Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Spotlighting Darwin’s finches

SAN FRANCISCO--Darwinian evolution is familiar to nearly all high school biology students except those in the benighted hinterlands. But the Darwin story, although an oft-told tale, is endlessly fascinating.
Darwin was one of the great pioneers of the mind, ranking with Freud and Einstein.
So it is gratifying to see “Darwin’s Finches” spotlighted at the grand reopening of the wonderful California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.
The Darwin exhibit shows visitors how 13 species in the Galápagos evolved from a common ancestor in South America, developing different beaks for different eating patterns.
Darwin was a 22-year-old naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle in 1835. The voyage led to his huge intellectual leap, “On the Origin of Species,” published in 1859.
That leap was put well by Richard Dawkins in “The God Delusion.” He quotes Phillip Johnson as saying: “Darwinism is the story of humanity’s liberation from the delusion that its destiny is controlled by a power higher than itself.”
But Darwin was wrong about the speed of evolution. He wrote: “We see nothing of these slow changes in progress.” This was disproved by the remarkable research of Rosemary and Peter Grant in the 1970s.

Their story is told by Jonathan Weiner in “The Beak of the Finch” (1994). The Grants showed that evolutionary change was happening now, not just something that happened aeons ago.
“Darwin did not know the strength of his own theory,” Weiner writes. “He vastly underestimated the power of natural selection. Its action is neither rare nor slow. It leads to evolution daily and hourly, all around us, and we can watch.”
There is no better place to watch than the Galápagos.
Darwin, with his great insight, concluded that the surviving species were not the strongest, not the most intelligent, but the most adaptable.
The Grants describe cactus finches: drinking cactus water, sleeping in cactus, copulating in cactus, nesting in cactus and eating cactus flowers, pollen and seeds.
Two finch species use tools, molding twigs to pry grubs from branches. But the most unusual finch is the vampire. It perches on the backs of boobies, drawing blood to drink.
The science academy offers so much more: rain forest, aquarium, planetarium, Philippine coral reef and an exhibit of California plants.
However, the academy “star” is the rain forest. You walk an ever-rising circular path, gazing at colorful tropical birds and watching butterflies float by. Some of the gorgeous creatures land on outstretched hands.
One of the enjoyable things about the museum is the interaction with visitors.
At the anaconda exhibit, a sleeve demonstrates how the snake squeezes its victims to death. Or, near the electric eel tank, you press two buttons simultaneously for a shocking shock. (The piranha exhibit is a tad disappointing. It has no water basin for visitors to feel the piranha’s nibbling power.)
Another San Francisco museum worth a visit is the Exploratorium, specializing in science, art and human perception.
It has 500 exhibits, many of them interactive, where visitors can test minds, skills and reflex speed while learning how and why things work.
Perception and association often rule reality. I drank from a water fountain that looked like a toilet bowl. My wife and her daughter refused,
Irish brogue
I saw two J.M. Synge plays, “The Shadow of the Glen” and “The Playboy of the Western World,” staged by an Irish troupe at the Roda Theater in Berkeley.
The accent was so thick it was if they were speaking a foreign language. Moreover, I discovered that in reading the play later I needed a glossary (whisht means be quiet, skelping a beating, gallous splendid, gaffer a lad and da father).
“The Glen” (1903) is a good one-act play about a man who fakes his own death, a presumed death that pleases the man’s wife. The denouement? Good critics never reveal the ending.
“Playboy” (1907) tells the story of a young man, Christy Mahon, lionized by adoring peasant women despite his claim to have killed his father.
But as Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia phrases it: the plot “is a mere backdrop for the most fertile and vigorous poetic dialogue written for the stage since Shakespeare.” Critic Martin Seymour-Smith calls the language “exuberant, extravagant, tender, beautiful.”
Synge’s use of the word shift (chemise), offending prudish sensibilities, provoked riots at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. But Yeats defended the play, rightly calling for “the freedom of the theater.”
An artist’s vision should never be blunted or censored no matter what groups and individuals howl.

