Why Valentine's Day?

It’s not just a Hallmark holiday: it commemorates a bishop of the 3rd century named Valentine. Hearts and flowers came later.

According to one story, Valentine was under house arrest in the home of a Roman judge. The judge challenged the Christian to prove the validity of his faith, bringing out his blind daughter, Julia. Valentine laid his hands on her and implored God to save the girl (and him). When he removed his hands, Julia’s vision was restored. Amazed by the miracle, the judge and all his household converted to Christianity. He broke all his idols and freed all the Christians in jail. 

Another account relates that Valentine continued to evangelize. He married Christian couples, which allowed the men to avoid conscription in the imperial army. To remind these men of their vows, Saint Valentine is said to have given them hearts he cut from parchment, which may explain the hearts of Valentine’s Day. 

Valentine supposedly wore a purple amethyst ring, as did other Christian bishops. He had an image of Cupid, a pagan god, engraved on it. Romans recognized the god of love and would ask him to marry them. (Probably because of the association of amethysts with Saint Valentine, the gem has become the birthstone of February, and is thought to attract love.)

Claudius, the emperor, was not pleased. He had Valentine brought to Rome, but he took a liking to the bishop, at least until Valentine tried to convert him. Claudius refused and condemned Valentine to death. On February 14, 269, he was stoned (or beaten with clubs) and then beheaded when the torture didn’t kill him. More than two centuries later, Pope Gelasius declared a feast day on that date. But sadly, it was downhill from there. Since 1969, inclusion in local liturgical calendars became optional.

Before his execution, some say Valentine wrote a note to Julia, the judge’s daughter, and signed it “from your Valentine,” a possible origin of Valentine notes and cards. Oh, and if you’d like to see what’s left of his head, his alleged skull is crowned with flowers and exhibited in a Roman basilica. Other relics are scattered throughout Europe.

Some say that Geoffrey Chaucer was responsible for the association of romance and St. Valentine. Chaucer wrote the Parlement of Foules on the first anniversary of the engagement of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. The poem contains the lines, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” But the royal engagement was on May 3, also the day another Valentine (of Genoa) died. So who knows? It’s impossible to know how much is fantasy and what part of the legend reflects historical fact. Indeed, there were actually as many as 12 St. Valentines.

By the 18th century in England, the 14th of February had evolved into an occasion when partners expressed their love for each other with flowers, chocolate, and other gifts. And in the 19th century, the sending of Valentine’s cards had become so popular that they began to be mass produced, especially in America and Europe.

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A Valentine Lament

Oh, silly, solemn, lovesick Muse
Wherefore do you wander
Without giving me cues?
You must come forthwith, help me ponder and conjure
Not fish stew or cabbage or salamander
But tremors of passion and amorous rhymes.
Inspire my thoughts for St. Valentine’s.
Wooing, cooing, and otherwise doing
Cupid’s work with his confounded arrow
That pierces the heart deep into the marrow.
A wound that won't heal
No more than boys’ lust for an automobile.
Love conquers all,
Virgil famously said.
Caesar won Gaul,
Anne Boleyn lost her head.
For lack of a son
“Now you’re done!”
Henry said.
Muse, I don't hear you
Hope you don’t have the flu.
I'm not calling Euterpe, Thalia or Terpsichore,
No, Erato’s my lady, named for Eros, not war.
Love and love poems fall in your bailiwick
So fly to me, Precious. It’s urgent, be quick!
Of arms and the man I’m not singing tonight
Paradise is still Lost— it is nowhere in sight.
To Goethe and Dante, Mallarmé and Shakespeare
You whispered and murmured softly in the ear
So succor me now, lend me words I can pen
Please don’t forsake me, help me scribble again.
My love, how to praise him,
How to describe
The joys of our journey I want to transcribe.

Erato, your silence is hard to endure,
No lyrical stanza, no euphonious verse
You’re wayward and fickle
You’re being perverse.
Alas, you have failed me,
I don’t sense you near.
Too late for this Valentine,
Hope to see you next year.

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L’État C’est Moi: I am the State

photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

If Donald Trump has learned anything in his three years in the White House, it is that the president has awesome power. 

Trump may not have read the Constitution, but he now knows that Article 2 defines the executive branch of government. According to Trump, “I have in Article 2 the right to do whatever I want as president.”

Of course he doesn’t, but if the Senate doesn’t remove him from office, what little restraint he may have experienced will evaporate and he will accelerate the erosion of the pillars of  American democracy. 

