The Casual Blog

A documentary marathon, and learning about American apartheid

 

Sally’s orchid

Last week we checked into the Marriott in downtown Durham for the Full Frame Film Festival.  We really like documentaries, but even so, sitting and watching films for four days is a test of mind and bottom.  We’d bought tickets for 15 films, and as we started I wondered if we might have bitten off more than we could chew.  

But we made it, and it felt like a quick trip around the world, which left us buzzing with new impressions.  Several of the movies we saw were about difficult subjects, like Syrian refugees, child trafficking in Ghana, Jihadist fighters, and disarming landmines in Iraq.  We got new perspectives on the 1967 civil disturbance in Detroit, the Supreme Court, American prisons, and the high-end art market. It was inspiring to see the accomplishments of so many talented filmmakers, and heartening to see a lot of people coming together to see their work.   

An iris yesterday at Raulston Arboretum

One of the films that particularly resonated for me was Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, by Giorgio Angelini.  Angelini skillfully wove together several narratives relating to housing discrimination against blacks in the US. Until recently, I’d thought of such discrimination as one of those unfortunate chapters in American history which we’d put behind us.  But I’ve been reading The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, which makes it clear that it’s a fundamental flaw in our system, and its effects are still very much with us.  

For much of the twentieth century, federal, state, and local governments actively promoted segregated housing.  There were several methods for this, including public housing programs that forbade mixing of races, federal housing loan programs that excluded blacks, and promotion of suburban development that excluded blacks.  These and other programs included official, explicit policies that intentionally discriminated based on race. They were augmented by state and local zoning and planning that isolated black neighborhoods and put industries and waste disposal operations near them. 

Angelini’s documentary and Rothstein’s book both explain how such policies led to much lower levels of homeownership for black Americans.  This has had a ripple effect, as whites were able to accumulate wealth as home equity at much higher rates than blacks. Over the decades, this has increased wealth inequality.  There was also a ripple effect on education levels and resulting job qualifications, as segregated neighborhoods were tied to segregated schools.

State discrimination based on race was made illegal by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1868, and civil rights legislation in the 1960s explicitly outlawed private housing discrimination.  But the American apartheid system developed in the first half of the 20th century is still pervasive. Our suburbs are mostly white, and racially mixed neighborhoods are unusual. This has come to seem so natural that we seldom even notice it, and it has hardly ever been a matter of public debate in recent decades.  

I’ve always assumed that racial segregation was more the product of ignorance rather than evil, though Angelini’s and Rothstein’s work may suggest a more disturbing explanation.  Politicians can build coalitions by exploiting fear. If white people are taught to view black people as threatening, they come to believe they need special systems for protection:  racist police, more prisons, and separate neighborhoods. They come to oppose funding for social safety net programs, since they include benefits for black people. They come to support defunding public education, to discourage participation by privileged light-skinned people and possible mixing with dark-skinned ones.

Once blacks and whites are well separated, the big lie that black people are fundamentally threatening to whites is easier to sustain, since white people have fewer close contacts with blacks that would disprove the lie.  That is, there’s a feedback loop that starts with racial fear and grows into a greater fear and more extreme policies. And so we come to our time, when police killings of unarmed black teenagers seems understandable and forgivable to some whites.

And the greater fear can be used by politicians.  Query whether this is part of the program of Trump and the alt right in characterizing inner cities as horrific war zones and people with darker skin color as menacing criminals who need to be walled off and locked up.  Could that be what the Trumpian base’s excitement for “building the wall” is really about? Whipping up a fear of black people and others so powerful that it overwhelms logic, decency, and even self-interest?  

Racial fears are very powerful, but the good news is that they can be countered.  Now that anti-black discrimination in housing and other areas is being exposed, we can understand it better.  We can see that racial fears are delusional and self-defeating. We can understand that bigotry is contrary to our highest values and aspirations.   And we can overcome it.  

