What if Great is not Good?
Do you want to be great? It seems everyone does. Athletes are particularly prone to claiming greatness, sometimes just for one play, other times for eternity, when they are said to be GOATs - greatest of all time. They don't seem to see that they are often the goat in that joke. Greatness seems to exist on a sliding scale rather like dues at the YMCA, ranging from the Queen for a Day to the aforementioned GOAT. Movie stars, singers and performers of all types strive for greatness and are often proclaimed such, sometimes by fans or critics, and oft times by themselves. This would appear to be an automatic disqualification, but clearly humility is not necessary for greatness. Even the country wants to be great, with one side wanting to make it great again and the other wanting to make it great, or at least better, soon. Like so many things, greatness is in the eye of the beholder, and greatness and absurdity seem to be kissing cousins.
I don't strive to be great, nor do I expect greatness in our leaders or for the country. I hope for good. Good has dozens of definitions and is used in a multitude of ways. I like to think of it as meaning competent, capable and fair. That doesn't mean perfect or the very best; it doesn't mean being right all the time or never making a mistake. It does mean owning up to your errors and trying not to repeat them. This is especially important for counties but seems to be most difficult. Neither countries nor people are very adept at that kind of introspection. Both are better at rationalization than responsibility.
One of the problems with great is that it seems too often to give license to a "by any means necessary" approach. Fair doesn't play a part in the path to great. On Wall Street or on the playing field, ethics are ignored and laws and rules are inconveniences to be manipulated and circumvented. Politicians are particularly prone to grandiosity and manipulation. Politics is rife with gerrymandering from Texas to New York, from Virginia to New Mexico and just about everywhere else. Nick Seabrook, in his book One Person, One Vote: A Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America, terms New York a "criminal oligarchy" for its uniquely corrupt and bipartisan gerrymandering schemes.
Laws are made by and for the highest bidder and enforcement is the prerogative of "constitutional" sheriffs and progressive DA's, among others. Corporate titans like Jack Welsh of GE not only get rich but are feted as great leaders who are studied in business schools across the land, largely on their ability to game the tax code and fire workers. All this and more is justified and justifiable in pursuit of greatness.
Of course, one is tempted to ask how this came to be. It seems to be endemic in the human psyche, especially when people are inhabiting large, organized groups. In these situations, human competitiveness and aggression flourish and are often rewarded. The situation is much exaggerated by the rise of the media megaphone - 24-hour news and incessant social media found success by yelling: make it louder, make it more catastrophic, make it personal. This constant hyping of everything has accelerated the human tendency toward narcissism and grandiosity, hence the fixation on greatness.
Perhaps it is a generational thing. My mother asked me innumerable times to be good, but I do not recall a single instance when she suggested I should or could be great. Could that be why I was an underachiever? Not only did I never achieve greatness, I never even knew it was something that I should aspire to. Goodness was at my radar screen even if I fell short so often.
I think we would all be better off if no one aspired to greatness. It could result in less greed, less conflict, less bragging and bullying. From the ancients like Peter and Catherine and Alexander, who all claimed the title of Great, to 20th century pretenders of grandiosity like Stalin and Hitler and Mao, to the current crop of self-indulgent narcissists like Putin, Trump, Bolsonaro and Xi, those who would stop at nothing for greatness have wreaked havoc on the world. We don't need great leaders, we need good leaders; we need good people, good citizens - competent, capable and fair.
Great is not good.
Immigrants and Refugees
Immigrants and refugees have been the subject of discussion, debate, division, disdain and empathy in ever changing proportions. And of course they have been the objects of much political fodder. This has been especially true in the United States, perhaps in part because the US has a much larger percentage of immigrants than most other countries.
The terms immigrant and refugee are often used almost interchangeably. The dictionary reminds us that an immigrant is a person who comes to a country to take up usually permanent residence while a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. It seems a clear distinction - the refugee is forced to move while for the immigrant it is a voluntary decision. It also implies that the refugee hopes to return while the immigrant does not. In the real world the distinction is not so clear cut and the areas of gray are wide and deep.
Lets start at the beginning. The US likes to say it is a nation of immigrants We don't say we are a nation of refugees. But consider our origins. Among the earliest Europeans to settle in what would become the US were the pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower. Many were members of the English Separatist Church (a radical faction of Puritanism) who sometimes referred to themselves as “saints” or “pilgrimes.” They were immigrants in that they planned to stay in America but they saw themselves as persecuted for their religion in England by the Church of England and were ostracized during their stay in Holland. As we all learned in grade school the pilgrims came for religious freedom which in the best American tradition they denied to subsequent settlers in Massachusetts. So immigrants in that they decided voluntarily to move to America but refugees who were fleeing perceived persecution.
