The Casual Blog

A modest proposal for reining in the plutocracy: the decency test

Osprey this week at Lake Jordan

These last few months of the Covid-19 pandemic have been a crucible of sorts.  We’ve all been tested in various ways, and learned a few things.  If we didn’t know already, we’ve learned that our President has no idea what he’s doing, or even the idea that he should be doing something.  Instead, faced with a serious problem, he looks for a scapegoat to blame (China . . . the World Health Organization . . . Obama).  He still thinks like a reality TV huckster, uninterested in anything except getting as much attention as possible.   

He is what he is, and with any luck we’ll soon vote him out and our heads will stop spinning from his crazy rants.  But we’ll still have the question, how did this happen?   How did we elect as President the rottenest person ever?  The common wisdom these days tends to focus on the unholy alliance of right wing evangelicals and economically frustrated blue collar workers, with both groups fearful of social change and angry at diminishing opportunities.

But there’s clearly another important element that hasn’t been examined as much:  super rich Republicans.  In a recent piece in The New Yorker,  Evan Osnos attempted to uncover why Republicans in the richest part of Connecticut decided to support Trump.  He focused on Greenwich, CT, the epicenter of homes of the hedge fund moguls and other Wall Street financial types who make annual sums that stagger the mind, reaching the hundreds of millions of dollars.  

It comes as no surprise that these people are mostly Republicans, but their value system as recently as a generation ago had an element of modesty, charity, and noblesse oblige.  Osnos’s investigation indicated that their support for Trump went hand-in-hand with a loss of those values.  

Eaglets this week at Shelley Lake

To the extent there’s a theory underlying the Trumpism of the super rich, it appears to be an extreme libertarianism in which the only unit of measure is the individual, and the only value is wealth accumulation.  They think there’s no such thing as the public interest, and greed is, for them, good.  The public issue of primary concern to them is lowering their own taxes — that is, keeping as much as possible for themselves and contributing as little as possible to the public good. 

I am not without sympathy for the super rich.  A few of them are not Republicans and did not support Trump.  A few of them are intelligent, thoughtful, and funny.  And they all have some problems (divorce, cancer, having teenagers) that are as miserable for them as for the rest of us. But it’s a huge mistake to think that the super rich are somehow deserving of their advantages.  

We’ve been deeply conditioned to think that being wealthy is a good indicator of attributes like intelligence and hard work.  But it’s not true.  Most intelligent, hard-working people never get rich.  The truth is, getting rich is mostly a matter of luck.  If you’ve made it, chances are you hit your first jack pot the day you were born by having the right parents, who had  excellent genes to bequeath and fine positions in the existing pecking order.  

You probably kept on your lucky streak with good schools, good summer camps, and top-drawer undergraduate and graduate schools.  You may have worked hard, and it may have felt like your accomplishments were simply the result of all your own hard work. But you had a lot of people helping, showing you what was required — what to work on, how long, and how hard.  Also, you may not even have noticed, but there were a lot of not very prosperous people all around you making sure you were well fed, clothed, housed, and otherwise prepped for success.  

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

Of course, it helps to be in the right place at the right time, like starting a Wall Street career just as regulatory oversight of financial institutions was geared way down.  There are many different kinds of luck that combine for mega wealth.  Though it should be noted, as Osnos does, that insider trading and fraud also helped in building some of the most fabulous fortunes.     

But even if being wealthy were a good indicator of inherent superiority, rather than mostly luck, there would still be good reasons to call out the super rich Trump supporters.  Their value system is deplorable — self-centered, like those of a young child in Kohlberg’s system.  Their orientation is exclusively on their own advantage; other people don’t matter.  This is unfortunate for them, of course, since they miss out on a lot of what’s really beautiful and rewarding in life.  But once they decide to take a role in public affairs, it’s a problem for all of us.  

As the Koch brothers and their rich buddies have proven, it’s surprisingly easy, if you have unlimited funds, to spread disinformation and buy influence.  With personal wealth as a primary value, they change the laws so they can more easily make and keep more money.  They get other laws that minimize the chance of any progressive change in public policy.  For example, they pay for and get lower taxes, deregulation, sycophantic judges, and gerrymandered elections.  

As the super rich contribute less and less in taxes, public infrastructure and institutions, like roads, bridges, and schools, are defunded and fall into disrepair.  Crumbling infrastructure is actually helpful, since it provides them with another argument “proving” government is ineffective.  Interestingly, according to Osnos, Connecticut, with so many super rich citizens, has some of the worst roads in the country.  Perhaps that’s not a problem, if you’ve got a helicopter, a yacht, and a jet.  Meanwhile, they make sure nothing gets done to address the worsening existential disaster of a planet getting steadily hotter.