The new engagement, wildflowers, and consciousness

 

At the Eno River, near the old pump house

Jocelyn and Kyle are engaged!  He popped the question on the Williamsburg Bridge, after they’d done a run together.  The wedding will be in New York in the fall of next year. Jocelyn quickly shifted into bride-to-be mode, and is considering many logistical and atmospheric issues. She checked to see if I minded if she and I did the second dance, rather than the first.  I did not see that as a problem. We started kicking around the question of what love songs the DJ would need to play.

A trout lily at Swift Creek Bluffs

It warmed up this weekend, and I got out in the woods to look for wildflowers.  You have to be attentive to find these little guys, and the effort puts me in a good mental place.  I got down on my knees in the forest mud,  using a 105mm lens on my Nikon D850 on a tripod, very low to the ground, with focus, aperture, and shutter speed set manually, and a cable release.  I usually take several shots of a subject, changing the settings for each one, experimenting. It’s a labor-intensive way to make an image, but the extra steps also leave room for looking carefully, and allows for the possibility of a subtle shift in the light that is golden.  These are very small flowers, substantially magnified.

Spring beauties

On the ride over to Eno River State Park on Saturday, I listened to an audiobook titled Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright.  I recently finished Wright’s The Moral Animal, a lively and at times unsettling take on evolutionary psychology, and was curious about how he could fit Buddhism into his framework.  Wright’s Buddhism is largely secularized (no extended discussions of reincarnation) and focused on mindfulness meditation, which is ground well-trodden by others, like Stephen Batchelor.

But Wright has some stimulating ideas about the nature of consciousness and its relation to the external world.  He posits a modular model of the mind in which conscious thought is a product rather than the producer. Conscious thought, in his view, serves various purposes, including public relations, but the primary drivers of activity are feelings.  He sees our emotions as evolutionary adaptations that we can understand and shape with the tools of meditation.

In other consciousness news, this week’s New Yorker has a lively piece by Larissa MacFarquhar’s on the philosopher Andy Clark.  Clark takes issue with the idea that the mind is simply the brain, and argues that it extends outside the body. A homey example is using a pad and pen to keep notes, which augments mental capacity.  He sees our relationships to objects and to each other as essential, rather than optional. Like Feldman, Clark has modeled human activity in terms of constant predictions based on probability estimates from our experience, rather than an orderly reaction and consideration of external phenomena.     

By Yates Mill Pond, and some quartets and symphonies

Yates Mill Pond, March 24, 2018

On Saturday, the forecast was for rain, but it was dry when I went out early to Yates Mill Pond, though chilly.  It seemed like winter left last month, and then came back. There were few other humans, but lots of birds, including honking Canada geese, trilling Carolina wrens, and a quiet pair of hooded merganser ducks.

On Saturday night, we went over to Durham for the sixth concert of the Duke Chamber Music series, where we heard the Jerusalem Quartet.  I’m aware that many people think of string quartet music as per se boring, which is too bad. At its best, a string quartet is an extraordinary being: a four-person virtuoso, an entity with the sensitivity of one and the knowledge of many.  And some of the greatest music in the western classical tradition is written for this ensemble.

The Jerusalem Quartet was amazing.  These four serious-looking young men were absolute masters of their instruments, and 100 percent committed. They took a questing, energized approach to the music, and convinced me that the Beethoven op. 95 should be considered a late, rather than a middle, quartet.  Their Debussy was a sonic marvel.

I wasn’t familiar with the Shostakovich second quartet, and liked it less than other Shostakovich quartets, but it was worth hearing. Composed near the end of WWII in Stalin’s Soviet Union, it raises the question of the role of music in a world of bloody war in a society led by a murderous psychopath.    The answer seemed to be — a tenuous, strained, painful beauty.

For the last few weeks we’ve been getting to know the seven symphonies of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).  These symphonies are essentially romantic, but full of moods and questions, restless and heroic. There are numerous excellent versions available for free or almost on Spotify.   Our favorites are number two and number five, but all seven have wonderful moments.

