Tag Archives: history

Monday Musings: A Planet In Its Death Throes

Pray for the forest, pray to the tree,
Pray for the fish in the deep blue sea.
Pray for yourself and for God’s sake,
Say one for me,
Poor wretched unbeliever.

— James Taylor, “Gaia,” from Hourglass

This is what it looks like when a planet dies

milkovi SF Bay Bridge
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge under skies turned orange by wildfire smoke. Photo credit: Milkovi, Unsplash

Cataclysmic fires along the American West Coast and the Australian East Coast, in the Amazon and on the Steppe. Once-in-a-millenium events occurring annually. Orange skies over California and the Pacific Northwest.

Storms of unprecedented destructive power striking with unnerving frequency, rendering the term “storm of the century” essentially meaningless.

Deepening cycles of drought and flood. Cities across the world literally being inundated by oceans and seas. Glaciers vanishing faster than even the most aggressive projections told us they would. Coral reefs dying. Species going extinct.

My older brothers turned me on to birdwatching when I was seven years old — a gift that has enriched my life for half a century. And over those same fifty years, North America’s population of birds has declined by nearly 30%. Habitat loss, pesticide use, careless architecture, and, yes, climate change — all have played a role. The result? Three billion fewer birds.

In the spring of 1985, my senior year in college, I took an ecology course for non-majors. It offered a survey of critical environmental issues facing the world, and discussed them in terms history and literature majors could understand. At the time, a scientific consensus had long-since formed around what was called at the time “the Greenhouse Effect,” what we later called global warming, and now global climate change. That was thirty-five years ago.

In 1896, a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius theorized that the unfettered burning of fossil fuels, and the resulting release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, would lead to a warming of the planet. Four years later, in 1901, his colleague, Nils Gustaf Ekholm, coined the term “Greenhouse Effect” to describe the phenomenon. In fairness, Ekholm thought it might be a good thing, as it would stave off future ice ages. But the concept is not a new one.

For decades, global temperatures have been rising to record setting levels, only to be topped the following year. Global temperature records were first kept in a systematic way around 1850. Of the 170 or so years for which figures exist, nineteen of the twenty hottest have occurred since 2000. 2020 is on pace to join the top five.

I am willing to engage on most political and social issues. I enjoy a good discussion, a vigorous debate. There are, though, a few topics on which I will no longer engage. First among them is bigotry of any sort — racism, sexism, homophobia, trans bias, religious bias, etc. Climate denial is a close second. (And this year, Covid denial has joined the list.)

This is no longer theory. It hasn’t been for a long, long time. Climate change is real. Our planet is dying. If we do nothing — if we as a global community continue on the path we’re on now, we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren a burnt husk of what was once earth. Future generations will live in a world that staggers from ecological crisis to ecological crisis, from catastrophe to catastrophe, from flood to drought to famine to pandemic and back again.

We have had ample opportunity to address the issue, and we have squandered one after another. We have absented ourselves from vital global treaties and doubled down on the sort of short-sighted consumerism that got us into this mess in the first place. Like James Taylor in the song quoted at the beginning of this post, I have no faith in our ability to save ourselves. We are a society that cannot bring ourselves to wear cloth masks for the common good. How are we supposed to make the economic transitions necessary to change economic course?

And the tragic thing is, addressing climate change could be a tremendous boon to our standing in the world, to our economic fortunes, to our commitment to education. This is the challenge of our time. It demands bold thinking, new industries, innovation and invention. Implementing the necessary changes would generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, replacing and more the jobs lost in the coal and oil industries. Fitting ecological imperatives to our national love affair with cars and trucks could revitalize the American automotive industry. Does anyone really believe that the internal combustion engine, invented more than a century ago, is the be-all and end-all of technological ingenuity? Of course not.

But we have to have the will to change, the courage to say “Saving our planet for our children is worth whatever sacrifices we might have to make.” And, from what I can see, we don’t.

I wish I could end on a more hopeful note.

November’s election is about more than ending corruption, about more than beating back hate and prejudice, about more than the Supreme Court, about more than taxes and health care and social justice. It is about saving our planet. It is about keeping ourselves from a slow and painful march toward extinction.

Please vote.

Monday Musings: Race — Again, and Still, and As Long As It Takes

This past week, I listened to an NPR interview with some Trump voters in Florida. One woman, who swore she couldn’t be a racist because she was of a non-Caucasian ethnicity herself, spoke of the George Floyd killing and the need “to get all the information. Like if he was doing drugs or something like that.” And I wanted to ask her, in all seriousness, what drugs could Mister Floyd have done that would justify a police officer kneeling on his neck for eight minutes until he died?

The Department of Justice this week released additional information about the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. So, too, did the police union to which the officers involved belong. It seems that Mister Blake admitted to officers that he had a knife, and that a knife was later found in the car. And I would like to ask the police union and the DOJ, how big would the knife have to be to justify a police officer shooting Mister Blake in the back seven times at close range?

Yesterday, video surfaced on Twitter of Brandon Marshall, a former NFL All-Pro and current ESPN television commentator, having the police called on him by security officers in the subdivision in Florida where he had just purchased a new home. Mister Marshall’s name, apparently, was not yet on a list of people authorized to access the gated community. So the security guys, rather than checking with him, calling the real estate agent, or taking any number of remedial steps that could have cleared up the confusion, called the police. Mister Marshall’s children were in the car and witnessed the entire incident. Thankfully, no one was hurt. But I would like to ask the security guys – and I would hope they would answer honestly – would they have done the same thing if he was White?