Trump would have recognized a soulmate in Richard Nixon. He also believed that “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” But 1974 seems eons ago, a time when Republicans and Democrats recognized the danger of an out-of-control president and joined forces to oust him.

Yesterday Trump’s lawyer affirmed that Donald Trump could do nothing illegal as president. The man who defended O.J. Simpson put forth a terrifying argument in Trump’s defense. Alan Dershowitz asserted, “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in an impeachment.” 

Dershowitz argues that a president can do whatever believes is for the public good. If the president believes, as Trump does, that he is the best president ever, then his election is necessary and justifies whatever it takes to achieve that end. Asking foreign governments to discredit his adversary, hacking the election, disseminating disinformation, rigging the voting machines, disenfranchising g/.roups known to vote Democratic— all of these and more are permissible. Trump has invited China, as well as Russia, to help re-elect him.

Dershowitz may have done irreparable harm, especially if Republican senators acquit the President. He has legitimized autocracy. 

Louis XIV

Trump reminds me of Louis XIV of France. He ruled as an absolute monarch, believing that what was good for him was good for France. “L’état c’est moi,” he said famously. Louis believed in the divine right of kings, much as Trump believes in Article II. Trump loves to live lavishly surrounded by gold furnishings, and Louis built the sumptuous palace of Versailles for his royal residence. Several decades after his death, his heirs and the rest of the French nobility succumbed to the guillotine and the French Revolution. France was never the same.

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Trump defensive strategy: delay, delay, delay

John R. Bolton

John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, has indicated that he would testify in the impeachment hearing — BUT — he wants a judge to decide if he can continue to ignore the Judiciary Committee’s invitation to testify, as the president has ordered, or whether, as a former employee of the White House, he is not subject to the executive order.

Initially, I thought Bolton’s request for a judicial determination was a strictly CYA maneuver. But now his lawyer’s hint on Friday that Bolton knows about “many relevant meetings and conversations” that the House committee doesn’t suggests something more. The intimation that Bolton could supply new evidence is meant to be tantalizing. If the Democrats bite the bait by acceding to his request and taking him to court to force him to testify before the committee, the momentum of the hearings will be lost.

Delay only helps Trump.  The longer the impeachment inquiry drags on, the greater the chance that public interest in the eventual impeachment will subside. No one wants the impeachment to drag into a presidential year, and the first primary is only two and a half months away. The candidates for the nomination need to direct their attention to their campaigns. They can’t afford to be distracted by the impeachment.

Democrats already have all the evidence they need to impeach Trump, But Bolton’s position in the White House places him closer to the president than any of the other witnesses so far. His testimony would certainly be valuable to the Democrats and difficult for the Republicans to impugn.

Democrats must resist Republican attempts to bog down and obstruct the hearings by assailing the process, smearing the witnesses, and using the courts to delay unimpeachable testimony that will likely damn the president.

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Eyes on the Chief Justice

Will John Roberts defend the scofflaw Donald Trump, who boasts of being able to shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue with impunity? We shall soon find out. 

Dahlia Lithwick, who writes about courts and the law for Slate Magazine, discusses the multiple lawsuits headed for the Supreme Court that will directly impact Trump’s fate, if not determine it. Federal and district courts have stymied Trump’s attempts to shield his tax returns from public scrutiny, to direct his cronies and White House staff (past and present) from testifying in the current impeachment inquiry, and to keep evidence presented to the Mueller grand jury inaccessible to the committees conducting the impeachment inquiry. Trump has appealed all these cases, and now the only place left for them to go is the Supreme Court.

Lithwick explains how the actions of the Chief Justice will affect the course and outcome of the impeachment inquiry. Roberts may agree to put the cases affecting the president on the docket this term, but the decisions would likely not come down until late spring, too late for an impeachment proceeding to use the testimony of key witnesses and critical evidence gathered by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. A delay will be of great advantage to Trump. But if Roberts decides to let the rulings of the lower courts stand, he would in effect be ruling against Trump. If the Supreme Court takes up the cases, the delay will slow down the Democrats’ momentum, adversely affecting their ability to influence public opinion, a critical factor in impeachment.

Will Roberts, now the swing vote on the Court, support Trump’s defiance of court orders and subpoenas? Will he support Trump’s assertion assertion of complete presidential immunity, not only from being indicted, but even from being investigated? With unlimited executive power, the president is personally above the law and free to countermand or defy established federal law and historical custom. The judiciary and the legislature are subservient to the imperial presidency, not co-equal as defined by the Constitution. Trump’s impeachment is about much more than the fate of his presidency. It is about the authority of the Constitution and the survival of American democracy.

