Thursday, December 28, 2017

Emperor's clay army battles mortality -- Dec. 28, 2017 column


If you think your tweets will be your key to immortality, think again.

The Library of Congress, which has collected every single public tweet published for the last dozen years, keeping billions upon billions of our instantaneous utterings, has hoisted the white flag.

As of New Year’s Day, it will acquire tweets only “on a very selective basis.”

The library will preserve its massive tweet trove but doesn’t know how or when it may allow public access.

People say nothing on the internet ever dies, but the quest for immortality in the digital age evidently will remain almost as elusive as it was for the first emperor of China more than 2000 years ago.   

Someday people may pore over tweets to learn about our culture – oh, no! -- the way crowds in Richmond ponder relics of ancient China at a spectacular exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

“Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China” provides a glimpse of one man’s attempt to cheat death. A richly illustrated exhibit catalog helps piece together the remarkable story, and I draw on the catalog’s details here.  

More than 200 years before the birth of Christ, Ying Zeng became the king of the Qin State at the age of 13 in 246 B.C. By 221 B.C., he had united the seven warring states and proclaimed himself emperor of all China, Qin Shi Huang. He claimed his dynasty would last 10,000 generations.

Even before he became China’s first emperor, though, he was obsessed with immortality. A history says Qin Shi Huang deployed 700,000 slave laborers for three decades to create a huge underground kingdom.

The subterranean kingdom stretched 38 square miles and included a palace, armory, entertainment areas, stables for horse-drawn chariots and large burial pits. 

Nearly 8,000 horses and warriors made of clay and vividly painted would protect him in the afterlife where he planned to continue his reign.

The first emperor invented centralized government, built highways and connected existing walls into what would become part of the Great Wall. He instituted a common currency, system of weights and measures and script for writing.

His tyrannical reign depended on strict laws; he had books burned and scholars killed.

Wielding such power, he must have thought finding a cure for death was in the realm of the possible.

His underground kingdom lay hidden until 1974 when farmers came across a terracotta head. The archaeological find was one of the most consequential of the 20th century. 

Archaeologists have excavated only about 20 percent of the underground world. Untouched is the emperor’s burial chamber, which history says was constructed to mimic the country’s landscape with flowing rivers of poisonous mercury.  

The emperor’s mausoleum site museum was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

The terracotta army exhibit in Richmond includes life-size clay figures of an armored general and several other military men, each individualized with a different face, hairstyle and uniform.  

Besides building his underground kingdom, the emperor also ordered search parties on long voyages to mythical destinations to find the elixir of life. Just-released 2,000-year-old correspondence on wooden slats shows provincials reported on promising herbs and minerals from local mountains.

Today our quest to cheat, or at least delay, death continues, although along more scientific lines.

People restrict calories in hopes of extending life. Some resort to cryogenic freezing after death in hopes their bodies will be revived later. Researchers explore promising enzymes and gene therapies.

Last spring, the National Academy of Medicine announced it was developing a Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity that will award at least $25 million for scientific advancements in extending healthy life.

Meanwhile, we can learn from Qin Shi Huang, whose dynasty didn’t last anything close to 10,000 generations and whose quest for eternal life probably killed him.

He reigned for 11 years and died at age 49, reportedly after taking mercury pills that were supposed to make him immortal. His dynasty ended less than four years after his death.  

The desire to live forever may be immortal, but the terracotta army exhibit in Richmond ends March 11. Tweet about it, if you like. Just don’t miss it.  

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Word of 2017? Bet you can't pick just one -- Dec. 21, 2017 column


It’s not easy to summarize a year in a single word, especially a year as tumultuous and polarized as this one.

Maybe that’s why lexicographers’ choices for the Word of the Year 2017 all have a political hue.

Collins Dictionary chose one of President Donald Trump’s favorites -- “fake news” -- as its word for 2017. Definition: “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news.”

Merriam-Webster picked “feminism.” You’d think everybody would know it means “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”

But when Merriam-Webster analyzed “lookups” of words online to gauge public interest, feminism was a top lookup of the year, first spiking after the Women’s March on Washington in January. As discussions of feminism evolved with the news, interest in the word kept spiking, the dictionary said. went for “complicit” after lookups surged following a Saturday Night Live parody commercial featuring Scarlett Johansson as a sultry Ivanka Trump. The fake ad was for “Complicit,” “the fragrance for the woman who could stop all this . . . but won’t.”

Lookups of complicit surged again after Trump said she didn’t know what it meant to be complicit.

The esteemed Oxford Dictionaries chose “youthquake,” a 1965 creation repurposed to reflect the significant influence of young voters in the UK’s snap election last June.

