The Casual Blog

Alaska natives, more bears, and Safina’s Becoming Wild

At Brooks Falls

These are in many ways dark and difficult times for both humans and other animals.  Humans get most of the headlines, so I’m focusing here on other animals.  I’m still processing my recent experiences with brown bears in Alaska, and still working my way through their pictures.  Some of these moments were shocking, and some were wonderfully peaceful.  

Also, when I was in Anchorage, I learned a bit about the native Alaska cultures.  I discovered that there’s no single simple story, but a lot of complex and still evolving stories.  At the Alaska Native Heritage Center, I took a tour and got an overview of the many distinct indigenous groups with their own languages, customs, and cultures.  

A disagreement near Brooks Falls

At the Center, I  got a taste of traditional music and dance, and the various kinds of houses and tools that the different groups used.  The music used drums and voices (no other instruments) along with choreographed dance to tell stories.  The music was not my preferred style (lots of close repetition), but I was glad to know that native Alaskans made and enjoyed music.

I also enjoyed the Anchorage Museum, which had exhibits of traditional crafts and documentary videos about native village life.  It turns out that there were quite a few different strategies for surviving and creating community in pre-industrial Alaska.  

In addition to coping with the harsh reality of their climate, when Europeans arrived, the indigenous people got horrific epidemics, violence, and oppression.  And native communities have many serious problems today, including poverty and substance abuse.  But the fact that these cultures weren’t entirely destroyed is strong proof of their fortitude and resilience.

I’m certain I only scratched the surface of Alaska cultures, and have a lot to learn.  But one thing I definitely got:  the term Eskimo has a lot of baggage, and is considered by many a nasty slur.  As a schoolboy, I was taught that the word referred generally to the native people of Alaska.  But like a lot of my early lessons on other cultures, this was both wrong and misleading.  Some Alaskan natives still use it to denigrate other Alaskans, but probably the best course is to avoid the term. 

Cubs get a swimming lesson at Katmai Preserve

I’ve been reading more of Carl Safina’s new book, Becoming Wild:  How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace.  As in his previous book, Beyond Words, Safina teaches about the abilities and accomplishments of different animal communities.  Beyond Words concerned elephants, wolves, and killer whales, while Becoming Wild focuses on humpback whales, macaws, and chimpanzees.  

For these various creatures, Safina pulls together recent scholarship as well as his own observations.  At times it drags a bit, but there are moments of great beauty and insight.  Safina shows that these non-human animals have personalities, communities, and cultures, and their lives have inherent value.  This is message is not complicated, but directly contrary to what most of us were taught, and it takes time to get it.

I hope Safina, or someone with similar commitment and talent, does a similar study of brown bears.  Even just a few days with them was enough for me to start seeing that they were individuals, with their own personalities and customs.  They seemed to have friends, and to be devoted to their children.

These animals have gotten only slightly better PR than sharks.  In the popular imagination, they are mindless killing machines, rather than mostly peaceful co-inhabitants of the planet.  Even in this sparsely populated area of Alaska with abundant food sources, the bear population has greatly declined, and the bears continue to be threatened by humans.  

I was very disturbed to learn that in Katmai Preserve, the government grants licenses to hunt them for pleasure.  Humans are twisted in many different ways, but still, it’s hard to understand how people would find such killing to be fun.  

It would not be surprising if the bears were angry at humans for taking their territory, food sources, and the lives of friends and children.  But I didn’t observe this.  Some were leery and careful to keep their distance, while others were curious.  A few times they approached us, but speaking to them in a firm voice was enough to direct them away, and they went on with their lives.

My first Alaska trip, with brown bears and Emma

Brown bear at Katmai Park, Alaska

My Alaska trip in mid-August was fantastic!  True, American Airlines lost my bag on the trip home, but they eventually found it.  Also, there was a major Covid outbreak at the lodge where I stayed, but I didn’t get it.  There were anxious moments, and as with every adventure some minor disappointments.  But all told, it was an amazing, life-changing experience. 

Alaska is beautiful and really enormous, and impossible to take in all at once.  My prime objective for this trip was to photograph brown bears (sometimes called grizzlies).  This time of year they normally feast on migrating salmon and get extra fat for their winter hibernation.  My small group of photographers stayed at the village of Iliamna and traveled several times by float plane to Katmai National Park.  There we saw dozens of bears fishing in the river, playing on the tundra, and living their lives.  

