The Casual Blog

Tag: Shelley Lake

Changing colors, and the problems with Judge Barrett

 

When the leaves start changing, I’m always a little surprised and reassured.  This week in Raleigh we had a few more reds and golds, and the Canada geese at Shelley Lake were practicing flying in formation.  I enjoyed spending some time with the trees and birds.  A friend told me recently she found my nature photos to be a calming counterpoint to political discussions, which I do as well.  

In the closing days of the presidential campaign, the Trump show has not gotten better.  Trump is looking to short circuit the election, promising miracle Covid-19 cures, and agitating to have his political enemies arrested, while finding new ways to share the coronavirus with his employees and supporters.  

With polls indicating a strong possibility of a landslide against him, I’m hoping we’ll soon be changing the channel.  Unfortunately, Trump will be leaving a mess that will take a while to clean up.  Hard to know what to do with those racist militias, for example. There’s also the Supreme Court.

With Justice Ginsberg’s untimely passing, I thought there was a chance that a remnant of decency and shame on the part of Senate Republicans could lead to postponement of a decision on a new Justice.  Don’t ask me why I ever thought such a ridiculous thing.  As of this writing, it looks like the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett is greased to go.

Judge Barrett is a bit of an oddity among Supreme Court nominees, in that she didn’t go to a top tier law school, didn’t serve time in a power elite law firm or federal agency, and is a long time member of a luridly patriarchal religious cult.  Her primary qualification, according to supporters, is her experience as a law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia. 

This is essentially code for:  law school success and rock solid far right conservatism, with a low probability of a new justice straying toward the liberals.  As a former clerk for Justice Scalia myself, I understand this logic.  Also, for the minority who think the only important issue in American politics is stopping abortions, she is certainly an understandable choice. 

Here’s the problem:  in pledging allegiance to Justice Scalia, Judge Barrett is also signaling that she adheres to a  judicial method that is seriously flawed.  A lot of people don’t understand the inherent problems of that method, and the good reasons for abandoning it.   

First, let me say, it was a great honor to clerk for Justice Scalia, and I personally liked him.  He had a lot of warmth, and a good sense of humor.  He and I shared a passion for classical music, tennis, and good Italian food.  Although we were far apart on politics (I was a Democrat well to his left), we got along well.

When I began my year as a Scalia clerk in 1987, I was a recent graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law.  Like most clerks, I’d done well in law school but had hardly any experience as a lawyer.  Scalia presented me and others with a seductively attractive system for deciding cases which initially seemed logical and practical.  

American appeals court judges, including Justices, are charged with deciding unclear points of law, and they are expected to give reasoning in support of their decisions.  There are no set rules on what qualifies as adequate supporting reasoning.  At a minimum, decisions are supposed to have some basis recognized in the law, and to represent more than the personal preferences of the judges.

Scalia’s declared methodology for interpreting the Constitution was to rely as much as possible on the original text, without reference to later developments or current views.  He had a similar methodology for interpreting statutes, focusing on the language and disregarding legislative history or social context.

Scalia promoted his originalist system as objective and rational.  It was, supposedly, the opposite of judicial activism, in which a judge promotes his or her own political and social views.  Observing the methodology in action over the following decades, however, I came to see it as at best unreliable, and at worst a kind of intellectual grift. The reasons relate to the building blocks of language and history.

First, language is far less fixed and determinate than Scalia acknowledged.  He presented ancient dictionaries as highly reliable guides, not recognizing they all have ambiguities, inaccuracies, and gaps.  Moreover, there is never certainty that a particular writer meant the exact same thing as a particular lexicographer.  Thus relying on dictionaries to interpret constitutional words and phrases like “commerce,” “due process,” or “equal protection,” is dubious.

At times, Scalia relied on historical research in support of his position, but he normally included only historical examples that supported the conclusion he hoped to reach, and skipped over evidence against his conclusions.   He had no interest in the sometimes tedious work of professional historians examining new evidence to develop a richer understanding of the past.  Indeed, he seems not to have recognized that respectable historians aren’t generally expecting to arrive at unchanging eternal truths.  And of course, Scalia had neither the training nor the time to be a professional historian.  

In fairness, Scalia was not the only judge ever to cite history selectively or otherwise stack the deck in favor of a desired outcome.  Indeed, there is nothing unusual about judges using history and other evidence selectively to support their initial intuitions, rather than using legal analysis to determine the solution to a legal problem.  Like other humans, judges are inclined to find that arguments supporting their intuitions are much more persuasive than those conflicting with them.

Few judges, though, have Scalia’s fierce belief in his methodology as always superior, and his corresponding utter disdain for alternative approaches.  This belief made him reluctant to compromise and inclined to see those who disagreed with him as ignorant or acting in bad faith.  It tended to undermine the possibilities of reasoned debate with colleagues leading to better decision making.  If you already have figured out the truth, why waste time trying to work things out with those who haven’t seen the light?  

