The Casual Blog

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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.  

Missing Florida, processing some photos, and picturing hell

Osprey at Jordan Lake

I’d planned to be in Florida this past week photographing the big birds there, like egrets, wood storks, and roseate spoonbills.  With the coronavirus pandemic still in full force, that wasn’t possible, but I did get to spend some time at our area parks, including Shelley Lake and Jordan Lake.   It was good to be outside with our local birds.

Although I didn’t capture any images that were singular, I was happy to practice getting better exposures.   I also enjoyed experimenting with the raw images in Lightroom, Photoshop, and other apps, with a view to improving my processing skills.  Here are some of the results using bird shots I took this week, as well experiments with Sally’s orchids.  The white one lost its flowers a few days after the last shot of it.  Hope it will come back next year.  

These days there’s a lot of background fear and worry, and no simple solution to all our ills.  But I’m finding it helpful to spend some time focusing on moments of beauty and peace, and also spending more time meditating.  I discovered some good new (to me) resources on YouTube, including some guided meditations by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield.  I don’t think I’m anywhere near nirvana, but I’m happier and more peaceful.  

Tufted titmouse at Shelley Lake

I used to worry about the possibility of going to hell.  In the religious tradition I grew up in, hell was a real place, ruled by Satan, where sinners were sent after death to be tortured forever.  I eventually came to think that the likelihood of there being such a place was close to zero, and that worrying about it was a waste of time.  But it’s interesting that the concept of hell has had such a long life, and continues to terrify people today.  

I learned more about hell in an interview with Bart Ehrman on Fresh Air a few weeks ago, and just finished his new book, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.  Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at University of North Carolina, contends that the notions held by most Christians of the afterlife are not found in the Bible.  Rather they were made up by various early Christian writers to support religious theories and emotional needs.

It’s good to know that the horrifying idea that God set up a massive system for never ending torture is not universal, and is actually a relatively recent (around 1,800-year-old) invention.  Christian ideas of hell have varied with respect to the brutality and intensity of the torture, including some with extremes of sadism.  But even the milder versions are peculiar.  Our experience is that we get accustomed to almost any pain or misery, and nothing lasts forever.  The oddity, and impossibility, of unending, unstoppable agony does not seem to have struck many people.  

In the interview on Fresh Air, Ehrman mentioned that he was confident that hell did not exist.  He seemed to think people suffered unnecessarily because of the concept, and that they’d be happier without it.  I think that, too.

On the other hand, I’ve been re-reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book on the meat industry, Eating Animals, which depicts a truly hellish reality.  Every year, billions of sentient creatures — cows, pigs, chickens, and others — are brought into existence by humans who treat them with unspeakable cruelty.  Humans inflict suffering on these animals on a scale that truly defies comprehension.  Then they kill them and eat them.

The horror of the meat industry is most apparent in its cruelty to billions of individual animals, but it also produces a lot of suffering less directly.  It is one of the largest contributors of the greenhouse gases that account for global warming. It introduces steroids, antibiotics, bacteria, and viruses into the human food chain that account for a lot of sickness and death.  

The meat industry is also a place of misery for the workers who kill and cut up the animals.  Slaughter houses are some of the most dangerous workplaces in America.  Many of the workers are immigrants who are too desperate and powerless to demand safe conditions and reasonable pay.

It was therefore not a huge surprise that there have been serious Covid-19 outbreaks in industrial meat operations.  But the reaction of President Trump was surprising, and even for him, perverse.  He issued a declaration that the meat industry was essential infrastructure under the Defense Production Act and must therefore remain open.  He didn’t say how this was to be accomplished if the workers in large numbers got sick and died.   

So is the meat industry, with its enormous profits based on cruelty and lies, essential?  It’s hard to see how that could possibly be.  We can certainly survive without meat, and hundreds of millions of people do so every day.  In fact, eating a healthy plant-based diet is a lot better for the human body.  I’ve been doing it for twenty-some years, and I’m here to tell you, it’s been good.  