For me, it was quite moving to spend time close to these powerful and resourceful creatures.  Their lives made a lot of sense.  When they felt hungry they waded into the water and went fishing.  When they felt sleepy, they lay down and took a nap.  Mothers nursed their new cubs.  Young ones playfully sparred with each other.  

At some point I’d been taught that bears were solitary animals, but this is not how they seemed when I was there.  Some of them seemed to be friends, and played together in groups.  Occasionally there were disagreements.  A massive bear would warn another to back off by growling and shoving, but I didn’t see any fights that involved bloodshed.

It was a big show, slow at times (such as nap times), but even then heart filling, and I could watch a long time without taking pictures.  But I also took a lot of pictures.  I’m still working my way through the digital trove, but I thought the ones here were worth sharing, and hope to have more next week.   

During the trip I had no internet or other news source.  As a long-time news junkie, I felt unsettled at first, but soon adjusted.  When I finally got back on line in Anchorage, I found that the world was turning pretty much as before.

During the trip I re-read Emma, by Jane Austen, for the first time since my college days.  I remember thinking it was wonderful then, but this time it seemed richer.  Austen is often treated as a brilliant rom-com miniaturist.  But in addition to her polished and gently humorous surfaces, she unveils darker aspects of an intensely social world.  Underneath the careful manners there’s an unremitting struggle for dominance.

We know, or at least could know, a lot more than Austen did about the slavery and imperialism that provided funding for her genteel characters.  Her degree of complicity is unknown, but even assuming the worst, she bequeathed to her readers a great gift.  Somehow, within her narrow confines, she managed to create an absorbing world and at the same time call that world into question.  Emma Woodhouse is undeniably marvelous, but addicted to deception, including self deception.  Like stage magic, Austen keeps us absorbed and curious by seeming to reveal emotional secrets, and then letting us see that bigger ones may still be hidden.

New York, Showy Florentines, Black Egyptians, and the Ghost Forest

Ghost Forest, Maya Lin, Madison Square, New York City

Last week we visited our old stomping ground, New York City, for the first time since the pandemic.  It was a little strange to wear masks for the flight, but not bad, and certainly smart, given the persistence of the clever and dangerous Covid virus.  We were pleasantly surprised to arrive at the finally completed  Terminal B at LaGuardia, which was full of light, with whimsical tile walls.  When we left , we saw a performance there by the new fountain, which made dancing patterns with lasers and thousands of gallons dropping from the ceiling. 

The prime objective of our trip was Jocelyn’s baby shower, celebrating with friends the soon-to-arrive little girl.  Our old friend Kathryn created a feast with many delicious vegetarian options, and we enjoyed chatting with other friends of the happy couple.  It was sunny and mild, a very pleasant day.    

We stayed in the West Village, parts of which have not changed much, though we noticed storefronts that had been vacated and graffiti and garbage that had arrived.  It was certainly not depopulated!  On Friday night the crowds of young folks made it challenging to stroll on the sidewalks.  But we managed, and had an excellent Thai meal.  

We spent most of Friday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I’ve spent many happy hours there in years past, and know parts of it well.  But the collection is truly gargantuan, and there’s always something new.

We started with the current exhibit on the art of the Medici in Florence in the 1500s.  The paintings were mostly portraits of the ruling elite of that period.  I could appreciate the craftsmanship, but was more interested in the meta message of the portraits, which was, roughly translated, this person is super successful and powerful, and you’re not.  

Art history as taught to me was mainly about aesthetics, but now I’m focussing more on what the art is trying to communicate about its culture, as well as what it conceals, intentionally or unintentionally.  I was grateful for the bits of history in the exhibit’s labeling.  It gave some helpful background about the ruling Medici princes and Florence’s battles for wealth and dominance.  

I also spent some time with the Met’s collection of ancient art.  Recently I’ve been listening to lectures from Audible on the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, as well as those of Greece and Rome. We take for granted a lot of the ideas and inventions of these cultures, and sometimes forget that there’s so much that even specialists don’t know about their world.  Anyhow, while wreaking havoc on competitors, they left behind a lot of beautiful objects, and it’s fun to try to figure out what they might be saying.

