The Casual Blog

New paint, and shining some light on the dark money

We’re getting ready to have our apartment painted, and it feels a lot like getting ready to move.  All the books are coming off the shelves and going into boxes or the used bookseller, and some old furniture is going to charity or the dump.  It’s unsettling, but we’re ready for some new colors.  Change can be good.

We’re feeling a little shaky as we enter the home stretch of the presidential election.  I still haven’t recovered from the shock of the disastrous election four years ago, and I doubt those scars will ever heal entirely.  Of course, we all always knew, anything can happen, but the 2016 election was a point when we realized, truly, anything could happen.  That is, of course, still true.

But it’s also true that we know a few things we didn’t in 2016, and we’re learning more all the time.  We may or may not have hit bottom for degraded hypocrisy by Republican Senators with the confirmation process for Judge Barrett.   But one good moment in the process came from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D., RI), who managed to shed a bit of light in the darkness. 

Specifically Senator Whitehouse called out the contributions of millions of dollars in dark money that went into confirming Trump’s Supreme Court nominees.  That is, boatloads of money from rich individuals and corporations have been and are being spent to get a Supreme Court that concerns almost exclusively with the well being of corporations and wealthy people, and the favored beliefs of one type of religion.  It should be shocking.  

A new report by Senator Whitehouse, Senator Warren, and others gives more details about the dark money and its success in controlling the courts. It’s here.

The enormous changes that the rich have wrought in our society in the last 50 years are the subject of Kurt Andersen’s new book, which I’ve almost finished.  In Evil Geniuses:  The Unmaking of America (A Recent History), Andersen gives a lively and readable account of changes in politics, law, and finance that quietly transformed our lives.  The elites got much, much richer, and most everyone else got leftovers.

As Andersen explains, the ideas behind the changes were not complicated.  The main objectives were and still are about lower taxes for rich people, and eliminating regulations on corporations.  The implementation involved enormous expenditures by people like the Kochs, Scaifes, and Olins to maximize political influence.  Beginning in the 1970s, they cleverly normalized their extreme position by establishing a network of conservative think tanks, endowed positions for friendly academics, politicians, and eventually, judges.  

Among the happy recipients of all that dark money was the Federalist Society, which engineered the nomination of Judge Barrett and boosted five current Justices, not to mention many other federal judges.  The group has been funded by a rogues gallery of super wealthy right wingers, including the Kochs, Olins, Scaifes, andMercers, and now gets millions of dollars annually from such sources.  

The publicly expressed ideology of the Federalist Society is all about freedom, constitutional rights, and tradition.   Much of its actual work is all about making sure the rich get to keep all the money they have and get a lot more.  Otherwise, group members generally support right wing positions on social issues of special interest to a regressive branch of Christianity, including abortion, gay marriage, and maintaining the racial status quo. 

As Andersen explains, we arrived at our current situation of oligarchic control and extreme inequality in small steps, many of which were legally and financially complicated. Most of us didn’t even realize the takeover was happening.  But with raw and unapologetic power plays like the Barrett confirmation process, the big picture is snapping into focus:  one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for the rich.

Getting to this point took a very long, careful, intensive effort on the part of the super greedy.  The good news is, the brutal oligarchic system we’ve now got is not set in stone.  We can change it and make one that’s fairer and more compassionate.   It may be we’re just about to start that work.  We’ll have a better idea in a couple of weeks.  

One quick postscript to my post of October 9 regarding Judge Barrett, Justice Scalia, and originalism. Erwin Chemerinsky, an eminent constitutional scholar, reinforced a couple of my points in a NY Times op ed this week . He notes that originalism is not at all what it pretends to be, in terms of its certainty and objectivity. He also points out that some of its positions run directly counter to our basic ideals regarding equality.

A different way of looking at Trump’s racism

Sally’s new orchid, a gift from Jocelyn and Kyle

There are a lot of different ways of looking at the world, aren’t there?  Although President Trump looks to be headed at full speed towards an election cliff, I still keep hearing startling interviews with his supporters.  There are some who think he’s honest and effective, and they like his style.  They find him both admirable and lovable. 

This week I heard normal seeming people saying it’s unfair to tag Trump as racist.  Didn’t they hear him calling neo-Nazis very fine people, and telling the Proud Boys to stand by?   What’s going on?  I have a few thoughts.

Racism is not the only problem we’ve got in the U.S., but it’s a big one.  Not so long ago, I thought white people (my birth group) were making great progress in putting behind us the myth that people of color are inferior.  We’d enacted laws requiring racial equality, and started seeing the pervasiveness of more subtle discrimination.  

So I assumed that when Black people started pointing up the fact that they are too frequently targets of police violence and other discrimination, most white people would be receptive and sympathetic.  I figured those who were unaware would want to learn more.  I thought most everyone would be interested in how to fix the problem.

And happily, a lot of white people have spoken along these lines.  But there has been a strong counter reaction by others.  The storyline for them goes something like this: Black protesters are violent ne’er-do-wells who are unfairly targeting the police, who have done nothing wrong.  The real problem (in this view) is how to stop the protesters, and how to prevent them from destroying businesses and invading the suburbs.  White people, not Black people, are the real victims.  

This upside down storyline has been promoted in right wing media such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh-type talk radio, and, of course, President Trump.  At first I thought the torrent of slick, angry, fear mongering media accounted entirely for the right wing narrative.  That is, I imagined that those who saw white people as the true victims were were overwhelmed by the propaganda of Fox and its various friends, and simply not getting enough correct information.

But I’ve come to  think this is not a complete explanation.  There are some who fail to see the point of Black Lives Matter protests who do not live entirely in a right-wing media bubble.  They are exposed to other information sources.  For them, the problem is not lack of information, but something more complicated.  

I don’t have all the data, of course, but I assume Trump supporters are in most regards the same as everybody else.  That is, we all have basically the same physical make up, the same genetic components, and the same brain structures.  There are individual variations among Trumpists, with some being loud and obnoxious, and others quiet and thoughtful.  I’m sure there are many who are loving parents, good employees, and charitable community members.  There are certainly some that I like as people and respect, except for their Trumpism.  

The big difference between us has to do with information processing.  We ordinarily think that if we see, say, a star, everyone in the vicinity is seeing the same thing. Similarly, if we hear a story about children being separated from their parents and held in cages, or about hundreds of thousands of people dying in a pandemic, we think our reaction is about the same as everyone else’s.  But this, it turns out, is not necessarily so.   

We don’t usually think of reality as something we each create and maintain with our brains, but it is, in a way.  As infants, we learn to distinguish significant from insignificant, and pay attention mostly to those things that are either pleasant or threatening.  Eventually we learn how, without conscious effort, to filter out the great majority of sound waves, light waves, and other potential stimuli.  

We couldn’t function otherwise.  Our brains don’t have the processing power to render coherent all the sound, light, and other physical activity around us.  We can choose to train ourselves to notice some things we might not otherwise notice, like rocks that may actually be fossils or meteorites.  But in general we take the mental framework we’ve built up, and don’t perceive much outside of it.

Our social reality is similar, in that it’s something we each construct, piece by piece.  We start as infants learning who and what to trust, and who and what to fear.  We accumulate a library full of working assumptions about what sort of behavior is normal, and what sort is alarming.  And we situate ourselves in communities of people with similar assumptions about normal and abnormal ideas and behavior.