As many have noted, Scalia was highly intelligent, and he was a skilled legal craftsman.  A former debater, he was extremely good at avoiding arguments he disliked and diverting attention from his own weak points.  Especially when his position was difficult to defend, his writing could be dense, lengthy, and exhausting.  He was also sometimes very witty.  

But there is no reason to think that Scalia’s opinions were generally either better reasoned or more often correct than his colleagues’.  In fact, his confidence in his method — his self certainty — virtually assured that he would be less likely than others to examine his own prejudices and to try to account for them.  It’s possible he believed his own biases were not a factor in his decisions, but his record shows the contrary.  

Scalia’s world view and personal prejudices generally mirrored those of white, conservative, privileged men of his generation.  I doubt that he developed his originalist method with the explicit intention of freezing the existing elite power structure or preventing the advancement of the less powerful.  Perhaps he mistakenly thought he’d found the perfect formula for objectivity and the cure for activism.  

Whatever his original reasons, in retrospect, it is obvious that his legal decisions closely conformed to his cultural assumptions and prejudices.  Scalia almost always ended up where he started, having worked out an originalist argument that harmonized with his views.  His system did not work as advertised, and was far from objective.  

His positions in cases involving claims by racial minorities, women, gays, immigrants, prisoners or other less powerful groups were highly predictable:  they would almost never get his vote.  Environmental causes, such as controlling pollution or preserving habitats for endangered species, also didn’t get his vote.  He favored teaching creationism, and didn’t pretend to be much interested in science.  Large corporations, religious organizations, and other defenders of the status quo were to him the most appealing litigants, and most likely to get his vote. 

If Judge Barrett models herself on Scalia, she will be using a judicial approach that pretends to be objective, but that almost always yields a result that favors those with wealth and power.  She will see little merit in arguments for the rights and welfare of the less powerful.  

Perhaps worse, taking Scalia as a model, a Justice Barrett would be unable to acknowledge that she had personal biases that, unless recognized, tend to drive her decisions.  She would mistake the cultural assumptions bequeathed to her, such as patriarchal authority and aversion to homosexuality, as bedrock truths, and insist that those holding different assumptions were threats to democracy.  She would find it difficult to take seriously any argument inconsistent with her intuition.  

In addition, a Justice Barrett following the Scalia approach would reduce the possibility of collegiality and reasoned debate.  The ideal of a well informed group of Justices collaborating together in search of reasonable solutions is hard to reach, but even harder if any Justice believes that only she has the truth.

Perhaps Scalia’s passionate but wooden approach to legal reasoning will eventually morph into something more useful, and his successors will get better at questioning their own cultural assumptions and considering those of others.  In the meantime, there is ample reason to resist adding a Scalia acolyte to the Court.  

A modest proposal for reining in the plutocracy: the decency test

Osprey this week at Lake Jordan

These last few months of the Covid-19 pandemic have been a crucible of sorts.  We’ve all been tested in various ways, and learned a few things.  If we didn’t know already, we’ve learned that our President has no idea what he’s doing, or even the idea that he should be doing something.  Instead, faced with a serious problem, he looks for a scapegoat to blame (China . . . the World Health Organization . . . Obama).  He still thinks like a reality TV huckster, uninterested in anything except getting as much attention as possible.   

He is what he is, and with any luck we’ll soon vote him out and our heads will stop spinning from his crazy rants.  But we’ll still have the question, how did this happen?   How did we elect as President the rottenest person ever?  The common wisdom these days tends to focus on the unholy alliance of right wing evangelicals and economically frustrated blue collar workers, with both groups fearful of social change and angry at diminishing opportunities.

But there’s clearly another important element that hasn’t been examined as much:  super rich Republicans.  In a recent piece in The New Yorker,  Evan Osnos attempted to uncover why Republicans in the richest part of Connecticut decided to support Trump.  He focused on Greenwich, CT, the epicenter of homes of the hedge fund moguls and other Wall Street financial types who make annual sums that stagger the mind, reaching the hundreds of millions of dollars.  

It comes as no surprise that these people are mostly Republicans, but their value system as recently as a generation ago had an element of modesty, charity, and noblesse oblige.  Osnos’s investigation indicated that their support for Trump went hand-in-hand with a loss of those values.  

Eaglets this week at Shelley Lake

To the extent there’s a theory underlying the Trumpism of the super rich, it appears to be an extreme libertarianism in which the only unit of measure is the individual, and the only value is wealth accumulation.  They think there’s no such thing as the public interest, and greed is, for them, good.  The public issue of primary concern to them is lowering their own taxes — that is, keeping as much as possible for themselves and contributing as little as possible to the public good. 