The US was populated by waves of immigrants/refugees. One cohort was characterized as poor and disease-ridden; as taking jobs away from Americans and straining welfare budgets; as practicing an alien religion and bringing crime including being accused of being rapists. Who were these undesirables - Mexicans, Muslims? No, Irish who were fleeing the potato famine and British oppression. It is estimated that more than 4 million Irish immigrated to the US, many destitute, illiterate and lacking employable skills. The British were so eager to get rid of them that they sometimes paid their passage to America. Needless to say they were not welcomed by the "real" Americans who had previously settled here. While most were immigrants in that they remained in America for life, many at least initially aspired to return home to Ireland and given the conditions they fled are usually referred to as refugees especially if they came during the famine in the 1840's and 50's.
By the 1880's a new wave of immigrants came, this time from Italy. By then many of the Irish were being accepted as Americans but the Italians raised new concerns because they were widely viewed as not being white, a claim bolstered by psuedo-science of the time declaring the inferiority of "Mediterranean" people. This hostility turned to violence with Italians targeted for lynching, most notoriously when 11 Italians were lynched in New Orleans on March 14,1891.
The list of immigrants to the US who were vilified, discriminated against and often targets of violence is long and on-going. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII, the Jews targeted by the KKK and most egregiously those fleeing Nazi Germany who were turned away at US ports to recent Muslim bans the pattern has repeated. Or as Tariq Ali put it "History rarely repeats itself, but its echoes never go away."
Refugees do not have to come from another country. Perhaps the first climate refugees in the US were the "Okies" and others who fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930's and in keeping with the American tradition California set up border stations to stop the influx of desperate people into the state. Using the California Indigent Act of 1933 which made it a crime to bring indigent people into the state some sheriffs set up the "Bum Blockade" to keep refugees out. This ultimately led to a Supreme Court case declaring the actions illegal.
The Dust Bowl migration is often designated as the largest internal migration in US history involving as estimated 2.5 million people. This ignores the 6 million Black people who fled the American south from 1910 to 1970 to escape lynching, Jim Crow laws and economic subjugation in what is termed the Great Migration.
Curiously while the people fleeing the Dust Bowl are routinely referred to as refugees, Blacks fleeing the south almost never are. Perhaps this is a not so subtle way of suggesting that the mostly white "Okies" deserved support while the Blacks did not. Labels make a difference.
So refugees or migrants? How do we characterize people who fled hurricane Katrina, or the Western wildfires? Are the women fleeing states where abortion is now illegal refugees?
When it comes to immigrants and refugees is anything different now? One thing that has changed is that currently about 90% of immigrants, even documented ones, are not white. Despite the initial disdain for Irish and Italian immigrants as well as those from Germany, Poland and the rest of Europe and despite efforts to paint them as non-white, they in fact looked much like the Europeans who had proceed them so that they increasingly tended to blend in and found acceptance. But as we have seen with Black Americans, people of color have a much harder path to acceptance.
It seems we are a nation of immigrants who do not much like immigrants. The cognitive dissidence aside, perhaps that is because despite all the bravado about American Exceptionalism we see something dark in our national psyche from the unending violence of forever wars and our fixation with guns to the unrelenting greed of our economic system. What is truly exceptional is the temple of individualism that wave after wave of immigrants has built at the expense of the common good, of community and of the nation.
Cat Videos Addictive
The Federal Drug Enforcement Administration announced that cat videos were being added to the list of controlled substances. "Based on the recommendations from a committee of addiction specialists we have determined that cat videos meet all the criteria of an addictive substance. Therefore, they will now be available only with a doctor's prescription to people at least 21 years of age. We need to control this growing menace," a spokesman said.
A national strike in Russia shut down conservative news outlets around the world. A spokesperson for Fox News stated, "We didn't realize until now that without disinformation we have no news to report." He added that they were hopeful that the Russian strike would be settled quickly and programming could return to normal but said "of course we have no news about that."
Exxon Buys the Sun
A consortium of oil companies led by Exxon Mobil announced that they had bought the sun. "When Elon Musk let us know it was for sale we snapped it up," said Exxon CEO Darren Woods. "Elon said he only recently found out he wasn't the sun and decided not to buy it given the problems he had with the Twitter deal. There is only one sun so the appeal was obvious and then someone told us that all life is dependent on the sun. We had thought it was oil, but just in case, we now have all bases covered. Rates for the use of the sun will be announced soon. It's very complex; one rate will not work for everything. Farmers will pay a different rate than home gardeners, for example. Some uses will be prohibited – such as solar panels, but tanning will continue to be free."
First Black President
Donald Trump asserted today that he, not Barack Obama, was the first Black president. "One good day on the tanning bed and my skin is darker than his ever has been. And remember that more Blacks voted for me than voted for him" said Trump, "Black people love me, especially the women.” Asked to comment, Obama could not stop laughing long enough to respond.
