The Casual Blog

Tag: Trump

Getting through spine surgery and the impeachment trial

Get well flowers

It’s been an eventful week.  I had to get through both spine surgery and the Trump impeachment trial, and by golly, I did!  These photos show my get well flowers from Jocelyn and Kyle, which smell wonderful.  Here’s what happened.  

Last Wednesday at 5:15 a.m., I checked into Rex UNC hospital for an operation on the upper part of my spine called a cervical discectomy.  My neurosurgeon, Dr. Koeleveld, had determined that the disc between vertebrae C3 and C4 was deteriorated and pressing on the adjacent spinal nerves, and thought this explained the persistent tingling in my hands.  His proposed solution was basically to remove the damaged disc and bolt in a replacement.  

Dr. K was kind, smart, and very experienced, but even so, I  considered the possibility that he was mistaken, or that something completely unexpected could go wrong in surgery and make me a lot worse.  After learning what I could about the relevant biology and technology, I still wasn’t sure I knew the right answer.  But I had a reasonable basis for trusting the doc.  On the theory that that’s about the best you can do, trusting is what I did.

Of course, I was completely unconscious during the actual surgery, but I was groggily conscious not long afterwards.  The nurses and aides were cheerful, kind, and competent.  Dr. K said the operation had gone beautifully, but he wanted me to stay overnight in the hospital for observation.

I had a room to myself with a lot of machines and a painting of a flower.  My bed had lots of buttons to control the position and call for help, and it automatically adjusted when I moved one way or another.  There was also a TV.

It was about as good a day as possible to be stuck in a hospital room — cold and gloomy outside, and with some absorbing reality TV:  the historic second impeachment proceeding against Donald J. Trump, the disgraced former President (DFP).  Watching the  footage of the invasion of the Capitol gave me a new perspective on last January 6th.  At the time, I’d wondered why the Capitol police and others didn’t seem to be putting up much of a defense, but I learned that inside the building, they were plenty busy.  It looked like the battle scenes in Braveheart or Gangs of New York.  Kudos to those brave officers who protected lawmakers and showed remarkable restraint.  If they had not, and had instead used their firearms, there would have been many more deaths.

As a former lawyer, as I watched the video and listened to the lawyers’ explanations, I kept thinking of how the case was being presented, and whether I would have done it differently.  I thought the House Managers’ team was amazingly good — clear, concise, and powerful.  After years of Trump’s craziness and chaos, I was reassured that such competent and caring people were now helping lead our country.  

The DFP’s lawyers were like him:  loud, smug,  disorganized, angry, and apparently shameless.  They showed no hesitation in lying, even when it was completely obvious they were lying.  

As odious as the ex-President’s lawyer’s were, they raised a couple of interesting points.  As part of their hand waving attempts to distract from what the DFP had done, they showed a video montage of Democrats who had said things like “We’ve got to fight.”  Although it was obvious that the DFP’s statements about fighting were in quite a different context and led to serious violence, it was interesting to see how the same words could mean entirely different things.

In recent months I’ve been doing some reading on structuralism and deconstruction, and getting new insights into how language works and how it doesn’t.  The ambiguity of language is, it seems, an inherent property.  We may think we all know what we mean when we talk about fighting, but we actually mean many different things at different times.  If we keep talking, and observing each other’s activities in relation to the words, the degree of ambiguity may lessen, though it probably never disappears.

The DFP’s lawyers also argued that under the Constitution, only current, and not past, presidents could be impeached.  Although the great weight of scholarly opinion goes against this argument, I still thought it had some force.  If the lawyers hadn’t covered it up with layers of bogus arguments and slimey lies, it would have been easier to swallow.

In a way, I hoped that the DFP’s lawyers could give Senate Republicans a reasonable basis to vote for acquittal, which it appeared from the outset they were determined to do.  It’s depressing to think that most of the most powerful Republican politicians in the country are still in thrall to Donald J. Trump and his base.  Whatever their motives (probably including fear, opportunism, and tribalism), it is hard to understand their countenancing a deadly attack on Congress, including on themselves.  

Anyhow, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the House Managers and to the Senate majority who voted to convict the DFP, including seven brave Republicans.  Trump’s shameful betrayal of his office and our country is now clear beyond any reasonable doubt and a matter of public record.  With any luck, any future Trump headlines will be about his business failures and criminal liability.  Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end of our Trump political fiasco, and the start of a saner, more compassionate chapter for addressing our big challenges.

Last night we saw Time, a new documentary on Prime.  It’s about a Black family in which the father is in prison and the mother is determined to get him out.  It’s an intimate and moving story of strength and heroism that opened a new window on the tragedy of our mass incarceration system.  We liked it a lot.  

A few reasons to quit being a Trumpublican

President Biden has certainly hit the ground running, with executive orders and actions addressing aspects of some of our biggest problems, including the covid pandemic, climate change, racism, xenophobia, LGBTQ discrimination, a stagnant economy, inadequate health care, right wing terrorism, and the nuclear precipice.  His cabinet and other new top officials appear to be experienced and sensible.  There are good reasons to be hopeful, and I’m trying to be.

