The Casual Blog

After the fire, a big picture, and climate change denialism

 

Bee at work in Raulston Arboretum

As usual, Gabe and I got out for some golf this weekend, and it was hot and humid.  We’ve both been getting some better, but there’s still plenty of disappointment and frustration.  My five and six foot putts would not go in the hole. As Gabe said, after an errant shot, “I hate golf.”  But it’s good to have some father and son time. And we are hitting more good shots than we used to, and every now and again a wonderful one.       

 

Speaking of burning up, this past week one of my photos was on the side of the Raleigh Convention Center:  a shot of the huge construction site fire of last March. A few weeks ago, I got an email from the fire and rescue association asking for my permission to use the shot, which I gave happily.  I assumed it was going to be one of many little pictures, rather than becoming a giant. They kindly included a prominent credit line in the lower right corner, even though I’d forgotten to ask for one. It may not be my best picture, but it’s the biggest.  

Watching the fire from our balcony, we were close enough to feel the heat, and we’ve had a ringside seat to the reconstruction.  It’s going to be an apartment building called the Metropolitan. Lately they’ve been putting in the outer layer and glass. It’s looking like it will be an attractive addition to the neighborhood.  

It saddened me to learn this week that a neighbor of ours is a climate change denialist.  He doesn’t think humans are responsible for rising temperatures and associated problems, and he doesn’t buy that the scientific consensus that says otherwise is reliable.  He is a well-educated, intelligent person, and in other regards quite sensible, decent, and kind. His rejection of reality on climate change came as a shock.

There’s been a lot of news about extreme weather recently:  massive wildfires in California, violent storms, deadly heat waves in Japan and Europe, droughts in the Middle East, famines in Africa, disappearing polar ice caps, Pacific islands swallowed by rising seas — and so on.  Not long ago, it seemed like climate disaster would be very bad, but not until the distant future. Now it’s here.

Bad ideas are not all equally concerning.  None of us is free of bias, and we all have our unfounded assumptions, fantasies, and delusions.  But climate change denialism is different from wacky conspiracy theories, groundless superstitions, or any number of wrong-but-usually-harmless ideas.  It has consequences.

Our failure to address climate change has already caused enormous destruction, and the window for our preventing catastrophe is closing rapidly.  Practically all of us in the first world are complicit in some degree, since we almost all use electricity, run internal combustion engines, and eat food that’s produced on factory farms.  Our carbon footprints are big, and to be oblivious to the harm we’re doing is bad. But it’s worse to take the position that we’re doing no harm, and that there’s nothing to worry about.

If my house is burning down, I might understand if my neighbor wouldn’t help me fight the fire.  There could be reasonable explanations. Perhaps she’s ill, or frightened. But if my neighbor is telling others that there’s not really a serious danger that needs addressing, that’s a problem.   

Although it is hard to understand climate change denialism, it is important to try, because there are some denialists who are our neighbors, and we’ve got to live together.  My working theory is that denialism is not the result of reasoning, good or bad, but rather a badge of belonging to a certain community. It signals that you belong to a certain political/cultural group.  It’s tribal.

Staying with the tribe is important.  When our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors were hunting and gathering, they needed the tribe.  Without the tribe, all alone, you would die. It seems likely that our evolutionary success depended in part on brain wiring that made us stay with the group, and we’ve still got that wiring.  In any case, without some degree of conformity, social life, which humans cannot live without for long, would not be possible. So probably most of us are willing to go along with some dubious ideas to maintain the community.  

I heard an interesting podcast interview last week with Lilliana Mason, and immediately bought her book, Uncivil Agreement.  She’s a political science professor who has been working on understanding political polarization, and one of her ideas struck me powerfully.  Mason contends that our political opinions are essentially products of our political groups, rather than our own reasoning. That is, we don’t decide to become a Democrat, Republican, or Other based on our own political positions.  Instead, we learn what our positions are after we identify with a party. What generally determines our views there is a community, rather than reasoning.

Looked at this way, my neighbor’s denialism seems a little more understandable and forgivable, though still disturbing.  It’s unlikely that I or any single person could talk him out of his view. Still, we should keep talking. There’s always a possibility that view could change.  That’s happened with other widely accepted terrible ideas before, like slavery, whaling, child labor, and smoking. We can’t give up hope.

