The Casual Blog

Tag: voting

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.  

Safe voting, affectionate birds, climate undenialism, and beginning capitalism 2.0

I voted!   I was not eager to vote in person because of the pandemic, and had some misgivings about the reliability of voting by mail.  But friends pointed me to BallotTrax, a new online tool in NC and other states that lets you know when your mailed ballot has been received and accepted.  It’s easy and fun!  Well, not exactly fun, but reassuring.  In NC, once the mailed ballots are received, they are checked in, and counted on election night.

This week I went to Scotland Neck, NC to visit the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park.  There were a lot of beautiful avians, and some of them were surprisingly affectionate, following me around and gesturing.  Had they been missing having human visitors when the place was closed for the pandemic?  Hard to say, but maybe.  Here are a few of the photographs I made. 

Elsewhere we’ve been having a lot of simultaneous disasters, including huge fires across the length of the West Coast, flooding from hurricanes, fracturing ice shelves, and the coronavirus plague, not to mention the drama regarding the fate of American democracy.  These are hard to think about, either separately or together.  But I always try to look for a silver lining, and I managed to find one thing to feel a little cheerful about.  

Which is this:  For the first time in our lifetimes, climate change has become a significant issue in presidential politics.  Global warming and related changes have been happening for decades, and the risks of catastrophic change have become increasingly clear.  But politicians have mostly kept quiet about it.  Now it’s high on the discussion agenda.   That doesn’t mean we’ll fix it, of course, but if we don’t talk about it and make some changes, things will be getting a lot worse.  

Addressing the West Coast fires recently, Biden called Trump a “climate arsonist.”  Meanwhile, Trump expressed doubt as to whether scientists knew what they knew and tried to blame the fires on state officials.  

As loony as Trump was and is, I thought Biden’s “climate arsonist” tag was a little strong, since it’s probable that Trump didn’t actually light fires.  But Trump and his henchmen have done everything within their power to raise doubt and confusion about the reality of climate change, and to make sure there’s more of it coming soon.  Examples include lifting key regulations on vehicle emissions and power plants, lowering limits on methane emissions, promoting fossil fuel mining and drilling on public lands and waters, and opposing international climate cooperation.     

All this will, unless reversed, eventually contribute to death and destruction far exceeding the evil dreams of the world’s most fanatical terrorists.   There are many good reasons to stop Trump, but even if there weren’t, saving the world from climate disaster would suffice.  Still, even with all of Trump’s perverse misdeeds, it would be unfair to blame him alone for the global warming disaster.  

The rise of CO2 levels started generations ago with the Industrial Revolution, though it has greatly accelerated in our lifetimes.  Scientists began warning in the 1980s that dramatically rising temperatures caused by our emissions were going to happen and potentially lead to global disaster.  Trump is not the only one who tried to ignore it — so did almost all of our politicians, and most of the rest of us.

The science behind global warming is a little complicated, in that it involves some basic chemistry, but not nearly as complicated as, say, understanding essentially how a car works.  Ignorance is a problem, but not the biggest problem.  

The main barrier to comprehending climate change is that it doesn’t fit with some of our most basic assumptions about the world and our lives.  We’ve been taught to think of our world as a place of limitless resources, boundless wealth, and unending consumption, and our basic mission as exploiting and enjoying all that.  Any less opulent vision is not just less pleasant — it’s almost inconceivable.  

As Naomi Oreskes recently pointed out in Scientific American, it’s sort of understandable that people want to reject established science when it tells them something that conflicts with their firmly held worldview.    It’s less painful to reject the science than to change our basic way of thinking about our lives.

A week or so back, Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, and other influential right wing commentators made comments supporting Trump’s denial of climate science.  Per these “pundits,” science was a ruse by the evil liberals to take away good people’s freedom and make them feel less good about themselves.    They argued that accepting ordinary science would mean their listeners would lose control of their lives.  

As far as I know, there’s no left wing conspiracy, but Carlson and Limbaugh have kind of a point.  Unless we deny scientific reality and also reverse the laws of physics, we’re going to have to make some changes, collectively and individually, and it won’t all feel good.  But the alternative is that we, and all future generations, will face climate change suffering on a scale that is literally unimaginable.  A recent summary from the Times of what is likely to happen in the US is here

Fortunately, Trump and the right wing pundits seem to be losing the battle for hearts and minds, while scientific reality seems to be making progress.  Recent polls show more people seriously concerned about climate change, and favoring action.  There’s also been an encouraging shift in thinking about some of the established and related ideas on market capitalism.

This week the NY Times published a noteworthy piece   on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s amazingly influential essay arguing that corporations should disregard social objectives and devote themselves entirely to increasing profits.  