Lost and found, Hawking, Churchill, Feldman, German, Brewery Bhavana, and Bolero (the ballet)

Durant Nature Preserve on Saturday morning

It’s been a big week for domestic lost and found drama.  I lost, and eventually found, my smartphone, a glove, the battery for my camera, my wireless headphones, the front page of the New York Times, and probably some other stuff I’ve already forgotten about.  I hate that uh-oh feeling, that this-could-be-serious feeling, that tightness in the stomach as you try to stay calm and think carefully, where did I last have that thing?

Some of the losses could be attributable to task overload.  An example: on Friday morning, I drove back from a spin class listening to an audiobook, and as I started to parallel park I saw a friend and her baby on the sidewalk.  So I hurried to park, get out, and say hello. Then back in the apartment, I needed to check my schedule for the day with the phone, and realized I must have left it in the car.  

We had some cardboard boxes flattened and ready to go down to the recycling area, so I carried them along when I went to get the phone, and brought the Times to read while I waited for the elevator.  When the elevator came, inside was a young woman with a dog, and we chatted about her dog. Then I went to the recycling room and tossed the cardboard into a huge bin — along with the Times.

The bin came up almost to my shoulders, and was empty except for my cardboard and the Times.  I couldn’t reach the bottom. To get the newspaper out, I had to do some experimenting, but eventually I figured out how to hoist myself up on the front of the bin, lower myself in, grab the Times, and get back out without injuring myself or the bin.

Last week we lost Stephen Hawking, the great British astrophysicist who was paralyzed for most of his life.  He was one of my heroes. Back in the day, I read his A Brief History of Time, of which I understood not a lot.  It was Hawking’s curiosity and courage that really moved me. I always thought that his life must be as purely intellectual as any human being’s has ever been.  

But I heard an interview with one of his scientific collaborators who said that he was always accompanied by nurses, who frequently needed to help him with bodily issues.  That is, he also was a physical person. According to the interview, it was fun hanging out with him.  

We finally saw The Darkest Hour, the Winston Churchill biopic, on Amazon Prime this weekend.  Gary Oldman certainly deserved his recent best actor Oscar for his Churchill, and so did Kazuhiro Tsuji, his makeup artist.  

Churchill was in many respects a terrible person, accountable for racist imperialism and mass murder, but he also did one truly heroic thing of lasting value:  standing almost alone to rally Britain to fight Nazism. The film conveys both his ego and his understated courage. It shows the importance and potential power of public speaking.  Churchill could orate! The film made me feel gratitude for the English language and all the ancestors who created it.

Meanwhile, I’ve been having another go at learning German, using the Babbel app.  I like the Babbel system, which is well-organized, and also, at least at the beginning, free.  I’ve long been curious about German, the language of many of the great musical minds that have been a big part of my life, like Bach, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler.  

But it’s way harder than French, Spanish, and Italian. I’m finding that getting vocabulary is not too difficult, since there are lots of cognates with English, and most of the spoken sounds are similar to English. But the German case system is for me really challenging.  Add that to having three genders for nouns and lots of rules on word order, and it can be densely frustrating. But I’m starting to see some blue sky through the clouds.

Speaking of brain work, I’ve been listening to an audiobook of How Emotions are Made, The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Northeastern University.  In recent years I’ve read a fair bit about evolutionary psychology and neurobiology, hoping to understand more about how humans work. Barrett’s book has opened some new doors for me.

She challenges the orthodox understanding of emotions as inborn, universal, and readily identifiable.  She contends that emotions are best viewed as interpretations of perceptions from inside and outside the body that are dependent on learning, context, and culture. In other words, they are fundamentally social constructions, and vary substantially from culture to culture. This understanding has a lot of implications for how to think of individuals and societies.  

