Resurrection without revolution not likely even in the 23rd century

I saw the new “Star Trek” movie this weekend, and I’d recommend it to Trek fans without reservation.  (If you want to see it but haven’t yet, don’t read on—thar be spoilers here.)

I’m still not comfortable with the whole “let’s reset the timeline” thing introduced in the 2009 movie, which I suppose means I don’t like it.  While I appreciate that the new writers and producers don’t want the new stories in what they hope will be a whole string of movies to be constrained by the history established in six previous television series (counting the animated series, 726 episodes in total) and ten previous movies, so far I can’t help but think “that’s wrong” each time I see something that didn’t happen in the original timeline, especially the lovestruck Uhura.  Maybe I’ll get over it.

With that in mind, I have to say I was disappointed in myself for taking quite so long to see the parallels between the new movie’s story and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”  Of course I remembered Khan (“I grow…fa-tigued again.”  “ADMIRAL?  ADMIRAL Kirk?!  “I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition’s flames before I give him up!”), but I didn’t recognize the hero-selflessly-saves-the-Enterprise motif, with Kirk and Spock exchanging roles and dialogue, until it was completely unmistakable to anyone who saw the 1982 movie.

Back then it took another whole movie to bring the hero back from the dead, but today it just took the last ten or so minutes of this flick.  And I took it all in as presented, jumping right from resurrection of the captain to the relaunch of his ship a year later without giving any consideration to what probably would really have happened in the wake of McCoy’s greatest feat of medical prestidigitation.  Fortunately, our friends at The Awl have turned up the good doctor’s own recollection

Ridiculous, to think it all started over a tribble. A lifeless bundle of fur. I always kept a dead tribble in my Curio of Maladies in those days, for medical reasons, and was especially glad of it when they finally hauled Khan’s body aboard for study after the battle.

Kirk was particularly dead that day; I remember because everyone was crying and the science woman kept all of her clothes on. As is my habit, I injected several of Khan’s more personal fluids (super-fluids, if you’ll pardon the medical terminology) into the tribble to see what would happen.

The tribble returned almost immediately to life. I remember because I thought to myself, “Ah, I seem to have conquered death. Tremendous,” at the time.

As a doctor, this made my job a great deal easier.

As I mentioned before, Kirk was dead—terribly dead—being chock full of radiations and so forth, so I decided he’d make an excellent second test subject for my Home Death Remedy and plugged him with a bit of the super-blood a few minutes later.

(snip)

Within a week, the Federation had clawed itself into thirteen warring factions, all ready to destroy entire star systems at the prospect of getting their hands on that serum.

Kirk was immediately taken to a research-torture facility by a group of scientists from Section 31. In a way, I think we all failed to take into account the interest this shadowy government organization, with the resources to build a super-advanced death-ship in absolute secrecy, might take in a serum that reverses death.

I tried to tell them I was a doctor, but it didn’t even slow them down. They killed most of the crew in their raid, which I thought damned inconvenient, until I remembered the immortality serum I had developed, from super-blood.

(snip)

The rest you undoubtedly know. The wild-eyed men and women who took to showing up at my offices at all hours of the night, bearing the fresh and mangled corpses of their loved ones in their arms, begging for serum. The armies of the frozen half-dead, the resurrected children brought back to crazed and formless life by their deranged, grief-stricken parents, the Blood Colonies.

You wanna talk about changing history…

Memorial Day means…

The point of the day is to remember those who gave their lives in the defense of our country…and I don’t remember ever being as touched on this subject as I was reading this story about the way the remains of American war dead are taken care of at Dover Air Force Base. Read it, and be grateful.

The soldier bent to his work, careful as a diamond cutter. He carried no weapon or rucksack, just a small plastic ruler, which he used to align a name plate, just so, atop the breast pocket of an Army dress blue jacket, size 39R.

(snip)

For each of the war dead, the journey through Dover begins with the arrival of a cargo jet that is met by military officials and, usually, family members. A team of service members wearing white gloves carries the coffins, covered with flags, to a white van that takes them to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner. Once an autopsy is completed, the work of the mortuary staff begins.

Remains are first embalmed and then washed. Hands are scrubbed clean, hair is shampooed. Where appropriate, bones are wired together and damaged tissue is reconstructed with flesh-toned wax. Using photographs, or just intuition, the embalmers try to recreate the wrinkles in faces, the lines around mouths, the corners and lids of eyes.

“It has to look normal, like someone who is sleeping,” said Petty Officer First Class Jennifer Howell, a Navy liaison at the mortuary who has a mortician’s license.

