The Casual Blog

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Flowers, and the latest culture war battlefield: stopping anti-racism

Raulston Arboretum is a quiet refuge for plants, birds, and people.  Before the pandemic, I visited the big garden at N.C. State  a few times each spring to see the new blooms, and I really missed it last year.  Now it’s open again, and things are growing wonderfully.  The daffodils have gone and the irises are waning, but the roses have arrived in force.  

It’s really cheering to see our leaders working on some of our real problems, like climate change, infectious diseases, police violence, roads and bridges, jobs with fair wages, child care, health care,  voting rights, and education.    


Not so cheering is the latest culture war ploy to rouse the MAGA base:  attacking critical race theory and education on the legacy of slavery.  Outside of specialized scholars, few had heard of critical race theory until recently, and none had reason to worry about its undermining the social order.  Now Republicans in several states are working to ban it from classrooms, and McConnell and most GOP senators are characterizing anti-racism as “divisive nonsense.”

Critical race theory raises problems concerning race and the legal system.  McConnell, the Fox pundits, and their allies are promoting the view that this amounts to criticizing America as hopelessly evil.  Their position is that talking about our race problems is essentially traitorous, and should be stopped.

This is bizarre, but also makes a kind of sense.  For anyone just arriving from outer space:  Americans have been thoroughly socialized in a caste system that distinguishes between people and allocates privileges based on skin color, with the lighter people generally privileged over the darker people.  Understanding how this came to be, how it works now, and what can be done about it is complicated.  The background includes hundreds of years of history, as well as laws, schools, and customs.  

It hadn’t occurred to me until this week that a possible response from the right wing, or anyone, could be:  the racial caste system doesn’t exist.  That’s as delusional as saying the last election was stolen from Trump, or that we need to change our voting laws to prevent fraud by Democrats.  But here we are.  

Of course, some well meaning people believe that the best thing to do about our race problems is to try to treat all people the same and act like race does not exist.  In fact, it’s true in one sense that race is a fiction.  It’s a creation of culture, rather than of biology.  

But a key part of our culture rests on what we’ve learned to think of as differences in races.  We’ve been thoroughly schooled in those supposed differences, to the point that many of us mistakenly think they’re inherent in nature.  Becoming conscious of our own understanding of race and getting rid of the myths and fears we carry around is a big educational project.  It requires some long discussions, with good teachers and leaders. 

We have some such leaders working to correct unfairness in our system, but unfortunately, there are others, like McConnell and the Disgraced Former President, now proposing to lead in the opposite direction.    

On top of the spurious racial notions bequeathed to us by our forefathers, politicians have been using race as a political wedge issue for several generations.  Cynical politicians periodically organize by stoking groundless fears of attacks by violent erratic dark-skinned people, or (with no regard for consistency) of overly diligent dark-skinned people taking our jobs.  This lying strategy has often been successful in attracting votes, and has reinforced the caste system.

The right-wing attack on critical race theory is related to this, but with an interesting twist.  Instead of directly targeting dark-skinned people, it targets those who want to discuss the systemic problems of the caste system.  As part of this, in a classic Orwellian/Trumpian move, it tries to re-label anti-racism as racism.  

The right-wing objective is to prevent discussions that challenge the advantages of the privileged caste.  As a bonus, it provides a moral self-justification for silencing the discussion:  the privileged silencers can think of themselves as good people who oppose racial distinctions.  

As Americans, we’ve been taught to think of ourselves as on the whole good, well-meaning folks.  We’ve been steered away from learning much about the immoral and tragic forces that helped build our country (like slavery and expulsion of indigenous peoples) and the continuing brutality of our caste system (like widespread police violence and mass imprisonment).  

Our education system has been sadly deficient in equipping us to address such problems.   For a long time, many of us in the privileged castes barely noticed how the caste system disadvantaged the low caste folks.  With de facto segregation, we seldom saw them, except when they quietly worked for us.  Many of us accepted the system as on balance a pretty good one.  

But here we are.  We’re learning more about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and the bloody resistance to the civil rights movement. We’re learning more about how we took the land of indigenous people through brutal violence and trickery.  We’ve started the discussion about fixing our caste system, which will not be easy.  Even ignoring the right wingers who view any such efforts as treason, there are still many who believe the stereotypes they were taught  Unpacking such ideas will take a lot of work.   

Animal friends and victims

Emu at Sylvan Heights

This week I visited the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park in the little town of Scotland Neck, NC.  There were a lot of them, doing pretty much what we do — eating, cleaning, preening, playing, mating, fighting, resting, exploring.  The emu (the second largest bird on the planet) took a strong interest in me, pressing against the fence as though wanting to be petted, or perhaps to kick or peck me.  The sandhill cranes also seemed affectionate — so much so that it was hard to get far enough away to photograph them.  Several of the birds seemed to like it when I talked with them softly.   