We finally managed to get a reservation at Brewery Bhavana for Saturday night.  It’s a fairly new restaurant in downtown Raleigh that features dim sum and noodles, along with craft beers.  The space also has a small bookstore and flower shop. It seems an unlikely combination, but it’s been a smashing success, sold out for months. Anyhow, we tried the vegetarian dishes and found them delicious, and were happy with our beers.  

Afterwards, we walked over to the Carolina Ballet’s Bolero program.  I slightly dreaded once again hearing Ravel’s Bolero, a great composer’s most repetitious work, but Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s new ballet turned out to be a treat.  It features a couple having a day at the beach, and addresses the reality of global warming with another unlikely combination — humor and horror.

The first ballet on the program, Zalman Raffael’s latest work, was  set to Ravel’s Piano Concerto.  It was highly kinetic, angular and energizing. The last piece was Robert Weiss’s Des Images, which was a meditation on the ballet choreographer’s art.  I found some of it a bit languid, but Alyssa Pilger’s solo in the pizzicato second movement was electrifying.

I took these pictures yesterday at Durant Nature Preserve in north Raleigh while testing out a new lens.  The weather was on the chilly side, so I brought along my photography gloves, which have cut off fingers and mitton tops that can be folded back.  I put the gloves in my jacket pockets, but ended up not using them. After walking part way around the lake and most of the way back, I noticed one glove was gone.  I really liked that glove, so I did the walk a second time, and found it.  The clouds were starting to lift at that point, and that’s when I got the shot at the top of this blog Read the rest of this entry »

My new crown, and notes on health and violence

 

New construction on Hillsborough Street

This week I bit the bullet and went to the dentist to get a crown on my bottom left molar (tooth number 18).  The filling in that tooth was worn out and starting to crack, and a replacement was needed. The procedure involved a lot of drilling.  The anesthetic worked, and the drilling wasn’t painful, but the noise, the burning smell, and the uncertainty were not pleasant. But it’s good to have operational teeth, and I am  grateful for modern dentistry.  

I took my first yoga class in many moons last Tuesday morning.  I’ve been working out at the gym most mornings, but yoga fell out of my routine after a teacher I’d liked left.  Returning to Blue Lotus, just across the street from our building, I was reminded vinyasa is harder than it looks, but also more calming than it looks.  It’s good to contract and stretch, to move in sync with others, and to be reminded to breath deeply.

I suppose we could spend too much time on our bodily health, but for most of us, that risk is theoretical; we usually err in the other direction.   At times our bodies seem so solid, and at times so fragile.

There was a fascinating, though also gut wrenching, piece in the NY Times this week about the effects of an assault rifle shooting into a human body.  Guns like the AR-15 propel bullets at two or three times the speed of a handgun, and so unleash exponentially greater energy.  Five trauma surgeons described the gruesome effects of such bullets. They make a small entry wound, then tumble, exploding bones and causing widespread tissue and organ damage, and then tear a large exit wound.  One surgeon noted that seeing a victim of such a shooting is traumatizing for bystanders.

Kudos to the high school students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and elsewhere who have been making themselves heard on the  subject of assault weapons and other guns.  A lot of us who think the lack of reasonable gun laws is very bad policy have gotten discouraged and wondered if we’ll ever get anything positive done. These students are righteously angry, and they are hard to ignore.  They may be changing the terms of the debate.

Now if we could just get some of that energy focused on addressing the risks of thermonuclear weapons.  While assault weapons on public streets are very dangerous, the destructive potential of the world’s nuclear stockpiles, including the US’s, is incomparably worse.  Apropos, recently there was a short interview with Daniel Ellsberg, who worked as a nuclear strategist in the 1960s.  In Ellsberg’s view, only amazing luck accounts for our not already having had a nuclear apocalypse.

I started reading Ellsberg’s recent book, The Doomsday Machine, in which he recounts learning that in the early 60s, US war planners expected in case of any nuclear war to kill several hundred million people.  We know now that they underestimated, and that the blasts, fires, pulses, fallout, and famine from nuclear winter could well mean the extinction of all humans, not to mention many other life forms.

