The Casual Blog

Tag: Fourth of July

Visiting Oberlin Cemetery, and five lessons from Hurricane Trump

Oberlin Cemetery in Raleigh

This week I went over to the Oberlin Cemetery, off of Oberlin Road in Raleigh, and learned a little history.  The cemetery served the Village of Oberlin, which was founded in 1865 by just freed formerly enslaved people.  It was named after Oberlin, Ohio, an abolitionist stronghold on the underground railroad, and site of Oberlin College, my alma mater.  

For a time, even as Reconstruction ended and the racist Jim Crow system started in the late 1870s, the little Village of Oberlin did just fine, gradually adding black owned businesses, schools, and churches.  The Depression of the 30s dealt it a harsh blow as local jobs disappeared, and many young people went north in the Great Migration.  In the 1950s, it was cut in two by an extension of Wade Avenue, and further disassembled by so-called urban renewal in the 1960s.  How much of the destruction of the community was driven by racism and how much was due to ordinary merciless capitalism?  Further study is needed.  

Today Oberlin Avenue is largely a commercial strip, and hardly anything remains of the 19th century village.  But there is an old cemetery that was started in the 1870s, which is worth visiting.  As these pictures show, it has large oaks, pines, and magnolias, and some attractive monuments.  Much of it isn’t carefully tended, but the fact that it is still there is a testimony to the strength of the black community there and its descendants.  

Last week we celebrated the Fourth of July more quietly than usual, or at least, most of us did.  President Trump had military jets fly over Mt. Rushmore, and before the fireworks, gave a speech in which he went all in on his trademarked fear mongering.  He targeted “angry mobs” tearing down our statues, and “bad, evil people” intent on intimidating “[us].”  You understand who he means by “us,” right?     

At this point, it looks like more and more people are noticing that Trump is totally incompetent and corrupt, a person who manages to be at once ridiculous and alarmingly vicious, who’s putting our lives and our democratic institutions at risk.  From recent polling, it looks reasonably likely that he’ll be defeated and gone in a few months.  Then we’ll be faced with the large task of the post storm clean up and rebuilding.  But in a way, I feel grateful that we’ve learned some things from Hurricane Trump.  

For example, here are five lessons learned:

1. Old-style racism is far from dead in America.  I’m talking about the people who still want to fly the Confederate flag and use the N word.  They’re a minority, but Trump turned them from a barely visible minority to one that feels proud and empowered, marching in the streets with guns and shouting excitedly.  The good thing is, we now understand that they are there and that we have to calm them down and address them.

2.  Xenophobia, the close relative of racism, is far from dead in America.  Lots of people who are uncomfortable with the N word are fearful of immigrants who look different and speak different languages.  “Build the Wall” makes no sense as geopolitics, but it makes perfect sense as political theatre.  Scapegoating foreigners has a long and ugly history in our country, and it has had another nasty revival as part of Trumpism.  But as with the previous item, at least now we know, and can start to address it. 

3. The American racial caste system is alive and well.  I’m distinguishing here between the racist ideals of avowed white supremacists and the more widespread sentiment that it’s natural and normal that white people have better schools, better houses, more money, and so forth, because that’s just how things happened to work out. 

The caste system ensures that we avoid inquiries that would undermine the system, like looking at our long and bloody history of oppression of minorities and the structural inequalities in jobs, housing, education, banking, and health care.  The caste system is harder to grasp than full on racism, but probably more corrosive.  Trump has done us the great service of bringing it more into view, and here again, he’s made it more possible to address. 

4.  We are sufficiently powerful to endanger a lot of the natural world, but not so powerful as to stop it from destroying us.  Over the last few decades, the science of climate change has become harder and harder to deny, but the President is still a die hard denialist.  Far from countering the looming catastrophe of climate change, he is working hard to bring it upon us as quickly as possible, through more fossil fuel mining and burning, less efficient cars, and opposition to every mitigation effort, including international climate cooperation and scientific research.  He even has new regulations to encourage more killing of wild animals!   

But we can be certain that Trump will not stop nature.  It’s very strong.  If we don’t change course, the atmosphere will continue to warm, with still more of our weather disasters like extreme hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, floods, and rising sea levels.  We can look forward to more deadly pandemics related to climate change and expanding human populations.  Here again, Trump has made our problems more visible and urgent.

5.  People are more prone to manipulation and delusion than we thought.  It’s easy to make fun of proponents of Pizzagate and QAnon, which are self-evident lunacy.  And we might have thought that having a president that lies constantly and shamelessly would eventually cause some distress and consternation even among his strong supporters.  But strangely, at least for many, it doesn’t.  

It turns out that constant lies tend to make us exhausted, cynical and indifferent, not much interested in truth, or prone to exotic conspiracy delusions like the Deep State.  With an efficient propaganda machine led by Fox News, facts are gradually replaced by alternative facts, and actual facts come to be viewed as fake news.  Even Orwell never imagined a manipulation and delusion system as disturbing, and as effective, as the one created by Trumpism.  

I could go on, but you get the idea.  Thanks to Trump, we can now see that elements of our system that we took for granted as sound and workable were badly deteriorated and close to catastrophic failure.  We thought we were living in a well constructed, comfortable house, and it turns out the foundations are rotten and the roof also needs to be replaced.  

