The Casual Blog

Bears, happy Juneteenth, and a solution to poverty

On our way back from the Outer Banks, we took a detour through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  We saw two mother bears, each with two cubs, a barred owl, a flock of white ibises, and various other interesting birds, reptiles, and plants.  We were excited, and also worried, to see a rare, critically endangered red wolf standing beside Highway 64 and looking at the traffic.  Hope he or she is OK.

I you, like me, have an affectionate interest in wild animals, I recommend Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald.  It’s a collection of short personal essays about the natural world.  Macdonald explores the thrill and peace that nature can bestow, and helps us appreciate its fragility.  The NY Times review is here.    

This week Juneteenth became a national holiday.  Some Americans are just now learning about the original event, June 19, 1865, when African Americans in Texas first learned that slaves had been declared emancipated.  The basic idea of the holiday is to celebrate the end of slavery and beginning of freedom.  

Most of us surely agree that this is a good reason for celebration, though not all.  As I was practicing my golf swing at the range, I overheard an older golfer speaking disparagingly of the new holiday, and adding that “they” were “taking over.”  I wondered how he could have such an ignorant and poisonous idea, and then I remembered:  “us” and “them” was the basic framework a lot of us were trained in from birth, and some still are.  These ideas have long, hard-to-pull-out roots.

Also, racial segregation is still the rule in most American neighborhoods, schools, and churches.  There’s room for discussion about the details of why this is true in 2021, but plainly a lot has to do with the legacy of slavery.  One consequence is that it takes effort to get to know people of a different race, which increases the difficulty of dislodging our early training in the caste system.

But there are also other forces at work.  This week Thomas Edsall’s NY Times column examined the causes of so-called populism of Trump and similar movements elsewhere.  Edsall quoted various thinkers who identified economic forces, including artificial intelligence and other technology, robotics, and globalized outsourcing, that continue to cause job losses and threats to status for many, causing increasing insecurity and fear.  

Demagogues whip up these fears and blame minorities and immigrants for these losses.  Those with good reasons to feel economically insecure are often latch on to simple solutions to their problems, especially when they resonate with their early racial training.  

Why don’t we just eliminate poverty?  It sounds like something we could all agree is a good idea.   But as Ezra Klein wrote last week, poverty is a well accepted part of our economic system, and eliminating it would threaten some valued privileges of the privileged. 

As Klein explains, Americans rely on low wage workers in order to have cheap goods and services.  In this light, it makes sense to resist raising the minimum wage above the poverty level, allowing workers freedom to organize, or extending jobless benefits.  If low wage workers were less desperate, they might well not take jobs that are mind-numbing or dangerous and pay barely enough to survive.  Employers would have to provide better working conditions, and better wages and benefits.  They’d lose some profits, and all of us would have to pay higher prices.

 

This aspect of American-style capitalism is seldom discussed, but worth discussing now.  We learned from the covid pandemic that our government can organize massive resources in a hurry to address economic distress.  We may have assumed before that there’s nothing we can do to help the mass of people who work at or below the poverty level, but we now have good evidence that that’s just not true.

Klein’s piece discusses a recent study out of the New School proposing a promising approach to mitigating poverty:  a guaranteed annual income of $12,500 plus an allowance for children.  The payments would phase out for those with incomes above the poverty level.  It would require a budget increase of about 20 percent, which could be paid with taxes at about the level of other wealthy nations.  

It’s an interesting idea, though it obviously runs hard against the grain of neo-liberalism.  Indeed, Republican leaders in several states are currently looking to cut emergency covid relief, including not only  money but also food programs, on the theory that workers won’t work as required unless they’re truly desperate.  We have here a very dark side of American capitalism.  Just as was true before 1865, some are willing to watch people starve, if that’s what it takes to force them to work.  

So old questions need to be asked again:  how much do we value human life?  How much suffering are we willing to inflict in the name of prosperity?  What are we willing to sacrifice to move towards a more just society?   I’m hopeful, though I wouldn’t say confident, that our better angels are ascendent.

On a completely different subject, I want to recommend a short essay on Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, One Art. The essay in the Times by Dwight Garner and Parul Seghal is beautifully presented, and gets straight to the point.  Even if you aren’t much interested in poetry, you might find something of real value.  

Our depolarized Outer Banks reunion, with some wild horses

Last week we had a family reunion at Corolla, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  All told, there were 29 Tillers and their close connections, from several states, ranging in age from a few weeks to 69.  We took up three beach houses and gathered together to go to the beach, have dinner, and play games.

We had pleasant weather, and the water was warm enough for swimming, though some straw had washed up on the beach during a previous storm.  Just north of Corolla, the beach is open to four wheel drive vehicles, and I took mine up  there to look for the resident wild horses.  I made these pictures, among others.  It was cheering to see these big animals making their own way and looking calm and reasonably healthy.  

There was a sort of elephant in the room at this family reunion, which was a strong divergence of political views.  As regular readers have probably noted, my politics are far from conservative, as are those of a few other relations.  Probably a majority of the other Tillers identify strongly as conservatives.  In this time of extreme political polarization, with many primed to see politics in terms of a battle of good versus evil, some wondered, how would we get along?