The extreme inequality in American society is disturbing, but it wouldn’t be as frightening if the super rich had a different value system.  It’s possible to imagine super rich people using their wealth not just to seek further comforts and advantages for themselves, but also to address the needs of other humans less fortunate and a planet in dire peril.  Before the Reagan years, that was the norm, and it could be again.  Or else we could proceed along our current path towards a Hobbesian war of all against all,  The Hunger Games, and Blade Runner 2049.   

So how do we stop the bleeding?  Elizabeth Warren’s idea of a wealth tax made a lot of sense, but I have a simpler and more fun idea:  a decency test.  Every head of household making more than three hundred times the median annual salary (that’s around $10,000,000 a year) would need to give non-reprehensible answers to five simple questions.  First, we give a little shot of truth serum.  The time allowed for the test is 2 minutes.  You may start now.

Using a number 2 pencil, please answer each of the following questions by choosing just one of the four possible responses.

  1.  I believe the most important policy objective for our government is to:

a.  Implement a fair system of public health.

b.  Assure a quality education for all children.

c.  Protect public safety and stop useless wars.

d.  Cut my taxes.

  1. My greatest objection to our current public policy is:

a. Not enough is being done to reduce infant mortality.

b.  There’s no system to assure adequate basic nutrition.

c. We don’t have reliable public transportation.

d.  There have not been enough cuts to my taxes.

  1. The moral quality that best describes the way I relate to other people is:

a.  Honesty.

b.  Reasonableness.

c.  Kindness and compassion.

d.  Greed and indifference. 

  1. If I could have just one wish to improve the world, it would be to:

a.  Eliminate the risk of nuclear war.

b.  Stop global warming.

c.  Eliminate racial prejudice and work to correct the harm it has caused.

d.  Eliminate all taxes.

     5.  Other than lowering taxes, my chief hope for making this country a better place for all is that we:

a.  Consider the welfare of those less fortunate.

b.  End the unequal treatment of women.

c.  Improve the fairness of our justice system.

d.  This question makes no sense. 

If you answered d to questions 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5, you are going to Hell.  Just kidding!  But you will have to pay a special tax of 95% of all your accumulated wealth, with new yearly assessments until you pass the decency test.  These funds will be used for improved health care, better schools, more reliable public transportation, green energy, and other desperately needed public initiatives.  We hope you see the light, but if not, we won’t feel too bad, since we’ll see your money doing good things.  Good luck!  

Ways of looking at fishing birds, The End of Nature, Fellow Creatures, and the appeal of slavery denialism

Osprey at Jordan Lake preparing to dive

Again this week I spent some time at Jordan Lake looking at the water, trees, and birds.  The birds weren’t as numerous this week, but I saw ospreys and great blue herons catch a number of fish.  Even watching the inherent violence of animals eating other animals, there is something peaceful.  They’re doing what nature designed them to do, as they’ve always done.  

 

I got my first relatively high end photo printer this week.  Hunt’s photo supply offered a big discount on a Canon Pixma Pro 10, and with the pandemic lock down still in force, I decided to experiment with some home printing.  It was not a smooth take off.  After putting some parts together, I ran into software problems, and ended up spending the better part of an hour on the phone with the Canon customer support guy.  There is definitely a learning curve to making good prints, but after watching a few instructional videos, I managed to make a couple that I thought were promising.  

As I worked on my prints, it occurred to me that there are a lot of levels of nature photography, and different ways of looking at the pictures.  A photograph can pull us closer to a moment of reality, but it can also do the opposite.  When I see a picture of a bird catching a fish, I might just think, that’s a picture of a bird catching a fish, and not think much else.  That is, I might mistakenly think the photo fully contains the event, and for that reason not even bother to look carefully at what can be seen of the event.  I could be thinking, I could always look at it later, and never do it.   

Great blue heron and fish

On the other hand, I might decide to look harder, and consider the species of bird, the species of fish, their ages, the location, the weather conditions, and other particulars of the moment.  At the same time, I might get some sense of the existential terror of a particular fish and the ecstasy of a particular bird.  I sometimes notice how certain birds can look beautiful and repulsive at the same time, the last remaining dinosaurs.    

Speaking of extinction events, I’ve been reading The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben.  The book was published in 1989, as the possibility of massive environmental destruction from manmade climate change was coming into focus, so it is dated.  But the basic science hasn’t changed, and a lot of his account is dead on target.  As with his recent book, Falter, he has a gift for putting these difficult issues in perspective, which makes it possible to think productively about them.

I’ve also been re-reading Fellow Creatures, Our Obligation to Other Animals, by Kristine Korsgaard.  Korsgaard, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, makes the case that we are not justified in treating non-human animals as objects to be exploited, and that they are entitled to respect.