Friedman, then a respected economist, contended that corporations owed no duties other than to their shareholders, and had no responsibilities other than to make money.  To be fair, Friedman left himself a bit of wiggle room, noting that there were a few legal and ethical constraints.  But he argued that for corporations to try to support concerns for social welfare was essentially bad, like communism.

Along with Friedman’s fear mongering — equating social justice with a communist menace — he made some flagrantly ridiculous assumptions.  He assumed (without saying so) that the existing social order was right and proper, and that free markets would naturally continue to uphold that fine social order.  Thus he papered over existing social and political failures, such as systemic racial and gender discrimination, inadequate housing and transportation, poor healthcare, air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and widespread extinction of non-human life.  

Friedman also adopted and encouraged a value system of extreme individualism.  In this system, the prime mover and highest objective is the individual, rather than the family, the community, or the earth.  While other systems put value on mutual support, cooperation, and compassion, the Friedman individualist says,  all that matters is that I get and keep as much as possible, and to hell with everyone else.  

In retrospect, Friedman’s thinking looks nothing like science, but more like a twisted religion, with human sacrifices and profits going to god-like captains of industry.  But at the time it struck a cultural chord.  Increasing corporate profits through deregulation and cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy became the prime policy objectives of the well-to-do right.  Healthcare, education, housing, and other social concerns were matters of indifference.  To the extent that poor people made the discussion agenda, the main initiatives were cutting welfare and enacting harsher drug laws to lock more of them up.  

Friedman’s endorsement of the upside-down morality of “greed is good” gave moral cover to powerful corporate execs and their Wall Street cronies to justify taking more and more for themselves.  The result was our current outrageous inequalities of wealth.  Our political processes were increasingly corrupted by corporate political contributions (effectively legalized bribes) that headed off reform.  Our deep social problems, like racism, inadequate social services, and climate change, continued to fester.   

I’d assumed that Friedman’s theory was still dominant in wealthy conservative circles.  But it was cheering to learn I may have been wrong.  The Times feature on Friedman included statements from leading business executives and academics that indicated a lot of them were rejecting Friedman’s central assertions on the holiness of raw capitalism and the sinfulness of concern for the public interest.  Among the commenters there were still a few unreconstructed free marketeers, but the majority seemed to recognize that considering the public interest was not inconsistent with markets and profits.  

Along this same line, the Business Roundtable, a conservative organization of CEOs of giant American corporations, issued a new statement of purpose last year that significantly modified its previous Friedmanian emphasis on shareholder profits.  The new statement acknowledged that corporations also have responsibilities to their customers, employees, and communities.  It also acknowledged a duty to protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices.

These leaders generally seem to be realizing that pursuing corporate profits alone was a huge mistake, and that there are other imperatives (like climate change) that require a different way of thinking about the public interest.  Divorcing the ideas of markets from the idea of a fair and sustainable social system never made any actual sense, in spite of its surface appeal. If some of the smartest, most privileged beneficiaries of the system are seeing the interrelatedness of markets and the public interest, we could be heading in the right direction.   

Some pretty good news from the Democratic Convention, and a new threat to the voting system

 

The big event for us this week was the Democratic Convention.  I can’t say I was looking forward to it.  I seriously doubted that a virtual convention could be anything other than boring, and there was a possibility it would be a debacle.  But it was much more gratifying than I expected, and left me more hopeful.

There were some moments that seemed stagey and artificial, but there were also moments of surprising authenticity and feeling.  Ordinary people spoke in their own words about their concerns.  While there was a celebration of our diversity (of races, origins, orientations), there was also recognition that we face enormous challenges (achieving racial justice, economic fairness, climate stabilization).  Part of the main message was that we’re dealing with a lot of pain (pandemic deaths, loss of jobs, uncertainty) that needs to be acknowledged and respected, and then addressed.

The thrust of the Convention was straightforward:  we have a disastrous President, and now we have a chance to replace him and do better.  Criticism of Trump was almost all about his utter failure to do his job, rather than his moral failings — his disastrous mismanagement of the pandemic, of health care, of the economy, the environment, of international relations, and the rest, while cutting taxes for fat cats. 

This was probably a reasonable approach for persuading those who previously voted for Trump but might consider changing.  It just makes no sense to renew the contract of a bad CEO.   

As for change, there’s Joe Biden.  Frankly, I’ve never been a huge Biden fan.  He seemed to me an establishment guy unlikely to be a strong force for progress.  But I felt a lot more supportive after seeing more of him and learning more about his story.  

The basic case for Biden, as I heard it, is:  he’s a really decent, hardworking, and compassionate guy, with solid experience, knowledge, and values.  He’s not bucking to get his face on Mount Rushmore.  But he wants to help right the ship of state, for the right reasons, and he’s got the necessary skills.  It seemed like he’s evolved in some positive ways, like many of us, with more concern for addressing racial injustice, gender inequities, and climate change challenges.  