The answer, it turned out, was just fine.  We found plenty of things in common, like kids, jobs, food, sports, houses, and family memories.  There was a lot of laughter.  It’s easy to overemphasize the significance of political differences, and to forget how much of our lives has little to do with our political allegiances.  Our reunion was a good reminder:  we all (Tillers, and of course, others too) are closely tied, and those ties are important.

The reunion also reminded me that there are plenty of differences of opinions among those on the conservative side.  The loudness and shrillness of right-wing media is misleading in many ways, including giving the impression of a conservative monolith.

I don’t mean to suggest that political differences are unimportant, especially now.  The transformation of the Republican party into the party of Trump, with its gloves-off program to seize power is still happening.  Republican leaders all across the country are passing new laws to increase the likelihood that they won’t lose future elections.  They’re also passing laws to prevent schools from teaching about topics that inspire questions about the existing social order, like our history of slavery and continuing racism.  

But there is a lot of political movement in the opposite direction, addressing some of our biggest problems, including climate change, economic fairness, health care, institutionalized violence, and education.  In the face of radical Trumpism, President Biden is boring in a good way — practical and down to earth.  Perhaps this is the storm before the calm. 

Speaking of earth and hope, two cheers for the President’s 30 by 30 initiative:  conservation of 30 percent of our land and water by 2030.  So far, this hasn’t made big headlines, but it should help in addressing both global warming and the biodiversity crisis.  Some fifty other countries are working on this same goal.    Non-human animals are usually ignored as humans pursue their goals, to their and our great loss.  While I tend to go with E.O. Wilson, who has advocated a target of protecting 50 percent, it’s a good start. 

Gassing up and heading out, and the latest election fraud fraud

The Tiller ride at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

This week our gas stations had gas again, which was cheering for those of us with internal combustion engines.  I headed east to Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes looking for wildlife.  It was good to connect with animals again, though as always, I regretted my own greenhouse gas emissions.  Along the dirt roads it was pretty quiet.  I saw plenty of birds and one handsome (I think) young rattlesnake.    

On the drive out and back, I listened to various podcasts and audiobooks.  I strongly recommend a new podcast series called The Improvement Association.  The subject is election fraud in Bladen County, NC, where in 2018 they had one of America’s tiny number of actual election fraud incidents.  The podcast was put out by Zoe Chace and some of the same folks that made the podcast Serial.

The fraud involved improper ballots in support of the Republican congressional candidate and resulted in invalidation of the election.   During and after the scandal, Republicans in Bladen County claimed that Black politicians there had done much worse.  Zoe Chace decided to investigate.

Chace is not a showy personality, but she is an excellent journalist.  She asks reasonable questions, lets people have their say, and resists pat answers.  She recognizes that people often aren’t able to put things into words, including their own feelings about race, and that such feelings sometimes help account for how they see things. 

 

Much of her podcast focuses on the persistent accusations of white Republicans that Black organizers regularly committed election fraud, and she finds hardly any evidence that they did.  But she also examines the very interesting question of why white Republicans keep insisting the opposite.  She found both political opportunism and sincere racial fears, which sometimes hardened into an impossible-to-shake belief.  

In a way it’s a small story, but just now it has a lot of resonance.  Those of us not on the right are finding it difficult to comprehend how the majority of Republicans can continue to think, as they do, that Democrats committed election fraud that resulted in Joe Biden wrongfully becoming president.  

Chace’s podcast suggests part of the answer:  traditional racial attitudes have a psychological filtering effect, blocking out certain facts (like the nonexistence of evidence) and concentrating some assumptions (like Blacks are like [something]).  Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning can feel just like logical thinking.  

With some of the generosity and curiosity of Zoe Chace, I want to give Trump supporters the benefit of a doubt.  I’m willing to assume that they aren’t just gaslighting, and most aren’t specifically hoping to overthrow democracy and reinstitute legal white supremacy.  They may truly believe that America faces an existential threat from leftists who seek to institute radical socialism and outlaw Christianity, and the only defense is Trump or someone like him.  They may actually be unable to process the overwhelming evidence that none of this is true.    

As far as I know, there’s no easy way to assist folks perched on this perilous ledge to gently move back towards a more fact-based reality.  But unfortunately, it is quite easy to make them feel even more terrified,  confused, and in need of a powerful leader to defend them.  Opportunistic Republican leaders and right-wing networks, concerned with maintaining power and audience share, are currently doing so, with a vengeance.

A recent new ploy is instituting more recounts of the 2020 election votes.  As most people know, the presidential election has been officially completed and confirmed, with massive oversight by qualified specialists and courts.  But state legislators in Arizona and Georgia have decided to continue recounting.  This could, I guess, go on as long as they think, or want others to think, that there was a conspiracy and all the tallying so far is wrong.  That is, potentially, forever.

It may be that such shenanigans will keep the MAGA base energized and eager for the next election battle.  It’s at least as likely that it will slowly drain away belief in fair elections.  Big lies, like Trump’s gigantic lie about the 2020 election can work by fooling gullible people, but they can also have an even more insidious effect.  