I also visited the Met’s enormous Egyptian collection for the first time in many years.  The ancient Egyptians were amazing builders and artists, and created a remarkably powerful and resilient culture.  Looking at their art this time, I was struck by something I hadn’t registered before:  they looked Black.  

Of course, our American ideas of race were not theirs.  But once I focussed, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before:  the facial features of the ancient Egyptians looked like many of our Black brothers and sisters.  

From some quick Google research, I gather there’s vigorous scholarly dispute on the race of ancient Egyptians.  My evidence is subjective, and plainly I am no expert.  But it would not be surprising in our culture if there was unconscious resistance, even by scholars, to acknowledging that Black people were the creators of this impressive civilization.  More research is called for.

Finally, I visited and took some pictures of a thought-provoking art project temporarily in midtown by Maya Lin called Ghost Forest.  Lin is best known for her Vietnam War Memorial in D.C.   Ghost Forest features 49 cedars that lived in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and died from climate change.  Lin brought them to Madison Square Park, which is a green oasis just north of the Flatiron building and south of the Empire State Building, and arranged them into a little forest.  

Part of Lin’s message is easily decipherable:  humans have heedlessly destroyed entire ecosystems, including beautiful forests, without even noticing.  But I was surprised to find other messages.  The dead trees made me look at the lush and healthy trees of Madison Square and the life around them with new gratitude and affection. 

Growing plants, and hopefully, fixing our food system

It’s been hot here in Raleigh, though we haven’t been having massive fires, storms, droughts, or floods, unlike some others.  For this I’m grateful, but the heat and humidity have kept me inside more than usual.  I did get up to Raulston Arboretum one afternoon, and was happy to see these flowers and insects. 

Happily, it’s peach season here, and I got some peaches at the State Farmer’s Market.  It was good seeing the farmers and their good looking fruits and vegetables.  The peaches were juicy and quite delicious.

Getting satisfying, nourishing food doesn’t have to be complicated, but in fact, for many, it’s not happening.  Eating well is surely the most important thing we as individuals can do for our health, and irresponsible food production is among the worst things we as a society do to the planet.  But with so many other problems to worry about, food usually doesn’t get much attention.

So I was pleased this week to see a major new report from the Rockefeller Foundation titled True Cost of Food:  Measuring What Matters to Transform the U.S. Food System.  The Rockefeller report takes a wide-angle view of the costs and benefits of the food system as it stands, and how it could be improved.  

The report makes clear that the existing system does a poor job in providing healthy and affordable food, but also fails in other key respects — providing unlivable wages, unsafe working conditions, inequitable treatment of minority communities, wasting natural resources, hastening climate change, and hurting biodiversity.

The Rockefeller researchers found that the out-of-pocket cost Americans pay for food is about a third of the true cost.  That is, we spend $1.1 trillion a year directly on food.  But the true cost of our food comes to at least $3.2 trillion, once we take account of rising health care costs caused by our food, low wages and lack of benefits, the system’s contribution to climate change and pollution, water and land degradation, and other losses.  

The total costs just from diet-related conditions and diseases, including health care for obesity, hypertension, cancer, and diabetes, cost us $1.145 trillion — that is, considerably more than the out-of-pocket cost of our food. 

The Rockefeller report effectively brings into view some of the worst problems of our food system, but, as it acknowledges, it does not account for a number of other costs, like impaired military readiness, poor mental health, and lower educational achievement.  It also leaves out the cost of animal suffering, which, it says, could not be monetized.  

This is worth discussing more.  According to the report, more than 10 billion farm animals are killed each year for food.  It’s possible to think about this suffering not just in ethical terms, but in monetary terms.  For example, for governmental purposes, officials calculate the value of human lives at around $10 million a piece.  

If we valued animal suffering at much less — say, .001 percent of a human life for the suffering of a cow, pig, or chicken — the total yearly cost of suffering for each executed animal would be $100.  By this measure, the total annual cost of all the animal suffering caused by our food system would be an additional $1 trillion.  

However you decide to do the math, our food system causes enormous animal suffering.  Faced with the scale of such a horror, it’s easy to lose heart, but the Rockefeller report also reminds us that there are viable ways to start remediation.  One is, as it politely puts it, “decreasing animal protein consumption.”    

