The Casual Blog

Tag: Raulston

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.   

Spinning hard, mental health, and getting inspired by a great violinist (Joshua Bell)

 

I’ve been finding it hard to get in a good gear recently at my weekly Friday morning spin class, but  yesterday I kicked butt and took names! My final score was a healthy 337, and I came in first by a good margin.  My recent scores have been a little over 300, and there have been several strong riders who have made that look quite unimpressive.  I appreciated their not showing up this week and letting me look good.

There was a report in the Wall Street Journal recently about the types of exercise that were best for mental health.   The best ones were team sports and group exercises, like cycling and yoga.   So spinning may be doing my brain some good. I’ve also been getting to yoga class a couple of times a week, which I’m confident is good for my head.  

Speaking of mental health, I finished up the introductory mindfulness meditation course provided by Calm, the smart phone app.    I found it worthwhile.  Mindfulness meditation is really simple, in a way, and it’s easy to find basic directions online.  But the Calm coaching gave me some new perspectives, and helped with motivation.

On Thursday, we had dinner at Capital Club 16, and then heard the N.C. Symphony play the Brahms violin concerto with violinist Joshua Bell.  Bell has been much hyped as perhaps our greatest living violin virtuoso, which is bound to raise questions.  But he completely lived up to the hype:  he was truly electrifying. I got big goosebumps and moist eyes, and also a richer understanding of this great concerto. He performed on a Stradivarius instrument that Brahms had heard play this very piece.  Bell’s cadenza, which he composed, was a brilliant distillation of Brahmsian thought.

Some great virtuosos are intimidating, and make music students think of quitting.  Bell, however, made me want to listen harder and be a better musician. Music in the classical tradition takes time and effort to enjoy, and it’s reasonable to wonder if it’s worth it in the modern world.  But Bell made a strong case for its survival. The Brahms is a supreme technical challenge for the violinist, but also dauntingly complex for inexperienced listeners. It was cheering that a concert hall full of North Carolinians seemed to get it and love it.  In fact, we gave Bell a good ovation after the first movement. In the U.S., we almost always wait until after the last movement to clap, but apparently we agreed that Bell deserved to have us break the rule.

I loved the little poem in last week’s Sunday Times magazine:  On a Line by Proust, by Adam Gianelli.  It you’ve never read Proust or Milton, it may not hit you quite as strongly, but it might inspire you to try them.  Like Proust, it evokes the painful joy of recovering past experience, and how our literary lives can illuminate our ordinary lives.  

I’ve been making my way through the NY Times special titled The Plot to Subvert an Election, by Scott Shane and Mark Mazetti.   It’s basically the story of Putin, Trump, and us.  It is hard to believe that this happened, and is happening, and easy to feel overwhelmed.  Shane and Mazetti have done some great reporting, which is worth reading.

I went to Raulston Arboretum this morning and found these butterflies.  There were a lot of beautiful creatures flitting beyond range of my camera.   I was grateful for these.

Some butterflies, and bidding adieu to our local paper

I’ve been a big fan of newspapers since I was a kid with a paper route.  I’ve held it to be both valuable and pleasant to start each day with coffee and a printed newspaper.  And so it was with sadness that this month I dropped our subscription to our local paper, the News and Observer.  For several years, the paper has been wasting away, with less and less content, and when I got their last bill, I decided the value just wasn’t there any more.

I pay for both paper and electronic versions of the New York Times, and digital subscriptions to the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.  I also get the Economist, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic, and check on a number of free web-based news sites. So losing the N&O will not put me into an over all information deficit.

But there’s no good substitute for local journalists with knowledge of state and local politics.  Press scrutiny has traditionally constrained the state legislature, but now not so much. In NC, the ruling party is re-engineering the political system, with little scrutiny or thoughtful criticism.  

As we’ve needed better journalism, it’s been frustrating to see the N&O doing less and less of it.  But I don’t really blame it.  The internet has sucked away advertising dollars. Local papers all over the country are losing advertisers, money, and subscribers, laying off staff, and closing.  The traditional local newspaper model isn’t working any more. It’s a big problem, not just for journalism, but for American democracy.