Repeating unbelievable things while demanding they be believed works to erode belief in one’s own common sense.  The big liar implicitly says, belief and loyalty are more important than reality, and anyhow, it’s impossible to know what’s true.  Your only choices are uncritical belief or hopelessness and confusion.  The big lie can work by getting people to give up on the idea that political action may be a force for good, and make them both despondent and acquiescent to power.

This is a difficult moment in the American political experiment.  We’ve learned that there are malign forces at work that are more infectious than we thought, and there’s no vaccine at the moment.  But we’ve still got a lot of the good sense and good will that have sustained us in difficult times before.  

Attacking fact checking, and the big election lie emergency

Osprey and fish at Jordan Lake

I’d planned to head to eastern NC this week to look for black bears and other creatures.  Unfortunately, in Raleigh and elsewhere, there was a gas shortage.  For a few hours, drivers and cars waited in long lines to get into stations, and then, the lines disappeared, and all the stations that I checked were out of gas.  

The primary cause was a criminal hack of a major fuel pipeline company, with a secondary cause of a mass freak out (panic buying).  People will probably calm down eventually.  In the meantime, anyone taking a long road trip faced a good chance of getting stranded without gas, and so I sadly put off the bears.  These pictures are ones I took recently at Jordan Lake and Raulston Arboretum

I’d been looking forward to taking a break from the subject of Trump, elections, and democracy.  For a couple of weeks, it looked like we were heading towards normal, still with big problems, but having avoided a crash into full-on fascism.  Right now we’ve got a full plate of wars, diseases, and other miseries, and it would be good not to add to the to-do list.  So I’m sorry.  But this is an emergency:  our democracy is in a crisis.

Before I get to the crisis, a related development:  this week a state legislator in Michigan proposed a new law aimed at fact checkers.  As a former professional fact checker, I wondered what was up.  According to the Washington Post, the legislator in question was a supporter of “Stop the Steal” and opponent of Covid safety measures.  He proposed that fact checkers be required to register with the state, post a million dollar bond, and face fines and lawsuits for their mistakes.

As an ex-lawyer, I’m pretty confident that such a law would be struck down as unconstitutional, as long as we have anything resembling our current constitutional system.  But the proposed law is one more indication of the fragility of that system.  

It’s been four decades since I worked as a fact checker at The New Yorker, and through the years it never occurred to me that the government might try to put the lid on fact checking.  I assumed that almost everyone would prefer to have truthful, reliable information, as opposed to mistakes or lies.  Even though right-wing propaganda networks regularly play fast and loose with facts, the idea of making it a crime to try to get the facts right is something new.     

Here’s fact checking in a nutshell:  the job of the checker is to figure out whether statements purporting to be factual are accurate.  Sometimes this is straightforward, as with correctly spelling names and confirming addresses, but other times it requires more research and analysis.  On issues requiring expertise or first-hand knowledge, it requires consulting reliable experts or sources.  It requires judgment when, as happens, experts or sources disagree.  In such cases, the checker may add a note that there’s a disagreement.  

Like all humans, fact checkers sometimes make mistakes.  In such cases, they may be reprimanded, fired, or, in cases of libel, sued.  So the proposed Michigan law would seem pointless, if the point were to punish mistakes.  It makes sense, though, if the aim is to clear the way for big lies by discouraging checking.  For those whose careers depend on lies, facts are pesky things.

And so we come to the crisis.  This week Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney was tossed out of the Republican leadership because she called out the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election and was denied the presidency because of fraud.  

This action resembled Republicans’ refusal to impeach Trump, but it was actually worse.  It’s the difference between quietly tolerating a lie and loudly shutting down those that oppose the lie. Instead of merely declining to hold Trump accountable for the January 6 attempt to overthrow the election, the Republicans are now effectively co-signing his lies about the election and endorsing the January 6 insurrection.  

In an almost-but-not-quite comic development, some congressional Republicans are now rechristening the mayhem of January 6 as a normal tourist visit unrelated to Trump and his supporters. 

For any who have forgotten, Trump supporters waving MAGA flags and sporting MAGA paraphernalia stormed the Capitol, shouting death threats, and vandalizing the premises as they searched for fleeing legislators who’d been about to complete certification of the election of Biden.  There were several deaths, dozens of injuries, and legislators and guards who feared for their lives. 

Meanwhile, having narrowly lost the last election, Republicans in 30-some states are moving forward with new voting laws designed to reduce the number of Democratic voters.  According to a new report in Mother Jones,  this effort has been organized with military precision by a right-wing dark money outfit associated with the Heritage Foundation.  

The quasi-clever cover story for these laws is that they are needed to address voter fears of election fraud.  There could be such fears, but in fact, there is no significant election fraud problem.  The fears are based on the outrageous lies propagated at high volume by Trump and his supporters in connection with their effort to overturn the last election.  

