The Casual Blog

Tag: Donald Trump

Safe voting, affectionate birds, climate undenialism, and beginning capitalism 2.0

I voted!   I was not eager to vote in person because of the pandemic, and had some misgivings about the reliability of voting by mail.  But friends pointed me to BallotTrax, a new online tool in NC and other states that lets you know when your mailed ballot has been received and accepted.  It’s easy and fun!  Well, not exactly fun, but reassuring.  In NC, once the mailed ballots are received, they are checked in, and counted on election night.

This week I went to Scotland Neck, NC to visit the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park.  There were a lot of beautiful avians, and some of them were surprisingly affectionate, following me around and gesturing.  Had they been missing having human visitors when the place was closed for the pandemic?  Hard to say, but maybe.  Here are a few of the photographs I made. 

Elsewhere we’ve been having a lot of simultaneous disasters, including huge fires across the length of the West Coast, flooding from hurricanes, fracturing ice shelves, and the coronavirus plague, not to mention the drama regarding the fate of American democracy.  These are hard to think about, either separately or together.  But I always try to look for a silver lining, and I managed to find one thing to feel a little cheerful about.  

Which is this:  For the first time in our lifetimes, climate change has become a significant issue in presidential politics.  Global warming and related changes have been happening for decades, and the risks of catastrophic change have become increasingly clear.  But politicians have mostly kept quiet about it.  Now it’s high on the discussion agenda.   That doesn’t mean we’ll fix it, of course, but if we don’t talk about it and make some changes, things will be getting a lot worse.  

Addressing the West Coast fires recently, Biden called Trump a “climate arsonist.”  Meanwhile, Trump expressed doubt as to whether scientists knew what they knew and tried to blame the fires on state officials.  

As loony as Trump was and is, I thought Biden’s “climate arsonist” tag was a little strong, since it’s probable that Trump didn’t actually light fires.  But Trump and his henchmen have done everything within their power to raise doubt and confusion about the reality of climate change, and to make sure there’s more of it coming soon.  Examples include lifting key regulations on vehicle emissions and power plants, lowering limits on methane emissions, promoting fossil fuel mining and drilling on public lands and waters, and opposing international climate cooperation.     

All this will, unless reversed, eventually contribute to death and destruction far exceeding the evil dreams of the world’s most fanatical terrorists.   There are many good reasons to stop Trump, but even if there weren’t, saving the world from climate disaster would suffice.  Still, even with all of Trump’s perverse misdeeds, it would be unfair to blame him alone for the global warming disaster.  

The rise of CO2 levels started generations ago with the Industrial Revolution, though it has greatly accelerated in our lifetimes.  Scientists began warning in the 1980s that dramatically rising temperatures caused by our emissions were going to happen and potentially lead to global disaster.  Trump is not the only one who tried to ignore it — so did almost all of our politicians, and most of the rest of us.

The science behind global warming is a little complicated, in that it involves some basic chemistry, but not nearly as complicated as, say, understanding essentially how a car works.  Ignorance is a problem, but not the biggest problem.  

The main barrier to comprehending climate change is that it doesn’t fit with some of our most basic assumptions about the world and our lives.  We’ve been taught to think of our world as a place of limitless resources, boundless wealth, and unending consumption, and our basic mission as exploiting and enjoying all that.  Any less opulent vision is not just less pleasant — it’s almost inconceivable.  

As Naomi Oreskes recently pointed out in Scientific American, it’s sort of understandable that people want to reject established science when it tells them something that conflicts with their firmly held worldview.    It’s less painful to reject the science than to change our basic way of thinking about our lives.

A week or so back, Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, and other influential right wing commentators made comments supporting Trump’s denial of climate science.  Per these “pundits,” science was a ruse by the evil liberals to take away good people’s freedom and make them feel less good about themselves.    They argued that accepting ordinary science would mean their listeners would lose control of their lives.  

As far as I know, there’s no left wing conspiracy, but Carlson and Limbaugh have kind of a point.  Unless we deny scientific reality and also reverse the laws of physics, we’re going to have to make some changes, collectively and individually, and it won’t all feel good.  But the alternative is that we, and all future generations, will face climate change suffering on a scale that is literally unimaginable.  A recent summary from the Times of what is likely to happen in the US is here

Fortunately, Trump and the right wing pundits seem to be losing the battle for hearts and minds, while scientific reality seems to be making progress.  Recent polls show more people seriously concerned about climate change, and favoring action.  There’s also been an encouraging shift in thinking about some of the established and related ideas on market capitalism.

This week the NY Times published a noteworthy piece   on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s amazingly influential essay arguing that corporations should disregard social objectives and devote themselves entirely to increasing profits.  

Friedman, then a respected economist, contended that corporations owed no duties other than to their shareholders, and had no responsibilities other than to make money.  To be fair, Friedman left himself a bit of wiggle room, noting that there were a few legal and ethical constraints.  But he argued that for corporations to try to support concerns for social welfare was essentially bad, like communism.

Along with Friedman’s fear mongering — equating social justice with a communist menace — he made some flagrantly ridiculous assumptions.  He assumed (without saying so) that the existing social order was right and proper, and that free markets would naturally continue to uphold that fine social order.  Thus he papered over existing social and political failures, such as systemic racial and gender discrimination, inadequate housing and transportation, poor healthcare, air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and widespread extinction of non-human life.  

