Category Archives: Random Blogging

I Think I’m Moving To New Zealand

In the wake of the mass murder of Muslim worshippers in New Zealand, I have seen the leadership and citizenry of that country exhibit what I used to believe were American characteristics of goodheartedness and solidarity.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response was nothing short of inspiring. And then I came across this Time Magazine report:

Women across New Zealand are wearing headscarves in a show of support for the Muslim community, one week after 50 people were shot dead in two mosques in the city of Christchurch.

Women and children have posted pictures of themselves wearing headscarves on social media Friday, with words denouncing last week’s violence and expressing solidarity with victims of the shooting. “I stand with our Muslim community today and against hate and violence of any kind,” one Twitter user wrote.

What a contrast with our blathering, self-besotted President and his white supremicist  supporters, who have made it abundantly clear that they view Muslims–and for that matter, anyone with dark skin tones or religious views other than fundamentalist Christianity–as dangerous, illegitimate and even less than human.

While Trump supporters are chanting “build the wall,” which even they must know is an entirely symbolic edifice meant to emphasize our country’s disdain–if not hatred–for those they consider “other,” New Zealand women were engaged in an equally symbolic gesture of goodwill:

Auckland physician Thaya Ashman told Reuters she thought up the “Headscarf For Harmony” event after seeing a Muslim woman on the news say she was too afraid to go outside wearing a hijab. “I wanted to say: We are with you, we want you to feel at home on your own streets, we love, support and respect you,” she said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wore a black headscarf during her meeting with members of the Muslim community–a gesture of respect that I cannot imagine being copied by anyone in the Trump administration.

I’ve never been to New Zealand. I’ve seen photos, including those posted by my oldest granddaughter, who recently vacationed there, and the landscape is magnificent. A friend who is a healthcare scholar tells me the country has an excellent national health system. I’ve heard the weather is wonderful too.

But the country’s climate of goodwill and civility–demonstrated in the wake of this tragedy– is the most attractive feature of all.

If I were younger….

The Bugs And The Bees

Apparently, the global political chaos we are experiencing is only one of humanity’s problems–and perhaps not the most threatening.

The Washington Post isn’t the only media outlet reporting on what is being called an “insect apocalypse.”

Scientific American has an equally alarming–if somewhat more measured– report.

Around the globe, scientists are getting hints that all is not well in the world of insects. Increasingly, reports are trickling in of unsettling changes in populations of not only butterflies and bees, but of far less charismatic bugs and beetles as well. Most recently, a research team from the U.S. and Mexico reported a startling decline between 1976 and 2013 in the weight of insects and other arthropods collected at select sites in Puerto Rico.

Some have called the apparent trend an insect Armageddon. Although the picture is not in crisp enough focus yet to say if that’s hyperbolic, enough is clear to compel many to call for full-scale efforts to learn more and act as appropriate.

Insects have always outnumbered other life forms–by far. According to scientists, nearly a million species have been described to date. (That compares with 5,416 mammals.) Entomologists suspect there could be two to 30 times as many actually out there.

Or were. And a steep decline would have significant consequences for humans.

Insects pollinate a spectrum of plants, including many of those that humans rely on for food. They also are key players in other important jobs including breaking dead things down into the building blocks for new life, controlling weeds and providing raw materials for medicines. And they provide sustenance for a spectrum of other animals—in fact, the Puerto Rico study showed a decline in density of insect-eating frogs, birds and lizards that paralleled the insect nosedive.

All told, insects provide at least US$57 billion in services to the U.S. economy each year.

How steep is the decline? The Post reports

In 2014, an international team of biologists estimated that, in the past 35 years, the abundance of invertebrates such as beetles and bees had decreased by 45 percent. In places where long-term insect data are available, mainly in Europe, insect numbers are plummeting. A study last year showed a 76 percent decrease in flying insects in the past few decades in German nature preserves.

The article quoted two scientists who had worked in the Puerto Rico rainforest forty years ago, about what they found when they recently returned.

What the scientists did not see on their return troubled them. “Boy, it was immediately obvious when we went into that forest,” Lister said. Fewer birds flitted overhead. The butterflies, once abundant, had all but vanished.

Other research has confirmed the loss of insects–and the dramatic reductions of insect-eating frogs and birds.

Lister and Garcia attribute this crash to climate. In the same 40-year period as the arthropod crash, the average high temperature in the rain forest increased by 4 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperatures in the tropics stick to a narrow band. The invertebrates that live there, likewise, are adapted to these temperatures and fare poorly outside them; bugs cannot regulate their internal heat.