Euthanasia gains v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y

Two down, forty-eight to go.
Four percent of the states have now approved euthanasisa, Washington joining the avant garde state of Oregon. This is a fantastic increase of 100 percent, a doubling of the states allowing death with dignity.
Jests aside, a life of unbearable pain and suffering is no joke. It is a life not worth living.
Oregon voters realized that in 1997. The voters of Washington agreed earlier this month, giving 60 percent approval of euthanasia.
These two civilized states join three civilized nations, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, in approving doctor-assisted suicide.
The B.C. Catholic newspaper, published by the archdiocese of Vancouver, British Columbia, warned that the “stench of death” would invade Canada.
Such an “invasion” cannot happen soon enough. The terminally ill deserve it. Euthanasia is Schweitzerian reverence for life.
Even opponents of death-with-dignity admit that their worst fears have been unrealized, that Oregonians have not become mass “killers.” Just 341 people have used the law in 11 years, an average of 31 a year.
Even an archconservative Supreme Court approved the Oregon law two years ago.
Meanwhile, it may be another 100 years before every state in the union--except Utah—has adopted humane mercy killing.
Tyranny of the Majority
California, Florida and Arizona voters have approved discrimination against gays and lesbians, adopting bans on same-sex marriage. Intolerance and bigotry never ends.
But as the California Supreme Court ruled earlier this year, people have a basic right “to establish a legally recognized family with the person of one’s choice.”
One of the great things about judicial review is its ability to strike down city, state and federal laws that deprive minorities of their rights.
An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle put it well: “the courts have a legal and moral obligation to step in to protect fundamental rights.”
Voters seldom ensure those rights.
Benighted Arkansas
Then there is the backward state of Arkansas, its voters recently banning gays and lesbians from adopting children. The zealots of the religious right even reject love.
Abortion battles endless
It’s hard to believe that 35 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade right-wing diehards are still fighting.
Abortion clinics suffer arson and property damage. “Mobs” outside clinics bellow at patients and staffers with cries of murderer and whore. The anti-choicers have been successful. They and spineless legislatures have left 87 percent of U.S. counties without abortion facilities.
Fortunately, the people at the polls are defeating those dead-enders.
South Dakota voters affirmed the right of women to make their own health care decisions. They simply do not want politicians making decisions that should be left to women, their families and doctors.
California voters defeated an attempt to mandate parental notification of abortions. Coloradans punctuated the point by defeating, 3 to 1, an initiative granting fertilized eggs legal rights.
And affirmative action too
Afffirmative action foes never sleep either. They succeeded in Nebraska but failed in Colorado.
Ward Connerly, a black who is as “white” as Supreme Court Justice Thomas, sought an affirmative action ban in both states. He remains silent about legacy appointments, affirmative action that allows enrollment in elite universities to offspring of graduates.
Sex worker discrimination
The San Francisco Chronicle is usually as liberal editorially as the city it serves--except in sexual matters. After California voters rejected a plan to decriminalize prostitition, the Chronicle rejoiced that the Looney Left had been defeated.
No, the Chron is the wacky one, sharing the sexual hangups of the vast majority of American people.
Prostitution arrests accomplish nothing. They are traumatic and often violent. They are costly to taxpayers.
It is long past time for prostitution to be legalized. It’s long past time for police to stop arresting sex workers. And it’s long past time for police to stop harassing sex workers.
“Revolving Door,” a report from the Sex Workers Project, found that 27 percent of New York City street-based sex workers had been subjected to police brutality. Fourteen percent reported police violence.
Sex workers, without politicians daring to speak for them, are not free. Until prostitution is legalized and sex workers are protected by the police, America will not be free either.
People need sex. They always will, It’s time society--and newspapers--get real about it.
Alison Assiter in her book, “Bad Girls and Dirty Pictures,” spoke volumes in one sentence. She wrote that instead of fighting porn, feminists should:
“Support the decriminalization of prostitution, call for the abolition of all obscenity laws, back the rights of sex workers…and support sex education for the young.”