Friedman also adopted and encouraged a value system of extreme individualism.  In this system, the prime mover and highest objective is the individual, rather than the family, the community, or the earth.  While other systems put value on mutual support, cooperation, and compassion, the Friedman individualist says,  all that matters is that I get and keep as much as possible, and to hell with everyone else.  

In retrospect, Friedman’s thinking looks nothing like science, but more like a twisted religion, with human sacrifices and profits going to god-like captains of industry.  But at the time it struck a cultural chord.  Increasing corporate profits through deregulation and cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy became the prime policy objectives of the well-to-do right.  Healthcare, education, housing, and other social concerns were matters of indifference.  To the extent that poor people made the discussion agenda, the main initiatives were cutting welfare and enacting harsher drug laws to lock more of them up.  

Friedman’s endorsement of the upside-down morality of “greed is good” gave moral cover to powerful corporate execs and their Wall Street cronies to justify taking more and more for themselves.  The result was our current outrageous inequalities of wealth.  Our political processes were increasingly corrupted by corporate political contributions (effectively legalized bribes) that headed off reform.  Our deep social problems, like racism, inadequate social services, and climate change, continued to fester.   

I’d assumed that Friedman’s theory was still dominant in wealthy conservative circles.  But it was cheering to learn I may have been wrong.  The Times feature on Friedman included statements from leading business executives and academics that indicated a lot of them were rejecting Friedman’s central assertions on the holiness of raw capitalism and the sinfulness of concern for the public interest.  Among the commenters there were still a few unreconstructed free marketeers, but the majority seemed to recognize that considering the public interest was not inconsistent with markets and profits.  

Along this same line, the Business Roundtable, a conservative organization of CEOs of giant American corporations, issued a new statement of purpose last year that significantly modified its previous Friedmanian emphasis on shareholder profits.  The new statement acknowledged that corporations also have responsibilities to their customers, employees, and communities.  It also acknowledged a duty to protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices.

These leaders generally seem to be realizing that pursuing corporate profits alone was a huge mistake, and that there are other imperatives (like climate change) that require a different way of thinking about the public interest.  Divorcing the ideas of markets from the idea of a fair and sustainable social system never made any actual sense, in spite of its surface appeal. If some of the smartest, most privileged beneficiaries of the system are seeing the interrelatedness of markets and the public interest, we could be heading in the right direction.   

Sleeping trouble, adieu to RBG, and picking the lesser of evils in Trumpworld


Canada geese at Shelley Lake

I heard on the news last week that a lot of people are having trouble sleeping these days, and thought, me too!  My insomnia seems to be getting worse, though it’s nothing new, and over the years I’ve learned to make the best of it.  Lately when I wake up at 2:00 a.m., I’ve been watching YouTube videos of gifted pianists playing Chopin and Liszt, which are stimulating, but in a soothing way.  

There are so many things to feel anxious about that just listing them makes me anxious, so I won’t.  I can scratch from the list the worry that Justice Ginsburg might not survive until 2021, since yesterday she died.  I met her when I clerked at the D.C. Circuit, where she was then an appeals court judge, and found her pleasant, though quiet and in no way charismatic.  Only more recently, from the documentary RBG, did I realize that in her quiet way, she was an extraordinary person, who devoted her life to justice and did a lot of good for our country.  

Great egret at Shelley Lake

What will the Republicans do now?  The thought of a Justice Bill Barr, Justice Stephen Miller, or Justice Roger Stone is more horrifying than another Justice Federalist Society Ideologue, but they’re all horrifying.  Is there some chance that a few Republican senators will feel enough civic responsibility and/or shame to put off confirmation until after the election?   We can only hope.

Even if we didn’t face the strong possibility of an even more politicized, reactionary Supreme Court, we’d still have big problems.  We’re at a crossroads of American history, and I’m seriously worried that democracy as we know it is at risk.

Although I have nothing good to say about Donald Trump, I’m not profoundly worried about him in particular.  In the last two centuries, we’ve had leaders almost as corrupt and unqualified as Trump, and survived.  My sense of dread is more about the new way of engaging with politics that he reflects and inspires.

This came into focus for me last week with an odd op ed in the Washington Post arguing that although Trump had a lot of negatives, he was still the lesser of evils.  The criticisms of Biden were vague, but after a couple of re-readings, I think I got the gist:  Biden’s policies would destroy the republic, because they were liberal ones supported by Democrats.

This was difficult for me to process, because I’ve always thought that liberalism was not a monolith, but rather just one collection of views among many on the American political landscape.  In the 20th century, there were all kinds of political positions in America, from far left to far right, and it seemed normal for people to have different ideas on what were the best policy solutions.  To resolve our political differences, we had institutions, like legislatures, where we tried to persuade others and find compromises.  We agreed to have regular fair elections, where we could get rid of bad players, and the winners could carry on with the democratic experiment.

For me, there was never a time when the Democratic Party seemed particularly wise or enlightened.  Indeed, for more than half a century I’ve watched Democrats participate in a long series of what I thought were terrible choices on business regulation, criminal justice, healthcare, social services, foreign policy, and other areas.  In all of those, it arrived at compromises with Republicans.  Neither party had a monopoly on bad ideas, or good ones.  

I thought there was general agreement on this:  that political parties could fumble and sometimes fail, but politics would continue, with the possibility that future compromises would be better.  It never occurred to me to view American politics as a winner-take-all game, in which political opponents were viewed as by definition illegitimate.  

