Almost three years to the day after powerful Category 5 Hurricane Dorian ripped though the northwestern Bahamas, leaving billions of dollars in damage, the island nation welcomed Tuesday delegates from 17 Caribbean countries and international financing institutions to a two-day high-level summit to address the climate crisis. The historic meeting, hosted by the Bahamas at a resort in Nassau, comes ahead of the United Nations Climate Conference, more commonly referred to as COP 27, in November in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. The goal, said Prime Minister Philip Davis, who lauded the recent passage o...
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I almost feel sorry for Herschel Walker. He is so clearly unfit for the job of United States senator that it's uncomfortable to watch him flounder about, unable to coherently answer even the simplest questions or offer any reasons why he should be one of the most powerful people in government. He was a star athlete, forever to be revered by college football fans, and now he's just a pathetic tool of cynical politicians, particularly, of course, Donald Trump. Still, Walker willingly allowed himself to be used and that's on him.
Once again we see the shamelessness of the Republican Party and the rank hypocrisy of the conservative evangelical Christians who form its strongest base. They're sticking with Walker no matter what, with ludicrous excuses that wouldn't pass theological muster in a fourth-grade Sunday school class.
There was a time when conservative Christian morality was considered the backbone of American society and everyone in politics was obliged to genuflect to their leadership, regardless of party. This week, as the latest Walker scandal unfolded, I was reminded of the hysteria that engulfed American politics in the 1990s when right-wing Christians spent eight long years in a frenzy over the immoral, draft-dodging, womanizing, lying baby-boomer president, Bill Clinton. (They didn't much care for his feminazi wife either.) From the Christian right's point of view Bill and Hillary Clinton personified the sexual revolution, which they claimed was sending the country straight to hell.
Right-wing Christians spent eight years in a frenzy over the immoral, draft-dodging, womanizing, lying president. But not the one who immediately comes to mind.
Over and over again they bellowed that "character matters" and when the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit, offering proof of Clinton's perfidy, they went into overdrive. Televangelist Pat Robertson told 3,000 cheering members of the Christian Coalition, that Clinton had turned the White House into a "playpen for the sexual freedom of the poster child of the 1960s" and solemnly declared that "our national trust has been deeply wounded." Focus on the Family's James Dobson sent a letter to 2.4 million conservative Christians insisting that Clinton should be impeached because his behavior was setting a bad example for "the children" and bemoaning the lack of moral among the millions of Americans who saw through the right's hypocritical crusade.
Clinton, as we know, survived that impeachment but the power of the Christian right was actually strengthened. The conventional wisdom after George W. Bush's dubious Electoral College win in 2000 was that the Democrats had lost because Americans were disgusted by their general immorality. Abortion once again became the issue that illustrated that most clearly with middle-path Democrats dominating the conversation and wringing their hands over the supposed need to "reach out" to "pro-life" voters or face permanent political exile. Op-eds with headlines like "Why Pro-Choice Is a Bad Choice for Democrats" proliferated and voters had to endure endless discussions of the "God gap."
Cowed by this criticism, many Democrats labored to avoid any kind of confrontation over the issue. It came to a head during negotiations over the Affordable Care Act when "pro-life" Democrats, with the help of the same pearl-clutching pundits, carried the day. Abortion coverage was not required and the odious Hyde Amendment, banning abortion coverage under Medicaid, was not repealed. The conservative Christians still hated Obamacare, of course, but they had proved they still had clout.
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Then along came Donald Trump, the very personification of everything the Christian right had railed against for years. He was an inveterate philanderer who'd been married three times with one of his children even born out of wedlock. He bragged incessantly about his sexual exploits, lied compulsively about everything and literally ran gambling houses (including the nation's first casino strip club.) He cavorted with the likes of Hugh Hefner and appeared in a softcore porn movie. As we know, he has been credibly accused of sexually assaulting dozens of women and was caught on tape bragging about impulsively grabbing women's crotches and getting away with it.
And the Christian right couldn't possibly have loved him more. In fact, they were his most ardent supporters in 2016, and remain so today. All that talk about how leaders must exhibit personal morality was forgotten in favor of a ruthless pragmatism they make no effort to conceal. They just want to win by any means necessary and worship power for power's sake.
Herschel Walker's case illustrates this even better than Trump. In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which hit this midterm campaign like an 8.0 earthquake, Walker has been accused of paying for a woman's abortion while professing to support a ban on abortion with no exceptions. Politico reported that Walker's Christian supporters couldn't care less, quoting one pastor saying, "The dilemma is, do you wait for a candidate who is perfect? Or do you take what's given to you and make the choice between the options?"
I think we can safely say that Democrats no longer need to listen to the religious right's pompous braying about "character," or to lend them any credence on moral issues.
That's very pragmatic, which is fair enough. But I think we can safely say that Democrats no longer need to listen to the religious right's pompous braying about "character" and have absolutely no obligation to give them any credence when it comes to morals and values. They are political actors, doing what political actors do. And we know they're religious phonies too: Look at what happens to those who refuse to go along, like theologian Russell Moore, a former leading figure in the Southern Baptist Convention who quit rather than continue to support the moral rot at the heart of his organization, which includes a cult-like devotion to Donald Trump. The contrast couldn't be more obvious.
