The Casual Blog

Tag: orchid

A different way of looking at Trump’s racism

Sally’s new orchid, a gift from Jocelyn and Kyle

There are a lot of different ways of looking at the world, aren’t there?  Although President Trump looks to be headed at full speed towards an election cliff, I still keep hearing startling interviews with his supporters.  There are some who think he’s honest and effective, and they like his style.  They find him both admirable and lovable. 

This week I heard normal seeming people saying it’s unfair to tag Trump as racist.  Didn’t they hear him calling neo-Nazis very fine people, and telling the Proud Boys to stand by?   What’s going on?  I have a few thoughts.

Racism is not the only problem we’ve got in the U.S., but it’s a big one.  Not so long ago, I thought white people (my birth group) were making great progress in putting behind us the myth that people of color are inferior.  We’d enacted laws requiring racial equality, and started seeing the pervasiveness of more subtle discrimination.  

So I assumed that when Black people started pointing up the fact that they are too frequently targets of police violence and other discrimination, most white people would be receptive and sympathetic.  I figured those who were unaware would want to learn more.  I thought most everyone would be interested in how to fix the problem.

And happily, a lot of white people have spoken along these lines.  But there has been a strong counter reaction by others.  The storyline for them goes something like this: Black protesters are violent ne’er-do-wells who are unfairly targeting the police, who have done nothing wrong.  The real problem (in this view) is how to stop the protesters, and how to prevent them from destroying businesses and invading the suburbs.  White people, not Black people, are the real victims.  

This upside down storyline has been promoted in right wing media such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh-type talk radio, and, of course, President Trump.  At first I thought the torrent of slick, angry, fear mongering media accounted entirely for the right wing narrative.  That is, I imagined that those who saw white people as the true victims were were overwhelmed by the propaganda of Fox and its various friends, and simply not getting enough correct information.

But I’ve come to  think this is not a complete explanation.  There are some who fail to see the point of Black Lives Matter protests who do not live entirely in a right-wing media bubble.  They are exposed to other information sources.  For them, the problem is not lack of information, but something more complicated.  

I don’t have all the data, of course, but I assume Trump supporters are in most regards the same as everybody else.  That is, we all have basically the same physical make up, the same genetic components, and the same brain structures.  There are individual variations among Trumpists, with some being loud and obnoxious, and others quiet and thoughtful.  I’m sure there are many who are loving parents, good employees, and charitable community members.  There are certainly some that I like as people and respect, except for their Trumpism.  

The big difference between us has to do with information processing.  We ordinarily think that if we see, say, a star, everyone in the vicinity is seeing the same thing. Similarly, if we hear a story about children being separated from their parents and held in cages, or about hundreds of thousands of people dying in a pandemic, we think our reaction is about the same as everyone else’s.  But this, it turns out, is not necessarily so.   

We don’t usually think of reality as something we each create and maintain with our brains, but it is, in a way.  As infants, we learn to distinguish significant from insignificant, and pay attention mostly to those things that are either pleasant or threatening.  Eventually we learn how, without conscious effort, to filter out the great majority of sound waves, light waves, and other potential stimuli.  

We couldn’t function otherwise.  Our brains don’t have the processing power to render coherent all the sound, light, and other physical activity around us.  We can choose to train ourselves to notice some things we might not otherwise notice, like rocks that may actually be fossils or meteorites.  But in general we take the mental framework we’ve built up, and don’t perceive much outside of it.

Our social reality is similar, in that it’s something we each construct, piece by piece.  We start as infants learning who and what to trust, and who and what to fear.  We accumulate a library full of working assumptions about what sort of behavior is normal, and what sort is alarming.  And we situate ourselves in communities of people with similar assumptions about normal and abnormal ideas and behavior.

There are significant advantages in being in a community with its own culture.  We can outsource a lot of the work, relying on others to detect threats or opportunities.  The community helps its members with food, clothing, and social contact.  But the community also imposes restrictions.  These include the requirement not to question basic assumptions of the community.  

So for example, in a mining community, raising questions as to the risks of global warming may be unwelcome.  For a long time, I assumed that in such situations, many people might have doubts on factual or moral questions but consciously keep quiet about them, so they could remain community members.  

But now I’m thinking it’s more likely that they have no doubts.  That is, if being in a community requires that you believe something, you may well sincerely believe it — even if it has no factual basis. 

