The Casual Blog

Tag: MAGA

Wildebeests in various states, querying MAGA, doubting Artemis, and getting curious about animal communication

Wildebeests in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Working through the big pile of my pictures from Tanzania has been absorbing, but also exhausting.  I’ve been trying to remember how things looked, and figuring out how to interpret the images.  In the process, I’ve been learning new things about my processing software – Lightroom, Photoshop, and Topaz AI products.

One of our prime objectives in Tanzania was to see some of the large herds of wildebeests that annually cross the Mara River.  It’s challenging to convey the power and raw beauty of these crossings, but I tried.  I also am sharing some photos of large predators.  Warning: there is a picture of lions on a recently killed zebra that might not be suitable for all readers. 

Artificial intelligence is once again a buzzword, but let me just say first, the new versions of Topaz DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI are amazing.  There are clearly important advances going on in AI, which could soon surpass our ability to understand them, if they haven’t already.  It’s far from impossible that our intelligent software could go from helpful to dangerous, if it hasn’t already. 

It’s surprising that tech journalists ordinarily focus on the question of if AI can equal human intelligence.  It has already equaled or surpassed what humans can do in some domains (playing complex games, using correct grammar) and is rapidly moving into areas we’ve thought of as artistic (composing music, making paintings, writing fiction).  But people continue to believe there is some unique and valuable quality in human thinking that can never be equaled.   However that may be, we have no shortage of evidence that human thinking has some systematic glitches.

A prime example:  MAGA Republicans, who have decided to believe and/or promote a wild and enormous lie – that Trump was not defeated in the last election, but was rather the victim of a vast fraudulent conspiracy.  There are, of course, Republicans who understand that this is nonsense and continue to support American democracy.  But most of those traditional Republicans have become very quiet, and acquiesced in the takeover of the GOP by the Trump faction.

So what is wrong with MAGA folks?  Of course, there are many individual stories, but the big drivers seem to be fear of the Others (those with different skin tones, religions, languages, genders, etc.), loss of traditional status (relative to the Others and to the wealthy), bewilderment and frustration at changing social norms, and economic anxiety.  Whatever the causes, there are clearly strong feelings causing MAGA folks to detach themselves from ordinary reality and swear allegiance to a comical-but-dangerous charlatan.

Leopard in Serengeti

One thing that struck me recently which I’m trying to keep in mind:  almost no one thinks they are a bad person, or doing things for an evil reason.  Almost everyone thinks they are a good person, or at least, no worse than average.  MAGA believers are no exception.  They view their principles as well aligned with all that is right and good.  

In this sense, MAGA people mean well.  As individuals, they may have many good qualities, and like all sentient beings, they are entitled to affection and respect.  But as aggregated political actors, they have gone off the deep end, and threaten us with disaster.        

Cheetah in Serengeti

For quite a while after the election, I expected the MAGA fever to break and our normal far-from-perfect politics to resume.  But recently it’s gotten worse.  Republican leaders and candidates vie to stake out the most extreme positions favored by the MAGA element, and some are promoting violence against political enemies and even civil war.  This is definitely not American politics as usual.  

As President Biden recently pointed out, most Americans do not share this mindset, and it’s still possible we can avoid joining the league of repressive authoritarian nations.  The question is not whether MAGA Republicans will change:  they are, at least for now, fully committed to the end of fair elections, equal rights, and other key features of our democracy.  The question is whether those who thought they could safely be ignored will wake up and passionately oppose them in the coming elections.

Lion in Serengeti

As if that weren’t enough to worry about!  But, with apologies, I’m going to give one more timely example of what looks to me like a mass delusion.  My excuse is that since it recently became a big news story, I haven’t noticed anyone else raising the issue of its essential craziness.  I’m referring to the Artemis Project, which, we’re told, is a vital effort to put people back on the moon.  As of this writing, two much-hyped launch attempts have been canceled for technical reasons.

I’m a longtime fan of science and technology, including the amazing new Webb space telescope, and was as excited as anyone at the first moon landing in 1969.  But I felt no great sorrow after we discontinued the Apollo program in 1972.  We’d been there and done that.  Even then, it wasn’t clear whether anything of lasting value had been accomplished.

As the years passed without more moon missions, I thought perhaps the lesson had quietly sunk in that the billions of dollars spent on going to the moon (around $25B) could have been used better – perhaps on climate change mitigation, preventing species’ extinction,  improving health care, education etc. (the list of underfunded serious projects is long).  Then, out of the blue (at least to me), came Artemis – which has already cost $41 billion, and is expected to eventually cost $93 billion.

This is a lot of money, even by U.S. government budget standards.  You might suppose that it involves cutting edge technology employed for some vital purpose.  But no, not really.  The rocket technology is decades old, and not even close to state of the art.  And as best I can tell, no one is even trying to argue that it is likely to achieve important scientific advances.

The accounts I’ve heard refer vaguely to the possibility that Artemis is a step towards setting up colonies on the moon, which would be a step towards colonies on Mars.  Perhaps there’s hope that a few corporations can make good money extracting valuable minerals, and a  worry that Earth will become uninhabitable.  Thanks to Artemis, a few ultrawealthy folks might try to mount rockets and flee the planet, as in the underappreciated dark comedy Don’t Look Up.  

Anyhow, the whole idea is ridiculous.  No matter how badly we spoil the Earth, it’s unlikely to ever get more desolate than the moon, or Mars.  

Is there any other possible justification for this bizarre project?  It could well be driven by corporate welfare for big military contractors and the legalized corruption of our political funding process.  And of course, there is always the combination of nationalism and chauvinism that wants to be or at least seem superior to other peoples and nations. 