My first electric scooter ride

 

I took some close-ups of Sally’s new orchid on Saturday morning, and then went for my first electric scooter ride.  The little scooters arrived in Raleigh recently, and I’ve been thinking they might be a good solution for my commute, which is too short for a car, but not a pleasant walk when it’s hot and humid.  So I downloaded the Bird app, which indicated there was free machine two blocks from me.

I unlocked the scooter with my cell phone with no problem.  It didn’t do anything at first when I pushed the throttle, but I eventually figured out that you need to push off with a foot before the motor will engage.  I was a little wobbly for the first minute.  But I soon got the hang of it, and it wasn’t long before i was going full throttle (about 15 MPH).  

It was fun!  On my first ride, I scooted quietly through the Cameron Park and Oakwood, and the trees smelled wonderful.  I also went downtown and stopped near the Convention Center, where the Supercon convention had drawn a lot of young people in fantastic costumes.  

 

Not diving, flowers, meditating, and watching 13th

Happy flowers at Raulston Arboretum, July 21, 2018

We’d scheduled a diving trip this weekend out of Wrightsville, but it got cancelled because of bad weather.  We’d been looking forward to seeing some wrecks and fish, but so it goes. Instead we had some pleasantly uncommitted and uncrowded hours.

Yesterday morning I stopped by Raulston Arboretum with my camera to see what was blooming and buzzing.  I was surprised at how many new flowers were there, including these. The rain has stopped and it was cloudy — good photography weather.

I also took a little extra time for meditating.  Lately I’ve been practicing sitting still for 15 minutes first thing in the morning, and focusing on the breath.  I find it’s helpful in reducing stress and anxiety, of which there is no shortage these days. It also unmasks some of the odd and funny things the mind will do.  I took a little refresher course on basic meditation techniques using an app called Calm, which was helpful.

We had a good dinner at La Santa, a relatively new Mexican restaurant a short walk from our apartment.  The place has a brash festive air, with murals of Santa Muerte, and current Mexican music. The menu doesn’t have a lot of vegetarian  offerings, but they had no problem making their fajitas without meat, which were tasty.

That night on Netflix we watched 13th, a documentary about the relationship of slavery and mass incarceration.  It notes that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population, and a disproportionate percentage of those prisoners are black.  The film also explores how politicians have encouraged and exploited fear of black people, with the wars on crime and drugs. I thought the editing was overly lively, but it was definitely worth seeing and thinking about.  

 

Our cruise on the Danube, toilets, facism, and Fred Rogers

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Budapest, Parliament

We just got back from taking a cruise along the Danube River, Budapest to Passau, five countries in seven days.  We saw castles, palaces, and cathedrals, art and technology, and some beautiful countryside.  It was stimulating and fun.  

Unfortunately, our air conditioner died.  When we got back on July 4, it was really hot (in the 90s), and our apartment was stifling.   Our cat and plants were still alive, but struggling. Sally got a qualified technician to check it the next day, and he diagnosed a failed motor. He ordered the part, which is expected in tomorrow.       

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It was pleasantly cool when we were in Europe (high 60s to low 70s), and things looked to be working well.   They appeared to be trying to address climate change, as we saw lots of electric trams, solar panels and wind turbines.    

But I was particularly impressed with their toilet systems.  Unlike in U.S. cities, we found that there were usually clean well-functioning public restrooms conveniently located. They charge for admission (up to one Euro), but it’s totally worth it. As a tourist spending hours poking down their lovely winding streets, I was so grateful.  

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Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

As we looked at very old cities, I was struck by the multiple levels of culture that existed side by side, like distinct layers in sedimentary rock, or a slice of linzer torte.  In places we could see bits of ancient Rome, medieval culture, Renaissance, Baroque, neo-classical, and other influences all in the same church or castle, or street.

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Matthias Church, Budapest

 

The cathedral building efforts involved multiple generations of humans cooperating.  Each one is unique, an expression of a specific local culture, and some of them are really beautiful. How did they organize themselves and then keep on going for many decades? The pay can’t have been very good. And they didn’t have any power tools! For all the Church’s problems,  I give it credit for animating so much creativity.

