Monthly Archives: November 2016

Trump and Life in the Reality-Based Community

I’ve been thinking about a moment I think presaged the rise of Trump — whose latest non-reality-based utterance is here:

Ford says Trump’s right. That’s because the company had no plans to move the plant to Mexico.

I don’t think Trump’s thinking big enough here. There’s a lot more he could be taking credit for.

“Just got a call from the man in the moon. Since I won, he no longer plans to smash into Earth. Will join cabinet. Huge! #MAGA”

We here in the reality-based community mean that as an attempt at humor and comment — not a report of something that actually happened out there in the perceivable world. You know, suggesting something absurd as a way of casting light on someone else’s grandiosity and distortions.

That phrase “reality-based community” came to mind recently when thinking about our soon-to-be commander-in-chief’s frequent non-fact-based pronouncements. He’s got a talent, and many of us who thought we grasped what was going on underestimated its power and appeal.

Here’s the origin of that saying, “reality-based community,” which comes from a 2004 feature by journalist Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine. Suskind’s piece was examining how George W. Bush arrived at his instinctive certainty that the disastrous course along which he had launched the nation — the war in Iraq — was true and correct.

Along the way, Suskind reported, he met with a Bush aide who gave a glimpse into the president’s and the administration’s approach to governing:

“… Then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Of course, there’s an unspeakable arrogance to that dismissal of those imprisoned in the world of “discernible reality” — not least because of the implicit contempt for the hundreds of thousands of men and women deployed again and again to confront the deadly violence of that reality.

So now, we’re confronted with a similar but much more directly expressed arrogance and dismissal of discernible facts. I think the challenge is to keep your eyes open, to believe what you’re seeing, and to call out the illusions we’re encouraged to see as reality and the reality we’re urged to think is just talk.

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New Old Camera

An oak along Orr Springs Road, in Mendocino County west of Ukiah.

An oak along Orr Springs Road, in Mendocino County west of Ukiah.

OK — a break from post-election stuff.

For my birthday earlier this year, one of my kids gave me what probably qualifies as an antique film camera. It’s a Canonet — a little rangefinder camera made by Canon in the mid-1960s through the late ’70s.

I haven’t shot any film in years, and while the camera is fairly simple to use, I had no idea how pictures would come out. After ruining a couple rolls that I apparently failed to advance or rewind correctly, I finally managed to shoot some color slide film, extract it from the camera, and get it processed.

The results are fun and gratifying — here’s a Flickr slideshow of images that the lab digitized and transferred to a CD. I’m ready to go out and shoot more.

Pinot noir grapes, Toulouse Vineyards, Mendocino County.

Pinot noir grapes, Toulouse Vineyards, Mendocino County.

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Fighting Faiths and the Marketplace of Ideas, Redux

So, I’ve mentioned Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919) before. More than 11 years ago, in fact, not that I’m particularly proud of that.

Holmes’s dissent is to fans of the First Amendment as Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma” is to opera buffs, except Holmes didn’t take his act on the road. It’s a brief, tour de force exposition of the idea that governments should only in the most exceptional circumstances interfere with speech and expression.

Why does it come to mind now? Maybe it’s a light in dark, uncertain times. Although these are times, too, when the central premise of Holmes’s dissent — that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” — is contradicted by the recent triumph of unashamed bullshit.

Anyway, here’s the oft-quoted passage from the dissent:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

One of Holmes’s coinages there — “fighting faiths” — has always thrown me a little. My own clarification, after a little reading: He’s referring to ideals — freedom, for instance — that one feels compelled to fight for.

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Our Little Houses on the Prairie

Here’s a story that made the rounds in the midst of this week’s unpleasantness: a piece from the CBC on a township in the southwestern corner of Manitoba that offers cheap house lots for those willing to build there.

Well, the story isn’t really about the township — the Rural Municipality of Pipestone. It’s about a half-dozen calls the municipality got from Americans in the days after the election asking about the lot purchase program.

Try as I might, I can’t find details about the lot sizes or locations (yes, I’m curious). But the RM of Pipestone website lays out the deal: You put down $1,000 for a lot, with the promise to start building on it within 12 months, and you get $990 back when your dream house on the prairie is finished.

You get a little bit of the flavor of the community from one of the local papers, the Reston Recorder (the online edition is a little out of date).

You can get a little more from a virtual trip through Reston via Google Streetview (that’s Danny and Angie Vanderberghe’s place, with the Canada and Manitoba flags, on the right):

And here are a couple more nuggets:

This is oil country, just north of the North Dakota border. On the plus side, the Rural Municipality of Pipestone was in the news a few years back for using some of the oil revenue it’s getting to fund a annual $500 grants for residents. The municipality is also funding the $10 lot program with its oil windfall.

Some have seen a downside. In addition to the wear and tear on local infrastructure — shades of what’s been seen south of the border — there have been complaints in the area about oil spills and provincial regulators’ failure to take action.