So it took me a while to grasp that Trumpism involved a different kind of thinking, with little in common with traditional Republicanism other than the name. But I think I’ve finally got it:  Trumpism at its core is defined not by any policy objective, but by fear and dread of enemies.  And in the political arena, the primary enemy, as they conceive it, is all those to the left of far right — that is, Democrats, and people like me. 

Of course, not everyone who supports Trump thinks the same way, and there are surely some who will vote for Trump without intending the destruction of all Democrats.  Still, the thing that drives the Trump movement is not a set of policies or even a value system.  Rather, it’s a strong conviction that Democrats aren’t just ordinary people who happen to have different ideas as to policies.  They are evil.  And very frightening.  

Once I understood this, some things I’d thought were plain lunacy started to make a kind of sense.  It seems crazy to deny the reality and effectiveness of science — unless science is consistently supporting Dark Forces that want Us to change Our Way of Life.  Increasingly popular nutty conspiracy theories like QAnon have at their base a belief that politics is not just politics, but a battle between good and evil.  And as everyone knows, there can be no compromise with evil — that is, according to this way of thinking, with Democrats.

If you’re persuaded that Democrats are not just a political party, but rather agents of Satan, it probably seems reasonable to buy more guns and ammunition to defend yourself against them.  It also would seem right and proper to use force against them when they assemble to protest something.  

On the other hand, under the Democrats-are-evil assumption, it makes no sense to have free and fair elections.  If you did that, there’s a possibility Democrats might win.  And then we’d be in big trouble!  No, in this new, Trumpist view, to save our democracy and our traditional way of life, we need to have a different kind of election, in which those who disagree with us cannot win.  If they insist on winning, a reasonable response is violence.    

For a full on Trumpist, encountering opposition to Trumpism is different from an ordinary political disagreement.  It is treason, or worse than treason — blasphemy!   In this strange worldview, those who attempt to argue that Trump has minor or major shortcomings like, say, lack of intelligence or lack of character, simply prove that they themselves lack intelligence or character.  Those who oppose Trump (that is, Democrats and others),show, by their opposition, that they are wrong and evil.

This is not to say all Trumpists like everything about Trump.  Some do, but some have various criticisms of his manners or certain policies.  But Trumpists believe he is the lesser of evils, because his opponents are really and truly evil.    

Obviously I’m putting things a bit strongly, and not trying to address every individual variation.  Again, I don’t think every Trump supporter is this extreme.  I realize that there are a minority of them who are willing to have a sincere, good faith political discussion, and who are willing to allow that political opposition can be legitimate.  I’m always on the lookout for those, and happy to have more discussions with them.  

But there’s really no point in attempting to have a discussion with an extreme Trumpist.  They are not willing to listen to anti-Trumpist ideas, and may react violently.  If they’re carrying weapons, I advise keeping at a safe distance.  If we’re going to continue the American political experiment, we’ll need to get back to basics.  First of all, Democrats and others who still believe American democracy is worth preserving need to vote.




On the Blue Ridge, our caste system, and Trump’s latest doozy

The Perseid meteor shower was at its peak this week, and I was looking forward to some shooting stars.  I spent a day exploring different spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway, looking at the mountains and flowers.  I stayed at the Pisgah Inn and saw a lovely sunset, with towering clouds that lit up with pink and orange.  Around 1:00 a.m., I got up and walked outside.  It was dark and quiet, but also, unfortunately, cloudy, so I saw no meteorites,  Maybe next year.  

Sunset from my balcony at the Pisgah Inn

After photographing the sunrise and hiking to a couple of waterfalls in Brevard County, I made my way to I-40 and headed east toward Raleigh.  I turned on the radio, and caught Joe Biden and Kamala Harris giving their speeches announcing that Harris was Biden’s VP pick.  

They were good speeches!  No self-aggrandizing!  No whining!   Nothing fancy, but addressing the big issues, like climate change, police brutality against black people, the pandemic, education, health care.  And of course, the disaster in progress known as Donald J. Trump.


Although Trump continues to trail in the polls, it’s safe to assume he is unconstrained by any sense of honor or morality and will do anything to win, so I’m not taking anything for granted.  We watched a short Netflix documentary on him that was part of the series Dirty Money.  The film is worth seeing if you’re unfamiliar with his history as a pathetic grifter who pretends to be a super successful businessman.  

Pretending to be a businessman on TV for The Apprentice worked out much better for Trump than his various actual business ventures, which were almost all embarrassing failures, including Trump casinos, Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, Trump magazine, and Trump University.  

At the time, I thought The Apprentice seemed bogus, but it was a big hit.  There’s a fine article by Patrick Radden Keefe from the New Yorker about the making of The Apprentice, which explains how hard the producers had to work to make Trump seem reasonably sane and competent.  Let’s just say the show was heavily edited.

Sunrise on the Blue Ridge

The Trump presidency closely resembles a reality TV show, with its hype and hoked up drama, but unfortunately, off camera, there are real people suffering.  We’ve got huge unemployment, a health care crisis, a housing crisis, a pandemic, climate change bringing one weather disaster after another, and so on.  So, true to form, rather than acknowledging our serious problems and trying to help fix them, Trump has once again played the race card.   

Last week he tweeted that that “people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream” would “no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.” 

This is racism that barely pretends not to be; the racist dog whistle is more like a train whistle.  For most of the 20th century, the United States prevented racial integration in housing through governmental programs, including discriminatory FHA loans.  This appalling history is examined in some detail in Richard Rothstein’s important book, The Color of Law.  