On another hopeful note, there were a couple of worthwhile interviews last week with one of my heroes, Jane Goodall. Goodall, now 87, started her career as a primatologist, making pioneering discoveries about the intellectual abilities and social organizations of chimps which ran contrary to what most scientists then believed.  She helped change the boundaries of our thinking about the intelligence and emotional lives of these and other animals, helping us understand that they are not as different from us as we’d thought. There’s a Vox interview in which she talks about some of this here, and a NY Times interview here. I

In recent years her work has focused on conservation efforts.  As much as anyone, she understands the dire environmental situation that all living beings now face as a result of human activity.  Yet she refuses to give up hope.  That’s now a big part of her message: we’re running out of time, but there’s still time for us to make a difference. She has a new book coming out in the fall, and has no plans to retire.  

Some good soul, and talking about race

This past week we went out to see a movie for the first time since BC (Before Covid).  Sally had read about a new documentary, Summer of Soul, playing at the Rialto, our old time neighborhood movie house.  There was only one guy there selling tickets, and he also sold drinks and snacks, so it took longer than usual time to get a ticket, popcorn, and a beer.  

But it was so worth it!  Summer of Soul is about a concert series in the summer of 1969 in a park in Harlem with  mostly Black musicians and hundreds of thousands of Black people listening, singing, and dancing.  

The musicians included already famous and future legendary performers, including Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Nina Simone, David Ruffin, Max Roach, Ray Baretto,  Mahalia Jackson, the Fifth Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.  That is, some of the very best gospel, blues, jazz, soul, and rock ever made.  The musicians seemed to feel the love, and their performances showed it.

It was amazing that it ever happened, and unfortunate that it never became a cultural touchstone, like Woodstock, which happened the same summer.  Fortunately, the producers saved the videotapes, and now, 52 years later, we can get a good look at what we missed.  It may be just the right moment to discover and cherish this wonderful moment of Black culture.  The film is streaming on Hulu.

As you probably already know, race is multi-dimensional issue in the United States, which we haven’t fully worked through.  One indicator of this is the odd new moral panic about the teaching of critical race theory.  I learned last week that parents in Loudoun County, Va. and other places are harassing and threatening school board members because they believe their young children are being taught this specialized CRT scholarship.  

This notion, promoted by fearmongering rabble rousers at Fox News, is almost certainly untrue. But it’s concerning that these parents, who presumably love their children, seem really worried.   They apparently think their children may learn some really bad lessons — ones that run contrary to our traditional narrative of progress and harmony.  

It isn’t surprising that being clear and direct about race makes some white people uncomfortable.  For one thing, it isn’t how we were taught.  For another, it may involve unpleasant feelings, like regret, shame, and guilt.  For some, there could be a feeling that their position in the hierarchy is indefensible and threatened.  And it isn’t surprising that some react to this discomfort defensively, converting it into anger and denial.  

But I still find it remarkable that those who want avoid the issue attack those who would like to address our racial history and problems as racists.  

Anyhow, for those who aren’t full of that sort of fear and anger, I recommend a recent podcast series from RadioLab:  The Vanishing of Harry Pace.  It tells what is known of Pace, a highly accomplished businessman who wrote popular songs, started Black Swan records, led a Black insurance company, and then seemed to change his racial identification.  

Part of what’s fascinating is how race can seem firmly fixed, and turn out to be highly ambiguous.  Similarly, history that we assume must be well settled can turn out to be full of uncertainty. 

Along this same line, remember the Alamo?  The way I heard the story as a kid, it was a heroic battle for freedom in Texas.  This was not true, according to Forget the Alamo:  The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford.  In an interview on Fresh Air, Burrough explained that the battle was part of a struggle mainly about preserving and expanding slavery by white settlers in what was then part of Mexico, where slavery was generally illegal.  

The supposed idealism and heroism were Hollywood creations.  Burrough noted in the interview that contradicting the traditional accounts of the heroism of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, etc. made some people, including militia types, extremely upset.    

Getting back to music, I’ve been reading a biography of Claude Debussy by Stephen Walsh.  As is usually or always true with music writing, it doesn’t succeed in conveying anything close to the actual music, but it does suggest perspectives for listening.  Debussy’s music, some of which I’m capable of playing on the piano, was highly original, but he also acknowledged being inspired by music from other cultures, including the Javanese gamelan tradition of Indonesia.