I am not without sympathy for the super rich.  A few of them are not Republicans and did not support Trump.  A few of them are intelligent, thoughtful, and funny.  And they all have some problems (divorce, cancer, having teenagers) that are as miserable for them as for the rest of us. But it’s a huge mistake to think that the super rich are somehow deserving of their advantages.  

We’ve been deeply conditioned to think that being wealthy is a good indicator of attributes like intelligence and hard work.  But it’s not true.  Most intelligent, hard-working people never get rich.  The truth is, getting rich is mostly a matter of luck.  If you’ve made it, chances are you hit your first jack pot the day you were born by having the right parents, who had  excellent genes to bequeath and fine positions in the existing pecking order.  

You probably kept on your lucky streak with good schools, good summer camps, and top-drawer undergraduate and graduate schools.  You may have worked hard, and it may have felt like your accomplishments were simply the result of all your own hard work. But you had a lot of people helping, showing you what was required — what to work on, how long, and how hard.  Also, you may not even have noticed, but there were a lot of not very prosperous people all around you making sure you were well fed, clothed, housed, and otherwise prepped for success.  

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

Of course, it helps to be in the right place at the right time, like starting a Wall Street career just as regulatory oversight of financial institutions was geared way down.  There are many different kinds of luck that combine for mega wealth.  Though it should be noted, as Osnos does, that insider trading and fraud also helped in building some of the most fabulous fortunes.     

But even if being wealthy were a good indicator of inherent superiority, rather than mostly luck, there would still be good reasons to call out the super rich Trump supporters.  Their value system is deplorable — self-centered, like those of a young child in Kohlberg’s system.  Their orientation is exclusively on their own advantage; other people don’t matter.  This is unfortunate for them, of course, since they miss out on a lot of what’s really beautiful and rewarding in life.  But once they decide to take a role in public affairs, it’s a problem for all of us.  

As the Koch brothers and their rich buddies have proven, it’s surprisingly easy, if you have unlimited funds, to spread disinformation and buy influence.  With personal wealth as a primary value, they change the laws so they can more easily make and keep more money.  They get other laws that minimize the chance of any progressive change in public policy.  For example, they pay for and get lower taxes, deregulation, sycophantic judges, and gerrymandered elections.  

As the super rich contribute less and less in taxes, public infrastructure and institutions, like roads, bridges, and schools, are defunded and fall into disrepair.  Crumbling infrastructure is actually helpful, since it provides them with another argument “proving” government is ineffective.  Interestingly, according to Osnos, Connecticut, with so many super rich citizens, has some of the worst roads in the country.  Perhaps that’s not a problem, if you’ve got a helicopter, a yacht, and a jet.  Meanwhile, they make sure nothing gets done to address the worsening existential disaster of a planet getting steadily hotter.

The extreme inequality in American society is disturbing, but it wouldn’t be as frightening if the super rich had a different value system.  It’s possible to imagine super rich people using their wealth not just to seek further comforts and advantages for themselves, but also to address the needs of other humans less fortunate and a planet in dire peril.  Before the Reagan years, that was the norm, and it could be again.  Or else we could proceed along our current path towards a Hobbesian war of all against all,  The Hunger Games, and Blade Runner 2049.   

So how do we stop the bleeding?  Elizabeth Warren’s idea of a wealth tax made a lot of sense, but I have a simpler and more fun idea:  a decency test.  Every head of household making more than three hundred times the median annual salary (that’s around $10,000,000 a year) would need to give non-reprehensible answers to five simple questions.  First, we give a little shot of truth serum.  The time allowed for the test is 2 minutes.  You may start now.

Using a number 2 pencil, please answer each of the following questions by choosing just one of the four possible responses.

  1.  I believe the most important policy objective for our government is to:

a.  Implement a fair system of public health.

b.  Assure a quality education for all children.

c.  Protect public safety and stop useless wars.

d.  Cut my taxes.

  1. My greatest objection to our current public policy is:

a. Not enough is being done to reduce infant mortality.

b.  There’s no system to assure adequate basic nutrition.

c. We don’t have reliable public transportation.

d.  There have not been enough cuts to my taxes.

  1. The moral quality that best describes the way I relate to other people is:

a.  Honesty.

b.  Reasonableness.

c.  Kindness and compassion.

d.  Greed and indifference. 

  1. If I could have just one wish to improve the world, it would be to:

a.  Eliminate the risk of nuclear war.

b.  Stop global warming.

c.  Eliminate racial prejudice and work to correct the harm it has caused.

d.  Eliminate all taxes.

     5.  Other than lowering taxes, my chief hope for making this country a better place for all is that we:

a.  Consider the welfare of those less fortunate.

b.  End the unequal treatment of women.

c.  Improve the fairness of our justice system.

d.  This question makes no sense. 