The subject of Trump’s racist train whistle was a program called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, or AFFH, which was instituted under Obama, and directed at getting municipalities to identify and address patterns of discriminatory segregation.  Trump seems to think that there are a lot of white suburbanites fearful of invading black people, and he can exploit that fear and get their votes.

Once again, Trump is betting big, hoping that the shameful longings for sustaining white supremacy will be stronger than opposing feelings, like hope for justice and fairness.  It probably won’t work.  But as with other failed Trump experiments, the failure will teach us something about our beliefs on race, and also our concern for justice.

In Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, Caste, she argues that the American system of racial oppression is similar to other caste systems like those in India and Germany before WWII.  She explained the idea on several podcasts this week, and I think she’s on to something.  

As Wilkerson notes, an individual American may or may not have racial animus, but everyone of us is enmeshed in a system that involves distinguishing black from white and conferring certain benefits based on that distinction.  Using the vocabulary of caste may help depersonalize the problem.  Although the system has deep roots, recognizing it as a system (as opposed to simply an individual moral failing) may make it easier to change. 

For a man with such a big mouth, Trump has been strangely quiet about the recent news of Russian aggression against the United States.  When reports emerged of Russia giving bounties to fighters in Afghanistan who killed US and allied forces, he claimed to be unaware of it.  More important, he didn’t propose doing anything about it.  And weeks after the news became public, he is still taking the position he hadn’t been informed, and still not doing anything.  In fact, he’d had a chat with Vladimir Putin, and admitted he hadn’t brought up the matter.  This is appalling and disgusting.

If this were the only instance of Trump declining to oppose clear Russian aggression, I might chalk it up to his lack of interest in anything other than his own aggrandizement or progressive dementia.  But this has been a pattern. When the Russians worked to defeat Hillary Clinton and help Trump, he refused to acknowledge their success, and also invited them to continue hacking.  He seems indifferent or hostile to the many warnings that the Russians are again working to undermine fair US elections.  He has little to say about Russian interference in other countries, and nothing but compliments for Putin.  

I very much doubt that Trump is actually a paid Russian agent.  Putin, though not necessarily a stable genius, is smart enough to recognize that Trump lacks anything like the discipline, drive, and intelligence to be a worthwhile spy.  Trump doesn’t like taking orders, and he would have trouble remembering them.  He’s also not very good at keeping secrets, other than his own financial shenanigans.

It’s much more likely that Trump fears Putin for personal or financial reasons, and understands that crossing Putin would put him in peril.  Could Trump’s not-so-enormous fortune be dependent on Russian loans and money laundering?  Of course it could.  Think of how convenient it could be for Russian oligarchs to stash their ill-gotten gains in Trump high-rise condos, and how a salesman like Trump known mainly for lying  would struggle otherwise to sell high-end property. Also, how likely is it that Trump could resist an offer of an attractive Russian prostitute with an advanced degree in political  black mail?  

Of course, I don’t personally know, and perhaps Trump somehow avoided his characteristic corruption and moral degradation with regard to the Russians.  Maybe we could clear all this up if the President would quit concealing his tax returns and related financial records.  

Even without them, it’s clear that Putin could hardly have been more successful in creating political chaos that threatens the continued existence of American democracy than if he had managed to get a Russian spy elected president.  Trump has been Putin’s dream come true.

On any given week it’s usually difficult to say what was the craziest, most disturbing thing Trump just did, but we certainly had a doozy this week.  Trump indicated that he was withholding funds from the Postal Service so that they wouldn’t be able to deliver mail-in ballots for the presidential election.  Meanwhile, the Postmaster General he just appointed is shaking up top staff, decommissioning sorting machines, and assuring that delivery is slowing to a crawl.

With the pandemic still raging, mail in ballots are looking like a great option for getting rid of Trump.  Unless Trump can manage to keep them from being delivered!  He seems to assume most of those inclined to use the mail to vote would vote against him.  Maybe this is because he’s encouraged his supporters to ignore the pandemic, so they can (in the Trumpworld of alternative facts) vote in person without risking illness and death.  

I’m still socially distancing and trying not to catch the coronavirus, so I sent in my request for an absentee ballot, and was feeling a little sick at the thought that Trump and his minions might prevent delivery.  So I checked the NC voting procedures, and learned that I can personally deliver the completed ballot to the county board of elections.  If you live in NC and certain other states, you can, too.  Good luck!


Ereading about our bizarre President in Fire and Fury, and testing my new camera


Sally’s latest flower arrangement, and her iPad Mini

Wow, is it cold out there!  Raleigh didn’t get much snow this week, but was expecting to set a new record for sustained low temps.  Instead of my usual Saturday walk in one of our forests, I hunkered down and worked on getting to know my new camera, and took some pictures from and around our apartment.  

As I mentioned last week, due to a late night mental fog I left my iPad  on an airplane, and asked the American Airlines bot to please find and return it.  It has not done so so far, and I’m not feeling optimistic.  It would be hard at this point to lower my expectations as to customer service  from AA, so I’ll just note that they’re staying extremely low.  AA bot, if you’re reading this, I promise to post an appreciative remark if you return my device.

That iPad was my primary ereader, but fortunately, I also had my current books on my larger iPad pro.  I got the larger device primarily to use for downloading and reading piano music, since the larger size is helpful in reading two or more staffs covered with many notes.  The big one doesn’t feel as comfortable sitting on my lap, but it certainly works.