Inspired by Walsh’s account, I decided to track down some gamelan music, and found plenty on YouTube.  The examples I heard didn’t sound at all like they could be Debussy’s model, and I’m inclined to think he drew more from traditional Japanese music.  But with YouTube it was surprisingly fun to dip into Javanese and Japanese music.   It inspired me to start exploring other traditional world music through there — from eastern Europe, native Americans, west Africans.  There’s a ton!  

These photos are from Jordan Lake this week.  There weren’t a lot of birds there, and those I saw didn’t perform any spectacular feats, like catching a fish.  But I liked this osprey.

Bears, happy Juneteenth, and a solution to poverty

On our way back from the Outer Banks, we took a detour through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  We saw two mother bears, each with two cubs, a barred owl, a flock of white ibises, and various other interesting birds, reptiles, and plants.  We were excited, and also worried, to see a rare, critically endangered red wolf standing beside Highway 64 and looking at the traffic.  Hope he or she is OK.

I you, like me, have an affectionate interest in wild animals, I recommend Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald.  It’s a collection of short personal essays about the natural world.  Macdonald explores the thrill and peace that nature can bestow, and helps us appreciate its fragility.  The NY Times review is here.    

This week Juneteenth became a national holiday.  Some Americans are just now learning about the original event, June 19, 1865, when African Americans in Texas first learned that slaves had been declared emancipated.  The basic idea of the holiday is to celebrate the end of slavery and beginning of freedom.  

Most of us surely agree that this is a good reason for celebration, though not all.  As I was practicing my golf swing at the range, I overheard an older golfer speaking disparagingly of the new holiday, and adding that “they” were “taking over.”  I wondered how he could have such an ignorant and poisonous idea, and then I remembered:  “us” and “them” was the basic framework a lot of us were trained in from birth, and some still are.  These ideas have long, hard-to-pull-out roots.

Also, racial segregation is still the rule in most American neighborhoods, schools, and churches.  There’s room for discussion about the details of why this is true in 2021, but plainly a lot has to do with the legacy of slavery.  One consequence is that it takes effort to get to know people of a different race, which increases the difficulty of dislodging our early training in the caste system.

But there are also other forces at work.  This week Thomas Edsall’s NY Times column examined the causes of so-called populism of Trump and similar movements elsewhere.  Edsall quoted various thinkers who identified economic forces, including artificial intelligence and other technology, robotics, and globalized outsourcing, that continue to cause job losses and threats to status for many, causing increasing insecurity and fear.  

Demagogues whip up these fears and blame minorities and immigrants for these losses.  Those with good reasons to feel economically insecure are often latch on to simple solutions to their problems, especially when they resonate with their early racial training.  

Why don’t we just eliminate poverty?  It sounds like something we could all agree is a good idea.   But as Ezra Klein wrote last week, poverty is a well accepted part of our economic system, and eliminating it would threaten some valued privileges of the privileged. 

As Klein explains, Americans rely on low wage workers in order to have cheap goods and services.  In this light, it makes sense to resist raising the minimum wage above the poverty level, allowing workers freedom to organize, or extending jobless benefits.  If low wage workers were less desperate, they might well not take jobs that are mind-numbing or dangerous and pay barely enough to survive.  Employers would have to provide better working conditions, and better wages and benefits.  They’d lose some profits, and all of us would have to pay higher prices.

 

This aspect of American-style capitalism is seldom discussed, but worth discussing now.  We learned from the covid pandemic that our government can organize massive resources in a hurry to address economic distress.  We may have assumed before that there’s nothing we can do to help the mass of people who work at or below the poverty level, but we now have good evidence that that’s just not true.

Klein’s piece discusses a recent study out of the New School proposing a promising approach to mitigating poverty:  a guaranteed annual income of $12,500 plus an allowance for children.  The payments would phase out for those with incomes above the poverty level.  It would require a budget increase of about 20 percent, which could be paid with taxes at about the level of other wealthy nations.  

It’s an interesting idea, though it obviously runs hard against the grain of neo-liberalism.  Indeed, Republican leaders in several states are currently looking to cut emergency covid relief, including not only  money but also food programs, on the theory that workers won’t work as required unless they’re truly desperate.  We have here a very dark side of American capitalism.  Just as was true before 1865, some are willing to watch people starve, if that’s what it takes to force them to work.  