If you answered d to questions 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5, you are going to Hell.  Just kidding!  But you will have to pay a special tax of 95% of all your accumulated wealth, with new yearly assessments until you pass the decency test.  These funds will be used for improved health care, better schools, more reliable public transportation, green energy, and other desperately needed public initiatives.  We hope you see the light, but if not, we won’t feel too bad, since we’ll see your money doing good things.  Good luck!  

Missing Florida, processing some photos, and picturing hell

Osprey at Jordan Lake

I’d planned to be in Florida this past week photographing the big birds there, like egrets, wood storks, and roseate spoonbills.  With the coronavirus pandemic still in full force, that wasn’t possible, but I did get to spend some time at our area parks, including Shelley Lake and Jordan Lake.   It was good to be outside with our local birds.

Although I didn’t capture any images that were singular, I was happy to practice getting better exposures.   I also enjoyed experimenting with the raw images in Lightroom, Photoshop, and other apps, with a view to improving my processing skills.  Here are some of the results using bird shots I took this week, as well experiments with Sally’s orchids.  The white one lost its flowers a few days after the last shot of it.  Hope it will come back next year.  

These days there’s a lot of background fear and worry, and no simple solution to all our ills.  But I’m finding it helpful to spend some time focusing on moments of beauty and peace, and also spending more time meditating.  I discovered some good new (to me) resources on YouTube, including some guided meditations by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield.  I don’t think I’m anywhere near nirvana, but I’m happier and more peaceful.  

Tufted titmouse at Shelley Lake

I used to worry about the possibility of going to hell.  In the religious tradition I grew up in, hell was a real place, ruled by Satan, where sinners were sent after death to be tortured forever.  I eventually came to think that the likelihood of there being such a place was close to zero, and that worrying about it was a waste of time.  But it’s interesting that the concept of hell has had such a long life, and continues to terrify people today.  

I learned more about hell in an interview with Bart Ehrman on Fresh Air a few weeks ago, and just finished his new book, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.  Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at University of North Carolina, contends that the notions held by most Christians of the afterlife are not found in the Bible.  Rather they were made up by various early Christian writers to support religious theories and emotional needs.

It’s good to know that the horrifying idea that God set up a massive system for never ending torture is not universal, and is actually a relatively recent (around 1,800-year-old) invention.  Christian ideas of hell have varied with respect to the brutality and intensity of the torture, including some with extremes of sadism.  But even the milder versions are peculiar.  Our experience is that we get accustomed to almost any pain or misery, and nothing lasts forever.  The oddity, and impossibility, of unending, unstoppable agony does not seem to have struck many people.  

In the interview on Fresh Air, Ehrman mentioned that he was confident that hell did not exist.  He seemed to think people suffered unnecessarily because of the concept, and that they’d be happier without it.  I think that, too.

On the other hand, I’ve been re-reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book on the meat industry, Eating Animals, which depicts a truly hellish reality.  Every year, billions of sentient creatures — cows, pigs, chickens, and others — are brought into existence by humans who treat them with unspeakable cruelty.  Humans inflict suffering on these animals on a scale that truly defies comprehension.  Then they kill them and eat them.

The horror of the meat industry is most apparent in its cruelty to billions of individual animals, but it also produces a lot of suffering less directly.  It is one of the largest contributors of the greenhouse gases that account for global warming. It introduces steroids, antibiotics, bacteria, and viruses into the human food chain that account for a lot of sickness and death.  

The meat industry is also a place of misery for the workers who kill and cut up the animals.  Slaughter houses are some of the most dangerous workplaces in America.  Many of the workers are immigrants who are too desperate and powerless to demand safe conditions and reasonable pay.

It was therefore not a huge surprise that there have been serious Covid-19 outbreaks in industrial meat operations.  But the reaction of President Trump was surprising, and even for him, perverse.  He issued a declaration that the meat industry was essential infrastructure under the Defense Production Act and must therefore remain open.  He didn’t say how this was to be accomplished if the workers in large numbers got sick and died.   

So is the meat industry, with its enormous profits based on cruelty and lies, essential?  It’s hard to see how that could possibly be.  We can certainly survive without meat, and hundreds of millions of people do so every day.  In fact, eating a healthy plant-based diet is a lot better for the human body.  I’ve been doing it for twenty-some years, and I’m here to tell you, it’s been good.  

Perhaps, along with a lot of death, Covid-19 will cause more people willingly or unwilling to eat less meat and more plants.  Once we factor in all the health gains from less meat-related disease and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, we might have a net gain in the survival rate.  There could be a win-win — less animal cruelty, less human suffering, and more health and  happiness. 

Big birds, pandemic masks, non-dairy cheese, factory farms, and the war on climate change

Bald eagle at Shelley Lake

I managed to get up early three mornings this week to spend some time with the birds of our area, including these bald eagles, great blue herons, and ospreys.  The birds weren’t doing anything special — just living their lives. But it was especially heartening in this perilous time to get their orientation — intense, with all the senses open, and prepared for the next opportunity.