It was an exciting week in epublishing, with the best-selling release of Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff, a whiz bang account of Trump’s first year.  Jocelyn, working in ebook production at Macmillan, was part of the team that got the book out on an accelerated schedule after Trump’s lawyers sent a threatening letter.  She texted me a heads up that this could be big, and after reading the published excerpts, I agreed.  

You might suppose, as I did at first, that we really don’t need to read a book  about Trump, since we’ve read so much, and he really is not complicated.  But even for those of us who follow Trump reporting closely, there is just too much to fully take in.  All those oddities, shocks, and outrages form a constant and seemingly endless barrage.   

Instead of facts and logic, he emanates juvenile absurdities.  It’s hard to engage his “ideas” with ordinary rationality, and so we have a lot of extreme emotions, from fear, to rage, and sometimes helpless laughter. Our heads have been getting  slammed hard, like football players badly overmatched, and we have trouble getting oriented and making sense of it all.  

Anyhow, I downloaded the ebook of Fire and Fury and started it yesterday.  Sally, with her iPad Mini, turned out to be reading it, too.  Jocelyn and Kyle, and no doubt many thousands of others, are doing the same.  The right-wing propaganda apparatus is desperate to undermine Wolff, and I don’t count them out, since they’re really good at what they do.  

But I expect that the book will help a lot of people who have been giving Trump a benefit of a doubt to see that that was a mistake.  And perhaps the powerful politicians who, with full understanding of his unbelievable and dangerous incompetence, have supported Trump will be shamed into changing course.    

These pictures were taken with my new Nikon D850.  It’s a recently released FX digital camera with some remarkable capacities, like a large sensor with 45.7 megapixels, shooting at 7 frames per second, and ISO up to 25,600.  These specs suggested a long step forward in photographic potential, so I stopped in at B&H in New York in early November to test the beast.  I liked the ergonomics, and proposed to buy one.  They kindly said they wished they could help me, but could not.  It was on backorder for the foreseeable future. The same turned out to be true for Peace Camera, my friendly local camera shop.

On our balcony, a cold sunset

I finally got the D850 this week.  From first impressions, the image quality is fantastic, and it has many helpful conveniences, like a large viewfinder and a vivid touch screen that folds out.  It can also be operated remotely with a smartphone.  It’s  a complex tool and I expected a substantial learning curve, but happily, most of the controls and system menus are organized like my trusty Nikon D7100, so it’s not overwhelming.  The only negative I’ve found so far is no surprise:  it’s  noticeably bigger and heavier than the D7100.  A silver lining:  it will make me keep working on my upper body strength.

Rebuilding after the big fire

Happy No Thanks Day

I like Thanksgiving as a holiday, because it celebrates things that really matter, like loving families, without too much rampant materialism. But this year the timing was unfortunate, so close to the Presidential election, which has left us feeling shaken. It seemed like time for a different holiday — a Day of No Thanks. Rather than celebrating gratitude, No Thanks Day would be about regret, worry, and resistance.

On Thursday, we had a bit of both Thanks and No Thanks Day. Sally made a delicious Mexican-themed all veggie Thanksgiving meal for our extended family, and we caught up on family news. But we also talked about some of the frightening things happening in our country, including the sudden emergence from the sludge of the so-called alt right.

Until recently, unabashed white supremacists seemed to be so far out on the lunatic fringe that they could safely be ignored. But now they’ve gone mainstream, and their preferred candidate just got elected President of the United States.

So what are these people? There was a fascinating and chilling interview this week with Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader, by Kelly McEvers on NPR, which is transcribed here. Spencer is poised and well spoken, and his ideas are absolutely poisonous. His animating political vision seemed to be apartheid — a country just for white people. He saw no problem with swastikas and Ku Klux Klan costumes.

The NY Times had a piece on the alt right this week, and tried to explain the difference between white nationalists and white supremacists. According to Eric Kaufmann, a UK scholar, “White nationalism … is the belief that national identity should be built around white ethnicity, and that white people should therefore maintain both a demographic majority and dominance of the nation’s culture and public life.

So, like white supremacy, white nationalism places the interests of white people over those of other racial groups. White supremacists and white nationalists both believe that racial discrimination should be incorporated into law and policy. . . .
Professor Kaufmann says the terms are not synonyms: White supremacy is based on a racist belief that white people are innately superior to people of other races; white nationalism is about maintaining political and economic dominance, not just a numerical majority or cultural hegemony.


Is the “nationalist” label something more than a thin veneer for putrid racism and neo-Nazism? I doubt it. The Times reported that this week Spencer gave a speech attacking Jews and immigrants. He quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German and led cries of “Hail Trump” and “Hail Victory” (German: “Seig Heil”).

What’s this have to do with the President-elect? Well, he’s picked as his senior counselor and chief strategist Steve Bannon, who runs what he proudly claims is the leading communications outlet for the alt-right. Bannon is sly about expressing his personal views, but there is no subtlety about his Breitbart News: it’s unabashedly devoted to racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, bizarre conspiracy theories, and fear mongering.
Bannon seems to have engineered the press campaign that ultimately resulted in the “Crooked Hillary” meme of the Republican campaign. This is laid out in an interview on Fresh Air of journalist Joshua Green. Using a “research” entity called the Government Accountability Institute, Bannon directed the collection of innuendo about the Clinton Foundation, which was then pitched to investigative journalists of the mainstream press. In effect, he hacked into the NY Times and other traditional media and planted an anti-Clinton virus. The non-stop drumbeat by Bannon and Breitbart — Benghazi! The emails! Lock her up! — unquestionably drove up Hillary’s unfavorable ratings, and arguably caused her defeat. Green’s 2015 piece on Bannon and Breitbart News is worth reading.