A new report from the Pew Research Center shows that the Christian majority in America is rapidly fading and may become a clear minority, perhaps as little as a third of the population, over the next 50 years or so. One big reason why that's happening is because many young people are leaving Christian denominations in large numbers in favor of no religion at all, with no guarantee that they'll switch back as they get older. It's impossible not to conclude that the rank hypocrisy of the Christian right, which has been granted such a prominent role in religious and moral leadership for the past 40 years, is repulsive to people who actually have principles and ideals. If that collapse comes to pass, it's almost certainly a good thing for America — and the Christian right only has itself to blame for sowing the seeds of its own demise.
The former leader of the Oath Keepers militia and his four associates went on trial for seditious conspiracy this week. The defendants are accused of conspiring to prevent the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, a plan which included, but was not limited to, the siege of the US Capitol on January 6.
Stewart Rhodes and his minions are the first J6 defendants to be tried under this rarely-used Civil War-era statute. The government’s track record of convicting far-right defendants of seditious conspiracy is weak, but the facts of the Oath Keeper affair make for an unusually strong case.
The last people to be convicted of seditious conspiracy were Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and nine of his followers, who were found guilty in 1995 of scheming to blow up the United Nations and various New York City landmarks in a bid to turn American public opinion against Israel. A large group of Puerto Rican separatists was convicted of seditious conspiracy for storming the US Capitol and shooting five members of Congress in 1954.
The federal government has struggled, however, to make seditious conspiracy charges stick against rightwing extremists.
In 1939, 17 followers of the fascist broadcaster priest Charles Edward Coughlin were acquitted of plotting to overthrow the United States in order to purge the country of Jews and Marxists.
In 1988 an all-white jury in Arkansas acquitted a group of high-profile white supremacists accused of plotting to murder a federal judge and an FBI agent in what came to be known as the Fort Smith Sedition Trial.
In 2012, several members of the far-right Hutaree Militia were acquitted of plotting to murder a police officer in order to provoke a showdown with the federal government. The Hutaree case was very weak and deserved to fail, but you could also be forgiven for thinking that American juries are a lot more sympathetic to white extremists.
Perhaps the state’s biggest asset in the seditious conspiracy case against Stewart Rhodes is the fact that three other Oath Keepers have already pleaded guilty to the same charge.
Brian Ulrich, Joshua James and William Todd Wilson have already signed plea deals admitting that they conspired with Rhodes to forcefully impede the transfer of power by disrupting the certification of the election on January 6 as part of a plot that extended all the way to the inauguration.
That means they can testify to the inner workings of the plot. For Rhodes to go down, the government only needs to prove that he entered into that agreement with one other person who wasn’t a government agent.
The defense will do their best to attack the credibility of the three turncoats, painting them as opportunists who lied to save their own skin. And let’s be real, they’re Oath Keepers. It would be surprising if they weren’t a little opportunistic.
But all it takes is for a jury to believe one of them. And the jury doesn’t have to take their word alone. The Oath Keepers left behind mountains of evidence. For all their pretensions of tactical sophistication, the Oath Keepers were remarkably sloppy.
Rhodes also pledged to fight a bloody civil war if Trump didn’t invoke the Insurrection Act to keep himself in power. He didn’t talk about resisting the US government by force. He put it in writing, publishing “calls to arms” on the Oath Keepers’ website, and discussing his plans on right-wing radio.
The defense will say that this is just all-American, First Amendment protected expression. And by itself, it would be. It’s not a crime to argue for revolution in the abstract. It only crosses a legal line if it leads to imminent lawless action. Like, say, attracting dozens of armed followers to Washington, stashing an arsenal of automatic weapons in local hotel rooms and forcibly disrupting a joint session of Congress.
The Oath Keepers were secretive, relying on burner phones, face-to-face meetings, false identities and other subterfuge to keep their plan secret. So the state needs witnesses to fill in some of the details. However, much of the scheming was conducted over Signal chats that are now in the hands of the government.
The Oath Keepers were both secretive and sloppy. Rhodes was caught on tape warning his followers against loose talk that could get them popped for conspiracy. Nevertheless, his co-defendants were constantly posting incriminating updates to Facebook.
On January 6, one of the Oath Keepers’ lawyers scolded Rhodes on Signal: “STEWART: YOU ALL NEED TO DELETE ANY OF YOUR COMMENTS REGARDING WHO DID WHAT. [...] So GET BUSY. DELETE your self-incriminating comments or those that can incriminate others.”
The case against the Oath Keepers is also stronger than most seditious conspiracy cases because they actually tried to keep Trump in office by force. Oath Keepers in full battle rattle formed two infantry-style stacks and breached the building. We all saw it on television.
Historically, seditious conspiracy has been a kind of consolation prize for the government when they caught someone before they managed to do anything bad. In that case, a jury is always going to wonder if they were ever going to follow through, or whether the whole thing was so much loose talk, or even whether the whole case was manufactured by undercover agents egging on vulnerable people.
In the case in question, we know the Oath Keepers followed through.