But I’m still very worried.  Lately, and especially since the January 6 attack on the Capitol, our democracy  has been looking as fragile it’s ever been, and it’s still under threat.  A significant part of the country continues to believe the despicable lie that the election was a fraud.  Shockingly, despite strong evidence that Trump and his cronies supported the insurrection, Republican leaders continue to support the ex-President.  

The hostile takeover of the Republican Party by Trump seems a fait accompli.  If Trump should go to his reward, Cruz, Hawley, or someone even slimier will race to step into his role.  There are still some traditional Republicans who aren’t happy about what has happened, but very few of them have found the necessary courage and gumption for opposition.  

But for traditional Republicans who still care about our country and are considering whether to leave the Trumpublican party, I would ask, what’s keeping you?  I understand you want to weigh the pros and cons of leaving.  And of course there are some cons, like parting ways with old comrades-in-arms and the risk of becoming a target of deranged right-wing hate groups.  But let me suggest some of the pros.

Patriotism.  If we don’t give way to Trumpism, we may yet work together to realize and sustain our finest traditional ideals, including free and fair elections, the rule of law, equality of opportunity, checks and balances, freedom of expression and of the press, and peaceful transfers of power.

Honesty.  Trump took corruption in government from an occasional lapse to standard operating procedure.  He constantly lied about everything, as did many of his cronies.  It was dirty.  Wouldn’t it feel good to get cleaned up?  

Decency.  Scapegoating disadvantaged minorities and whipping up fear of foreigners was once considered something no decent person would do. Actually, it still is.

Reason.  Trumpism made considerable headway in obliterating the distinction between reality and fantasy, but reality isn’t going away.  It’s reminding us of this in various ways, including the ongoing deadly pandemic, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, and species going extinct.  Denying science when it doesn’t fit with our fantasies has made a bad situation worse.  See also Honesty, supra.     

Personal safety.  There are many things that seriously threaten our safety that are beyond our personal control, from collapsing dams and bridges to the possibility of nuclear war.  In the old days, we counted on our government to mitigate such threats, rather than to ignore or increase them.  Wouldn’t it be great to go back to those good old days?    

Future generations.  We owe much to our forebears, without whom we wouldn’t be here.  Hopes for the happiness of our children, our grandchildren, and their successors are part of what gives meaning to our lives.  The earth that has given us so much is in serious peril, which puts at risk the lives of our successors.  We could choose to make it worse.  Or better.   

Compassion.  While concern for those less fortunate used to mean giving a helping hand, under Trump it meant figuring out how to make them more miserable.  But apart from Trump himself, most of us feel badly when we’re aware of people who are hungry, sick, or otherwise suffering, and wish we could do something.  We used to look to government to help in such situations.  We still can.

Self respect. This one is self explanatory.

Making history, as Trump goes bye bye

So we can scratch one major problem off the list:  Trump is history!  He left much as he arrived, as offensively as possible.  But fortunately, we’re still here, in one piece.  He left us with a lot of problems, some of which he made bigger.  But the day after our new president was sworn in, when I woke up, something felt different.  I thought at first it was just relief, and then I realized there was something else — hope.   

It was entirely in character that on their way out, Trump’s people pushed out a fake history effort they called The 1776 Project.  Their idea seems to have been to counter The 1619 Project , a NY Times series that shined light on our long history of slavery and how that affects us today.  According to news reports, The 1776 Project attempted to downplay slavery and compared progressives to fascists.  

I had read The 1619 Project with great interest, and I braced myself to read The 1776 Project.  However, President Biden, in his first day, took the thing down from the White House web site.  Now (as opposed to earlier in the week) you could say, it’s history.  

Rewriting history in an attempt to inculcate patriotism and discourage critical thought is nothing new.  As Trump’s failed 1776 Project shows, the whitewashing project continues, though less and less convincingly.  

If you’re historically inclined, I recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen, which I recently reread.  Loewen spent several years analyzing widely used American history textbooks, and discovered that most of what our children are taught consists of heroic myths, scrubbed of difficult truths.  He gives several major examples, including Columbus, African enslaved people, and Native Americans, showing that most of us were taught a version of American history that had little to do with the facts.  He also shows that reality-based history, though sometimes painful, is far from boring.  

The storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters attempting to overturn the election is a strong reminder that there’s still a lot we need to figure out about our history and the new brand of right-wing fanaticism.  Some of the fanatical elements are familiar, like extreme racism, fascination with gun violence, and paranoia.  Even the bizarre conspiracy theories, like QAnon, are not entirely new.  But the coordinated involvement of lots of seemingly ordinary people in creating such violent conspiracy ideas is something we haven’t seen before.        

We already knew, from the mass-murdering authoritarians of the 20th century, headed up by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, that brute force propaganda works.  Repeating false information over and over is effective, in the sense that it changes people’s beliefs, or in the alternative makes them understand they must keep quiet.  

