The Casual Blog

Tag: Michael Gerhardt

The end of fall, a photo contest, a piano event, and considering impeachment

 

The fall colors have faded here in recent days, and the trees have dropped most of their leaves.  Most mornings I stood in the cold by Shelley Lake with my camera waiting for the first light and the birds. A few minutes after sunrise, the Canada geese took off with much honking and splashing.  For a few minutes, the calm water reflected the forest colors. Every so often, a bald eagle swept over the water, probably looking for a fish, but not catching one when I was looking. The great blue herons changed fishing spots every ten or fifteen minutes, while flocks of ring billed gulls wheeled about.  I enjoyed watching the birds and got a few shots I liked, which are here.  

I’ve been looking at a lot of nature photography as part of the Carolina Nature Photographers Association annual members’ choice contest, which I entered this year.  I certainly learned something in the process of choosing and polishing a few images, and am learning more from reviewing hundreds of competing landscapes, wildlife shots, and macro subjects.  It would be gratifying to place in this competition, but I’m not counting on it, since there are quite a few excellent images that could arguably be viewed as the best.

 

I also learned some things from my first piano performance at Presto, a group of amateur pianists that regularly play for each other in members’ houses.  While playing the piano has been one of the joys of my life, I’ve had few opportunities to share the music that I’ve loved with people who feel similarly.  I’ve viewed engaging with Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and others primarily as music therapy, bringing me happiness and sanity.  But music is inherently social, and sharing it is important.

The Presto group in Raleigh includes some nice people who enjoy classical music and play at various levels, including some who are highly accomplished.  I felt some trepidation as I took on a fairly demanding piece, Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat, Op. 27, No. 2. But preparing helped me see some new aspects of it.  The actual performance was not entirely fun. At one point I felt like the hands attached to my arms were not my own, and they were not playing my best. But it wasn’t a disaster, and I appreciated several kind words.    

 

Meanwhile, I’ve been following the Trump impeachment proceedings with a particular question in mind:  what is the deal with Republican leaders? For my friends who are occupied with matters more important than American politics, here’s the nutshell from the new House impeachment report:

The impeachment inquiry has found that President Trump, personally and acting through agents within and outside of the U.S. government, solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his reelection.  In furtherance of this scheme, President Trump conditioned official acts on a public announcement by the new Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, of politically-motivated investigations, including one into President Trump’s domestic political opponent.  In pressuring President Zelensky to carry out his demand, President Trump withheld a White House meeting desperately sought by the Ukrainian President, and critical U.S. military assistance to fight Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. 

As my friend, Michael Gerhardt of UNC Law School, said (roughly), if Trump’s conduct is not impeachable, nothing is.   His written statement is here.   Key comments from the other testifying law professors are here.    On Friday a group of more than 500 law professors issued an open letter supporting impeachment. 

 

And the key facts really aren’t in dispute.  But Republican legislators are, at least publicly, united in support of doing nothing.  Trying to fathom what may be in their heads, I’ve considered various motives, but the most persuasive to me is fear.  Cory Booker mentioned this in a podcast interview with David Remnick a few weeks back.  Asked to explain why his Senate colleagues didn’t speak out, he said they were afraid.

I think what Booker meant was that they feared that their careers would be destroyed by Trump forces if they departed from Trumpism.  But there may be a related and deeper fear:  being separated from the tribe.  

For social animals, including humans, the need to be part of the tribe, herd, or flock is fundamental.  The individual cannot survive except as part of the group. Members of the tribe will tolerate bad leadership, as long as it’s not as bad as the highly risky alternative of isolation.

Of course, people do sometimes leave their tribes, and tribes splinter and re-form.  The really interesting question is how bad does it have to get?  In particular, what would the Trumpians have to do to exceed ordinary Republicans’ boundaries of tolerance?   I would have thought that subverting U.S. foreign policy for personal gain would qualify. But then again, I used to think that obvious fraud (like Trump University and the Trump charity), encouraging racist violence, bragging about sexual assault, and separating immigrant children from parents each would each be more than enough.  And that’s before we get to the attacks on the free press, undermining our traditional alliances like NATO, supporting recognized enemies like Russia, and threatening nuclear annihilation.  The list goes on.  