There are significant advantages in being in a community with its own culture.  We can outsource a lot of the work, relying on others to detect threats or opportunities.  The community helps its members with food, clothing, and social contact.  But the community also imposes restrictions.  These include the requirement not to question basic assumptions of the community.  

So for example, in a mining community, raising questions as to the risks of global warming may be unwelcome.  For a long time, I assumed that in such situations, many people might have doubts on factual or moral questions but consciously keep quiet about them, so they could remain community members.  

But now I’m thinking it’s more likely that they have no doubts.  That is, if being in a community requires that you believe something, you may well sincerely believe it — even if it has no factual basis. 

And if there’s a challenge from outside the community to the belief (such as, say, a broad consensus of expert opinion that man made climate change is happening and potentially disastrous), it takes no conscious effort to ignore it. You don’t register conflicting information, or instantly dismiss it.  The belief carries with it a kind of filter that traps and isolates dissonance, so that inconsistent information has no effect on the thinking of the community.

How could we test this theory?  We could do surveys or brain scan experiments, and probably should, because it would be helpful to get more data about how our minds can settle on conclusions at odds with our basic moral principles and all known evidence.  But in the meantime, it’s worth keeping in mind the possibility that people develop thought patterns that have nothing to do with physical reality while remaining otherwise sane and productive members of the community.  

This week I had a minor epiphany listening to an interview with a Trump supporter.  The supporter was defending Trump against what he viewed as unfair charges of racism.  When the interviewer asked how he’d describe racism, the supporter gave a surprising explanation:  it’s when you consciously hate Black people and want to hurt them.  The Trump supporter said he’d never personally known a racist.

Conscious hatred and malice is a very narrow definition of racism, obviously.  For this Trump supporter, and probably a lot of others, racism is not a big problem, because as they define it, it is only rarely found in the real world.  

This would explain why Trump supporters reject and resent suggestions that they themselves are racist.  They don’t consider themselves malicious towards Black people, and think it’s unfair that anyone one would think that of them. This is understandable.  

But racism is actually much broader. A fair understanding of racism takes in a range of attitudes and behaviors, from violence and hate speech all the way and to hurtful social slights and indifference.  A lot of our behavior and institutions have strong and non-obvious assumptions as to one race being superior and others inferior.   Under a broader definition, almost all of us are raised as racists, and are to some degree racist.  Understanding and correcting for our own inherited and unconscious racism is hard work.

Isabel Wilkerson has argued in her new book Caste that it’s helpful to talk about the American system using the terminology of caste, rather than race.  That is, the American system is in some ways like other caste systems of history, such as the Indian, South African, and German ones.  Like us, other countries have had elaborate systems for defining degrees of inferiority and permitting oppression.  Using this caste approach might be a good workaround for the definition problem with the word racism. 

Anyhow, I now get why Trump may actually think he’s not a racist, and his supporters may agree.  I would argue that redefining racism to exclude most of the actual social problem is nonsense driven by what we’ve traditionally called racism.   But I don’t expect that will be at all convincing to Trump supporters. 

For these supporters, I doubt that any unapproved argument will get through the filtering system and affect their thinking. But even so, it’s important to keep talking, and maintain loving and respectful relations. Most of the time, we can have differing world views and still enjoy each other’s humor, intelligence, creativity, and affection. In fact, you never know how things will turn out. From time to time, people change their minds.

Changing colors, and the problems with Judge Barrett

 

When the leaves start changing, I’m always a little surprised and reassured.  This week in Raleigh we had a few more reds and golds, and the Canada geese at Shelley Lake were practicing flying in formation.  I enjoyed spending some time with the trees and birds.  A friend told me recently she found my nature photos to be a calming counterpoint to political discussions, which I do as well.  

In the closing days of the presidential campaign, the Trump show has not gotten better.  Trump is looking to short circuit the election, promising miracle Covid-19 cures, and agitating to have his political enemies arrested, while finding new ways to share the coronavirus with his employees and supporters.  

With polls indicating a strong possibility of a landslide against him, I’m hoping we’ll soon be changing the channel.  Unfortunately, Trump will be leaving a mess that will take a while to clean up.  Hard to know what to do with those racist militias, for example. There’s also the Supreme Court.

With Justice Ginsberg’s untimely passing, I thought there was a chance that a remnant of decency and shame on the part of Senate Republicans could lead to postponement of a decision on a new Justice.  Don’t ask me why I ever thought such a ridiculous thing.  As of this writing, it looks like the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett is greased to go.

Judge Barrett is a bit of an oddity among Supreme Court nominees, in that she didn’t go to a top tier law school, didn’t serve time in a power elite law firm or federal agency, and is a long time member of a luridly patriarchal religious cult.  Her primary qualification, according to supporters, is her experience as a law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia. 

This is essentially code for:  law school success and rock solid far right conservatism, with a low probability of a new justice straying toward the liberals.  As a former clerk for Justice Scalia myself, I understand this logic.  Also, for the minority who think the only important issue in American politics is stopping abortions, she is certainly an understandable choice. 

Here’s the problem:  in pledging allegiance to Justice Scalia, Judge Barrett is also signaling that she adheres to a  judicial method that is seriously flawed.  A lot of people don’t understand the inherent problems of that method, and the good reasons for abandoning it.   

First, let me say, it was a great honor to be clerk for Justice Scalia, and I personally liked him.  He had a lot of warmth, and a good sense of humor.  He and I shared a passion for classical music, tennis, and good Italian food.  Although we were far apart on politics (I was a Democrat well to his left), we got along well.

When I began my year as a Scalia clerk in 1987, I was a recent graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law.  Like most clerks, I’d done well in law school but had hardly any experience as a lawyer.  Scalia presented me and others with a seductively attractive system for deciding cases which initially seemed logical and practical.  

American appeals court judges, including Justices, are charged with deciding unclear points of law, and they are expected to give reasoning in support of their decisions.  There are no set rules on what qualifies as adequate supporting reasoning.  At a minimum, decisions are supposed to have some basis recognized in the law, and to represent more than the personal preferences of the judges.

Scalia’s declared methodology for interpreting the Constitution was to rely as much as possible on the original text, without reference to later developments or current views.  He had a similar methodology for interpreting statutes, focusing on the language and disregarding legislative history or social context.

Scalia promoted his originalist system as objective and rational.  It was, supposedly, the opposite of judicial activism, in which a judge promotes his or her own political and social views.  Observing the methodology in action over the following decades, however, I came to see it as at best unreliable, and at worst a kind of intellectual grift. The reasons relate to the building blocks of language and history.

First, language is far less fixed and determinate than Scalia acknowledged.  He presented ancient dictionaries as highly reliable guides, not recognizing they all have ambiguities, inaccuracies, and gaps.  Moreover, there is never certainty that a particular writer meant the exact same thing as a particular lexicographer.  Thus relying on dictionaries to interpret constitutional words and phrases like “commerce,” “due process,” or “equal protection,” is dubious.

At times, Scalia relied on historical research in support of his position, but he normally included only historical examples that supported the conclusion he hoped to reach, and skipped over evidence against his conclusions.   He had no interest in the sometimes tedious work of professional historians examining new evidence to develop a richer understanding of the past.  Indeed, he seems not to have recognized that respectable historians aren’t generally expecting to arrive at unchanging eternal truths.  And of course, Scalia had neither the training nor the time to be a professional historian.  