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Passau, Germany

Our cruise on the Danube was on the Viking Legend.  The Viking staff was friendly and very competent, and organized the trip in a way that made a lot of sense for a first time visitor.  We would typically cruise to a new destination in the evening, have breakfast, and then have a guided tour in the morning. We’d then have lunch either in town or on the boat, and explore on our own in the afternoon.   Then, back to the boat for a cocktail, dinner, and after dinner entertainment.

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A cafe in Passau

 

The guided tours were by local folks who were knowledgeable and good-humored.  We were not especially knowledgeable about the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, and other political history of the area, and got an introduction that made us want to learn more.  We got better at distinguishing baroque, rococo, and Neo-classical styles.

It was also interesting to hear personal stories of the guides who’d grown up in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic under the Communist system.  Our Czech guide mentioned that after the fall of the Berlin wall, he was the first kid in his school to visit the west and get Legos. Back home, the other kids were wild for those Legos!

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Bratislava, Slovakia

There were about 180 guests on our ship.  Most of them were “seniors,” though there were a few younger families with kids, and one cute pair of honeymooners.  At meal time, most people we shared a table with were pleasant enough to chat with, and there were a few we quite enjoyed.

We had one afternoon of cruising the Danube between Krems and Vienna.  The weather was cloudy and threatening to rain, but it was lovely seeing the the mountains and villages shrouded in fog, and the ruins of ancient castles.

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As there was so much impressive architecture built over hundreds of years, it took some time to understand how much was pointlessly destroyed by British and U.S. bombing in WWII.  While killing more than 400,000 German and Austrian civilians, we all so took a terrible toll on these civilizations’ cultural treasures. There’s a good, though painful, account of this terror bombing in Daniel Ellsberg’s recent book, the Doomsday Machine.  But I’m happy to say that the Germans and Austrians we met didn’t seem bitter about this, or to be expecting an apology.  They’d rebuilt with loving and obsessive precision some of their most treasured buildings, and moved on.

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Passau, Germany

There were several guides who said interesting things about Hitler.  They seemed to view him as evil, but also viewed their forefathers as in part his victims. It’s hard for most of us to understand the appeal of Antisemitism, but there’s no denying it really excited some Europeans.  The idea that the Jews were a threat to society was, of course, completely crazy, but having an enemy group gave them a sense of purpose. It brought them a kind of unity and provided a simple (but wrong) way to address their social problems    

At any rate, our own recent experience with ascendant racism and xenophobia made me much more understanding and forgiving towards those who supported or failed to stop Hitler.  Here, as elsewhere, Trump is teaching us some true but sad lessons. Words that draw us together as a tribe by pretending to racial superiority are extremely appealing to many. At the same time, those same words, dehumanizing those who are physically or culturally different, make some of us fearful and suggestible.  And politicians who figure this out can manipulate these excited and fearful people. Those of us who aren’t so fearful can hardly believe it’s happening, or that we have to actively oppose it.

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Sally in Salzburg

On Saturday we went out to an air-conditioned movie  theater (the Rialto) to see the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers.  I remember trying to watch his show with my children when they were small, and finding it so slow that it was literally impossible to sit through.  But of course, I was not part of the target audience. Rogers took the needs and fears of small children very seriously, and addressed them with uncanny respect and love.    The film was really touching, and a welcome reminder that there is goodness in the world.  

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Me and my beer, Hofbrauhaus, Munich

Dragonflies, our N.C. Courage, and pride

 

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Yesterday morning I went dragonfly hunting with my camera, and got these shots.  These apex predators of the insect world are both beautiful and unsettling — like little aliens.  Photographing them takes patience and gumption, since their workdays are mostly about fast flying, not stopping and posing.  They like places that are hot and swampy.    Woods-5

On Saturday evening we got out to see the N.C. Courage, our professional women’s soccer team, play the Utah Royals.  The Courage’s play was excellent — quick, precise, creative, and energized. They were dominant throughout, though I credit Utah for a strong defense.  At the end of regulation the score was tied at 0-0. Then in the last of minute of additional time, Utah scored. It ended an undefeated start of the season for the Courage — a tough loss.   