Her argument is built on her extension of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which I find difficult.  I suspect that if I fully understood Kant, I would not be a Kantian, though it’s doubtful I’ll ever know for sure.  Still, struggling with his theory of morality seems like good exercise — brain calisthenics.  And Korsgaard is surely doing something worthwhile in investigating our relationship to non-human animals and whether any system of morality can exclude them.  

I was happy to see that Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for her remarkable work on the 1619 Project. Her original introductory article is here.   As I’ve noted previously, the series published in the New York Times along with a podcast   proposed new ways of thinking about the role of slavery and white supremacy in forming America.

It was surprising that George Will used his column  to attack and distort the message of the 1619 Project.  Will is a very intelligent person, and his column is a reminder of how being intelligent does not at all inoculate people against such mental tendencies as denial and bias.  

That is, one can be both smart and prone to denial and delusion, including denial that slavery was an essential, formative element in American democracy.  Will’s attack on the 1619 Project does not, of course, mean he is himself a racist.  But it is a reminder of how deeply white supremacy is woven into our culture, and how uncomfortable it is to look straight at the racism of our past and present.   Will’s anger at the challenge to some of our founding myths is understandable, but his obfuscation is a regrettable service to white supremacy.  

Missing Florida, processing some photos, and picturing hell

Osprey at Jordan Lake

I’d planned to be in Florida this past week photographing the big birds there, like egrets, wood storks, and roseate spoonbills.  With the coronavirus pandemic still in full force, that wasn’t possible, but I did get to spend some time at our area parks, including Shelley Lake and Jordan Lake.   It was good to be outside with our local birds.

Although I didn’t capture any images that were singular, I was happy to practice getting better exposures.   I also enjoyed experimenting with the raw images in Lightroom, Photoshop, and other apps, with a view to improving my processing skills.  Here are some of the results using bird shots I took this week, as well experiments with Sally’s orchids.  The white one lost its flowers a few days after the last shot of it.  Hope it will come back next year.  

These days there’s a lot of background fear and worry, and no simple solution to all our ills.  But I’m finding it helpful to spend some time focusing on moments of beauty and peace, and also spending more time meditating.  I discovered some good new (to me) resources on YouTube, including some guided meditations by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield.  I don’t think I’m anywhere near nirvana, but I’m happier and more peaceful.  

Tufted titmouse at Shelley Lake

I used to worry about the possibility of going to hell.  In the religious tradition I grew up in, hell was a real place, ruled by Satan, where sinners were sent after death to be tortured forever.  I eventually came to think that the likelihood of there being such a place was close to zero, and that worrying about it was a waste of time.  But it’s interesting that the concept of hell has had such a long life, and continues to terrify people today.  

I learned more about hell in an interview with Bart Ehrman on Fresh Air a few weeks ago, and just finished his new book, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.  Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at University of North Carolina, contends that the notions held by most Christians of the afterlife are not found in the Bible.  Rather they were made up by various early Christian writers to support religious theories and emotional needs.

It’s good to know that the horrifying idea that God set up a massive system for never ending torture is not universal, and is actually a relatively recent (around 1,800-year-old) invention.  Christian ideas of hell have varied with respect to the brutality and intensity of the torture, including some with extremes of sadism.  But even the milder versions are peculiar.  Our experience is that we get accustomed to almost any pain or misery, and nothing lasts forever.  The oddity, and impossibility, of unending, unstoppable agony does not seem to have struck many people.  

In the interview on Fresh Air, Ehrman mentioned that he was confident that hell did not exist.  He seemed to think people suffered unnecessarily because of the concept, and that they’d be happier without it.  I think that, too.

On the other hand, I’ve been re-reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book on the meat industry, Eating Animals, which depicts a truly hellish reality.  Every year, billions of sentient creatures — cows, pigs, chickens, and others — are brought into existence by humans who treat them with unspeakable cruelty.  Humans inflict suffering on these animals on a scale that truly defies comprehension.  Then they kill them and eat them.

The horror of the meat industry is most apparent in its cruelty to billions of individual animals, but it also produces a lot of suffering less directly.  It is one of the largest contributors of the greenhouse gases that account for global warming. It introduces steroids, antibiotics, bacteria, and viruses into the human food chain that account for a lot of sickness and death.  

The meat industry is also a place of misery for the workers who kill and cut up the animals.  Slaughter houses are some of the most dangerous workplaces in America.  Many of the workers are immigrants who are too desperate and powerless to demand safe conditions and reasonable pay.

It was therefore not a huge surprise that there have been serious Covid-19 outbreaks in industrial meat operations.  But the reaction of President Trump was surprising, and even for him, perverse.  He issued a declaration that the meat industry was essential infrastructure under the Defense Production Act and must therefore remain open.  He didn’t say how this was to be accomplished if the workers in large numbers got sick and died.   

