The Casual Blog

Tag: Trump

New construction in our neighborhood, a presidential tipping point, and great piano music in Chapel Hill

Looking north from our parking deck toward the new Publix grocery building at a parking deck under construction. This view disappeared forever later that day when a new section of wall went up.

The start of fall brought a harsh heat wave in central North Carolina, but in the past few days it’s cooled off.  The huge construction project in the two blocks north of our building is moving right along. We’re going to have a new grocery store and other businesses, as well as a lot of new apartments. 

Construction sites are noisy and dusty, and great fun to watch.  I love the big machines, like cranes, bulldozers, and dump trucks, and the heaps of building materials, and the clay at the bottom.  And I love to watch the workers, with gratitude for their tough work through the heat and other hazards.  

Change is in the air in politics, too.  With criminal investigations closing in on the President, he seems more and more desperate and crazy.  He’s intimidated ordinary, sensible Republican leaders, and it’s far from clear whether they’ll ultimately find the gumption to defend the Constitution and stop him. 

It’s possible we’ll end up with a thugocracy along the lines of Russia, China, or Turkey, but dumber. But I’m guardedly optimistic that our democratic traditions will survive, and we may soon be seeing the last of the hair-raising Trump presidency.  

Either way, life will go on, at least for some of us, for a while, and we’ll have some exciting new construction and other projects.  One of mine was finishing the book that Kyle DePew, my new son-in-law, gave me last Christmas: Alan Walker’s lengthy new biography of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849).  Chopin’s piano music has been given me great joy for substantially longer than he lived, but I knew little about his life.  

Chopin was quite sick with tuberculosis for most of his life, and even as he was hailed as a brilliant pianist and composer, struggled to make a living,  He lived in the midst of wars and revolutions, and his domestic situation was often turbulent. The body of music he bequeathed us is a testimony to his strength and courage, as well as his brilliance.  Walker’s biography is excellent, but long.  With its many musical examples, it will deepen the appreciation of musicians and probably be challenging for those without a musical background. 

The building which will have the new Publix grocery store looks like it may actually turn out handsome.

A couple of nights ago, Sally and I got to hear one of the truly great pianists of our time, Marc-Andre Hamelin.  Hamelin performed in the Chapel Hill home of Ken Gorfkle on Gorfkle’s top-of-the-line Bosendorfer concert grand before an audience of about 100. His program included works by Scriabin, Prokovfiev, and Samuil Feinberg, and Schubert’s transcendent final sonata in B flat, D. 960.  

Hamelin is a multi-faceted artist of the highest rank.  He takes on works of legendary difficulty, and finds the emotional truth within the technical fury.  He discovers and champions more or less unknown works, like Feinberg’s third sonata, and as we learned from one of his encores, is a gifted composer in his own right. 

I was overwhelmed by the poetic luminosity and magnitude of his Schubert interpretation. As I mentioned to him as we were leaving, his presentation of the Feinberg earlier in the concert helped me hear the Schubert with new ears.  After his performance, he took questions from the audience, and turned out to be very personable and articulate.  He credited his father as a major early musical influence, with his amateur piano playing and collection of 78 RPMs of great classical pianists.

Ken Gorfkle’s Bosendorfer was an extraordinary instrument, both in its delicacy and its power. The entire experience was really exhilarating.  Kudos to Gorfkle for inviting Hamelin and us into his home and curating this wonderful evening. I’m looking forward to the next concert in his series.

Looking south on Harrington Street toward Casa Tiller, which is on the far side of the building.

Getting ready for bears, finding butterflies, more mass shootings, and how racism affects us


Next week I’ll be going to Klemtu, British Columbia for a photography workshop involving bears.  I’m excited, but also a little daunted, since there’s a lot I don’t know about bears. This week I’ve been shopping for expedition clothing and equipment.  I’d like to thank Peace Camera, my local photo shop, for their patience and good advice, and REI, Great Outdoor Provision Co., and L.L. Bean for their high quality products and friendly service.    

Trying to get ready for the bears, I got outside a few times with my camera, but the only photogenic animals I saw were butterflies.  Those here were in Raulston Arboretum, where they were working hard in the flowers. Though they had no interest in posing for me, they didn’t seem to mind my shooting them.  Anyhow, there were many shots I didn’t get, but I did get these which I liked.  

I’m generally hesitant to refer to taking pictures as shooting, because the term is ambiguous, and I’m definitely not referring to using guns.  Mass shootings were once again in the news this week, causing fresh horror and renewed calls for reasonable gun control. It is sad and remarkable that our politics prevents fixing this relatively simple problem.   