I would rather be writing about puppies, or making a top ten list of my favorite Star Trek: TNG episodes, or finding new ways to call Donald Trump obnoxious and incompetent – because that never gets old. I don’t want to be writing about systemic racism yet again. And if I, as an ally, am tired of writing about it and drawing people’s attention to the problem, I can hardly imagine how exhausted my Black friends must be, not only by the conversation, but by living with yet another tragedy, with new aggressions small and large, with the constant emotional abuse that comes with being Black in America.

None of us who are White, no matter how empathetic or sympathetic, can begin to imagine what it is like. It is unrelenting. Try to think back on your worst moments of humiliation, of fear, of righteous anger at injustice directed your way, of frustration with slights that you cannot control and cannot escape. And then imagine putting up with those things all the time. Every. Single. Day. Maybe that comes close.

I’ve had online conversations with several friends the past few days. We’re all progressives, all terrified by the prospect of four more years of Donald Trump in the White House. And we were discussing a point made by a political commentator to the effect that some of the optics surrounding protests in D.C. and in Kenosha, and elsewhere – property damage, confrontations with police, inconveniencing city residents, etc.– might wind up hurting the Biden campaign. None of us want that, of course. But I have to ask of myself, if I were Black, would I care?

Yes, Donald Trump is a White supremacist; I believe that with all my heart. And no, Joe Biden is not. I think a Biden Presidency would be better for all Americans, and for non-White Americans in particular. But systemic racism has been around for a long, long time. Police have been persecuting Black Americans for a long, long time. Black Americans have felt the effects of these things under Republican Presidents and Democratic, under the first Black President, and under all the others.

Is “No justice, no peace” the most political convenient slogan for Democrats right now? Probably not.

You go tell that to the protesters. Because I can’t bring myself to do so.

I don’t have any answers. I didn’t earlier in the year, either.

I can say the words and mean them: Black Lives Matter.

I can and do try to explain to my White friends who don’t get it why it’s so important that we support BLM, that we set our privilege aside and recognize all the ways in which our society and politics and economy favor Whites over non-Whites, that we stop taking personally discussions of rampant racism in our culture. But that only gets us so far, and at a pace that feels glacial.

I can say to my Black friends, I hear you, I see you, I support you.

And I can say to all, please vote.

Monday Musings: Political Rant, No Punches Pulled

Okay, serious question: When did the world get so insane?

When did people start believing wackadoodle conspiracy theories while refusing to believe that wearing a mask over their nose and mouth would keep them from spreading germs that come from their nose and mouth? When did they start believing a President who says that Democrats at the DNC refused to say “under God” during the Pledge of Allegiance, despite the fact that we have video showing them saying “under God” during the Pledge of Allegiance each night of the convention?

When did people who believe in strength and faith and patriotism start to worship a President who blames everyone else for his failings, uses churches and the Bible as props, and seeks help from foreign powers in order to win domestic election campaigns?

When did the richest country in the world, the self-proclaimed greatest nation on earth, become so clusterfucked, so dysfunctional, that it would find itself leading the world in Covid-19 cases and deaths?

How did this happen? I really want to know.

I hated Ronald Reagan – I know many consider him a great President and even liberal historians cite him as a hugely consequential one. But I was in college and grad school during his Administration, and I despised him. And yet, I cannot imagine Ronald Reagan letting Russia get away with placing bounties on the lives of American soldiers.

I hated George H.W. Bush, too. I cannot imagine him allowing efforts to protect people from a lethal virus to be hamstrung by liberty junkies and science deniers who put their own hang-ups before the public good.

I couldn’t stand George W. Bush and I believe he was a terrible President. I cannot imagine him coddling white supremacists, praising anti-Semitic marchers, demonizing immigrants and peaceful protesters.

I grew up in a Democratic household – we ALWAYS supported Democratic candidates for all offices. But we understood that having two vibrant parties made our nation stronger. Just like the Yankees need a strong Red Sox team to make their successes meaningful, so the two parties need each other to engender of productive debate over how to govern a sprawling republic. I cannot imagine the Republicans I recall from my youth – Howard Baker, Alan Simpson, even Barry Goldwater – tolerating, much less enabling, the malfeasance, racism, and disregard for Constitutional norms that we see from this Administration.

We have faced crises before. We have had Presidents of both parties who lied to us, who held beliefs that to this day make my skin crawl, who were overly partisan and too obsessed with their own electoral prospects.

We have never had a President who lied as frequently or as blatantly as this one. We have never had a President who was so willfully ignorant and lazy. We have never had a President who was so corrupt and who surrounded himself with so many crooks and liars and incompetents.

But beyond all of that, we have never had a President who demonstrated such utter disdain for the norms of republican government, for the Constitutional principles that have guided our elected leaders for more than two centuries.

America, it turns out, is far more fragile than we thought. Yes, we survived a Civil War, and a Constitutional crisis in the 1970s. But we are in danger of seeing our democracy collapse because this President recognizes no limits on his power and refuses to acknowledge that Congress and the Courts are co-equal branches of the government. Without respect for our institutions and governing laws, he will soon make us nothing more than another failed state, another moral backwater ruled by a kleptocratic despot.