So is the meat industry, with its enormous profits based on cruelty and lies, essential?  It’s hard to see how that could possibly be.  We can certainly survive without meat, and hundreds of millions of people do so every day.  In fact, eating a healthy plant-based diet is a lot better for the human body.  I’ve been doing it for twenty-some years, and I’m here to tell you, it’s been good.  

Perhaps, along with a lot of death, Covid-19 will cause more people willingly or unwilling to eat less meat and more plants.  Once we factor in all the health gains from less meat-related disease and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, we might have a net gain in the survival rate.  There could be a win-win — less animal cruelty, less human suffering, and more health and  happiness. 

Happy 50th Earth Day, and calling out the plutocrats

Great blue herons at Jordan Lake

I went out to Jordan Lake a couple of mornings last week, including on Wednesday, which was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day.  I managed to get my photography gear down the loose rocks to the river side, set up the tripod, tested exposures, and waited to see what would happen.  I enjoyed watching the birds, and especially the ospreys and the great blue herons. 

The GBHs are really good at catching fish!  It happens so fast that you can barely even see the catch.  Looking at the pictures afterward, I felt sad for the unfortunate fish, but still happy for the birds.  They aren’t cruel; they fish out of necessity.    

On the drive, I listened to more of the Scene on Radio podcast,   which I’ve found very thought-provoking.  The producers and scholars discussed libertarian ideas, including the notion that all government is bad and individual wealth is the highest good, and explored how those ideas relate to race and politics.  

As the podcast noted, what drives the hard-right plutocrats is not just pure greed, but also a kind of twisted idealism.  They believe that the individual is supremely important, and individual success is the highest good.  There is no point to social organizations or communities other than as a platform for high achievers.  Wealth is a sign of virtue, and poverty a sign of vice.  Greed is good, and only the wealthy matter.   

Osprey with fish

These people generally admire the work of Ayn Rand, a third-rate writer and pseudo philosopher whose awkward and sad novels idealize grotesquely rugged individuals.  Admiring Rand is more than a sign of poor literary taste; it indicates moral immaturity.  In the Randian libertarian view, it is not just understandable, but desirable, to cultivate indifference to the welfare of others.  The poor are by definition unworthy, and deserve whatever misfortune strikes them.

Preventing minorities from voting is an important political objective for the libertarian right.  The plutocratic leadership  expects to always be a minority working to benefit itself, and so an actual democracy where everyone is allowed and encouraged to vote would not work for them.  

If there were a level playing field and an informed electorate, the majority would never vote for such a system, since it doesn’t serve the best interests of most people.  But of course, we do not have those things.  Instead, we have massively-funded disinformation campaigns, gerrymandered electoral districts, and laws discouraging the non-rich from voting.  And if that is not sufficient, they cheat.  This could all be viewed as wrong, but they view it as well justified, since they believe (or at least some part of them believes) that all that matters is their own welfare and success.  

It is hard to believe how pervasive these libertarian, anti-government ideas have become, especially given how much they conflict with traditional American norms of fairness, equality, and representative democracy.   This helps explain why we in the US lack some of the basic attributes of advanced democracies in Europe, such as a health care system that works for people other than the rich and safety net programs for ordinary people.  Such programs would involve government action.  And in this extreme libertarian view, government action is always bad.  The same for taxes.

This is one of the rays of hope of the coronavirus pandemic:  it exposes the narrowness and moral degeneracy of these ideas.  It could hardly be more obvious that government action is needed to address the pandemic, and it seems crazy to argue otherwise.  To be sure, some still do.  Some are so in love with their ideas, or desperate for income and food, that they have been marching in protest against business closures, at the risk of their lives.  But others are not so fanatical, and are moderating their views to accommodate reality, and survive.    

Perhaps we’ll emerge from this crisis with a more realistic view of the importance of government, and more compassion for those less fortunate.  We might rediscover the significance of the natural world, and cultivate more appreciation for animals other than humans and the fascinating interrelationships of living things.  If we can get started down that road, there’s still hope that we won’ t ravage the planet completely  before Earth Day 100.        

 

Big birds, pandemic masks, non-dairy cheese, factory farms, and the war on climate change

Bald eagle at Shelley Lake

I managed to get up early three mornings this week to spend some time with the birds of our area, including these bald eagles, great blue herons, and ospreys.  The birds weren’t doing anything special — just living their lives. But it was especially heartening in this perilous time to get their orientation — intense, with all the senses open, and prepared for the next opportunity.

This week Sally got me a coronavirus mask that had been sewn by the tailor at our dry cleaners.  It’s green and looks, well, strange. I’m starting to wonder whether we’ll be getting used to not seeing much of each other’s faces.  

As the pandemic and the stay-at-home order continue, we’re trying to make the best of things.  One good thing is finding time and energy to try new projects. This week I finally got around to one I’d been meaning to do for a while:   making non-dairy cheese.  