These old time propaganda efforts were top down criminal projects. But the new thing is at least in part bottom up — DIY propaganda.  We’re seeing that there are large populations that not only won’t resist government lies — they’ll voluntarily and happily join in inventing them.  

Not long ago, we might have thought that almost no one would voluntarily sit in front of a screen for long periods to receive, embroider, and pass along right-wing falsehoods.  But it turns out that millions do, apparently happily.  With easy-to-use social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Parler, some of these millions become participants of what may feel to them like a computer game, book club, or craft project.  As they play, they garner likes and thumbs up, and feel like they’re part of a community. Gradually they disconnect from ordinary reality.  

We’ve arrived at a surreal moment with well over half of the once conservative Republican Party believing that voter fraud by Democrats wrongfully deprived Trump of victory.  News flash: this is a breathtakingly groundless lie.  This “conservative” group is the breeding ground for a smaller subgroup that believes that it is reasonable to defy such an “illegitimate” government with violent opposition.  The percentage of this subgroup prepared to act on such beliefs is still to be determined.  

A key part of the new rightwing alt-reality is that Democrats want to impose a dangerous alien ideology — socialism, or some other ism — that will destroy the American way of life.  This, too, is a groundless delusion.  It may be that the new administration’s calmer, gentler tone and practical public-spirited agenda will defuse some of this paranoia, and help some of these people return to ordinary reality.  

Let us hope so.  If their extreme fantasies and fears lead them to real violence, we will face another threat to our democratic aspirations — how to address radical right terrorism without unnecessary violence and without devolving into a surveillance-heavy police state.   

Trying to understand more about how human minds work is always interesting, and just now it seems time sensitive.  Along this line, I recommend Lisa Feldman Barrett’s short and fascinating new book, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, which I just read for the second time.   Barrett, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University, summarizes recent research and presents some useful new ways of thinking about ourselves.  

For example, she argues convincingly that the primary function of the brain is energy management, rather than conscious thinking.  Behind the scenes, our brains keep the various  body systems running — heart pumping, lungs breathing, monitoring and attacking invading bacteria and viruses, and much else.  Whether to eat, sleep, or debate politics all depends on the brain exercising its professional judgment on resource management in processes we usually don’t perceive.

Barrett also shows that  what is happening when we’re perceiving and analyzing the world is different from what we suppose.  Our brains are shut away from the external world in a thick bone case, with only limited information from our sense organs to work with.  

We’re constrained by the physical structure of our neural networks, and also by our culture that has bequeathed us all kinds of assumptions and biases.  Yet with all these inherent limitations, our brains continuously spin up our reality and predict the immediate future.  Given the nature of our brain systems, it’s no wonder we make a lot of mistakes.  The amazing thing is we can learn from our mistakes, and can get some things right.

  • * * * * *

The pictures here are of Sally’s orchids, which look like they’ll be happily blooming for a while. 

What a not nice surprise: the radical right

I’m still struggling to get my head around what happened in Washington, D.C., last week.  The attack on the Capitol was only a few blocks from where we used to live on Independence Avenue.  When our kids were little, we took them to the Capitol grounds for picnics.  It’s a beautiful building, and a moving symbol of our democracy.

My first impression of the mob there was that it was hapless and disorganized.  But as more information has come in, the storming of the Capitol looks more like an insurrection intended to overthrow the government.  Right wing message boards had plenty of messages about plans for the attack, and some of those involved were wearing tactical gear.  

I was stunned when, right after the attack, 147 Republican congressmen and congresswomen got behind Trump’s ridiculous lie of election fraud and voted to reverse the election.  This week, I was restunned when 197 Republicans voted against impeaching him for sedition. Most of these 197 wisely decided not to try to speak in defense of their vote, but a few doubled down, claiming that the true victim was Trump, and the true wrongdoers were liberal Democrats.  

A handful of Republicans voted with the Democratic majority in favor of impeachment, so we know that rational thinking and honesty were not impossible for the 197.  What is going on?

Some Republican representatives have reported fearing that Trump supporters would kill them and their families if they voted for impeachment.  It’s chillingly plausible that some representatives fear becoming a target.  We seem to be seeing a radicalization of the Trump base that recalls the Islamic State, with passionate, confused people looking for a meaningful cause and getting comfortable with lynchings, shootings, and other shocking crimes.

When I first heard of QAnon, it sounded like a goofy-but-probably-harmless game, like Dungeons and Dragons.  Surely, I thought,  no one could actually believe that the government, already controlled by Trump with the backing of rich Republicans, was actually a dark conspiracy of Satanist pedophiles opposed to Trump and fated to be put down by him in a messianic triumph?  If people were spending hours every day on the internet reading about such fantasies, it seemed a little sad, but at least they weren’t hurting anybody, and it was hard to believe there could be many such people.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the one six attack, but seeing those folks at the Capitol convinced me I had underestimated the seductive power of QAnon.  For some, it has become a religion, with fellowship services over social media.  It seems to be morphing into a big tent of right wingnut conspiracies.    