Senate Bill 1 could put a stop to the worst of the state level election rigging, but that legislation is opposed by Senate Republicans and can’t advance as long as the filibuster stays in place.  At the same time, state Republicans are getting rid of election officials who refused to go along with the Trump attempt to steal the 2020 election, and replacing them with Trump loyalists.  That is, they’re putting in place election officials who appear committed to stealing elections when directed.  

There are a lot of moving parts, but the direction is clear:  the end of our traditional system of transferring power peacefully based on fair elections.  Republicans are in the process of replacing it with a system in which elections are a sham used by the powerful to fool the gullible.  Such systems have a long history, but only in countries that we would not call democratic, such as China, Russia, and North Korea.  To put it plainly:  Republican leaders are now working on a large-scale effort to undermine the foundation of American democracy.

There are, of course, some principled Republicans who oppose this effort, and others who haven’t yet heard what’s happening, but would not support it.  But right now the Republican leaders at the national and state level are moving ahead to set up a system where only their candidates can win.  For many rank-and-file Republicans, persuaded by decades of right-wing lies that Democrats are evil socialists and otherwise very scary, changing the system to keep out Democrats may seem like a good idea.   

Possibly the Trump fever will break, and those with the illness will revert to traditional support for fair elections and facts over lies.  But I wouldn’t count on it.  It’s more likely that our democratic experiment will only survive if we fight for it (non-violently, of course).  We could start by junking the filibuster and moving ahead with Senate Bill 1.

Flowers, and the latest culture war battlefield: stopping anti-racism

Raulston Arboretum is a quiet refuge for plants, birds, and people.  Before the pandemic, I visited the big garden at N.C. State  a few times each spring to see the new blooms, and I really missed it last year.  Now it’s open again, and things are growing wonderfully.  The daffodils have gone and the irises are waning, but the roses have arrived in force.  

It’s really cheering to see our leaders working on some of our real problems, like climate change, infectious diseases, police violence, roads and bridges, jobs with fair wages, child care, health care,  voting rights, and education.    


Not so cheering is the latest culture war ploy to rouse the MAGA base:  attacking critical race theory and education on the legacy of slavery.  Outside of specialized scholars, few had heard of critical race theory until recently, and none had reason to worry about its undermining the social order.  Now Republicans in several states are working to ban it from classrooms, and McConnell and most GOP senators are characterizing anti-racism as “divisive nonsense.”

Critical race theory raises problems concerning race and the legal system.  McConnell, the Fox pundits, and their allies are promoting the view that this amounts to criticizing America as hopelessly evil.  Their position is that talking about our race problems is essentially traitorous, and should be stopped.

This is bizarre, but also makes a kind of sense.  For anyone just arriving from outer space:  Americans have been thoroughly socialized in a caste system that distinguishes between people and allocates privileges based on skin color, with the lighter people generally privileged over the darker people.  Understanding how this came to be, how it works now, and what can be done about it is complicated.  The background includes hundreds of years of history, as well as laws, schools, and customs.  

It hadn’t occurred to me until this week that a possible response from the right wing, or anyone, could be:  the racial caste system doesn’t exist.  That’s as delusional as saying the last election was stolen from Trump, or that we need to change our voting laws to prevent fraud by Democrats.  But here we are.  

Of course, some well meaning people believe that the best thing to do about our race problems is to try to treat all people the same and act like race does not exist.  In fact, it’s true in one sense that race is a fiction.  It’s a creation of culture, rather than of biology.  

But a key part of our culture rests on what we’ve learned to think of as differences in races.  We’ve been thoroughly schooled in those supposed differences, to the point that many of us mistakenly think they’re inherent in nature.  Becoming conscious of our own understanding of race and getting rid of the myths and fears we carry around is a big educational project.  It requires some long discussions, with good teachers and leaders. 

We have some such leaders working to correct unfairness in our system, but unfortunately, there are others, like McConnell and the Disgraced Former President, now proposing to lead in the opposite direction.    

On top of the spurious racial notions bequeathed to us by our forefathers, politicians have been using race as a political wedge issue for several generations.  Cynical politicians periodically organize by stoking groundless fears of attacks by violent erratic dark-skinned people, or (with no regard for consistency) of overly diligent dark-skinned people taking our jobs.  This lying strategy has often been successful in attracting votes, and has reinforced the caste system.

The right-wing attack on critical race theory is related to this, but with an interesting twist.  Instead of directly targeting dark-skinned people, it targets those who want to discuss the systemic problems of the caste system.  As part of this, in a classic Orwellian/Trumpian move, it tries to re-label anti-racism as racism.  

The right-wing objective is to prevent discussions that challenge the advantages of the privileged caste.  As a bonus, it provides a moral self-justification for silencing the discussion:  the privileged silencers can think of themselves as good people who oppose racial distinctions.  

As Americans, we’ve been taught to think of ourselves as on the whole good, well-meaning folks.  We’ve been steered away from learning much about the immoral and tragic forces that helped build our country (like slavery and expulsion of indigenous peoples) and the continuing brutality of our caste system (like widespread police violence and mass imprisonment).  