I’ve known for some time that dairy products involve heart-breaking cruelty to cows.  Like other mammals, mother cows feel intense attachment to their young. The reason they make milk is to feed their babies.  Factory dairy farms get them to make more milk by a cycle of artificial impregnation and stealing their calves immediately after birth. 

The mothers cry out for their missing calves and grieve. Confined in small spaces, they are fed unhealthy diets that often include hormones and steroids.  Their natural life span is around 20 years, but on factory farms they are too exhausted, sick, or injured to keep going after 5 years. So they are killed to make hamburgers.     

Great blue heron in early morning fog at Jordan Lake

 

Some time back, Sally and I started finding good plant-based substitutes for milk — soy, cashew, almonds, oats.  Quitting ice cream was challenging, for obvious reasons, but we’ve recently discovered some delicious non-dairy substitutes — Ben & Jerry’s, So Delicious, and Nada Moo.   But it’s been hard to give up the deliciousness of cheese. We’ve had good plant-based cheese substitutes in restaurants, but haven’t seen them in our grocery stores. If you’re looking for a business opportunity, there’s a business idea, which you’re welcome to steal.

In the meantime, I tried a friend’s recipe for non-dairy brie, the main ingredient of which was cashews.  It took some work, and I nearly burned out the blender motor, but the result was pretty good. I used fresh herbs — rosemary, sage, and chives.  It tasted a lot like brie, but the consistency was more like a dip. I may have done too much blending. Anyhow, I’m planning to give it another shot soon.    

I just finished reading Jonathan Saffron Foer’s recent book, We Are the Weather:  Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. It’s a book about the relationship of factory farming to climate change and to us.   Foer reviews the facts, including the fact that animal farms are a major contributor to global warming. He thinks that we need to take whatever action we can as individuals to combat the developing catastrophe of climate change.  Recognizing how deeply habituated we are to eating meat, he proposes that if we can’t quit entirely, we try eating it only at dinner.

Foer is a fine writer, and I was heartened by his good sense and good-heartedness.  But I agreed in part with Mark Bittman, the NY Times reviewer, who said that hoping to save the planet by giving people good reasons to change their habits is probably not going to work.     Old habits die hard, especially when they’re constantly reinforced by the advertising of agribusiness fighting for its accustomed profits.  

Bittman recommended a piece by Bill McKibben that was in the New Republic in 2016 titled  A World at War — We’re Under Attack from Climate Change, and Our Only Hope Is to Mobilize Like We Did in WWII 

 The war metaphor is not a new one, but it is still apt.  McKibben points out that if Hitler had been wreaking havoc on our cities with firestorms, hurricanes, droughts, and floods, we would have seen the necessity of mobilizing to fight back.  As McKibben recounts, in WWII the US mobilized in just weeks and months to make bombers, ships, tanks, and other weapons under the direction of the federal government. He argues that we’re going to need that sort of leadership to head off complete disaster.  

Osprey at Jordan Lake

One benefit of the pandemic is that it is helping us get a new understanding of what a real crisis is, and how we can’t just do nothing.  That may help us understand the need for government leadership on climate change. The idea that markets alone will solve our current problems is not going to work, and the political leadership now in place is not going to work.  

The TImes reported this week on new research on the threat of climate change to animals.  The scientists found that the risk of mass extinction is much closer than previously thought, with thousands of species at risk beginning in the next decade.  The study emphasized that this is not inevitable, if we take dramatic action soon.  

At the same time, the pandemic has brought into focus the precarious situation of working people.  With businesses shut down, no jobs, and no savings, having food and housing is no longer a given. Pending getting new leaders and a compassionate safety-net system, we’ve been trying to do some extra giving for food and other necessities.  

The latest:  Sally discovered the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is raising money for domestic workers who have no other resources.  It’s a great time to help workers whose job is helping others and who can’t work from home.  

Wildflowers, back problems, conspiracy theories, and hope

Wild geraniums at Swift Creek Bluffs in Cary

There were a lot of wildflowers in bloom this week.  One morning I went to Swift Creek Bluffs and took some pictures.  For these, I got down in the dirt, trying to stay clear of poison ivy, ticks, and snakes.  At times a light breeze was blowing, moving the flowers slightly, and I waited for a while for the wind to pause.  It took some work, but it was also cheering to be close to the wild geraniums and lilies. Especially in this difficult time, I found these images soothing, and I hope they are for you as well.  

The next day, I somehow managed to pull a muscle in my back.  I think it was when I was practicing juggling with my three bean bags.  Juggling can look frantic, but for me it’s usually calming. But I probably should have done a little stretching before working on under-the-leg throws.  There was no sudden violent pain, but over the next several hours it got harder and harder to move.  