One of the turncoats, Joshua James, swore in his plea deal that he accompanied Rhodes on the run after J6 and saw him buy and distribute thousands of dollars worth of weapons that he intended to use to stop the transfer of power. James also claims that on Jan 20, Rhodes gave him an AR15-style rifle and said he would “not be taken by law enforcement without a fight.”
This is a test of whether the 19th century statute still has teeth and, moreover, whether a jury is willing to apply it to white insurrectionists.
Astronomers now routinely discover planets orbiting stars outside of the solar system – they’re called exoplanets. But in summer 2022, teams working on NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite found a few particularly interesting planets orbiting in the habitable zones of their parent stars.
One planet is 30% larger than Earth and orbits its star in less than three days. The other is 70% larger than the Earth and might host a deep ocean. These two exoplanets are super-Earths – more massive than the Earth but smaller than ice giants like Uranus and Neptune.
Earth is still the only place in the universe scientists know to be home to life. It would seem logical to focus the search for life on Earth clones – planets with properties close to Earth’s. But research has shown that the best chance astronomers have of finding life on another planet is likely to be on a super-Earth similar to the ones found recently.
Common and easy to find
Most super-Earths orbit cool dwarf stars, which are lower in mass and live much longer than the Sun. There are hundreds of cool dwarf stars for every star like the Sun, and scientists have found super-Earths orbiting 40% of cool dwarfs they have looked at. Using that number, astronomers estimate that there are tens of billions of super-Earths in habitable zones where liquid water can exist in the Milky Way alone. Since all life on Earth uses water, water is thought to be critical for habitability.
Based on current projections, about a third of all exoplanets are super-Earths, making them the most common type of exoplanet in the Milky Way. The nearest is only six light-years away from Earth. You might even say that our solar system is unusual since it does not have a planet with a mass between that of Earth and Neptune.
Another reason super-Earths are ideal targets in the search for life is that they’re much easier to detect and study than Earth-sized planets. There are two methods astronomers use to detect exoplanets. One looks for the gravitational effect of a planet on its parent star and the other looks for brief dimming of a star’s light as the planet passes in front of it. Both of these detection methods are easier with a bigger planet.
Super-Earths are super habitable
Over 300 years ago, German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz argued that Earth was the “best of all possible worlds.” Leibniz’s argument was meant to address the question of why evil exists, but modern astrobiologists have explored a similar question by asking what makes a planet hospitable to life. It turns out that Earth is not the best of all possible worlds.
Due to Earth’s tectonic activity and changes in the brightness of the Sun, the climate has veered over time from ocean-boiling hot to planetwide, deep-freeze cold. Earth has been uninhabitable for humans and other larger creatures for most of its 4.5-billion-year history. Simulations suggest the long-term habitability of Earth was not inevitable, but was a matter of chance. Humans are literally lucky to be alive.
Researchers have come up with a list of the attributes that make a planet very conducive to life. Larger planets are more likely to be geologically active, a feature that scientists think would promote biological evolution. So the most habitable planet would have roughly twice the mass of the Earth and be between 20% and 30% larger by volume. It would also have oceans that are shallow enough for light to stimulate life all the way to the seafloor and an average temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius). It would have an atmosphere thicker than the Earth’s that would act as an insulating blanket. Finally, such a planet would orbit a star older than the Sun to give life longer to develop, and it would have a strong magnetic field that protects against cosmic radiation. Scientists think that these attributes combined will make a planet super habitable.
By definition, super-Earths have many of the attributes of a super habitable planet. To date, astronomers have discovered two dozen super-Earth exoplanets that are, if not the best of all possible worlds, theoretically more habitable than Earth.
Recently, there’s been an exciting addition to the inventory of habitable planets. Astronomers have started discovering exoplanets that have been ejected from their star systems, and there could be billions of them roaming the Milky Way. If a super-Earth is ejected from its star system and has a dense atmosphere and watery surface, it could sustain life for tens of billions of years, far longer than life on Earth could persist before the Sun dies.
Detecting life on super-Earths
To detect life on distant exoplanets, astronomers will look for biosignatures, byproducts of biology that are detectable in a planet’s atmosphere.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was designed before astronomers had discovered exoplanets, so the telescope is not optimized for exoplanet research. But it is able to do some of this science and is scheduled to target two potentially habitable super-Earths in its first year of operations. Another set of super-Earths with massive oceans discovered in the past few years, as well as the planets discovered this summer, are also compelling targets for James Webb.
But the best chances for finding signs of life in exoplanet atmospheres will come with the next generation of giant, ground-based telescopes: the 39-meter Extremely Large Telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope and the 25.4-meter Giant Magellan Telescope. These telescopes are all under construction and set to start collecting data by the end of the decade.
Astronomers know that the ingredients for life are out there, but habitable does not mean inhabited. Until researchers find evidence of life elsewhere, it’s possible that life on Earth was a unique accident. While there are many reasons why a habitable world would not have signs of life, if, over the coming years, astronomers look at these super habitable super-Earths and find nothing, humanity may be forced to conclude that the universe is a lonely place.
Editor’s Note: The story has been updated to correct the size of the Giant Magellan Telescope.