Coming back to Richard Spencer, at the end of the interview with Kelly McEvers, he said this: “If I had told you in 1985 that we should have gay marriage in this country, you probably would have laughed at me. And I think most people would have. Or at least – at the very least, you would have been a bit confused, and you would have told me, oh that’s ridiculous. The fact is, opinions do change. People’s consciousness does change. Paradigms are meant to be broken. That’s what the alt-right is doing.”
Well, he’s right about one thing: people’s ideas change. They can change for the worse, but also, as his example on gay marriage shows, for the better. A lot of white people, and other people, have put behind them the worst kind of racism and are trying to be conscious of and root out the more subtle kinds. The ascendency of the alt right may just be the death throes of an old sad culture that will soon be gone. But I’m not sure. Their combination of blazing ignorance and brilliance in media manipulation is new in our country. We need to keep watch.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to stay calm. I’m doing deep breathing, and taking walks in the woods. Trees, which can live a very long time, have a kind of wisdom. Being with them is peaceful. These new pictures are from Umstead State Park.

What just happened? My working theory


Up until recently, I woke up every morning with a sense of pleasant anticipation. Chances were good that in the course of the day the Republican candidate for President would speak, act or Tweet so as to further demonstrate his ignorance, poor judgment, lack of impulse control, racism, or dishonesty. And I was seldom disappointed!

Sure, it was disturbing that there were hollering crowds enthused by his racist taunts and taken in by his ridiculous lies. But coming down to election day, I was confident they were in the minority. I still think that. Now I’m struggling to understand how a lot of others, including people whom I know to be decent and upstanding, people who are neither racists nor ignorant, saw their way clear to vote for him.

My working theory is that there were three main justifications. 1. Tribalism (such as, I’m a Republican, and he’s a Republican). 2. Optimism (his extreme and off-the-wall statements can’t be serious). 3. It’s a package deal (like with the cable company, to get the channels you like, you’ve got to take on board some channels you don’t care for).

Last week I was called for jury duty in N.C. state court. The case was an ordinary criminal one — a DWI charge. It took the lawyers about three hours to pick a jury. They settled on twelve before my number came up, so I was never called up to the box for questioning. As a former litigator, I enjoyed watching the lawyers trying to ferret out the jurors’ biases and other proclivities. But with limited time and the limits of language, they weren’t able to get very deep. Watching them and thinking of my own experience in front of juries reminded me of how hard it is to understand or predict the thinking of others.

Anyhow, whatever the reasoning, I continue to think voting for the President-elect was a terrible mistake. But it happened, and we need to carry on with our lives.

I’ve almost finished Level 2 of the Rosetta Stone course in German, which I like. In preparation for our ski trip in February, I’ve been refreshing my French by listening to the news podcasts from Radio France Internationale, and continuing with the news in Spanish from Voz de America. On the piano, I’m practicing new pieces by Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy. Their music is transporting.

I’ve seen struggling, though, with pain in my right hand, and finally went to see my hand doctor this week. According to his reading of the X-rays, the arthritis in the area of my middle finger had gotten worse, and he recommended surgery to replace the knuckle joint. Surgery! This shook me, since cutting there could end badly, such as, no more piano. I declined the surgery, and asked for a Plan B. He recommended Aleve. It does help.

It’s especially good for jangled nerves in these parlous times to spend some time walking in the woods. On Saturday I took a hike in Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, which is near Hillsborough. There was a bit of smoke in the air from the big forest fires in the western part of North Carolina, but it was mild and sunny. I took the Mountain Loop trail, which went up for a while and then down to the Eno River. The leaves were mostly yellow, with bits of orange and red, and some were falling.

Going to a new gym, the battle for truth in Trumpworld, and intelligent animals

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Last week I got a new gym membership at Lifetime Fitness at Six Forks. Why? I needed to get out of a workout rut and push forward. The cardio and weight equipment at Lifetime is more plentiful than at O2, and the space is larger. It also has a pool. It’s a little farther, but still easy to get to. I think I will like it.

My usual early morning workout starts with 10 minutes on the stairs machine, then 10 on the treadmill. Then I do core work (planks, leg lifts, etc.), balance, and flexion for 10-15. The next 25 is for resistance training, doing upper body and lower body on alternating days. Then 10 intense minutes of intervals on the elliptical or bike. At the end I stretch for 5-10 minutes. The numbers don’t quite add up, but it covers a lot of systems, and takes about an hour and a half.

Speaking of exercise, I want to give a little shout out to my new heart rate monitor, the Polar M400. Keeping track of my cardio effort level when exercising sometimes inspires me to work harder, and at least shows something is happening. The new device has a chest strap with a small snap-on Blue Tooth transmitter that signals a wrist monitor. In addition to showing current heart rate, it calculates average and maximum heart rate, steps, calories burned, and (with GPS) speed and distance traveled. It comes with some easy-to-use software for saving results on a smart phone or a laptop. There’s a little stick figure salutes you and congratulates you enthusiastically. My former device, a low-end Garmin, was less reliable, less entertaining, and more costly, so in hindsight I’m glad it finally broke down and needed replacing.