That day, I fear, is far closer than any of us imagined it would ever be. This President is willing to use the Department of Justice as his own personal consigliere. He believes the armed forces exist to impose his will on the people he is supposed to serve. He sees in every act of governance an opportunity to enhance his family’s wealth. He has far more in common with the tin-pot dictators of what we used to refer to, in our arrogance, as “the Third World,” than he does with any of his predecessors. And his reelection would be a death blow to all that we Americans have held as sacred and good in our system of government.

These are the thoughts – the terrors – that consume me on this, the first day of the Republican National Convention. No, I will not be watching, thanks very much.

But I did watch the DNC last week. I have given to the Biden-Harris campaign. I have volunteered to write letters to voters in swing states on behalf of the Sierra Club.

What have you done?

Have a good week.

Monday Musings: How Are You Doing? How Am I Doing?

How are you holding up?

No, really. I’m asking. I’m asking you, and I’ve been asking myself over the past week or so.

This is a remarkable time we’re living through. Obviously, I don’t mean remarkable as in “This is great!” But remarkable as in, “We’ll be talking about this, and recovering from this, for years to come.” It is fraught and troubling and disorienting and challenging and, well, insert your own adjective here. I tend to be a news junkie; I rarely tune out the world. But I know many people who do, who prefer to keep politics and social issues in the background except for those moments – Election Day, for instance – when they feel they need to tune in.

Right now, though, we are living the news on a daily basis. There is no escaping it. There seems to be no distance between the world and our lives. There’s a direct line from those Covid maps on CNN and MSNBC and the cloth masks we put on to shop or go to the bank. Nor does it help that the Administration, which has failed utterly to develop a strategy for combatting the pandemic is, nevertheless, more than happy to exploit it in the most cynical ways possible for political gain.

But I have addressed those issues in past Monday Musings, and I’m sure I’ll do so again in future ones. Today, I’m focused more on the personal costs.

How am I doing? Thanks for asking. As I say, this is something I’ve been asking myself recently.

I’ll start with this: In all ways that matter I’m fine. My family and I have been fortunate so far and have avoided the virus. I am also fortunate in that I’m self-employed and have resources to fall back on even as the publishing industry has ground to a halt. I’m white, upper-middle class, and I live in a relatively isolated area. For those who are non-white, who lack financial security, who live in cities or crowded suburbs, all of this is far, far worse.

That said, I find that I’m struggling. I miss my kids, who I haven’t been able to see in months because of Covid concerns. Our older daughter is supposed to come pick up our old car tomorrow – our first time seeing her since December – but even this visit will be brief (just the evening) and distanced. Our other daughter we haven’t seen since March, and even that is far too long. I also miss my brother and his family, who we likely would have seen at some point this summer or fall.

I honestly don’t mind masking at all, but I miss seeing people – friends and even strangers. I miss going to a restaurant or bar. I miss travel. Problems of privilege, I know, but I’m being honest here. I really miss conventions – hanging out with friends, talking shop with fellow writers, interacting with fans. This past weekend, I was supposed to be in Calgary for a writing festival. A couple of weeks from now I am supposed to be in Atlanta for DragonCon, a highlight of my professional year. I work alone, and most of the time I enjoy delving into my imagination each day. That’s my job. These days, though, it feels particularly lonely.

I walk every day, but I miss my more vigorous workouts at the gym. And because I’m dealing with an unrelated medical issue that is affecting my shoulder, I have had to cut way back on my home workouts as well, which I find deeply frustrating, even depressing.

Mostly, I am weary of thinking about the pandemic, about the politics of the pandemic, about the logistical gymnastics we all have to go through for even the most mundane of errands because of the pandemic. This is exhausting – and way more so for those who have compromised immune systems and/or belong to at-risk groups. It would be terrifying if we had no health insurance, or lacked faith in the medical professionals in our area. Again, I recognize that I am very fortunate.

(And this, by the way, is what makes the Trump Administration’s mail-system machinations and its blindly foolish insistence on opening schools — just to name two of its worst offenses — so insidious. We are, all of us, dealing with heightened emotions, tensions, apprehensions. I can hardly imagine being the parent of school-aged children and, on top of everything else, worrying now about sending them to school.)

I get mad at myself when I am less productive in my work than I would like to be, or when I let everyday chores slide. The truth is, I should be cutting myself a bit of slack. We all should. The stress induced by this particular moment in history in unlike anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime. To my mind, it is rivaled only by the aftermath of 9/11.

I am, in the end, tired of it all. And I’m tired of whining about it. But for all of us who care, who take the threat as seriously as it merits, this is hard. I have no answers, no wisdom to dispense. As I said, I’m struggling, too. I do believe life will get better. I won’t say I expect us to go back to the old normal, but I expect the new normal – whatever that looks like – to be far more enjoyable than this.

Until then, please know that I am wishing all of you good health, simple joys, moments of peace and laughter and love. Stay well, be safe, take good care of one another. We will get through this.

Monday Musings: The Day I Fell In Love With Baseball

I was seven years old, the youngest child by far in a household that revered baseball. I didn’t remember the exact date, but today we live in an age of marvels, and all I had to do was Google a few key phrases from the storyline of the game. August 30, 1970. That was the day I fell in love with baseball.