I’ve been reading a lot lately about racial bias and wondering how much of our gun proliferation problem relates to our racism problem.  There’s a lot of evidence that white people unthinkingly and wrongly associate black people with negative qualities, including criminality.  How much of the drive to own firearms comes from an irrational fear of black criminals? A goodly amount, I’d wager. To judge from the crowds at Trump rallies, the folks most enthusiastic about guns are the ones that are most supportive of Trump’s racism.  They may well think they need guns to fend off black criminals.  

I think it’s a mistake to blame Trump for our racism.  His incitement of racist violence is revolting and scary, but the American system of white supremacy was in place long before he was born. And to fathom it requires looking well beyond the President’s outrages.  I even give Trump credit for a possible silver lining: his grotesque and overt racism takes the issue out from under the covers and makes it somewhat easier to see and work on.  

I used to think that the main problem with white racism was the disadvantages it created for black people.  Those disadvantages, from limiting job, housing, and educational opportunities on down to emotional and physical violence, are wrong, and we need to fix them.  But our traditional racism has ripple effects that are related to a host of other problems.  

The meta problem is our political polarization, which makes it almost impossible to work on other major problems (like gun control, population control, deindustrialization, fair elections, the social safety net, health care, and climate change).  This polarization is in large part a product of our racism.  

Nixon’s “southern strategy” in 1968 was to use racist dog whistles and fearmongering to get southern Democrats to vote Republican, and succeeding generations of Republican politicians have followed the same playbook with varying degrees of subtlety.  As Sahil Chinoy pointed out in the NY Times this week, race and attitudes toward race are a strong predictor of whether we call ourselves Republicans or Democrats.

Unless you just arrived here from outer space or Honduras, you probably know that Republicans are a mostly white party, and Democrats are a more racially mixed party.  This division wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if we viewed race as merely a physical difference, like height or eye color.  But we’re deeply conditioned to associate blackness with fearsome things. The political party that doesn’t much care for blacks not only disagrees with the other party; it believes it to be dangerous.  It’s hard to work cooperatively with people you think are a threat to peace and order.  

So a lot of our political disagreements that seem to have nothing to do with race are the progeny of racism.  I should note that I’m talking here about systems and tendencies. I don’t at all mean to suggest that all Republican individuals are racists, or that all Democrats are not.  On the contrary, I think a lot of us in both parties think that racism is wrong and want to end it.  But not a lot of us fully appreciate how thoroughly our racist culture has conditioned us, how much our lives today are affected by that culture, and how much work we have to do, both as individuals and as a society, for real change.      

By way of advancing the discussion, I’ve been reading, and hope others will read, White Fragility:  Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo’s message is particularly important and helpful for white people who consciously support racial equality but don’t realize how they too have been deeply conditioned by a racist system.  She pulls no punches, and makes a convincing case that those of us who consider ourselves progressives as to racial matters still have a lot of interior work to do.  

I’m also reading and recommending Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, by Jennifer Eberhardt.  Eberhardt is a black social psychologist whose work involves studying racial bias. The book is part autobiography and part science. With moving and personal stories, she shows how deeply seated racism is in our culture, and how much work it will take to undo it. 

The beautiful Blue Ridge, and our racism, continued

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Last week I went to the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains  of western North Carolina, where I took a photography workshop with Les and Janet Saucier.  The main subject was macro photography, and we shot a lot of wildflowers. We also did some vistas off the Parkway and a particularly gorgeous waterfall called Eastatoe.  I was standing in ankle deep in chilly water for my waterfall shots, and it was totally worth it.  

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Les and Janet were good teachers.  Les had a kind of zen master vibe — not saying too much, but somehow making us look and think harder.  We shot in some tough conditions at times, including rain and wind, which Les encouraged us to appreciate as opportunities for new perspectives.  

To find macro subjects, he advised that we pay attention to what caught our eye and made us feel something.  This mapped well onto my mindfulness meditation practice, part of which involves learning to pay better attention to what’s going on in your head and heart.  

 

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I did one hike on my own from the Parkway up to the top of Mount Pisgah.  It turned out to be steeper and longer than expected, and I was in quite a lather when I got to the top.  There was a good view of the mountains and valleys, as well as a plug ugly communications equipment tower.  