At any minimum, QAnon is a friendly neighbor in the extremist swamp that includes white supremacists, gun rightists, and anti-government militias.  It’s part of  an echo chamber that amplifies fear and hatred of foreigners and minorities.  The idea that the election was fraudulent and the presidency was stolen from Trump, though provably false, seems to have become an article of the QAnon faith.

ISIS demonstrated that feelings of religious righteousness and extreme violence can go hand in hand.  QAnon believers seem to feel that they are righteous, and are fighting against terrible evil.  They see dark forces threatening their America, which must be stopped by whatever means are necessary.

There’s no way to know how many of these folks are prepared to target perceived enemies to the right and left with AK-47s and blow them up with IEDs.  But recent events in D.C. indicate that the answer more than a few.  

Thousands of National Guard members have been called to Washington, and the FBI is warning state capitols to be prepared for attacks.   Good luck to the Guardsman and local police charged with the frontline response.  May they be safe and avoid violence whenever possible.

Also, may the QAnon believers and similarly radicalized Americans avoid mayhem and find a path out of their paranoid fantasies.  May those of us with an opportunity to speak to them share a kind word of reason, decency, and compassion.  It’s unlikely any one person or conversation will change them, but we might plant a seed.  

Finally, it’s time for accountability all around.  That includes those who led the attack on the Capitol, those politicians who supported overturning the election and continue to repeat the lie that Trump won, and those in traditional and social media who amplified the long string of Trump’s lies.  It also includes the corporations that funded and are now defunding the politicians who supported the insurrection, and those that still need to stop that funding.  

There are a lot of problems underlying the one six attack, including opportunistic political leaders, dark money, seductive social media, economic stagnation and inequality, a pandemic, and deep seated racial prejudice.  The combination is  producing radicalized Americans at scale.  This is something new and dangerous.  We need to address it without delay.  

*******   

These photos are of my Slinkies.  I’d been thinking about photographing them for a while, and this week, I did it.  It was fun experimenting with camera settings, morning and artificial light, different background colors and textures, and different processing techniques.

Why Americans attacked the Capitol, and some budding orchids

Yesterday — January 6, 2021 — was a day that will live in infamy.  After a rally in Washington in which President Trump encouraged his supporters to keep fighting and never admit defeat, a group of them attacked the Capitol, where Congress was in the process of certifying his defeat.  The proceedings were halted and the legislators were evacuated.  The mob then vandalized the building.  There were several injuries and one shooting death.  

By the time I started watching on television, the mob was no longer inside the Capitol, and they seemed to have calmed down.  They lounged on the Capitol stairs, and milled about on the lawn.  I watched the show for several hours, trying to figure out who these people were.  Apart from Trump flags, Trump hats, and other Trump paraphernalia, they looked normal.  There were no visible symptoms of rampant mental illness or extreme emotional states.

Even some steadfast Trump supporters, including Pence and McConnell, spoke out in opposition to the violence.  Some of the right wing media, including figures who have spent years feeding the Trumpist movement, tried to distance themselves by blaming the attack on liberals and antifa.  This will not wash.  The mob may have been of the extreme extreme right, rather than simply the run-of-the-mill extreme right.  But their actions were a natural extension of several years of florid right-wing fantasies.  

One thing we can be fairly sure of:  the people that attacked the Capitol sincerely believed.  They swallowed the Trump line whole, and were convinced that evil liberals had stolen the election and were wrongfully taking over the country.  When every traditional, reputable source of information conflicted with Trump’s lies, they concluded that everything was fake news, except for the statements of one man.

These folks were particularly gullible, susceptible to propaganda, and prone to anger and hateful fantasy.   Still, they were in many ways normal Americans.  The America that produced them is our America, with its many problems still to be addressed.

The January 6 mob reminded us that, as Faulkner said, the past is not dead.  Our history is still with us.  The one-sixers, almost all white, included some who carried Confederate flags, glorifying our history of racial oppression.  Some of them raised banners with mystical evangelical sayings.  Their conspiracy theories, like QAnon, echoed earlier American strains of millennial authoritarianism.

And there were so many American flags!  It is a great paradox that those most inclined to throw out elections and end American democracy are often the ones who wave the American flag the most vigorously.  Few one-sixers wore covid masks.  There’s another great paradox:  those most susceptible to paranoia and groupthink are the loudest cheerleaders for idealized  freedom and individualism. 

It was a surreal day, but we got through it.  Against tough odds, Georgia completed the election of two democratic senators, enough to divide the Senate 50-50, with Vice President Harris in charge of tiebreaking.  Early this morning, the Congress finished addressing the last spurious election fraud charges, and certified the election of President Biden.  It’s a new day.      

The pictures here are of Sally’s orchids, which continue to grow beautifully. 

A very Trumpy Christmas

We like Christmas, but didn’t do much celebrating this year.  For decorations, Sally put up some colored lights on our balcony rails, and that was it.  The other balconies we could see were even less festive.  Maybe we weren’t the only ones having a hard time getting in the holiday spirit.