In fairness, Scalia was not the only judge ever to cite history selectively or otherwise stack the deck in favor of a desired outcome.  Indeed, there is nothing unusual about judges using history and other evidence selectively to support their initial intuitions, rather than using legal analysis to determine the solution to a legal problem.  Like other humans, judges are inclined to find that arguments supporting their intuitions are much more persuasive than those conflicting with them.

Few judges, though, have Scalia’s fierce belief in his methodology as always superior, and his corresponding utter disdain for alternative approaches.  This belief made him reluctant to compromise and inclined to see those who disagreed with him as ignorant or acting in bad faith.  It tended to undermine the possibilities of reasoned debate with colleagues leading to better decision making.  If you already have figured out the truth, why waste time trying to work things out with those who haven’t seen the light?  

As many have noted, Scalia was highly intelligent, and he was a skilled legal craftsman.  A former debater, he was extremely good at avoiding arguments he disliked and diverting attention from his own weak points.  Especially when his position was difficult to defend, his writing could be dense, lengthy, and exhausting.  He was also sometimes very witty.  

But there is no reason to think that Scalia’s opinions were generally either better reasoned or more often correct than his colleagues’.  In fact, his confidence in his method — his self certainty — virtually assured that he would be less likely than others to examine his own prejudices and to try to account for them.  It’s possible he believed his own biases were not a factor in his decisions, but his record shows the contrary.  

Scalia’s world view and personal prejudices generally mirrored those of white, conservative, privileged men of his generation.  I doubt that he developed his originalist method with the explicit intention of freezing the existing elite power structure or preventing the advancement of the less powerful.  Perhaps he mistakenly thought he’d found the perfect formula for objectivity and the cure for activism.  

Whatever his original reasons, in retrospect, it is obvious that his legal decisions closely conformed to his cultural assumptions and prejudices.  Scalia almost always ended up where he started, having worked out an originalist argument that harmonized with his views.  His system did not work as advertised, and was far from objective.  

His positions in cases involving claims by racial minorities, women, gays, immigrants, prisoners or other less powerful groups were highly predictable:  they would almost never get his vote.  Environmental causes, such as controlling pollution or preserving habitats for endangered species, also didn’t get his vote.  He favored teaching creationism, and didn’t pretend to be much interested in science.  Large corporations, religious organizations, and other defenders of the status quo were to him the most appealing litigants, and most likely to get his vote. 

If Judge Barrett models herself on Scalia, she will be using a judicial approach that pretends to be objective, but that almost always yields a result that favors those with wealth and power.  She will see little merit in arguments for the rights and welfare of the less powerful.  

Perhaps worse, taking Scalia as a model, a Justice Barrett would be unable to acknowledge that she had personal biases that, unless recognized, tend to drive her decisions.  She would mistake the cultural assumptions bequeathed to her, such as patriarchal authority and aversion to homosexuality, as bedrock truths, and insist that those holding different assumptions were threats to democracy.  She would find it difficult to take seriously any argument inconsistent with her intuition.  

In addition, a Justice Barrett following the Scalia approach would reduce the possibility of collegiality and reasoned debate.  The ideal of a well informed group of Justices collaborating together in search of reasonable solutions is hard to reach, but even harder if any Justice believes that only she has the truth.

Perhaps Scalia’s passionate but wooden approach to legal reasoning will eventually morph into something more useful, and his successors will get better at questioning their own cultural assumptions and considering those of others.  In the meantime, there is ample reason to resist adding a Scalia acolyte to the Court.  

The debate disaster, ending the elections problem, and fixing messy history

The presidential debate this week was difficult to watch, but gave us plenty to think about.  President Trump seemed to be impersonating an angry wingnut conspiracy monger’s all caps Twitter account.  When Biden threatened to say something interesting, Trump interrupted with ugly taunts, sarcastic asides, baseless accusations, bizarre lies, and shouts of incoherent nonsense.  

Judged by any normal standards of civil discourse, Trump’s performance was not just disgusting but bizarre.  Why would anyone do that?  But perhaps there was a method in the madness.  Trump’s performance seemed designed to make people stop watching politicians and thinking about politics. 

And that would make some sense.  If people kept watching, they might like Biden even better, and the pending anti-Trump landslide might get even bigger.  Given Biden’s success so far, it would make some sense for the pro-Trump forces to try to make everyone so sick of the political process that they tune out and stay home.  

The debate was such a fiasco that the commission in charge is talking about revising the rules for the remaining two debates.  One idea is to cut off the mike of the candidate who refuses to shut up according to the rules.  Unfortunately, that wouldn’t prevent a crazy orange haired candidate from distracting the other candidate by shouting bizarre lies.

So I have an idea!  Remember those cake stands with glass covers that show nicely decorated cakes?  We could make a very large soundproof cake stand cover and suspend it with a motorized cable above the candidates.  Then when a candidate shifts into Tweeting madman mode, the moderator could lower the cover.  We could observe the candidate smirking, scowling, and gesticulating, but would be able to listen to what the other candidate was trying to say.  After some suitable penalty period (say, 3 minutes), the moderator could raise the cake stand, and the out-of-control candidate would get another chance to behave normally and play by the rules.

In the debate this week, Trump declined to condemn white supremacists, and tried to blame left wingers for violent incidents associated with peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.  He spoke approvingly of a violent racist group called the Proud Boys.  If all that weren’t horrifying enough, he encouraged his followers to gather at polling places to discourage non-supporters from voting, and again claimed that the election is going to be fraudulent.     

With President Trump all but promising to declare our next presidential election invalid unless he wins, he continues to force us to think more about American democracy.  I’ve always thought of elections as one of the least interesting things about the American system, because they were generally simple and uncontroversial.  We voted, the votes were counted, and the person with the most votes won.  

Now, to be sure, there have always been problems with our elections, such as excluding Black people, women, and others from the process during much of our history.  But I thought the worst of that was in the past, and that one thing most Americans were justifiably proud about was having more or less free and fair elections.  

If only!  It sounds like Trump and a significant number of his followers who propose to Make America Great Again are ready to stop having those old fashioned elections.  Is it really possible that there are seemingly normal people who think 1. this is a great country and also 2. we should quit having free and fair elections?  Even if their adored potential dictator were someone of much higher quality than Trump, this seems like a thing you would oppose if you cared at all about our country.  

I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic.  I’m still fairly sure that stopping fair elections and making Trump our supreme leader is the dream of only a minority, and the majority will not buy it.  But Trump is making unmistakeable and unprecedented threats to dismantle our most fundamental institutions, including elections, and we can’t take it as a joke.  We need to vote and encourage voting like never before, and like the future of our democracy is at stake.  

The movement to dispense with elections may have something to do with weaknesses in our system for teaching history.  A lot of history education is badly done, and leaves students with the mistaken impression that history is boring.  As an enthusiastic amateur of American history, I was intrigued to hear about President Trump’s new history initiative, the 1776 Project.  

But I quickly got less excited.  The 1776 Project seems to be an effort to reinforce the traditional triumphalist narrative in American history and suppress the fuller understanding coming into view from sources like the 1619 Project The latter is an effort begun last year at the New York Times to shine light on formative aspects of our national experience that we’ve mostly tried hard to forget, like slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and contemporary discrimination.  

