The Casual Blog

Tag: Brainpickings

Resisting the torrent of lies

Lake Mattamuskeet

Lake Mattamuskeet

This has been a Black Mirror week, starting as seeming comedy and then becoming terrifying.  It’s been discombobulating to hear a President of the United States issue a nonstop barrage of falsehoods and shameless lies. It’s hard to know how to react to the proliferating falsehoods with no connection to reality, and lies so transparent they hardly seem intended to deceive.  

It’s not that I’m a truth and honesty absolutist.  The border areas of truth are sometimes fuzzy,  and most of us sometimes bend it about a bit.  But most of us recognize honesty as a core value, and truth as a meaningful ideal.  People known to show no concern for truth or to intentionally deceive with lies are not ordinarily given positions of trust and authority.  They are regarded with suspicion and contempt.  

So we’re in unknown territory, and it’s hard to get your bearings.  Do some people actually believe the Administration’s outrageous falsehoods? Perhaps supporters regard them more  as pleasing and harmless works of fiction.  This would be understandable, but unwise.  As pleasant as it may be to disconnect from reality, there are life and death problems that must be addressed.

a great egret

A great egret

Part of what’s frightening here is the sheer quantity of the falsehoods and lies. They’ve been coming in a torrent.  Before we’ve processed one, there’s another, and then another.  You’d hope that such constant lying would lead quickly to a loss of credibility and effectiveness.

But the torrent is exhausting.  Trying to unpack all the lies takes too much time. There is no craft in these lies, no careful calculation of how to conceal reality, so they can be generated very quickly.  It takes much longer to fact check them than to make them.  So we can’t catch up.  And it’s exhausting to try.  The effort takes lots of brainpower, and leaves us with not enough time or energy to think deeply about real problems.  It gets harder to think critically.  Our brains get muddled.

It could be a brilliantly evil strategy to subjugate us, though more likely, there is no strategy.  Either way, it’s dangerous.  We could easily find ourselves losing our bearings, more and more confused, less and less sure of our facts and our values, depleted, disheartened, and unable to resist.

Tundra swans

Tundra swans

So, we’ll need  fortification as we prepare for the resistance.  I’m trying to stay healthy and looking out for old and new sources of strength and wisdom.  For me, friends, books, and music help. In these dark times, I particularly treasure encounters with generous spirits.  

Apropos, this week I listened to an interview of Maria Popova on the podcast On Being hosted by Christa Tippett.  Popova (pronounced pa-POE-va) is the creator of BrainPickings,  where she shares thoughts on her wide-ranging reading.  I don’t find all of her subjects equally interesting, but she’s amazingly curious, creative, and thoughtful —  full of ideas and reflections.  She also seemed like a person with a really good heart.    

This week I’m departing from my usual custom of posting my favorite photographs from the previous week.  Instead, these are ones I took a couple of weeks ago iat Lake Mattamuskeet and nearby areas in eastern N.C.  As I’ve learned more about how to make  a digital image sing with Lightroom and Photoshop, my standards for considering an image adequately finished have risen, and it takes more time to get there.  

If you enjoy nature photography, you might like  It’s a site where professional photographers and skilled enthusiasts use the site to share  amazing images from all over the planet.  I’ve been spending more time there lately just looking, quietly absorbed and getting inspired.



Tree behavior, Hitler, conspiracy theories, and the truth about Hillary’s email

Big Woods Road, near Jordan Lake in Chatham County, November 5, 2016

Big Woods Road, near Jordan Lake in Chatham County, November 5, 2016

Saturday morning was brisk, sunny, and clear. I drove Clara out to Jordan Lake, where I put her in sport mode and enjoyed the winding country roads. We drove up one of my favorites, Big Woods Road, and stopped at various spots to look for birds and colorful trees.

Clara, pausing on Big Woods Road

Clara, pausing on Big Woods Road

I’ve been reading The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben. Wolleben has spent his life as a forester closely observing trees, and has also assimilated a great deal of research into their biology and behavior. As the title indicates, he contends that trees are social plants that cooperate with sophisticated systems for communication, including underground connections of roots and fungi and various airborne chemicals. They work together to ward off predators, withstand weather, and take care of the young. It’s amazing! There’s a nice overview of the book at Maria Popova’s wonderful blog, Brainpickings.
Jordan Lake

On a more somber note, I’ve been reading the new biography of Hitler by Ullrich Volker. It covers H’s birth to the start of WWII. It’s a good read, and offers insights into (though no definitive solution to) the great mystery: how could an intellectually mediocre charlatan maniac seize and hold dictatorial power, with such dire consequences? At the end of WWI, Hitler quickly rose in political life as a popular speaker on the theme that there was a vast, powerful Jewish conspiracy that accounted for Germany’s problems.

This bizarre conspiracy theory was widespread at the time, and of course has never disappeared. How do such crazy ideas take root and propagate? There seem to be a lot of them flying around these days. A case in point: militiamen who believe the Second Amendment is under siege. The NY Times had a fascinating piece yesterday on these folks by David Zucchino, with good pics by Kevin Lyles.

They are mostly white, rural, and working class, and they like to get together on weekends to shoot their weapons. Zucchino got them to talk. They are passionately convinced of many nutty ideas: Hillary is coming to get their guns, ISIS is invading the country, the Democrats are rigging voting machines. Also, they want to make America great again. All I can say is, Yikes!
Jordan Lake

Only slightly less bizarre is the meme, now rampant, that Hillary’s email handling shows that she is unusually dishonest and corrupt. Matthew Yglesias of Vox did a good piece unpacking this tale and showing it to be based on nothing. Hillary’s handling of email was not illegal, and there’s no basis for accusing her of dishonesty. And yet the networks have devoted more air time to this non-story than every other policy issue combined.

Yglesias concludes as follows:

One malign result of obsessive email coverage is that the public is left totally unaware of the policy stakes in the election. Another is that the constant vague recitations of the phrase ‘‘Clinton email scandal’’ have firmly implanted the notion that there is something scandalous about anything involving Hillary Clinton and email, including her campaign manager getting hacked or the revelation that one of her aides sometimes checked mail on her husband’s computer.

But none of this is true. Clinton broke no laws according to the FBI itself. Her setup gave her no power to evade federal transparency laws beyond what anyone who has a personal email account of any kind has. Her stated explanation for her conduct is entirely believable, fits the facts perfectly, and is entirely plausible to anyone who doesn’t simply start with the assumption that she’s guilty of something.

P.S. On Monday morning at the gym I listened to the podcast version of the latest This American Life, which included a segment on Hillary and the emails. Garrett Graff, a veteran reporter, came to pretty much the same conclusion as Yglesias: there’s no actual scandal. Graff noted that he, like other reporters, always hopes investigations will lead to titillating revelations of misconduct. We often see what we want to see, whether it’s there or not, which may account for some of the press’s egregiously biased “scandal” reporting of the email story. Those reports started a feedback loop that has grown very loud and shrill and overwhelmed our ability to consider the facts.