Perhaps, along with a lot of death, Covid-19 will cause more people willingly or unwilling to eat less meat and more plants.  Once we factor in all the health gains from less meat-related disease and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, we might have a net gain in the survival rate.  There could be a win-win — less animal cruelty, less human suffering, and more health and  happiness. 

Happy 50th Earth Day, and calling out the plutocrats

Great blue herons at Jordan Lake

I went out to Jordan Lake a couple of mornings last week, including on Wednesday, which was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day.  I managed to get my photography gear down the loose rocks to the river side, set up the tripod, tested exposures, and waited to see what would happen.  I enjoyed watching the birds, and especially the ospreys and the great blue herons. 

The GBHs are really good at catching fish!  It happens so fast that you can barely even see the catch.  Looking at the pictures afterward, I felt sad for the unfortunate fish, but still happy for the birds.  They aren’t cruel; they fish out of necessity.    

On the drive, I listened to more of the Scene on Radio podcast,   which I’ve found very thought-provoking.  The producers and scholars discussed libertarian ideas, including the notion that all government is bad and individual wealth is the highest good, and explored how those ideas relate to race and politics.  

As the podcast noted, what drives the hard-right plutocrats is not just pure greed, but also a kind of twisted idealism.  They believe that the individual is supremely important, and individual success is the highest good.  There is no point to social organizations or communities other than as a platform for high achievers.  Wealth is a sign of virtue, and poverty a sign of vice.  Greed is good, and only the wealthy matter.   

Osprey with fish

These people generally admire the work of Ayn Rand, a third-rate writer and pseudo philosopher whose awkward and sad novels idealize grotesquely rugged individuals.  Admiring Rand is more than a sign of poor literary taste; it indicates moral immaturity.  In the Randian libertarian view, it is not just understandable, but desirable, to cultivate indifference to the welfare of others.  The poor are by definition unworthy, and deserve whatever misfortune strikes them.

Preventing minorities from voting is an important political objective for the libertarian right.  The plutocratic leadership  expects to always be a minority working to benefit itself, and so an actual democracy where everyone is allowed and encouraged to vote would not work for them.  

If there were a level playing field and an informed electorate, the majority would never vote for such a system, since it doesn’t serve the best interests of most people.  But of course, we do not have those things.  Instead, we have massively-funded disinformation campaigns, gerrymandered electoral districts, and laws discouraging the non-rich from voting.  And if that is not sufficient, they cheat.  This could all be viewed as wrong, but they view it as well justified, since they believe (or at least some part of them believes) that all that matters is their own welfare and success.  

It is hard to believe how pervasive these libertarian, anti-government ideas have become, especially given how much they conflict with traditional American norms of fairness, equality, and representative democracy.   This helps explain why we in the US lack some of the basic attributes of advanced democracies in Europe, such as a health care system that works for people other than the rich and safety net programs for ordinary people.  Such programs would involve government action.  And in this extreme libertarian view, government action is always bad.  The same for taxes.

This is one of the rays of hope of the coronavirus pandemic:  it exposes the narrowness and moral degeneracy of these ideas.  It could hardly be more obvious that government action is needed to address the pandemic, and it seems crazy to argue otherwise.  To be sure, some still do.  Some are so in love with their ideas, or desperate for income and food, that they have been marching in protest against business closures, at the risk of their lives.  But others are not so fanatical, and are moderating their views to accommodate reality, and survive.    

Perhaps we’ll emerge from this crisis with a more realistic view of the importance of government, and more compassion for those less fortunate.  We might rediscover the significance of the natural world, and cultivate more appreciation for animals other than humans and the fascinating interrelationships of living things.  If we can get started down that road, there’s still hope that we won’ t ravage the planet completely  before Earth Day 100.        

 

Big birds, pandemic masks, non-dairy cheese, factory farms, and the war on climate change

Bald eagle at Shelley Lake

I managed to get up early three mornings this week to spend some time with the birds of our area, including these bald eagles, great blue herons, and ospreys.  The birds weren’t doing anything special — just living their lives. But it was especially heartening in this perilous time to get their orientation — intense, with all the senses open, and prepared for the next opportunity.