There are serious voices trying to get this issue on the table, though they get little play in US mainstream media.  A few weeks ago, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists put the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight   signalling the closest we’ve been to disaster since 1953 and the height of the cold war.   Last year 122 nations in the United Nations voted in favor a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.  This year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.   

This essay by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is well worth reading.  It explains that we need to de-escalate international conflicts and enter into nuclear control diplomacy. As the Scientists note, humans created this problem, and they can solve it.  

Rising like the phoenix from the ashes — new construction viewed from Casa Tiller

 

Brave little daffodils

I went over to Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Saturday morning to check on early spring flowers.  After a mild week, the temperature dropped almost to freezing on Friday night.  It was sunny but cold and windy when I got there.  It must have been difficult for the early plants, though the daffodils and a few tulips looked cheerful.

Welcome, but unsettling, early flowers

At Swift Creek Bluffs

Spring isn’t supposed to come in Raleigh in February, but it has.  The birds are singing lustily and early flowers are blooming.  It’s beautiful, though also unsettling—our climate is definitely changing.  But we still have sweet moments.  

I took a hike in Swift Creek Bluffs on Saturday morning and found some tiny wildflowers.  At one point I was on my knees in the dirt with the camera and tripod, struggling with focus and exposure, and my glasses kept slipping down my nose, so I took them off.  I did a minor adjustment, shifted position, and put a knee right on the glasses.   Dagnabit!  I’ll be taking them in to Adrienne at the Eye Care Center for repair next week.  

Speaking of plants, there was an interesting podcast from Radiolab last week on plant behavior.  For example, some trees can sense the presence of water some distance away in the soil with a sense that seems like hearing.  Also, researchers have found that some plants appear to learn about threatening human behavior and remember what they learn.  How they do this without a brain is still a mystery.   

This morning I went up to Raulston Arboretum for the first time this year and found more things blossoming, and took some more pictures.  

At Raulston Arboretum

For the last two weeks we’ve been having dinner in front of the TV and watching the Winter Olympics.  We like the skiing and skating, and for that we’ll tolerate the abusively repetitive advertising.  

This year NBC improved the quality of its on air commentators, and for a number of events had people who both knew about the non-mainstream sports and had comments that were helpful to the non-specialist.  Bode Miller was insightful on ski racing, as were Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir on figure skating.  And they let Weir be Weir, as gay as can be–a cheering step forward for tolerance and respect in American media.  

I wasn’t expecting to see outdoor flowers for at least a couple of weeks, and so I’d been working on more pictures of Sally’s orchid.  I did focus stacking with Photoshop, which took several hours of computer processing, and made a couple of images that I liked:

Our ski trip to Switzerland and Italy

Sally and the Matterhorn

Skiing in Switzerland and Italy last week was really fun, though I had one tough fall (described below), and getting back to Raleigh was pretty brutal.  We underestimated the time it would take the train to get us to the airport, and when we got there the gate was closed (though the plane was still there).  The flight was jointly branded by United and Lufthansa, and each claimed that only the other could help us.  Surely one or both of them were wrong, but I eventually figured out that arguing was getting me nowhere.  

The online  outfit that sold us tickets, Justairtickets, also initially declined to assist us, but after I made clear that we needed reasonable customer service or we would never be doing business with them again, they stepped up to the plate.  Just kidding!  They shamelessly disclaimed all responsibility.  In the end, we had to buy new tickets from an agent in Milan (a big ouch), and it took 30 hours (including last row inside seats and a night trying to sleep on the hard floor of JFK) to get home.

But otherwise, we had a great trip.  We skied for five days in Zermatt/Cervinia, where they’ve had epic snow this winter, and had plenty when we got there.  The views of the Alps were just spectacular.  The iconic Matterhorn was really and truly there, and there were jagged snowy peaks in every direction.  