So old questions need to be asked again:  how much do we value human life?  How much suffering are we willing to inflict in the name of prosperity?  What are we willing to sacrifice to move towards a more just society?   I’m hopeful, though I wouldn’t say confident, that our better angels are ascendent.

On a completely different subject, I want to recommend a short essay on Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, One Art. The essay in the Times by Dwight Garner and Parul Seghal is beautifully presented, and gets straight to the point.  Even if you aren’t much interested in poetry, you might find something of real value.  

Our depolarized Outer Banks reunion, with some wild horses

Last week we had a family reunion at Corolla, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  All told, there were 29 Tillers and their close connections, from several states, ranging in age from a few weeks to 69.  We took up three beach houses and gathered together to go to the beach, have dinner, and play games.

We had pleasant weather, and the water was warm enough for swimming, though some straw had washed up on the beach during a previous storm.  Just north of Corolla, the beach is open to four wheel drive vehicles, and I took mine up  there to look for the resident wild horses.  I made these pictures, among others.  It was cheering to see these big animals making their own way and looking calm and reasonably healthy.  

There was a sort of elephant in the room at this family reunion, which was a strong divergence of political views.  As regular readers have probably noted, my politics are far from conservative, as are those of a few other relations.  Probably a majority of the other Tillers identify strongly as conservatives.  In this time of extreme political polarization, with many primed to see politics in terms of a battle of good versus evil, some wondered, how would we get along?

The answer, it turned out, was just fine.  We found plenty of things in common, like kids, jobs, food, sports, houses, and family memories.  There was a lot of laughter.  It’s easy to overemphasize the significance of political differences, and to forget how much of our lives has little to do with our political allegiances.  Our reunion was a good reminder:  we all (Tillers, and of course, others too) are closely tied, and those ties are important.

The reunion also reminded me that there are plenty of differences of opinions among those on the conservative side.  The loudness and shrillness of right-wing media is misleading in many ways, including giving the impression of a conservative monolith.

I don’t mean to suggest that political differences are unimportant, especially now.  The transformation of the Republican party into the party of Trump, with its gloves-off program to seize power is still happening.  Republican leaders all across the country are passing new laws to increase the likelihood that they won’t lose future elections.  They’re also passing laws to prevent schools from teaching about topics that inspire questions about the existing social order, like our history of slavery and continuing racism.  

But there is a lot of political movement in the opposite direction, addressing some of our biggest problems, including climate change, economic fairness, health care, institutionalized violence, and education.  In the face of radical Trumpism, President Biden is boring in a good way — practical and down to earth.  Perhaps this is the storm before the calm. 

Speaking of earth and hope, two cheers for the President’s 30 by 30 initiative:  conservation of 30 percent of our land and water by 2030.  So far, this hasn’t made big headlines, but it should help in addressing both global warming and the biodiversity crisis.  Some fifty other countries are working on this same goal.    Non-human animals are usually ignored as humans pursue their goals, to their and our great loss.  While I tend to go with E.O. Wilson, who has advocated a target of protecting 50 percent, it’s a good start. 

Gassing up and heading out, and the latest election fraud fraud

The Tiller ride at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

This week our gas stations had gas again, which was cheering for those of us with internal combustion engines.  I headed east to Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes looking for wildlife.  It was good to connect with animals again, though as always, I regretted my own greenhouse gas emissions.  Along the dirt roads it was pretty quiet.  I saw plenty of birds and one handsome (I think) young rattlesnake.    

On the drive out and back, I listened to various podcasts and audiobooks.  I strongly recommend a new podcast series called The Improvement Association.  The subject is election fraud in Bladen County, NC, where in 2018 they had one of America’s tiny number of actual election fraud incidents.  The podcast was put out by Zoe Chace and some of the same folks that made the podcast Serial.

The fraud involved improper ballots in support of the Republican congressional candidate and resulted in invalidation of the election.   During and after the scandal, Republicans in Bladen County claimed that Black politicians there had done much worse.  Zoe Chace decided to investigate.

Chace is not a showy personality, but she is an excellent journalist.  She asks reasonable questions, lets people have their say, and resists pat answers.  She recognizes that people often aren’t able to put things into words, including their own feelings about race, and that such feelings sometimes help account for how they see things. 