Just as I started back down the trail, I heard a loud thunder clap, and soon after it started to rain.  I’d brought my trusty Nikon D850 camera, but no rain gear, and I was very worried that the camera would get damaged.  I put it under my sweaty tee shirt and scurried downward. Fortunately, it didn’t rain too hard, and my beloved D850 weathered the storm.  

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Along with a lot of natural beauty, from our beaches to our  mountains, North Carolina has some old and stubborn problems.  While I was at the workshop in Brevard, Trump held a rally in Greenville, NC, where the ralliers chanted “Send her back.” The code wasn’t hard to decipher:  they were saying this country is for white people, and minorities and women who get uppity will not be tolerated. This is ugly, ignorant, and sad, but also interesting.  It could serve as a kind of an acid test for just how racist a country we are now.  

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Jamelle Bouie wrote a perceptive essay in the NY Times about how our racial caste system has historically used public violence, including lynchings, to intimidate minorities, which at the same time reinforces the concept of white supremacy.   Trump’s rallies aren’t lynchings, of course, but the threat of violence at his rallies keeps getting more obvious.  Bouie highlights how such raucous gatherings not only scare minorities but also build a sense of white supremacist community.  For these folks, expressing high intensity hate involves ecstatic joy, as the crowd feels united against the Other and reaffirmed in their traditional white identity.

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This is pathetic and ignorant, but it’s exciting, at least for a particular subpopulation.  Trump appears to have made a judgment that scapegoating minorities with raucous circuses will distract from his personal and policy shortcomings, like his incompetence,  dishonesty, cruelty, and corruption;  his failure to deliver on most of his promised domestic programs; his stupid and dangerous blundering in international relations; and his driving us headlong towards environmental catastrophe.   

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Here in North Carolina, there’s no denying that we’ve got some 100-proof racists, who truly hate black people, and who believe that white people are both superior and wronged victims.  We’ve also got a lot of people who are appalled at such notions and are committed to the values of tolerance, diversity, and equality.  And there are many people, including some of us who support racial justice, who also carry around a strain of subtle racism that they don’t even realize they’ve got.  

American racism is  part of the air we breathe, and those accustomed to white privilege can go for periods without even noticing it.  One good thing about Trump and his true believers is that their bold expressions of hate make it harder to ignore. They should make us less complacent, and inspire us to be more honest in recognizing and fixing our own prejudices.  And they should make us take a closer look at our politicians to see which are aligned with our better angels for a fairer, more just society, and for those who are not, stop playing footsie and firmly give them the boot.  

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

Tundra swans at Pungo Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow geese coming in for a landing near Pungo Lake

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

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

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

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

Losing our air conditioning, and getting Gone With the Wind

Yates Mill Pond last Saturday, calm and warm

It was hot again this week, and our air conditioning failed again.  The AC repair person said the system was worn out and needed to be replaced, at a mind-boggling price.  Sally began work on getting another quote. Without thinking about it, we’ve gotten very used to AC, and it feels like a hardship not to have it. That’s privilege for you.  I wonder, would we be more motivated to address our warming climate if we weren’t insulated by AC?

We liked Spike Lee’s new movie, BlacKkKlansman.  It’s funny, in a way, and unsettling.  It shows us something about our society that is ultimately tough to look at.  

The movie starts with a famous scene from Gone With the Wind:  Scarlett at the train depot in Atlanta, looking for her man among the thousands of Confederate wounded and dead.  It’s a brilliant scene, with stunning photography. There’s no comment from Spike Lee about it, so you’re invited to think, why is he quoting it?  

When I first saw Gone With the Wind, my mom told it was the greatest movie ever made. This is a conventional view. It won several Oscars and was hugely successful financially. It’s romantic and exciting, and it has a great look. But since Spike Lee brought it up, I finally understood that it is deeply racist.

It is essentially about the importance and beauty of white supremacy.  The valiant struggles, both during the Civil War and afterwards, are for the purpose of subjugating black people.  Scarlett triumphs in the post-war period with a lumber business of re-enslaved black prisoners. Rhett and the men folk’s “political activities” are about KKK terrorizing of black people.

So my generation of white people (Boomers) learned that Gone With the Wind was a great movie, worth repeated viewings, and absorbed its message of the proper relations of whites and blacks.  This is how racism now works in America: we learn it without talking about it, or even consciously hearing about it. Like the air, it’s usually invisible, and white people hardly think about it as a thing.  White privilege seems natural.  Opposing this invisible (to white people) thing can seem odd, radical, or nutty.