There’s a lot to ski around Zermatt.  The highest point of the resort is 12,791 feet.  There are 7,477 feet of vertical — which is big!  There are  224 miles of trails, and the longest run is 16 miles. There are lots of restaurants on the mountain, in a range of formats.  There are lifts of every description, including a funicular, various types of high-speed chairs, and enormous gondolas that hold more than 100 people.  For the most part the slopes were uncrowded while we were there, and we never had to wait in a significant lift line.  

Zermatt is mainly about marked, groomed runs.  Most of the skiers we saw were quite good, but very few ventured off piste.  This could be a function of the Swiss love of orderliness:  if a piste is marked for skiing, then that’s where you’re supposed to ski.  This is a different mind-set from the American west, where good skiers view the groomed runs as passages to the main event — the ungroomed, untracked, adventure stuff.  

Early in the week, we found the groomed runs had good snow and lots of variety, while the off-piste snow was crusty.  We found the steeper groomers lots of fun, and worked on refining our cruising skills.  We skied on the Italian side (Cervinia) on day three, where the scenery was just as beautiful, though the lifts were not as modern and the slopes were mellower.  On day four, it snowed, and visibility at times was close to nil.  That day was also cold (in the low teens) and windy.  At times we started runs in the clear above the snow clouds, then descended into the dense fog.  It cleared up for our last day, and there was some super fun off piste skiing on the soft fresh snow.  

My rented skis were Dynastar Cham 97s, 178 cm.  It was a true all mountain ski, very versatile — easy to turn, stable at speed, good in the light powder.  A little shorter might have suited me better, but still, I really liked them.  

 

We stayed at the Phoenix, a small, pleasant hotel with good breakfasts and a convenient ski gear room, which was within walking distance of both lifts and restaurants.  I’d heard that Zermatt was the model for Vail, and saw similarities in the architecture.  The village had a lot of charm, and a lot of life.  Private vehicles are not allowed, though there were many taxis, which were electric vehicles shaped like tiny UPS trucks.  The main restaurant street had many dining options, along with a lot of luxury shops:  watches, clothing, perfume, chocolate.  We had no trouble getting tables for dinner, and ate well.  

My one bad fall came on the last run of our last day.  It was late in the day, and more crowded than we’d seen for most of the week, with skiers of varying abilities winding things up.  We were coming down a steep, narrow, icy passage, with a lot of people waiting at the top.  I was making my way downward, not prettily, but under control.  

Then, near the bottom a young skier suddenly stopped, leaving me no room to get through and effectively running me into the dense snow bank on the side of the piste.  I make it a rule to give a lot of leeway to inexperienced skiers, who sometimes veer unexpectedly, but unfortunately I broke my rule.  I fell backwards and felt a snap and sharp pain in my right calf.  

As I regained my footing, my back started to spasm.  It took an act of will to get to the bottom of the mountain, and to get to the hotel I had to take baby steps.  My leg was hurting!  Sally initially diagnosed a calf muscle tear, and predicted it would take some weeks to heal.  But it turned out to be less severe —  probably a sprain.  I was significantly better by the next day, and continued to improve as we continued our trip.  

After dinner on the top floor of the Rinascente department store, near the Duomo

On Saturday, we had a pleasant train trip through the Alps and along Lake Maggiore to Milan, where we made our way to our Airbnb apartment.  The place was extremely small, but very convenient to the Duomo and other points of interest.  We had dinner in the Canal District (Naviglio Grande), where there were a lot of people promenading and a lot of moderately priced restaurants.  We enjoyed risotto Milanese and local pasta specialities.  

Milan’s cathedral, the Duomo, is magnificent — an enormous white marble structure with flourishes everywhere.  The surrounding area has lots of stores and museums.  We were particularly interested in looking at Renaissance and early Baroque art, and there was lots of it to see.  We particularly enjoyed the Pinocoteca Ambrosiana (which had a gorgeous Caravaggio still life), the Brera (had to wait an hour to get in, but it was worth it), and the paintings at the Sforza Castle.  We couldn’t get tickets to see the Last Supper, so we’ll need to come back for that.  

