Herons, virtual cocktails, and depolarizing
by Rob Tiller
I got in a couple of trips to Jordan Lake dam before the big shutdown. There were quite a few great blue herons standing together and periodically flying into the river to catch fish. I saw a few squabbles over food and fishing spots. The birds were surprisingly comfortable with me, with one flying in to stand for a while just 20 feet away. I was looking forward to getting to know them better. But with the park closed, that likely won’t be happening this spring.
In the Raleigh area, we’re now under orders to stay home if possible. I’m fortunate not to be in danger of starvation or homelessness, but there are other challenges and disappointments. In addition to missing the birds and the spring flowers, I’m missing my exercise routine. I usually get to the gym or a yoga class six days a week, and have come to think of that as an important element of my mental health, as well as my physical well being. I’ve been trying to do more running, but I have concerns that too much will hurt my knees. Anyway, I did five miles yesterday.
We’ve heard that gun shops are doing a booming business. Apparently, the self-defense crowd is worried that desperate hordes will be attacking their homes, and they will need extra guns and ammo to shoot them. I think we’re a long way from a Mad Max dystopia, but it’s telling that those fears are here.
In the spirit of making the best of things, we had our first virtual cocktail hour on Friday. We scheduled a half hour starting at 5:30 for video chatting and drinking with Jocelyn and Kyle in New York. We used Google Hangouts, which cut out a couple of times, but mostly worked. We commiserated about the pandemic, compared notes on streaming movies and series, and had some good laughs. We agreed we would all be in deep trouble psychologically if the internet stopped working.
This week I finished reading Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein. I recommend it to all who are interested in understanding why American politics seems to be working so badly. Klein contends that political parties have become markers of identity rather than matters of ideology. That is, whichever group we’re in, the group’s policies aren’t as important to us as our being part of the group. Those who aren’t part of our group are seen as enemies.
Klein sees race as a central factor in our politics. During the civil rights movement, Republican politicians used coded racial appeals to pull in working class white people. It seemed like that couldn’t work for long, but it’s still with us. This isn’t a new revelation, but Klein does a good job putting it in context.
Recently I discovered a good podcast called Scene on Radio that discusses American history and culture with a focus on issues of race and gender. It’s now in its fourth season, which reexamines the place of slavery in the formation of the American political system. The founding fathers had strong disagreements about slavery, so there’s not a single, simple narrative. But the wealthiest of the founders were wealthy because of slavery, and they made sure to protect their wealth, through the design of the Constitution and otherwise. Good podcast.
It was heartening that faced with a real emergency, last week Congress managed to pass a stimulus bill on a bipartisan basis. Perhaps it will mark the start of less polarization. But it appears that some at Fox News and extremist evangelicals are still taking the view that the pandemic is a liberal hoax designed to undermine President Trump. Apparently some reverends are summoning the faithful to attend their services on the grounds that there is no coronavirus. We all know that human powers of denial and self deception are great, but even so, with tens of thousands of people already dead, this is amazing. It’s a long way back from there to unpolarized reality.