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The game was publicized as a pride event, and the gay population might have been slightly more identifiable than usual.   It’s encouraging that we’ve gotten over some of our fears and prejudices, and made progress in recognizing the dignity and worth of gay people.  It shows that minds can change.

 

 

Our 36th anniversary, Jane, nature photography, and a hopeful suicide

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At Grandfather Mountain last week, with wind and rain

This week Sally and I had our 36th wedding anniversary.  It seems not so long ago that we were feeding each other wedding cake and dancing that first dance, but there it is, a large set of years.  I feel extremely grateful for our happy marriage. We had a celebratory dinner at Vidrio, a wonderful restaurant in our neighborhood, where we shared the delicious burrata, green chickpea hummus, mushroom polenta, black rice risotto, and roasted cauliflower socca.

On Saturday night we had Sally’s spaghetti with red pepper sauce and watched Jane, a new documentary about Jane Goodall, on Amazon Prime.  Goodall is most famous for her groundbreaking research on wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. Until I saw the documentary, I hadn’t appreciated how remarkable her achievement was:  being the first known human to closely observe our closest primate cousins in the wild, and then overturn much of the conventional wisdom about them. It took amazing courage, originality, and empathy.   The documentary was really beautiful and moving, with video of the young Jane almost alone in the jungle with the chimpanzees who could easily have killed her, but accepted her. I highly recommend it.

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Speaking of nature photography, last weekend I went to western North Carolina for the Grandfather Mountain Nature Photography Weekend.  The weather was  very windy and rainy at times, and so I didn’t do as much hiking about and photographing as I’d hoped.  But the program included lectures by some very accomplished photographers, who had inspiring images and intriguing ideas. I photographed some raptors that had been injured and taken into an education program, and saw the bears and other animals at the relatively benign zoo.  

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This was my second year at the conference.  I got a lot out of it last year, but kept mostly to myself.  I don’t mind making small talk, which can sometimes lead to larger talk, but I don’t find it easy to start a conversation with a stranger, and I also don’t particularly mind not talking.  But this year I made a point to speak to those who sat next to me, and was glad I made an effort. I had several enjoyable chats about cameras, lenses, processing software, good spots for shooting wildflowers, and other matters of interest to fellow photog nerds.  

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A red tailed hawk

I enjoy the gear-head aspects of nature photography, but the more fundamental and rewarding part of the experience is nature.  The camera gets me outdoors and looking hard at the non-human world. There are times I just take the gear out in the woods and walk, and end up not taking any pictures, without feeling disappointed.  The natural world is rewarding in and of itself.  It is also in many places and ways at risk of destruction by humans.  It needs our support and attention.  

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A screech owl

A few weeks ago, a non-famous guy of about my age named David Buckel burned himself to death in Brooklyn as an environmental protest, like the Buddhist monks who opposed the Vietnam war.  Buckel was deeply worried about the harm that humans are doing to the planet, and his disturbing act was apparently intended to communicate that.  

Annie Correal wrote a long piece in the New York Times about Buckel that referred to a lengthy suicide letter that he sent to the Times.  I sent her an email of appreciation, and also asked if she could let me have access to his entire message. She said the Times had a policy against that, and I didn’t manage to persuade her to make an exception.

So, except for the few journalists who got to see Buckel’s letter, we don’t know the details of what he intended to express. But it seems clear that he felt a sense of desperation at our heedlessness in the face of climate change and other environmental misdeeds, and wanted to make us address those issues.  He must have also had a sense of hope, or he wouldn’t have bothered to raise the environmental issues as he sacrificed his life.  It’s a sad and shocking thing that he did, but perhaps his death will have resonance.

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The wedding dress problem, goodbye to Roth, and hello to Knausgaard

Jocelyn and Kyle visited us for the holiday weekend, and one of the planned events was the kick off of the search for Jocelyn’s perfect wedding dress.  Sally excitedly briefed me on their plan for a mother-daughter visit to a high-end bridal shop, and I felt a bit queasy. For the first time, it hit home that there was a strong assumption that I’d be stroking a large check for a dress that will be worn only once.  