So it’s really hard to say.  But I’m trying to keep in mind that, even if we go over the constitutional cliff, it’s not because the Trumpian legislators are evil.  They’re just humans. And they might be persuaded to change course. That means it’s worth continuing the conversation.  

A big spin, an op ed on free speech, Korean death fans, the unbelievable Donald, and what to say about Hiroshima

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Work bled over into Saturday, so I didn’t get outside for a photo-walk (these photos are from last week), but I did do an early spin class at Flywheel.All of my previous Flywheel spins there were 45 minutes, but this one was a full hour. I had some concerns that that extra quarter-hour could cause problems (such as woofing, or death), but I survived. Final score: 398. Finishing position: number one. Endorphins: plenty.

This week the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer published the op ed piece I co-authored with Michael Gerhardt about HB2 and the First Amendment. The thesis was that legislators who threaten retaliation for those who speak out against the transgender bathroom bill are chilling free speech guaranteed by the Constitution, and that should not be tolerated.

After I’d noticed the issue and decided it was serious, I reached out to Michael, a UNC Law professor and constitutional law expert, to see if he concurred in my analysis, and he suggested we collaborate on the piece. It was fun working together, and I got a kid-like thrill when the piece went live and people started posting reactions.
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Speaking of little newspaper pieces, there was a fascinating one in the NY Times this week about South Koreans’ fear of electric fans. South Koreans, a notably hard-working, sophisticated, tech-savvy people believe that sleeping with an electric fan blowing in the room can result in death. Fans are sold with special sleep timers. There are government warnings and media reports of fan deaths. Apparently this fear doesn’t exist outside South Korea.

We might once have thought it almost impossible for a large population to adopt an idea so comically loony, but no more. For example, right here in the USA, there are those who deny the fundamental facts of climate change or the need to do anything about it, including Donald Trump. And there is the stranger-than-truth story of Donald Trump, as of this week the official presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for president.

How could any significant number of people believe this man would make a good leader — of anything? How could anyone watch him for five minutes and fail to notice that he’s ignorant, crass, and shallow? How could large groups of people ignore the florid delusions and the almost non-stop lying, big lies, lies so blatant and transparent that they they seem proudly designed to be understood to be lies? Or the bullying, mean-spirited nastiness?

I’m not saying he’s all bad, mind you. At time he’s funny, and every now and again he says something that is not crazy. But it would be madness to entrust this guy with responsibility for addressing climate change, preventing nuclear war, or for cleaning up after himself, which is to say, any significant or insignificant responsibility. I continue to think that he will lose in a landslide that sweeps out a lot of other worse-than-useless pols. But even in that case, we’ll still have the not-so-funny, puzzling, and fairly disturbing reality that millions of our fellow citizens do not think the Donald is a contemptible joke.
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What would Trump say at Hiroshima? One shudders to think. This was clearly a problem this week for President Obama, a person in many ways Trump’s opposite. Let’s say you have sufficient moral capacity to understand it was horribly wrong to do a demo of the first atomic bomb by killing 140,000 civilians. Yet it would roil diplomatic alliances and certain important constituencies to apologize for this atrocity. So Obama, ever brilliant, delivered the most apologetic non-apology imaginable. He highlighted the horror, hugged victims, and called for movement towards a world without nuclear weapons.

His speech was in places Lincolnesque – moving, stirring, and inspiring — though also in places oddly ambiguous, disjointed, and restrained. Here are some of the good parts:

Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner. Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become. . . .

Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

That I why we come to this place. We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. . . .

Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again. . . . The memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945 must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change. . . .

Among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them. We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles. . . .

It’s clear that Obama understands the enormity of the nuclear peril, including the risk that our gigantic stockpile of nuclear weapons could end up destroying most every living thing on the planet including us. He’s repeatedly called attention to this existential risk. But he hasn’t made much progress in actually reducing it.

There are, of course, powerful institutional forces supporting the status quo of standing on the nuclear precipice – the military-industrial complex, now much more powerful than when President Eisenhower named it, and the fearful conservative mind set that exaggerates possible threats and reflexively resists reform. What if Obama just ordered destruction of half of our nukes? Would the missile officers refuse the order? Would there be impeachment proceedings, or a coup?

I doubt it, but there’s something that holds him back. Anyhow, he has made a judgment that he needs to change minds to prepare the way for a changed reality, and perhaps his speech will help with that.
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