“It is a rare political word that sounds a hopeful note,” said Casper Grathwohl, president of the dictionaries of the Oxford University Press, although he acknowledged: “It’s true that it’s yet to land firmly on American soil but strong evidence in the UK calls it out as a word on the move.”    

Talking about words on the move, where’s covfefe when we need it?

Covfefe epitomized President Donald Trump and his tweet machine. It’s a made-up word he used in a truncated tweet a little after midnight on May 31: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe” 

The tweet was later deleted, but then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in an explanation worthy of the Alice in Wonderland School of Spin, told reporters, “The president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.”

Instead of trying to settle on one Word of the Year, perhaps we should think of 2017 as the Year of Words. Plural.

No president ever word-bombed the nation the way Trump does, instantly sharing his mood swings with the masses.  

Trump weaponized words, but he wasn’t the only one. North Korea President Kim Jong Un must have been thumbing through an old thesaurus when he called Trump “a mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” A dotard is someone who’s elderly and senile. 

The year began with Trump’s dystopian vision of America. Inaugural addresses typically play to the nation’s hopes and dreams; his stoked fears with words like  “carnage.”  

The new administration delivered “alternative facts,” White House aide Kellyanne Conway’s infelicitous phrase for Spicer’s lies about the size of the crowd at the inauguration.

The year is ending with the administration denying a Washington Post report that the Department of Health and Human Services had banned the Centers for Disease Control from using seven words in its 2019 budget request. The words are: diversity, 
entitlement, evidence-based, fetus, science-based, transgender and vulnerable.

HHS strenuously denied the prohibition, and CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald tweeted, “I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC.”

An analysis by Science Insider, though, found the words already had been used far less in CDC’s 2018 budget request earlier this year than in the three previous Obama CDC requests.

The New York Times subsequently reported it wasn’t a ban so much as a recommendation to avoid language that might slow or derail approval of the budget by Republicans. So it appears red-flag words were banned as a political strategy.   

A firestorm ensued, of course, as free speech still matters.

The American Dialect Society, a group of linguists and other academics, will vote for its Word of the Year Jan. 5.

It would be nice to think its word describing this rancorous year could be hopeful for the future.

But that’s unlikely. Its choice last year was more prophetic than anyone thought. Remember “dumpster fire”?

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Surprising elections make voters great again -- Dec. 13, 2017 column


The dramatic election of Democrat Doug Jones as a senator from Alabama was at once stunning and reassuring.

Stunning because it had been nearly 25 years since Alabama sent a Democrat to the Senate, and just last year Alabama embraced Donald Trump by nearly 30 points over Hillary Clinton.

Reassuring because it, along with last month’s Virginia election, showed our political system -- messy and rowdy as it is -- still works.

Trump’s winning the White House despite losing the popular vote last year led to lasting frustration and a sense of powerlessness among some Democrats. But in state and congressional races no Electoral College stands in the way of the popular will.

The message from voters in Alabama, Virginia and New Jersey this year was a resounding no to the benighted politics of the past.  

“Decency wins,” Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, tweeted Tuesday night, one several Republicans who praised Alabama voters. Flake, who is retiring, had tweeted a picture of his $100 contribution to the Jones campaign.
Jones had been the lead federal prosecutor in cases against two Ku Klux Klansmen in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Baptist Church in Birmingham, which took the lives of four black girls. Jones won convictions in both cases in 2001 and 2002.
For Democrats who hope to turn back the Trump tide in congressional elections next fall, the Alabama contest was consequential. It shaves the Republican majority in the Senate to 51 to 49.  

“This is a political earthquake,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, who heads Democrats’ 2018 Senate campaign effort. He cited as part of the earthquake the elections in Virginia and other states and localities.

Alabama answered the question whether black voters in the Deep South will turn out for a Democrat who is not Barack Obama. Yes, they can.

About 30 percent of Alabama voters Tuesday were black, and 96 percent of them voted for Jones, exit polls reported. That’s about the same share of the black vote President Obama received in 2012.

Solid-red Alabama suggests Democrats may be able to persuade more Southern whites to vote blue. Obama received just 15 percent of Alabama white vote in 2012; Jones got 30 percent.

And, perhaps more significant going forward, younger voters and suburbanites in Alabama decisively went for Jones.
 Trump remains personally popular in some quarters -- Alabama voters approved and disapproved of him equally -- but he exhibited no coattails. His tweet and robocall endorsements were words in the storm of words.
After his gubernatorial candidate lost in Virginia, Trump lost twice in Alabama. He’d backed Moore’s competitor in the GOP primary, then fully endorsed Moore near the end of the campaign and attacked Jones.
When Moore lost, Trump dodged blame, tweeting he’d been right all along that Moore couldn’t win a general election. The “deck was stacked against him,” Trump tweeted.
More accurately, Moore had stacked the deck against himself.
Long before The Washington Post’s reports of allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore roiled the campaign last month, Moore had a history of judicial defiance and racist and homophobic comments.
He denied all the sexual misconduct allegations, and fewer than one in 10 voters said they were the most important factor in their vote, according to exit polls.