One good thing about the Trump presidency is it is bringing racism and other ills out to where we can see them.  For all his ignorance, he understands the white fear of dark skin, and is brilliant at arousing, magnifying, and exploiting it.  It’s his gift, and the secret of his improbable political success.

We’re in the midst of an epic social psychology experiment. Like Stanley Milgram’s electric shock obedience experiment or Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, but so much bigger, Trump is testing the limits of power, “othering,” and ethics.  Some of what we’re learning in this experiment is discouraging.  There are a surprisingly large block of unapologetic hard-core racists.  But they are still a minority. Their vile hatred is inspiring a counterforce.  We’re reexamining themselves and this system.  We’re getting a new view of invisible racism, which is a step towards ending it.

Last week protesters just down the road in Chapel Hill pulled down “Silent Sam,” a Confederate memorial.  That’s progress.

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.  

 

Our sexism comes out, and the campaign to stop the Trump investigation boots up

At the edge of the marsh near the Elizabeth River

Early Friday morning, I completed my hundredth spin class at Flywheel.  I did not meet my goal of 300 points (285), but I made it in in the top three, and I certainly got my heart rate well elevated (low 160s). Afterwards I drove over to O2 gym for some upper body resistance work and stretching.  Then I came home and fixed a green smoothie for breakfast, this time with orange juice, almond milk, kale, banana, baby carrots, celery, and blueberries.  That’s a lot of health in one glass, and it was also tasty.  

I’m exercising to feel good and increase the chances that I’ll still be here when Donald Trump is gone.  It helps my mood, which needs all the help it can get these days.  In particular, the recent flood of stories of powerful men sexually harassing women is depressing.  It suggests our problem is a lot worse than I thought, and we may well have not hit bottom yet.  

It’s no surprise that some percentage of males are dangerous sexual predators, and that there’s a larger percentage prone to crossing the line.  What’s new is the level of tolerance for such behavior. Last year almost half the population voted for a presidential candidate who bragged on tape about sexual assault.  Now a candidate in Alabama with a well documented record of molesting young teenage girls and lying about it stands a good chance of being elected to the United States Senate.

I formerly assumed that we all — Republican, Democrat, or other —  would agree that it is beyond the pale for middle-aged men to sexually assault fourteen-year-old girls.  That is, there are plenty of close questions when it comes to the boundary areas of sex, but there are some, like that one, that I thought were beyond debate. But apparently not.

What does this mean?   I think we’re seeing something that has been right in front of our noses all our lives but seldom noticed.  That is, we have a system in which women formally have equal rights, but in certain respects are regarded as unworthy.  In the US, we allow women to vote, attend school, work, and wear what they want. But we also systematically pay them less, give them less authority, and accept as normal that they’ll be subject to some degree of sexual misconduct.  

Ferguson and Black Lives Matter began a wrenching process that exposed a  hidden strain of racism.  Similarly, the disgusting and illegal behavior of Trump, Weinstein, Moore, and others  may be the start of a process that shines the light on our entrenched sexism.  We may expand the dialogue and expand the population that considers and treats women as fully human, and get to the point that nothing less will be tolerated.      

I hope so.  Meanwhile, I’m worried by the new effort to discredit and undermine the investigation of Russia’s interference in the last presidential election.  The evidence of Russian assistance to the Trump campaign is already extensive, and the evidence of ties between Trump’s top aides and the Russians is growing.  Now, as the plot thickens, Robert Mueller and the FBI are being accused of being partisan hacks out to get the President for no good reason. 

This campaign of slime is being led by Trump, Fox, and several Republican Congressmen.  There’s a good Washington Post piece on this by Paul Waldman here.  There’s also an account of the House Judiciary Committee’s work along this line here.  

I was sufficiently astonished by this idea that I decided to get out of my own bubble and watch, for the first time ever, an hour of Fox News.

So we saw Sean Hannity’s show on Thursday night, and it was both better and worse than expected.  Hannity and his guests are very skilled at weaving together uncontested facts with unfounded speculation and outright falsehoods so that they’re hard to distinguish.  The people are well-dressed and look serious and intelligent, and they all agree with each other on their key points.  

Thus several people at once will assent verbally and non-verbally to a proposition like “Hillary is the real criminal.”  They repeat their basic points over and over, but with enough variations that it isn’t completely obvious.  Unless you bring to the table a body of background knowledge, you might not notice the leaps in their reasoning, or the lack of any supporting evidence.    

So if you were to get all your news from Hannity, you might well believe that Trump is basically a good guy doing his level best and being unfairly thwarted by evil liberals.  And you might end up thinking that there’s no reason to worry about Russia taking over our political process.  At the same time, you might not be much concerned about electing sexual predators to high office.  