The 1619 Project sparked a lively discussion of the meaning of race and the roots of our existing power structure, and it’s well worth reading and talking about.   My guess is that the 1776 Project turns out to be nothing more than another cynical election year Trump lie-promise.  It probably won’t even rev up the base very much, since most of them hated high school history, quickly forgot the little they learned, and have no interest in ever thinking about history again.  

As of this writing, it looks like the chances are good that Trump himself will be history come January 20, 2021.  But if we should be so unfortunate as to have to revise American history to fit the Trumpian vision, it would be fairly easy.  Essentially, we’d just censor all the unpleasant stuff that clutters up the MAGA narrative, and get over any last shreds of reluctance to celebrate white supremacy.  

For example, here’s a prototype of a 1776 Project history quiz.  See how you do! 

 

  1.  Prior to the Civil War, life in the American south was:
  1. Romantic, with gallant men and pretty girls in flowing gowns
  2. Opulent, with tremendous profits from cotton, which allowed for building lovely mansions with columns with grand lawns
  3. Lively and stimulating, with big parties and fine horses
  4. Generally harmonious, except for the occasional duel to preserve gentlemanly honor

 

  1.  How well were American slaves treated before the Civil War?
  1. Not bad.  They got whipped and tortured, but generally only when they failed to do as instructed
  2. Fairly well.  Otherwise, why didn’t they escape?
  3. Well.  They got to sing those lovely spirituals and do lively dances
  4. Quite well.  They got free room and board, and we should all be so lucky

 

  1. What was the most remarkable achievement of the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups following the Civil War?
  1. Mass imprisonment of former slaves on vague charges such as vagrancy and loitering
  2. Widespread lynchings on false charges of improper relations with white women
  3. Preventing Black people from living outside designated areas and from socializing with white people
  4. Violence that intimidated former slaves into not voting

 

  1. What was eugenics?
  1.  A pseudo scientific theory developed in the late 19th century and widely accepted in America that classified the white race as superior
  2. A movement that used forced sterilization and other measures to reduce reproduction rates of non-white people so as to improve population genetics
  3. The intellectual basis for Hitler’s final solution
  4. All of the above

 

  1. What is the significance of Black Lives Matter protests against police systems that regularly harass, brutalize, and kill Black people?
  1. No idea 
  2. They clearly make no sense
  3.  They are part of a plot by leftists to kill police and bring anarchy
  4.  They show the need for mobilizing massive force against Black people and their supporters in the hellhole cities so as to prevent invasion of beautiful white people’s suburbs

See, it wasn’t that difficult!  In Trumpworld (as opposed to reality), every single answer is entitled to full credit.  Needless to say, I’m hoping we’ll be leaving the false and racist history of Trumpworld very soon, and continuing the struggle towards racial equality and justice.  

If you’re interested in learning more about how American schools teach history, I recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James Loewen, which I’ve been re-reading.  The title is a bit of an oversell (it doesn’t literally have “everything”), but Loewen has a lively style and gives bracing accounts of some of the key distortions regarding our forebears that most of us got indoctrinated with.  

Safe voting, affectionate birds, climate undenialism, and beginning capitalism 2.0

I voted!   I was not eager to vote in person because of the pandemic, and had some misgivings about the reliability of voting by mail.  But friends pointed me to BallotTrax, a new online tool in NC and other states that lets you know when your mailed ballot has been received and accepted.  It’s easy and fun!  Well, not exactly fun, but reassuring.  In NC, once the mailed ballots are received, they are checked in, and counted on election night.

This week I went to Scotland Neck, NC to visit the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park.  There were a lot of beautiful avians, and some of them were surprisingly affectionate, following me around and gesturing.  Had they been missing having human visitors when the place was closed for the pandemic?  Hard to say, but maybe.  Here are a few of the photographs I made. 

Elsewhere we’ve been having a lot of simultaneous disasters, including huge fires across the length of the West Coast, flooding from hurricanes, fracturing ice shelves, and the coronavirus plague, not to mention the drama regarding the fate of American democracy.  These are hard to think about, either separately or together.  But I always try to look for a silver lining, and I managed to find one thing to feel a little cheerful about.  

Which is this:  For the first time in our lifetimes, climate change has become a significant issue in presidential politics.  Global warming and related changes have been happening for decades, and the risks of catastrophic change have become increasingly clear.  But politicians have mostly kept quiet about it.  Now it’s high on the discussion agenda.   That doesn’t mean we’ll fix it, of course, but if we don’t talk about it and make some changes, things will be getting a lot worse.  

Addressing the West Coast fires recently, Biden called Trump a “climate arsonist.”  Meanwhile, Trump expressed doubt as to whether scientists knew what they knew and tried to blame the fires on state officials.  

As loony as Trump was and is, I thought Biden’s “climate arsonist” tag was a little strong, since it’s probable that Trump didn’t actually light fires.  But Trump and his henchmen have done everything within their power to raise doubt and confusion about the reality of climate change, and to make sure there’s more of it coming soon.  Examples include lifting key regulations on vehicle emissions and power plants, lowering limits on methane emissions, promoting fossil fuel mining and drilling on public lands and waters, and opposing international climate cooperation.     

All this will, unless reversed, eventually contribute to death and destruction far exceeding the evil dreams of the world’s most fanatical terrorists.   There are many good reasons to stop Trump, but even if there weren’t, saving the world from climate disaster would suffice.  Still, even with all of Trump’s perverse misdeeds, it would be unfair to blame him alone for the global warming disaster.  

The rise of CO2 levels started generations ago with the Industrial Revolution, though it has greatly accelerated in our lifetimes.  Scientists began warning in the 1980s that dramatically rising temperatures caused by our emissions were going to happen and potentially lead to global disaster.  Trump is not the only one who tried to ignore it — so did almost all of our politicians, and most of the rest of us.

The science behind global warming is a little complicated, in that it involves some basic chemistry, but not nearly as complicated as, say, understanding essentially how a car works.  Ignorance is a problem, but not the biggest problem.  

The main barrier to comprehending climate change is that it doesn’t fit with some of our most basic assumptions about the world and our lives.  We’ve been taught to think of our world as a place of limitless resources, boundless wealth, and unending consumption, and our basic mission as exploiting and enjoying all that.  Any less opulent vision is not just less pleasant — it’s almost inconceivable.  

As Naomi Oreskes recently pointed out in Scientific American, it’s sort of understandable that people want to reject established science when it tells them something that conflicts with their firmly held worldview.    It’s less painful to reject the science than to change our basic way of thinking about our lives.

A week or so back, Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, and other influential right wing commentators made comments supporting Trump’s denial of climate science.  Per these “pundits,” science was a ruse by the evil liberals to take away good people’s freedom and make them feel less good about themselves.    They argued that accepting ordinary science would mean their listeners would lose control of their lives.  

As far as I know, there’s no left wing conspiracy, but Carlson and Limbaugh have kind of a point.  Unless we deny scientific reality and also reverse the laws of physics, we’re going to have to make some changes, collectively and individually, and it won’t all feel good.  But the alternative is that we, and all future generations, will face climate change suffering on a scale that is literally unimaginable.  A recent summary from the Times of what is likely to happen in the US is here

Fortunately, Trump and the right wing pundits seem to be losing the battle for hearts and minds, while scientific reality seems to be making progress.  Recent polls show more people seriously concerned about climate change, and favoring action.  There’s also been an encouraging shift in thinking about some of the established and related ideas on market capitalism.