And if there’s a challenge from outside the community to the belief (such as, say, a broad consensus of expert opinion that man made climate change is happening and potentially disastrous), it takes no conscious effort to ignore it. You don’t register conflicting information, or instantly dismiss it.  The belief carries with it a kind of filter that traps and isolates dissonance, so that inconsistent information has no effect on the thinking of the community.

How could we test this theory?  We could do surveys or brain scan experiments, and probably should, because it would be helpful to get more data about how our minds can settle on conclusions at odds with our basic moral principles and all known evidence.  But in the meantime, it’s worth keeping in mind the possibility that people develop thought patterns that have nothing to do with physical reality while remaining otherwise sane and productive members of the community.  

This week I had a minor epiphany listening to an interview with a Trump supporter.  The supporter was defending Trump against what he viewed as unfair charges of racism.  When the interviewer asked how he’d describe racism, the supporter gave a surprising explanation:  it’s when you consciously hate Black people and want to hurt them.  The Trump supporter said he’d never personally known a racist.

Conscious hatred and malice is a very narrow definition of racism, obviously.  For this Trump supporter, and probably a lot of others, racism is not a big problem, because as they define it, it is only rarely found in the real world.  

This would explain why Trump supporters reject and resent suggestions that they themselves are racist.  They don’t consider themselves malicious towards Black people, and think it’s unfair that anyone one would think that of them. This is understandable.  

But racism is actually much broader. A fair understanding of racism takes in a range of attitudes and behaviors, from violence and hate speech all the way and to hurtful social slights and indifference.  A lot of our behavior and institutions have strong and non-obvious assumptions as to one race being superior and others inferior.   Under a broader definition, almost all of us are raised as racists, and are to some degree racist.  Understanding and correcting for our own inherited and unconscious racism is hard work.

Isabel Wilkerson has argued in her new book Caste that it’s helpful to talk about the American system using the terminology of caste, rather than race.  That is, the American system is in some ways like other caste systems of history, such as the Indian, South African, and German ones.  Like us, other countries have had elaborate systems for defining degrees of inferiority and permitting oppression.  Using this caste approach might be a good workaround for the definition problem with the word racism. 

Anyhow, I now get why Trump may actually think he’s not a racist, and his supporters may agree.  I would argue that redefining racism to exclude most of the actual social problem is nonsense driven by what we’ve traditionally called racism.   But I don’t expect that will be at all convincing to Trump supporters. 

For these supporters, I doubt that any unapproved argument will get through the filtering system and affect their thinking. But even so, it’s important to keep talking, and maintain loving and respectful relations. Most of the time, we can have differing world views and still enjoy each other’s humor, intelligence, creativity, and affection. In fact, you never know how things will turn out. From time to time, people change their minds.

Retiring, learning nature photography, and reprioritizing, with a lesson from my mom

 

Barred owl in a cypress tree with Spanish moss

Last Friday was the one-week anniversary of my retirement, and the start of the next phase of my education in  nature and photography. I drove down to Charleston, SC for a workshop sponsored by the Carolina Nature Photographers Association.  The workshop included two one-day courses, with one led by Jamie Konarski Davidson on garden and macro photography, and the other led by Eric Horan on bird photography.  With Jamie’s group at Magnolia Plantation I battled heat and mosquitos, and with Eric’s I hand held a big lens on a rocking boat in Charleston Bay. It was challenging. I took many not-very-good pictures along with a few that I liked, including the ones here.  

Oystercatcher parent and child in Charleston Bay

My plan for the next several months is to learn a lot about nature photography and see if I can make better pictures.  I’ll be traveling both in and out of state and getting coaching from some master photographers. I’ll also be reading and watching videos on post-processing techniques, and doing a lot of trial-and-error experimenting.  We’ll see how it goes.

Osprey in Charleston Bay

Anyhow, I enjoyed the Charleston trip and got some good tips.  I traveled with Barry Wheeler, a fellow retiree with a long resume and the same camera as me (the extraordinary Nikon D850).  He posts some of his nature photography on his blog, Travels of an Old Guy, which I find well worth following.  During the drive, we had some great conversation on camera equipment and life in general.  

