCMXXLIV, or whatever Roman numeral they gave it. The numbering system worked well for the first IV or V of them, but it has become a bit tedious in this era of fortieth and fiftieth etc bowls. 

I thought we were done with the bad puns on Stupor Bowl and whatnot, but one of my colleagues called my attention to a new one. If you move the space between words, you get Superb Owl, which doesn't make a lot of sense, but at least is grammatically acceptable. It has apparently inspired zillions of internet clicks. How many other bowls or television shows or diseases work with that exchange from Bowl to Owl? It's the next big topic for mathematical philologists. May I offer Bob's Lemma, which is that what is required is an adjective ending in the letter B, but is also meaningful if the B is removed. Super and Superb work well enough. Is there even one more such pair? I've got one, which makes even more sense than Superb Owl and refers to feminine ownership of a bird which dwells among tasty plants. Another refers to a celestial sphere and is the two word ending to the phrase "We could play tennis . . . " 

About the game itself. There are two ways to look at this one, which turned out to be number LVII. It was either a classic, one of the great ones, a game for the century . . . or it was a game between a couple of teams that didn't have much defense. In the post game interviews, one journalist pointed out that in the second half, Kansas City scored on every possession. Whatever else you say, that does not make Philadelphia a great team. That's a long way from the old days where midwestern football juggernauts would play to a 7-3 finish. Notre Dame and West Point played to a celebrated scoreless tie in Yankee Stadium back in 1946. Zero to Zero. Zip-Zip. And football purists consider it a classic, almost the ultimate football game. 

My feeling is that NFL defenses, particularly the ones that win in playoff games, have to be pretty good, and they play in a game which has complexities that did not exist in earlier eras. So I have to conclude that there are some offenses that are nothing short of miraculous at this moment in football history. And there are/were some quarterbacks who manage to make those offenses work in miraculous ways. I think that we saw two such quarterbacks on Sunday, which explains why Super Bowl LVII was a 35 - 35 tie at 8 seconds to go. One historical note: Kansas City ran a play from what they call "the victory formation" -- that is to say, the quarterback receives the snap and immediately takes a knee -- without actually leading in the game. That's definitely one for the record books. It was an apt use of time management leading up to a winning field goal that would simultaneously run out the clock. None of the Kansas City fans seemed to complain about the tactic. Having trailed for most of the game, the resulting attitude can be understood. 

Addendum: The Turkish earthquake 

In a previous column, I mentioned the 7.8 magnitude quake that hit Turkey. At the time of writing, the death toll was unknown, but reported numbers were rising by the hour. We changed the headline to reflect that "thousands" were dead, rather than give a specific number. In the column, I reported the latest (early) number, which was somewhat more than 4000. This was premature and should have been noted as such. After a week, we have much worse numbers, with 36,000 reported dead as of Feb 13. The number of injured remains less precise, with reports still using the word "thousands."

We should reflect on the results of this quake because the reported magnitude of 7.8 is the low side of what we would expect from "the Big One," that is, a full scale break along the San Andreas Fault. It would present as hard shaking for more than a full minute. Those of you who have experienced a moderate quake such as Northridge (1994), lasting a few seconds, often remark that it felt like it took a long time. Survivors of the Turkish quake said that it seemed like forever. There will be no ability to get up and walk to a safe place when the floor is flying up and down, taking you with it. 

That's why we have been talking about preparation for the past half dozen years, in spite of the failure of the city of Los Angeles to support earthquake preparedness efforts sufficiently. Let's hope that the city funds its Emergency Management Department sufficiently this time around. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)