Republican leadership announced a sweeping legislative proposal to support women and children, stating that "When we say we are pro-life that obviously means support for the entire life of the individual." The proposal would provide all mothers with 6 months fully paid maternity leave, including payments to mothers not currently working for pay; free health care for all children from conception to age 21; free universal child care; and child rearing leave for parents. When some expressed surprise at the proposal a spokesperson responded, "what do you takes us for, barbarians and hypocrites?"
Some personal news, I'm transitioning. Yes, I am transitioning from being right-handed to being left-handed. I have always been very right-handed but have realized that in the interest of equality and justice that I need to change. I now self-identify as left-handed, although the transition will take some time since my right hand is reluctant to relinquish its dominate role. During this time there may be some awkwardness and this may make some people who have always known me as right-handed uncomfortable. Please bear with me. I want to express my gratitude to members of the left-handed community who have been so accepting and supportive. It makes me believe that I have chosen the correct path.
Supreme Court News
In a stunning reversal the Supreme Court announced today that after reading the constitution for the first time they realized that there is no provision giving the Court the authority to declare any laws or executive actions unconstitutional. The decision was 6-3 with all the conservative justices supporting the finding. Justice Thomas, speaking for the majority, said "one of our law clerks pointed out the lack of constitutional authority and after the Justices read the document for ourselves we found no such authority existed. As originalists who believe that unless the constitution expressly mentions a right or power then it does not exist. Therefore, we hereby overturn the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803) which incorrectly assumed that power to the Court."
Race and Education
The intersection of race and education has been a flashpoint since the beginning of the nation. Enslaved Africans forcibly brought to the United States were both exploited and feared. It is easy to understand why slaves would resent their circumstances and attempt to change it. The successful slave rebellion in Haiti (1791-1804) raised great fear among American slave owners that a similar rebellion could take place in the United States. One of the ways to thwart this possibility was to restrict the availability of information and to make communication difficult or impossible. A key element of that was to keep enslaved people from learning to read and write thus reducing the possibility of communication among disparate groups. In many states it became a crime to teach Black people, even freed Blacks in many cases, to read and write. Most slave states passed anti-literacy laws. For example, the Alabama Slave Code of 1833 included the following law “Any person who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read or write, shall upon conviction thereof by indictment, be fined in a sum of not less than two hundred fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars.”
After the Civil War and the supposed emancipation of slaves, white supremacist needed to take different steps to stop the education of Blacks. The problem was compounded by the growing movement for universal public education. In many areas, especially in the Confederate States, universal public education was not embraced and where it was every attempt was made to ensured that black and white children did not go to the same schools and that black schools were funded to the smallest degree possible. Jim Crow laws and the re-institution of slavery via peonage were largely successful in limiting the educational opportunities for Black students.
The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown versus Board of Education raised new problems for the efforts to limit black education. It resulted in a number of states repealing their compulsory education requirements. On every level from the school board to the state house, southerners fought this decision. In Little Rock, Arkansas, where nine high school students who enrolled in all-white Central High School faced angry mobs and threats from the governor, President Eisenhower was forced to dispatch the military to protect the students. On September 29, 1958 six of Norfolk, Virginia's formerly all-white schools were closed to avoid integration. Perhaps most egregiously, Prince Edward County Virginia closed its public schools between 1959 and 1964 rather than allow Black and White children to sit together in the same classroom leaving Black students with no schools to attend. Of course local officials created private white only schools funded by state and local taxes via grant programs - an early form of school vouchers.
As whites have increasingly realized they can not prevent the education of Blacks, they have turned to trying to control the education of white children to inculcate their "conservative" views. I put conservative in quotes to denote that the views being promoted are actually quite radical, racist and authoritarian. A famous early example of this was the effort to stop the teaching of evolution and basic science in public schools in the early 20th century. Unsurprisingly, the teaching of evolution was at least as much about race as about biology. One commentator at the time said "if the entire human race is supposed to have started from a common origin then white supremacist would have to admit that there is no fundamental difference between themselves and the race they pretend to despise".
It is not hard to see the parallels between the attempts to suppress the teaching of evolution and its implications for race with current attempts to control the teaching of issues around race, slavery, sexual orientation/identity, indigenous people genocide and related issues. In state after state and school district after school district teachers are being restricted on how they can teach certain topics, curriculums are being limited to conservative points of view, books are being banned and like-minded parents are being organized to monitor and harass educators, school board members and others who do not fall in line.
Banning the teaching of controversial topics or more pointedly making sure that what is taught reflects the point of view of only one group, in this case white supremacists, is a dangerous approach that undermines democracy itself. Perhaps the reason that some politicians express admiration for a dictator like Vladimir Putin even in the face of Ukrainian aggression is that they see that Putin is able to control not only what is taught in schools but what information is available via all media types. It's a power that the people banning teaching of critical race theory and or banning books aspire to and envy. The Supreme Court in a decision in 1943 in West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette struck down a state statute the required school children to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance saying "those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard." These words resonance loudly today.