Our education system has been sadly deficient in equipping us to address such problems.   For a long time, many of us in the privileged castes barely noticed how the caste system disadvantaged the low caste folks.  With de facto segregation, we seldom saw them, except when they quietly worked for us.  Many of us accepted the system as on balance a pretty good one.  

But here we are.  We’re learning more about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and the bloody resistance to the civil rights movement. We’re learning more about how we took the land of indigenous people through brutal violence and trickery.  We’ve started the discussion about fixing our caste system, which will not be easy.  Even ignoring the right wingers who view any such efforts as treason, there are still many who believe the stereotypes they were taught  Unpacking such ideas will take a lot of work.   

Animal friends and victims

Emu at Sylvan Heights

This week I visited the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park in the little town of Scotland Neck, NC.  There were a lot of them, doing pretty much what we do — eating, cleaning, preening, playing, mating, fighting, resting, exploring.  The emu (the second largest bird on the planet) took a strong interest in me, pressing against the fence as though wanting to be petted, or perhaps to kick or peck me.  The sandhill cranes also seemed affectionate — so much so that it was hard to get far enough away to photograph them.  Several of the birds seemed to like it when I talked with them softly.   

Sandhill crane

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and dissident, was featured in the NY Times last week discussing his cats.  I like Ai’s art and his courage, and I like cats as well (though they should not be loose near birds, which they will kill). 

Ai said:

I’ve learned so much from animals. It’s important to be around another species that has a completely different set of instincts and intuitions. Humans are so rational. We are defined by our knowledge, and that blocks our emotions and understanding of ourselves. But anyone who opens their mind or heart to cats can experience something that can’t be found in human society. They teach you that you can have a happy life without knowing anything at all. They take care of themselves, and they make their own fun. To be an individual, to be self-content — those are nice qualities for a life. 

I’m with Ai on learning from cats, though I think he may overestimate the overestimate how rational (as opposed to emotional) humans are.  Our little cat, Rita, is both a friend and a teacher.  I’m sorry she dislikes being photographed, since she’s also strangely cute, and quite a good dasher and leaper for a 13-year-old.  

In other animal news, Ezra Klein’s new piece proposes that we include as part of the big Biden technology and jobs plan a program to speed the development and bring down the price of artificial meat.  This idea has merit.  As Klein’s points out, some of our biggest problems, including greenhouse gas emissions, the coronavirus pandemic, and antibiotic-resistant disease, are in significant part the work of industrialized agriculture, and especially the meat industry.  There’s also the massive cruelty, which could be stopped or reduced by substituting meat grown from animal cells, rather than hacked from slaughtered animals.  

Of course, it’s possible right now, without a new government program, to replace the meat we eat with plant-based food.  But most of us have been taught from a young age that we need to eat meat to be healthy, and the lesson got lodged deep.  There’s plenty of evidence that it simply isn’t true.  Indeed, it’s widely accepted that eating meat is not necessary to get adequate protein and other nutrients, but it increases your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and other illnesses.  

It is both sad and bizarre that the right wing has spun up a lie that the Biden administration wants to outlaw hamburgers. But the quick spread of the hamburger lie in the right-wing subculture is also telling.  Our early intensive training in meat eating, constantly reinforced by advertising, rituals, and habit, makes it hard to change how we nourish ourselves, or even to think about changing.  Indeed, even raising the subject of such change causes some to experience anger, fear, confusion, and detachment from reality. 

An irony of the new hamburger lie is that historically, and still today, the US government has subsidized and actively promoted raising and consuming animal products.  This is the subject of a new lawsuit brought by, among others, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, one of my favorite charities.  The suit challenges the US Department of Agriculture for its dietary guidelines encouraging heavy consumption of dairy products, which cause health problems for the significant part of the US population that is lactose intolerant.  (The complaint apparently does not discuss other health risks from dairy products, including heart disease and certain types of cancer.)

The government’s guidelines require that schools offer children cow’s milk, and generally forbid offering them plant-based alternatives.  The lesson that children or others need cow’s milk for calcium and other nutrients has been thoroughly debunked by science.  Even those unwilling to think about the dairy industry’s torturing of cows may be disturbed to learn that, to increase agribusiness profits, the government is endangering the health of many schoolchildren.   This is not right.

Earth Day in eastern NC, processing the Chauvin verdict, and catching up with The Handmaid’s Tale

Glossy ibises at Lake Mattamuskeet

         Sally and I had a particularly good Earth Day this year visiting eastern North Carolina.   The enormous wildlife refuges near the NC coast have large populations of black bears, and we were hoping to see some of their new cubs.  We failed as to the cubs, but saw a group of six bears.  We also found a lot of beautiful birds, including a large flock of glossy ibises, a new species for us.   There were hardly any people, which was just fine.

Bears at Pocosin Lakes

The trial of Minneapolis police officer Eric Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd ended this week with a jury verdict of guilty on all counts.  The evidence of guilt seemed overwhelming, but given our history, the outcome was far from certain.  It is disturbingly common in the US for police to use extreme force on Black people, but extremely rare for a police officer to be charged and convicted for resulting injuries and deaths.  