Waiging for sunrise at Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Before sunrise at Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

While working out, I’ve been listening to various podcasts, including the latest This American Life. This show just keeps getting better – taking on some big subjects, with insight and dark humor. This week Ira Glass looked at Trumpworld, where lying is non-stop and shameless. We know this now, but we’re still struggling with something even more disturbing than pathological lying: that in Trumpworld, truth has no force.

It doesn’t matter that clearly indisputable facts show that crime is down, immigration is under control, our military is by far the strongest in the world, election fraud is incredibly rare, and the President is not a Muslim who founded ISIS – the true believers will not believe it. Until recently, I thought that these bad ideas were a problem of ignorance – just not having the right facts – but it turns out that that’s not it. For these folks, if evidence contradicts their beliefs, the evidence must be disregarded. We know that some of these people are intelligent, generous, and well-meaning, but they live in an alternative reality.

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend, Navaho Nation

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend, Navaho Nation

Speaking of unconventional psychology, I finished reading Jonathan Balcombe’s recent book What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. I liked it. Balcombe challenges the conventional wisdom regarding fish intelligence, which has it that their lives are largely automatic and instinctual, without consciousness or creativity. There’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. Some species have astonishing memories, the ability to plan, and to use tools. They experience fear and pain, and also pleasure. They have complex social relationships, and form groups both for hunting and protection. And they have an incredible range of skills in sensing and responding to their environment.

I also recommend Frans de Waal’s new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? De Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, debunks with overwhelming evidence the old chestnuts that only humans use tools, cooperate in social groups, and recognize individual identity. He presents an array of fascinating examples of non-human cognition, and invites us to use our imaginations to enter those other worlds. After reading De Waal, it is hard to view humans as entirely distinct from other animals and inherently privileged to exploit them. The gifts of other creatures are awe-inspiring.

Sunset at Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah

Sunset at Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah

Seeing and photographing some awesome icons in the Southwest


I just got back from my nine-day southwestern photography trip, which started and ended in Las Vegas. Vegas did not enchant me. It reminded me of an upscale shopping mall interbred with Times Square and Disneyland. Leaving aside some public near-nudity and drunkenness, it didn’t seem very extraordinary, much less alluring or sophisticated. Gambling in smoky casinos was not my thing, and I wasn’t much in the mood for a show.

But walking the Strip on my last night, I was impressed with the sheer size and busyness, and I liked all the glowing neon. The service personnel I encountered were surprisingly warm and friendly.

My real objective was to take in some of the iconic rocks and other features of Utah and Arizona and learn more about landscape photography. I went with a group of eight photographers organized by Aperture Academy and led by Scott Donschikowski and Phil Nicholas. We drank in and photographed Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches, Monument Valley, Horseshoe Bend, Lower Antelope Canyon, and the Grand Canyon.

It was amazing! Photographs can never do complete justice to these landscapes, which may be why, even knowing there are so many previous pictures, we keep on trying. I was moved, awed, and inspired. The forces of nature that made all this – primordial minerals, oceans and rivers, tectonic plates, hundreds of generations of flora and fauna, sun, rain, and wind – brought to mind geologic time – tens of millions, hundreds of millions, billions of years. It made me feel at once very small and incredibly fortunate. The beauty is powerful.

I learned some very practical things about photography. For instance: there’s stiff competition to stake out a position for your tripod at the most famous sites, and so you have to get there really early. We were out the door and on our way as early as 3:30 a.m. for sunrise shots. We traveled in the middle of the day, and then set up at a new site for sunsets and shot until they were done. We got tips on composition, learned about using various filters, and experimented with white balance, apertures, and shutter speeds. We also learned various post-processing techniques.

I made lots of mistakes, but learned from them. My teachers were generous with their support, photographic and otherwise. Phil helped me regroup after a fall on a steep hill at Monument Valley, and Scott let me use his tripod when I lost a critical piece of mine. We had good weather throughout, though as Phil and Scott noted, the clouds could have been a little more dramatic in places.

My fellow shutterbugs were friendly and supportive. We were not all in agreement on the question of Clinton vs. Trump, which at first concerned me. Every day there was new news of Trump’s deep flaws, and the Trump supporters were clearly accomplished, intelligent people. I gathered that they had managed to filter out or suppress the information about his dishonesty and other unethical behavior, and greatly magnified the supposed negatives of Hillary (Benghazi! The emails!). And in spite of their apparent security and prosperity, they seemed very worried about crime and immigrants.

It was good, though, to be reminded that people with some disturbing opinions can also be knowledgeable, wise, considerate, and ethical. And good to be reminded that we can agree on many things and help and enjoy each other, even when we disagree strongly on others.

Bye bye Trump, races against racialism, grasping science, and connecting with the Middle East

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Lately I’m feeling way more cheerful about the presidential election, with many indications that Trumpism is headed straight off the cliff. Every morning I hum a little with pleasant anticipation, looking forward to a new campaign mini-disaster, whether another preposterous pronouncement, another astonishing display of ignorance, or another scandal. Worries that it all might be just a clever act, and that he actually is only pretending to be impulse-control-impaired and dim, are going by the boards. It’s finally sinking in that his vulgar loathsomeness is historic.
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It’s been fun this week watching the Olympics, despite so many ads and so much blather. And despite the embarrassing naive jingoism. Here in the US, we see mainly the events the US athletes are good at, and almost nothing of events they aren’t. But even allowing for all that, there have been plenty of exciting and inspiring moments.

