The Casual Blog

Tag: Mattamuskeet

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.

Snow geese and tundra swans, Roman history, and another wall problem

Tundra swans at Pungo Lake

Each winter thousands of migrating tundra swans and snow geese stop in eastern North Carolina for a while to collect themselves and eat what’s left in the farm fields.  For a human, all that bird life is a thrilling sight.

In addition to the thrill, I was hoping to capture some images of the birds in flight.  In preparation, I did some research on optimal settings and customized some of my camera buttons.  This process was involved and confusing, and I thought it possible I would end up with a hard-to-repair mess.  I also decided to try wielding my Sigma 150-500mm, a beastly large lens, free hand (no tripod).

Pungo Lake, where I saw most of snow geese and most of the tundra swans, is about 2.5 hours east of Raleigh.  For part of the time I traveled with other members of the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association, including some friendly and very well-traveled shutterbugs.  I got to hear some of their stories and picked up some helpful tips.

I saw thousands of big white birds, as well as several species of ducks, waders, and one black bear.  We had good weather until Saturday afternoon, when the rain came in and the temperature started to drop.  I was happy with some of the shots I got before then.

On an ordinary day, I check the digital news headlines frequently, which  rarely puts me in a more relaxed, pleasurable state of mind. So it was good to unplug for the weekend and concentrate on the beauty of the natural world.  

I also spent some of the driving time learning about the classical world.  I finished listening to a series of lectures titled The Rise of Rome, by Gregory Aldrete, from the Great Courses series.  It traces the rise of Rome from a settlement to the Western world’s first superpower.

Aldrete is a good teacher and a good story teller, and mixes broad themes with interesting anecdotes.  The Romans were certainly great engineers and organizers, as well as fearsome warriors. In the late Roman Republic, the levels of corruption, extreme inequality, and political dysfunction were even worse than our own, which I found somewhat comforting.  Leaving aside the lives and civilizations destroyed by Rome, life went on.

Snow geese coming in for a landing near Pungo Lake

I’ve been trying to avoid spending too much time obsessing over the latest Trump conflagration, since it does little or no good.  But I have been keeping a sharp eye on the presidential approval poll numbers, hoping to see a change in the national mood, and possibly our direction.  Even though Trump has been generally unpopular almost since day 1, his Republican base has been mostly steadfast.

I know some sane, well-informed, thoughtful, kind and generous Republicans, and have found it hard to understand how people like them could support a President with none of those virtues.  Trump, it seemed, might have been right when he said that no matter how crazy or heinous his acts, his base would never abandon him. But in the latest polling, after his reckless government shut down and non-stop nonsense about the Wall, the polls indicate some of his loyalists may be rethinking their position.

Although Trump has a gift for bringing out the worst in people, at times he inadvertently brings out better things.  For example, his racist language encourages the no-holds-barred racists, but it also makes others think more and talk more about the hard-to-see realities of our longstanding, everyday privileging of whiteness.  His climate change denialism is getting harder for the base to swallow as they face more frequent droughts, floods, fires, hurricanes, and other storms.

Even the Wall discussion seems to have crossed a threshold.  For many, it seems to have gone from being primarily a fun slogan to yell at a Trump rally to looking like a nutty and wasteful boondoggle.  There’s an aspect of the Wall idea that hasn’t gotten much attention, which I was glad to see noted in the  news  recently: the harmful effects on non-human life. The 650 miles of wall already in existence is very bad for the hundreds of species of animals and plants that live in the vicinity. Many of these need to travel north and south for food, water, and mating.  We need to take their needs into account.