On May 10, 2021, in a move reminiscent of the arrest of John Scopes for teaching evolution, Matt Hawn, a high school social studies teacher in Tennessee was fired. Hawn was dismissed after school officials said he used materials with offensive language and failed to provide a conservative viewpoint during discussions of white privilege in his contemporary issues class, which has since been eliminated. Perhaps Tennessee's state motto is "100 years devoid of progress."
But it is not just Tennessee, since January 2021, 42 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching "critical race theory" or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to Education Week. A Florida bill goes one step further, giving parents “private right of action” to sue if they believed their children were being taught critical race theory in schools. In Oklahoma a bill would allow parents to challenge schools that teach "lessons related to Critical Race Theory" in court. Any school employee that parents name in their petition could be personally responsible for up to $10,000 in damages seeming to echo that 1833 law making it a crime to teach Blacks to read, This manifestation of radicalized "parent rights" has already had it's intended chilling effect on teachers.
Banning books is another tool to control what children learn and assuring that a white conservative viewpoint is paramount. The not for profit PEN America tallied efforts between 1 July 2021 and 31 March 2022, found that 1,586 bans were implemented in 86 school districts across 26 states. Authors and/or protagonists of color or LGBTQ+ were most likely to be targets of the bans. Perhaps missing the irony, a parents’ group in one Tennessee district challenged the use of an autobiography of Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 was one of the first Black children to integrate an elementary school after Brown v. Board of Education. An Oklahoma school system removed Frederick Douglass’ autobiography from reading lists and, in one Texas case, teachers were advised to present “opposing” views of the Holocaust - perhaps they would find recent remarks from the Russian Foreign Minister appropriate.
It is tempting to dismiss such absurdities as the ravings of maniacs but as we have seen from Texas to Florida to the halls of Congress and even in the White House such people are increasingly our representatives and our face to the world and notably controlling our world. We would do well to remember Voltaire's words "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." The fight over education, information and truth is a fight over the future for our children and our country.
The term “peanuts” might not seem much related to politics. Perhaps it would help if I said that the Peanuts I am referring to is the Charles Schultz cartoon. But before I delve into that let me provide some context.
American politics is divided, dysfunctional and dystopian. This is not news and, in fact, if anything, understates the current dismal state of affairs and the dangers facing the country.
How bad is it? So bad that George W. Bush or Bush 2, sometimes called shrub, a man consistently wrongheaded; a man who squandered world-wide empathy and support after 9/11; a man lacking intellectual curiosity and the ability to tell fact from fiction; a man who was widely regarded as the worst president in US history, is now seen as a sort of kindly, if misguided, figure who has achieved a certain status as a political elder.
How bad is it? So bad that Dick Cheney, who was instrumental in starting an unprovoked war with a country that posed no threat; who championed torture and black site prisons; eschewed any form of due process and gave every indication that the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat, is invited to Capital Hill and vetted by "liberal" Democrats as a voice of reason and integrity, accompanied by his daughter. Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the Ivanka Trump of the Cheney clan, is seen among many liberals as the embodiment of integrity after voting to impeach Trump in what amounted to another skirmish in the Cheney/Trump family feud.
How bad is it? So bad that Richard Nixon doesn't seem evil, so bad that white supremacists are in vogue and in office across the land, so bad...I could go on but you already know all this.
Which brings me to Peanuts Politics. Only in a cartoon world could we image a presidential election between two cognitively challenged septuagenarians; between the Great Pumpkin and Charlie Brown. Charles Schultz always kept us wondering if the Great Pumpkin would arrive and if he did what he would be like. I doubt anyone expected him to be a narcissistic bully obsessed with his own power and willing to do anything to retain it. The Great Pumpkin should never be seen in daylight and only heard on Halloween, but there he was in the White House. If that is not a cartoon, I don't know what is.
And what about our current incarnation of Charlie Brown? Well, like the cartoon Charlie Brown, he lives in a land that exists only in his memory; when good liberal white politicians could break bread with racists white supremacists and get the business of government done, as long as the business only supported whites.
Most importantly, Charlie Brown is the eternal, if delusional, optimist. We get to see Charlie charging up to kick the football that Joe Manchin, playing the part of Lucy, is holding, only to have it whisked away at the last minute and see our poor hero go crashing to the ground. And then do it all again and again and again, his trust never fading, but always misplaced.