Pesticides and habitat loss are also culprits.

Most of us of a “certain age” can remember catching fireflies–lightning bugs–as children. We recall having to clean smashed bugs off windshields, and seeing swarms of insects around streetlights. I haven’t seen a firefly in years–and my windshield stays pristine even on long drives. Last summer, I didn’t have a single mosquito bite, although for years I was sure mosquitos found something about me irresistible.

Nice as it is not to spend summers scratching, the implications for the ecosystem are frightening.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that this really isn’t a good time to be governed by aggressively ignorant people.

A Different Kind Of ‘Great Awakening’?

Religion News recently headlined the closing of every one of Lifeway Christian Resources brick and mortar stores.There are 170 of them. They will go entirely online.

The digital shift comes amid declining customer traffic and sales, according to LifeWay.

And it follows the closure of other major Christian retailers, such as the United Methodist Church’s Cokesbury stores, which closed in 2012, and Family Christian Stores, which closed its stores in 2017. At the time, Family Christian was considered the world’s largest retailer of Christian-themed merchandise.

LifeWay had acquired another chain, Berean Christian Stores, in 2013.

LifeWay adhered to a fundamentalist Christian approach, and dropped several popular authors’ books  over ideological differences. It banned author Jen Hatmaker’s books after she expressed support for LGBTQ Christians, and it threatened pastor author Eugene Peterson when it appeared that he was going to officiate a same-sex marriage. It also dropped Rachel Held Evans’ book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” in 2012 after a similar dispute over the book’s content.

In other words, its approach to Christianity had a lot in common with Mike Pence’s.

Fortunately, it’s an approach–and a religiosity– that is rapidly diminishing.

A number of recent polls have documented a significant reduction in the number of Americans who are religiously affiliated; so-called “nones” are now 35% of the population. Among younger Americans, the percentage is greater.

For Millennials and even GenXers, the most common religion is no religion at all. The Nones claim 44% of the 18–29 age group, and nearly that (43%) among those who are 30–44.

This is more than twice their market share among Americans older than 65, just 21% of whom say they are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. However, even that 21% is a five-point rise from where the over-65 group was in 2015, when just 16% identified themselves this way.

Other findings: Barely a third of Americans believe it’s important for married couples to share the same religious affiliation (36%), but majorities do believe that couples should share the same social values (76%) or feelings about children (81%). And it will come as no surprise to learn that Republicans are much more religious than Democrats.

In school, most of us learned about the Great Awakenings of early U.S. history. (Great Awakenings were a series of religious revivals in the then-British colonies and the early days of the country during the 17th and 18th Centuries.) These were episodes of religious fervor that swept through the country before eventually abating. A number of religion scholars have also dubbed the late 20th Century rise of Christian fundamentalism from which we seem finally to  be emerging as a latter-day “Great Awakening.”

America has been fertile ground for these periods of excessive and ostentatious piety, and a number of sociologists have attributed the outlier religiosity of the U.S–we are far more religious than other Western democratic countries– to the personal insecurities that characterize societies with an inadequate social safety net. (Scholars have documented a significant correlation between personal insecurity and religiosity.)

Since our social safety net hasn’t improved, I don’t know how they might explain the current declines in religious affiliation. I personally attribute it to  the excesses of judgmentalism and appalling lack of humanity displayed by the Christian Taliban. The religious right makes religion look pretty repellent.

Whatever the cause, if I were choosing nomenclature, I’d save the label “Great Awakening.” for the current rise of the “nones.”

 

Trump, The Not-Just-April Fool

Tomorrow is April fools Day, which raises the question: how many fools are there? (Does the apostrophe go between the l and the s, or after the s?)

Among the many, many detestable things that Donald Trump and his “best people” have done is shake my former faith in the good sense of most Americans–and increase my estimate of the country’s percentage of fools.

If the last two years have taught me anything, it is that approximately a third of Americans are unable or unwilling to recognize stupidity and incompetence when they see it. I’m not talking about bad ideas, unworkable policies or even the venality and self-dealing that has characterized this administration; I’m talking about the special blend of arrogance, ignorance and limited intellectual capacity that Trump demonstrates anew every day.

Take these remarks reported by The Hill.

Trump touted at an event in Ohio that the U.S. was the largest producer of crude oil and natural gas in the world. He suggested that would not have been the case had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election.

“Hillary wanted to put windmills all over the place,” he told workers at a tank factory in Lima, Ohio.