Hannity and Fox are really good at big lie propaganda.  Ordinary journalists can’t counter them as long as they are constrained by honesty and actual facts.  Reality based reporting doesn’t always fit neatly with our prejudices, and it just isn’t as exciting.  

Despite the effectiveness of Fox and Hannity, Trump’s poll numbers continue to sink.  I was heartened to read last week that his support among evangelical Christians had dropped by 17 percent since February.   Maybe it’s a trend.

I took these pictures last weekend when we visited my brother in the Virginia Beach area.  We got out on the Intercostal Waterway and did some kayaking.  The water was smooth and peaceful.  

Is it OK if our President supports neo-Nazis?

Dragonfly near Booth Amphitheater, Cary, NC, August 19, 2017

Last week it seemed like we might be ready to start a serious conversation about how to get out of our nuclear predicament, while we worried about a possible war with North Korea.  Now that all seems long ago.  Those hopes and worries were preempted by news feeds of marching, chanting, menacing neo-Nazis.  

Of course, we always knew there were such people, but we understood that they were a small minority that posed little risk beyond being disgusting and offensive.  Then the President announced that he thought neo-Nazis  were OK, or at least no worse than the people opposing the neo-Nazis.  The neo-Nazis were enraptured. 

If you haven’t already watched the short Vice News documentary on this, you should.  It brings home that these guys are real, and scary.  They are not ashamed of their racism; they’re proud of it.  And they are definitely not non-violent.  

What is the matter with these people?  There was an interesting interview on NPR last week with Christian Picciolini, who was a neo-Nazi leader as a young man.  He eventually renounced the movement and  founded a group to work for peace and help young people looking to get out of such groups.  

In his view, all people seek three things:  identity, community, and a sense of purpose.  Hate groups are good at providing these.  The young men who are vulnerable to being recruited by such groups generally have an underlying issue, such as psychological difficulties, or past trauma or abuse.  

We can all hope that these guys get their issues addressed, but in the meantime, let’s not be encouraging them to act out!  They could so easily get out of control.  It is despicable that the President has knowingly inspired them.  

On a related subject, what to do about confederate memorial sculptures, Trump’s commentary  (suggesting they’re comparable to statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) is ill-informed, but raises interesting issues. These founding fathers were indeed slave owners, and that doesn’t fit well with our tradition of venerating them.  As I’ve learned more about them and their time, I’ve found my admiration for their courage and intelligence tempered by disgust for their willing participation in the slave system.  

But, obviously, individuals are complicated, and history even more so. As to the confederacy memorial statues, I didn’t learn until this past week that  most if not all of those currently being discussed do not date from the generation that experienced the Civil War.  Rather, these statues were put up decades later,  well into the shameful era of the Jim Crow, when blacks were suppressed by law, custom, and mob violence. Those statues were not put up as reminders of beloved fallen ancestors, but rather to terrorize and subjugate living black Americans.   

Maybe on the race issue, the debacle of Trump will ultimately do some good, by highlighting history that we might have preferred to forget and forcing us to grapple with unresolved problems of prejudice and inequality.  But in the meantime, we need to get past Trump.  He still has fervent supporters, including some who are not committed racists or otherwise crazy.  For them, perhaps this latest outrage will bring home that he is a national disgrace and morally unfit to be president.    

The anti-Scout, and Dunkirk

Great blue heron at Apex Community Park, August 5, 2017

Being a Boy Scout was never cool, but I look back on my Scouting days with gratitude.  It was good to go camping with friends and learn to  paddle a canoe.  In fact, I learned a lot of little skills that could someday come in handy, like first aid, basket weaving, and wood carving.  

As a grown up, I’ve had issues with some of the Scouting lessons, like uncritical obedience, and I’ve been disappointed when Scouting’s leadership has been intolerant of minorities.  But I’ve always valued the core  lessons of integrity, decency, and caring for others.  

And so  I was dismayed when  Trump addressed the Boy Scouts at the annual national jamboree.  The surprise was not the content, since his once shocking dishonesty, ignorance, and vulgarity are now depressingly familiar.  Rather, it’s hard to see how any responsible adult would think it appropriate to put Trump in front of Scouts.  Trump is the anti-Scout, with a lifetime record of the exact opposite of Scouting ideals — not trustworthy, not loyal, not helpful, not kind, etc.  