We like Charlie Brown, or at least the cartoon character, which seems odd. Americans don't tolerate losers and yet the endearing loser Charlie in cartoon land is beloved. Perhaps that is the magic of Charles Schultz, but it doesn't seem to be working for Amtrak Joe. In this new cartoon Charlie is likely to be carted off to the old folks' home, leaving the field to the Great Pumpkin and his cult
For those of us of a certain age, cars often served as a touchstone to mark the significance points of our lives. It is said that young folks today are not into cars the way we used to be. That is not surprising given how boring most of today's cars are. They tend to all look more or less the same; the sedans all bloated like neutered cats such that you can't tell a Hyundai from a Mercedes; the ubiquitous SUVs are all variations on boxy bricks that you attempt to push through the air. Even someone as narcissistic and full of bravado as Elon Musk makes cars that look pretty much the same as everyone else's. The claim to fame of most vehicles is the technology. Many of today's cars are essentially computers with wheels. Sure they are more reliable, safer and easier to live with then cars of yesteryear but they have no personality, no defining characteristics and they increasingly are not even mechanical. When I lift the hood of my current ride I can not even see the engine as it is shrouded in a multitude of covers, pipes, hoses, wires and containers. I can not find the spark plugs or even the oil dipstick. It turns out there is no dipstick and you check the oil from what looks like a TV screen in the cabin. If you can't get you hands dirty what is the point?
Cars used to have personality, spirit - they were very individualistic; unreliable, unsafe and needing constant maintenance yes but interesting and in many cases beautiful. Like many kids who's early teen years were spent sitting on the lawn in the dark and identifying every car that drove down the road just by their headlights my 16th birthday was marked by visiting the motor vehicle office to fill out the application for my learner's permit. I began driving legally that day. For some years my car adventures were confined to the car my parents owned; putting fender skirts on their Chevy; convincing them to buy a brand new Ford 2 door hard top - a black beauty with perfect red upholstery which within the year I used to cut off an electric pole and trying to electrocute myself.
It was exactly the kind of car adventure that, if your survived, became one of your life defining stories told endlessly until your friends wouldn't put up with it any longer. In fact a good part of my senior year in high school was defined by the crashes of my friends and me. This continued on into my college career where I got to ride along on forays into ditches, fields and the occasional rollover. Given the lack of safety equipment in those days it's amazing how many of us walked away relatively unscathed. Many people opposed seat belts but I became a big fan especially after the rollover.
The first car of my own was a lowly Ford Falcon but I was able to score a 4-speed manual transmission on the floor - a very rare thing back in the 60s especially in a used car that I could almost afford. I capped my episodic car crashes by getting hit head on by a GTO while driving my small 2 seat Saab Sonett strewing 200 yards of shredded fiberglass down the road and into the snowbank where it and I landed. I somehow walked away but the car had to wait several months for parts from Sweden before it returned to the road, but return it did.
Cars of course weren't just tailfins and candy apple red paint, they also were rites of passage in other ways. For a number of years I made an annual pilgrimage to the Watkins Glen Race course for the United States Formula 1 Grand Prix race. This was sort of like Woodstock with automobiles sans the music. It was large gangs of young people abusing a variety of substances fenced within the perimeter of the racetrack for three days. A good time but not a pretty sight from the outside. Surprisingly we mostly watched the races but they consumed a fairly small amount of time compared to the rest of the festivities. Of course they also provided great tutorials for safe driving practices on the way home.
Cars were dreams not mere transportation. Although we mostly drove used Chevy's and Fords we dreamed of new Cameros and Corvettes, of T-birds and Mustangs, of big V8s that rumbled and roared. Exciting cars inspire interesting car songs. From home tinkers with little deuce coups and hot rod Lincolns to muscle cars like the 409 and GTO or sports cars like a little Cobra all begot songs that were the soundtrack of our lives. Not that they were all great songs. Some like Maybellene and Hot Road Lincoln have stood the test of time but with all due respect to the Beach Boys "She's real fine my 409" is not a lyric for the ages. But it was the sound, the sound of our times, the sound of our lives.
And inevitably there were songs about those car crashes like Dead Man's Curve, the Last Kiss, Tell Laura I Love Her and of course Teen Angel. Who's going to write about my automatic emergency braking system, my blind spot detection system or the deployment of my six airbags? No one writes songs about the model S 90 long range, the Toyota Prius or the Honda CR-V. The music has become as boring as the cars.
Its summer; hit the road, put on some car tunes; Chuck Berry, Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys; put down the windows, turn up the volume but not so much you can't hear that big V-8 rumble - if only in your dreams.
Race has come to the fore in the past year, driven by police violence, the disproportionate impact of the Covid pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. It has spawned books and commentary such as So You Want to Talk About Race, Caste, How to be an Anti Racist and many others. In the past, issues of race have focused primarily on the victims. This has been true particularly about Blacks, but also about LGBTQ, women, immigrants, Native Americans and people of color generally. The spotlight has been on securing rights denied - voting, marriage - or overcoming discrimination, as in jobs, pay, housing and education. While this has been useful, even beneficial, it has put the onus for improvement on the victims, not the perpetrators; at least until recently.