We were a family divided. My sister, Liz, and my brother Jim, the siblings closest to me in years, both rooted for the Yankees. Liz was — and remains — a fanatic. Jim cared less than the rest of us, but in our household, at that time, one chose a team. My oldest brother, Bill, had been a New York Giants fan until their relocation to San Francisco. He idolized Willie Mays all his life. He attended college in Boston, remained there after graduating, and — to this day, I struggle to speak the words — became a Red Sox fan. In the battle of New York teams, though, he and my father rooted for the Mets. Bill hated the Yankees the way my father hated Richard Nixon. Only my mother remained above the fray. I believe she refused to root for one particular team because she didn’t want to appear to favor one child over another.

Liz and Jim convinced me that I liked the Yankees. Jim lived at home; Liz was in college, but came home with some frequency. I attribute their victory on the battleground of team loyalties to proximity and, in Liz’s case, her single-minded determination that I. Would. Be. A. Yankees. Fan.

In that summer of 1970 I was still learning the game. I have no memory of having watched baseball before then, though no doubt I did. My baseball consciousness dates from that summer, from that day. August 30th.

Why?

Because on that day Mickey Mantle, our household’s Most Beloved Yankee, made his debut as a Yankee coach. He’d retired the year before, after a Hall of Fame career foreshortened by knee injuries and, the world later learned, excessive drinking. Mantle’s return to Yankee Stadium, and in particular his appearance in the first base coach’s box in the fourth inning, was a big deal in New York. So much so, that I resolved to watch the game. We had a color TV at that point, but it was downstairs in the family den, and clearly my father and mother were watching something else on the good set.

I was exiled to my parents’ room, home of our old black and white television. The game was on WPIX, channel 11, the Yankees’ local affiliate. It was sponsored, like all Yankee games at that time, by Schaefer Beer — “The one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” Yes, that was really the slogan. Quite a distance from “Please drink responsibly.”

Roy White, Yankees # 6, LF. 1972 Topps cardThe Yankees were playing the Minnesota Twins, a powerful team lead by perennial all-star Tony Oliva and future Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew. The Twins jumped out to an early lead, gave a run back, but still led 2-1 in the fifth inning, the second inning of Mantle’s stint as coach. The Yankees managed to load the bases and, with two outs, their left fielder, a guy named Roy White, stepped to the plate.

At this point, I was riveted to the game. I was in the process of realizing that I really, really liked baseball. I enjoyed following the broadcast on my own, without anyone else trying to explain stuff to me. But, of course, I was desperate for the Yankees to tie things up or take the lead. It didn’t seem right that Mickey Mantle should lose his first game as coach.

The Twins pitcher was a nineteen-year-old rookie named Bert Blyleven. I later learned that he was from the Netherlands, like both my grandparents on my father’s side. For much of his stellar career, he was the only Dutch player in the Major Leagues. He won a lot of games and struck out a lot of players with a strong fastball and a wicked curve. He, too, was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 1970, I knew none of this, and wouldn’t have cared. We needed runs!

Roy White hit Blyleven’s first pitch to what was known in New York as Death Valley, the vast expanse of Yankee Stadium’s left field. Oliva, a fine defensive player, drifted back to the wall, but could only watch as White’s fly cleared the fence for a grand slam home run. Yankees 5-2. I am certain that I cheered and jumped up and down, no doubt earning a rebuke from my father downstairs.

That proved to be the final score. Mickey had his first coaching win. And I had a new favorite player. From that time until his retirement in 1979, Roy White was my hero. He wasn’t as well-known as some other Yankees, but he was quietly consistent. He got his share of hits, drew a lot of walks, hit the occasional long ball, played a solid if unspectacular left field, and always comported himself with class and dignity.

My memories of that day fifty years ago are remarkably clear, but the game as I was getting to know it then feels a long way removed from where we are now.

With baseball’s return this past weekend, to empty stadiums with pre-recorded cheers and, in some cases, cardboard cut-out fans, I feel especially nostalgic for the baseball of my youth. I still love the game, though I find my affection for it tested by too many strikeouts and an over-reliance on the home run, by unbearable delays in play and rule changes that rankle, by steroids and cheating scandals, by labor disputes between millionaire players who are barely older than my children and billionaire owners who seem to care only about their bottom lines.

I haven’t stopped rooting for the Yankees, although I will admit to a brief flirtation with the Mets in the mid-80s, when their young, dynamic stars were New York’s darlings. I tend to attach to players as much as to teams. Roy White. Dwight Gooden and Daryl Strawberry. Derek Jeter. Now Aaron Judge. But it is the game itself that I love. Yes, I complain about the pace of play, but part of what draws me to baseball is the absence of a clock. Time is meted out in pitches and outs and innings — the perfect units with which to mark the passage of a languid summer afternoon or evening. And there is nothing in sports that I enjoy more than the baseball playoffs and World Series. I watch every game and lament the end of the postseason the way I once lamented the end of summer vacation.