Trump then mimicked a man telling his spouse to “turn off the television” when the wind doesn’t blow in order to save electricity. The joke was reminiscent of a similar line he delivered earlier this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in which he derided the Green New Deal.

“Put the windmills up, and watch the value of your house if you’re in sight of a windmill — watch the value of your house go down by 65 percent,” he said Wednesday. “Wonderful to have windmills. And solar’s wonderful too, but it’s not strong enough, and it’s very very expensive.”

How incredibly dumb do you have to be in order to believe that if you use wind power, its availability will be intermittent–that when the wind isn’t blowing, the energy isn’t available? Does he really think the enormous growth of wind power use would have occurred if that was the way it worked?

Has he ever heard of batteries?

And solar is not weak and “very expensive.”One megawatt-hour of solar-produced electricity in North America currently costs $50, compared to $102 for coal-originating power, according to new analysis.

Alternative power generation is much cheaper now over the lifetime of a plant than when working with traditional fuels like coal, according to a report by investment bank Lazard.

I’ve posted before about this administration’s war on science; much of it is being waged by former lobbyists who’ve been installed at the EPA and Department of the Interior to protect the bottom lines of fossil fuel interests. Those officials probably know better and simply don’t care–maybe they have grandchildren who don’t have to breathe air and drink water.

But I don’t think Trump does know better. (One of the reasons I never thought he actually colluded with Russia is that he lacks the mental capacity and self-discipline for collusion–he was simply Putin’s useful fool.) Trump is a walking, talking illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effectis a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence.

I think that is a perfect description of Trump.

The more important question is: what explains those Americans who–two years into this disastrous Presidency–still support him and cheer him on? A lot of it, of course, is simply racism/white nationalism. He hates and fears the same people they do, and in return, they’re willing to overlook the fact that he is an embarrassing idiot. But some of it may also be attributable to their own Dunning-Kruger effects.

Either way, the rest of us need to get off our duffs, soundly defeat him and them in 2020, and begin to reclaim and rebuild our country.

Otherwise, Fools Day won’t just be in April.

Demagoguery

The Washington Spectator arrives via my snail-mail (many thanks to Gerald Stinson!), so I can’t link to the article, but the most recent version contained a fascinating essay by one Patricia Roberts-Miller, who is a Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin.

She begins by acknowledging a recurring question posed by most sane Americans: why in the world hasn’t Trump’s obvious incompetence, constant lying and childish language and behavior undercut his standing with his base?

One answer to that question–an answer that research continues to confirm–is that the base shares his racism/White nationalism, and for his base, that animus outweighs everything else. But Roberts-Miller provides a different–albeit not inconsistent–analysis, involving the language of demagoguery.

She cites to a rhetoric scholar who analyzed Hitler’s use of language and characterized it as a “relentless repetition” of the “bastardization of religious thought.” The “religious ways of thinking” that lent themselves to bastardization included identification of a common enemy, allied with scapegoating and projection.

Demagoguery, she points out, “displaces policy argumentation with praise of “us” and condemnation of “them.”

Roberts-Miller also says we should not be surprised by Evangelical Christian support for Trump, since conservative Christian Germans overwhelmingly supported Hitler and conservative Christian Americans previously supported slavery, segregation and lynching.

Although she takes care to say that Trump isn’t Hitler, she admits the parallels are troubling. Hitler railed against a socialist Parliament, internationalism (what we would call globalism), the presence of aliens, rampant immigration, liberalism and the liberal media (which he claimed was “stabbing him in the back”).

And of course, he promised to “make Germany great again.”

Roberts-Miller says that Trump’s use of demagogic rhetoric is less important than the fact that his “rise to power was fueled by a demagoguery that reflected the racist, xenophobic, misogynist and authoritarian values” of today’s iteration of the GOP. As she notes, Trump didn’t bother with dog whistles; he just came right out and said shocking things–“and the GOP media machine didn’t condemn him for it. They justified it, promoted it, and repeated it.”

So here’s where we are in today’s America. In a country and an era where the structures of democracy no longer work, we are governed–thanks to vote suppression, gerrymandering, and the current operation of the Electoral College–by a minority of our fellow citizens who subscribe to a set of pernicious beliefs and act out of a set of visceral resentments that are inimical both to America’s founding values and to human rights. Rather than finding Trump’s inarticulate use of language bizarre and repulsive, his language actually speaks to them. It reinforces their sense of grievance and their belief in their own victimization.

We’re getting a master class in demagoguery.