This week Sally got me a coronavirus mask that had been sewn by the tailor at our dry cleaners.  It’s green and looks, well, strange. I’m starting to wonder whether we’ll be getting used to not seeing much of each other’s faces.  

As the pandemic and the stay-at-home order continue, we’re trying to make the best of things.  One good thing is finding time and energy to try new projects. This week I finally got around to one I’d been meaning to do for a while:   making non-dairy cheese.  

I’ve known for some time that dairy products involve heart-breaking cruelty to cows.  Like other mammals, mother cows feel intense attachment to their young. The reason they make milk is to feed their babies.  Factory dairy farms get them to make more milk by a cycle of artificial impregnation and stealing their calves immediately after birth. 

The mothers cry out for their missing calves and grieve. Confined in small spaces, they are fed unhealthy diets that often include hormones and steroids.  Their natural life span is around 20 years, but on factory farms they are too exhausted, sick, or injured to keep going after 5 years. So they are killed to make hamburgers.     

Great blue heron in early morning fog at Jordan Lake

 

Some time back, Sally and I started finding good plant-based substitutes for milk — soy, cashew, almonds, oats.  Quitting ice cream was challenging, for obvious reasons, but we’ve recently discovered some delicious non-dairy substitutes — Ben & Jerry’s, So Delicious, and Nada Moo.   But it’s been hard to give up the deliciousness of cheese. We’ve had good plant-based cheese substitutes in restaurants, but haven’t seen them in our grocery stores. If you’re looking for a business opportunity, there’s a business idea, which you’re welcome to steal.

In the meantime, I tried a friend’s recipe for non-dairy brie, the main ingredient of which was cashews.  It took some work, and I nearly burned out the blender motor, but the result was pretty good. I used fresh herbs — rosemary, sage, and chives.  It tasted a lot like brie, but the consistency was more like a dip. I may have done too much blending. Anyhow, I’m planning to give it another shot soon.    

I just finished reading Jonathan Saffron Foer’s recent book, We Are the Weather:  Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. It’s a book about the relationship of factory farming to climate change and to us.   Foer reviews the facts, including the fact that animal farms are a major contributor to global warming. He thinks that we need to take whatever action we can as individuals to combat the developing catastrophe of climate change.  Recognizing how deeply habituated we are to eating meat, he proposes that if we can’t quit entirely, we try eating it only at dinner.

Foer is a fine writer, and I was heartened by his good sense and good-heartedness.  But I agreed in part with Mark Bittman, the NY Times reviewer, who said that hoping to save the planet by giving people good reasons to change their habits is probably not going to work.     Old habits die hard, especially when they’re constantly reinforced by the advertising of agribusiness fighting for its accustomed profits.  

Bittman recommended a piece by Bill McKibben that was in the New Republic in 2016 titled  A World at War — We’re Under Attack from Climate Change, and Our Only Hope Is to Mobilize Like We Did in WWII 

 The war metaphor is not a new one, but it is still apt.  McKibben points out that if Hitler had been wreaking havoc on our cities with firestorms, hurricanes, droughts, and floods, we would have seen the necessity of mobilizing to fight back.  As McKibben recounts, in WWII the US mobilized in just weeks and months to make bombers, ships, tanks, and other weapons under the direction of the federal government. He argues that we’re going to need that sort of leadership to head off complete disaster.  

Osprey at Jordan Lake

One benefit of the pandemic is that it is helping us get a new understanding of what a real crisis is, and how we can’t just do nothing.  That may help us understand the need for government leadership on climate change. The idea that markets alone will solve our current problems is not going to work, and the political leadership now in place is not going to work.  

The TImes reported this week on new research on the threat of climate change to animals.  The scientists found that the risk of mass extinction is much closer than previously thought, with thousands of species at risk beginning in the next decade.  The study emphasized that this is not inevitable, if we take dramatic action soon.  

At the same time, the pandemic has brought into focus the precarious situation of working people.  With businesses shut down, no jobs, and no savings, having food and housing is no longer a given. Pending getting new leaders and a compassionate safety-net system, we’ve been trying to do some extra giving for food and other necessities.  

The latest:  Sally discovered the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is raising money for domestic workers who have no other resources.  It’s a great time to help workers whose job is helping others and who can’t work from home.  

Spring birds, and The New Jim Crow

 

Canada geese at Shelley Lake

Spring is definitely arriving here in Raleigh, and the birds are singing lustily.  This week at Jordan Lake, I sawsome juvenile bald eagles, osprey, and great blue herons.  At Shelley Lake, I enjoyed my old friends the Canada geese, and there was a towhee who posed nicely for me while singing.