That said, I can’t get as excited about the game as I used to, for all the reasons I mentioned before, and for a host of reasons that have everything to do with me and nothing to do with the game. Perhaps it’s inevitable that middle age should lessen our passion for such things. Family, friends, work, a world in need of salvation and healing — these are the concerns that consume me today. And yet, on some level, I remain that seven-year-old kid waiting for the clutch hit or the crucial strikeout. I miss the days when my greatest worries were about the Yankees’ upcoming series against the Sox and the possibility that this year’s Roy White wouldn’t be in the pack of baseball cards I’d just bought.

A simpler time.

I wish you all a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: Covid-19 and America’s Character Flaw

Many of you know that I have a Ph.D. in U.S. History. My years of studying America’s past have taught me a lot and left me fully aware of the dangers inherent in making broad, sweeping generalizations. And yet…

I believe our nation is failing so completely in combatting Covid-19 at least in part because we, as a society and as a nation, are not capable of doing what we must to succeed. The ethos of American culture, such as it is, revolves around “individualism” and “personal liberty,” values that are fundamentally antithetical to communal sacrifice and collective thinking. The pandemic was bound to hit us hardest, because we are not wired for the sort of social solutions needed to combat it.

Right now, the United States, which accounts for about 4% of the world’s population, has seen approximately one quarter of all reported cases and deaths worldwide. Yes, there are legitimate questions about the accuracy of the figures released by a few other countries, but there can be no doubt that the U.S. is faring far worse against Covid-19 than it should, and far, far, FAR worse than the countries we consider our peers and closest allies. Some of the blame for this falls squarely on the Trump Administration, whose response has been scattershot, ineffective, and deeply irresponsible. Some of the blame falls on local politicians, who have parroted Trump’s denials and lies. Some of the blame can also be tied to the size of the United States, and the diffuse nature of our various levels of government.

But that is also where we start to see the impact of our obsession with “liberty.” Months ago, the Federal Government should have issued an order requiring the use of face masks in all public places. But many state leaders would have screamed bloody murder at such “Federal overreach.” Localities, they would argue, ought to have the final say in what sort of dictates are imposed on their citizens.

Unless those dictates are deemed too onerous by the Liberty Junkies. Brian Kemp (Moron — Georgia) has sued the mayor of Atlanta, Keesha Lance Bottoms, and the Atlanta city council, because they dared to issue a mandatory mask order, in violation of his ban on such orders from all localities in the state. Kemp claims to believe that people ought to wear masks, but he is adamantly opposed to making this mandatory. Similar debates are taking place all across my state of Tennessee. A coalition of doctors here asked our governor, Bill Lee (Spineless — Tennessee), to issue a mask mandate. He refused, instead authorizing county mayors to issue such directives if they so choose. Too many have chosen not to, including one who said explicitly, “We were debating masks when we should be discussing liberty, freedom, and personal responsibility.”

I want to ask these people if their belief in personal responsibility extends to driving 100 mph on their county roads, or if their troopers will still be ticketing for that. To my mind there is little difference between speed limits and mask requirements. Experts tell us that filling the roads with drivers who drive at excessive speeds will lead to property damage, injuries, and deaths. Controlling speeds is a matter of public safety. Experts tell us that the spread of coronavirus will be slowed by people wearing masks that protect themselves and others from the spray of infected liquids that results from human respiration and conversation, not to mention coughing and sneezing. It, too, is a matter of public safety.

Will wearing masks prevent all new infections? Of course not. Nor will speed limit laws prevent all accidents. Is it possible that someone not wearing a mask will manage to avoid getting sick and infecting others? Sure, it’s possible. And it’s possible that some asshole driving 97 on a twisty county road will reach home alive. That doesn’t make it a good idea.

The problem is, the Liberty Junkies have never gotten over being nine years old and shouting “It’s a free country!” every time someone tells them to do something they don’t want to do. Honestly, I don’t understand the vehement reaction of mask-wearing. It’s just not that big a deal. Even if it were more onerous, though, that wouldn’t change the essential facts: Wearing a mask makes each of us less vulnerable to the disease. It makes it less likely that we will spread Covid to someone else. And, by keeping us healthy, it also protects our friends and loved ones from subsequent infection. That, to my mind, should be the end of the discussion.

In New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and many European countries, infection rates spiked and then subsided because people took quickly to masking, to social distancing, and to complete and prolonged economic inactivity. And, actually, those steps briefly worked here, too. For just a moment, we had started to get a handle on this thing. The advice of the experts worked. (And, I’ll add, it also didn’t hurt that all of the other countries I mentioned have universal health care coverage, making it easier for the sick to get the treatment they needed.)

But here, too many people still refused to wear masks and to distance, and attempts to close down the economy were met with impatience and outright resistance. It doesn’t help that many in Congress have been unwilling to extend the sort of financial relief that would make a lengthy economic shutdown less destructive. That’s part of the American obsession with individualism as well. As a nation, we don’t want “socialized” anything. We don’t want to give people “handouts,” even when such benefits are precisely what circumstances demand. Because somehow catering to the public welfare in such a way is equated with “weakness” and moral turpitude.

Lots of factors have contributed to our country’s disastrous response to the pandemic, and I believe the Trump Administration bears much responsibility. But I would argue as well that Trump and his lackeys couldn’t get away with their demonization of experts and their rejection of masks and other simple, proven methods to contain the virus, if our national culture didn’t make such tactics so easy. For too long, we have idolized America’s “rugged individual” and fetishized “personal freedom.” Is it any wonder that so many in this nation find it perfectly acceptable to ignore the common good?