(snip)

Working so intimately with the dead can take a toll, so the mortuary has a large gym and a recreation room where workers are encouraged to blow off steam. A team of chaplains and mental health advisers are available for counseling.

Mr. Zwicharowski, a former Marine, said many workers were haunted by the youthfulness of the dead, and by the fact that so many leave behind children. He counsels his staff to avoid researching their backgrounds, but he has not always abided by his own advice.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, he read a note placed in the coffin of a boy who died on the jet that crashed into the Pentagon. It was from a brother, thanking the boy for defending him on the playground days before.

“It was something I wish I didn’t do, and I learned my lesson not to do it again,” Mr. Zwicharowski said, fighting back tears. “If I knew the story of every individual who went through here, I would probably be in a padded cell.”

(snip)

A week later, Captain Blanchard’s remains were flown to his home state, Washington, where he was buried in a military cemetery near Spokane.

His mother, Laura Schactler, said Captain Blanchard enlisted in the Marines after high school and served two tours in Iraq before marrying and returning home to attend college on an Army R.O.T.C. scholarship. After graduating, he learned to fly Apache attack helicopters, fulfilling a boyhood dream.

Before his funeral, Ms. Schactler spent time alone with her son but did not open his coffin. But later that night, she said, her husband and two other sons did, wanting to say one last farewell.

Inside, they saw a uniform, white gloves crossed, buttons gleaming, perfect in every detail.

Why seizing journalists’ records is the last option, not the first

The latest revelations about the Obama Administration overstepping its moral authority, if not entirely its legal one, in dealing with enemies both real and perceived have left me melancholy.  At best.  While I am buoyed to see that the concept of using the IRS as a blunt instrument  to punish one’s political opponents seems to have won near-unanimous disapproval, the idea that the government shouldn’t be investigating reporters seems not to be getting quite so much support, at least not outside of journalism.

This government is out of bounds—and out of its mind—if it believes that treating journalists as suspected criminals is legally or morally the right way to go.  A government led by a former professor of constitutional law should know better, even if that government has prosecuted more alleged leakers than any previous one.  The things we’re learning about, or which have been alleged, in just a matter of a few days, are stupefying: not just secretly seizing reporters’ phone records and examining their emails, but treating the reporter as though he were a criminal suspect and investigating his associates—even looking at the reporter’s parents’ phone records!

(Look here for links to a number of good stories, editorials and op/eds on government overreach of authority, the attack on civil liberties, and uncomplimentary comparisons to the administrations of George W. Bush and Richard Nixon.  Look here for a first-hand account of the “Kafkaesque” experience of a reporter who had his phone records secretly seized by two government agencies more than 20 years ago.)

Government has a right to protect its secrets; and yes, I think there are circumstances in which government should properly keep information from general distribution.  But unless the information is (1) critical to preserving public safety and security and (2) cannot be obtained in any other way, the government should not be allowed to try to compel journalists to turn over unpublished research or provide testimony or rat out their associates, because that turns those reporters into de facto government investigators and will make people with stories to leak and asses to protect choose their asses over the story. Seizing journalists’ records or compelling testimony is the last option, not the first one, and it’s up a court to decide that, on a case by case basis.

I don’t think journalists have a legal “right” to protect sources; others disagree.  I think they must protect sources if they hope to be effective at their job, but I don’t think the law shields them from any and every effort by the government to uncover information.  (Unless there’s a shield law.)  And I think journalists should be prepared to pay the price under law when they choose to protect their sources, as a good journalist should, while simultaneously refusing to comply with a lawful court order, as a good citizen should.

Yes, Sarah Palin, it’s possible to be a good journalist and a good citizen.  All good citizens are not good journalists, but all good journalists are good citizens when they fulfill a critical role in the functioning of a free society: to tell citizens those things that people in power don’t want us to know; to inform us of what is being done in our name and on our behalf.

I’m not making a case for the purveyors of “news you can use”—things like consumer news, what’s trending on social media, breathless reports on developments on a TV network’s prime time entertainment program as if it was the explosion of the Hindenburg (yes, I’m talking to you, KTRK-TV in Houston); that’s the sissified bullshit kind of “news” we get from outlets that sold their souls when they bought the line of crap peddled by non-journalist consultants whose only real goal is increased profitability.  (I’m not opposed to profit, by the way—I’d like to have been better at it myself—but I am opposed to those organizations for which profit is the only or primary reason for being, and to the people who see journalism as just another product to sell like cook pans or bicycles or bird seed.)