Atamasco lilies

So I’m struggling physically.  But otherwise, things are OK. Actually, I’m feeling surprisingly cheerful and energetic.  It’s been a great time to try new photographic processes (both with the camera and with software).  I’ve learned a lot about Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz, and Nik applications from knowledgeable and generous people who’ve put up instructional videos on YouTube.  

I’ve also been trying new musical experiments on the piano, including working on some Liszt flourishes and the blues.  I cooked a crock pot full of Jocelyn’s famous vegetarian chili. I’ve made progress on my German and Italian with Rosetta Stone lessons.  My sketching is improving. And I’m getting better at juggling, though that is on hold for the moment.     

We were starting to get a bit worried about running out of toilet paper.  Anxiety and panic buying is understandable, but still, it’s odd, and kind of disturbing, that people are hoarding TP.  Fortunately, our neighborhood pharmacy/convenience store on Glenwood Avenue got a shipment just in time.  

The tenuousness of our relationship with reality is also in view with some bizarre new conspiracy theories.  Max Boot in the NY Times  wrote a piece describing some of these.  Some are self evident nonsense, like the idea that cellphone networks cause the virus, or that the pandemic was engineered by Bill Gates on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry.  Some are not absurd, but are unsupported and unlikely, like the idea that the virus is a bioweapon from China, or else the United States.  

Why do people gravitate to conspiracies?  According to Boot’s sources, people are especially likely to latch onto conspiracy ideas when they are feeling overwhelmed, confused and helpless.  By providing explanations, the conspiracy theories provide a degree of comfort, giving people a sense of power and control. The more bizarre theories may give a greater sense of agency, in that the believer has secret and therefore especially valuable knowledge.  Sharing such theories provides a tenuous sense of community and significance. 

Whatever psychological needs such ideas satisfy, there are major downsides.  They lead some people to disregard the recommendations of the most knowledgeable experts, and, say, refuse to adopt social distancing.  People have attacked cell phone towers and relied on unsafe cures.  

There is also a dangerous feedback loop.  As people get more accustomed to disregarding experts that oppose their conspiracy ideas, they’re more prone to adopt more conspiracies and disregard more actual experts.

Jack Krugman, Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, had an interesting column recently related to this problem.  He pointed out that trickle down economics and climate change denialism both rely for their survival on disregarding informed scientists and experts.  The habit of disdain for science and expertise seems to have carried over to the pandemic.  

Krugman also noted that for those who think all government should be done away with, it’s a particularly difficult time.  For the less ideologically committed, it seems obvious that pure market forces aren’t going to get the job done in this pandemic, and we need effective government.  Right wingers may worry that if people see that government is saving lives, their central creed that government is bad may be unveiled as a sham.

The Times had a very good essay proposing that this moment of crisis is also a moment of opportunity. The editorial board observed that the pandemic is casting new light on some of our system’s worst failures, including shameful inequality and indifference to the suffering of those less fortunate.  Our systems for healthcare, housing, and the social safety net are costing many lives. The essay points out that at earlier times of national crisis, Americans have achieved a greater measure of compassion and fairness.  It is possible that this crisis will as well.

Spring, the morphing pandemic, meditating, and catching up on movies

Looking southwest from our apartment at new construction

It’s definitely spring.  It always amazes me how fast the hardwood trees here leaf in, once they get started.  Just in the last week, things have gotten very green. 

Looking west from our apartment

Raulston Arboretum is closed because of the pandemic, and so I won’t be seeing the big irises this year.  I did spend some time with the tulips in Fletcher Park, and made a few images I liked. I experimented with intentional camera movement to get an impressionistic effect.

The pandemic seems to morph every few days into a more severe disaster, with a mounting death toll and more severe disruptions to ordinary life.  It’s painful to see a very big chunk of our nest egg disappear as the stock market plummets. It’s painful to be isolated from loved ones and unable to do our usual activities.  

I’ve been clearing some extra time for meditation and listening to some new lessons on managing thoughts and feelings.  Just sitting still and observing the breath can go a long way toward calm and peace. There are free lessons on the free app, Insight Timer.  

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is normally a highlight of early spring for us, and we were sorry it was cancelled.  But on the bright side, we’ve been seeing some good movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Last night, we watched Just Mercy, a fictionalized version of the non-fiction book of that title by Bryan Stephenson.  It’s about a young black lawyer with a Harvard Law degree who sets up a non-profit practice in Alabama to help prisoners on death row.  

The dramatic elements come from the racists who threaten him with violence and his clients with execution.  It’s never emphasized, but worth noting, that the real Stephenson, with his talent and a Harvard degree, could have made a fortune in a big law firm, rather than take big risks for almost no money.  He had extraordinary courage and compassion.