Whiteness is much discussed these days. What is the role and responsibility of white people in this dynamic? The role has been, and largely continues to be, as oppressors, as the designers and supporters of a system of discrimination and oppression. The responsibility as seen by most white people is to either perpetuate that system or at best hope for reform, usually modest and not affecting them personally. Suddenly white people are being challenged to not be passive bystanders (while remaining beneficiaries) but to actively take steps to change the systemic practices that are at the heart of the situation i.e. to be anti-racists.
You have probably heard the expression lead, follow or get out of the way. Whites have led for the 400 years they have been in America; white men, that is. They alone crafted the constitution we live under, the institutions of governance, the laws that regulate our existence. White men are mostly responsible for the economy - the corporations, Wall Street and the rules of the game. White men have led or have followed other white men for their mutual benefit, but now it is time for us to get out of the way, for what we have wrought does not obtain.
I recognize that I am culturally white but I identify as non-white. I say non-white because it would be presumptuous or worse to say I identify as another race. I can't see myself as anything other than white nor would anyone else. But I am not a color or a race, I am just the default. If you don't specify, this is what you get. However, I tend to identify with the excluded, the outsider, the disadvantaged, the screwed over, even though I am privileged and relatively well off. I am unlikely to be abused by a police officer yet I do not trust cops when I see them. I do not see them as protectors. I know that they can be arbitrary and seldom accountable. Maybe that stems from an incident in South Carolina or from my time working with law enforcement.
A commentator said that whiteness is a state of mind, a belief, not a skin color or even a race. Whiteness is a continuum from racist to oblivious to not racist to anti-racist. Identity, including racial identity, is something that has mostly been imposed from the outside. It is what others label you. These days people often self-identify about sexual identity, gender, religion, ethnicity and race. Often there is a conflict between those classifications. Even with race, individuals who appear from the outside to be people of color sometimes identify as white as numerous studies have documented. There are a myriad of reasons for this but a significant one is that this nation is so culturally white and has so thoroughly defined white as better and more desirable that even some Blacks have internalized those values.
How did whiteness become so toxic? Maybe part of it goes back to our prehistoric ancestors, vulnerable in a dangerous world for whom anything unknown, different, "other," was a threat. Threats would trigger a fight or flight response as the best way to survive. There is also the element of power in whiteness. People who gain power often feel entitled, as if they deserve the power and the benefits that come with it and will not easily relinquish them. In today's world whiteness equals power and entitlement. When others demand equality whites feel threatened. The flight or fight response kicks in in the face of the unknown, the "other." Today this toxic mix is turbocharged by media, social and otherwise, and some people, such as politicians, use it to their benefit, helping drive the fear, the anger and the hate. It is the path to division, to autocracy and to insurrection.
Can whiteness be remediated? It is difficult to see a path for that. People with power almost never relinquish it voluntarily, in part because it is beneficial to them, in part because they believe they have earned it, and in part because they often don't believe that it is a problem. Efforts to address the effects of whiteness tend to be at the margins, and incremental at best. Despite supposed best of intentions progress is often limited or non-existent. Corporations have touted their diversity programs, affirmative action, and most recently support for Black Lives Matter, yet non-white and female representation has made little progress, especially among the upper echelon. More than 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education schools are more segregated than when the case was decided, and the segregation of schools simply mirrors the segregation of communities. We often hear of the problem that people on the left and the right have their own separate news sources but just as important whites and non-whites have their own grocery stores, restaurants, health care, churches and gathering places.
Most authors who write about the economic, political and social divisions in the country seem compelled to offer a hopeful sign, a bit of optimism for the future and prescriptions for improvement. Usually these prescriptions include education: teaching people critical thinking skills, how to discern information sources and the improved dissemination of facts. This flies in the face of numerous studies that show that we primarily use our critical thinking to bolster our existing opinions, cherry pick our sources and our facts to confirm our existing beliefs. Communication and dialog are also popular as an elixir. The Lincoln Douglas debates are often cited as the pinnacle of political discourse yet they were but a precursor to the Civil War.
What will the future look like? No one knows, of course, but if history is any guide we will see a continuation of the 400-year cycle of marginal progress toward equality followed by violent backlash to try undo or subvert what has been accomplished. Someone said that what we learn from history is that we do not learn anything from history. I think history has demonstrated repeatedly that white violence works and that lesson seems fully learned. Attempts to contain the spread of slavery (recall that Lincoln never proposed the abolition of slavery) were followed by revolt, succession and Civil War. Reconstruction was followed by the Black Codes, White Councils, the KKK and Jim Crow. Brown vs. Board of Education was followed by the de-funding of schools, privatization of education and renewed segregation. The Civil Rights movement and voting rights were followed by the southern strategy of Nixon, Reagan and Trump and wide spread voter suppression. And, of course, the Black Lives Movement was followed by violence and insurrection. Why should the future be any different?