The Chauvin trial has inspired some useful discussion of why this is so, and what needs to change.  Part of the story is the background rule of qualified immunity, a circular Supreme Court doctrine that usually protects police even in egregious cases.  Another aspect is police union contracts that prevent firing of officers guilty of racist misconduct.  There is the famous blue wall of silence, the unofficial rule that generally prevents officers from testifying against other officers.  Less famous is the standard procedure among district attorneys of ignoring police crimes, with a view to maintaining good relations with them for reasons of DA career advancement.  

Above all, there is our racist caste system.  In our system, for a long time many of us were taught that Black men are more violent and dangerous than other people.  Even now, after that lie has been thoroughly debunked, many ordinary potential jurors believe it.  With such racist training still lodged in their minds, it isn’t hard to convince them that a police officer that killed a Black man had a reasonable fear for himself, no matter what the circumstances, other than that the man was Black.

Tree swallow

My guess is that Chauvin and his lawyers were counting on there being at least one juror with this traditional mindset, since there normally is.  For such a person, it would be possible to repeatedly watch the horrifying video and hear abundant supporting testimony without concluding that Chauvin committed murder.  For a juror with a strong enough filter of racial bias, any police violence against Black people would seem reasonable and justified.

The good news is the Chauvin jurors managed to see past racial filters and look at the evidence.  This suggests we’re making some progress in unwinding the caste system.   But of course, there’s a lot more work to be done.  

Here’s a new exhibit in that case:  Black Lives Matter protests are now being targeted by Republican state legislators.  According to the NY Times, this year there have been anti-protest bills in 34 states.  Some proposed laws immunize drivers who drive into protestors, while others add prison terms and other harsh penalties for protesting.  This is appalling, but also instructive.

The Times reported that almost all of the BLM protests were peaceful, with an estimate that only 4 percent involved some property damage or police injuries.  Nevertheless, for many Republicans, influenced by right wing media, the false impression persists that the protests were instead mainly about violent Black people attacking the police.

Canada geese family

Our long training in the caste system makes it possible for some of us to look at one thing (Black people systematically victimized by police violence) and see the exact opposite (police and white people being targeted by Black people).  This fits into and reinforces a narrative of white victimhood, which works to conceal the much larger story of white privilege.  

Wherever you look, you will likely find a strong remnant of this caste training that distorts reality.  I doubt it will lose its hold in this generation, but it seems to be getting weaker. 

Last week Sally and I have finally caught up with The Handmaid’s Tale, a television series that premiered in 2017, and which we began watching on Hulu a couple of months ago.  When I first heard about THT, I thought it was probably not for us.  We’re not especially keen on science fiction, particularly when it’s dark and violent.  But so far (with the 4th season about to begin), we’ve found it absorbing, thought provoking, and even at times inspiring.

The set up for THT is this:  in the near future, a fanatical religious group has seized power in the United States and imposed a police state they call Gilead which has a rigid caste system with women at the bottom.  The permissible roles for women are limited (mostly cooking, cleaning, child-bearing), and they must wear uniforms that correspond to their roles.  

Women married to higher caste men get to wear handsome teal capes, but like all women are not allowed to read or do work outside the home.  Because of a fertility crisis, Gilead has created a ceremony to allow higher caste men to rape low caste women to impregnate them.  

The idea sounds over the top, but it turns out that Gilead is a great laboratory for imaginative testing of some of our actual notions and values.  Patriarchy, misogyny, and other expressions of hierarchy (such as racism) are so much a part of our own world that it’s easy to stop seeing them, or to assume that they’re natural and necessary.  THT helps us to reconsider some of our underlying assumptions about gender roles, as well as other orthodoxies.  

This experiment in imagination seems more urgent since the attack on the Capital of last January 6.  According to recent polling, a majority of Republicans continue to believe the Disgraced Former President’s lies about his winning the last election, and very few have condemned his efforts to throw out the election results and take over the US government.  Republicans in many states continue to work on changing their voting systems to increase their advantage by making it harder for people of color to vote.  In addition, they’re now trying to throw out the Republican state election officials who helped save our democracy by following the law instead of the lying ex-pres.  

Kingbird

It’s hard not to see a disturbingly large overlap between the traditionalist patriarchal authoritarian system of Gilead and the MAGA view of how America should be.  At the same time, Gilead has one aspect of social justice that both the MAGA ideal and our actual present caste system does not:  in Gilead, Black people are treated just like non-Black people.  That is, there is no difference in the respect and opportunities people receive based on skin color.  Gilead, along with horrifying systematic misogyny, also is a reminder that our racialized caste system is a cultural invention and can be reformed.

Gilead is a police state with armed soldiers watching at all times and preventing unapproved discussions by women.  There are brutal public punishments, like mass hangings, stonings, and removal of limbs.  

But interestingly, the Gilead surveillance methods are not nearly as advanced as those now being used in China, or even in the US.  Gilead has few if any video cameras watching the streets, businesses, or living spaces, and apparently no supercomputers analyzing facial recognition and other data (as China and we do).  A MAGA version of Gilead would almost certainly be more technologically adept at identifying and suppressing dissent.    