Great egret on a shrimp boat

As I told Barry, as I’ve started my post wage-earning life, I’ve been reflecting on some important things I learned from my mother, Zola Tiller.  She had a major hand in directing me toward the life of an intellectual, though of course I didn’t perceive that at the time, and also for a long time afterwards.   She often spoke admiringly about Albert Schweitzer, a French theologian, philosopher, humanitarian, musician, and physician. She must have read his biography.  I assumed from her account he was extremely famous, though I doubt I’ve even heard his name for at least 40 years.  

Black skimmer

Anyhow, according to mom, he was a good role model.  From these and other examples I absorbed a value system that placed great weight on high intelligence and professional achievement.  For most of my career, I did business where smartness was the coin of the realm, with other human qualities valued much less. And my mom was never an intellectual.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but when I was a young man this bothered me.

It wasn’t until near the end of her life that I realized she was exceptionally gifted in another way, which was relating to people with kindness, compassion, generosity, and love.  I used to think that those qualities were common, but I’ve come to see them as relatively rare, and worth noting and extolling. I suppose it would be good to be a Schweitzer, a formerly famous humanitarian.  But it would also be good to be a Zola Tiller — a person who gave warmth and caring to those in her circle and others fortunate enough to cross paths with her.

Hydrangea at Magnolia Plantation

On Wednesday, Sally and I celebrated our anniversary — the 37th!  She has made me the happiest of men! She gave me a very sweet card, and we had a good dinner at Bloomsbury Bistro.

Orchid at Magnolia Plantation

More on the orchid, on the Michael Jackson problem, and on meditation

 

We’re heading to New York City for the weekend, but I wanted to share some new pictures of Sally’s revived orchid and a few thoughts on Michael Jackson.  I thought the flowers were a good reminder of the miraculous beauty that can be close at hand, but is also easy to miss. It took some patient looking, as well as a fair bit of technology, to make these particular images.  

This week Sally and I watched Leaving Neverland, the much discussed new documentary on the late MJ’s sexual abuse of children.  It was painful on several levels, but also thought-provoking. It raised questions that don’t have good answers, such as, How could he?  With innocent little kids? What were their parents thinking? Why did the victims refuse for years to tell the truth?

It also indirectly raised questions about how fragile a hold we have on reality.  According to news reports, die-hard MJ fans have addressed the evidence of his child molesting with complete denial and threats of violence against those who disagree.  That is, some fans are taking the Trumpian road: it’s all a hoax and fake news. This is a reminder (if anyone needs one) that there is a meaningful segment of America that inhabits something other than ordinary reality and is immune to evidence and argument.  We’ve got a block of people who are not in any technical sense insane, and yet have taken leave of their senses.

It’s difficult to be sympathetic and respectful to those who are in denial as to MJ’s appalling misconduct.  But I’m guessing that their denial relates to their love. MJ did make some fantastic music and projected a sweet persona.  It must be that they just can’t conceive of a person who is so talented and likeable being a serial sexual abuser of children.  They seem to have an idealized vision of the man, which they have imbued with so much meaning that they take it to be vital for their own well-being.  They may think they’re defending their own lives.

There’s a related confusion about the music.  Some who accept the evidence of MJ’s molestations take the view that his music is now unacceptable.  This has been a recurrent issue with regard to other artists: what to do with their art, after they’re determined to be statutory rapists or otherwise guilty of heinous acts.  

This doesn’t seem so difficult to me.  A lot of gifted people, including great artists, have a dark side, and some do horrible acts.  Our understanding of artists’ lives will likely affect how we view their art, but their crimes don’t actually change their art.  Even for child molesters, their art is what it is. Appreciating their art doesn’t mean condoning their acts.

There are so many ways our minds can get untracked and cause problems either for ourselves or others.  I really think meditation can mitigate that risk.  I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation regularly for a few months now.  Although I haven’t seen the heavens suddenly open, I have seen intimations of greater happiness.  My electronic New York Times last week served up a fine short little guide on what meditation is and how to do it, which looked to be helpful and reliable, if you’re thinking of giving it a try.

Getting the Green New Deal

Sally’s newly revived orchid

This week Sally succeeded in coaxing an orchid back into blossoming, after several months of hibernation.  On Saturday I made a picture of it, and also took some shots of Sally’s expanding menagerie of house plants.  Outside it’s been gray and rainy, but at Casa Tiller things are green and growing. The New Yorker cover of earlier this month of a devoted indoor gardener (see below) suited Sally well, and she framed it for her desk.    