Our last full day we took the train for an hour up to Lake Como, where we started by walking around Varenna and then took ferry rides to visit Menaggio and Bellagio.  There was mist and fog, but it was still very beautiful, with the enormous calm lake, charming villages and the Alps rising above.  

On the trip back, I made substantial progress in Elena Ferrante’s second Neapolitan novel, The Story of a New Name.  I’m liking it even more than the first one.  Things that initially seemed uncomplicated turn out to be quite complicated, but in a believable, human way.  I haven’t gotten pleasantly immersed in a novel this much for a very long time.  

 

Eureka! On Trump’s refusal to defend the Constitution

Sally’s orchid

I thought I’d had a eureka moment last week, when I glimpsed a rock solid case for impeaching Trump sitting in plain view.  Simply put, Trump has clearly violated his oath to “support, protect, and defend the Constitution” by refusing to recognize and defend against Russia’s attacks on our elections.  There may be other powerful reasons for ending this presidency that emerge out of Mueller’s and others’ investigations, but this one is here now.

But I haven’t seen a bandwagon, or even a small wagon, for this idea, and I started to wonder if I’d missed the boat.   So this week I did some research to make sure there wasn’t some little known legal doctrine or evidentiary issue that might require me to issue a correction and apology to Mr. Trump.  So far, I’ve seen nothing to apologize for, and discovered a bit more.

Is this this too much on Trump?  Perhaps.  I don’t want to worry you or myself  sick.  I find it therapeutic to regularly step outdoors and spend some time with the beauty of nature.  A walk in the woods helps, and so does a stroll around the block, which is what I did when we had this week in Raleigh.  Light, powdery snow, no good for snowballs, but pleasant to hike in, and it made the trees sparkle.  

While we were snowed in, I looked closely at Sally’s new orchid (which is part of nature, though also of art) and took some pictures.  I used a tripod with focusing rails to make several exposures, then figured out how to stitch them together in Photoshop.  It was more complicated than I expected, but I figured it out and liked the image above.

Anyhow, my legal research turned up no authority indicating that the presidential oath means anything other than what it says, which is that the President is constitutionally obliged to protect and defend the Constitution.  Free and fair elections are at the foundation of our constitutional system.  It’s beyond dispute that Russia interfered with our 2016 election, and we need to defend against likely future attacks.  

At sunrise by the roof top pool

This is not a Republican/Democrat issue.  In fact, a bipartisan group of Senators, including Republicans Rubio, McCain, and Graham, co-sponsored a bill last week to impose sanctions on Russia for its interference with our elections and military aggression.  In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Senators Rubio and Van Hollen put the issue squarely: 

While the 2016 election may have left our country divided on many issues, it exposed one critical problem that should unite all Americans:  Our democratic process is vulnerable to attacks by hostile foreign powers.  

As our intelligence community unanimously assessed, Russia used social media channels to influence and mislead voters.  It also hacked political campaign committees and local elections boards in a brazen attempt to undermine and subvert our elections.  There is no reason to think this meddling will be an isolated incident.  In fact, we expect the threat will grow in future years.  The United States must do everything possible to prevent these attacks in the future — and lay out the consequences well in advance of our next elections.  

The sanctions proposed by this new bill seem reasonable.  But the President is still declining to take action.  In fact, he has repeatedly attempted to divert attention from this serious problem.  Over and over, he’s called it “fake news,” a “hoax,” and a  “witch hunt.”  He’s praised Vladimir Putin as brilliant and a strong leader.  Using Stalin’s chilling phrase, he’s called the free press the enemy of the people.  

This is beyond not normal.  However innocent or not innocent his motives, he’s violated his constitutional oath.  We should not be tolerating this.  