 

Much of her podcast focuses on the persistent accusations of white Republicans that Black organizers regularly committed election fraud, and she finds hardly any evidence that they did.  But she also examines the very interesting question of why white Republicans keep insisting the opposite.  She found both political opportunism and sincere racial fears, which sometimes hardened into an impossible-to-shake belief.  

In a way it’s a small story, but just now it has a lot of resonance.  Those of us not on the right are finding it difficult to comprehend how the majority of Republicans can continue to think, as they do, that Democrats committed election fraud that resulted in Joe Biden wrongfully becoming president.  

Chace’s podcast suggests part of the answer:  traditional racial attitudes have a psychological filtering effect, blocking out certain facts (like the nonexistence of evidence) and concentrating some assumptions (like Blacks are like [something]).  Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning can feel just like logical thinking.  

With some of the generosity and curiosity of Zoe Chace, I want to give Trump supporters the benefit of a doubt.  I’m willing to assume that they aren’t just gaslighting, and most aren’t specifically hoping to overthrow democracy and reinstitute legal white supremacy.  They may truly believe that America faces an existential threat from leftists who seek to institute radical socialism and outlaw Christianity, and the only defense is Trump or someone like him.  They may actually be unable to process the overwhelming evidence that none of this is true.    

As far as I know, there’s no easy way to assist folks perched on this perilous ledge to gently move back towards a more fact-based reality.  But unfortunately, it is quite easy to make them feel even more terrified,  confused, and in need of a powerful leader to defend them.  Opportunistic Republican leaders and right-wing networks, concerned with maintaining power and audience share, are currently doing so, with a vengeance.

A recent new ploy is instituting more recounts of the 2020 election votes.  As most people know, the presidential election has been officially completed and confirmed, with massive oversight by qualified specialists and courts.  But state legislators in Arizona and Georgia have decided to continue recounting.  This could, I guess, go on as long as they think, or want others to think, that there was a conspiracy and all the tallying so far is wrong.  That is, potentially, forever.

It may be that such shenanigans will keep the MAGA base energized and eager for the next election battle.  It’s at least as likely that it will slowly drain away belief in fair elections.  Big lies, like Trump’s gigantic lie about the 2020 election can work by fooling gullible people, but they can also have an even more insidious effect.  

Repeating unbelievable things while demanding they be believed works to erode belief in one’s own common sense.  The big liar implicitly says, belief and loyalty are more important than reality, and anyhow, it’s impossible to know what’s true.  Your only choices are uncritical belief or hopelessness and confusion.  The big lie can work by getting people to give up on the idea that political action may be a force for good, and make them both despondent and acquiescent to power.

This is a difficult moment in the American political experiment.  We’ve learned that there are malign forces at work that are more infectious than we thought, and there’s no vaccine at the moment.  But we’ve still got a lot of the good sense and good will that have sustained us in difficult times before.  

Attacking fact checking, and the big election lie emergency

Osprey and fish at Jordan Lake

I’d planned to head to eastern NC this week to look for black bears and other creatures.  Unfortunately, in Raleigh and elsewhere, there was a gas shortage.  For a few hours, drivers and cars waited in long lines to get into stations, and then, the lines disappeared, and all the stations that I checked were out of gas.  

The primary cause was a criminal hack of a major fuel pipeline company, with a secondary cause of a mass freak out (panic buying).  People will probably calm down eventually.  In the meantime, anyone taking a long road trip faced a good chance of getting stranded without gas, and so I sadly put off the bears.  These pictures are ones I took recently at Jordan Lake and Raulston Arboretum

I’d been looking forward to taking a break from the subject of Trump, elections, and democracy.  For a couple of weeks, it looked like we were heading towards normal, still with big problems, but having avoided a crash into full-on fascism.  Right now we’ve got a full plate of wars, diseases, and other miseries, and it would be good not to add to the to-do list.  So I’m sorry.  But this is an emergency:  our democracy is in a crisis.

Before I get to the crisis, a related development:  this week a state legislator in Michigan proposed a new law aimed at fact checkers.  As a former professional fact checker, I wondered what was up.  According to the Washington Post, the legislator in question was a supporter of “Stop the Steal” and opponent of Covid safety measures.  He proposed that fact checkers be required to register with the state, post a million dollar bond, and face fines and lawsuits for their mistakes.