This week the NY Times published a noteworthy piece   on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s amazingly influential essay arguing that corporations should disregard social objectives and devote themselves entirely to increasing profits.  

Friedman, then a respected economist, contended that corporations owed no duties other than to their shareholders, and had no responsibilities other than to make money.  To be fair, Friedman left himself a bit of wiggle room, noting that there were a few legal and ethical constraints.  But he argued that for corporations to try to support concerns for social welfare was essentially bad, like communism.

Along with Friedman’s fear mongering — equating social justice with a communist menace — he made some flagrantly ridiculous assumptions.  He assumed (without saying so) that the existing social order was right and proper, and that free markets would naturally continue to uphold that fine social order.  Thus he papered over existing social and political failures, such as systemic racial and gender discrimination, inadequate housing and transportation, poor healthcare, air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and widespread extinction of non-human life.  

Friedman also adopted and encouraged a value system of extreme individualism.  In this system, the prime mover and highest objective is the individual, rather than the family, the community, or the earth.  While other systems put value on mutual support, cooperation, and compassion, the Friedman individualist says,  all that matters is that I get and keep as much as possible, and to hell with everyone else.  

In retrospect, Friedman’s thinking looks nothing like science, but more like a twisted religion, with human sacrifices and profits going to god-like captains of industry.  But at the time it struck a cultural chord.  Increasing corporate profits through deregulation and cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy became the prime policy objectives of the well-to-do right.  Healthcare, education, housing, and other social concerns were matters of indifference.  To the extent that poor people made the discussion agenda, the main initiatives were cutting welfare and enacting harsher drug laws to lock more of them up.  

Friedman’s endorsement of the upside-down morality of “greed is good” gave moral cover to powerful corporate execs and their Wall Street cronies to justify taking more and more for themselves.  The result was our current outrageous inequalities of wealth.  Our political processes were increasingly corrupted by corporate political contributions (effectively legalized bribes) that headed off reform.  Our deep social problems, like racism, inadequate social services, and climate change, continued to fester.   

I’d assumed that Friedman’s theory was still dominant in wealthy conservative circles.  But it was cheering to learn I may have been wrong.  The Times feature on Friedman included statements from leading business executives and academics that indicated a lot of them were rejecting Friedman’s central assertions on the holiness of raw capitalism and the sinfulness of concern for the public interest.  Among the commenters there were still a few unreconstructed free marketeers, but the majority seemed to recognize that considering the public interest was not inconsistent with markets and profits.  

Along this same line, the Business Roundtable, a conservative organization of CEOs of giant American corporations, issued a new statement of purpose last year that significantly modified its previous Friedmanian emphasis on shareholder profits.  The new statement acknowledged that corporations also have responsibilities to their customers, employees, and communities.  It also acknowledged a duty to protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices.

These leaders generally seem to be realizing that pursuing corporate profits alone was a huge mistake, and that there are other imperatives (like climate change) that require a different way of thinking about the public interest.  Divorcing the ideas of markets from the idea of a fair and sustainable social system never made any actual sense, in spite of its surface appeal. If some of the smartest, most privileged beneficiaries of the system are seeing the interrelatedness of markets and the public interest, we could be heading in the right direction.   

Sleeping trouble, adieu to RBG, and picking the lesser of evils in Trumpworld

 

Canada geese at Shelley Lake

I heard on the news last week that a lot of people are having trouble sleeping these days, and thought, me too!  My insomnia seems to be getting worse, though it’s nothing new, and over the years I’ve learned to make the best of it.  Lately when I wake up at 2:00 a.m., I’ve been watching YouTube videos of gifted pianists playing Chopin and Liszt, which are stimulating, but in a soothing way.  

There are so many things to feel anxious about that just listing them makes me anxious, so I won’t.  I can scratch from the list the worry that Justice Ginsburg might not survive until 2021, since yesterday she died.  I met her when I clerked at the D.C. Circuit, where she was then an appeals court judge, and found her pleasant, though quiet and in no way charismatic.  Only more recently, from the documentary RBG, did I realize that in her quiet way, she was an extraordinary person, who devoted her life to justice and did a lot of good for our country.  

Great egret at Shelley Lake

What will the Republicans do now?  The thought of a Justice Bill Barr, Justice Stephen Miller, or Justice Roger Stone is more horrifying than another Justice Federalist Society Ideologue, but they’re all horrifying.  Is there some chance that a few Republican senators will feel enough civic responsibility and/or shame to put off confirmation until after the election?   We can only hope.

Even if we didn’t face the strong possibility of an even more politicized, reactionary Supreme Court, we’d still have big problems.  We’re at a crossroads of American history, and I’m seriously worried that democracy as we know it is at risk.

Although I have nothing good to say about Donald Trump, I’m not profoundly worried about him in particular.  In the last two centuries, we’ve had leaders almost as corrupt and unqualified as Trump, and survived.  My sense of dread is more about the new way of engaging with politics that he reflects and inspires.

This came into focus for me last week with an odd op ed in the Washington Post arguing that although Trump had a lot of negatives, he was still the lesser of evils.  The criticisms of Biden were vague, but after a couple of re-readings, I think I got the gist:  Biden’s policies would destroy the republic, because they were liberal ones supported by Democrats.

This was difficult for me to process, because I’ve always thought that liberalism was not a monolith, but rather just one collection of views among many on the American political landscape.  In the 20th century, there were all kinds of political positions in America, from far left to far right, and it seemed normal for people to have different ideas on what were the best policy solutions.  To resolve our political differences, we had institutions, like legislatures, where we tried to persuade others and find compromises.  We agreed to have regular fair elections, where we could get rid of bad players, and the winners could carry on with the democratic experiment.

For me, there was never a time when the Democratic Party seemed particularly wise or enlightened.  Indeed, for more than half a century I’ve watched Democrats participate in a long series of what I thought were terrible choices on business regulation, criminal justice, healthcare, social services, foreign policy, and other areas.  In all of those, it arrived at compromises with Republicans.  Neither party had a monopoly on bad ideas, or good ones.  

I thought there was general agreement on this:  that political parties could fumble and sometimes fail, but politics would continue, with the possibility that future compromises would be better.  It never occurred to me to view American politics as a winner-take-all game, in which political opponents were viewed as by definition illegitimate.  

So it took me a while to grasp that Trumpism involved a different kind of thinking, with little in common with traditional Republicanism other than the name. But I think I’ve finally got it:  Trumpism at its core is defined not by any policy objective, but by fear and dread of enemies.  And in the political arena, the primary enemy, as they conceive it, is all those to the left of far right — that is, Democrats, and people like me. 

Of course, not everyone who supports Trump thinks the same way, and there are surely some who will vote for Trump without intending the destruction of all Democrats.  Still, the thing that drives the Trump movement is not a set of policies or even a value system.  Rather, it’s a strong conviction that Democrats aren’t just ordinary people who happen to have different ideas as to policies.  They are evil.  And very frightening.  

Once I understood this, some things I’d thought were plain lunacy started to make a kind of sense.  It seems crazy to deny the reality and effectiveness of science — unless science is consistently supporting Dark Forces that want Us to change Our Way of Life.  Increasingly popular nutty conspiracy theories like QAnon have at their base a belief that politics is not just politics, but a battle between good and evil.  And as everyone knows, there can be no compromise with evil — that is, according to this way of thinking, with Democrats.