For example, this week we’ve seen some fantastic short and medium-distance running by the US women, who are most or all at least partially of African descent. Seeing all these beautiful, accomplished young women, I felt proud and also hopeful that we may still be making progress on our racial problem. The champions are, inarguably, our very best, and whatever our individual histories of race, it’s hard not to adore them.
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Meanwhile, I’ve been listening to an engaging and challenging series of lectures from the Great Courses called Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It, by Steven L. Goldman. This is basically a short history of the philosophy of science. But Professor Goldman does not shy away from difficult issues.

It turns out that there is good ground for maintaining that the scientific method, which I at least thought was thoroughly settled and definitively established as a methodology, is nothing of the sort. There is good reason for doubt as to whether scientific knowledge that is necessary, universal, and certain is achievable. While scientists make undeniable progress in penetrating mysteries of the universe and facilitating amazing technologies, there is a sense in which they don’t know what they’re doing. The relation between science and the natural world is still uncertain. For those of us who are fascinated by science, it’s bracing and thought-provoking.
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Also bracing is Fractured Lands, a long piece on the Middle East by Scott Anderson, with photographs by Paolo Pellegrin, in last week’s NY Times Sunday Magazine. The subject is the catastrophe following the US-led invasion of Iraq 13 years ago which led to the rise of ISIS and the refugee crisis. Anderson presents episodes in the lives of six individuals from various walks of life from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya. It is an extraordinarily powerful piece. The leading characters come to life, and we care about them – even the poor, uneducated young man who joined ISIS. Caring alone won’t solve this complex crisis, but it’s a necessary first step.

An open letter to my Republican friend about Donald Trump

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My dear Republican friend,

As we both know, we often do not agree on political matters. This is no big deal, since we connect in other ways that are important. We have an unspoken understanding that we usually don’t talk about politics, so as not to stress our friendship. And so it is with some hesitation that I now ask you, with all respect, to please not vote for Donald Trump.

First, a point we can surely agree on: Trump is no ordinary politician. He is unfiltered. He says whatever he wants to say. He’s got a definite point of view. And he’s right about a few things, which of course just means I occasionally agree with him. He’s wrong, in my view, on a lot of things, but that’s not why I believe you should oppose him. You should oppose him because he’s a person completely lacking in every quality that could make a human worthy of trust or respect.
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If you haven’t seen it yet, please read Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece, Trump’s Boswell Speaks. It’s about Tony Schwartz, who ghost wrote The Art of the Deal. The book presented an idealized version of Trump as a brilliant dealmaker. Asked what he would title a book about Trump today, Schwartz said, “The Sociopath.” Over 18 months of working with Trump, Schwartz discovered a man who has no apparent interests other than himself – what excites him, what stuff he has, how much attention he can get. He apparently has never read an entire book.

Observing such a deficit of normal human curiosity and engagement, we can almost feel sorry for Trump. Almost, but not quite. His arrogance, his braggadocio, his hair-trigger temper, and his crudeness are legend. Even those we might forgive, if he had at least some capacity for caring. But Trump’s only interest in other humans is as objects to be exploited.
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You should read a fascinating piece on the extraordinary number of lawsuits against Trump by people who made the mistake of trusting him. As shown by hundreds of court cases, Trump refused to pay what he’d promised for people who worked for him as plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and on and on. He seems to find it fun to take small business people to court and ruin them, even when his lawyers cost him more than just paying what he agreed. I can tell you, as a person who spent many years as a commercial litigator, that most people do not find litigation fun. This is not the behavior of a normal person.

An important part of Trump’s career has been as a snake oil salesman. You’ve probably read about Trump University, where he was in the business of defrauding people and taking their money in exchange for empty promises. There’s a good account here. He tried to franchise this concept with Trump Institute, described here. Check out this NY Times piece on how, for Trump, lying is not so much a shameful little secret as an addictive lifestyle.
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He lies compulsively, outlandishly, non-stop, seemingly just for the thrill. Indeed, his central narrative – that he is an amazingly successful businessman, a master of the deal – is a huge lie. Check out these accounts of the spectacular failure of his attempt to make money in the casino business from the NY Times and this one from Newsweek.

Trump’s real talent is misleading, manipulating, and exploiting people. But, you say, isn’t that what all politicians do? A fair point, if a bit harsh, but Trump is off the charts. He presses people’s buttons in a way that causes them not only to stop thinking straight, but to start thinking badly. He inflames crowds and brings out latent strains of racism and misogyny. His followers, otherwise normal people, get his permission and encouragement to say and do ugly things. Have a look at this little video and see if you disagree.

So why might a thoughtful, well-informed person who cares about the future of this country and the world vote for him for president of the United States? I can think of only one reason that I can kind of understand – loyalty to the Republican party. Though not a Republican, I understand that political affiliations are deep-rooted, and I respect loyalty. But I’d point out that Trump has not been a Republican for much of his life, and many of his positions are at odds with Republican orthodoxy. Quite a few leading Republicans have already publicly declared their refusal to support him. There will be more.

I hope you will join them. Although I feel confident that Trump will be defeated in November, I think it is important that that defeat be crushing, and leave no doubt that the hate and violence that are central to his appeal have no place in mainstream American political life. Whatever you decide, thanks for considering these ideas, and for the good times we’ve shared and will share.

Your friend always,
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