The news of the day is mostly about continuing disease and death from covid-19, and the continuing grotesqueries of Trump.  He’s handing out presidential pardons right and left, some to his personal henchmen, some to criminal friends of friends, and some to mass murderers.  While continuing to insist that he actually won the election, he’s explored the possibility of declaring martial law and using the military to get a vote with a different outcome.    Another hare-brained-but scary-Trump idea is to get Congress to reject the electoral college results.  

Talk about a war on Christmas!  That would be the ultimate anti-gift:  Grumpy Trump and his Capitol Trumpettes Steal Democracy!

I don’t view that as likely.  Still, it’s depressing that something like 70% of Republican voters say they believe that Biden stole the election, and very few are speaking out against Trump’s reckless talk of a coup.  After having several years to observe Trump’s dishonesty, incompetence, and brutality, they love him as much as ever, and maybe more.  Most evangelical Christian voters are particularly firm in their commitment to this flagrantly un-Christian president.  About 80% of them voted for him.  

Many find this puzzling.  As an atheist and former evangelical, I’ve given this puzzle some thought, and have a theory that may help explain it.  For those with no religious background or one unrelated to evangelical Christianity (EC), I’ll share my own in-a-nutshell version of EC’s fundamental tenets.  

First, in heaven there is an all powerful, all knowing, entity named God, who is in charge of everything.  He listens to millions of prayers asking for things, which he ignores, and observes lots of earthly disasters (like hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, spreading cancers, and little children on bikes getting run over), which he also ignores.  

God’s favorite non-work activity is being worshipped, and he gets quite grouchy if the worship is not to his liking.  In God’s view, all humans are sinners who deserve to be tormented in hell for all eternity, but he is prepared to give them full pardons and save them if (1) they confess to being sinners and (2) their worship of him is up to his standards.

I’m leaving out a lot of details, like the baby Jesus, the wise men, water turning into wine, and so on, but this is only a slight parodizing of evangelical ontology as it was taught to me.  It’s not hard to see how EC adherents find it easy to relate to Trump.  

Like God, Trump is big and has powerful weapons.  He’s authoritarian, but we need a strong leader.  He’s moody, and the best way to keep him happy is to keep telling him how great he is.  If you get on his enemies list, you may lose business, go to jail, or worse.  But if you manage to not do anything he doesn’t like and make him really happy, he may give you a pardon.  

So if you were someone who thought, God is a good fellow, someone who understands me and cares for my personal welfare and wants to torture and kill my enemies, you could easily think the same of Trump.  Their personalities and interests are surprisingly similar.  

But that’s not all.  Although being saved (that is, accepting Jesus as your personal savior, along with adopting the EC ontology already discussed), seems undemanding, in fact it requires developing a subtle, far-from-natural skill in mental gymnastics.

Being saved requires the unfortunate sinner to do a twisting back flip over the area of everyday thinking and land in a spot where the usual rules for processing reality do not apply.  In this landing area, there is no need for evidence, and indeed, curiosity and questioning are unwelcome. 

Of course the EC doctrine doesn’t make sense.  It’s not supposed to.  Accepting the absence of facts and logic is part of how believers define faith, and how they prove they have it.

I used to view EC thinking as simple, but I’ve come to realize that it’s actually not so easy.  Somehow the EC believer develops two kinds of brains that think in opposite ways.  There’s an EC brain, where things that otherwise make no sense are enthusiastically endorsed, and a non-EC brain, which covers holding down a 9-to-5 job, safely operating a vehicle, paying the bills, cooking, taking care of kids, and everything else in day-to-day reality other than EC rituals, including Republican politics.  

The EC brain professes an extreme level of certainty as to EC beliefs.  At the same time, that brain is very anxious, constantly on high alert for threats from enemies, and easily alarmed.   There is a strong and clear distinction between good and evil, with evil defined as anything not aligned with EC.  Enemies are evil, and evil must never be tolerated.

In ordinary times, the EC brain does not seem like such a big deal.  People, including non-religious people, believe all kinds of odd things, and they still generally function and get along together.  EC thinking doesn’t normally bother me, and I wouldn’t have thought it worth discussing here, if it were not for one problem. 

Trumpism has shown that groups that become expert in suspending rational thought are hazardous in certain situations, such as our current one.  The EC brain is fully primed to believe Trumpian statements that contradict facts or physical reality.  That brain is also much more likely to push the panic button when told that ordinary political opponents are evil enemies seeking destruction of our way of life. 

For example, EC mental gymnastics allow the believer to screen out and ignore all evidence that the presidential election was fair and valid, and all evidence that the president-elect is not a dangerous communist.  Our traditional reality-based correctives don’t work, once the believer accepts (as Trump maintains) that mainstream media is the enemy of the people and full of lies, and that only right-wing sources that support Trump are reliable.  

The EC believer can easily follow Trump’s lead and recategorize peaceful Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality to read that police are under attack by dangerous Black radicals who want to destroy our cities and then invade the white suburbs. On the other hand, after developing a fact-free-but-anxiety-filled operating system, the believer can more easily buy into anti-liberal conspiracy theories, like birtherism or QAnon.  