 

What can you do when the President refuses to defend the U.S. against Russia? It’s simple.

Cold canoes at Umstead Park, January 13, 2018

“Have you heard the latest from Trump?”  Sally asked as I got home on Thursday, and my heart jumped.  It had been a few minutes since I’d last checked the news, so it was quite possible that I hadn’t.  It’s hard to keep up with the latest startling pronouncement from the White House.  Just trying can wear you out, which may be part of the idea.  

Even so, I found the energy to download and read some of the new minority report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee entitled Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe:  Implications for U.S. National Security.  The report gives useful context for understanding how Putin is threatened by democracy, and how his regime has worked diligently to undermine it using, among other malign tools, cyberwarfare, disinformation campaigns, and military force.  

The report summarizes the Kremlin’s propaganda effort as involving “four simple tactics:  dismiss the critic, distort the facts, distract from the main issue, and dismay the audience.  . . . [D]isinformation operations seek to challenge the concept of objective truth . . . . [to subvert] the notion of verifiable facts and casting doubt on the veracity of all information, regardless of the source . . . .” (Report at 39)  The effort relies on high volume — “a firehose of falsehood” — that propagates faster than fact checkers can check.   (Id. at 40)

The Kremlin’s cyber arm includes carefully organized efforts by hundreds of young Russians employed as social media trolls.  In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, they were “trained on ‘the nuances of American social polemics’ . . . to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent.”  (Report at 45)  They use bot networks to quickly spread disinformation.  The Kremlin’s hackers also use “doxing” — breaking into networks, stealing private information, and leaking it publicly.  An example was the doxing of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election.  (Id. at 46)

The Senate minority report also describes how governments in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, the Baltic states, and the Nordic states have successfully responded to Putin’s program to undermine political order.  This is in contrast to the U.S., which “still does not have a coherent, comprehensive, and coordinated approach to the Kremlin’s malign influence operations, either abroad or at home.  Instead, “the U.S. President continues to deny that any such threat exists . . . .”  (Report at 3-4)  As Senator Benjamin Cardin states in the letter of transmittal, “Never before in American history has so clear a threat to national security been so clearly ignored by a U.S. president.”  

This is obviously not OK, and I checked to see if it was unconstitutional.  I think it is.  Article II, section 1 of the Constitution requires that the President take an oath saying “I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”   This is the oath Trump took at his inauguration (before an incredible crowd, in his telling).  Protecting the United States is the prime directive of the President.  You might try to argue that you could protect and defend the  Constitution while denying and trying to divert attention from the efforts of a hostile foreign power to undermine the government.  But that would not be a persuasive argument.

It would be interesting to know for sure whether the Trump campaign worked directly with the Russians during the campaign, or intended to obstruct the investigation of such efforts.  But we don’t have to know those answers to chart our course.  Never mind the corruption, for the time being. Leave to one side Trump’s cluelessness, shamelessness, and titanic incompetence.  Once we understand that we’re targets of serious and sustained aggression by Russia intended to weaken and undermine our country, and we know that the President denies that and refuses to defend against that aggression, that President should be removed from office.  That presidential failure all by itself is a violation of his constitutional oath.

In other words, it’s not only absurd that the President claims Russia’s interference in our elections is “fake news” and efforts to investigate its actions are a “witch hunt.”  It’s grounds for impeachment.   

So how can a member of Congress continue in good faith to support President Trump?  Political expediency and self-interest are tolerable to a point, but I think we’re well past that point.  Our democracy faces a serious threat from Russia, and the President’s refusal to address that threat is a violation of his constitutional oath.  

If you agree, you might call your representatives and ask them (probably via their answering machine) to focus on this problem.  Here are three questions you could ask.  1.  Do you support President Trump’s refusal to defend the United States from Russia’s interference in our elections and other aggression ?  2. Do you think a President who refuses to honor his constitutional oath should be allowed to continue in office?   3. Do you acknowledge your oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and do you intend to fulfill it?