I’ve been reading a lot about the Green New Deal, and am hoping it has legs.  The foundational GND document, House Resolution 109, is not long or difficult. It starts with a clear-eyed acknowledgement of the massive environmental disaster now threatening all of us, and recognizes that it will take years of work on many fronts to combat that threat.  H. Res. 109 is primarily a call to arms, rather than a battle plan, and of course, much more planning is also needed. But it is encouraging to see at least a few political leaders putting the climate change issue front and center.  

The GND suggests a connection between our current environmental crisis and social problems of education, health, jobs, inequality, and natural resources.  It accepts that our predicament is part and parcel of our economic system, and fixing it will require systemic changes. The editorial board of the New York Times, as of today, prefers to view our rapidly degrading environment as unrelated to our economic myths and abuses.  

But the connection is getting attention. In the Times, Lisa Friedman and Trip Gabriel did a useful piece on some of the economic issues of the GND.  Robinson Meyer in the Atlantic has a good discussion of the GND and economic policy.  David Roberts, in Vox gives a useful historical overview and points up the GND’s intent to foster new social and economic relationships. Is any of this politically feasible within a viable time frame?  Maybe I’m an optimist, but I want to believe so.  

Last night we went to Durham for dinner and an extraordinary concert:  master cellist Steven Isserlis and master pianist Robert Levin in an all Beethoven program.   In Duke’s Baldwin auditorium, Isserlis and Levin played the first, third, and fifth of the five cello sonatas, along with the Op. 66 Magic Flute variations.  They presented this great music using a fortepiano, the type of instrument that Beethoven primarily used. The keyboard and cello blended wonderfully.  More than any cellist I’ve ever heard, Isserlis made me forget that the cello is very difficult to play. He seemed radiant with joy, and the music seemed to come directly from his heart.    

Managing through some bad news, including a climate change update

Bad news has been coming in fast this week.  I usually keep a fairly even keel and manage to look on the bright side.  But with hurricane Michael wreaking havoc, the stock market tumbling, democracy on the skids, and my glaucoma medication out of stock, just for starters, I’ve been jangled.  

It cheered me up when Sally brought home a new orchid, and I enjoyed taking some pictures of the pristine beauty in the early morning light.  I found the work absorbing.  In addition to visual imagination, it takes a bunch of equipment and software: a Nikon D850 (full frame), a Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 macro lens,  focus rails on a tripod, and a cable release. I sort and process the images in Adobe Lightroom, and tweak some of them with Photoshop and Helicon Focus. I consider the images here works in progress, but I like them, and thought they were worth sharing.    

I finally confessed to Sally that I’ve become obsessed with Natalie Dessay.  The short of it is I’m in love with a recording of the French soprano called simply Italian Opera Arias, with music by Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.  I recall listening to it some years back, when I was starting to explore bel canto opera, and thinking it was nice enough, but finding her voice a little on the light side.  

But for the last several months, I’ve been listening to Italian Opera Arias over and over, and amazed at her vocal facility, the intelligence of her interpretations, and the unique beauty of her voice.  Listening closely to the nuances of phrasing and tonal color, part of me is a student, looking to enrich my own musical vocabulary and insight But mostly it’s pure joy. The recording is available on Spotify, Amazon Music, and iTunes.  

I was glad to hear on the BBC’s morning newscast this week that they are planning to do more stories about climate change, since it’s a big problem, to put it mildly.  The climate report last week by the United Nations’ scientific panel was clear: we’re almost out of time.  Unless we act quickly, many of us alive today could see the start of the greatest disaster in the last 66 million years.  It’s a break-glass emergency. We need to move quickly, shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, instituting carbon taxes, mobilizing our research capabilities, and then looking at what else is possible. And to state the obvious, there’s good reason to doubt that our leaders and systems are up to such a task.  

The situation is truly terrifying, and it’s hard not to despair.  I found it helpful to talk to Jocelyn about this. She recommended 1. taking deep breaths, 2. compartmentalizing, and 3. not getting obsessed.  She pointed out that we might find a way out, but in any case we need to live our lives.

I appreciated her reminding me that there are sometimes unexpected solutions to big problems.  An example: at the beginning of the 20th century, it appeared that Manhattan would become uninhabitable because of the mountains of horse manure.  Many horses were needed for transportation in the densely populated city, and there was no known practical way of managing the piles of excrement. And then from nowhere came a new technology that took care of the horse manure problem:  the automobile.