I thought, maybe we can discuss this.  We could deconstruct the cultural significance of wedding customs and related status displays, and consider revising certain traditions, perhaps at lesser expense.  And then I realized that this would get me nowhere, and I may as well give up and enjoy the dress, which will, I’m sure, be beautiful.

I was affected by Philip Roth’s death this week, since his books have been an important part of my life.  I’ve read about a dozen of them, including several that enriched my understanding of what can happen in the heads of others. He had a fierce engagement with life, and his books did what the best novels do: tell truths that can be told no other way. My favorite Roths are American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, the Zuckerman trilogy, Sabbath’s Theatre,  and of course, Portnoy’s Complaint.

I started an engagement with another major book recently:  My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Knausgaard’s book is an autobiographical account of ordinary life and relationships translated from the original Norwegian and extending for 6 volumes (3,600 pages).  It’s been talked about in literary circles, and I’d made a special note to avoid it. It seemed like unpromising subject matter having no bearing on my life issues, and way too long.  

But having made it halfway through volume one, I’m utterly captivated.  It’s uncanny: it seems very much about my life. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman notes having the same sensation.    The work explores emotions to a depth that makes them seem both strange and true.  My early impression is that Knausgaard has achieved something similar to Proust, but with less affectation and more intensity.  

I took these pictures on Saturday morning in Umstead Park, where I hiked for a couple of hours on the Loblolly Trail.  It was humid and very green.

Our therapy dog, and addressing resegregation of schools

Sally and Mowgli at graduation. Photo by Susan Foote.

This week Sally and Mowgli (Gabe’s dog, and our granddog, a/k/a Mo) completed their  therapy dog training. They’re now qualified to visit various kinds of institutions (like assisted living facilities, hospitals, and schools) and offer residents the comfort of doing some petting.  Getting qualified as a therapy dog team has taken a full year and many hours of individual training. They passed the final exam with flying colors! I can personally attest that petting Mo is very comforting, and I’m glad he and Sally can now share that gift with others.

This week there was a big protest in downtown Raleigh by North Carolina public school teachers, and I got to see them from our offices as they marched up Fayetteville Street towards the legislature.  I read later that there were over 20,000. The march had a festive air, but of course, they’ve got some serious issues.

As a product myself of N.C. public schools, I’m forever grateful to several teachers who took a particular interest in me and helped me along the way.  It’s been painful, and also puzzling, to see teachers caught in the crossfire as our legislature here has significantly cut funding for our public schools.  See some of the background here and here.  

Teachers here and also in other states have been doing poorly in terms of pay and working conditions.  A lot of them who started with an ideal of public service leave the profession in frustration, and potential teachers choose better paid and respected professions.  It’s a vicious cycle that’s been worsening our schools. What is going on?

I’ve long assumed that Republicans and Democrats, and others, by and large agree  on the fundamental importance of public education and the moral imperative to provide a decent education to every child.  This seems foundational — a primary purpose of our democracy, and a primary force in sustaining a fair and prosperous society.  

It’s becoming clear, however, that that’s not as well settled as I thought.  The anti-public-education movement has no publicly declared objective. But there is a movement that has worked quietly for decades to undermine public schools.  It has manifested itself in various relatively benign-sounding programs– vouchers, charter schools, tax subsidies for private schools, promoting religious schools, promoting home-schooling — as well as school budget cuts at the federal, state, and local level.

One can come up with innocent-sounding explanations for some of these measures, but viewed in the context of U.S. history — that is, of hundreds of years of discrimination against blacks — there’s an unmistakable pattern.  A lot of it has to do with race. Our schools are being resegregated, with programs that encourage whites to leave the public schools and fewer and fewer resources for students left in the public schools.

Nationwide, public schools have become substantially more segregated in the last 20 years, and that pattern holds in North Carolina.     This has puzzled many, since segregation is illegal, and there have been many successful efforts at school desegregation.  We’ve largely quit using references to race in the context of education, which might have suggested we’d overcome the worst of our racial prejudices.