As an ex-lawyer, I’m pretty confident that such a law would be struck down as unconstitutional, as long as we have anything resembling our current constitutional system.  But the proposed law is one more indication of the fragility of that system.  

It’s been four decades since I worked as a fact checker at The New Yorker, and through the years it never occurred to me that the government might try to put the lid on fact checking.  I assumed that almost everyone would prefer to have truthful, reliable information, as opposed to mistakes or lies.  Even though right-wing propaganda networks regularly play fast and loose with facts, the idea of making it a crime to try to get the facts right is something new.     

Here’s fact checking in a nutshell:  the job of the checker is to figure out whether statements purporting to be factual are accurate.  Sometimes this is straightforward, as with correctly spelling names and confirming addresses, but other times it requires more research and analysis.  On issues requiring expertise or first-hand knowledge, it requires consulting reliable experts or sources.  It requires judgment when, as happens, experts or sources disagree.  In such cases, the checker may add a note that there’s a disagreement.  

Like all humans, fact checkers sometimes make mistakes.  In such cases, they may be reprimanded, fired, or, in cases of libel, sued.  So the proposed Michigan law would seem pointless, if the point were to punish mistakes.  It makes sense, though, if the aim is to clear the way for big lies by discouraging checking.  For those whose careers depend on lies, facts are pesky things.

And so we come to the crisis.  This week Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney was tossed out of the Republican leadership because she called out the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election and was denied the presidency because of fraud.  

This action resembled Republicans’ refusal to impeach Trump, but it was actually worse.  It’s the difference between quietly tolerating a lie and loudly shutting down those that oppose the lie. Instead of merely declining to hold Trump accountable for the January 6 attempt to overthrow the election, the Republicans are now effectively co-signing his lies about the election and endorsing the January 6 insurrection.  

In an almost-but-not-quite comic development, some congressional Republicans are now rechristening the mayhem of January 6 as a normal tourist visit unrelated to Trump and his supporters. 

For any who have forgotten, Trump supporters waving MAGA flags and sporting MAGA paraphernalia stormed the Capitol, shouting death threats, and vandalizing the premises as they searched for fleeing legislators who’d been about to complete certification of the election of Biden.  There were several deaths, dozens of injuries, and legislators and guards who feared for their lives. 

Meanwhile, having narrowly lost the last election, Republicans in 30-some states are moving forward with new voting laws designed to reduce the number of Democratic voters.  According to a new report in Mother Jones,  this effort has been organized with military precision by a right-wing dark money outfit associated with the Heritage Foundation.  

The quasi-clever cover story for these laws is that they are needed to address voter fears of election fraud.  There could be such fears, but in fact, there is no significant election fraud problem.  The fears are based on the outrageous lies propagated at high volume by Trump and his supporters in connection with their effort to overturn the last election.  

Senate Bill 1 could put a stop to the worst of the state level election rigging, but that legislation is opposed by Senate Republicans and can’t advance as long as the filibuster stays in place.  At the same time, state Republicans are getting rid of election officials who refused to go along with the Trump attempt to steal the 2020 election, and replacing them with Trump loyalists.  That is, they’re putting in place election officials who appear committed to stealing elections when directed.  

There are a lot of moving parts, but the direction is clear:  the end of our traditional system of transferring power peacefully based on fair elections.  Republicans are in the process of replacing it with a system in which elections are a sham used by the powerful to fool the gullible.  Such systems have a long history, but only in countries that we would not call democratic, such as China, Russia, and North Korea.  To put it plainly:  Republican leaders are now working on a large-scale effort to undermine the foundation of American democracy.

There are, of course, some principled Republicans who oppose this effort, and others who haven’t yet heard what’s happening, but would not support it.  But right now the Republican leaders at the national and state level are moving ahead to set up a system where only their candidates can win.  For many rank-and-file Republicans, persuaded by decades of right-wing lies that Democrats are evil socialists and otherwise very scary, changing the system to keep out Democrats may seem like a good idea.   

Possibly the Trump fever will break, and those with the illness will revert to traditional support for fair elections and facts over lies.  But I wouldn’t count on it.  It’s more likely that our democratic experiment will only survive if we fight for it (non-violently, of course).  We could start by junking the filibuster and moving ahead with Senate Bill 1.

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.