Anyhow, Artemis looks to be yet another example of how our minds’ reasoning powers can fail on a mass basis – thinking we’re creating something to be proud of when we’re actually wasting precious resources, money, and time.  At this point, despite the huge costs and repeated failures to launch, junking the project is not on the table for political discussion.  

Still, this fiasco could do one positive thing: make us feel a little more conscious and humble about the flaws in our reasoning powers.  Even our smartest rocket scientists, physicists, and philosophers can lose their bearings.  As our teachers used to say, we need to double check our work.

On a more cheerful tech note, the NY Times’s Emily Anthes reports that scientists are using deep learning and other technologies to start decoding the communications of various non-human animals.    Various programs are looking at creatures like rodents, lemurs, and whales, and discovering that social groups even have different dialects.  

Some of us have long suspected that there’s a lot of communication going on among non-human animals, and wondered why more humans haven’t been more curious about those interchanges.  The received wisdom has been that only humans have language, which was one of the questionable ideas used to justify  domination and cruel exploitation of all other animals.  Maybe the latest AI will help us understand animals differently.

Impala family In Tarangire National Park

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

The Tiller ride at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flowers, and the latest culture war battlefield: stopping anti-racism

Raulston Arboretum is a quiet refuge for plants, birds, and people.  Before the pandemic, I visited the big garden at N.C. State  a few times each spring to see the new blooms, and I really missed it last year.  Now it’s open again, and things are growing wonderfully.  The daffodils have gone and the irises are waning, but the roses have arrived in force.  

It’s really cheering to see our leaders working on some of our real problems, like climate change, infectious diseases, police violence, roads and bridges, jobs with fair wages, child care, health care,  voting rights, and education.    


Not so cheering is the latest culture war ploy to rouse the MAGA base:  attacking critical race theory and education on the legacy of slavery.  Outside of specialized scholars, few had heard of critical race theory until recently, and none had reason to worry about its undermining the social order.  Now Republicans in several states are working to ban it from classrooms, and McConnell and most GOP senators are characterizing anti-racism as “divisive nonsense.”

Critical race theory raises problems concerning race and the legal system.  McConnell, the Fox pundits, and their allies are promoting the view that this amounts to criticizing America as hopelessly evil.  Their position is that talking about our race problems is essentially traitorous, and should be stopped.

This is bizarre, but also makes a kind of sense.  For anyone just arriving from outer space:  Americans have been thoroughly socialized in a caste system that distinguishes between people and allocates privileges based on skin color, with the lighter people generally privileged over the darker people.  Understanding how this came to be, how it works now, and what can be done about it is complicated.  The background includes hundreds of years of history, as well as laws, schools, and customs.  

It hadn’t occurred to me until this week that a possible response from the right wing, or anyone, could be:  the racial caste system doesn’t exist.  That’s as delusional as saying the last election was stolen from Trump, or that we need to change our voting laws to prevent fraud by Democrats.  But here we are.  

Of course, some well meaning people believe that the best thing to do about our race problems is to try to treat all people the same and act like race does not exist.  In fact, it’s true in one sense that race is a fiction.  It’s a creation of culture, rather than of biology.  

But a key part of our culture rests on what we’ve learned to think of as differences in races.  We’ve been thoroughly schooled in those supposed differences, to the point that many of us mistakenly think they’re inherent in nature.  Becoming conscious of our own understanding of race and getting rid of the myths and fears we carry around is a big educational project.  It requires some long discussions, with good teachers and leaders. 

We have some such leaders working to correct unfairness in our system, but unfortunately, there are others, like McConnell and the Disgraced Former President, now proposing to lead in the opposite direction.    

On top of the spurious racial notions bequeathed to us by our forefathers, politicians have been using race as a political wedge issue for several generations.  Cynical politicians periodically organize by stoking groundless fears of attacks by violent erratic dark-skinned people, or (with no regard for consistency) of overly diligent dark-skinned people taking our jobs.  This lying strategy has often been successful in attracting votes, and has reinforced the caste system.

The right-wing attack on critical race theory is related to this, but with an interesting twist.  Instead of directly targeting dark-skinned people, it targets those who want to discuss the systemic problems of the caste system.  As part of this, in a classic Orwellian/Trumpian move, it tries to re-label anti-racism as racism.  

The right-wing objective is to prevent discussions that challenge the advantages of the privileged caste.  As a bonus, it provides a moral self-justification for silencing the discussion:  the privileged silencers can think of themselves as good people who oppose racial distinctions.  

As Americans, we’ve been taught to think of ourselves as on the whole good, well-meaning folks.  We’ve been steered away from learning much about the immoral and tragic forces that helped build our country (like slavery and expulsion of indigenous peoples) and the continuing brutality of our caste system (like widespread police violence and mass imprisonment).  

Our education system has been sadly deficient in equipping us to address such problems.   For a long time, many of us in the privileged castes barely noticed how the caste system disadvantaged the low caste folks.  With de facto segregation, we seldom saw them, except when they quietly worked for us.  Many of us accepted the system as on balance a pretty good one.  

But here we are.  We’re learning more about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and the bloody resistance to the civil rights movement. We’re learning more about how we took the land of indigenous people through brutal violence and trickery.  We’ve started the discussion about fixing our caste system, which will not be easy.  Even ignoring the right wingers who view any such efforts as treason, there are still many who believe the stereotypes they were taught  Unpacking such ideas will take a lot of work.