The Casual Blog

Tag: waterfalls

On the Blue Ridge, our caste system, and Trump’s latest doozy

The Perseid meteor shower was at its peak this week, and I was looking forward to some shooting stars.  I spent a day exploring different spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway, looking at the mountains and flowers.  I stayed at the Pisgah Inn and saw a lovely sunset, with towering clouds that lit up with pink and orange.  Around 1:00 a.m., I got up and walked outside.  It was dark and quiet, but also, unfortunately, cloudy, so I saw no meteorites,  Maybe next year.  

Sunset from my balcony at the Pisgah Inn

After photographing the sunrise and hiking to a couple of waterfalls in Brevard County, I made my way to I-40 and headed east toward Raleigh.  I turned on the radio, and caught Joe Biden and Kamala Harris giving their speeches announcing that Harris was Biden’s VP pick.  

They were good speeches!  No self-aggrandizing!  No whining!   Nothing fancy, but addressing the big issues, like climate change, police brutality against black people, the pandemic, education, health care.  And of course, the disaster in progress known as Donald J. Trump.

 

Although Trump continues to trail in the polls, it’s safe to assume he is unconstrained by any sense of honor or morality and will do anything to win, so I’m not taking anything for granted.  We watched a short Netflix documentary on him that was part of the series Dirty Money.  The film is worth seeing if you’re unfamiliar with his history as a pathetic grifter who pretends to be a super successful businessman.  

Pretending to be a businessman on TV for The Apprentice worked out much better for Trump than his various actual business ventures, which were almost all embarrassing failures, including Trump casinos, Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, Trump magazine, and Trump University.  

At the time, I thought The Apprentice seemed bogus, but it was a big hit.  There’s a fine article by Patrick Radden Keefe from the New Yorker about the making of The Apprentice, which explains how hard the producers had to work to make Trump seem reasonably sane and competent.  Let’s just say the show was heavily edited.

Sunrise on the Blue Ridge

The Trump presidency closely resembles a reality TV show, with its hype and hoked up drama, but unfortunately, off camera, there are real people suffering.  We’ve got huge unemployment, a health care crisis, a housing crisis, a pandemic, climate change bringing one weather disaster after another, and so on.  So, true to form, rather than acknowledging our serious problems and trying to help fix them, Trump has once again played the race card.   

Last week he tweeted that that “people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream” would “no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.” 

This is racism that barely pretends not to be; the racist dog whistle is more like a train whistle.  For most of the 20th century, the United States prevented racial integration in housing through governmental programs, including discriminatory FHA loans.  This appalling history is examined in some detail in Richard Rothstein’s important book, The Color of Law.  

The subject of Trump’s racist train whistle was a program called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, or AFFH, which was instituted under Obama, and directed at getting municipalities to identify and address patterns of discriminatory segregation.  Trump seems to think that there are a lot of white suburbanites fearful of invading black people, and he can exploit that fear and get their votes.

Once again, Trump is betting big, hoping that the shameful longings for sustaining white supremacy will be stronger than opposing feelings, like hope for justice and fairness.  It probably won’t work.  But as with other failed Trump experiments, the failure will teach us something about our beliefs on race, and also our concern for justice.

In Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, Caste, she argues that the American system of racial oppression is similar to other caste systems like those in India and Germany before WWII.  She explained the idea on several podcasts this week, and I think she’s on to something.  

As Wilkerson notes, an individual American may or may not have racial animus, but everyone of us is enmeshed in a system that involves distinguishing black from white and conferring certain benefits based on that distinction.  Using the vocabulary of caste may help depersonalize the problem.  Although the system has deep roots, recognizing it as a system (as opposed to simply an individual moral failing) may make it easier to change. 

For a man with such a big mouth, Trump has been strangely quiet about the recent news of Russian aggression against the United States.  When reports emerged of Russia giving bounties to fighters in Afghanistan who killed US and allied forces, he claimed to be unaware of it.  More important, he didn’t propose doing anything about it.  And weeks after the news became public, he is still taking the position he hadn’t been informed, and still not doing anything.  In fact, he’d had a chat with Vladimir Putin, and admitted he hadn’t brought up the matter.  This is appalling and disgusting.

If this were the only instance of Trump declining to oppose clear Russian aggression, I might chalk it up to his lack of interest in anything other than his own aggrandizement or progressive dementia.  But this has been a pattern. When the Russians worked to defeat Hillary Clinton and help Trump, he refused to acknowledge their success, and also invited them to continue hacking.  He seems indifferent or hostile to the many warnings that the Russians are again working to undermine fair US elections.  He has little to say about Russian interference in other countries, and nothing but compliments for Putin.  

I very much doubt that Trump is actually a paid Russian agent.  Putin, though not necessarily a stable genius, is smart enough to recognize that Trump lacks anything like the discipline, drive, and intelligence to be a worthwhile spy.  Trump doesn’t like taking orders, and he would have trouble remembering them.  He’s also not very good at keeping secrets, other than his own financial shenanigans.

