The Casual Blog

Caring for bluebirds, and ending the war on drugs

Tulips in Fletcher Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding life, or at least, trying

An osprey at Jordan Lake

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

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

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

      

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great blue heron at Jordan Lake

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

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

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

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

Flowers, birds, babies, bridges, and Bittman

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

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

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

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

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

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

A last goodbye

Spring arrived in Raleigh this week, with lots of blooming.  There were flowers everywhere, including daffodils, magnolias, cherry blossoms, pear blossoms, and red buds.  Sally’s orchids also held forth, and did some modeling for me, as shown in these images.   

This week Sally’s mom died.  Diane G. Berkeley was my friend as well as my mother-in-law.  We shared a love of music, art, and politics, and, of course, Sally.  Over the course of almost four decades,  we had many good talks.  On occasion, there were disagreements, but not many.     

Diane recently turned 90.  She’d been in physical decline for the last couple of years — increasingly frail, weak, and dizzy.  She couldn’t take care of her two beloved greyhounds anymore, and had to give them away.  She’d lost a lot of her hearing, sight, and taste, and her short term memory was unreliable.  Things she’d always enjoyed, like books, music, and movies, were no longer enjoyable.  After long thought, she decided she’d had enough, and wanted to go. 

Under the law of North Carolina, Diane couldn’t get help in dying from a physician or anyone else.  Her solution was to quit eating and drinking.  As I learned around this time, this is common enough to have a name:  VSED.  She was uncomfortable for a while, particularly with thirst, but ultimately it worked.  She seemed to be resting peacefully at the end.  

Of course I’m sad to lose my old friend.  At the same time, I’m glad that she managed to do as she wanted and end her misery.  But I’m also angry that our system prevented support that would have made her last weeks easier and happier.  It didn’t have to be so hard for her, or for her family.    

As we remember her, maybe we can also reconsider how we think about death, including our typical default position of denying that it exists.  It will eventually come for us all.  As we learn to accept death as it is, we may find more compassion for each other, and work out better ways to help loved ones near the end.  For those interested in learning more about this problem and possibly helping to address it, I’ll recommend the web site of one of my favorite charities, Compassion and Choices.  

Getting better

My week was more medical than usual, with checkups for my teeth and eyes, and a follow up on my spine surgery.  There wasn’t a lot of drama, except that both my long-time dentist and my long-time optometrist had retired since my last checkups. I liked them, and will miss them.  The new docs I tried seemed pleasant and competent, old enough, but not too old, and with newer equipment.  I have high hopes that they’ll still be practicing after I have no further needs in their specialities.      

As for my spine, Dr. K reviewed new X-rays and thought that his work on my thoracic spine seemed to be healing well.  He was sorry that my  tingling symptoms were still here, but said they might get better in a few months.  I thought, but didn’t say, this is starting to sound like an overly interesting (for clinicians) diagnostic puzzle.  It’s a reminder that I likely have a best-if-used-by date, which I do not enjoy thinking about.

I’m grateful to have survived the coronavirus pandemic long enough to get my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, which I got yesterday over in Durham.  It didn’t hurt to speak of — you should do it!  What a turnaround in the pandemic we’ve had in just a few weeks, with vaccinations running way ahead of schedule.   

Also amazing:  this week President Biden signed into law a huge measure to address the effects of the pandemic, plus some long standing problems.  The American Rescue Plan breaks new ground in getting some real help to people who are barely getting by.  This idea of helping the less fortunate is not exactly new, but in the last half century our government has mainly been by and for the most fortunate, with a focus on giving them tax cuts and subsidies.  It’s a little disorienting to see Congress pass legislation designed to help ordinary people, and especially poor people, with health care, education, food, child care, transportation, housing, and other needs.    

As I discussed recently, Heather McGhee has a new book on how this old idea of a social safety net and basic public services was rejected in the U.S. out of fear of undermining the traditional racial caste system.  But maybe we’re starting to turn the page on that sad chapter, and to reconstruct an America that’s less brutal and more caring.  Here’s hoping!

Finally, I have a bit of musical good cheer to share.  In my piano studies, I’ve been wading into the deeper waters of jazz harmony and creating some piquant bebop dissonances.  This week, in a change of pace, I focused more on tropical rhythms and some of my favorite bossa nova tunes, like Antonio Carlos Jobim’s classic The Girl from Ipanema.  That cheerful, loping rhythm turns out to be tricky to do as a solo pianist.