This week Sally got me a coronavirus mask that had been sewn by the tailor at our dry cleaners.  It’s green and looks, well, strange. I’m starting to wonder whether we’ll be getting used to not seeing much of each other’s faces.  

As the pandemic and the stay-at-home order continue, we’re trying to make the best of things.  One good thing is finding time and energy to try new projects. This week I finally got around to one I’d been meaning to do for a while:   making non-dairy cheese.  

I’ve known for some time that dairy products involve heart-breaking cruelty to cows.  Like other mammals, mother cows feel intense attachment to their young. The reason they make milk is to feed their babies.  Factory dairy farms get them to make more milk by a cycle of artificial impregnation and stealing their calves immediately after birth. 

The mothers cry out for their missing calves and grieve. Confined in small spaces, they are fed unhealthy diets that often include hormones and steroids.  Their natural life span is around 20 years, but on factory farms they are too exhausted, sick, or injured to keep going after 5 years. So they are killed to make hamburgers.     

Great blue heron in early morning fog at Jordan Lake

 

Some time back, Sally and I started finding good plant-based substitutes for milk — soy, cashew, almonds, oats.  Quitting ice cream was challenging, for obvious reasons, but we’ve recently discovered some delicious non-dairy substitutes — Ben & Jerry’s, So Delicious, and Nada Moo.   But it’s been hard to give up the deliciousness of cheese. We’ve had good plant-based cheese substitutes in restaurants, but haven’t seen them in our grocery stores. If you’re looking for a business opportunity, there’s a business idea, which you’re welcome to steal.

In the meantime, I tried a friend’s recipe for non-dairy brie, the main ingredient of which was cashews.  It took some work, and I nearly burned out the blender motor, but the result was pretty good. I used fresh herbs — rosemary, sage, and chives.  It tasted a lot like brie, but the consistency was more like a dip. I may have done too much blending. Anyhow, I’m planning to give it another shot soon.    

I just finished reading Jonathan Saffron Foer’s recent book, We Are the Weather:  Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. It’s a book about the relationship of factory farming to climate change and to us.   Foer reviews the facts, including the fact that animal farms are a major contributor to global warming. He thinks that we need to take whatever action we can as individuals to combat the developing catastrophe of climate change.  Recognizing how deeply habituated we are to eating meat, he proposes that if we can’t quit entirely, we try eating it only at dinner.

Foer is a fine writer, and I was heartened by his good sense and good-heartedness.  But I agreed in part with Mark Bittman, the NY Times reviewer, who said that hoping to save the planet by giving people good reasons to change their habits is probably not going to work.     Old habits die hard, especially when they’re constantly reinforced by the advertising of agribusiness fighting for its accustomed profits.  

Bittman recommended a piece by Bill McKibben that was in the New Republic in 2016 titled  A World at War — We’re Under Attack from Climate Change, and Our Only Hope Is to Mobilize Like We Did in WWII 

 The war metaphor is not a new one, but it is still apt.  McKibben points out that if Hitler had been wreaking havoc on our cities with firestorms, hurricanes, droughts, and floods, we would have seen the necessity of mobilizing to fight back.  As McKibben recounts, in WWII the US mobilized in just weeks and months to make bombers, ships, tanks, and other weapons under the direction of the federal government. He argues that we’re going to need that sort of leadership to head off complete disaster.  

Osprey at Jordan Lake

One benefit of the pandemic is that it is helping us get a new understanding of what a real crisis is, and how we can’t just do nothing.  That may help us understand the need for government leadership on climate change. The idea that markets alone will solve our current problems is not going to work, and the political leadership now in place is not going to work.  

The TImes reported this week on new research on the threat of climate change to animals.  The scientists found that the risk of mass extinction is much closer than previously thought, with thousands of species at risk beginning in the next decade.  The study emphasized that this is not inevitable, if we take dramatic action soon.  

At the same time, the pandemic has brought into focus the precarious situation of working people.  With businesses shut down, no jobs, and no savings, having food and housing is no longer a given. Pending getting new leaders and a compassionate safety-net system, we’ve been trying to do some extra giving for food and other necessities.  