Of course, some EC believers are extremely intelligent and gifted, and some manage to stay in much closer touch to reality.  In their non-EC brains, some of these have good ideas and projects, including supporting equality for minorities, fighting climate change, and refusing to acquiesce in a Trump coup.  These believers will not be viewing the pandemic as a hoax or signing on for QAnon, and they might even support health care for all. 

I’m not so sure about that last thought.  In fact, it may be I’m off track on the EC thought process, which I once shared, but haven’t for many years.  But it certainly looks like Trump figured out how to make the most of the authoritarianism, reality-denialism, and anxiety that are part of EC culture, and Trumpism seems hard to explain without the support of EC.  

I am not proposing anything against EC, other than to challenge its ideas.  I’m strongly in favor of religious tolerance, both on principle and for reasons of self preservation. But I see no reason why EC shouldn’t be called to account and asked to explain its Trumpism.  As things stand now, a lot of EC believers seem ready to support the next Trump, and our poor system may not be able to survive another one.  

Is Trumpist election-denialism really gaslighting?

We’re having a difficult holiday season.  The pandemic is still raging, as is Trump, who seems to be trying to vandalize our democracy on his way out of the White House.  I’ve been trying to stay positive and look forward to better, healthier times, but his antics are raising difficult questions.  

Are there some things that we can take for granted?  That is, are there certain things that we can safely assume we all agree about, where there’s no possibility of any argument — things we can call facts?

For most of my life I’ve assumed that there are a huge number of facts on which we almost all agree, with a much smaller number being things subject to debate.  Even in politics, I understood there was a large foundation of agreed-upon reality, with disagreements confined to relatively small areas.  Of course, I realized that there were people with completely nutty ideas, like the flat earthers and alien invasionists, but they seemed to be a small minority.  

Now I’m not so sure.  As of this writing, a majority of Republicans apparently still hold the view that Trump was the true winner of the last presidential election, and that the election was marred by a diabolically clever voting fraud.  There is overwhelming evidence that none of this is true, and that Biden won in the ordinary way by margins not subject to any reasonable doubt.  

For millions of Republicans to stand by Trump despite this evidence is not normal politics.  Trump has proposed, in broad daylight, to nullify the election and illegally take over the government based on an outrageous lie, and a majority of Republicans see no problem with that.  Their support has shaken my lifelong presumption as to most people’s sanity and rationality.  To put it directly, it seems like a huge number of otherwise normal Republicans either intentionally or unintentionally have taken leave of their senses.   

There is some possibility that this is just the biggest gaslighting of all time.  Under this theory, millions of Republicans are pretending that Trump won, knowing quite well that he didn’t, in order to drive the rest of us out of our minds.  Once we nonbelievers are certified as insane and safely locked in institutions, Republican elites can continue with whatever they’re planning, like eliminating all taxes for the rich, cutting all social programs for the poor, and destroying what remains of the natural world.  

It Trumpist election-denialism were gaslighting, it would be dastardly, but it would make some sort of sense.  But if, instead, the Trump deadenders are sincere and serious, we’ve got a really big problem:  a large fraction of our fellow citizens share a strong commitment to ending democracy as we’ve known it, paired with a determination to withdraw from our previously shared reality.

This is bad.  The Trump deadenders have gone out on a dangerous ledge, and really need our help.  But helping them off the ledge is tricky, because they don’t think they need any help, and they’re inclined to think that anyone who thinks otherwise is a dangerous enemy.

We need experts, including skilled  hostage negotiators.  This problem could use the talents of our most gifted psychologists, philosophers, economists, engineers, and politicians.  When we non experts are confronted with a desperate case, we can try to stay calm and project as much warmth and respectful concern as we can, and avoid making any sudden loud noises or alarming movements.     

I wish I had something more cheerful  to share, and in fact, I do.  As we’ve been holding on through this dreadful pandemic, we’ve been watching some really good TV.  Last night on Netflix we watched a fine documentary, titled Dolly Parton:  Here I Am.  I’ve always liked Dolly’s singing, but I hadn’t realized how hard she worked at songwriting and everything else.  Her persona looks comically simple but it’s not; she makes us laugh, feel, and think.  She’s amazing!    

A different way of looking at Trump’s racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The debate disaster, ending the elections problem, and fixing messy history

The presidential debate this week was difficult to watch, but gave us plenty to think about.  President Trump seemed to be impersonating an angry wingnut conspiracy monger’s all caps Twitter account.  When Biden threatened to say something interesting, Trump interrupted with ugly taunts, sarcastic asides, baseless accusations, bizarre lies, and shouts of incoherent nonsense.  

Judged by any normal standards of civil discourse, Trump’s performance was not just disgusting but bizarre.  Why would anyone do that?  But perhaps there was a method in the madness.  Trump’s performance seemed designed to make people stop watching politicians and thinking about politics. 