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Obama and ‘Ode to Joy’

Sometimes there’s God.

-- Tennessee Williams in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Living in Michigan four decades ago, I helped a young Democratic congressman from my district, John Conyers, get re-elected.
Conyers stood for what was missing in U.S. politics: true progressivism, not the lukewarm politics of most Democrats then as now. So I held open houses at which he appeared and drove him to campaign stops.
After he won, I said to him: “John, why don’t you run next for the Senate?”
He smiled indulgently at my naïveté and replied: “You forget that I am black,”
“So what?” I said. “You’re good.”
Little did I know.

That hoary taboo has been shattered forever by the historic and transformational election of Barack Obama as president. The country is finally judging White House candidates on their ability and not the color of their skin.
John McCain represented the past, Obama the future. The Bush adminstration produced countless anguished nights of the soul. McCain would have been more of the same agony.
The reality today is that the Republican Party is racist, reactionary and white in a multidimensional society. As Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist, puts it: “The GOP has become the party of intolerance.”
Much of the world was euphoric and much of America rejoiced over the Obama triumph. But imagine the special joy of veterans of the trenches of Civil Rights battles.
People like Jesse Jackson. Jackson, attending an Obama victory party in Chicago’s Grant Park, was shown on TV with tears streaming from his eyes.
Indeed, many elderly blacks thought that they would never live to see such an incredible day. They lived in the dread days of Jim Crow, days in the 60s with attacks by police dogs and cannonades by fire hoses.
Eugene Robinson, black columnist for the Washington Post, wrote: “I remember a time of separate and unequal schools, restrooms and water fountains, a time when black people were officially second-class citizens.”
Apartheid reigned so supreme that some Southern courthouses used two oath-taking Bibles, one for whites and one for blacks.
States in the South nullified and defied the 15th Amendment with fraudulent grandfather clauses and absurd literacy tests. The Supreme Court, so often so conservative throughout its history, ratified these unconstitutional laws.
Happily, it has all changed. A 109-year-old black woman from Texas, whose father was a slave, today votes freely.
Robinson also reminded us of another truth: “At the hour of its birth the nation was stained by the Original Sin of slavery.”
People like me have been supporting black rights, empathizing with blacks, for five decades. But I am white. I can never know viscerally what it is to be black in America.
I can never truly comprehend the frequent affronts to blacks. Like the insult hurled at black writer Richard Wright. Crossing the border into Texas carrying a portable typewriter, he was asked by a customs official: “Hey, boy, why are you carrying that typewriter?”
Of all the moving commentary on the Obama success, one of the most affecting was written by Bob Sanders, Fort Worth-Star Telegram columnist.
Sanders was not just voting for Obama. He said he “was voting for Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass; for Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth; for W.E.B. and Booker T; for Franklin and Eleanor; for John and Bobby; for Martin and Medgar; and for César and Lyndon.”
And he said he was voting for Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, murdered in Mississippi for registering black voters in 1964.
The plea of writer Langston Hughes is ever so slowly coming true: “O, let America be America again, the land that never has been yet--and yet must be. The land where every man is free.”
And the pledge of Martin Luther King has been redeemed. He had climbed the mountain top and seen that blacks would “get to the promised land.”
Obama carries an immense burden of hope into the presidency. But he also brings fine attributes. He is forceful, intelligent, compassionate and charismatic.
Those qualities should make him an excellent president.
Hope, to many cynics, was just an campaign slogan. But the nation desperately needs hope after the daily outrages and agonizing eight years of Bush.
The German poet Schiller captured that hope in “Ode to Joy”:
“Joy, thou spark from Heav’n immortal, / Daughter of Elysium! / Drunk with fire, toward Heaven advancing…/ All men become brothers / Where thy happy wingbeats are.”
The magnificent, ever-moving choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony seizes that theme: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder.” (All men become brothers.)
Hopelessly idealistic, true, yet full of the hope that Obama inspires.