The Casual Blog

Tag: elections

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

Glossy ibises at Lake Mattamuskeet

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

Bears at Pocosin Lakes

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

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

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

Tree swallow

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

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

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

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

Canada geese family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kingbird

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

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

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

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

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

The debate disaster, ending the elections problem, and fixing messy history

The presidential debate this week was difficult to watch, but gave us plenty to think about.  President Trump seemed to be impersonating an angry wingnut conspiracy monger’s all caps Twitter account.  When Biden threatened to say something interesting, Trump interrupted with ugly taunts, sarcastic asides, baseless accusations, bizarre lies, and shouts of incoherent nonsense.  

Judged by any normal standards of civil discourse, Trump’s performance was not just disgusting but bizarre.  Why would anyone do that?  But perhaps there was a method in the madness.  Trump’s performance seemed designed to make people stop watching politicians and thinking about politics. 

And that would make some sense.  If people kept watching, they might like Biden even better, and the pending anti-Trump landslide might get even bigger.  Given Biden’s success so far, it would make some sense for the pro-Trump forces to try to make everyone so sick of the political process that they tune out and stay home.  

The debate was such a fiasco that the commission in charge is talking about revising the rules for the remaining two debates.  One idea is to cut off the mike of the candidate who refuses to shut up according to the rules.  Unfortunately, that wouldn’t prevent a crazy orange haired candidate from distracting the other candidate by shouting bizarre lies.

So I have an idea!  Remember those cake stands with glass covers that show nicely decorated cakes?  We could make a very large soundproof cake stand cover and suspend it with a motorized cable above the candidates.  Then when a candidate shifts into Tweeting madman mode, the moderator could lower the cover.  We could observe the candidate smirking, scowling, and gesticulating, but would be able to listen to what the other candidate was trying to say.  After some suitable penalty period (say, 3 minutes), the moderator could raise the cake stand, and the out-of-control candidate would get another chance to behave normally and play by the rules.

In the debate this week, Trump declined to condemn white supremacists, and tried to blame left wingers for violent incidents associated with peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.  He spoke approvingly of a violent racist group called the Proud Boys.  If all that weren’t horrifying enough, he encouraged his followers to gather at polling places to discourage non-supporters from voting, and again claimed that the election is going to be fraudulent.     

With President Trump all but promising to declare our next presidential election invalid unless he wins, he continues to force us to think more about American democracy.  I’ve always thought of elections as one of the least interesting things about the American system, because they were generally simple and uncontroversial.  We voted, the votes were counted, and the person with the most votes won.  

Now, to be sure, there have always been problems with our elections, such as excluding Black people, women, and others from the process during much of our history.  But I thought the worst of that was in the past, and that one thing most Americans were justifiably proud about was having more or less free and fair elections.  

If only!  It sounds like Trump and a significant number of his followers who propose to Make America Great Again are ready to stop having those old fashioned elections.  Is it really possible that there are seemingly normal people who think 1. this is a great country and also 2. we should quit having free and fair elections?  Even if their adored potential dictator were someone of much higher quality than Trump, this seems like a thing you would oppose if you cared at all about our country.  

I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic.  I’m still fairly sure that stopping fair elections and making Trump our supreme leader is the dream of only a minority, and the majority will not buy it.  But Trump is making unmistakeable and unprecedented threats to dismantle our most fundamental institutions, including elections, and we can’t take it as a joke.  We need to vote and encourage voting like never before, and like the future of our democracy is at stake.  

The movement to dispense with elections may have something to do with weaknesses in our system for teaching history.  A lot of history education is badly done, and leaves students with the mistaken impression that history is boring.  As an enthusiastic amateur of American history, I was intrigued to hear about President Trump’s new history initiative, the 1776 Project.  

But I quickly got less excited.  The 1776 Project seems to be an effort to reinforce the traditional triumphalist narrative in American history and suppress the fuller understanding coming into view from sources like the 1619 Project The latter is an effort begun last year at the New York Times to shine light on formative aspects of our national experience that we’ve mostly tried hard to forget, like slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and contemporary discrimination.  

The 1619 Project sparked a lively discussion of the meaning of race and the roots of our existing power structure, and it’s well worth reading and talking about.   My guess is that the 1776 Project turns out to be nothing more than another cynical election year Trump lie-promise.  It probably won’t even rev up the base very much, since most of them hated high school history, quickly forgot the little they learned, and have no interest in ever thinking about history again.  

As of this writing, it looks like the chances are good that Trump himself will be history come January 20, 2021.  But if we should be so unfortunate as to have to revise American history to fit the Trumpian vision, it would be fairly easy.  Essentially, we’d just censor all the unpleasant stuff that clutters up the MAGA narrative, and get over any last shreds of reluctance to celebrate white supremacy.  

For example, here’s a prototype of a 1776 Project history quiz.  See how you do! 

 

  1.  Prior to the Civil War, life in the American south was:
  1. Romantic, with gallant men and pretty girls in flowing gowns
  2. Opulent, with tremendous profits from cotton, which allowed for building lovely mansions with columns with grand lawns
  3. Lively and stimulating, with big parties and fine horses
  4. Generally harmonious, except for the occasional duel to preserve gentlemanly honor

 

  1.  How well were American slaves treated before the Civil War?
  1. Not bad.  They got whipped and tortured, but generally only when they failed to do as instructed
  2. Fairly well.  Otherwise, why didn’t they escape?
  3. Well.  They got to sing those lovely spirituals and do lively dances
  4. Quite well.  They got free room and board, and we should all be so lucky

 

  1. What was the most remarkable achievement of the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups following the Civil War?
  1. Mass imprisonment of former slaves on vague charges such as vagrancy and loitering
  2. Widespread lynchings on false charges of improper relations with white women
  3. Preventing Black people from living outside designated areas and from socializing with white people
  4. Violence that intimidated former slaves into not voting

 

  1. What was eugenics?
  1.  A pseudo scientific theory developed in the late 19th century and widely accepted in America that classified the white race as superior
  2. A movement that used forced sterilization and other measures to reduce reproduction rates of non-white people so as to improve population genetics
  3. The intellectual basis for Hitler’s final solution
  4. All of the above

 

  1. What is the significance of Black Lives Matter protests against police systems that regularly harass, brutalize, and kill Black people?
  1. No idea 
  2. They clearly make no sense
  3.  They are part of a plot by leftists to kill police and bring anarchy
  4.  They show the need for mobilizing massive force against Black people and their supporters in the hellhole cities so as to prevent invasion of beautiful white people’s suburbs

See, it wasn’t that difficult!  In Trumpworld (as opposed to reality), every single answer is entitled to full credit.  Needless to say, I’m hoping we’ll be leaving the false and racist history of Trumpworld very soon, and continuing the struggle towards racial equality and justice.  

If you’re interested in learning more about how American schools teach history, I recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James Loewen, which I’ve been re-reading.  The title is a bit of an oversell (it doesn’t literally have “everything”), but Loewen has a lively style and gives bracing accounts of some of the key distortions regarding our forebears that most of us got indoctrinated with.