This week we also watched Harriet, a biopic about the great abolitionist Harriet Tubman.  Slavery is something we know about, but the more I learn, the more I find I still need to know.  Tubman was an extraordinary person who managed to get herself out of slavery and then risk death to free dozens of others.  Cynthia Erivo is a powerful and touching Tubman.  

We also saw Bombshell, a fictionalized account of Fox News under Roger Ailes and his culture of exploitation, sexual and otherwise.  John Lithgow is a wonderfully evil Aisles, and Charlize Theron is a convincing, bombshellish Megyn Kelly. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News is an amazingly effective propaganda organ, and getting some perspective on its workings is worthwhile.  

 

Herons, virtual cocktails, and depolarizing

I got in a couple of trips  to Jordan Lake dam before the big shutdown.  There were quite a few great blue herons standing together and periodically flying into the river to catch fish.  I saw a few squabbles over food and fishing spots. The birds were surprisingly comfortable with me, with one flying in to stand for a while just 20 feet away.  I was looking forward to getting to know them better. But with the park closed, that likely won’t be happening this spring.  

In the Raleigh area, we’re now under orders to stay home if possible.  I’m fortunate not to be in danger of starvation or homelessness, but there are other challenges and disappointments.  In addition to missing the birds and the spring flowers, I’m missing my exercise routine. I usually get to the gym or a yoga class six days a week, and have come to think of that as an important element of my mental health, as well as my physical well being. I’ve been trying to do more running, but I have concerns that too much will hurt my knees.  Anyway, I did five miles yesterday.

We’ve heard that gun shops are doing a booming business.  Apparently, the self-defense crowd is worried that desperate hordes will be attacking their homes, and they will need extra guns and ammo to shoot them.  I think we’re a long way from a Mad Max dystopia, but it’s telling that those fears are here.  

In the spirit of making the best of things, we had our first virtual cocktail hour on Friday.  We scheduled a half hour starting at 5:30 for video chatting and drinking with Jocelyn and Kyle in New York.  We used Google Hangouts, which cut out a couple of times, but mostly worked. We commiserated about the pandemic, compared notes on streaming movies and series, and had some good laughs.  We agreed we would all be in deep trouble psychologically if the internet stopped working.

This week I finished reading Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein.  I recommend it to all who are interested in understanding why American politics seems to be working so badly.  Klein contends that political parties have become markers of identity rather than matters of ideology. That is, whichever group we’re in, the group’s policies aren’t as important to us as our being part of the group.  Those who aren’t part of our group are seen as enemies.  

Klein sees race as a central factor in our politics.  During the civil rights movement, Republican politicians used coded racial appeals to pull in working class white people. It seemed like that couldn’t work for long, but it’s still with us.  This isn’t a new revelation, but Klein does a good job putting it in context.  

Recently I discovered a good podcast called Scene on Radio that discusses American history and culture with a focus on issues of race and gender.  It’s now in its fourth season, which reexamines the place of slavery in the formation of the American political system. The founding fathers had strong disagreements about slavery, so there’s not a single, simple narrative.  But the wealthiest of the founders were wealthy because of slavery, and they made sure to protect their wealth, through the design of the Constitution and otherwise. Good podcast.   

It was heartening that faced with a real emergency, last week Congress managed to pass a stimulus bill on a bipartisan basis.  Perhaps it will mark the start of less polarization. But it appears that some at Fox News and extremist evangelicals are still taking the view that the pandemic is a liberal hoax designed to undermine President Trump.  Apparently some reverends are summoning the faithful  to attend their services on the grounds that there is no coronavirus.  We all know that human powers of denial and self deception are great, but even so, with tens of thousands of people already dead, this is amazing.  It’s a long way back from there to unpolarized reality.  

Getting close to birds and farther from people: hunkering down for the pandemic

Last week I got out to Jordan Lake three times and spent some time around sunrise with the wildlife there.  I saw lots of great blue herons, and several ospreys and bald eagles, as well as the less glamorous  gulls, crows, and turkey vultures.  

With the human world in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, I was especially grateful for some time with the birds.  Of course, they have their own life and death struggles, including finding enough food to survive each new day.  But they manage it without undue drama, keeping their focus on the task at hand.  Once the essentials are taken care of, they become very still, alert but peaceful.

The pandemic has quite suddenly changed everything.  We don’t know how long it will be before something like normalcy returns.  In the meantime, there will be brutal economic hardship for laid off people who need the next paycheck for housing and food.  On top of that, cutting direct human contact will likely cause a spike in depression and suicides. This is going to be tough.

In the midst of what looks like an epic disaster in process, it may not be the best time to talk of lessons to be learned.  On the other hand, we’re all going to have some time on our hands, which we might use to think about our situation.