Anyway, you would-be Trump exiles, that’s waiting for you north of the border.

I’ve got my own little Great Plains rural fantasy — Benkelman, Nebraska — and was wondering how the elections went there.

Among Benkelman’s many claims to attention, beyond the fact I drove by in 2007, is that it’s the birthplace of Ward Bond. You know — the actor. “Wagon Train.” Sergeant Tom Polhaus in “The Maltese Falcon,” the character who sets up Humphrey Bogart’s last line.

The town’s in southwestern Nebraska, in Dundy County along U.S. 34 near the Colorado line. So how did the county vote on Tuesday?

Of 949 votes counted in the presidential contest, Trump got 823, Clinton got 89, Gary Johnson 31, and Jill Stein 6. I would like to meet the Stein voters in Dundy County.

Also of interest in the county returns:

  • The region’s Republican congressman ran unopposed. He got 841 votes.
  • Tammy Buffington won the race for Benkelman’s East Ward City Council seat.
  • No one ran to represent Upper Republican Natural Resource Subdistrict #1.
  • The village of Haigler, which claims to have been the home of the first female postmaster in the United States, saw a dramatic contest for town board. Jolene Brunswig got 43 votes and Rick Starks 41.

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History Behind Us, Hatred in Front of Us

Reflecting a little on what’s happened this week, and on this very disturbing piece of business here — an interview with the most straightforward, thoughtful, well-spoken white supremacist you’ll ever encounter, and all the more disturbing for that — it occurred to me once more how eager our white society has been to put its grossest transgressions in the rear-view mirror and act as if, now that we’ve resolved that little problem to our own satisfaction, everyone should move on. Nothing to see here, folks, but lots of unpleasantness we can just leave behind.

Listening to Richard Spencer, the white “nationalist” referenced above, talk about his ideas for a white “ethnostate” and his belief that at bottom, the governing sentiment among those of different races is hate, I was struck by his unwillingness or inability to confront the toughest question his African-American interviewer threw at him:

What’s the difference between you and the racists that like, you know, hung people up from trees? What’s the difference between you and the Klansmen that burned crosses on peoples lawns? What’s the difference between you and you know, the people who don’t look at me, an African-American man, as a full human being?

After dodging and weaving a little and saying he would not engage with the notion of “a hypothetical Klansman,” Spencer said this:

I’m sure there is some commonality between these movements of the past and what I’m talking about. But you really have to judge me on my own terms. Like I am not those people and I don’t fully know, I don’t know in the specifics of what you’re referring to. Like I am who I am. And you, if you’re going to treat me with good faith, you have to listen to what I’m saying and listen to my ideas. I think someone who would go down the path of becoming a Klansman or something in 2016, I think that is, those people are very different than I am. It’s, it’s a it’s a non-starter. I think we need an idea. We need a movement that really resonates with where we are right now.

He and his ilk are different because — well, they are. You just have to trust him on that. And besides, it’s 2016 and we need to put that behind us and pursue a grander idea. (At one point in the interview, Spencer shares a few of the “values” he holds dear: “greatness and winning and dominance and beauty.” That list brought a name to mind: Leni Riefenstahl.)

The grand idea is, as mentioned before, a “white ethnostate,” what he terms “a new type of society that would actually be a homeland for all white people. … All European people … [so] we would always have a safe space.”

This isn’t really a new idea, as he says. He points to Israel as such a state. But of course there’s an example much closer to home — in fact, a state founded on the very same principles of white supremacy that underlies the idea of white nationalism.

Many of us treat the Confederacy and the Civil War and the long siege of Jim Crow that followed as objects in the rear-view mirror; curious, glorious or shameful objects that have receded almost from view. Let them stay in the past.

Lincoln was one who understood the past has its claims, and that it’s not so casually left behind. In his Second Inaugural, delivered a little more than a month before the war’s end and his assassination, he spoke about how each side had called on divine support for its cause:

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

And it was beyond humans, Lincoln said, to understand what price providence might demand for the crime of slavery. It was beyond us to know when the debt had been redeemed.

“‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

I think the first time I encountered the address was at the Lincoln Memorial, where it’s inscribed in marble. That passage — “until all the wealth piled … until every drop of blood drawn ” — has always stuck with me.

First, I think, because of Lincoln’s sober consideration of the magnitude of the “offense” that had led to the war.

Second, because of his suggestion that there was no way of knowing when the nation’s offense would be expiated — or even whether it could be expiated.

And third because, even though I am not one of Lincoln’s faith and I don’t imagine an omnipotent deity who wills human cruelty and then doles out punishment for it, the renewed encouragement of racial hatred we’re seeing now makes it clear that we’ve yet to really reckon with the worst chapters of our history — slavery, Native American genocide, the Klan’s reign of terror, Jim Crow, mass incarceration. And now, it seems, we’re listening to people who are eager to write the next dark chapter of history.

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