If you’re persuaded that Democrats are not just a political party, but rather agents of Satan, it probably seems reasonable to buy more guns and ammunition to defend yourself against them.  It also would seem right and proper to use force against them when they assemble to protest something.  

On the other hand, under the Democrats-are-evil assumption, it makes no sense to have free and fair elections.  If you did that, there’s a possibility Democrats might win.  And then we’d be in big trouble!  No, in this new, Trumpist view, to save our democracy and our traditional way of life, we need to have a different kind of election, in which those who disagree with us cannot win.  If they insist on winning, a reasonable response is violence.    

For a full on Trumpist, encountering opposition to Trumpism is different from an ordinary political disagreement.  It is treason, or worse than treason — blasphemy!   In this strange worldview, those who attempt to argue that Trump has minor or major shortcomings like, say, lack of intelligence or lack of character, simply prove that they themselves lack intelligence or character.  Those who oppose Trump (that is, Democrats and others),show, by their opposition, that they are wrong and evil.

This is not to say all Trumpists like everything about Trump.  Some do, but some have various criticisms of his manners or certain policies.  But Trumpists believe he is the lesser of evils, because his opponents are really and truly evil.    

Obviously I’m putting things a bit strongly, and not trying to address every individual variation.  Again, I don’t think every Trump supporter is this extreme.  I realize that there are a minority of them who are willing to have a sincere, good faith political discussion, and who are willing to allow that political opposition can be legitimate.  I’m always on the lookout for those, and happy to have more discussions with them.  

But there’s really no point in attempting to have a discussion with an extreme Trumpist.  They are not willing to listen to anti-Trumpist ideas, and may react violently.  If they’re carrying weapons, I advise keeping at a safe distance.  If we’re going to continue the American political experiment, we’ll need to get back to basics.  First of all, Democrats and others who still believe American democracy is worth preserving need to vote.

  

 

 

Our Cape May getaway, and Trump’s fiddling while the West Coast burns

Cape May lighthouse

Last week Sally and I had a beach getaway to Cape May, New Jersey.  We met up with Jocelyn and our new son-in-law Kyle at an Airbnb house, which was charming and comfortable.  Jocelyn and Kyle had, while in New York City, had Covid-19, which in their case was no fun but well short of fatal, and we all thought it likely that they were immune and not infectious.  So we enjoyed cocktails and meals together, slow bike rides, and reading on the beach.  There were dolphins playing just offshore, and several species of seagulls.  

Cape May has a lot of charming Victorian gingerbread-type houses and beautiful gardens.  It also is a prime transit point for birds migrating along the East Coast.  Sally and I went out in the mornings and found some birds we weren’t familiar with, including a few warblers and large flocks of tree swallows.  There were very lush areas near the beach, with lots of wildflowers.  There were also mosquitoes, but no ticks, at least ones that found us.  

We tried to take a break from the news cycle, including the never ending Trump Show, but didn’t succeed entirely.  I found myself cycling between hope that sanity and good sense would ultimately prevail in the next election, and dread of the opposite.  

Trump didn’t seem to have any new ideas, but his old ideas, including trying to scare white people with the thought that Black people were coming to their neighborhoods, had worked for past American presidents, to our national shame.  When fear kicks in, the possibility of either compassion or logical thought is over, which is why he employs it.

But at least for now, judging from recent polling, his fear mongering calls for law and order don’t seem to be convincing anyone who he wasn’t pretty scared already.  Unfortunately, some of those are all in, including so-called patriot militias with guns and QAnon believers.  

One of Trump’s new favorite big lies is that antifa is a terrorist organization responsible for widespread violence.  This lie has been pressed into service to explain the West Coast wildfires, which in the last few days have become catastrophic.  In Trumpworld, the fires were set by antifa, rather than the lightning strikes that were in fact mostly responsible.  Sadly, some folks with flames bearing down on their houses believed that antifa was both responsible and planning to loot their neighborhoods.  Refusing orders to evacuate, they felt they needed to stay to defend their property.

As of this writing, Trump’s response to the West Coast wildfires has resembled his response to the coronavirus, which is to do nothing except emit hot air intended to distract attention from the disaster.  For any other president, this would be a career-ending scandal, an unbelievable dereliction of duty, but for Trump, it’s just a normal week.  

It did seem that Trump was causing some indigestion in the right wing from his derogatory comments about dead American soldiers being suckers and losers.  This is definitely appalling, though not especially surprising.  We’ve seen enough of Trump to know he is a deeply flawed person, with perhaps his most important flaw being an inability to care about anyone other than himself.  He just can’t process empathy and compassion, and therefore thinks they’re for suckers.  

His indifference is, for those whose lives might have been saved by federal action from wildfires, pandemics, and other human derived disasters, a disaster.  For many, including untold numbers of wild animals, this is the end.  For those of us still here, though, Trump’s ultra-selfishness and egomania can serve as a kind of negative example.  

That is, Trump embodies the most extreme version of capitalist amorality, in which greed is good and every other consideration is for losers.  His example of extreme individualism shows that such an ethos works poorly for everyone — even for the uber capitalist, whose appetites are relentless and never satisfied.  The mind set of greedy no-holds-barred individualism is ultimately self destructive, as shown by Trump himself, a sad figure who can barely be said to have a self that is self-aware.  

The opposite orientation — that is, prioritizing the concerns of others, expressing generosity, cultivating compassion — is in some ways more difficult.  But it increases the chances of social harmony and personal fulfillment.  As far as I know, we don’t have a political party organized around unselfishness and related values, but maybe someone will start one — though please, not till after November.   As we start to see the light at the end of the Trump tunnel, it’s a good time to start planning for change. 

How not to support law and order

Last year near Klemtu, British Columbia

I recently notified the North Carolina Bar that I wished to resign from the Bar.  After 32 years as a lawyer, I was and have been ready to hang up my briefcase and move forward with other things, and quit worrying about continuing education requirements.  There was one glitch:  a Bar official sent me a note saying my simple letter of resignation didn’t work, and I needed to submit a petition for inactive status.  

But this was far from the first hard-to-explain oddity of our legal system in my experience, and not difficult or expensive enough to fight about.  My petition for inactive status is now pending.  If it is not granted, then the Bar and I will need to have a serious discussion.  

I’m happy to be leaving the practice of law, but this doesn’t mean I want to give up on law and order.  Having a legal system, even an imperfect one, is  much better than chaos and the war of all against all.  To live in large groups, we need a system of rules and organized ways of resolving conflicts.  Of course, there are and always will be problems in the system that need fixing.

Over the past few months, the Black Lives Matter protests have shined a spotlight on a particularly dreadful aspect of our current system:  the prejudice against Black people that periodically results in police shootings and other violence against them.  This is not a new problem.  For generations, Black people have been held in a low position in the US caste system, and been victimized in various ways, including substandard housing, inferior education, inadequate medical care, mass incarceration and police violence.  

What is new is a massive public rejection by Black people and others of such injustice.  Protesters in cities and small towns across the country have peacefully gathered to call for ending discriminatory police violence.  Not surprisingly, some of their voices are angry, while their acts of protest show that they are hopeful and believe in the possibility of a better world.