Anyhow, I also started working on Jobim’s song Wave, and came across a version that filled me with happiness.  It’s a live performance, under three minutes, with Elis Regina singing with joy and harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans playing with humor.  You can listen to it here.  Enjoy!

I took these shots early at Shelley Lake this week when the geese, herons, and eagles were starting their day.  I was hoping to get a shot of one of the eagles catching a fish, and did see one try, but he missed.

Ospreys, crock potting, and the Trumpist campaign against fair elections

Osprey at Jordan Lake in late afternoon

When I went out to Jordan Lake late Wednesday afternoon, I saw my first osprey of the year perched in a pine across the river.  I put my camera on the tripod and waited for it to fly before dark, but it didn’t.  However, when I went back on Friday afternoon, there were a couple of them patrolling, and in the last patch of sunset on the river, I caught one catching a fish.  I also saw many great blue herons, and one young bald eagle.  

I’ve been learning to cook with an old school crock pot, which has generally worked out fine, though this week I had a near disaster.  I tried to adapt a recipe for spinach lentil soup with lemon.  Crock potting is a good style for me.  It gets to the point without much fuss, but allows for improvisation, and after a long simmer, the result is usually surprisingly good.  

But I was well into adding a lot of chopped vegetables before I realized there wasn’t room in our crock pot for everything, and I had to start subtracting.  The lentils came along much slower than expected, and were not nearly ready by dinner time.  So we ordered  takeout falafel.  We had the lentil soup the next night, and it wasn’t bad.  In fact, Sally said she really liked it.    

Speaking of disappointments, I was hoping the Trump Show was over, but unfortunately, it’s not.  Since 2015, our Disgraced Former President (DFP) has taken up way too much of my brain space!  Whatever you think about the DFP, you have to admit, he is not a quitter.  Last weekend he recycled his patented mix of pomposity, ignorance, and fear mongering to a gathering of Republican leaders in Florida, and guess what?  They cheered him on.

It’s no surprise that the DFP won’t shut up (has he ever?), but I was surprised that the Republican establishment wouldn’t seize the opportunity to change course and dump him.  Surely most of them know perfectly well that his election fraud claims are absurd and despicable lies.  Don’t they?  Is it possible that these accomplished and privileged people have been infected by a mass delusion?

If so, it would not be a first.  Starting in the eighteenth century, American political movements were built on and amplified hysterical fears of Native Americans, Germans, Mexicans, Asians, Irish, Italians, Greeks, Poles, Croats, and the list goes on.  Not to mention movements against Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, and other non-mainstream religions.  And of course, witches.  Last and also first, there was and is the hateful ideology of white supremacy used to justify enslavement of Black people, and their continuing oppression.

Each of those sad chapters was partially driven by ignorance and fear, but there were also political opportunists who exploited such fears.  The current Republican leaders mostly look like opportunists.  Some of those now cheering the DFP truthfully acknowledged his leadership of the January 6 insurrection just weeks ago.  Last week they were not only supporting the outrageous lie of a stolen election, but were joining the attempt to blame the Trumpist insurrection on antifa and left wingers.  Have they no shame?

Apparently not, and so we’ve got some hard work ahead of us, with the next elections not far ahead.  The reliably incisive Charles Blow recently reported on work by the Brennan Center for Justice finding that state lawmakers have legislation in the works to restrict voting access — meaning suppressing voting by minorities to maintain power by mostly white elites — in 43 states    That’s a lot of states — 86 percent!  As Blow notes, similar voter suppression happened after the Civil War, and subverted democracy.  The current Republicans appear to have decided there is only one way for them to win a fair election:  not to have it.

Fortunately, their efforts to further unlevel the elections playing field are now out in the open, and defensive measures are in process.  The House has passed H.R. 1 with much needed election reform going in the fairness direction, and it is conceivable that the Senate will modify the filibuster and do likewise.  Maybe someday we’ll go further with a commitment to fair elections by simplifying the process and incentivizing participation with paid leave and cash.  

Along with the big challenge of having fairer elections, we also have the separate challenge of how to fashion a government that better serves ordinary people, rather than tilting in favor of corporations and plutocratic elites.  This week I heard a podcast introduction to the proposal of Helen Landemore, a political scientist at Yale.  She sounded brilliant and unafraid to experiment with new ideas for practical improvements to democracy.  

Landemore proposes setting up counsels of randomly selected ordinary citizens to work on important problems.  In an interview by Ezra Klein, Landemore explained that even at its best, our existing system systematically excludes minority and other voices, and that including these voices would improve decision making.  Landemore had some real world examples suggesting how to move forward along this line, including experiments in Iceland, France, and Switzerland.  I’ve got a bit of a reading log jam at the moment, but I’m thinking her book, Open Democracy, could be worth reading.  

The worst idea in history: animals and us

Canada geese at Shelley Lake near sunrise

I’m recovering just fine from my neck surgery, and the weather turned nicer, too.  For a couple of days, it felt like spring, though after that, it cooled off.  In the pleasant interval, I took my camera out to see the birds at Jordan Lake, and also stopped in to check on the bald eagles nesting at Shelley Lake.  These are some of the pictures I took.  

Spending some time with the animals, or even just standing by the water hoping they’ll show up, is very therapeutic.  Walt Whitman got it right in his famous poem; being with them is moving and soothing.  When I get out around sunrise or sunset, I’m always a little surprised when there are few or no other people looking at them, but not sorry.

Great blue herons at Jordan Lake near sunset

Apropos, there was a lively short essay in the NY Times this week on something I’ve hoped others were thinking about:  the disconnect between what we know about animals and how we treat animals.  Crispin Sartwell, a philosophy professor at Dickinson College, wrote that western philosophy has labored mightily to establish that humans are different from and superior to animals, and failed.  Perhaps this is starting to be noticed.     

Everyone who stayed awake through high-school biology learned that homo sapiens are animals, with close physical similarities to many other animals.  But most of us still think of ourselves as not actually animals, but rather, better than animals.  

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is untitled-6143.jpg

As Sartwell notes, we’ve also been taught to regard humans as distinctive and superior on account of their consciousness, reasoning abilities, and moral systems. Comparisons of humans and other animals generally focused on the things humans did best, such as human language, rather than areas where animals outperformed us, such as sight, hearing, smell, strength, speed, endurance, and memory.  Where animals showed sophistication in their communications and culture, we learned to avoid thinking about it.  

The essential lesson pounded into all of us was that human intellectual qualities justified treating other animals as mere objects to be dominated and exploited.  This idea is so familiar and deeply entrenched that it is hard to see it clearly as an idea subject to discussion.  

Bald eagle at Jordan Lake

In my student days at Oberlin College, we used to debate the extent to which ideas could affect human history.  We were thinking about whether the philosophies of canonic thinkers like Aristotle, Locke, or Marx were primary drivers of cultural change.  

We didn’t even think to consider the effects of the idea that humans are separate from, and far superior to, animals.  The idea has no known author and no supporting reasoning.  If examined with any seriousness, it falls apart as nonsense.  Yet, as Sartwell suggests, it is almost certainly the most important idea in human history. 

Sartwell raises the issue of how thinking of humans as fundamentally superior to other animals relates to other hierarchies. To justify slavery, colonialism, or other violent oppression, the groups to be dominated are characterized as beastly, wild, savage, brutal, fierce, primitive, uncivilized, inhuman, and so on — in short, “like animals.”    

Even today, discrimination follows this same basic pattern in addressing people with African ancesters, other disfavored nationalties, women, religious minorities, and LGBTQ people.  That is, these groups are defined as something less than fully human, and therefore not entitled to the highest degree of privilege. 

The hierarchies that stem from treating animals as inferior have caused enormous harm to the humans who are denied full human status.  Slavery is a dramatic example from our past, but there are many others that are very much still with us, like suppressing the votes of minorities, lower pay for women, and violence against LBGTQ people.  

As Sartwell notes, this hierarchical, exploitative way of thinking divides us both from each other and from nature.  Indeed, it has led to an existential crisis for nature.  A couple of articles this week highlighted aspects of this.

According to a new study, about one third of freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction.  Climate change, habitat loss, and pollution caused by humans accounts for much of this dire threat.  Meanwhile due to these same factors, the populations of large animals (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish) have fallen by 68 percent since 1970.  More than two-thirds of these animals.  Gone.  Since 1970.  Holy camoly!

Part of our unfolding catastrophe has to do with our view that animals are so inferior that they can properly be treated as food.  A new piece by Jenny Splitter in Vox sums up some of what’s happening.    Meat production through factory farming — that is, raising and slaughtering billions of animals each year — accounts for more than 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and also for vast losses of habitat for wild animals.  This food system is raising the threat of extinction for thousands of species.  

Our meat-based food system is not only deeply immoral, but unsustainable.  To continue along this path likely means ecological and human disaster.  Splitter’s piece notes that we may get help from technology, like lab grown meat, and from requiring more responsible farming practices.  But cutting back on eating meat and moving toward a plant-based diet is something we as a species will have to do eventually.  And we as individuals can do it now. 

If you are either on board with plant-based eating or interested in experimenting, or even if not, I recommend trying Guasaca Arepa on Hillsborough Street.  They have some outdoor picnic tables, where I ate my first ever arepa this week.  It’s a Columbian speciality that involves putting various fillings in a sort of cornmeal cake.  Guasaca has many fillings on offer, but I tried the vegan.  Though a bit messy, it was delicious!   

Pied-billed grebe at Shelley Lake near sunrise

I got vaccinated! Also, why racial privilege is not good for white people

This week it was rainy and cold for several days, and then sunny and cold, and I’ve been on the comeback trail from my neck surgery.  Dr. K directed me not to drive or work out until he gives the OK, but he approved walking.  I’ve been taking some good walks through Raleigh along Hillsborough Street next to N.C. State, through Cameron Village, around Oakwood, and along West Street through the up-and-coming warehouse district.  Walking helps you see things you wouldn’t otherwise. Several businesses had closed, but I spotted some new little ethnic restaurants that looked promising.

After waiting several weeks, today I finally made it to the top of the waiting list for a Covid-19 vaccine, and got my first dose today.  I can’t remember ever being more excited about getting a shot!  I got the Pfizer vaccine, though I would happily have taken any of the well tested options.  It didn’t hurt at all! I encourage all to roll up sleeves as soon as manageable.

On another timely subject, I discovered Ezra Klein’s podcast, and listened to Klein interview Heather McGhee about her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.  The transcript is here.

McGhee and Klein led with a discussion of thousands of municipal swimming pools that American towns built and enjoyed in the last century.  Most allowed whites only, and when the anti-discrimination laws of the Civil Rights era arrived, the local leaders closed the pools en masse.  McGhee explained that white people, indoctrinated with the false narrative of the supposed inferiority and dangerousness of Black people, chose to stop all that fun and healthy swimming, rather than allow Black people to use the pools.  

McGhee found that this kind of nose cutting self-inflicted wound in response to racial fears explains a lot of our otherwise hard-to-explain sub par public policies.  A drain-the-pool impulse led people of the higher castes to oppose public services that would have greatly benefitted themselves in order to avoid benefitting people of the lower castes.  This helps account for Americans’ lack of affordable health care, lack of child care, poor public transportation, poor public education, rising student debt, lack of affordable housing, increasing inequality, and environmental degradation.  

McGhee and Klein discussed how white Americans have been taught over generations to view groups in a hierarchical and zero sum way, so that any advancement of Black people threatened lower status for them.  This view is nonsense, but deeply ingrained, and the fear of loss of status is real.  That’s not the only problem.  The zero sum mindset (that is, thinking that even when there’s plenty for everyone, there isn’t, so when someone else gets something that means there may not be enough for me) also divides lower status white people from even poorer white people.  Thus we have the Hillbilly Elegy situation of white people barely able to pay their bills adamantly opposing government help for those whites who can’t make ends meet.  

Our racial caste system is built on and perpetuates the myths of rugged individualism, racial inferiority, and fear of the Other.  As the pool draining example shows, this mindset has been tremendously destructive, not just for Black people, but for everyone except the plutocratic elites.  

But, as McGhee pointed out that, because our racial caste system gives a privileged position to white people, they are generally not strongly motivated to change it.  With her book, she’s trying to show that white racial privilege carries with it enormous economic and social costs for white people, like the drained swimming pools. It’s possible that, even without calling on compassion, if more white people realized how the system hurts them, they’d support change.

Michelle Goldberg discusses McGhee’s book in her latest column in the New York Times.  There’s also a new interview with McGhee on the Fresh Air podcast.  

Speaking of hope, this week we saw three Netflix or Prime movies that were a bit off the beaten track and offered a welcome bit of calm and optimism. First, Paterson was about a city bus driver in Paterson, N.J. (played by Adam Driver, named Paterson in the movie) who writes poetry when he can.  The movie seemed to be about  the small joys of life (useful work, domesticity, love, waterfalls, artistic creation), and the inherent value that has nothing to do with fame or fortune.  

We also liked Loving, a biopic about Richard and Mildred Loving, whose marriage violated Virginia’s laws against interracial relations, and whose 1967 case in the Supreme Court resulted in such laws becoming unconstitutional.  The movie makes its large points about discrimination and the possibility of racial harmony very simply, without hectoring.  It was quietly powerful, and touching.  

Finally, the new documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is about an upstate New York summer camp for disabled teenagers that seeded the modern disability rights struggle.  Camp Jened brought together kids with all kinds of physical and mental problems, including limited mobility and coordination, severe speech impediments, deafness, blindness, and developmental issues. At the camp, these kids did ordinary summer camp things, like making campfires, boating, singing, and making out.  It was a profound experience in normalcy for the campers.  It led some of them to become activists whose protests helped achieve the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The film was really cheering and inspiring.

Getting through spine surgery and the impeachment trial

Get well flowers

It’s been an eventful week.  I had to get through both spine surgery and the Trump impeachment trial, and by golly, I did!  These photos show my get well flowers from Jocelyn and Kyle, which smell wonderful.  Here’s what happened.  

Last Wednesday at 5:15 a.m., I checked into Rex UNC hospital for an operation on the upper part of my spine called a cervical discectomy.  My neurosurgeon, Dr. Koeleveld, had determined that the disc between vertebrae C3 and C4 was deteriorated and pressing on the adjacent spinal nerves, and thought this explained the persistent tingling in my hands.  His proposed solution was basically to remove the damaged disc and bolt in a replacement.  

Dr. K was kind, smart, and very experienced, but even so, I  considered the possibility that he was mistaken, or that something completely unexpected could go wrong in surgery and make me a lot worse.  After learning what I could about the relevant biology and technology, I still wasn’t sure I knew the right answer.  But I had a reasonable basis for trusting the doc.  On the theory that that’s about the best you can do, trusting is what I did.

Of course, I was completely unconscious during the actual surgery, but I was groggily conscious not long afterwards.  The nurses and aides were cheerful, kind, and competent.  Dr. K said the operation had gone beautifully, but he wanted me to stay overnight in the hospital for observation.

I had a room to myself with a lot of machines and a painting of a flower.  My bed had lots of buttons to control the position and call for help, and it automatically adjusted when I moved one way or another.  There was also a TV.

It was about as good a day as possible to be stuck in a hospital room — cold and gloomy outside, and with some absorbing reality TV:  the historic second impeachment proceeding against Donald J. Trump, the disgraced former President (DFP).  Watching the  footage of the invasion of the Capitol gave me a new perspective on last January 6th.  At the time, I’d wondered why the Capitol police and others didn’t seem to be putting up much of a defense, but I learned that inside the building, they were plenty busy.  It looked like the battle scenes in Braveheart or Gangs of New York.  Kudos to those brave officers who protected lawmakers and showed remarkable restraint.  If they had not, and had instead used their firearms, there would have been many more deaths.

As a former lawyer, as I watched the video and listened to the lawyers’ explanations, I kept thinking of how the case was being presented, and whether I would have done it differently.  I thought the House Managers’ team was amazingly good — clear, concise, and powerful.  After years of Trump’s craziness and chaos, I was reassured that such competent and caring people were now helping lead our country.  

The DFP’s lawyers were like him:  loud, smug,  disorganized, angry, and apparently shameless.  They showed no hesitation in lying, even when it was completely obvious they were lying.  

As odious as the ex-President’s lawyer’s were, they raised a couple of interesting points.  As part of their hand waving attempts to distract from what the DFP had done, they showed a video montage of Democrats who had said things like “We’ve got to fight.”  Although it was obvious that the DFP’s statements about fighting were in quite a different context and led to serious violence, it was interesting to see how the same words could mean entirely different things.

In recent months I’ve been doing some reading on structuralism and deconstruction, and getting new insights into how language works and how it doesn’t.  The ambiguity of language is, it seems, an inherent property.  We may think we all know what we mean when we talk about fighting, but we actually mean many different things at different times.  If we keep talking, and observing each other’s activities in relation to the words, the degree of ambiguity may lessen, though it probably never disappears.

The DFP’s lawyers also argued that under the Constitution, only current, and not past, presidents could be impeached.  Although the great weight of scholarly opinion goes against this argument, I still thought it had some force.  If the lawyers hadn’t covered it up with layers of bogus arguments and slimey lies, it would have been easier to swallow.

In a way, I hoped that the DFP’s lawyers could give Senate Republicans a reasonable basis to vote for acquittal, which it appeared from the outset they were determined to do.  It’s depressing to think that most of the most powerful Republican politicians in the country are still in thrall to Donald J. Trump and his base.  Whatever their motives (probably including fear, opportunism, and tribalism), it is hard to understand their countenancing a deadly attack on Congress, including on themselves.  

Anyhow, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the House Managers and to the Senate majority who voted to convict the DFP, including seven brave Republicans.  Trump’s shameful betrayal of his office and our country is now clear beyond any reasonable doubt and a matter of public record.  With any luck, any future Trump headlines will be about his business failures and criminal liability.  Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end of our Trump political fiasco, and the start of a saner, more compassionate chapter for addressing our big challenges.

Last night we saw Time, a new documentary on Prime.  It’s about a Black family in which the father is in prison and the mother is determined to get him out.  It’s an intimate and moving story of strength and heroism that opened a new window on the tragedy of our mass incarceration system.  We liked it a lot.  

A few reasons to quit being a Trumpublican

President Biden has certainly hit the ground running, with executive orders and actions addressing aspects of some of our biggest problems, including the covid pandemic, climate change, racism, xenophobia, LGBTQ discrimination, a stagnant economy, inadequate health care, right wing terrorism, and the nuclear precipice.  His cabinet and other new top officials appear to be experienced and sensible.  There are good reasons to be hopeful, and I’m trying to be.

But I’m still very worried.  Lately, and especially since the January 6 attack on the Capitol, our democracy  has been looking as fragile it’s ever been, and it’s still under threat.  A significant part of the country continues to believe the despicable lie that the election was a fraud.  Shockingly, despite strong evidence that Trump and his cronies supported the insurrection, Republican leaders continue to support the ex-President.  

The hostile takeover of the Republican Party by Trump seems a fait accompli.  If Trump should go to his reward, Cruz, Hawley, or someone even slimier will race to step into his role.  There are still some traditional Republicans who aren’t happy about what has happened, but very few of them have found the necessary courage and gumption for opposition.  

But for traditional Republicans who still care about our country and are considering whether to leave the Trumpublican party, I would ask, what’s keeping you?  I understand you want to weigh the pros and cons of leaving.  And of course there are some cons, like parting ways with old comrades-in-arms and the risk of becoming a target of deranged right-wing hate groups.  But let me suggest some of the pros.

Patriotism.  If we don’t give way to Trumpism, we may yet work together to realize and sustain our finest traditional ideals, including free and fair elections, the rule of law, equality of opportunity, checks and balances, freedom of expression and of the press, and peaceful transfers of power.

Honesty.  Trump took corruption in government from an occasional lapse to standard operating procedure.  He constantly lied about everything, as did many of his cronies.  It was dirty.  Wouldn’t it feel good to get cleaned up?  

Decency.  Scapegoating disadvantaged minorities and whipping up fear of foreigners was once considered something no decent person would do. Actually, it still is.

Reason.  Trumpism made considerable headway in obliterating the distinction between reality and fantasy, but reality isn’t going away.  It’s reminding us of this in various ways, including the ongoing deadly pandemic, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, and species going extinct.  Denying science when it doesn’t fit with our fantasies has made a bad situation worse.  See also Honesty, supra.     

Personal safety.  There are many things that seriously threaten our safety that are beyond our personal control, from collapsing dams and bridges to the possibility of nuclear war.  In the old days, we counted on our government to mitigate such threats, rather than to ignore or increase them.  Wouldn’t it be great to go back to those good old days?    

Future generations.  We owe much to our forebears, without whom we wouldn’t be here.  Hopes for the happiness of our children, our grandchildren, and their successors are part of what gives meaning to our lives.  The earth that has given us so much is in serious peril, which puts at risk the lives of our successors.  We could choose to make it worse.  Or better.   

Compassion.  While concern for those less fortunate used to mean giving a helping hand, under Trump it meant figuring out how to make them more miserable.  But apart from Trump himself, most of us feel badly when we’re aware of people who are hungry, sick, or otherwise suffering, and wish we could do something.  We used to look to government to help in such situations.  We still can.

Self respect. This one is self explanatory.