Monday Musings: Challenging Ourselves

I will admit that my first impulse for this Monday Musings post was to write about something other than race and politics. Not because those things aren’t still on my mind. They consume me. But rather because I was thinking, “I’ve written about White privilege two weeks in a row. I don’t want to seem like I’m harping on it.” [Here are links to my post from two weeks ago and last week.]

My next thought, right after that one, was, “Why the hell not?”

College Town Protest March, David B. CoeThis past Friday our little college town had a peaceful protest march followed by a rally on the college quad. It was a terrific event: somber, but also uplifting. Several people spoke, including my wife, who is provost of the university. Most of the speakers were Black; Nancy is not. And her message was directed at the many White allies who were in attendance. Showing up is great, she said. But it’s not enough. We who consider ourselves allies of those fighting for racial justice, but who also carry enormous privilege, have to challenge ourselves to act, to fight every day for a better world. And she, in turn, challenged us. Think of things you can do. Commit yourselves.

She and I have been making donations to organizations that fight for racial justice. We are committed to voting, to supporting candidates who will help put an end to systemic racism. We have reached out to our Black friends to make sure they’re doing all right. We are more than willing to have difficult conversations with family and friends. We would be willing to have those conversations with our daughters as well, but, frankly, we have more to learn from them than they have to learn from us.

But after those things, I found myself wondering in response to Nancy’s challenge, what else I could do? The answer came to me pretty quickly; it should be obvious to anyone who knows me.

I write.

That’s what I do.

I’m not saying that race and racial politics will be the subject of every Monday post for the rest of time. But one of the great problems with American politics is that we as a nation have no attention span at all. We become obsessed with the issue of the day, the tragedy of the week – a mass shooting prompts calls for serious conversations about gun control. Until the next police shooting exposes for the thousandth time the need for a meaningful conversation about race. Until the next ridiculous or outrageous Tweet from the Infant-In-Chief prompts renewed obsession with the campaign and the latest polling numbers. Until a new spike in Covid-19 cases reminds us of the devastating toll the virus is exacting. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.

My thoughts about this post are symptomatic of that short attention span. Two weeks in a row writing about race? Yikes! Time for another post about my five favorite rock ‘n roll albums.

And more to the point, that short attention span is an expression of privilege. I have the luxury of being able to turn away from the conversation about systemic racism if I want to, because I’m White. Because I don’t have to worry that my next traffic stop could prove fatal. Because while the unemployment rate among my people is high, it’s not at 16.8%, as it is for Blacks. Because my health care is affordable and readily available.

I can eventually look away after the next shooting sparks a new debate on guns, because while gun violence should concern all of us, Blacks are (according to the Giffords Law Center) ten times – TEN TIMES – more likely than Whites to be murdered with a firearm.

I can be distracted from the pandemic, because while Whites get the disease and die from it, preliminary data indicates that we are proportionally less likely to get sick than are Blacks, and we are far less likely to die from the illness than are Blacks and Latinos.

We in the White community can afford to lose interest, to get distracted, to move on to other issues. But we, as White allies in the struggle for racial justice, can’t. Just this weekend in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by Atlanta police in an incident that began with him sleeping in his car. I guarantee you, that is a sentence that has never been written about a white man.

And so, yes, I am writing about race again. Because once we open our eyes to the prevalence of bias and bigotry and harmful stereotypes (and it is another expression of lifelong privilege that we have the choice of whether or not to do this) we can find them everywhere. The only way to avoid them is to ignore them, or to be utterly oblivious. Race creeps into everything. The next time you’re watching TV, pay close attention to the commercials. Look at how race is treated. Watch for the racial sub-narratives. Be attuned to the archetypes. Once you start to see them, you can’t stop. Listen to sports commentary (if and when we ever get to watch sports again). Pay attention to the adjectives used to describe White and Black players. How many times are Whites referred to as “hard workers”? How many times is Black success credited to “natural athletic ability”?

“Why,” we hear people ask, “do they have to make everything about race?”

And the answer is, because people of color in this country – and throughout much of the world – inhabit a different reality from the one we Whites live in. In their world, racism is omnipresent. It is unavoidable. It is the knee on the neck. Being an ally means looking and seeing, listening and hearing, discussing and speaking out. It means answering my wife’s challenge by pushing ourselves outside of comfort and complacency, and committing ourselves.

And for me, it means writing.

Wishing you a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: On Race, Privilege, and Uncomfortable Conversations

As I white progressive, I have struggled with how to write this post. I know that the white progressives in my audience will struggle to read and process it. All of this, I believe, is to the good.

This past week, as I discussed with my adult children the protests taking place in cities across the country, my older daughter sent me an article called “I, Racist,” written by John Metta back in 2015. This is an extraordinary piece and I urge you to read it right now, before continuing with my post. Seriously, read the article. We’ll wait.

Much of what follows here is my working through of Metta’s piece – the thoughts reflected here are more his than mine. There are four main points to Metta’s argument that strike me as central to all discussions of race in America.

First, “Black people think in terms of we because [they] live in a society where the social and political structures interact with [them] as Black people. White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals.”

Second, “The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.”

Third, “the reality of America is that White people are fundamentally good, and so when a white person commits a crime, it is a sign that they, as an individual, are bad…. People of color, especially Black people… are seen as fundamentally bad.”