Sandhill crane

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and dissident, was featured in the NY Times last week discussing his cats.  I like Ai’s art and his courage, and I like cats as well (though they should not be loose near birds, which they will kill). 

Ai said:

I’ve learned so much from animals. It’s important to be around another species that has a completely different set of instincts and intuitions. Humans are so rational. We are defined by our knowledge, and that blocks our emotions and understanding of ourselves. But anyone who opens their mind or heart to cats can experience something that can’t be found in human society. They teach you that you can have a happy life without knowing anything at all. They take care of themselves, and they make their own fun. To be an individual, to be self-content — those are nice qualities for a life. 

I’m with Ai on learning from cats, though I think he may overestimate the overestimate how rational (as opposed to emotional) humans are.  Our little cat, Rita, is both a friend and a teacher.  I’m sorry she dislikes being photographed, since she’s also strangely cute, and quite a good dasher and leaper for a 13-year-old.  

In other animal news, Ezra Klein’s new piece proposes that we include as part of the big Biden technology and jobs plan a program to speed the development and bring down the price of artificial meat.  This idea has merit.  As Klein’s points out, some of our biggest problems, including greenhouse gas emissions, the coronavirus pandemic, and antibiotic-resistant disease, are in significant part the work of industrialized agriculture, and especially the meat industry.  There’s also the massive cruelty, which could be stopped or reduced by substituting meat grown from animal cells, rather than hacked from slaughtered animals.  

Of course, it’s possible right now, without a new government program, to replace the meat we eat with plant-based food.  But most of us have been taught from a young age that we need to eat meat to be healthy, and the lesson got lodged deep.  There’s plenty of evidence that it simply isn’t true.  Indeed, it’s widely accepted that eating meat is not necessary to get adequate protein and other nutrients, but it increases your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and other illnesses.  

It is both sad and bizarre that the right wing has spun up a lie that the Biden administration wants to outlaw hamburgers. But the quick spread of the hamburger lie in the right-wing subculture is also telling.  Our early intensive training in meat eating, constantly reinforced by advertising, rituals, and habit, makes it hard to change how we nourish ourselves, or even to think about changing.  Indeed, even raising the subject of such change causes some to experience anger, fear, confusion, and detachment from reality. 

An irony of the new hamburger lie is that historically, and still today, the US government has subsidized and actively promoted raising and consuming animal products.  This is the subject of a new lawsuit brought by, among others, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, one of my favorite charities.  The suit challenges the US Department of Agriculture for its dietary guidelines encouraging heavy consumption of dairy products, which cause health problems for the significant part of the US population that is lactose intolerant.  (The complaint apparently does not discuss other health risks from dairy products, including heart disease and certain types of cancer.)

The government’s guidelines require that schools offer children cow’s milk, and generally forbid offering them plant-based alternatives.  The lesson that children or others need cow’s milk for calcium and other nutrients has been thoroughly debunked by science.  Even those unwilling to think about the dairy industry’s torturing of cows may be disturbed to learn that, to increase agribusiness profits, the government is endangering the health of many schoolchildren.   This is not right.

Earth Day in eastern NC, processing the Chauvin verdict, and catching up with The Handmaid’s Tale

Glossy ibises at Lake Mattamuskeet

         Sally and I had a particularly good Earth Day this year visiting eastern North Carolina.   The enormous wildlife refuges near the NC coast have large populations of black bears, and we were hoping to see some of their new cubs.  We failed as to the cubs, but saw a group of six bears.  We also found a lot of beautiful birds, including a large flock of glossy ibises, a new species for us.   There were hardly any people, which was just fine.

Bears at Pocosin Lakes

The trial of Minneapolis police officer Eric Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd ended this week with a jury verdict of guilty on all counts.  The evidence of guilt seemed overwhelming, but given our history, the outcome was far from certain.  It is disturbingly common in the US for police to use extreme force on Black people, but extremely rare for a police officer to be charged and convicted for resulting injuries and deaths.  

The Chauvin trial has inspired some useful discussion of why this is so, and what needs to change.  Part of the story is the background rule of qualified immunity, a circular Supreme Court doctrine that usually protects police even in egregious cases.  Another aspect is police union contracts that prevent firing of officers guilty of racist misconduct.  There is the famous blue wall of silence, the unofficial rule that generally prevents officers from testifying against other officers.  Less famous is the standard procedure among district attorneys of ignoring police crimes, with a view to maintaining good relations with them for reasons of DA career advancement.  

Above all, there is our racist caste system.  In our system, for a long time many of us were taught that Black men are more violent and dangerous than other people.  Even now, after that lie has been thoroughly debunked, many ordinary potential jurors believe it.  With such racist training still lodged in their minds, it isn’t hard to convince them that a police officer that killed a Black man had a reasonable fear for himself, no matter what the circumstances, other than that the man was Black.