Illness can be a revealing crucible.  It forces us to face up to reality. For example, parents may have all kinds of kooky ideas about praying for health, but when their own child gets seriously ill, and prayer doesn’t seem to be working, they will usually take the child to the doctor.  Illness forces us to quit playing and get serious.  

And so it is that we’re now looking to scientists for guidance about covid-19.  Our President has led a war on science, muzzling experts and eliminating scientific positions and agencies, as the Times and others have noted.  But he seems to be shifting gears, and now he’s consulting with doctors, public health experts, and other scientists.

At this point, it is hardly news that we have an incompetent and mentally ill President who sees the world exclusively in terms of how it can gratify his ego and bank account.  But like the parents with a sick child, even he has come to see it’s time to go to the doctor and get actual facts and possibly some help. He’s still inclined to boost xenophobic conspiracy theories, but he’s finally making concessions to reality.  Along with increasing death and misery, denying reality now might even be politically damaging. 

As little as I respect the President and as fervently as I want to see him defeated, I want to wish him well in this regard:  may he find the wisdom to defer to the best experts. Our scientists and doctors won’t have all the answers, but they’re our best hope.  Assuming we make it through this crisis, we might apply this same rule to address other global crises, like global warming.    

For the rest of us, there’s an opportunity to pause and reflect.  Covid-19 has brought into stark relief the fragility of our social, economic, and governmental systems.  If it wasn’t clear before, it’s now clear that our national healthcare system is a hopeless mess. Our social safety net is full of holes.  Our system of profit-at-all-costs capitalism is failing to address basic needs.    

In the face of the pandemic, even those officials of the all-government-is-bad view are modifying their opinion and trying to do something.  It looks like the government may be sending out real checks to actual families to mitigate some of the hardship. This looks like progress, and also like a tiny band-aid.  But who knows? We may look back on this as the historic beginning of a transformative new system with a universal basic income and greater fairness.

One thing is certain:  this is not going to be easy.  It’s definitely not the case that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.  We need to cultivate our courage, and our compassion. Those of us with some surplus need to help others.  My old friend Deborah Ross, a Democrat running for Congress in N.C. District 2, suggests donations to the N.C. Food Bank. The Washington Post yesterday had a helpful list of charities working for those who will be hardest hit. 

Spring birds, and The New Jim Crow

 

Canada geese at Shelley Lake

Spring is definitely arriving here in Raleigh, and the birds are singing lustily.  This week at Jordan Lake, I sawsome juvenile bald eagles, osprey, and great blue herons.  At Shelley Lake, I enjoyed my old friends the Canada geese, and there was a towhee who posed nicely for me while singing.

A towhee

At Jordan Lake, I thought I might have spotted a rarity — a black-headed gull.  After studying my bird books, I posted a picture on the Carolina Bird Photographers Facebook page, and asked for the opinion of any gull experts.  I got a quick response: it was a Bonaparte’s gull, which is not uncommon. I was a little disappointed, but I now have a firmer grasp of what a Bonaparte’s looks like.

A Bonaparte’s gull that looked a lot like a black-headed gull

For the spring migration, I’ve been refreshing on my bird song identification skills, using Peterson recordings and the Audubon app.  I’m able to identify most of our local birds, and I’m getting ready for the less common migrants.

I finished reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, which I highly recommend.  Alexander, a former civil rights attorney and professor, paints a powerful and disturbing picture of mass incarceration in the US, showing that the  war on drugs was to a great extent a war on black people. Seemingly race neutral laws resulted in a huge increase in imprisonment, with most of the prisoners black people convicted of non-violent drug crimes. 

This had a ripple effect through black communities, destroying families and leaving a large percentage of black males unable tp find work and unable to vote. The effect has been comparable to the Jim Crow system for suppressing blacks after abolition, and has sustained our racial caste system using the race neutral terminology of crime.    

An osprey at Jordan Lake

There’s a quick overview of the book in Wikipedia, and she wrote a recent essay in the NY Times that has some of her main points.    though I thought it was well worth reading the whole book.  

Alexander was on The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast recently, and sounded like a really knowledgeable and thoughtful person.  The subject of the podcast was prison abolition. This was the first time I’d heard that there is a prison abolition movement that is connected to the insights of her book.  The basic idea is to address mass incarceration by changing our penal system, including redefining what’s criminal and designing less draconian punishments. This does not sound at all crazy, and I look forward to learning more.  

Juvenile bald eagle

 When Alexander’s book was first published ten years ago, her message that the drug war was a  symptom and expression of a racial caste system seemed radical, but it’s becoming widely accepted.  We’ve made some progress in modifying the worst discriminatory laws of the war on drugs and addressing policing abuses, but much of the system is still in place, and the victims are all around us.  It’s a prime opportunity to exercise our capacity for compassion, expand our political vision, and work for change.