And that would make some sense.  If people kept watching, they might like Biden even better, and the pending anti-Trump landslide might get even bigger.  Given Biden’s success so far, it would make some sense for the pro-Trump forces to try to make everyone so sick of the political process that they tune out and stay home.  

The debate was such a fiasco that the commission in charge is talking about revising the rules for the remaining two debates.  One idea is to cut off the mike of the candidate who refuses to shut up according to the rules.  Unfortunately, that wouldn’t prevent a crazy orange haired candidate from distracting the other candidate by shouting bizarre lies.

So I have an idea!  Remember those cake stands with glass covers that show nicely decorated cakes?  We could make a very large soundproof cake stand cover and suspend it with a motorized cable above the candidates.  Then when a candidate shifts into Tweeting madman mode, the moderator could lower the cover.  We could observe the candidate smirking, scowling, and gesticulating, but would be able to listen to what the other candidate was trying to say.  After some suitable penalty period (say, 3 minutes), the moderator could raise the cake stand, and the out-of-control candidate would get another chance to behave normally and play by the rules.

In the debate this week, Trump declined to condemn white supremacists, and tried to blame left wingers for violent incidents associated with peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.  He spoke approvingly of a violent racist group called the Proud Boys.  If all that weren’t horrifying enough, he encouraged his followers to gather at polling places to discourage non-supporters from voting, and again claimed that the election is going to be fraudulent.     

With President Trump all but promising to declare our next presidential election invalid unless he wins, he continues to force us to think more about American democracy.  I’ve always thought of elections as one of the least interesting things about the American system, because they were generally simple and uncontroversial.  We voted, the votes were counted, and the person with the most votes won.  

Now, to be sure, there have always been problems with our elections, such as excluding Black people, women, and others from the process during much of our history.  But I thought the worst of that was in the past, and that one thing most Americans were justifiably proud about was having more or less free and fair elections.  

If only!  It sounds like Trump and a significant number of his followers who propose to Make America Great Again are ready to stop having those old fashioned elections.  Is it really possible that there are seemingly normal people who think 1. this is a great country and also 2. we should quit having free and fair elections?  Even if their adored potential dictator were someone of much higher quality than Trump, this seems like a thing you would oppose if you cared at all about our country.  

I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic.  I’m still fairly sure that stopping fair elections and making Trump our supreme leader is the dream of only a minority, and the majority will not buy it.  But Trump is making unmistakeable and unprecedented threats to dismantle our most fundamental institutions, including elections, and we can’t take it as a joke.  We need to vote and encourage voting like never before, and like the future of our democracy is at stake.  

The movement to dispense with elections may have something to do with weaknesses in our system for teaching history.  A lot of history education is badly done, and leaves students with the mistaken impression that history is boring.  As an enthusiastic amateur of American history, I was intrigued to hear about President Trump’s new history initiative, the 1776 Project.  

But I quickly got less excited.  The 1776 Project seems to be an effort to reinforce the traditional triumphalist narrative in American history and suppress the fuller understanding coming into view from sources like the 1619 Project The latter is an effort begun last year at the New York Times to shine light on formative aspects of our national experience that we’ve mostly tried hard to forget, like slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and contemporary discrimination.  

The 1619 Project sparked a lively discussion of the meaning of race and the roots of our existing power structure, and it’s well worth reading and talking about.   My guess is that the 1776 Project turns out to be nothing more than another cynical election year Trump lie-promise.  It probably won’t even rev up the base very much, since most of them hated high school history, quickly forgot the little they learned, and have no interest in ever thinking about history again.  

As of this writing, it looks like the chances are good that Trump himself will be history come January 20, 2021.  But if we should be so unfortunate as to have to revise American history to fit the Trumpian vision, it would be fairly easy.  Essentially, we’d just censor all the unpleasant stuff that clutters up the MAGA narrative, and get over any last shreds of reluctance to celebrate white supremacy.  

For example, here’s a prototype of a 1776 Project history quiz.  See how you do! 

 

  1.  Prior to the Civil War, life in the American south was:
  1. Romantic, with gallant men and pretty girls in flowing gowns
  2. Opulent, with tremendous profits from cotton, which allowed for building lovely mansions with columns with grand lawns
  3. Lively and stimulating, with big parties and fine horses
  4. Generally harmonious, except for the occasional duel to preserve gentlemanly honor

 

  1.  How well were American slaves treated before the Civil War?
  1. Not bad.  They got whipped and tortured, but generally only when they failed to do as instructed
  2. Fairly well.  Otherwise, why didn’t they escape?
  3. Well.  They got to sing those lovely spirituals and do lively dances
  4. Quite well.  They got free room and board, and we should all be so lucky

 

  1. What was the most remarkable achievement of the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups following the Civil War?
  1. Mass imprisonment of former slaves on vague charges such as vagrancy and loitering
  2. Widespread lynchings on false charges of improper relations with white women
  3. Preventing Black people from living outside designated areas and from socializing with white people
  4. Violence that intimidated former slaves into not voting

 