And finally, perhaps most important: “White people, every single one of [us], are complicit in this racism because [we] benefit directly from it.”

Last week, my Monday Musings post focused on White privilege, and I suppose this week’s does as well. The truth is, I am thinking all of this through as I write, so forgive me if this comes across as a work in progress rather than as something more finished. I know better than to claim that my thoughts on race and Metta’s essay are well-organized or comprehensive. Like so many of us right now, I am processing, figuring things out, asking myself questions. The fact is, Metta’s observations make for uncomfortable reading for Whites because they are so very hard to refute. But that is also the source of the article’s power and value.

Let’s start with points one and two. Once we accept the notion that Blacks think in terms of “we” while Whites enjoy the luxury of interacting with the world as individuals, we begin to understand how the conversation about race in America has failed so utterly to move our society forward. As Metta points out, Whites take such conversations personally. We see in the notion of systemic racism an attack on ourselves – which leads us to turn conversations about race into conversations about our bruised feelings. White privilege is by definition systemic. It filters into every element of our lives – our health, our shelter, our our finances, our relationships with institutions and their representatives (including police), and on and on.

And, I have to say, most of the progressive Whites I know are open to conversations about privilege and its prevalence. To a point. The problem comes when we turn to the notion of complicity. As Metta puts it, we Whites are unable to “differentiate [our] participation within a racist system” from accusations of being racists ourselves. We conflate the two, turn the conversation to our sense of being attacked and accused, and therefore shut down the discussion entirely. I know this pattern. I have too often gone down that path myself.

Hearing that we are complicit in a racist society hurts. No doubt. Our first response is to deny, to draw a clear line distinguishing ourselves from defenders of the the Confederate Flag, from the idiots who call 911 on people of color in parks and stores and “nice” (re. White) neighborhoods, from those who assault and murder. Defensiveness, though, helps no one, and it certainly doesn’t change reality.

In fact, I would argue this: If only we Whites could STOP taking these conversations personally, if only we could back away from our individual privilege and begin to look at our world and society as part of a larger “we” instead of always as “I, me, my” – in other words, if we could talk about the issues more like Metta argues that Blacks do – we might find that conversations about race progress far more smoothly. Our privilege is actually no privilege at all. It hurts us. It cripples our society. It hurts the people of color around us.

Recently, I happened upon a brief (one minute long), wonderful video that first came out in 2016 featuring educator and activist Jane Elliott. She is White, speaking to an auditorium filled with White people, and she asks them to stand if they would be willing to trade places with Black people in America. Not one person stands up. She asks a second time. No one. And then she tells them the obvious: that they know there is a racial problem in America, and they are willing to accept its consequences for others, but not for themselves. That is privilege.

Only when we can accept that our society is inherently racist, that we as Whites benefit every day, in every way, from that racism – only then can we start to improve our country for all Americans. It’s not enough to differentiate ourselves from the conspicuous racists we see on TV and read about in the headlines. It’s not enough to say “but my heart is in the right place,” even if it is. We have to be willing to do more – something my daughters have been telling me for some time now. We have to donate to organizations that support those who are fighting racism. We have to stand up and say to our fellow Whites, “Open your eyes and ears – see what is happening, listen to the people who live this racist reality every day.” And instead of saying, “I am better than those other racists because I have not done those terrible things,” we have to say, “From this day forward, I will be better than I have been, and here is how.”

Wishing you all a peaceful week.

Photo Friday: Not My Image, but Wow…

Justice and hope
Photo by Steve Helber – Associated Press

For this week’s photo, I couldn’t see myself posting a pretty picture from Nancy’s garden or nearby natural sites. Instead, I offer a photo from AP photographer Steve Helber. This is, to me, a remarkable image from this week’s protests, so heartbreaking and yet also filled with hope. Plus, the symbolism of “Justice” upside down… A really incredible photograph.

Wishing all of you a safe, peaceful, thoughtful weekend.

Monday Musings: A True Story of Privilege

I can’t shed my privilege – it is part and parcel of who and what I am, as impossible to separate as chewed gum wadded in tissue.

This is a true story. Every detail. I swear.

When Nancy and I were in graduate school, we lived in Mountain View, California, about seven miles south of Palo Alto and the Stanford campus. Some days we rode our bikes to school, but mostly we drove. About two thirds of the way back to home from campus, on the left side of El Camino Real, the main thoroughfare running through that part of the South Bay, there was a strip mall. It was actually more square than “strip” – a horseshoe of storefronts surrounding a parking area. It included a grocery store, a drug store, a few restaurants, some specialty stores and clothing stores. It included a Tower Records. It included a bank.

One day in early spring – California spring; it was technically still winter – I went home at midday to work on my dissertation. I had done some teaching in the morning. I might have had office hours. But I was going home to write. On the way home, I stopped at the Tower Records. I had a birthday coming up, and I probably was looking for one CD or another to add to my growing collection. I remember that I didn’t buy anything that day.

As I pulled back onto the El Camino, turning left across traffic, a police car eased in behind me and began to follow. I was pretty sure that I had made my turn legally, so I didn’t think too much about it. After about a block, though, he turned on his lights. I pulled over at the first opportunity, my heart rate speeding up a bit. I rolled down my window, expecting the police officer to approach me on the driver’s side.