So  there may be a new and unexpected technology just in time.  You never know what may come next.  But it’s foolish and beyond irresponsible to count on it. We need to use every social, political, economic, and technical capacity we have right now, right now.  

 

My first electric scooter ride

 

I took some close-ups of Sally’s new orchid on Saturday morning, and then went for my first electric scooter ride.  The little scooters arrived in Raleigh recently, and I’ve been thinking they might be a good solution for my commute, which is too short for a car, but not a pleasant walk when it’s hot and humid.  So I downloaded the Bird app, which indicated there was free machine two blocks from me.

I unlocked the scooter with my cell phone with no problem.  It didn’t do anything at first when I pushed the throttle, but I eventually figured out that you need to push off with a foot before the motor will engage.  I was a little wobbly for the first minute.  But I soon got the hang of it, and it wasn’t long before i was going full throttle (about 15 MPH).  

It was fun!  On my first ride, I scooted quietly through the Cameron Park and Oakwood, and the trees smelled wonderful.  I also went downtown and stopped near the Convention Center, where the Supercon convention had drawn a lot of young people in fantastic costumes.  

 

Eureka! On Trump’s refusal to defend the Constitution

Sally’s orchid

I thought I’d had a eureka moment last week, when I glimpsed a rock solid case for impeaching Trump sitting in plain view.  Simply put, Trump has clearly violated his oath to “support, protect, and defend the Constitution” by refusing to recognize and defend against Russia’s attacks on our elections.  There may be other powerful reasons for ending this presidency that emerge out of Mueller’s and others’ investigations, but this one is here now.

But I haven’t seen a bandwagon, or even a small wagon, for this idea, and I started to wonder if I’d missed the boat.   So this week I did some research to make sure there wasn’t some little known legal doctrine or evidentiary issue that might require me to issue a correction and apology to Mr. Trump.  So far, I’ve seen nothing to apologize for, and discovered a bit more.

Is this this too much on Trump?  Perhaps.  I don’t want to worry you or myself  sick.  I find it therapeutic to regularly step outdoors and spend some time with the beauty of nature.  A walk in the woods helps, and so does a stroll around the block, which is what I did when we had this week in Raleigh.  Light, powdery snow, no good for snowballs, but pleasant to hike in, and it made the trees sparkle.  

While we were snowed in, I looked closely at Sally’s new orchid (which is part of nature, though also of art) and took some pictures.  I used a tripod with focusing rails to make several exposures, then figured out how to stitch them together in Photoshop.  It was more complicated than I expected, but I figured it out and liked the image above.

Anyhow, my legal research turned up no authority indicating that the presidential oath means anything other than what it says, which is that the President is constitutionally obliged to protect and defend the Constitution.  Free and fair elections are at the foundation of our constitutional system.  It’s beyond dispute that Russia interfered with our 2016 election, and we need to defend against likely future attacks.  

At sunrise by the roof top pool

This is not a Republican/Democrat issue.  In fact, a bipartisan group of Senators, including Republicans Rubio, McCain, and Graham, co-sponsored a bill last week to impose sanctions on Russia for its interference with our elections and military aggression.  In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Senators Rubio and Van Hollen put the issue squarely: 

While the 2016 election may have left our country divided on many issues, it exposed one critical problem that should unite all Americans:  Our democratic process is vulnerable to attacks by hostile foreign powers.  

As our intelligence community unanimously assessed, Russia used social media channels to influence and mislead voters.  It also hacked political campaign committees and local elections boards in a brazen attempt to undermine and subvert our elections.  There is no reason to think this meddling will be an isolated incident.  In fact, we expect the threat will grow in future years.  The United States must do everything possible to prevent these attacks in the future — and lay out the consequences well in advance of our next elections.  

The sanctions proposed by this new bill seem reasonable.  But the President is still declining to take action.  In fact, he has repeatedly attempted to divert attention from this serious problem.  Over and over, he’s called it “fake news,” a “hoax,” and a  “witch hunt.”  He’s praised Vladimir Putin as brilliant and a strong leader.  Using Stalin’s chilling phrase, he’s called the free press the enemy of the people.  

This is beyond not normal.  However innocent or not innocent his motives, he’s violated his constitutional oath.  We should not be tolerating this.