The latest:  Sally discovered the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is raising money for domestic workers who have no other resources.  It’s a great time to help workers whose job is helping others and who can’t work from home.  

Wildflowers, back problems, conspiracy theories, and hope

Wild geraniums at Swift Creek Bluffs in Cary

There were a lot of wildflowers in bloom this week.  One morning I went to Swift Creek Bluffs and took some pictures.  For these, I got down in the dirt, trying to stay clear of poison ivy, ticks, and snakes.  At times a light breeze was blowing, moving the flowers slightly, and I waited for a while for the wind to pause.  It took some work, but it was also cheering to be close to the wild geraniums and lilies. Especially in this difficult time, I found these images soothing, and I hope they are for you as well.  

The next day, I somehow managed to pull a muscle in my back.  I think it was when I was practicing juggling with my three bean bags.  Juggling can look frantic, but for me it’s usually calming. But I probably should have done a little stretching before working on under-the-leg throws.  There was no sudden violent pain, but over the next several hours it got harder and harder to move.  

Atamasco lilies

So I’m struggling physically.  But otherwise, things are OK. Actually, I’m feeling surprisingly cheerful and energetic.  It’s been a great time to try new photographic processes (both with the camera and with software).  I’ve learned a lot about Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz, and Nik applications from knowledgeable and generous people who’ve put up instructional videos on YouTube.  

I’ve also been trying new musical experiments on the piano, including working on some Liszt flourishes and the blues.  I cooked a crock pot full of Jocelyn’s famous vegetarian chili. I’ve made progress on my German and Italian with Rosetta Stone lessons.  My sketching is improving. And I’m getting better at juggling, though that is on hold for the moment.     

We were starting to get a bit worried about running out of toilet paper.  Anxiety and panic buying is understandable, but still, it’s odd, and kind of disturbing, that people are hoarding TP.  Fortunately, our neighborhood pharmacy/convenience store on Glenwood Avenue got a shipment just in time.  

The tenuousness of our relationship with reality is also in view with some bizarre new conspiracy theories.  Max Boot in the NY Times  wrote a piece describing some of these.  Some are self evident nonsense, like the idea that cellphone networks cause the virus, or that the pandemic was engineered by Bill Gates on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry.  Some are not absurd, but are unsupported and unlikely, like the idea that the virus is a bioweapon from China, or else the United States.  

Why do people gravitate to conspiracies?  According to Boot’s sources, people are especially likely to latch onto conspiracy ideas when they are feeling overwhelmed, confused and helpless.  By providing explanations, the conspiracy theories provide a degree of comfort, giving people a sense of power and control. The more bizarre theories may give a greater sense of agency, in that the believer has secret and therefore especially valuable knowledge.  Sharing such theories provides a tenuous sense of community and significance. 

Whatever psychological needs such ideas satisfy, there are major downsides.  They lead some people to disregard the recommendations of the most knowledgeable experts, and, say, refuse to adopt social distancing.  People have attacked cell phone towers and relied on unsafe cures.  

There is also a dangerous feedback loop.  As people get more accustomed to disregarding experts that oppose their conspiracy ideas, they’re more prone to adopt more conspiracies and disregard more actual experts.

Jack Krugman, Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, had an interesting column recently related to this problem.  He pointed out that trickle down economics and climate change denialism both rely for their survival on disregarding informed scientists and experts.  The habit of disdain for science and expertise seems to have carried over to the pandemic.  

Krugman also noted that for those who think all government should be done away with, it’s a particularly difficult time.  For the less ideologically committed, it seems obvious that pure market forces aren’t going to get the job done in this pandemic, and we need effective government.  Right wingers may worry that if people see that government is saving lives, their central creed that government is bad may be unveiled as a sham.

The Times had a very good essay proposing that this moment of crisis is also a moment of opportunity. The editorial board observed that the pandemic is casting new light on some of our system’s worst failures, including shameful inequality and indifference to the suffering of those less fortunate.  Our systems for healthcare, housing, and the social safety net are costing many lives. The essay points out that at earlier times of national crisis, Americans have achieved a greater measure of compassion and fairness.  It is possible that this crisis will as well.