  1. What was eugenics?
  1.  A pseudo scientific theory developed in the late 19th century and widely accepted in America that classified the white race as superior
  2. A movement that used forced sterilization and other measures to reduce reproduction rates of non-white people so as to improve population genetics
  3. The intellectual basis for Hitler’s final solution
  4. All of the above

 

  1. What is the significance of Black Lives Matter protests against police systems that regularly harass, brutalize, and kill Black people?
  1. No idea 
  2. They clearly make no sense
  3.  They are part of a plot by leftists to kill police and bring anarchy
  4.  They show the need for mobilizing massive force against Black people and their supporters in the hellhole cities so as to prevent invasion of beautiful white people’s suburbs

See, it wasn’t that difficult!  In Trumpworld (as opposed to reality), every single answer is entitled to full credit.  Needless to say, I’m hoping we’ll be leaving the false and racist history of Trumpworld very soon, and continuing the struggle towards racial equality and justice.  

If you’re interested in learning more about how American schools teach history, I recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James Loewen, which I’ve been re-reading.  The title is a bit of an oversell (it doesn’t literally have “everything”), but Loewen has a lively style and gives bracing accounts of some of the key distortions regarding our forebears that most of us got indoctrinated with.  

Our Cape May getaway, and Trump’s fiddling while the West Coast burns

Cape May lighthouse

Last week Sally and I had a beach getaway to Cape May, New Jersey.  We met up with Jocelyn and our new son-in-law Kyle at an Airbnb house, which was charming and comfortable.  Jocelyn and Kyle had, while in New York City, had Covid-19, which in their case was no fun but well short of fatal, and we all thought it likely that they were immune and not infectious.  So we enjoyed cocktails and meals together, slow bike rides, and reading on the beach.  There were dolphins playing just offshore, and several species of seagulls.  

Cape May has a lot of charming Victorian gingerbread-type houses and beautiful gardens.  It also is a prime transit point for birds migrating along the East Coast.  Sally and I went out in the mornings and found some birds we weren’t familiar with, including a few warblers and large flocks of tree swallows.  There were very lush areas near the beach, with lots of wildflowers.  There were also mosquitoes, but no ticks, at least ones that found us.  

We tried to take a break from the news cycle, including the never ending Trump Show, but didn’t succeed entirely.  I found myself cycling between hope that sanity and good sense would ultimately prevail in the next election, and dread of the opposite.  

Trump didn’t seem to have any new ideas, but his old ideas, including trying to scare white people with the thought that Black people were coming to their neighborhoods, had worked for past American presidents, to our national shame.  When fear kicks in, the possibility of either compassion or logical thought is over, which is why he employs it.

But at least for now, judging from recent polling, his fear mongering calls for law and order don’t seem to be convincing anyone who he wasn’t pretty scared already.  Unfortunately, some of those are all in, including so-called patriot militias with guns and QAnon believers.  

One of Trump’s new favorite big lies is that antifa is a terrorist organization responsible for widespread violence.  This lie has been pressed into service to explain the West Coast wildfires, which in the last few days have become catastrophic.  In Trumpworld, the fires were set by antifa, rather than the lightning strikes that were in fact mostly responsible.  Sadly, some folks with flames bearing down on their houses believed that antifa was both responsible and planning to loot their neighborhoods.  Refusing orders to evacuate, they felt they needed to stay to defend their property.

As of this writing, Trump’s response to the West Coast wildfires has resembled his response to the coronavirus, which is to do nothing except emit hot air intended to distract attention from the disaster.  For any other president, this would be a career-ending scandal, an unbelievable dereliction of duty, but for Trump, it’s just a normal week.  

It did seem that Trump was causing some indigestion in the right wing from his derogatory comments about dead American soldiers being suckers and losers.  This is definitely appalling, though not especially surprising.  We’ve seen enough of Trump to know he is a deeply flawed person, with perhaps his most important flaw being an inability to care about anyone other than himself.  He just can’t process empathy and compassion, and therefore thinks they’re for suckers.  

His indifference is, for those whose lives might have been saved by federal action from wildfires, pandemics, and other human derived disasters, a disaster.  For many, including untold numbers of wild animals, this is the end.  For those of us still here, though, Trump’s ultra-selfishness and egomania can serve as a kind of negative example.  

That is, Trump embodies the most extreme version of capitalist amorality, in which greed is good and every other consideration is for losers.  His example of extreme individualism shows that such an ethos works poorly for everyone — even for the uber capitalist, whose appetites are relentless and never satisfied.  The mind set of greedy no-holds-barred individualism is ultimately self destructive, as shown by Trump himself, a sad figure who can barely be said to have a self that is self-aware.  

The opposite orientation — that is, prioritizing the concerns of others, expressing generosity, cultivating compassion — is in some ways more difficult.  But it increases the chances of social harmony and personal fulfillment.  As far as I know, we don’t have a political party organized around unselfishness and related values, but maybe someone will start one — though please, not till after November.   As we start to see the light at the end of the Trump tunnel, it’s a good time to start planning for change.