At least once the Chief Justice ruled against the Republicans, when he found a way to keep Obamacare from foundering. He apparently understood that the Affordable Healthcare Act  was benefitting millions, and that they would not look kindly on Republicans who would take it away just as they had begun to have the ability to obtain medical care previously denied them.

I believe John Roberts cares about his legacy and the integrity of the Court. We’ll soon know if I am right.

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Beauty Ablaze

Credit…Kyle Grillot for The New York Times

California is burning with no end in sight. People are dying, houses are blackened hulks, forests are decimated — Why? Why is the Golden State an inferno with flames incinerating homes and trees in hills and valleys?

Several factors come into play, but all are linked to climate change. Global warming in California has resulted in shorter winters and reduced snowpack. The fire season starts earlier and ends later each year. With warmer spring and summer temperatures, drought is inevitable. Starved of moisture, vegetation and the soil are desiccated by the dry, intense heat. Undergrowth in the forests becomes abundant kindling that can ignite spontaneously, and the trees, stressed by extreme heat and lack of water, are unable to withstand the flames.

The Santa Ana winds rush from high pressure areas in the mountains to lower pressure at the coast. Channeled through mountain passes and canyons, their velocity accelerates, and the lower pressure compresses, warms and dries them out. The winds augment the parching of extreme heat and drought. Once the underbrush ignites, the wind propels and nourishes the wildfire, easily driving it across thousands of acres.

Though wildfires are a natural part of California’s bioregion, the fire season is an estimated 75 days longer now. The trends of rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall are expected to continue, and wildfires will keep pace. Each year during this decade has experienced a more destructive fire season, and there is no reason, given the paucity of effort in capping or lowering emissions, to expect deviation from this ominous trajectory.

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Filed under Climate change, Global Warming

Flooded future

Flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 2017. Source: World Meteorological Organization / Flickr

An alarming, just published, report from Climate Central warns that flooding projected across the globe by 2050 will be far worse than previously thought. The areas affected are mostly in Asia, where millions live on or near the coast. Flooding by seawater implies not only inundation of homes, but the salting of cultivated fields. Worldwide, chronic floods will endanger 300 million people. By the end of this century, the high tide line will be permanently higher than the land where 200 million people now work, farm, and call home.

These dire predictions result from the discovery that coastal elevations are actually lower than previously estimated; hence more vulnerable to flooding, inundation and the contamination of freshwater. In fact, the incursions of saltwater could make the land uninhabitable even before it disappears under the sea.

The previous estimates of land elevation were calculated using data produced by satellite photography, which sees the tops of trees and buildings, thus overestimating the elevation of the land. The problem is particularly acute in areas of dense forest and close clusters of buildings. More accurate means of measurement, using lasers and overflights, are expensive and consequently not widely used.

Cities on the world’s coasts are the most densely populated areas on the planet, and most of them have low elevations. The older elevation estimates have been found to be too high on an average of approximately six to eight feet, which is the same as or even more than the highest sea level rise projections for all of the 21st century. The elevations of some American cities, including New York, Miami and Boston, were overestimated by an average of 15.5 feet.

As we now know, the rise in sea level occurs when the combustion of fossil fuels and other emissions caused by human activity pollute the atmosphere. The planet grows warmer, causing glaciers and ice sheets to melt and flow into the oceans. The increased volume of water raises the level of the sea.

The estimates of the number of people who will lose their farms and homes to floods of saltwater are based on moderate emissions cuts mandated by the Paris climate accords. (We are not currently meeting those goals.) If pollution and the subsequent greenhouse gases continue to increase, by the end of the century chronic flooding and permanent inundation will imperil the land that shelters and feeds 640 million people living now (actually more; based on 2010 data), close to 10 percent of the global population. Ironically, the people most likely to suffer are the ones least responsible for polluting emissions.

The United States is already experiencing the predicted effects of global warming. Hurricane Harvey caused epic flooding in Houston; diseases once confined to the tropics are increasingly occurring in the temperate zone; extreme heat is responsible for a sharp increase in deaths in Nevada and Arizona; wildfires are consuming California . . .

The loss of land and the resulting migration of climate refugees will surely give rise to humanitarian crises of unprecedented severity and have devastating effects on the world economy. Other aspects of global warming like drought and extreme heat will also have catastrophic consequences. All living creatures, from plants to insects, fish, birds and humans will have to flee their habitats and invade others. Some will survive; many won’t.

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Filed under Climate change, Global Warming