At the same time, along with the peaceful protests, in a few places there have been episodes of vandalism, looting, and destruction of property.  Such incidents, though related to only a small fraction of the peaceful protests, are still problematic.  For the shopkeepers and other property owners, destroyed property and stolen goods can be a serious setback, and they deserve our sympathy and support.  

Vandalism and looting at the margins of the peaceful protests can also have a backfire effect.  Such acts tend to reinforce the anti-Black fear and prejudice that are the infrastructure of our racial caste system — the system that the protests are intended to challenge and change.  

I hope we can all agree that activity like destroying store windows or stealing goods is 1. criminal activity and 2. in no way comparable to policemen killing an unarmed Black person.  That is, killing is much worse.  I pause on this point, because President Trump seems to have a different view, which he is promoting with the full power of the Fox/Trump propaganda apparatus.   

Trump has barely if at all acknowledged the problem of police violence against Black people and the justifications for peaceful protests across the country.  Instead, he characterizes all protests as violent and all protesters as subhuman thugs who seek to invade the white suburbs.  

This is, of course, both false and opportunistic.  Trump and his supporters are leveraging our ingrained racial prejudice to arouse fear, which tends to fog the mind.  By ignoring the legitimate reasons for the protest and the peaceful nature of most of them, while magnifying coverage of every broken window, Trump and his confederates try to create a false alternative reality of an America dangerously out of control.  

Trump’s recent frequent repetitions of the slogan “law and order” are a familiar part of an old playbook.  It’s one of Trump’s more subtle racial dog whistles.  After all, who could oppose law and order? Some may not know that this was the code phrase used by Richard Nixon to call for reasserting white supremacy after the Civil Rights advances in the mid 1960s.   

If you knew nothing of America’s history of slavery and legalized oppression, and also nothing of the recent history of police violence against Black people, you might suppose that the best response to those protests would be more police in riot gear threatening and delivering violence.  But unless you were that ignorant, surely you would not respond to the protests with the very kind of violence that caused the protests in the first place.   That would just make things worse, right?  Right.

If there were any grounds for sincere hope that Trump would work for true law and order, it died a gasping death last week as he repeatedly expressed approval for right wing militias threatening and shooting BLM protesters.  His fear mongering has worked, at least for the segment of his base that believes in buying lots of firearms and preparing to use them on disorderly people of color.   

Along with normal and ordinary racial prejudice, these folks have a high degree of paranoia, susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and an ability to suspend disbelief and accept whatever Trump says.  When he tells them that the protesters are evil and threatening, they truly believe.  They suit up in camo and turn out together with loaded weapons.

So instead of law and order, Trump is creating a violent and dangerous situation.  The irony is that in our 231 years of having presidents, we’ve never had one so lawless and disdainful of law and order.  

The current investigations in New York of Trump’s possible insurance and bank fraud are only the most recent examples.  Many of his closest cronies have gone to jail for the work they did on his behalf, and more are awaiting indictment.  

While in office, he’s paid millions in fines   for some of his fraudulent schemes, including Trump University and the Trump “charities,” while others are still under investigation.  He’s attempted to quash legal investigations into his cooperation with the Russians, while using his office to seek political help from foreign governments like Ukraine and China.   He’s siphoned public money through his hotels.  Even more blatantly, as recently as last week he used government resources, including the White House itself, in his political campaign, in plain violation of US law.    

As bad as all that is, it may well just be the tip of the iceberg of Trump criminal conduct.  We still don’t have a clear view of most of his shady business dealings, and he continues to fight desperately to keep his tax returns secret.  

Anyhow, it’s obvious that Trump is not a big fan of law and order, except when it’s misconstrued to mean threatening and injuring protesters and Black people. 

As election day gets closer, the question is whether the fear mongering of the Trump/Fox propaganda machine will continue to strike enough believers as credible.  There are clearly a lot of people susceptible to their “law and order” nonsense, but I’m hopeful that more and more will be seeing Trump for what he is.  

Ibram X. Kendi gives some grounds for such hope in his new piece in The Atlantic titled The End of Denial.  He cites survey results showing a surprising increase in anti-racism since Trump became president.  Kendi suggests that Trump’s frequent and florid expressions of racism have brought it out of the shadows and made more people recognize and reject the racial caste system.  It would be both wonderful and ironic if Trump ended up as a President who unintentionally gave us a historic push to greater racial justice.

The virus is still here, except in Trump’s fantasyland

Having watched almost the entire Democratic Convention, I wanted to give equal time to the Republicans, so I watched their Convention.  Well, I should say, I tried, until I couldn’t take it anymore, and then I read about it the next day.  My tolerance for the alternative reality and fear mongering in real time was generally about 20 minutes.    

Though I don’t understand it, I accept  that there are people who are going to vote for Trump, and I was hoping to get a better grasp of why.  I assume a lot of Trump voters are decent and well meaning, with things in their life experience and psychology that net out to belief in MAGA.  

At the Convention, there were many normal-looking, normal-sounding people singing the praises of Trump.  Some told anecdotes about Trump’s being helpful to particular industries or being nice to particular people, some of which could have been true, though after four years of his nonstop lying, who knows?

I felt like I’d somehow wandered into an alternative universe, where the last four years hadn’t happened.  Everything Trump had done was kind and good, while his cruelty, corruption, and incompetence had disappeared.  It was disorienting, but somehow familiar.  Then I realized where I actually was:  the Fox News universe, a media bubble where Trump  is a god-like being receiving unquestioning adoration, and his impulsiveness and crack pot ideas are lauded as genius.

Some of the character references could have been viewed as ordinary political puffery.  But there were some claims and positions that were dangerous and so flagrantly false that it’s difficult to see how anyone could agree to say them, much less believe them.

A prime example is the Covid-19 pandemic, which Trump and other speakers spoke of in the past tense as having been successfully addressed by Trump.  It pushes the limits of the human capacity for denial and delusion to think either that the pandemic is over or that Trump did a good job handling it.  

As of this writing, the United States is seeing around 40,000 new cases per day, with a total of around 180,000 deaths so far.  The US is the world leader in active cases and total deaths.  Many of these deaths would not have happened under an ordinary, competent president, as shown by the lower infection and fatality rates in other countries.  Trump still has no plan for handling the pandemic, other than trying to distract attention from it and promoting miracle cures, like ingesting bleach.  

In fact, Trump continues to push in exactly the wrong direction by discouraging masks, modeling non-social distancing, and encouraging people to get back to work.  For his speech at the White House on the final night, he showed his profound selfishness and recklessness by having thousands of worshippers crammed together, with no testing and almost no masks.  They may have believed the lie that the pandemic was over.  In any case, with the President’s encouragement, they effectively risked their lives.  What kind of person would do that to his followers?  

As with the pandemic, in other areas the Republican Convention challenged America:  are you going to believe us, or your lying eyes?  With millions unemployed and thousands of businesses shuttered, the Republicans praised Trump for a fantastically successful economy.  He claimed to have kept every promise, and declared victory on health care, job creation, building the wall, foreign relations, building new infrastructure, and other areas in which he has accomplished almost nothing.  He did not attempt to defend his support for Russian interference in our affairs, his energy rules that will worsen the climate crisis, his tax cuts for the wealthy, the criminal conduct of his close advisors, or his own corruption.  