So I’ve gone from thinking that the world of THT is an over-the-top fantasy to seeing it as something that almost just happened, and still could.  Except the MAGA version might well be more efficient and cruel.  

The good news is that even in Gilead, there is resistance by people with compassion and courage.  It won’t spoil the story for me to say the women there turn out to be resourceful and strong.  Their unflinching and mostly non-violent struggle against oppression is inspiring.  Maybe it will inspire some of us to continue opposing our own moralizing oligarchs.

Caring for bluebirds, and ending the war on drugs

Tulips in Fletcher Park

Humans are often strange, and sometimes really horrifying.  For the last 17 years, Sally has maintained and monitored a group of bluebird houses on a local golf course.  She’s learned and taught me about the bluebirds, including the threats they’ve faced from habitat loss and the wooden houses that have helped them recover in recent decades.  

Each spring, bluebird pairs build nests in the houses, lay eggs, tend the nestlings, and teach them to fly and find food.  In each house, they have two and sometimes three broods.

Earlier this week Sally visited the golf course to check on the recent eggs and nestlings, and found that 9 of the 20 bluebird houses had been vandalized.  Someone had opened the doors, pulled out the nests, and flung them on the ground.  There were three chicks still alive and a few eggs unbroken.  Sally replaced what was left of the nests, resituating the survivors and the unbroken eggs, in hopes that the parents could manage to reconstruct and nurse the young.

Back home, Sally cried for a long time, and asked, who would do such a thing?  My first thought was, a person who would circle a golf course destroying bird homes and killing baby birds must be severely mentally disturbed.  

But on reflection, I realized, it could as easily be an ordinary novelty-seeking adolescent who, like many other humans, doesn’t view the birds’ lives as having value.  Viewing them as having no role in the human world and far inferior, he might have seen no reason not to torture and kill them for fun.

Most people, I think, have some empathy for other animals, even when they view them as inferior.  As with racism and other failures of compassion, there are varying degrees of blindness. Perhaps the person who killed the baby birds was having a difficult personal crisis, and later realized with sadness and shame what he had done.  I hope so.  It’s disturbing to think it could be otherwise.  

On a more cheering note, we learned this week that the Biden administration has set a September deadline for ending the US’s Afghanistan war.  As a few (including me) recognized at the start 20 years ago, this was a war with almost no chance of a good outcome.  Has it taught us anything about the limitations of militarism?  It’s possible, but the idea that we can resolve our problems with war is still deep in our bones. 

We’re still fighting the war on drugs, at great human cost.  The Times reported this week that opioid fatalities were significantly up since the start of the pandemic.  With more than a third of states legalizing marijuana, there could be a growing realization that the entire prohibition regime has been a massive disaster.  

People could be starting to realize that criminalizing drugs seeds criminal enterprises, and jailing people for ordinary human pleasure-seeking mainly benefits organized crime and the prison-industrial complex.  Hundreds of thousands of deaths from overdoses are a product of this disastrous system, along with millions of people arrested and incarcerated.  But current mainstream journalism (including the Times) still usually presents recreational drugs as an enemy that must be defeated, by medical treatment if not by law.    

One strong voice dissenting from this mainstream view is Professor Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University.  Hart’s research has focused on the use of street drugs, and debunked some of the strong myths about such use.  In an interview in the TImes this week, he explained that most people that use illegal drugs enjoy them responsibly and do not become zombie addicts.  His research suggests that the small minority with addiction and related problems start with additional psychiatric conditions, and that these should be treated medically as individual human problems.  

If Hart is anywhere close to right, the war on drugs, which has lasted far longer and cost even more than the war in Afghanistan, should be ended.  As with the end of alcohol prohibition, the problems of substance abuse won’t disappear, but they can be managed.  And the far bigger problems of organized crime and organized state violence against millions of ordinary people would get a lot smaller.

Understanding life, or at least, trying

An osprey at Jordan Lake

It was sunny this week, and warmer.  After I recovered from my bout with the flu, I got to spend more time outside with the birds, and made a few images I liked.  

I admit, one of the things I like about nature photography is fiddling with the amazing technology, which allows for harder and closer looks at everything.  But for me, the deeper purpose is connecting with the animals, vegetables, and minerals.  It is quite possible to be surrounded by nature and barely see it, as I have done many times.  On the other other hand, if you start looking and keep looking, there’s always more to see.

Nature photographs are, of course, distinct from nature itself.  Even the best are only tiny slices of the whole, and, for better or worse, always incorporate human choices on technology and aesthetics.  At the same time, there are aspects of nature, like a bird catching a fish, that we could barely see except in a photograph. 

      

In Mark Bittman’s new book about the human food system, he makes a point I found semi-comforting about the misery that humans have inflicted on the rest of the earth:  it wasn’t planned.  There was never an evil genius or plan directing mass slaughter of animals or destruction of their habitats.  There were, of course, strong cultural forces at work, such as capitalism, religion, and imperialism, as well as greed and fear.  