It’s much more likely that Trump fears Putin for personal or financial reasons, and understands that crossing Putin would put him in peril.  Could Trump’s not-so-enormous fortune be dependent on Russian loans and money laundering?  Of course it could.  Think of how convenient it could be for Russian oligarchs to stash their ill-gotten gains in Trump high-rise condos, and how a salesman like Trump known mainly for lying  would struggle otherwise to sell high-end property. Also, how likely is it that Trump could resist an offer of an attractive Russian prostitute with an advanced degree in political  black mail?  

Of course, I don’t personally know, and perhaps Trump somehow avoided his characteristic corruption and moral degradation with regard to the Russians.  Maybe we could clear all this up if the President would quit concealing his tax returns and related financial records.  

Even without them, it’s clear that Putin could hardly have been more successful in creating political chaos that threatens the continued existence of American democracy than if he had managed to get a Russian spy elected president.  Trump has been Putin’s dream come true.

On any given week it’s usually difficult to say what was the craziest, most disturbing thing Trump just did, but we certainly had a doozy this week.  Trump indicated that he was withholding funds from the Postal Service so that they wouldn’t be able to deliver mail-in ballots for the presidential election.  Meanwhile, the Postmaster General he just appointed is shaking up top staff, decommissioning sorting machines, and assuring that delivery is slowing to a crawl.

With the pandemic still raging, mail in ballots are looking like a great option for getting rid of Trump.  Unless Trump can manage to keep them from being delivered!  He seems to assume most of those inclined to use the mail to vote would vote against him.  Maybe this is because he’s encouraged his supporters to ignore the pandemic, so they can (in the Trumpworld of alternative facts) vote in person without risking illness and death.  

I’m still socially distancing and trying not to catch the coronavirus, so I sent in my request for an absentee ballot, and was feeling a little sick at the thought that Trump and his minions might prevent delivery.  So I checked the NC voting procedures, and learned that I can personally deliver the completed ballot to the county board of elections.  If you live in NC and certain other states, you can, too.  Good luck!

 

Fall colors in western North Carolina, our bodies, and immortality

Last week I was in western NC for a nature photography workshop, where I shot colorful forests, mountain streams, waterfalls, and elk.  The workshop was based near Brevard and led by Chas Glatzer, a superb wildlife photographer and inspiring teacher. He helped me in technical matters, like exposure calculation and white balance, and made me work harder on composition.

He also got our group out to some lovely spots for the fall colors, which were near their peak.  Trying to find some new perspectives, I sustained some minor discomfort — sprayed by waterfalls, slipping into streams, and kneeling on hard wet rocks.  I was sore when we finished, but pleased with some of the results, including those here.

But to give credit where credit is due:  the main creative work was nature’s.  Nature is a great artist — endlessly surprising.  Opening up to it can transform us.  We usually view ourselves as separate from and superior to it, but that’s a costly mistake.  We wreak a lot of havoc, and miss a lot of joy.

Elk at Cataloochee Park

On the drive out and back I listened to Bill Bryson’s new book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants.   It’s an entertaining and thought-provoking compendium of what we know so far about how human bodies work.  Bryson clearly loves science. He covers a lot of ground, dividing it by body parts (hair, skin, eyes, ears, nose, throat, and on through the brain and the more obscure organs, like the pancreas) and systems, and straightens out a lot of widely held erroneous notions along the way.  He keeps things lively with accounts of great discoveries and oddities as he updates what we learned a little about in high school biology.  

 

Along the way, he corrects a major misunderstanding:  that we pretty much control our own bodies.  So much of the body’s essential work is completely beyond our conscious control (e.g. the circulatory system,  the digestive system, the immune system, the endocrine system). Indeed, the conscious part of our lives is a relatively minor part of what’s happening with us.   If our staying alive depended on our consciously running our bodies, we wouldn’t survive very long.  

 

As Bryson makes clear, there’s a lot science can’t yet explain about human bodies.  But it was fun and helpful to get an overview of current knowledge. Bryson helps us see ourselves differently — not as separate from nature, but as fundamentally part of it.

I also finished reading Immortality, The  Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization, by Stephen Cave.  Cave, a philosopher, diplomat, and writer, contends that, even as we recognize the high probability we will eventually die, we are constitutionally unable to imagine our own deaths.  This paradox makes us susceptible to various bogus theories of how we can attain never-ending life.   

This is not entirely a bad thing, in Cave’s view, since it accounts for much of what we regard as civilization and progress.  But trying to imagine a life that’s eternal — being more or less the same not only for millions, or billions, or trillions of years, but more than all that  — is almost as disturbing as imagining death. It would eventually get so boring!

Cave points out that  our mortality is actually the source of value and meaning in life.  Plus, as he notes, assuming death is real (as it sure looks like it is), we won’t actually be present to experience it — we’ll be dead.  So what are we afraid of? I wasn’t entirely persuaded by his system of four different immortality templates to explain every civilization, but I did find the book stimulating and oddly cheering.

 

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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