With police shootings continuing and Black Lives Matters protesters still calling for an end to racist police violence, Trump persuaded a few Black supporters to say he’s not a racist.  But he continued to claim that Black people are threatening to burn down our cities and invade the suburbs if he loses.  He did not explain his proposed solution to this imaginary problem, other than to keep repeating the phrase law and order.  Based on his recent activity, this seems to be shorthand for meeting protesters with tear gas and bullets and locking them up.

All this was unsettling, especially when combined with fear mongering about liberals.  Trump and his acolytes warned loudly and absurdly that Joe Biden and the Democrats embodied a dangerous alien ideology (such as communism or socialism) and would turn America into a hellhole.  There were a few quick nods to non-white people, but no acknowledgement or apologies for Trump’s ongoing support of white supremacists, his tear gassing protesters to get a photo op, his Muslim ban, and his putting immigrant children in cages and then losing them.  At least he didn’t threaten to lock up Joe and Kamala — yet.  

How do we know what is reality?  In general, we have a look at the people around us and try to figure out what they agree on.  This usually works well enough for us to stay out of big trouble, but as the Republicans have shown, not always.  Last month, Naomi Oreskes, a history professor at Harvard, wrote a short piece in Scientific American about the intellectual foundations of science, which I thought was so intriguing that I bought and read her new book, Why Trust Science?    

In the SA piece, Oreskes noted that one common reason for rejecting scientific knowledge is that people don’t like information that conflicts with their existing beliefs.  Thus there are many people who deny scientific consensus findings on climate change because they require responses that are inconsistent with their faith in markets and opposition to government, or just with their rosy picture of the world.  

In her new book, Oreskes argues that what is distinctive about science is not that it is always correct (it isn’t), but that it involves a social methodology involving trained and specialized experts that in the usual course corrects errors and leads to improved understanding.  She points out that when we need specialized knowledge to fix a problem, we turn to experts, whether they are plumbers, electricians, or doctors.  Scientists are our experts on the natural world, and they assist and correct each other.  Like all other experts, they sometimes get things wrong, but on the whole they do better than non-experts.  

Anyhow, it isn’t surprising that Trumpists often don’t care to engage when scientists are trying to communicate unwelcome news.  But that’s a big problem with the coronavirus pandemic.  Many if not most of us know people who have been seriously ill or died from the virus.  Adopting the Trump position that the pandemic is no longer of serious concern is a mistake of epic proportions that will lead to a lot more deaths.  We’re at a new frontier in propaganda and politics:  a presidential message that all those deaths are of no consequence, with a political party prepared to advance it.    

Some pretty good news from the Democratic Convention, and a new threat to the voting system

 

The big event for us this week was the Democratic Convention.  I can’t say I was looking forward to it.  I seriously doubted that a virtual convention could be anything other than boring, and there was a possibility it would be a debacle.  But it was much more gratifying than I expected, and left me more hopeful.

There were some moments that seemed stagey and artificial, but there were also moments of surprising authenticity and feeling.  Ordinary people spoke in their own words about their concerns.  While there was a celebration of our diversity (of races, origins, orientations), there was also recognition that we face enormous challenges (achieving racial justice, economic fairness, climate stabilization).  Part of the main message was that we’re dealing with a lot of pain (pandemic deaths, loss of jobs, uncertainty) that needs to be acknowledged and respected, and then addressed.

The thrust of the Convention was straightforward:  we have a disastrous President, and now we have a chance to replace him and do better.  Criticism of Trump was almost all about his utter failure to do his job, rather than his moral failings — his disastrous mismanagement of the pandemic, of health care, of the economy, the environment, of international relations, and the rest, while cutting taxes for fat cats. 

This was probably a reasonable approach for persuading those who previously voted for Trump but might consider changing.  It just makes no sense to renew the contract of a bad CEO.   

As for change, there’s Joe Biden.  Frankly, I’ve never been a huge Biden fan.  He seemed to me an establishment guy unlikely to be a strong force for progress.  But I felt a lot more supportive after seeing more of him and learning more about his story.  

The basic case for Biden, as I heard it, is:  he’s a really decent, hardworking, and compassionate guy, with solid experience, knowledge, and values.  He’s not bucking to get his face on Mount Rushmore.  But he wants to help right the ship of state, for the right reasons, and he’s got the necessary skills.  It seemed like he’s evolved in some positive ways, like many of us, with more concern for addressing racial injustice, gender inequities, and climate change challenges.  

Biden is, of course, a politician.  I had assumed that his big handsome smile was mostly a politician’s trick and to be regarded with some suspicion.  But there was substantial testimony to the effect that he’s an unusually warm, caring, compassionate person.  His choice of Kamala Harris suggests political savvy, but also that he’s got a big heart.  

Some of our issues that urgently need attention didn’t get much at the Convention.  I heard almost nothing about nuclear arms control and reducing the risk of nuclear or other conflicts.  There was only a brief mention of the environmental costs of factory farming, and none that I heard about its appalling brutality and the welfare of animals.  There seemed to be little recognition that technology, including artificial intelligence, is changing our economic reality, and our old model for education and jobs isn’t going to work as well in the future.

So I’m not expecting that Joe and the Democrats will quickly fix all our societal problems.  But I am hopeful that they’ll make a start.  As the old saying goes, the first thing to do when you’re in a hole is to stop digging.  I’m pretty sure they’ll stop digging, and also that they’ll try to help those who need it right now.  That would be a huge change.

The Convention sent a strong message about the importance of voting in this election.  In a nutshell, if you care at all about preserving the good things about our system, you need to vote.  Barring a quick miracle cure to the pandemic, it’s probably best to do so by getting a mail in ballot and getting it in early.  As noted in my last post, in some states you can drop off your mail-in ballot directly with local officials.  

Voting used to seem simple — a little boring, but something we could all agree was basically a good thing.  Even after years of Republican efforts to reduce or prevent voting by their opposition, it’s still hard to believe what has been happening recently.  

Trump, McConnell, and other Republican leaders have admitted that it would be, for them, a disaster if everyone voted, because they could not possibly win.  They feel well justified in putting up roadblocks to voting by people of color, young people, and others, such as new voter ID laws, fewer polling places, more limited voting hours, and now, attacks on the Postal Service.  Their power is at stake.  For them, democracy is a problem. 

We have a long history of voter intimidation in the US, and Trump announced last week plans to revive the practice.  He referred to getting local sheriffs to the polls, ostensibly to prevent fraud, which, of course, they have no way to do.  They can, however, display their weapons and stare grimly at unwelcome voters, such as people of color.

Even the worry that this might happen could well discourage some people from trying to vote.  Especially when combined with other problems, like missing voter registrations and long lines, there will be some attrition.  The more chaotic the voting process is, the better for Trump.

Part of the Trumpist idea seems to be to destroy confidence in our system.  Thus we have Trump’s constant and baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud.  Among the bizarre things Trump said last week was this:  the only way he could lose was if the election was rigged.  

With polls showing him trailing, this seems delusional, but also disturbing.  He seems to be saying:  I will not accept any election result except one where I win.  In other words, American democracy is over.  

But Trump says a lot of things that aren’t true, and promises a lot of things he doesn’t deliver.  So I’m not giving up on the idea that he can be removed from office in the ordinary manner — by the people voting.  But we can’t kid around on this one.   This time, voting really matters.