The repairs are going to be time consuming and expensive.  It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is.  We need to focus hard on getting him safely out of the house, and then we can get started on the crucial repairs.  

On a cheerier note, I recommend Becoming, a documentary about Michelle Obama  which we just saw on Netflix.  I knew she was a gifted person, but I hadn’t known much about her story, or her remarkable ability to connect with people.    

Fireworks, wildlife, and Carl Hart’s book debunking drug myths

14 07 04_0378_edited-1-1
Fourth of July fireworks are hard not to like. As a friend once observed of sex, even when it’s not particularly well done, it’s magnificent. On Friday we were planning to walk a few blocks to see the one of the two downtown Raleigh fireworks shows, but Sally was not feeling well, so we got some takeout Indian food from Blue Mango and watched from our twelfth-floor balcony.
14 07 04_0402_edited-1

That afternoon I’d Googled how to take good fireworks photos, which is a bit involved (use a tripod, remote control, bulb setting, manual focus, etc.), but I found it interesting. I got a few images I liked of the display at Red Hat Amphitheater. I could also see parts of the display at Memorial Auditorium, which appeared to be more magnificent, but this could be the grass-is-greener effect.
14 07 04_0404_edited-1-1

I continued exploring local parks, looking for dragonflies and other wildlife, this time stopping at Shelley Lake. There were lots of mallards and geese, but the one below, by herself, got my attention. I also stopped in at Raulston Arboretum on Sunday morning and focused on some little creatures communing with the flowers.
14 07 05_0538_edited-1

On Saturday I finished reading an unusual and worthwhile book: High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, by Carl Hart. Hart is a professor at Columbia University who’s devoted his scholarly career to studying the effects of illegal drugs on the brain. His book is an autobiography of growing up poor and black in south Florida, and somehow not getting shot, becoming a dropout, becoming a hardened criminal, becoming an addict, or going to jail (which were common outcomes of his friends and family), and instead somehow getting an education, becoming a respected scientist, and learning to question his own assumptions. It’s remarkably honest.

I was particularly interested in his take on the war on drugs. As I’ve noted before, I view the drug prohibition regime as a terrible social policy from every perspective. Hart focuses particularly on the costs to the black community, with draconian laws resulting in mass long-term imprisonment and destruction of the social fabric. He combines an overview of the human toll with his own drug experiences.
14 07 06_0462_edited-1

Like almost all of us, he initially accepted uncritically the media/government claims that crack cocaine was a menace that threatened to make addicts of everyone who tried it and turn them into zombies who cared for nothing but the next high. He gradually realized, based on his own experience and his research, that this was a wild distortion of reality. Crack cocaine is chemically almost identical to cocaine, and the effects on the body are basically the same. The primary difference is social: crack cocaine is cheaper and marketed more to black communities, while cocaine is an expression of wealth and status. And crack prison sentences are much more severe.

This has become almost common knowledge, and the sentencing disparities have been substantially reduced (but not eliminated, unfortunately). For me, Hart’s account highlights how media and politics can create a moral panic, and even otherwise responsible scientists can get swept along. Thus the famous example of the experimental rats that can’t resist crack, which supposedly proved that crack was uniquely addictive. Hart explains that the rats, which are social creatures, were unhinged by isolation, and had no alternative activities to getting drugs.
14 07 06_0514_edited-1
Hart did experiments with human subjects who were in fact crack addicts, and offered them a choice of getting high or getting $5. They took the money frequently enough to disprove the idea that addicts cease caring about anything but drugs.

Hart contends that the problem of drugs in poor communities is complex, and viewing drugs as the primary source of social ills is mistaken. The kinds of social problems that he grew up with – domestic violence, petty crime, an extreme culture of honor magnifying violence, teenage pregnancy, and unemployment – preceded the arrival of crack. The central problem of poor communities is poverty. It’s not surprising that people with few other entertainment options are more prone to entertaining themselves with drugs.

Hart finds that the great majority of people who use drugs, including crack and heroin, are in no sense addicted. Most users have jobs, families, and orderly lives. The notion that addiction always results from exposure is simply false. This doesn’t mean that addiction never happens, or that it is not a serious medical and social problem. There are addicts who need help. But we need to get our facts straight, quit moralizing, and quit punishing people for addiction.

The war on drugs is a fascinating case study of how fantastically wrong ideas with horrendous consequences can propagate and take over entire societies. We tend to think of this happening in the distant past (think of witchcraft) or foreign lands (murderous religious extremists). But it happened to us! With all our wealth, education, science, and technology, we were still overpowered by groupthink that stopped critical thought. And while we may be winding down the war on drugs, it is definitely not over.

Thus it took courage for Hart to write this book. With an entire population raised on constant messages of moral panic, to challenge the basic foundations of the war on drugs is risky. You will be viewed by many as dangerous and immoral, which could be career-limiting.

But this book may help shift the debate. I was a little disappointed that Hart didn’t follow his sound reasoning all the way on the question of legalization, and ended up promoting instead decriminalization. As the Economist has repeatedly pointed out, decriminalization leaves the drug markets in the hands of criminals, whereas legalization with careful regulation would deprive criminals of a major source of revenue. But never mind. I’m grateful for Hart’s book.
14 07 06_0483_edited-1
14 07 06_0485_edited-1