The Joy of Mathematics
I always liked math, I just didn't know what to do with it. Oh, I understood that you could count things or measure the length of a board, but to what end? I liked that something increased. Two plus two gave you four; gave you more. Something grew larger, expanded maybe, but what? Eventually I realized that it didn't matter. It was about the elegance, the simplicity, not the result. You didn't need to know if it was beans or miles or stars in the sky, it just was. It was pure, uncontaminated by person or presence or perversion.
If addition was a pleasure multiplication was ecstasy; addition on steroids; on speed. You got to the same place, but like a thundering V8 it slammed you back in your seat because it happened so fast. It made you smile; made you want to do it again and again. It felt slightly illicit, like those stoplight drag races. But that would come later. Math happened right from the start; right from first grade, when you didn't need Detroit iron or screaming guitars to have a good time.
But, like a precursor to real life, math had its downside. The disappointment of subtraction: the stark picture of loss, of things taken away, diminished, enumerated in black and white and then gone, shrunken and shriveled, a prune from a plum. You couldn't help feeling the loss. And division? Unfathomable. Why was everything upside down? Where was the logic, the elegance, the simplicity? Division gave math a bad name. Long division was a curse. You felt the loss like a jilted lover.
Algebra was magic, restoring your faith. Like being born again, everything forgiven, you were saved. The mysterious X, promising everything, revealing nothing; the proverbial every number containing every answer. It was your nemesis and your friend all at the same time.
But suddenly there was geometry, bringing doubt, testing your faith, making you question your beliefs. Were points and planes, lines and shapes and theorems, math? Plane geometry was plain only in the sense that it was something only its mother could love. Then solid geometry, a sly joke for a thing so amorphous, so intangible, like smoke disappearing into the ether.
Finally, like some wandering seeker of nirvana I came to calculus. So pure, so ethereal, that even the teachers did not claim any practicality for it. You loved it or hated it. It existed, if it did at all, in another world. You swam with it; floating along in masses of numbers; calculations that ran for pages for no good reason and to no purpose. They just were. You could fight them and you would lose, or you could go with them; be one with them, embrace the faith, leave your questions behind and be good with it.
But at its most elemental, where two plus two equals four and four times four equals sixteen, you can just marvel at its elegance, at the lack of ambiguity, and enjoy the comfort of the certainty in those expressions.
Mathematics is not affected by pandemics or quarantines or social distancing. It doesn't care about friends or followers, tweets or twits. Two plus two equals four. Fact. Truth.
Talking to Trees
In 1997 the scientist Suzanne Simard published her breakthrough study about how trees communicate with each other. Her findings were met with near universal skepticism and sometimes derision in the scientific community. This was partly because the idea seemed preposterous and maybe a bit new agey, but mostly because she was a woman. Since then Simard has expanded on her findings and they have been replicated and confirmed by other scientists. Today the idea that trees communicate and even help one another is not absurd, but accepted fact.
All this made me wonder if different tress speak different languages just as humans in China and France and the US do. Are the differences based on species; i.e. do oaks have one language, maples another and maybe pines another? Or is it geographic? Perhaps all the trees in one area have a common language but those in a different region or continent use another. As my wife likes to say there's a dissertation in that.
For more than 35 years I have lived in a grove of trees but had never thought of talking to them. I have tried to communicate with what I presumed to be more intelligent forms of life, with decidedly mixed results. Our dog on occasion tries urgently to communicate with me, but honestly, after 5 years of trying I still don't understand a word she says. She, on the other hand, definitely understands human words, so I must face the fact that she is smarter than me. Of course, just because she understands my words does not mean that she does what I ask. There are significant parallels to my spousal communication here.
My attempts to communicate with other creatures have been even less successful. Deer that I politely ask to stop eating our flowers ignore me. Chipmunks and squirrels make what I take to be disparaging comments but at least our resident owl often answers me with a wise sounding hoot or two.
So it was with this checkered history in mind that I approached the idea of trying to talk to the trees that share our space. Many of the trees were here before we came and they may feel slighted that I have not spoken to them in 35 years of near co-habitation. I am also aware that the world has changed when it comes to communicating with those who are different from ourselves. Communicating across differences in race, gender, sexual identity, and religion requires heightened sensitivity even without the challenges of communicating across species.
While keeping all this in mind I decided to give it a try. I decided to approach the largest oak tree which stands quite near our house. As I did I wondered how close should I get? What are the personal space requirements for a tree? I don't want to be uncomfortably close, but I need to be close enough to hear and be heard. I decided to go with the current social distancing recommendations, just in case, so I got about 6 feet from the thick trunk. I began with a form of the Indigenous lands acknowledgement. "I acknowledge that I live on the traditional land of Indigenous people, plants and animals and especially trees and I thank you for sharing this space with me." I waited. No response.