A towhee

At Jordan Lake, I thought I might have spotted a rarity — a black-headed gull.  After studying my bird books, I posted a picture on the Carolina Bird Photographers Facebook page, and asked for the opinion of any gull experts.  I got a quick response: it was a Bonaparte’s gull, which is not uncommon. I was a little disappointed, but I now have a firmer grasp of what a Bonaparte’s looks like.

A Bonaparte’s gull that looked a lot like a black-headed gull

For the spring migration, I’ve been refreshing on my bird song identification skills, using Peterson recordings and the Audubon app.  I’m able to identify most of our local birds, and I’m getting ready for the less common migrants.

I finished reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, which I highly recommend.  Alexander, a former civil rights attorney and professor, paints a powerful and disturbing picture of mass incarceration in the US, showing that the  war on drugs was to a great extent a war on black people. Seemingly race neutral laws resulted in a huge increase in imprisonment, with most of the prisoners black people convicted of non-violent drug crimes. 

This had a ripple effect through black communities, destroying families and leaving a large percentage of black males unable tp find work and unable to vote. The effect has been comparable to the Jim Crow system for suppressing blacks after abolition, and has sustained our racial caste system using the race neutral terminology of crime.    

An osprey at Jordan Lake

There’s a quick overview of the book in Wikipedia, and she wrote a recent essay in the NY Times that has some of her main points.    though I thought it was well worth reading the whole book.  

Alexander was on The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast recently, and sounded like a really knowledgeable and thoughtful person.  The subject of the podcast was prison abolition. This was the first time I’d heard that there is a prison abolition movement that is connected to the insights of her book.  The basic idea is to address mass incarceration by changing our penal system, including redefining what’s criminal and designing less draconian punishments. This does not sound at all crazy, and I look forward to learning more.  

Juvenile bald eagle

 When Alexander’s book was first published ten years ago, her message that the drug war was a  symptom and expression of a racial caste system seemed radical, but it’s becoming widely accepted.  We’ve made some progress in modifying the worst discriminatory laws of the war on drugs and addressing policing abuses, but much of the system is still in place, and the victims are all around us.  It’s a prime opportunity to exercise our capacity for compassion, expand our political vision, and work for change.

Cold first flights, and a thought experiment — forget the rule of law

 

It was cold here this week, and it took some willpower to get up while it was still dark and roll out to check on the birds.  But I did it, making it to Shelley Lake just after sunrise to listen to the geese honking and watch them take their first flights of the day.  Each bird and each group bird is a little different. As the sunlight hits the trees on the far side of the lake, the calm dark water turns orange and green.  

As always, it was calming and invigorating to spend some time beside the still water with the geese, ducks, herons, gulls, eagles, and song birds.  But there were challenges. One day my hands got so cold I couldn’t feel the shutter button on my camera.  But fortunately, I didn’t get frostbite, and I wore heavier gloves after that.   

My more serious pain issue now is from the Trump impeachment fireworks.  Last week I suggested that too much anger, hysteria, and other strong emotions are a big part of our polarization problem, and we need to calm down.  I admit, I was thinking the Trumpians might need calming more than me, but I’ll also admit, I’m finding I greatly need it.    

I was stunned and sickened when the Republican legislators repeatedly declared this week that the investigation of Trump  was a sham. They said it was a hoax, a witch hunt, and a dastardly sneak attack on America. They compared their Democratic colleagues to those who crucified Jesus!  What they did not do was acknowledge the voluminous evidence of Trump’s serious misconduct, much less attempt to rebut it.  

I keep trying to understand this world view, in which Trump is the innocent victim of the evil Democrats.  As I’ve said before, part of the explanation seems to be tribal loyalty and fear of being cast out of the tribe, but a big part of it seems to be raw anger and hatred of Democrats, fueled by the Fox-led propaganda machine and reinforced by group-think.  The Republicans seem to be projecting their hatred of Democrats onto Democrats. That is, they seem to think the real problem is Democrats’ blind hatred of Trump, rather than what Trump did.  

Perhaps in the Republican mind this justifies dismissing the evidence against Trump as a sham.  In this mind, their obstruction of the process, obfuscating, repeating diversionary lies, and promoting wingnut conspiracy views are all the lesser of evils, necessary to combat the greater of evils (that is, Democrats).

Whatever the causes, I’ve been expecting the Republican fever to break (as Michelle Goldberg put it in her column yesterday).  I’ve thought that eventually the dissonance between reality and their alt-reality would become untenable.  Surely loyalty to the nation, honesty, and honor would eventually prevail. But the hearings this week and the lack of any indication of diverging views among Senate Republicans have made me think (along with Goldberg), that I may have been mistaken.  We may be starting a new normal.