I mean to make the case for the journalism that is there to confront those in power, one citizen to another, and to tell the rest of us what’s going on with the people we’ve authorized to spend our money and operate our governments, from Washington, D.C. to the state capitols and from counties and cities to utility districts and homeowner’s associations.  I mean the journalism that is envisioned in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it guarantees us the right to a free press right alongside the freedom of religion and freedom of speech and freedom of peaceable assembly and redress of grievances.

How well do American journalists do in living up to that standard?  Each according to his talents, like the rest of us.  The ones Don Henley sang about a generation ago are still around and (still) aren’t even trying, but the ones who are trying to do the job the right way for the right reasons deserve our respect and the respect of our government, regardless of who is president at the moment.

Maybe the guy in the tin foil hat was right

We should all be in line to take a whack at the idiots responsible for these completely avoidable exercises in governmental overreach and hubris.  All together now: what the hell were they thinking?  I can’t decide which is more disturbing: the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten law-abiding citizens based on a perception of their political views, or the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten journalists in the pursuit of their constitutionally-recognized role as government watchdog.  Both are abuses of government power that fly in the face of what this country is meant to stand for.

Today the attorney general ordered the FBI to investigate the Internal Revenue Service for apparently singling out for enhanced scrutiny the applications for tax-exempt status from what were perceived to be conservative political groups.  Yep, it looks like the party in power has been using the authority of the taxman to reward those with whom it agrees and punish those with whom it does not.  Is there any more textbook definition of abuse of power than that?

I’m not saying that the IRS shouldn’t be thorough in reviewing applications for tax-exempt status; the IRS should be exceedingly thorough in investigating such requests.  Wouldn’t we all be willing to believe there are those among us who would do whatever they could to reduce their tax bills, even lie about the true purpose of their organization?  There are entire political movements built on the effort to reduce taxes, but that doesn’t mean they deserve extra scrutiny.  Whatever’s determined to be the proper amount of review for gaining tax-exempt status should the bar for everyone to pass, and it’s just flat wrong for an arm of the government to single out persons or groups for extra scrutiny based on their actual or perceived political views, including their views about taxes!  (Is this a great country or what?)  The whole idea has conjured up in my imagination that happy visage of Richard Nixon and enemies lists.

It’s just as wrong, and just as dangerous to our liberty, for the Justice Department to seize phone records of journalists.  The DOJ notified The Associated Press last week that at some point earlier this year, and clearly without prior notice, it had seized records for 20 phone lines belonging to AP offices and journalists, including home phones and cell phones.  It did not state a reason why these records were seized; it’s believed to be in relation to an investigation into leaks about how the CIA disrupted a terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.

Our system envisions a strong press as a watchdog on government at all levels, acting as a representative of the people seeking out information that the government wants kept quiet…the stuff that the politicians and the bureaucrats don’t want you to know, that they’ve kept from you out of embarrassment or guilt.  There have been people in the government from the beginning who understood the importance of that role to the overall functioning of society, and who’ve provided sensitive information to reporters despite being told not to do so.  Today we call those people whistleblowers.  When that whistle gets blown the government’s first response is often to decide who will take the blame, and they devote a terrific amount of energy to learning who told the truth.  In some cases they ask a court to order the journalists who ran the story to tell where they got their information; in others, like this one, they just take private information without the knowledge of its owner in the hopes that they’ll be able to deduce who ratted them out.

We used to talk about the “chilling effect” that a variety of government actions would have on the newsgathering process, on the minds of the reporters who might think twice—or more than that—about pursuing a story when faced with the possibility, or the likelihood, that the government was going to fight back.  And this is that.

It’s inconceivable to me that all the people involved in these two growing scandals are merely misunderstood or made poor decisions about how to achieve a legitimate objective, but I don’t think the blame goes all the way to the top.  This president is neither that paranoid nor that stupid…although you’d think that a professor of constitutional law might have impressed on his subordinates some of his relevant thoughts about the proper use of governmental power.  If this news had come out while the last man was president, I would have accepted it as prima facie evidence of the evilness of his administration and its soulless pursuit of instituting theocratic capitalism as our new form of government.  I would have been wrong, but I admit I would have thought it.

When the government spies on reporters and appears to punish political enemies, it gives the tin foil hat crowd encouragement: “The government is spying on you—it’s keeping track of who you call and who calls you, it’s watching what you do and where you go and who you meet, it’s keeping information on your income and your taxes and your friends and who you associate with, and it’s using that information against you.”  Today that sounds a little less ridiculous that it did last week.

Unassigned additional reading: