The Casual Blog

A little prayer for RBG, and notes on Portland, Hiroshima, and QAnon

 

We’ve had some interesting clouds lately

I have a lot of things to be grateful for, but even so, there’s a lot to be anxious about.  I try not to worry too much about those things that are well beyond my control, but it’s hard.  For one thing, you can’t always tell what’s completely beyond your influence.  You might be wasting your time, but then again, with a little more effort and a little help from friends, you might accomplish something.

The health of Justice Ruth B. Ginsburg is almost certainly beyond my influence.  She’s done a lot of good in this world, and now she’s old and very sick.  I assume she’s trying to do her job and stay alive until we have a new president.  Although I am not a praying man, and consider the likelihood that praying would do me or anyone else any good at close to zero, I’m making an exception for her.

The Black Lives Matter protesters are still in Portland and other cities.  Whatever the Trumpist plan was in having federal agents attacking peaceful protesters (like making a frightening vote getting spectacle for Fox News or provoking a race war), it didn’t work out, and the troops left.  In that battle at least, the protesters won!  It doesn’t look like Portland will be our Reichstag fire.  

The protesters across the country have already accomplished some of their political objectives, like more oversight of police in some cities.  It’s hard to tell how much progress they’re marking toward the larger objectives of ending police discrimination and violence and building a more just society.  Our society still needs a lot of work.

Police unions are a significant impediment in many cities.  There’s a very good piece in The New Yorker by William Finnegan that explains that those unions have strongly resisted attempts to reign in police violence and get the worst cops off the streets.   The unions are a lot more powerful than I previously understood, and state and local politicians have been unable to control them.  Another serious problem that needs protesting.

Rita, thinking

The pandemic is still raging, the average global temperature is rising, and the risk of nuclear war is increasing.  Sorry, I know it’s a lot, and I’ll stop soon.  But I’m hoping a few more people, and then a few more, will realize we’re on the edge of a nuclear precipice, and we need to carefully work our way off it.  To put it another way, because of nuclear weaponry, what we think of as normal life is extremely perilous, and what we think of as necessary and unavoidable nuclear policy desperately needs changing.

This week was the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the first use of a nuclear weapon.  There were a few editorials along the lines of it was too bad that we had to kill so many civilians, with vague hope it wouldn’t happen again.   I read one op ed that took the strange position that nuclear weapons had made us safer.  In the publications I follow, there was no great show of remorse or sense of urgency about preventing the sudden end of life as we know it.

Hiroshima is, in addition to being a Japanese city, also a famous book by John Hersey.  As a young reporter, Hersey went there a few weeks after the bombing and wrote about the horrors he saw.   The U.S. government concealed and played down the terrible human cost of the Hiroshima bomb explosion and its deadly radiation, and so Hersey’s book came as a big revelation to many.  See Washington Post piece.

It’s possible that Hersey’s writing on the subject, which made more real the brute horrific reality of nuclear war, inspired world leaders to give that reality an extra moment’s thought at some critical junctures and prevented more mushroom clouds.  He may have saved the world, at least for the time being.  As I mentioned, you can’t always tell what you might change.

But we’re still susceptible to enormous errors of judgment, such as the idea that nuclear weapons, which today are inconceivably more powerful and dangerous than the one at Hiroshima, are keeping us safe.  It’s all too possible that a technical glitch in missile detection or control, of which there have been several, could set off World War III.  It isn’t hard to imagine leaders with control of nuclear weapons making a mistake or having an emotional outburst.   We have a president who shows no sign of understanding the tremendous risks, and no interest in reducing it.  

And, at least in theory, whether to launch U.S. nuclear weapons that could destroy the world is entirely up to Trump!  This is not a good system!  Having withdrawn from treaties that provided a measure of safety, he now hopes to continue that project and resume nuclear testing.  As he probably doesn’t know (and I didn’t until recently), radiation from nuclear tests killed many thousands of Americans in the mid-twentieth century.

Speaking of delusional thinking, the Washington Post had an interesting piece this week about QAnon and Trump.  The QAnon ideas are vague and bizarre, but to believers, powerful.  They somehow manage to view Trump as a messianic figure fighting against a shadowy deep state and liberal Democrat criminals, and oppose science that conflicts with their opinions. 

For some, it’s a kind of game, involving hours of dredging the internet for clues.  A subgroup of them believe strongly in the need for guns to protect themselves from people of color and the government, or to fight for Q and Trump.  No one knows who Q is, but surprisingly or unsurprisingly, Trump and his circle have been supportive of him, her, or them.    

With a bit of luck, this nuttiness will be gone, along with Trump, in a few months.  But it’s worth thinking about how some people’s thought processes could end up trapped in such a place, and how to help them escape.  Pondering this, I composed the following, which I meant to be in good fun, though it may not succeed.

FEW ARE THOSE WHO KNOW THE TRUTH

My Facebook page has many friends
Though most I don’t quite know
They tell me some alarming things
It’s quite a horror show.

The secret plans of government
To take away our guns
And plans to let the deviants
Sodomize our young.

They’re letting foreign immigrants
Come take away our jobs
The dark invaders with long knives
Advance in violent mobs.

We know there is an ancient tribe
That sits on massive wealth
They secretly control the world
And operate with stealth.

They want to take our liberty
To make us take vaccines
To celebrate satanic rites
Blood sacrificial scenes.

Few are those who shall be strong
To fight with all their might
To master those who hate the truth
To stand up for the right.

Few are those who know the truth
Of the chaos that shall be
And the great man who shall save us all
From sea to shining sea.

Missing Africa, and pulling for the protesters in Portland

We’d planned to be on safari in Tanzania this week, but with the pandemic, obviously that didn’t work out.  So I spent some time looking at pictures, including ones I took when we visited Kruger National Park in South Africa in 2015.  I just loved those animals and Africa!  We’re hoping we can get to Tanzania in 2021.

But I’m less confident than usual that I’ll still be here in three weeks.  Although I seem healthy enough, the pandemic and other risks have affected my outlook.  Things seem much more unstable and prone to failure.  At the same time, it seems like a historic moment, with things about to change dramatically, for better or worse.

The situation in Portland has gotten dramatic.  Trump has decided that the Black Lives Matter protests need to be put down, and has sent in federal storm troopers to do so.  The protests have been mostly peaceful, though as in every crowd there are some idiots, like the ones who broke windows, set off recreational fireworks, and marked walls with graffiti.

Contrary to the President’s rhetoric, the protesters are not violent thugs bent on destroying the city.   This lie disguises what for him is the real problem:  the protesters’ messages.  Their central message is that police violence and racial discrimination need to stop.  For Trump and his supporters, this threat to the status quo is intolerable.

Part of the political dynamic is Trump’s declining popularity.  In response, he’s rebranded his usual fear mongering as “law and order,” which seems to resonate with the Fox News demographic.  The right wing media continues to play along, presenting the federal storm troopers in Portland as defenders of our traditional values.  

I have to admit, for all Trump’s incompetence and stupidity, he’s got a kind of genius for pressing people’s emotional buttons so they can’t think straight.  A lot of white Americans are fearful of black people, and suppressing them has been one of our traditions.  Video showing storm troopers attacking protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets can be made to look like forces of order defending civilization against anarchy.  

It may be that Portland is a test run for federal attacks in other cities, as Trump suggested this week.  This raises the possibility of escalating storm trooper violence, new and more vicious attacks on the free press, expansion of mass incarceration for dissidents, and the suspension of free elections.  The President has claimed to have unlimited powers, and it now seems possible that he’ll put that to the test.    

I hope I’m wrong on all that, but seriously, I’m worried.  The outcome in Portland may have far reaching consequences.  So far the Portland protesters have stood firm, and their numbers are growing.  It may be that they’ll succeed in shining light on the lawlessness and lies behind Trump’s storm trooper attacks, and save our democracy. 

I’m hopeful that most people will see through Trump’s fraudulent “law and order” ploy, but I’m not certain.  With clouds of tear gas obscuring the view, people can get confused.

Trump’s interview with Chris Wallace last week provided a rare bit of comedy in these difficult times.  Wallace was surprisingly direct in calling out some of Trump’s recent shocking lies regarding the pandemic, and Trump was visibly sweating.  When Trump bragged that he aced a mental competence test, Wallace noted dryly that the test was not that difficult.

When Wallace noted that the test required counting backward from 100 by 7s, I realized, it’s quite unlikely that Trump actually aced the test.  In any case, his claim that the test showed his intelligence is an especially entertaining type of Trump lie:  a self-refuting one.  Thinking that a mental competence test is the same as an intelligence test demonstrates a clear mental deficit.

In the interview, Trump foolishly challenged Biden to a test competition, which I thought would be an excellent way to resolve our political crisis.  We wouldn’t need anything as challenging as the SAT, or even a high school equivalency test.  Any questioning at the fifth grade level would suffice.  

It would save us a lot of money and anxiety, and provide some laughs, to have these two as single combat warriors on Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader.  The winner would be declared our new president.  I would bet the house that Trump would fail hilariously.      

Getting through the pandemic, no thanks to Trump

Sunflowers at Odom Farm in Goldsboro, NC

After several months of trying to avoid Covid-19 virus by minimizing human contact, I’m not quite myself, and I suspect that’s true of many others.  I’m not a particularly social person, but it turns out I’m more social than I thought.  I miss those little human contacts, even the ones that were never going anywhere, like the friendly smile of a stranger that will always be a stranger.  

I’ve gotten to be a big believer in masks to slow the spread of the virus, but they are not fun.  I don’t so much mind the personal discomfort, but I do mind not seeing the faces of others.  We communicate a lot with our uncovered faces, and lose a lot when they’re covered.  Perhaps we’ll eventually develop new capacities to distinguish people and their emotions from just their eyes, the way sightless people can do with sound.  For the time being, it seems like we’re going blind with regard to other faces.   

We’re now in uncharted psychological territory.  I’m guessing that there’s more anxiety and depression across the land.  There have been reports of more domestic violence and suicide.  Though staying home may reduce anxieties for some, and even lead to new inner pathways.  

In any case, it looks like we’re going to be here for a while.  Whatever our current anxieties or anxiety solutions, they will likely be changing as time goes on, because that’s how things work — they change.  I’d like to think they could only get better, but I see no good reason to be confident of that.  Though they might.

It would be unfair to blame Trump and Trumpism for the pandemic.  But it seems completely fair to note that T&T have made a bad situation a lot worse.  By minimizing the seriousness of the health threat and discouraging sensible and practical responses, Trump and those who enable him have been responsible for many deaths, with more to come.

Most everyone now knows that Trump is thoroughly incompetent, unqualified not only to be president, but for even the most minor position of responsibility.  No reasonable person would engage him to water their houseplants, because he would almost certainly let them die.  Then he would blame their death on the family dog.

Most of us recognize that when we have a big problem, we need a smart expert to help.  But not Trump.  This week he and his minions conducted a mudslinging campaign against the leading expert on the pandemic in his administration, Dr. Anthony Fauci.  Dr. F is the rarest of birds in Trumpland:  a person who is qualified for his position and tells the truth.  So why did the Trumpists try to discredit him?  Dr. F declined to follow the T line of pretending the pandemic was a minor matter and well under control, and instead acknowledged the likelihood that it wasn’t just about to go away.  

Trump’s ordinary playbook for dealing with a crisis involves various combinations of pretending there is no crisis, blaming someone else for it, and creating some other crisis to distract from the first one.  He’s tried all of those with the pandemic, with predictable results (that is, persuading only those Fox News viewers who will believe anything).  So of course, he blames Dr. Fauci.  

As Trump’s poll numbers keep going down, he keeps trying his old playbook, including fear mongering directed against minorities, foreigners, and liberals.  But I noted a new element this week.  The Times reported that “tensions with China are rising,” with “some” thinking that a new cold war may be developing.

I wondered, who is feeling those tensions and doing this thinking?  I’ll speak for myself:  not I.  I’m feeling no such tension.  I do not feel directly threatened by China, and don’t observe any threats to my neighbors.  

If I lived in Hong Kong or India, of course, it would be quite another matter. China has a brutal authoritarian government that has expansionist ambitions, so it behooves us to watch it closely and oppose it non-violently.   But I’ve seen no evidence that China wishes to have a war with us.  

Although I am not tense about China itself, I am somewhat tense because of the possibility that the Trumpists may think a conflict with China would be beneficial to the president, for the same reason that racism and xenophobia are beneficial:  they distract from other problems.  

The pandemic has demonstrated anew that Trump views the only point of his presidency as getting reelected.  That is, he doesn’t think he has a duty to protect the public, the troops, or anyone, other than himself.  He’s prepared to let vast numbers of people die from Covid-19 if it helps his reelection chances.  So, although it would be disastrous, it would not be out of character for him to try to get reelected by staging a wag-the-dog war with China or someone else.

But I’m hopeful that if he starts down that path, the top generals and other officials will take their Constitutional oath seriously and decline to follow unlawful orders.  We may survive, with Hurricane Trump moving out to sea.  We soon may be able to start the hard work of cleaning up the damage and starting to address our real problems.

I visited these sunflowers last week at Odom Farming Company in Goldsboro, NC.  They have a lot of lovely flowers, and are happy to have visitors, if you check ahead.

Visiting Oberlin Cemetery, and five lessons from Hurricane Trump

Oberlin Cemetery in Raleigh

This week I went over to the Oberlin Cemetery, off of Oberlin Road in Raleigh, and learned a little history.  The cemetery served the Village of Oberlin, which was founded in 1865 by just freed formerly enslaved people.  It was named after Oberlin, Ohio, an abolitionist stronghold on the underground railroad, and site of Oberlin College, my alma mater.  

For a time, even as Reconstruction ended and the racist Jim Crow system started in the late 1870s, the little Village of Oberlin did just fine, gradually adding black owned businesses, schools, and churches.  The Depression of the 30s dealt it a harsh blow as local jobs disappeared, and many young people went north in the Great Migration.  In the 1950s, it was cut in two by an extension of Wade Avenue, and further disassembled by so-called urban renewal in the 1960s.  How much of the destruction of the community was driven by racism and how much was due to ordinary merciless capitalism?  Further study is needed.  

Today Oberlin Avenue is largely a commercial strip, and hardly anything remains of the 19th century village.  But there is an old cemetery that was started in the 1870s, which is worth visiting.  As these pictures show, it has large oaks, pines, and magnolias, and some attractive monuments.  Much of it isn’t carefully tended, but the fact that it is still there is a testimony to the strength of the black community there and its descendants.  

Last week we celebrated the Fourth of July more quietly than usual, or at least, most of us did.  President Trump had military jets fly over Mt. Rushmore, and before the fireworks, gave a speech in which he went all in on his trademarked fear mongering.  He targeted “angry mobs” tearing down our statues, and “bad, evil people” intent on intimidating “[us].”  You understand who he means by “us,” right?     

At this point, it looks like more and more people are noticing that Trump is totally incompetent and corrupt, a person who manages to be at once ridiculous and alarmingly vicious, who’s putting our lives and our democratic institutions at risk.  From recent polling, it looks reasonably likely that he’ll be defeated and gone in a few months.  Then we’ll be faced with the large task of the post storm clean up and rebuilding.  But in a way, I feel grateful that we’ve learned some things from Hurricane Trump.  

For example, here are five lessons learned:

1. Old-style racism is far from dead in America.  I’m talking about the people who still want to fly the Confederate flag and use the N word.  They’re a minority, but Trump turned them from a barely visible minority to one that feels proud and empowered, marching in the streets with guns and shouting excitedly.  The good thing is, we now understand that they are there and that we have to calm them down and address them.

2.  Xenophobia, the close relative of racism, is far from dead in America.  Lots of people who are uncomfortable with the N word are fearful of immigrants who look different and speak different languages.  “Build the Wall” makes no sense as geopolitics, but it makes perfect sense as political theatre.  Scapegoating foreigners has a long and ugly history in our country, and it has had another nasty revival as part of Trumpism.  But as with the previous item, at least now we know, and can start to address it. 

3. The American racial caste system is alive and well.  I’m distinguishing here between the racist ideals of avowed white supremacists and the more widespread sentiment that it’s natural and normal that white people have better schools, better houses, more money, and so forth, because that’s just how things happened to work out. 

The caste system ensures that we avoid inquiries that would undermine the system, like looking at our long and bloody history of oppression of minorities and the structural inequalities in jobs, housing, education, banking, and health care.  The caste system is harder to grasp than full on racism, but probably more corrosive.  Trump has done us the great service of bringing it more into view, and here again, he’s made it more possible to address. 

4.  We are sufficiently powerful to endanger a lot of the natural world, but not so powerful as to stop it from destroying us.  Over the last few decades, the science of climate change has become harder and harder to deny, but the President is still a die hard denialist.  Far from countering the looming catastrophe of climate change, he is working hard to bring it upon us as quickly as possible, through more fossil fuel mining and burning, less efficient cars, and opposition to every mitigation effort, including international climate cooperation and scientific research.  He even has new regulations to encourage more killing of wild animals!   

But we can be certain that Trump will not stop nature.  It’s very strong.  If we don’t change course, the atmosphere will continue to warm, with still more of our weather disasters like extreme hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, floods, and rising sea levels.  We can look forward to more deadly pandemics related to climate change and expanding human populations.  Here again, Trump has made our problems more visible and urgent.

5.  People are more prone to manipulation and delusion than we thought.  It’s easy to make fun of proponents of Pizzagate and QAnon, which are self-evident lunacy.  And we might have thought that having a president that lies constantly and shamelessly would eventually cause some distress and consternation even among his strong supporters.  But strangely, at least for many, it doesn’t.  

It turns out that constant lies tend to make us exhausted, cynical and indifferent, not much interested in truth, or prone to exotic conspiracy delusions like the Deep State.  With an efficient propaganda machine led by Fox News, facts are gradually replaced by alternative facts, and actual facts come to be viewed as fake news.  Even Orwell never imagined a manipulation and delusion system as disturbing, and as effective, as the one created by Trumpism.  

I could go on, but you get the idea.  Thanks to Trump, we can now see that elements of our system that we took for granted as sound and workable were badly deteriorated and close to catastrophic failure.  We thought we were living in a well constructed, comfortable house, and it turns out the foundations are rotten and the roof also needs to be replaced.  

The repairs are going to be time consuming and expensive.  It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is.  We need to focus hard on getting him safely out of the house, and then we can get started on the crucial repairs.  

On a cheerier note, I recommend Becoming, a documentary about Michelle Obama  which we just saw on Netflix.  I knew she was a gifted person, but I hadn’t known much about her story, or her remarkable ability to connect with people.    

Taking down some more Confederate monuments, and learning some important history

Looking across the N.C. Capitol grounds to the former site of the tall Confederate memorial obelisk

The big Confederate monument on the west side of the Capitol in Raleigh came down last week.  I didn’t learn the news until I walked over there for my morning constitutional.  Where there once was a 75-foot-tall obelisk, there was just a pile of rubble, which workers were cleaning up with a backhoe.  

People think of these monuments as part of history, which they are, in a way, but not the way most people think.  The big Confederate obelisk was dedicated in 1895.  Right after the Civil War ended in 1865, during the 12-year Reconstruction period, there were meaningful efforts to recognize equal rights for formerly enslaved people, but after that, white supremacy was reinstituted in the new form known as Jim Crow.  Most of the Confederate monuments in N.C. and elsewhere date from the Jim Crow period, and carry the coded message that the Lost Cause was noble, and white supremacy was still triumphant, so black people had better know their place, or else.   

It truly is historic that these monuments are coming down, but I’m sorry that they’re coming down so quietly.  There were apparently thousands of  people cheering when the Confederate obelisk was dedicated, and probably a lot who would have liked to cheer as it came down. 

Unfortunately, the Republican North Carolina legislature passed a  law in 2015 following the mass murder of black people by Dylann Roof forbidding the removal of such state owned monuments.  What were our Republican leaders trying to express, I wonder?  Let’s hope it wasn’t support for white racist terrorism, which would not be unprecedented in North Carolina.  Many of those Republicans are still in power, so let’s ask them.  

Recently Governor Cooper issued a decree authorizing removal of the Confederate monuments at the Capitol, which he characterized as an emergency measure.  The Governor’s reasoning was debatable, but close enough for government work.  I’d been a little worried that well-meaning protesters would try to pull down the big obelisk and accidentally crush somebody. Happily, the government workers got the monuments down without anyone getting hurt.

Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh

This week I took a walk through the Oakwood Cemetery, including the Confederate section.  It’s a quiet, lovely place, with old oak trees and gently rolling pastures.  There are several stone memorials praising the valor of the Confederate soldiers and the nobility of the Lost Cause.  

As for the soldiers, I’d guess there were some brave ones, and others who were flat out terrified.  As in every war, most of them were just followers, doing what they were told to do.  We can  feel compassion for them as humans and feel sorry that their lives were cut short without thinking their cause was noble.  Praising the Lost Cause (described as “Glorious” on a bench in the stone chapel shown below) is another matter.  That’s morally derelict.

Speaking of monuments, there was an outstanding essay by Caroline Randall Williams in the NY Times  titled You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is Confederate Monument.  Williams sets out in stark terms something we don’t much like to think about:  that the brutality of slave labor camps included a lot of rape of black women by white men.  From this racist violence, children of mixed race were begotten, as shown by the many variations in skin tones we now call black.  The evidence has been everywhere for all our lives, and we somehow managed not to notice.  The good news is, now we’re recognizing it was shamefully wrong, and starting to see the need for reparations.  

I also recommend a new essay by Isabel Wilkerson titled America’s Enduring Caste System.  Wilkerson  draws an interesting distinction between race and caste which explains how one can have no particular racial animus and yet still accept the caste system that subordinates people of color.  

As Wilkerson explains, our caste system is not explicit, but it is deep seated and powerful.  We understand it unconsciously, just as we understand our mother tongue, and it guides how we think about hierarchy and rights.  As it has traditionally operated, our caste system decrees that people of color should live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools, have lower status jobs, and be regarded with suspicion.  This is, of course, an artificial creation with its roots in the racism that was used to justify slavery.  It is not immutable.  When we look at it more closely, we start to see we can dismantle it.  

I once thought I knew a fair bit about the history of slavery, but I’m finding there’s still a lot to learn.  Last weekend Sally and I watched 13th, a documentary on Netflix about America’s still on-going program of mass incarceration of black people.  It’s really excellent.  The subject is multi-dimensional, but the director, Ava DuVernay did a brilliant job of boiling it down.  Michelle Alexander, who wrote the essential book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, appears in the film, and contributes more here to our understanding.

I also want to give a shout out to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her new piece on reparations.  Just as in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1619 Project work, she brings new aspects of the white supremacist system to light.  In the new essay, she points up that giving enslaved people their freedom and ignoring their poverty and other needs was a brutal way of handling the situation, and it cost many lives.  The continuation of white supremacy after the Civil War ensured that the descendents of enslaved people would remain second class citizens, poor and easily exploited. 

H-J notes that the coronovirus pandemic has taught us some surprising lessons, one being that we can come up with $2 trillion dollars to address economic problems without breaking a sweat.  She makes a compelling argument that now is a great time to finally acknowledge the immensity of the wrong done to kidnapped Africans and their descendents, and take a meaningful financial step toward righting that wrong.  I’ll conclude by quoting the last two paragraphs of her piece:  

Citizens don’t inherit just the glory of their nation, but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded, we must do what is just.

It is time for this country to pay its debt. It is time for reparations.

 

Happy Juneteenth! Let’s talk about police attacking black people

Sally’s orchid in late afternoon sun

Happy Juneteenth!  Change is in the air!  Aunt Jemima is finally retiring, and it sounds like Uncle Ben is soon to follow.  The Confederate flag is leaving NASCAR, and some of the many monuments to the Confederacy are coming down.  It’s true, these are just the symbols of our racial caste system, and there’s a lot more work needed to dismantle the system.  But it’s a start.

The Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd have now been going for several weeks.  The protests against police violence and discrimination have been mostly peaceful, with more black people coming out and more white people joining in.  Amazingly, the fires and looting that took place in the first few days seem to have stopped.  More recent violence has involved police attacking peaceful protesters.  And happily, that violence level seems to have come down, too.

On the radio and in the papers, I’ve picked up bits and pieces of discussions about how to address chronic violence by police against black people.  More conservative types tend to favor increased training to address bias, while more progressive types propose reallocating the police responsibilities and their budgets.  But there seemed to be a lot of agreement that something needs to be done about the abuse and killing of black people by our police. 

There is, though, a continuing counter movement, which views the protesters as violent insurgents, and the police as valiant defenders of civilization.  That Blue Lives Matter is an odd point to be pressing at this moment.  They do, of course, but no one is threatening to arrest and kill Blues.  

In this right-white universe, there are a lot of hymns to the heroism of the police.  Here again, there is an element of truth to the hymns.  Police work can be hard and dangerous, and we should be grateful to those who do it with fairness and integrity.  But the point being made by the hymns, even if by accident, is less noble.  That subtext of the hymns is:  we’re glad to see the police acting tough and violently attacking peaceful protesters, particularly black ones.  

We probably don’t know as much about police work as we assume.  We tend to think of it as a lot about finding and arresting dangerous felons, but that actually happens very seldom.  Much more often, police are responding to noise complaints, domestic violence, illegal parking, public drunkenness, and other minor disturbances of the peace.  The weapons they carry around are intimidating, but not often helpful in these situations.  

I used to enjoy watching television shows about cops.  The cops were so manly, and tough!  Except for Charlies Angels, who had such beautiful hair and legs, and could also kick butt.  I particularly liked The FBI, with the well groomed cops who always carefully did their homework to bring down vicious criminals.  Later, I enjoyed Miami Vice, with its stylish cops, speedboats, and explosions, and violent deaths for drug dealers.

My takeaway from so many cop shows was that police work required a lot of violence.  It was normal to shoot criminals, if you couldn’t beat them up.  It didn’t seem there were any other possibilities.  This seems to be where a lot of the right-wing proponents of police violence are now.   They, and in fact most of us, have not received any training in searching for peaceful resolutions.

It may be justified once in a blue moon for a cop to shoot a fleeing black man in the back.  It could be that the black man has just stolen the nuclear codes and is about to blow up the world, or that he’s making off with deadly bioweapons to start a massive plague.  But those cases are infrequent.  More often, police shoot black men because they’re black, and they refuse to obey them.  

Why do we think it’s OK for police to attack black people?  It goes back a long way.   When I was a kid, there was a lot of talking about desegregating the schools, but we didn’t really do it, and we aren’t even talking very much about it these days.  Indeed, there are a lot of people today who would vigorously resist a desegregation program.  

The people who opposed, and still oppose, desegregation may not know why they don’t like the idea, but I’m pretty sure I know.  They’re afraid of black people.  But why are they afraid?   Because they have very little contact with them, and they’ve been taught from an early age that they’re scary.  Some of their leaders keep reinforcing that message with racist fear mongering, which those leaders use to get votes.  

If people of different races went to the same schools and churches and lived in the same neighborhoods, it wouldn’t work.  They’d figure it out.  White people would gradually realize their black classmates and neighbors are OK.  Not scary.  It would take some time, for sure.  But eventually we’d quit thinking that the most important thing about a person is his or her skin color.  Eventually differences in color would matter no more than whether you have a sun tan, or don’t.

This would be great, except for those who benefit from the existing caste system, like fear mongering politicians.  And, to some extent, every person now defined as white.  White people will lose some advantages, like getting preferred over black people for jobs, schools, and catching cabs.  But nothing huge.  With black people competing on a level playing field, white people may need to raise their game.  But that’s just too bad.    

In fact, it would be good.  It would definitely feel good to be rid of the shame of racial oppression, of secretly knowing that we’re involved in something morally despicable.  It would be so good to take down the walls and fences, and have available more friendship.  We’d feel so much better.

Peace and non-violence versus law and order

 

Barred owl at Pocosin Lakes

Life in Raleigh is looking more normal, with more traffic and more shops open.  As for Covid-19, there’s no reason to think the virus has left us.  I understand why businesses want to get going again and people want to get back to work, but I’m not clear why it makes more sense to ignore the virus now than it did a month ago.  Anyhow, I’m using a mask when I run errands, and avoiding unnecessary physical proximity.  

But it seems like we may be making progress on facing and addressing our racism.  Protests against police violence and racial discrimination are continuing across the country.  In many places peaceful protesters were met with tear gas and beatings from the police, which, though dangerous to the protesters, helped make the protestors’ point.  The police have been taught to think of everyone as a potential threat, and to assume that criticism is an attack.  We’ve come to think of police violence as normal.   All that needs to change.

Black bear eating grass at Alligator RIver

Abolition or defunding of police sounds crazy when you first hear it, and that language will stop some people from listening.  But if we can get past slogans, there’s a potentially rich and rewarding discussion to be had.  A lot of our usual police practices are simply bad habits developed over a long period.  Some grew out of the exigencies of racial oppression in our caste system.  Unpacking that history and mindset will take some time.

But it only takes a moments’ thought to realize that a lot of what the police are asked to do has nothing to do with stopping violent crime or theft.  Addressing domestic disputes, drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness, and other social problems does not usually require a gun, billie club, and handcuffs.  Most of our ordinary problems can’t be solved by violence, and a show of intimidating force by police can make them worse.  It would be better to address, say, a mentally ill person who is behaving erratically using a health care professional.  

So it makes a lot of sense to reallocate part of our police budgets to things like addressing the needs of the mentally ill.  This idea of not trying to solve every problem with massive violence could go a long way.  As we start to straighten out the police violence problem, we can start to think about our military violence problem.  We’ve got a military budget that is, by itself, larger than the next ten largest military budgets combined, several of which are our allies’  budgets, and none of which are currently wartime foes.  With our massive advantage in weaponry, we tend to default to violence to solve our problems.

Our military expenditures are staggering, and also embarrassing, especially when you consider how little actual military success they have bought us.  Of course, that money could be spent in a lot of more productive ways either domestically (such as better schools, improved transportation, safer housing) or to advance peace internationally.  Dropping violence as our default solution to everything could save a lot of lives of our young soldiers and many others.  Gearing back on the massive transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the arms industry could help our inequality problem, while lowering the risk of a nuclear war that ends everything.   

 

But first things first.  I fully expected that conservatives would try to spin the George Floyd protests as the work of radical anti-Americans, and they did.  “Law and order” has been a rallying cry for decades, signaling the need for violence to maintain the existing hierarchy.  It was no great surprise when President Trump rolled out that slogan and called for violence against the protesters.  

I was surprised, though, that he used violent tactics, including tear gas, just outside the White House in order to clear away protesters for a photo op in front of a church.  And I was really surprised that he brandished a Bible over his head for the photographers.  I’m not a Bible man myself, but I assume that a lot of believers would find it offensive to see their holy book used so shamelessly as a political prop.  

Several times in the Trump presidency I’ve thought it can’t get any worse than this, or any more obvious than this.  I’ve gotten inured to his constant lying, but he periodically finds a new low gear for greater cruelty that I think must be shocking even to his supporters.  And I’ve generally been wrong, as almost nothing shakes his core supporters.  But I haven’t given up hope.  From recent poll numbers, it sounds like the old reliable “law and order” ruse may not work this time.  People may be realizing it’s a scam.  The reflexive resort of violence will not bring real peace. 

Anyhow, it seems like much of the nation has realized that our policing can’t go on the way it is, and that we’ve got a lot of other problems that derive from our racial  caste system.  There’s so much to do that it might be a good idea to start a to-do list.  Here’s an example.

 

  1.  Stop policing as it now exists, and retool it as peacekeeping, while redistributing responsibilities for addressing addiction, mental health, domestic violence, and other problems to well-funded professionals in the appropriate areas.
  2. Shut down prisons as they now exist, and retool the criminal justice system as restorative justice to address both the  needs of victims and needs of offenders, with prison used only as a last resort for those demonstrably too dangerous to live among us.
  3. End segregation in our schools and provide the necessary resources for high quality education for all. 
  4. Guarantee good health care for all.
  5. Guarantee safe housing for all.
  6. Provide for safe, efficient public transportation for all.
  7. Provide fair reparations for the victims of slavery.  
  8. End subsidies for pollution and provide resources for clean air and water for all.
  9. End subsidies for fossil fuels and invest in stopping and reversing global warming.  

The pictures here are ones I took in eastern North Carolina week before last of barred owls and bears.  These owls can be hard to spot, and I would have missed these without my talented guide and mentor, Mark Buckler.  I share them as a reminder that the beauty of the natural world is still here, actually very close to us, and it can help us in these difficult times. 

Views of the big anti-racism protests, and getting close to some bears

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A black bear last week in eastern North Carolina

It’s been almost two weeks since the first peaceful protests in downtown Raleigh, followed by not-so-peaceful protests, vandalism, and looting.  In our city and many others, people gathered in the streets in opposition to police killings of unarmed Black men.  The crowds shouted in unison, Black lives matter! And No justice, no peace!  

Late in the night, some of the demonstrators started throwing bricks through the big plate glass windows and grabbing the cash registers and goods from the shops.  There were some small fires.  It looked like our city could be in big trouble.  

The protests were not far from where we lived.  Our building’s management boarded up the ground-level windows the next day, and a lot of area merchants and residences did likewise.  But it seems like the demonstrators had second thoughts about the destruction.  The protests continued the next day, with marchers with signs, shouting, and drumming, but without the vandalism and looting.    

There have been thousands of people here and around the world peacefully protesting police violence and other anti-Black discrimination.  It’s not surprising that Black people are protesting.  They’ve lived with these problems and related ones for a long time.  It’s good that they’ve found the courage and purpose to organize, and good that non-Black people are joining in.  The movement is helping white people to see the reality of our caste system that subordinates and oppresses Black people.  

Our racist system, and the background folk ideology that sustains it, took a long time to construct, and it will take time to deconstruct.  But it feels like we may be moving in the right direction, and with any luck we’ll keep moving that way.  

What to say about vandalism and looting?  Obviously, it’s not as bad as the police violence and killing of innocent Black people.  Some of the vandalism likely comes out of anger, with inadequate legal outlets for that anger.  In many places, Black voting has been suppressed, so ordinary political expression is not available, and other methods of communicating are too expensive.  I can understand why anger and frustration make throwing a brick through a plate glass window seem like the only available way of getting attention.  And breaking glass and lighting fires certainly does get the attention of the power structure and the media.  

The problem is that property damage and theft also align with the traditional racist narrative that Black people are dangerous and must be controlled, with violence if necessary.  Property destruction is an understandable emotional outlet, but it is ambiguous as communication.  It creates a space for new police violence and disruption of lives by the criminal justice system.  Also, looting may just be a way to get things without paying for them, which is nothing to be proud about.

So, my recommendation is to stop breaking glass and looting, but keep shouting for change.  I really admire the courage of the protesters.  I took on board the message that the Covid-19 virus is dangerous and requires that we not get too close together, and as far as I know that’s still true, so I haven’t been marching.  Also, I’m fearful of getting tear gassed and clubbed by police.  There have been a few stories of police expressing compassion, but a lot more about brutal police attacks on non-violent protesters.  

That’s something else that needs to change.  I feel concern for the police, who in the best of times have a tough, dangerous job.  There are probably many police officers who resist and oppose anti-Black racism, but there are clearly some who don’t.  Police violence against Black people is endemic.  It has to stop. 

There was a heartening essay  in the Washington Post today by Patrick Skinner, a police officer in Savannah.  He noted that police training fosters a mind set of being a warrior, with citizens as the enemy.  He described his own experiment with a different approach to policing.  The key idea was to approach the people in the community he served as neighbors, and try to help his neighbors.  In his experience, it lowered the risk of violence and increased the possibilities for peaceful resolutions.  It sounded like a great idea!

But as I say, this is a good time for non-Black people to learn more about the Black experience and our caste system.  I was pleased to see that three books I found really helpful on this subject are near the top of the New York Times Best Seller list:  White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, How to Be an Anti-Racist, by Ibram Kendi, and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  I continue to recommend them.   

I got to spend some time last week in eastern North Carolina at the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge and the Pocosin Lakes Refuge.  I was there as part of a wildlife photography trip led by master photographer Mark Buckler.  This area is said to have the largest concentration of black bears on the planet, and we were hoping to see bears.  

There were a lot of them.  We saw mothers with cubs, frolicking yearlings, and males courting females.  We saw bears of various ages walking, running, eating, playing, and resting.   A couple of the bears looked like they had been injured, but most seemed to be well fed and healthy.  It was moving to be with these beautiful and resourceful creatures.   

 From what I learned, the popular myth that bears are normally fierce and apt to attack humans is way off the mark.  They are normally wary of humans and busy with their own concerns.  They are, of course, wild animals, wary and not entirely predictable, and they are definitely capable of attacking humans who threaten them.  

But we saw no aggressive behavior.  Some of the bears we saw were shy and kept a good distance, but a few let us get pretty close and stay for quite a while.  Of course, we kept a sharp eye and ear out for signals of discontent, like grunting, growling, or slapping the ground, and frequently updated our possible exit strategies. 

There were also some less beautiful creatures, including opossums and biting insects that left me with some extremely miserable itching wounds on my legs.  Some of these seemed to be chiggers.  But there were different looks to the wounds:  some bites became blisters, some became hard, and other were oozy.  Wonder if they bite bears?

A modest proposal for reining in the plutocracy: the decency test

Osprey this week at Lake Jordan

These last few months of the Covid-19 pandemic have been a crucible of sorts.  We’ve all been tested in various ways, and learned a few things.  If we didn’t know already, we’ve learned that our President has no idea what he’s doing, or even the idea that he should be doing something.  Instead, faced with a serious problem, he looks for a scapegoat to blame (China . . . the World Health Organization . . . Obama).  He still thinks like a reality TV huckster, uninterested in anything except getting as much attention as possible.   

He is what he is, and with any luck we’ll soon vote him out and our heads will stop spinning from his crazy rants.  But we’ll still have the question, how did this happen?   How did we elect as President the rottenest person ever?  The common wisdom these days tends to focus on the unholy alliance of right wing evangelicals and economically frustrated blue collar workers, with both groups fearful of social change and angry at diminishing opportunities.

But there’s clearly another important element that hasn’t been examined as much:  super rich Republicans.  In a recent piece in The New Yorker,  Evan Osnos attempted to uncover why Republicans in the richest part of Connecticut decided to support Trump.  He focused on Greenwich, CT, the epicenter of homes of the hedge fund moguls and other Wall Street financial types who make annual sums that stagger the mind, reaching the hundreds of millions of dollars.  

It comes as no surprise that these people are mostly Republicans, but their value system as recently as a generation ago had an element of modesty, charity, and noblesse oblige.  Osnos’s investigation indicated that their support for Trump went hand-in-hand with a loss of those values.  

Eaglets this week at Shelley Lake

To the extent there’s a theory underlying the Trumpism of the super rich, it appears to be an extreme libertarianism in which the only unit of measure is the individual, and the only value is wealth accumulation.  They think there’s no such thing as the public interest, and greed is, for them, good.  The public issue of primary concern to them is lowering their own taxes — that is, keeping as much as possible for themselves and contributing as little as possible to the public good. 

I am not without sympathy for the super rich.  A few of them are not Republicans and did not support Trump.  A few of them are intelligent, thoughtful, and funny.  And they all have some problems (divorce, cancer, having teenagers) that are as miserable for them as for the rest of us. But it’s a huge mistake to think that the super rich are somehow deserving of their advantages.  

We’ve been deeply conditioned to think that being wealthy is a good indicator of attributes like intelligence and hard work.  But it’s not true.  Most intelligent, hard-working people never get rich.  The truth is, getting rich is mostly a matter of luck.  If you’ve made it, chances are you hit your first jack pot the day you were born by having the right parents, who had  excellent genes to bequeath and fine positions in the existing pecking order.  

You probably kept on your lucky streak with good schools, good summer camps, and top-drawer undergraduate and graduate schools.  You may have worked hard, and it may have felt like your accomplishments were simply the result of all your own hard work. But you had a lot of people helping, showing you what was required — what to work on, how long, and how hard.  Also, you may not even have noticed, but there were a lot of not very prosperous people all around you making sure you were well fed, clothed, housed, and otherwise prepped for success.  

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

Of course, it helps to be in the right place at the right time, like starting a Wall Street career just as regulatory oversight of financial institutions was geared way down.  There are many different kinds of luck that combine for mega wealth.  Though it should be noted, as Osnos does, that insider trading and fraud also helped in building some of the most fabulous fortunes.     

But even if being wealthy were a good indicator of inherent superiority, rather than mostly luck, there would still be good reasons to call out the super rich Trump supporters.  Their value system is deplorable — self-centered, like those of a young child in Kohlberg’s system.  Their orientation is exclusively on their own advantage; other people don’t matter.  This is unfortunate for them, of course, since they miss out on a lot of what’s really beautiful and rewarding in life.  But once they decide to take a role in public affairs, it’s a problem for all of us.  

As the Koch brothers and their rich buddies have proven, it’s surprisingly easy, if you have unlimited funds, to spread disinformation and buy influence.  With personal wealth as a primary value, they change the laws so they can more easily make and keep more money.  They get other laws that minimize the chance of any progressive change in public policy.  For example, they pay for and get lower taxes, deregulation, sycophantic judges, and gerrymandered elections.  

As the super rich contribute less and less in taxes, public infrastructure and institutions, like roads, bridges, and schools, are defunded and fall into disrepair.  Crumbling infrastructure is actually helpful, since it provides them with another argument “proving” government is ineffective.  Interestingly, according to Osnos, Connecticut, with so many super rich citizens, has some of the worst roads in the country.  Perhaps that’s not a problem, if you’ve got a helicopter, a yacht, and a jet.  Meanwhile, they make sure nothing gets done to address the worsening existential disaster of a planet getting steadily hotter.

The extreme inequality in American society is disturbing, but it wouldn’t be as frightening if the super rich had a different value system.  It’s possible to imagine super rich people using their wealth not just to seek further comforts and advantages for themselves, but also to address the needs of other humans less fortunate and a planet in dire peril.  Before the Reagan years, that was the norm, and it could be again.  Or else we could proceed along our current path towards a Hobbesian war of all against all,  The Hunger Games, and Blade Runner 2049.   

So how do we stop the bleeding?  Elizabeth Warren’s idea of a wealth tax made a lot of sense, but I have a simpler and more fun idea:  a decency test.  Every head of household making more than three hundred times the median annual salary (that’s around $10,000,000 a year) would need to give non-reprehensible answers to five simple questions.  First, we give a little shot of truth serum.  The time allowed for the test is 2 minutes.  You may start now.

Using a number 2 pencil, please answer each of the following questions by choosing just one of the four possible responses.

  1.  I believe the most important policy objective for our government is to:

a.  Implement a fair system of public health.

b.  Assure a quality education for all children.

c.  Protect public safety and stop useless wars.

d.  Cut my taxes.

  1. My greatest objection to our current public policy is:

a. Not enough is being done to reduce infant mortality.

b.  There’s no system to assure adequate basic nutrition.

c. We don’t have reliable public transportation.

d.  There have not been enough cuts to my taxes.

  1. The moral quality that best describes the way I relate to other people is:

a.  Honesty.

b.  Reasonableness.

c.  Kindness and compassion.

d.  Greed and indifference. 

  1. If I could have just one wish to improve the world, it would be to:

a.  Eliminate the risk of nuclear war.

b.  Stop global warming.

c.  Eliminate racial prejudice and work to correct the harm it has caused.

d.  Eliminate all taxes.

     5.  Other than lowering taxes, my chief hope for making this country a better place for all is that we:

a.  Consider the welfare of those less fortunate.

b.  End the unequal treatment of women.

c.  Improve the fairness of our justice system.

d.  This question makes no sense. 

If you answered d to questions 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5, you are going to Hell.  Just kidding!  But you will have to pay a special tax of 95% of all your accumulated wealth, with new yearly assessments until you pass the decency test.  These funds will be used for improved health care, better schools, more reliable public transportation, green energy, and other desperately needed public initiatives.  We hope you see the light, but if not, we won’t feel too bad, since we’ll see your money doing good things.  Good luck!  

Ways of looking at fishing birds, The End of Nature, Fellow Creatures, and the appeal of slavery denialism

Osprey at Jordan Lake preparing to dive

Again this week I spent some time at Jordan Lake looking at the water, trees, and birds.  The birds weren’t as numerous this week, but I saw ospreys and great blue herons catch a number of fish.  Even watching the inherent violence of animals eating other animals, there is something peaceful.  They’re doing what nature designed them to do, as they’ve always done.  

 

I got my first relatively high end photo printer this week.  Hunt’s photo supply offered a big discount on a Canon Pixma Pro 10, and with the pandemic lock down still in force, I decided to experiment with some home printing.  It was not a smooth take off.  After putting some parts together, I ran into software problems, and ended up spending the better part of an hour on the phone with the Canon customer support guy.  There is definitely a learning curve to making good prints, but after watching a few instructional videos, I managed to make a couple that I thought were promising.  

As I worked on my prints, it occurred to me that there are a lot of levels of nature photography, and different ways of looking at the pictures.  A photograph can pull us closer to a moment of reality, but it can also do the opposite.  When I see a picture of a bird catching a fish, I might just think, that’s a picture of a bird catching a fish, and not think much else.  That is, I might mistakenly think the photo fully contains the event, and for that reason not even bother to look carefully at what can be seen of the event.  I could be thinking, I could always look at it later, and never do it.   

Great blue heron and fish

On the other hand, I might decide to look harder, and consider the species of bird, the species of fish, their ages, the location, the weather conditions, and other particulars of the moment.  At the same time, I might get some sense of the existential terror of a particular fish and the ecstasy of a particular bird.  I sometimes notice how certain birds can look beautiful and repulsive at the same time, the last remaining dinosaurs.    

Speaking of extinction events, I’ve been reading The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben.  The book was published in 1989, as the possibility of massive environmental destruction from manmade climate change was coming into focus, so it is dated.  But the basic science hasn’t changed, and a lot of his account is dead on target.  As with his recent book, Falter, he has a gift for putting these difficult issues in perspective, which makes it possible to think productively about them.

I’ve also been re-reading Fellow Creatures, Our Obligation to Other Animals, by Kristine Korsgaard.  Korsgaard, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, makes the case that we are not justified in treating non-human animals as objects to be exploited, and that they are entitled to respect.

Her argument is built on her extension of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which I find difficult.  I suspect that if I fully understood Kant, I would not be a Kantian, though it’s doubtful I’ll ever know for sure.  Still, struggling with his theory of morality seems like good exercise — brain calisthenics.  And Korsgaard is surely doing something worthwhile in investigating our relationship to non-human animals and whether any system of morality can exclude them.  

I was happy to see that Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for her remarkable work on the 1619 Project. Her original introductory article is here.   As I’ve noted previously, the series published in the New York Times along with a podcast   proposed new ways of thinking about the role of slavery and white supremacy in forming America.

It was surprising that George Will used his column  to attack and distort the message of the 1619 Project.  Will is a very intelligent person, and his column is a reminder of how being intelligent does not at all inoculate people against such mental tendencies as denial and bias.  

That is, one can be both smart and prone to denial and delusion, including denial that slavery was an essential, formative element in American democracy.  Will’s attack on the 1619 Project does not, of course, mean he is himself a racist.  But it is a reminder of how deeply white supremacy is woven into our culture, and how uncomfortable it is to look straight at the racism of our past and present.   Will’s anger at the challenge to some of our founding myths is understandable, but his obfuscation is a regrettable service to white supremacy.