"Hello Oak Tree. Do you have a preferred form of address and have you chosen pronouns that you would like me to use?" Still nothing. "It has been a pleasure living with you all these years and hope that you have found it equally congenial." All quiet.
After thinking about it for a few minutes I decided just to go back to my beginning interaction with trees as when I was a kid, without concern for social distancing or political correctness. I sat down and leaned my back against the trunk of the oak. I paused for a while enjoying the solitude and companionship. "When I was a kid I use to love to climb trees. I guess most kids do, given the opportunity. My favorites were the apple trees because they were easy to climb and I got to eat the apples, sometimes when they were still green." I smiled to myself at the memory.
I leaned my head back. "You know, Oak Tree, your leaves look especially green with the sun shining on them. They sort of sparkle. And what a beautiful day. It’s great to share it with you; to just hang out. Thanks." I leaned more into the trunk.
"How old are you? When I came here more than 35 years ago you were already good size; more than 15 feet I'm sure, but less than 25, I'd guess. Now you are at least 60 feet tall. I understand that age is best estimated by the diameter of your trunk, which I'd guess to be 30 inches or more. According to Google, the standard growth factor is between 4 and 5 so that would make you 120 to 150 years old! Wow, the things you have seen! The first car to drive by, the first plane in the sky here and the houses built along this old farm road. All those changes and yet you have endured straight and true. We humans could learn from that."
"Well, this has been a pleasure. I appreciate your time and hope it’s ok if I drop by again. Oh, and thanks for supporting the other trees and plants here in the yard. You've help raise a fine-looking group."
The leaves stirred. I looked up. No wind. But the leaves rustled like a whisper. I strained to hear. I could not make out a word but I felt a greeting, like they were enveloping me, welcoming me to the community for the first time.
The year 2020 is one we would like to forget but never will. Like some ultra slow-motion, never-ending train wreck it is something we didn't want to see but we could not look away. We all will be glad to have it behind us but we can't help looking back and marveling how we made it through.
2020 caught us like a deer in the headlights: incredulous, that we who thought we were so smart, who thought we were in control, who thought we had brought the world to heel and bent it to our whim, suddenly found ourselves, not only on the defensive, but defenseless. It is not a pretty sight when the self-anointed masters are vanquished and brought low, and all by something we couldn't even see. We who, a year ago, were likely to swagger about, shopping, eating in restaurants, traveling, or just shaking hands and exchanging hugs, soon were cowering in our rooms, afraid of our friends and neighbors, coworkers and even family members. 2020 was a year that was like living on a desert island limited to the things we had with us to sustain and distract, if not exactly amuse, ourselves.
My parents’ generation were the "make do" generation, having lived through the depression, World War II rationing and post war shortages. By necessity they were self reliant; growing food, making their clothes, entertaining themselves with only a radio, a book and a front porch. We should have paid more attention to how they did it because they not only survived it all but came through it mostly unscarred. 2020 was a test of our perseverance and resolve, of our ability to survive and get along on our own, at the same time making us acutely aware of our dependence others. We found that food does not magically appear in the supermarket, let alone in our kitchen, or toilet paper in our bathroom. It takes a whole community of people to supply our basic needs - food, power, health care, to say nothing of emotional and spiritual support. No one survives alone for long. We are all interdependent. We are all socialists in the real non-political meaning of that term. We are all social animals surviving only in concert with others.
Looking back on this year made me think of the annual holiday letter that some folks write. It is a bit of an art form. It's no easy task to find the right balance; to give the highlights for the year without seeming boastful. You don't want a letter that mentions that you had fillings put in two teeth and had the transmission rebuilt in the old Ford, but you also don't want to go overboard about how brilliant and successful the children and grandchildren are. However, a letter this year might say something like:
April - didn't go anywhere, didn't do anything
May - didn't go anywhere, didn't do anything
June, July, August etc. - more of the same.
Highlights would be more muted and mundane, like the last meal in a real restaurant that for us took place on March 14th in Tucson Arizona; the last live music festival we attended in New Orleans in January; a dinner with friends at our house in February. Or maybe more to the point the first curbside pickup; our new routine of takeout Thursdays; biking while masked. And, of course, the Zooming with friends, lectures, concerts and such. A pale substitute but grateful for it none the less. Can we even imaging what the pandemic isolation would have been like without the technology - no email, no text, no zooming. Or without nature - walking around the neighborhood, feeding the birds, hiking in parks and nature preserves - just being outside brought solace and renewal. And it was a good reminder that my significant other is truly significant.
As we face the bleakness of the winter, we hope for spring and long for the renewal it may bring. The sun of another summer beckons; may we all be here to see it.
One Small Voice
© Copywrite 2016- 2018 All rights reserved