It looked like Trump had a good time giving the campaign-type speech.  Perhaps his handlers and the Scouts viewed the performance as less likely to do harm than letting him sit around tweeting out attacks on the press and unexpected major policy changes.  Maybe in the aftermath some Scouts and others will examine more deeply Scouting values, and their relation to political life.  

Bravery of the heroic sort is not something one sees often in ordinary life, but it does exist.  I was reminded of this when we saw Dunkirk this weekend.  The movie was stunning.  It managed to communicate some of the terror of warfare, like the possibility of dying at any moment from bombing and artillery, and the reality of death.  But there were inspiring moments, like the bravery of the small boat crews and the fighter pilots.  When the last fighter plane ran out of gas, I got a little misty.  

In New York: Trump-TV land, Rauschenberg’s big heart, Bolshoi beauty, and trying rugby

Looking west  from our balcony at the Bernic Hotel on 47th Street

We just got back from a long weekend in New York, where we celebrated Jocelyn’s birthday, went to art museums and galleries, stopped in at a double Dutch jump rope festival, saw the Bolshoi Ballet, and watched a rugby game.  

Of course we talked about the latest Trump oddities and outrages.  Though Jocelyn may have been the first to say it, it’s getting to be a commonplace that the current presidency resembles a reality television show, with ginned up drama that seems to have no point except drawing continued attention.  Indeed, Emily Nussbaum had an interesting piece in The New Yorker this week about Trump’s reality TV career.  Trump apparently liked the job, and may well think of the presidency as mainly about being surrounded by people who make him feel like a big shot.  

He may have no other objective, but I wonder whether there could be a long game.  It’s possible that somebody (maybe Bannon) has a plan that’s well served by stripping all dignity from the presidency and substituting crass vulgarity.  As we come to think of the president as an idiotic clown, we also may view the executive branch as basically ridiculous and unworthy of any respect.  This could make us more open to a solution along the lines of Russia’s Putinism or fascism.  But maybe we’ll be smarter than that.  

Black Market by Robert Rauschenberg

In New York I went to the Robert Rauschenberg show at the MoMA with low expectations.  From prior encounters, I’d thought of his painting and sculpture as facile and kind of messy.  This show changed my mind in a big way and  gave me some new ways of thinking about and looking at art.  Rauschenberg’s art emits swirling emotions and ideas, which are always subject to change, even as we try to comprehend a single painting over time.  He expects the viewer not just to look at the work but to bring feeling and intelligence to it, to become part of it.  Engaging with the art this way is exhilarating.  

Rauchenberg’s approach to art was open-hearted and continuously experimental, trying new materials, new sources, new subjects. There was such a range of feeling and humor, and engagement with the world.  His art was highly collaborative and connected to friendship and love.  These works are particularly resistant to photography, because of their rich textures and sculptural depth.  There’s no good substitute for standing in front of them and seeing what they do.

First Time Painting by Robert Rauschenberg

We also did some gallery hopping in Chelsea.  We noted a lot of new construction in the area,  which made me wonder if the galleries will eventually be priced out.  For the moment, the scene is still lively, and we saw works in many different styles.  Some people are still mining the 60s pop vein, just as some are continuing expressionism and other established styles, while some were creating objects that haven’t and may never be part of a movement.  I particularly liked the photo collages of a young Chinese artist named Ji Zhou at the Klein Sun Gallery and Sally loved a show of Japanese Nihonga painting.

On Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Center we  watched kids of all ages showing their skills at double Dutch jump roping.  There were some impressive feats of speed and agility, as well as creative athleticism.  I briefly considered giving it a try, but couldn’t quite get in the right mental gear while wearing black loafers.  

After that, Sally, Jocelyn, and I saw the matinee show of the Bolshoi Ballet, which performed a new ballet version of the Taming of the Shrew.  We loved it!   The dancing was of the highest caliber, with athletic energy balanced by delicacy and natural-seeming ease.  The acting was strong throughout.  The leading ballerinas in this performance (Kristina Kretova and Anastasia Stashkevich) were beautiful and charismatic, and fully inhabited their roles.  Together with their male partners (Denis Savin and Artem Ovcharenko), they brought great romance to this sometimes disturbing drama.  

That evening, we went to Pier 40 on the Hudson and watched a rugby game between the New York Knights, Kyle’s team, and Boston.  Kyle was injured and unable to play, but was able to give us a tutorial on the rudiments of the sport and first lessons on tactics and strategy.  It was fun!  Happily, the Knights won, completing an unbeaten regular season.