The Republicans’ unqualified support for Trump is probably more corrosive of our democracy than Trump’s own misconduct.  Let me explain.  We’ve only got two major parties, and one of them is signaling that there is nothing — no crime or constitutional violation — that a president of their party can commit that they will deem disqualifying.  If that turns out to be their final position, the president will no longer be subject to our traditional system of checks and balances. That is, the president will not be subject to the rule of law. That would be a big change in the very idea of law.  

Great blue heron

So it doesn’t seem premature to consider the possibility that without much reflection we’re about to dramatically change our system of government.  How will life be different if the legislature and the courts exert no authority over the supreme leader, and the law has force and meaning only when it suits the leader?

In fact, there are already a number of systems like that.  I’m thinking of China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and the list goes on.  And more appear to be coming on line. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen to democracy in India, Hungary, Brazil, Poland, the Philippines, and that list also goes on.  

I wouldn’t volunteer to be a citizen of China or other authoritarian, but of course life in any of those places wouldn’t be all bad.  There would be many of the things we enjoy and value now, like friends and family, art and entertainment, adventures and sports, good food and wine.  There would be beautiful forests, mountains, and ocean waves. The swans would still swim in lakes and mount the air.

Hooded mergansers

But without protections for a free press or free speech, opposition to the regime would gradually fall silent.  Normal life would not include any meaningful political participation. There would be no limits on arbitrary state violence.  

Just as now, our leaders would act out of ordinary human impulses like greed and the lust for power, but unlike now, there would be nothing to check those impulses.   Just as now, our leaders could harbor racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-gay bias, and hatred of political opponents, but unlike now, no law would generally prevent violent action against targeted groups.  Just as now, there would be powerful propaganda and wacky conspiracy theories, but fewer and fewer rebuttals based on reality.  

Mallards

This is depressing, I realize.  So I should also say I don’t think any of this is inevitable.  I heard a podcast recently recounting a few cases where people had fallen out of planes for thousands of feet, hit a kindly tree branch or a snowbank, and survived.  Sometimes, even when it looks like all is lost, you catch a lucky break.  

But rather than count on a long-shot miracle, we’d better start coping with the reality we’ve got — the reality that is obscured by overwhelming fear and hatred.  Unless we figure out a way to overcome that fear and hatred, we’re in big trouble. The place to start is with ourselves. In first aid training, they teach you that the first thing to do in an emergency is stop and think.  Take a moment to calm down. Take some deep breaths.

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.  

Some flying birds, and some Thanksgiving myth-busting

 

This Thanksgiving week I’ve been trying hard to get to Shellie Lake at sunrise.  The birds usually start flying shortly after that in the warm fall colors. As I went to the same place every day, it seemed like the birds seemed to be getting used to me.  One group of geese swam to the shore close to me and started out of the water. Just then a jogger came along the path, and they retreated.  I didn’t necessarily think they liked me better, but most likely they  preferred the familiar to the unfamiliar — just like us.  

We had a happy Thanksgiving dinner with family, and of course thought about some of the many things we had to be grateful for.  One of those things was new this year: I was grateful that there were several pieces of mainstream journalism on the truth behind the traditional Thanksgiving story—  in the NY Times (here and here), the Washington Post (here), and elsewhere.   They pointed out that the story most of us were taught significantly distorts the history of early English colonialists and their relation to North America’s indigenous peoples.  

This is a chapter of American history that still gets little attention in our basic history courses, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s hard to feel good about the colonists’ attacking and in some cases destroying civilizations.   But pretending it was otherwise is even more problematic. 

The traditional Thanksgiving story is tricky, because the superficial lesson is a sweet one of racial harmony.  But the more subtle message is about the racial superiority of the colonists and the inferiority of the “savages.”  That second message — that the white race is superior — continues to infect our society. Some of its victims (surviving Native Americans) are still with us.  We owe Native Americans a lot, as the traditional story acknowledges. We can cultivate respect for them, and work towards realizing the racial harmony of that story.  

President Trump has issued a call to arms against those who supposedly want to declare a “War on Thanksgiving.”  The point seems to be sort of like the supposed “War on Christmas” — that is, generating fear and outrage in the Republican base at any challenges to traditional practices, be they religious, consumerist, or just old habits.

 

It took me a long time to realize that there are real people who are genuinely triggered by this bogus fearmongering.  They are highly susceptible to false claims that their values and way of life are under attack by liberals. When they watch Fox News, they hear such claims all the time, and they get angry and afraid.  They are encouraged to believe that the true cause of their anger and fear is liberals. So they really hate liberals!

This is the best explanation I can come up with for a good portion of Republicans continuing to support Trump.  No matter how clear the evidence of his high crimes and misdemeanors, they see him as a lesser evil than the evil liberals.  

There’s no clear path out of this level of polarization, which calls to mind the dehumanization of wartime enemies (remember “Krauts” and “Japs”?).  But I’m still hopeful that the fever will eventually break. After all, we’re now pretty good friends with the Germans and Japanese.