Recent scholarship and recent politics shows that stopping the conversation about race was premature.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, makes a convincing demonstration of official anti-black discrimination in housing policy.  Through most of the 20th century, not only was it legal to discriminate against black people, but there were laws that effectively required it. Mortgage lending to blacks and building integrated neighborhoods was effectively prohibited.  As part of this system, white people were encouraged by financial incentives and fear mongering to move out of racially mixed inner cities and into whites-only suburbs.

The civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties was successful in stopping this legalized discrimination, but it did not eliminate the conditions it created, including segregated neighborhoods and racist ideologies.  The emergence of the Alt Right and other unapologetic proponents of white supremacy demonstrates that racist views were not defeated, and are still salient for some people. The election of a President who expresses sympathy for “some very fine people” in the Neo-Nazi ranks suggests a fairly large iceberg of latent white supremacist aspirations and racial fears.

Something has happened in our schools that resembles what happened in our housing.  By defunding public schools, governmental policies have worsened the conditions of those schools and lowered the quality of the education provided.  Parents who want the best quality education for their children may try to support the public schools, but at a certain point most will decide that the education of their own children is for them the most important thing.  So they put their kids in private schools or charter schools. Increasingly, the kids who are left in public schools are those whose parents have no other options.

This dynamic has been mostly under the radar.  It’s hard to see from up close, and even from a distance it’s complicated, with multiple elements.  Those most affected are those with the least political power. Those most in favor of it, whether because of beliefs in white supremacy, fear and hatred of blacks, or designs to profit directly or indirectly from private schools, are canny enough to keep quiet about their true objectives.   

There are very interesting parallels between what is happening today and the immediate aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision.  In 1956, North Carolina opposed desegregation with the Pearsall Plan, which allowed local districts to close schools that became integrated and provided for vouchers for white students to leave the public schools.    The Pearsall Plan was declared unconstitutional — but not until 1969.  Our current Republican-led anti-public-schools program looks like a slow motion version of the Pearsall Plan.  We may need to fight that same battle again, in much the way the victors of the Civil War had to fight another hundred years for basic civil rights.  

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, and the Republican anti-public-schools programs have nothing to do with getting white kids separated from black kids and providing the worst services to the black kids. There’s an easy way to test that: ask your Republican representative what programs he or she favors to promote integrated schools, and what measures he or she is taking to improve program support and funding for majority black schools.  

I still think we’ve made progress toward racial equality, and I still believe we’ll eventually put white supremacy behind us.  And of course, the resegregationist project has not been completely successful — there are still good public school teachers and successful integrated schools.  But we need to stop this heartless, racist project and start moving in the right direction. Kudos for the public school teachers in N.C. and elsewhere who are marching.  More of us should be joining the parade.

Our new leaves, art, and white supremacy

 

In the last couple of weeks, the trees around Raleigh (“the city of oaks”) have leafed in, and the new leaves are really bright.  It’s a dazzling moment, and passes quickly. I took these pictures at Yates Mill Pond and Blue Jay Point.

I also got in some golfing with Gabe.  He’s been working hard on his game, and making amazing progress.  His tee shots are sailing high and long, and his short game is showing judgment and maturity.  He’s starting to look like a real golfer. It makes me want to play better, too!

Sally and I are so happy that he just started a promising new job got at Kalisher, which provides art and design services for hotels and restaurants (think Hiltons, Marriotts, Four Seasons, and Hyatts, as well as less established establishments) all around the world.  They have a lot of artists, and he’s the senior graphic designer.

Speaking of art, we bought a new Meural Canvas, which is basically a slim, high-resolution monitor with a matte and a simple wood frame.  Meural offers a huge library of old masters and contemporary art to go in it, which is easy to access with a tablet device, and easy to change, with a wave of the hand.  The images look really good, and it’s fun to sample new art.

Yates Mill Pond

We’ve been talking recently about the white supremacy art near us, including monuments on the Capitol grounds to “our Confederate dead.”  I had a closer look at them this week, and determined they were put up in 1895, 1912, and 1914 — one or two generations after the “War Between the States” (as it’s called on the largest monument).  These were probably not designed to help remember heroes, but to reinforce white supremacism and remind black people of their place.