He didn’t. He opened his door and got out of the car, but he remained behind the open door, his right hand out of sight. From there, he called to me to get out of the car, to move to the sidewalk, and to brace my hands against the building there. By now, I was truly scared. I did exactly as I was told. The cop approached me, as did two more guys in uniform and one plainclothes cop. I hadn’t see the others arrive. All of them had their weapons drawn. They frisked me, asked me to remove my wallet, the one thing I was carrying, from my pocket. They wanted to know if the car was mine, and they had me show them the registration.

The more they talked to me, the calmer they grew. My panic subsided. They asked if they could search my car – a Toyota Corolla hatchback – and I gave them permission to look through every inch of it. I asked what they thought I had done and they told me that someone had just robbed the bank next to the Tower Records. The suspect fit my description ALMOST to a “T”: brown curly hair, beard and mustache, blue t-shirt and jeans. But – and this is why they were feeling calmer – the guy was described as being at least six feet tall. I’m five-seven on a good day, with a strong tailwind.

By this point, people were watching us – a crowd had gathered. Flashing lights, cops with their weapons in hand, a guy being frisked on the street. Of course we’d drawn attention. But after about ten minutes of conversation – “Where do you work? Where do you live? How long have you been in the Bay Area? Where are you going now? Why did you stop at the shopping plaza?” – they let me go. I got back in my car, shaken, but feeling that I would have one helluva story to tell Nancy that night. As I drove home to our apartment, I was almost certain someone was following me, probably the plainclothes cop checking on my story. When I pulled into the apartment complex, he drove on by. I never saw any of them again, and I don’t know if they ever caught the guy who robbed the bank.

That was on March 8, 1991.

How can I be so sure of that? Remember what I said at the outset: Every detail of this is true.

I know the date because it was the day after videotape of the Rodney King beating first was aired on a news broadcast in Los Angeles.

During the entirety of my encounter with the police, I never once feared for my life or my physical safety. Yes, I was scared, but that was because I didn’t understand why I had been stopped or why they had their weapons drawn. Throughout the incident, the police treated me with courtesy and respect.

Privilege comes in many forms and manifests itself in many ways. That day, my privilege kept me safe. It kept me from being beaten or shot. It kept me from being handcuffed or put on the ground. I have no doubt that, had I been black, had the suspect been black, I would have been cuffed, face down on the sidewalk, a knee in the small of my back, if not on my neck. It wouldn’t have mattered how short I was.

But really the larger point is this: I don’t need to go back nearly thirty years to find examples of how being white gives me privileges denied to those whose skin is brown or black.

As most of you know, I birdwatch. On spring mornings, I walk through local neighborhoods with my binoculars, peering into bushes and trees. Sometimes, I’m sure, it looks like I’m skulking rather than birdwatching. We don’t have to imagine what the reaction to this would be if I were black. Just look at what happened to Christian Cooper in Central Park last week.

Then again, if I were black, I wouldn’t need to be birdwatching to draw unwanted attention from ordinary citizens and law enforcement. I take walks just about everyday. Walking while black can get a person harassed. It can get a person arrested. It can get a person killed. And yet, it’s safer than running while black. Ask Ahmaud Arbery. It’s safer than driving while black. Ask Philando Castile, or Sam Dubose, or Alton Sterling, or too many others.

If I were black, but everything else about me and my finances was the same, I would 1) have a lower credit score; 2) pay a higher mortgage; 3) pay more for every car I’ve ever bought; 4) have a harder time booking places to stay when we travel; 5) have a harder time being seated in restaurants; 6) have less access to affordable quality health care; 7) have a lower life expectancy. These are not guesses on my part. This is fact, supported by research and data.

Privilege, as I say, takes many forms. All of it, though, leads to the same place: The freedoms I am able to take for granted as a white man in this county – the freedom to enjoy American prosperity, the freedom to avail myself of the health care system politicians are so fond of boasting about, the freedom to walk and run and drive and recreate without fear for myself or my family – all of these freedoms are denied to black Americans. There is no freedom when you fear agents of the State. There is no freedom when your economic viability is subject to the prejudices of strangers who wield the power to destroy you. There is no freedom when white people in parks, in playgrounds, in college campus common areas, in malls and supermarkets and Starbucks, have the power to sic the police on anyone they deem too different.

Friends of mine, people of color, have written about all of this with more eloquence than I have to offer. But change will only come when all of us speak up, including – especially – those of us who enjoy the privilege of being white Americans.

Our country is on fire right now. It is on fire because a white police officer, after stopping a black man for far less than suspicion of bank robbery, knelt on the man’s neck until the man died. He knelt on the man’s neck. Until the man died.

Our country is on fire because our President, the very embodiment of white privilege, is more interested in firing up the white supremacists in his electoral base than he is in promoting tolerance and healing and greater equality.

Our country is on fire because after a shameful racial history that dates back four centuries plus, we remain a nation that is governed by prejudice and fear.

I can’t shed my privilege – it is part and parcel of who and what I am, as impossible to separate as chewed gum wadded in tissue. What I can do is use my privilege to speak up, to say “enough,” to draw attention to the advantages I enjoy in the hope that this will make my brothers and sisters in privilege see what is denied to those who aren’t as lucky as we are.