At the end of the day, though, there was no conscious decision to exterminate billions of wild animals.  We just didn’t notice.  We didn’t bother to look closely at the lives of other creatures, or think.  Even as it was happening, we didn’t really understand the extent of the damage we were doing to them, and to ourselves.  

But now we are starting to understand.  Maybe.  I hope.  There could still be time to change our course.  

We’ve been thinking more about viruses, but curiously scientists are not in agreement on whether viruses are alive.  According to Carl Zimmer’s recent piece in the NY Times, there is actually no well settled definition of where life separates from non-life, and viruses can arguably fit in either category.  No one ever saw a virus until there were modern electron microscopes, and no one knew much about how they operated until the advances in understanding DNA and RNA of the late 20th century.  

We now know there are a lot of individual viruses.  According to Zimmer, there are more of them in a litre of seawater than there are humans on the planet.  And there are more species of viruses than of anything else — possibly trillions of them.  In our own guts, there are at least 21,000 viral species.

This sounds kind of scary, since the only viruses most of us have heard of are those that cause disease.  But a lot of them are harmless, and some of them are essential for life.  Some important ones assist our gut bacteria, and some of them have become part of the human genome.  

As to bacteria, we’ve come a long way from when I was a kid in the mid-20th century.  Back then, bacteria were all considered dangerous enemies.  Kitchen and bath cleaning products as well as medicine embodied the view that the only good bacterium was a dead one.  Now we understand better that bacteria are an essential part of our world, and, indeed, essential elements of our own bodies.  It sounds like we’re starting along a similar learning curve as to viruses.  

Great blue heron at Jordan Lake

Apropos of misunderstood and unfairly despised inhabitants of our home planet, I’d like to say a word on behalf of octopuses.  They are not, to human eyes, very attractive, but they have extraordinary talents, as I’ve noted before.  My Octopus Teacher, currently on Netflix, is a wonderful documentary about an octopus and a diver who develop a surprisingly intimate relationship.

I was very disappointed at the New York Times this week when it published a story whipping up octopus fears.  In a nutshell, the Times breathlessly reported that an octopus “angr[ily] lash[ed]” a tourist in Australia.  Later in the story, the Times finally made clear that the tourist was not seriously injured, and was more likely stung by a jellyfish.  

I am more grateful than I used to be for slow news days, when there is no particular political scandal, mass shooting, or other disaster, and newspaper editors are straining a bit to fill the paper.  But that doesn’t justify the Times’ tall tale of the angry lashing octopus.  

As those with any interest in the world’s deteriorating coral reefs already know, octopuses and other reef creatures have more than enough problems already.  Those who know nothing about octopuses, except that they look alien and scary, need education, rather than fear mongering.  Dear Times, such anti-nature pseudo journalism is bad for animals, humans, and your reputation, and should be discontinued.    

Flowers, birds, babies, bridges, and Bittman

Spring really showed up in Raleigh this week, with lots of flowers.  It’s always cheering, even though we know the pine pollen will soon be causing sneezes.  With several new buildings going up downtown, there are fewer trees for the birds to sing in, but there are still some singers.  I recognized several, including cardinals, robins, mockingbirds, song sparrows, and Carolina wrens.  I hope they all find mates, and have happy nests with bouncing chicks.

Jocelyn and Kyle visited here last week, and proudly announced that they were expecting a baby girl in the fall.  I was thrilled!  It is so exciting to be having a grandbaby, which I intend to spoil rotten.  Being a parent the first time round was stressful for me.  But especially with mature and loving parents taking care of the difficult things, like food, baths, diapers, and bedtime, babies are cute and fun to play with.  I’ve even started putting together a little songbook of children’s songs to play on the piano for my grandbaby and her friends, some of which I learned from my mom.  I’m also trying to decide what I’d like the new one to call me.  Poppy might be good.

I got hit by a brutal stomach flu bug early in the week, which  left me weak and shaken.  For a whole day, I couldn’t do anything but lie on my back, and the day after that, all I could manage was some reading.  

But I enjoyed reading about the roll out of several projects of our new president, including the big initiatives addressing our bridges, dams, roads, water systems, electric grids, and other infrastructure problems.  After years of extreme polarization, it now seems that a lot of people are in agreement as to this reality:  we’ve neglected basic operating needs for decades and unless we want more disasters, we’ve got to get to work.  Just weeks after the defeat of that big-mouthed lying loser, it feels like we might be starting to make real progress on some of our big problems, including climate change and racial justice.  The President’s proposal to have wealthy corporations start paying their fair share of the bills seems like it could work.  

Apropos of reading and trying to patch up our system, I strongly recommend a new book:  Animal, Vegetable, Junk, by Mark Bittman.  It is about food, and asks the seemingly simple question:  what is food for?  If you said nutrition, then you will get some new perspectives from this book.  Bittman shows that food practices explain a lot about the rise and fall of human civilizations, including our own.  

Bittman urges us to rethink some basic assumptions, such as treating the earth as an inexhaustible resource for human consumption, and treating food as an industry entitled to seek nothing other than more money.  Animal, Vegetable, Junk tells a gripping, severely under-reported story, which urgently needs our attention.