Biden is, of course, a politician.  I had assumed that his big handsome smile was mostly a politician’s trick and to be regarded with some suspicion.  But there was substantial testimony to the effect that he’s an unusually warm, caring, compassionate person.  His choice of Kamala Harris suggests political savvy, but also that he’s got a big heart.  

Some of our issues that urgently need attention didn’t get much at the Convention.  I heard almost nothing about nuclear arms control and reducing the risk of nuclear or other conflicts.  There was only a brief mention of the environmental costs of factory farming, and none that I heard about its appalling brutality and the welfare of animals.  There seemed to be little recognition that technology, including artificial intelligence, is changing our economic reality, and our old model for education and jobs isn’t going to work as well in the future.

So I’m not expecting that Joe and the Democrats will quickly fix all our societal problems.  But I am hopeful that they’ll make a start.  As the old saying goes, the first thing to do when you’re in a hole is to stop digging.  I’m pretty sure they’ll stop digging, and also that they’ll try to help those who need it right now.  That would be a huge change.

The Convention sent a strong message about the importance of voting in this election.  In a nutshell, if you care at all about preserving the good things about our system, you need to vote.  Barring a quick miracle cure to the pandemic, it’s probably best to do so by getting a mail in ballot and getting it in early.  As noted in my last post, in some states you can drop off your mail-in ballot directly with local officials.  

Voting used to seem simple — a little boring, but something we could all agree was basically a good thing.  Even after years of Republican efforts to reduce or prevent voting by their opposition, it’s still hard to believe what has been happening recently.  

Trump, McConnell, and other Republican leaders have admitted that it would be, for them, a disaster if everyone voted, because they could not possibly win.  They feel well justified in putting up roadblocks to voting by people of color, young people, and others, such as new voter ID laws, fewer polling places, more limited voting hours, and now, attacks on the Postal Service.  Their power is at stake.  For them, democracy is a problem. 

We have a long history of voter intimidation in the US, and Trump announced last week plans to revive the practice.  He referred to getting local sheriffs to the polls, ostensibly to prevent fraud, which, of course, they have no way to do.  They can, however, display their weapons and stare grimly at unwelcome voters, such as people of color.

Even the worry that this might happen could well discourage some people from trying to vote.  Especially when combined with other problems, like missing voter registrations and long lines, there will be some attrition.  The more chaotic the voting process is, the better for Trump.

Part of the Trumpist idea seems to be to destroy confidence in our system.  Thus we have Trump’s constant and baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud.  Among the bizarre things Trump said last week was this:  the only way he could lose was if the election was rigged.  

With polls showing him trailing, this seems delusional, but also disturbing.  He seems to be saying:  I will not accept any election result except one where I win.  In other words, American democracy is over.  

But Trump says a lot of things that aren’t true, and promises a lot of things he doesn’t deliver.  So I’m not giving up on the idea that he can be removed from office in the ordinary manner — by the people voting.  But we can’t kid around on this one.   This time, voting really matters.

Construction continues, an early voting tip, and election butterflies

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Here are some pictures from the last few days of construction at the old Greyhound bus station site, as viewed from our balcony. After several weeks of grading at the site, things are moving along quickly. These were all taken at sunrise. Every sunrise was a little different.

I did early voting on Monday, when there was no line at all. I liked the convenience, but worried a little that there weren’t more people (i.e. Democrats) queued up. It’s looking now like this is going to be a close finish, and I’ve got some butterflies.
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The ballots in North Carolina are like bubble tests, and the instructions warn you to fill in each bubble completely. I very much wanted to do an adequate job, since I wanted that vote to count. It’s not that easy! After experimenting on the first few, I found that the best technique is to start in the middle with a doodle and work out toward the edges of the bubble.

When in doubt and it’s at all possible, I try to look on the bright side of things, as I’ve done in this election season. The Republican candidate has definitely raised the profile of some problematic issues, like racial discrimination, religious discrimination, and abuse of women. True, he seems to be in favor of all those, but his radical ideas, like banning Muslims, illuminate a part of the national id. And boy, did he ever get us talking!
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Still, it boggles my mind that a significant number of well-educated, mentally stable, and otherwise decent people are voting for the Orange One. At this late date, it does not seem possible that any person otherwise equipped to fill out a ballot could not have heard about his lifelong record of dishonesty, deceit, and moral turpitude, not to mention his fathomless ignorance.

It’s unsettled some of my assumptions about how people think. That is, I’ve understood that we are not completely rational creatures, and that we’re governed in large part by emotions. But I had not processed that there are no apparent limits on the human ability to withstand reason and evidence. So the Orange One has at least taught us something. That could help explain other hard-to-understand things, like anti-science crusaders and conspiracy theorists.
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