 Last week I heard an interview on WUNC with Maya Little, a UNC grad student who protested Silent Sam, a Jim Crow statue at the University.    She poured some of her own blood and red paint on Sam, and is facing jail time for her protest.  That’s activist art. Maya Little’s got courage.

I learned this week about another subgenre of white supremacy art — picture postcards of lynchings.  On Fresh Air, the wonderful NPR show, Terry Gross interviewed James Allen about his book about the postcards, which were popular souvenirs.   I’d thought lynchings were relatively rare, and done relatively quickly and secretly, but that’s wrong.  In some cases they were advertised in advance in local newspapers, with hundreds or thousands of white people watching for hours as black victims got tortured, then killed, and their bodies were mutilated.  Local law enforcement did nothing to intervene. Starting after the Civil War, there were more than 4,000 documented lynchings. About 100 of those were in my beloved state of North Carolina.

It would be nice to think that we’ve put white supremacist violence behind us.  But we hear every week or so about another police shooting of an unarmed young black man.  Chris Rock, in his recent comedy special, manages to cause both a laugh and a stab of pain when he suggests that we could use some equality here, by having the police shoot more white teenagers.  

The NC Historical Commission recently had a public hearing on whether our Confederate memorial statues should be moved.  Most of the people who showed up and spoke were in favor of leaving them in place, which is disheartening.  With avowed white supremacists getting praise and encouragement from our highest government official, things may get worse before they get better.  Those of us who oppose racism and bigotry (still the majority, I think) have some work to do.

A wedding, glass, and unknown history

Paul after the wedding on the American Rover out of Norfolk

We went to Virginia Beach last weekend to celebrate my brother’s wedding and catch up with the Tiller clan.  The wedding was outside in a yard beside the intercoastal waterway, and it was a bit on the chilly side, but sunny.  My brother Paul played his banjo as his bride arrived, and the couple seemed very happy. Afterwards we moved inside for lunch, and caught up on family news.  

We Tillers have been fortunate in many ways, not least in that we still love each other, despite our differences in politics and religion. As my sister Jane observed, people these days are very polarized, and it’s gotten hard to communicate across tribal lines. But we still had plenty of common ground, and had some invigorating discussions.     

Sally and Jane at the Chrysler Museum

The next day we visited the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, and spent a couple of hours looking at their impressive glass collection, which we missed when we previously visited.  Much of the enjoyment for me was about history and craftsmanship, rather than individual artistic vision.  But there were some pieces that were definitely art, and were moving.  It made me look at our household glass differently, and consider it as part of a long tradition of craft and experimentation.

In iris at Raulston Arboretum

Speaking of art and history, this past week there was a significant opening:  the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Way too few Americans know much about the terrorism against black Americans in the first half of the twentieth century.  Thousands of black people were publicly tortured and killed, some in front of crowds of white people who viewed the violence as entertainment.

The new memorial to the victims of this horrendous violence sounds powerful in just the way the D.C. Vietnam memorial is powerful:  making the suffering concrete and undeniable in a beautiful and dignified way. There was a fine description of it in the Washington Post, including good photographs.    I’ve added it to my list of places to visit.

Just one more thing about our racism, and then I’ll stop.  This week the New Yorker has a fine and unsettling piece by Alex Ross called the Hitler Vortex.    I’d recently read most of the new biography of Hitler by Volker Ullrich, which was quite good, but Ross provided new perspectives on the conflicting schools of Hitler scholarship, and the social forces that brought Germany to acknowledge its enormous crime against the Jews.  

As Ross notes, Hitler greatly admired America’s genocide of native Americans and its elaborate system for repression of African Americans.  This should give us pause. Unlike the Germans, who have acknowledged and worked to atone for the crimes of the third reich, we Americans for the most part maintain our ignorance and innocence as to these enormous racial crimes.  Perhaps one day we’ll teach our school children what really happened, how it was horribly wrong, and how we need to be continually vigilant to prevent such evil from ever recurring.

In the meantime, we need to do what we can, and stay sane.  For a dose of beauty and clarity, I recommend a walk at Raulston Arboretum, where the irises and early roses are blooming.  I took these flower pictures this weekend.