Tree swallow

My guess is that Chauvin and his lawyers were counting on there being at least one juror with this traditional mindset, since there normally is.  For such a person, it would be possible to repeatedly watch the horrifying video and hear abundant supporting testimony without concluding that Chauvin committed murder.  For a juror with a strong enough filter of racial bias, any police violence against Black people would seem reasonable and justified.

The good news is the Chauvin jurors managed to see past racial filters and look at the evidence.  This suggests we’re making some progress in unwinding the caste system.   But of course, there’s a lot more work to be done.  

Here’s a new exhibit in that case:  Black Lives Matter protests are now being targeted by Republican state legislators.  According to the NY Times, this year there have been anti-protest bills in 34 states.  Some proposed laws immunize drivers who drive into protestors, while others add prison terms and other harsh penalties for protesting.  This is appalling, but also instructive.

The Times reported that almost all of the BLM protests were peaceful, with an estimate that only 4 percent involved some property damage or police injuries.  Nevertheless, for many Republicans, influenced by right wing media, the false impression persists that the protests were instead mainly about violent Black people attacking the police.

Canada geese family

Our long training in the caste system makes it possible for some of us to look at one thing (Black people systematically victimized by police violence) and see the exact opposite (police and white people being targeted by Black people).  This fits into and reinforces a narrative of white victimhood, which works to conceal the much larger story of white privilege.  

Wherever you look, you will likely find a strong remnant of this caste training that distorts reality.  I doubt it will lose its hold in this generation, but it seems to be getting weaker. 

Last week Sally and I have finally caught up with The Handmaid’s Tale, a television series that premiered in 2017, and which we began watching on Hulu a couple of months ago.  When I first heard about THT, I thought it was probably not for us.  We’re not especially keen on science fiction, particularly when it’s dark and violent.  But so far (with the 4th season about to begin), we’ve found it absorbing, thought provoking, and even at times inspiring.

The set up for THT is this:  in the near future, a fanatical religious group has seized power in the United States and imposed a police state they call Gilead which has a rigid caste system with women at the bottom.  The permissible roles for women are limited (mostly cooking, cleaning, child-bearing), and they must wear uniforms that correspond to their roles.  

Women married to higher caste men get to wear handsome teal capes, but like all women are not allowed to read or do work outside the home.  Because of a fertility crisis, Gilead has created a ceremony to allow higher caste men to rape low caste women to impregnate them.  

The idea sounds over the top, but it turns out that Gilead is a great laboratory for imaginative testing of some of our actual notions and values.  Patriarchy, misogyny, and other expressions of hierarchy (such as racism) are so much a part of our own world that it’s easy to stop seeing them, or to assume that they’re natural and necessary.  THT helps us to reconsider some of our underlying assumptions about gender roles, as well as other orthodoxies.  

This experiment in imagination seems more urgent since the attack on the Capital of last January 6.  According to recent polling, a majority of Republicans continue to believe the Disgraced Former President’s lies about his winning the last election, and very few have condemned his efforts to throw out the election results and take over the US government.  Republicans in many states continue to work on changing their voting systems to increase their advantage by making it harder for people of color to vote.  In addition, they’re now trying to throw out the Republican state election officials who helped save our democracy by following the law instead of the lying ex-pres.  

Kingbird

It’s hard not to see a disturbingly large overlap between the traditionalist patriarchal authoritarian system of Gilead and the MAGA view of how America should be.  At the same time, Gilead has one aspect of social justice that both the MAGA ideal and our actual present caste system does not:  in Gilead, Black people are treated just like non-Black people.  That is, there is no difference in the respect and opportunities people receive based on skin color.  Gilead, along with horrifying systematic misogyny, also is a reminder that our racialized caste system is a cultural invention and can be reformed.

Gilead is a police state with armed soldiers watching at all times and preventing unapproved discussions by women.  There are brutal public punishments, like mass hangings, stonings, and removal of limbs.  

But interestingly, the Gilead surveillance methods are not nearly as advanced as those now being used in China, or even in the US.  Gilead has few if any video cameras watching the streets, businesses, or living spaces, and apparently no supercomputers analyzing facial recognition and other data (as China and we do).  A MAGA version of Gilead would almost certainly be more technologically adept at identifying and suppressing dissent.    

So I’ve gone from thinking that the world of THT is an over-the-top fantasy to seeing it as something that almost just happened, and still could.  Except the MAGA version might well be more efficient and cruel.  

The good news is that even in Gilead, there is resistance by people with compassion and courage.  It won’t spoil the story for me to say the women there turn out to be resourceful and strong.  Their unflinching and mostly non-violent struggle against oppression is inspiring.  Maybe it will inspire some of us to continue opposing our own moralizing oligarchs.

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.  

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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