The splintering of the GOP also played a role in Jones’s victory, but it’s doubtful another candidate anywhere could engender as much bipartisan animosity as Moore.

The last Democrat who successfully ran for the Senate in Alabama was Richard Shelby in 1986, who was reelected in 1992. Two years later, he switched parties and still represents Alabama. But Republican Shelby couldn’t stomach his party’s candidate and announced he’d written in someone else.

It’s too soon to declare Trump irrelevant or Trumpism dead, but neither has the ruddy glow of health at the moment.

Trump tweeted his congratulations to Jones election night and called him the day after. Hoping to find an ally, he invited Jones to the White House.

Jones has promised civility and to work with Republicans when possible.

“The people of Alabama expect me to do the right thing and vote for the people of Alabama,” said Jones in a news conference. He faces the voters again in 2020.
 ©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A blue tide in Alabama? Senate election a big `if' -- Dec. 7, 2017 column


The voters of Alabama have a chance to show Virginia wasn’t a fluke.

Last month, a Democratic wave carried Ralph Northam to victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race, washing out Republican Ed Gillespie, who had run a throw-back campaign.  

More significantly, Old Dominion voters showed the door to a passel of veteran Republican state legislators, threatening GOP control of the House of Delegates. Several delegate seats are still in doubt, pending recounts.

After the drubbing, President Donald Trump tweeted that Gillespie lost because he “did not embrace me or what I stand for,” even though Gillespie espoused Trump’s positions on immigration, Confederate monuments and other hot-button issues.

If Alabama voters reject Republican Roy Moore as their U.S. senator Tuesday, they’ll also be turning thumbs down on Trump, Moore’s protector in chief, and on the toxic politics of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist.

That’s a big “if.”

No Democrat has won a statewide race in Alabama since 2008, and Trump won 63 percent of the vote last year. Much depends on whether Democrats can turn out black and independent voters for Democrat Doug Jones.

If the tide runs blue in Alabama, Trump won’t be able to blame Moore for keeping him at arm’s length. Trump has gone all-in for Moore and vice versa.

“Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need . . . Moore to win in Alabama. We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more. No to Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet!” Trump tweeted Monday.

A grateful Moore tweeted he “can’t wait to help” Trump drain the swamp.

If Moore loses, Trump won’t be able to erase his own failure by deleting his favorable tweets about Moore the way he did after he backed Luther Strange, Moore’s opponent in the GOP primary, and Strange lost.

A Moore loss would confirm Time’s choice of “The Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year. The Silence Breakers is the magazine’s name for the many women who finally came forward this year to tell their stories of sexual harassment.

Among them was Leigh Corfman, who told The Washington Post that Moore touched her sexually when she was 14 and Moore was 32 and an assistant district attorney.

Nine women have come forward to describe inappropriate encounters with Roy Moore, including several who say he pursued them when they were teenagers. Moore has called the allegations `false’ and `malicious.’ `Specifically, I do not know any of these women nor have I ever engaged in sexual misconduct with any woman,’ he said in late November,” Time reported.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said if Moore is elected, he would “immediately have an issue with the Ethics Committee,” which could lead eventually to expulsion.

Sen. Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, said “the Senate should vote to expel him, because he does not meet the ethical and moral requirements of the United States Senate.”

Political expediency being what it is, though, such high-minded resolve could evaporate.

Consider what happened to Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, who had the guts to say Moore’s election would be “a stain on the GOP and the nation.”

“No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity,” Romney tweeted.

Romney’s moral stance should have earned him praise. Instead, Bannon, at a rally for Moore in Alabama, blasted Romney for failing to serve in the military and for his draft deferment for missionary work. Moore is a West Point graduate.

What Bannon failed to mention, of course, was Trump’s five draft deferments – four for education and a medical one for bone spurs in both his heels.

Voters in Alabama can tell the rest of the country they’re not buying cynical claptrap from the likes of Bannon and Trump.  

It may not happen. Late polls show Moore with a slight lead, and the race is rated a toss-up by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics.   

Still, a Democratic win in Alabama would show Virginia was not an outlier. It also would be a good omen for Democrats in next fall’s congressional elections.

Did I mention that’s a big “if”?

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.