Anyhow, I feel sorry for the N&O.  I’d like to say thanks to those writers and editors, ad sales folks, press people, and deliverers who in years past made it a good local paper, and those today who are still doing what they can under difficult market conditions.  

Speaking of good journalism and market and policy failures, two weeks ago the NY Times magazine had a special issue with a single article:  Losing Earth: the Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, by Nathaniel Rich. l  It took me a while, but I read the whole thing, and I recommend going all the way to the last sentence.  

It’s basically the story of how in the 1980s a small group of scientists and activists recognized the relationship of CO2 and global warming.  They succeeded in starting a social and political movement that grew to worldwide dimensions. Then that movement was neutralized by hubris, political opportunism, and the oil and gas lobby.  And the serious damage wrought by humans on the natural world continued and worsened. It is not a cheerful story. But we’re still in it — the last chapter hasn’t been written — and we can still do something about it.  

The pictures here are ones I took this weekend at Raulston Arboretum.  It was hot, but the butterflies seemed to like it.

Learning new things, including the butterfly stroke and about our worst tendencies

It was brutally hot here in Raleigh this weekend, which made me consider breaking my commitment to getting outside with my camera at least once a week and trying to see something fresh in the natural world.  But I ultimately hung tough and did a short photo safari at Raulston Arboretum, which was not as miserable as I expected.  I was happy I got these pictures.

Learning new things is sometimes fun, and sometimes hard, but always important, to keep our brains from turning to mush.  And so I decided to take some swimming lessons, and had my first one this week.  As I told my teacher, a young woman named Deanna, I would like to try to learn the butterfly stroke.  It’s one of those things I’ve always wondered if I could do, and it would add another variation to my lap swimming.  My first efforts were awkward, but by the end of the lesson, I had a version of the dolphin kick going.  I found it hard and fun.  

In these tumultuous times, we’re learning a lot about our weaknesses and strengths.  Under a constant deluge of lies, vulgarities, and mad fantasies, it’s more difficult to be open and curious, to think rationally and critically.  Panic and anger seem natural, and at times overwhelming.  We’re seeing how some of our worst tendencies, like intolerance and bigotry, are unleashed and encouraged.  

It’s not exactly cheering news, but at least we have a more realistic idea of the extent of our ignorance, intolerance, and susceptibility to manipulation.  We’ve gotten these and other  problems out in the open where we can potentially address them.  Eventually we might figure out how to be better people.

In the policy area, we’re learning more about our health care system.  Repealing Obamacare somehow became a mantra for the right — a symbolic acid test for signalling membership in the conservative tribe.  It’s hard to feel great about the enormous waste of time, energy, and public funds from the repeal effort, and the failure so far to address pressing problems, but there is a slightly bright side.    

It’s looking like some delusions are getting cleared up.  We now know that the mantra of repeal had almost no relation to the real issues of our health care system.  Some who liked the mantra have belatedly realized that cutting off insurance means real humans die prematurely. It appears that even the most committed ideologues, or at least the majority, get uncomfortable once we reach a certain level of cruelty.    

This debate has cleared the landscape like a forest fire, and some fresh ideas are starting to germinate.  For the first time in a couple of generations, we’re starting to widen the discussion about health care.  It’s starting to be more widely understood that we pay way too much for it, and the quality of care is bad in comparison with our peers.  There’s a new openness to the possibility of a sensible single payer system, such as an expanded version of Medicare.  

It won’t be easy to get from here to there.  Even leaving aside our dysfunctional political leadership, there are powerful institutional forces supporting the status quo.  Here’s how the Economist recently put it:  If the amount the U.S. spends on health care were reduced to the level of France, Germany, or Switzerland, we would save a trillion dollars, or $8,000 per family.  “Much of that trillion dollars goes to enrich the owners and executives of drug companies, device manufacturers, and relentlessly consolidating hospitals.  This rent-seeking is supported by an army of lobbyists:  there are more than twice as many lobbyists for the pharmaceutical and health-products industry than there are Congressmen.”  

Indeed, there are quite a few other blockers, like doctors, many of whom would be resistant to having their incomes reduced, and insurers, with similar issues.  Real improvements don’t seem likely in the near term, but I’m not giving up hope that eventually we’ll make progress.