Anyhow, just so we’re clear, I’m not suggesting a war on Thanksgiving.  And I’d like to throw out a few last notes of respect and gratitude for people who are risking much struggling for human dignity and the planet, including students fighting for democracy in Hong Kong, Europeans protesting consumerism and environmental irresponsibility, South Americans protesting corruption and inequality, and many others.  Let us all give thanks for those brave souls, and perhaps find in ourselves something of their courage.

Beautiful birds

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

It took me a long time, but I finally faced a tough fact:  if you really want to see wildlife around here, you have to get up when it’s still dark.  I adjusted my routine recently, and instead of starting the day with a gym work out, I’ve been grabbing my camera bag and tripod and pushing up to one of Raleigh’s parks.  

Canada geese coming in low

Shelley Lake has been my primary target these last couple of weeks.  I’ve been watching squadrons of Canada geese and mallards practicing their flying, while I try to figure out how to catch them in the early light.  From time to time, a great blue heron or great egret scoots by. I heard a report of a bald eagle there last week, but haven’t yet seen it.

Great egret

There are a lot of smaller birds, which I know mostly from listening rather than seeing, since they are masters at concealing themselves in the leaves.  A few years back I put some effort into learning some birds’ songs, and with the fall migration coming soon, I’ve been refreshing on that skill.  There are several apps I’ve found helpful, including ones from Audubon, Cornell, and Merlin.  

The more I listen, the more I realize:  the birds are communicating. That is, they aren’t mechanically repeating a programmed sequence; they’re sending out messages.  Ornithologists have ideas about some of the messages, like alarm calls, but we’ve still got a lot to learn about their systems.  

Being a bird cannot be easy.  There’s always competition from other birds, and killer predators, like hawks and cats, can come out of nowhere.  And then there’s the problem of human activity.

 

Killdeer

I was saddened, but not really surprised, at the report last month that bird populations had dropped precipitously in the last 50 years.    In North America, there are 29 percent fewer birds, or almost 3 billion less than there were.  That’s a lot of dead birds! The reasons are complex, but ultimately they have to do with us — our destruction of habitats, our use of pesticides, and of course, the environmental changes related to our irresponsible use of fossil fuels.  All this bird destruction is terrible for the birds, obviously, but also for us and other creatures. Birds are important parts of ecosystems, spreading seeds, controlling pests, and pollinating plants. And of course, they’re beautiful. So, another wake up call to change course. 

Young deer

The eaglets fell but are OK, as am I, having retired

The eaglet last week at Shelley Lake

Last week one of the two eaglets at Shelley Lake fell from nest and was rescued.  The following morning I got some pictures of the remaining youngster and the storm-damaged nest, and caught up on eagle family news with other eagle fans.  I went up there again yesterday, and learned that the other eaglet had also been found on the ground and also got rescued. I saw one of the eagle parents fly to the nest site and perch briefly, with its back to me, before flying out again.

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Jocelyn and Kyle came down from New York to visit and help with a surprise party dinner for my retirement.  Yes, this week, after 32 years as a licensed attorney and 11 years as vice president and assistant general counsel at Red Hat, Inc., I came to the end of that chapter.  Mainly I felt happiness and excitement, but there were other complicated feelings, including regret that I won’t be as close on a daily basis to my work friends.  

But I’m looking forward to new adventures.  I’ll be the father of the bride in Jocelyn’s and Kyle’s wedding.  I’m planning on learning some new dishes to cook for Sally, and getting some golf coaching from Gabe. Also, in the next several months I expect to be traveling, studying photography, and making photographs of various living things, including flowers, fish, and grizzly bears, and lots of birds (like puffins, cranes, snow geese, and penguins).  

I’ll be exploring new piano repertoire, including more Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Debussy, and also reviving my jazz studies, which have been sitting in storage for quite a few years.  I’ll be sketching with pencil and paper, and also with an iPad. I’m hoping to improve my language skills in French, Spanish, German and Italian. I’ve also got a long English-language reading list — mostly history and various branches of science and philosophy, but also poetry and fiction.

My retirement dinner at Caffe Luna. Left to right: Jocelyn, Kyle, Sally, me, Gabe, and Clark

First off, though, I’m taking a few deep breaths.  When I left Red Hat on Friday, I went up to Raulston Arboretum to check on new flowers.  Then I stopped for coffee at Cup A Joe’s and sat for a while with a new e-book (Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan).  It was a new thing for me to sit reading well after I finished my beverage, with no urgency to get to the next thing.  The next day, I went to our rooftop pool area with Jocelyn and Kyle to chat and read, and for the first time since we moved here almost 10 years ago, I got in the pool.  For such a hot day, it was surprisingly chilly and refreshing.