Friday, September 13, 2019

White Tribalism in America

We like to think that, as modern Americans, we have passed the social-evolutionary stage of tribalism. But we have not. We still respond to other people, and potentially threatening situations, the way our tribal ancestors did.

On August 9, a white man walked into a Wal-Mart in Springfield, Missouri, openlycarrying an assault weapon and dressed in a bulletproof vest. People, their memories fresh of the mass shootings that occurred in Texas and Ohio just days before, fled the building, as did the armed man. He surrendered peacefully when authorities arrived.

The man claimed that he was performing an experiment. He had the legal right to openly carry arms. He wanted to find out if places such as Wal-Mart would respect that right. The authorities informed him that his right to carry weapons did not give him the right to act in a way that alarmed the public.

My point about tribalism is this. The man was arrested and treated respectfully because he was white. If he had been black, I have no doubt that he would have been shot—if not by the police, then by the private citizen who kept him at gunpoint while awaiting the police. The white majority in America view other white people as being part of their tribe, and black people as part of a separate tribe. Tribal identity—us vs. them—overwhelmingly determines how we act toward other people, especially in a threatening situation.

This man acted calmly, never pointing his weapon at anyone. But the news is full of white men who have, very recently, committed acts of mass terrorism. Among white conservative males, pent-up resentment brews to a white-hot intensity, in some cases erupting into open anger.

But resentment against what? What immense burden of injustice have white males experienced—from any level of government, or from the economic system, or society in general—that would justify such extreme anger? The idea that white males have been victims of oppression or prejudice, as a group, is ludicrous.

But suppose a black man loses his cool and gets angry. This happened recently in Tulsa, where I live. A black man parked his car in the fire zone at a library. When an armed security guard told him to move his car, he started screaming at her, accusing her of racism and threatening to get her fired. She did not fire at him, and the situation ended without further incident. Obviously, this black man displayed as much crazy anger as do many white men.

The difference is that black people have, in fact, suffered nearly unending oppression in America. Their anger, though inappropriate, is understandable. They were brought here as slaves; they suffered decades of lynching and over a century of racist laws; and, today, the number of black men (even unarmed black men, even uniformed black security guards) get shot by white police far in excess of black police shooting white people. Understandably, black people are afraid of white police, even the majority of police who would not shoot them, and afraid of white men, any of whom might be carrying a concealed weapon and be willing to use it without thinking.

It is equally wrong for whites and blacks to freak out. But blacks, at least, have a reason to feel that way. White supremacist groups far outnumber black supremacist groups. The black groups possess far fewer firearms, and when they do, they get raided. This is what happened to the Nuwabian Nation of Moors. Meanwhile, white supremacist cults continue to proliferate and to accumulate their weapons. White reaction to real or possible threats is strongly controlled by their tribal identity as whites.

Black people will not continue to put up with this. And when a seemingly minor event ignites their wrath, what the black extremists will do will not be reasonable, pretty, or legal. But whites have been asking for it for a long time. I remain astonished that most black people still like most white people.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Just When We Thought We Had Seen Everything: Sharpiegate

We have become accustomed to Donald Trump considering Himself to be personally inerrant on every subject about which he comments, and that His worshipers believe everything He says even after it has been proven wrong. This is the kind of behavior that you would expect to see from God and His worshipers. Does Donald Trump fantasize that He is God? This started with the very first day of His administration, in which He claimed that His inauguration was the biggest one in American history, photographic evidence to the contrary. And it continues at this moment with Sharpiegate.

At first, there appeared to at least be understandable motives for Trump’s lies. He wants us to think that He is the most popular president in American history, despite the fact that Hillary Clinton got more votes. That is, Donald Trump lost the popular vote. He was one of only four American presidents to win the electoral vote but lose the popular vote. The other three were George W. Bush, Rutherford Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison—all Republicans. (John Quincy Adams, who was president before the modern Republican and Democratic parties existed, also lost the electoral vote, but was selected by the House of Representatives. The fact that Trump legitimately won the election was not good enough. He has a psychological need to be at the very top, not just of votes but of inaugural attendees.

But what possible reason could there be for Sharpiegate? As Hurricane Dorian approached the United States in late August, 2019, the National Weather Service used their standard computer programs and the most current data to predict the most likely path of the hurricane. At that time, they believed that Florida would receive a direct hit. To everyone’s surprise, Dorian turned and went north along the Atlantic coast. At no time did the NWS scientists predict that the hurricane would have a significant impact on Alabama.

But Donald Trump insisted that it would. At a press conference, he held up a placard that showed the NWS-predicted path, which did not include Alabama. But this graph had a line drawn on it that included southern Alabama. It had apparently been drawn on the graph with a blue sharpie. The NWS scientists said that this prediction was wrong. But the top administrators of NOAA, the agency that includes NWS, defended the president. (They, unlike the career scientists, are executive appointees.)

[Photo from the New Yorker]

I, for one, cannot imagine how making His own weather prediction could possibly help Trump’s image. My guess is that He probably did it just because He thinks He can command the winds and the waves the way the Bible says that Jesus did.

At no previous point in American history has scientific thinking been in such danger. For the first time, we have a president Who considers Himself to be an authoritative source of scientific data, literally out of thin air. It is no longer just major concepts such as evolution and global warming that are at risk, but the very data themselves. The Great God Donald Trump creates Truth. I always thought Christians believed that only God could do that.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

As Free as a Cow

Many hyper-conservatives (who used to be the extreme fringe of the Republican Party but are now its mainstream) like to think they are defending freedom against tyranny (for example, the tyranny of the metric system, as in the rant by Tucker Carlson; see a previous essay). They think they are “free as a bird.”

But these hyper-conservatives are not free as a bird. They are as free as a cow. The hyper-conservatives believe whatever the NRA and Trump tell them, without questioning it. They will go wherever their idols lead them. They are like cows walking up the ramp into the truck, then down the ramp into the slaughterhouse, without questioning the motives of the humans who prod them.

Even worse, most rich people (not just rich hyper-conservatives) are only as free as a bacterium. Bacteria have no brains, no awareness. All they know how to do is to metabolize, reproduce, and fill their environment with toxins that may suppress the growth of other bacteria. In most cases, a corporation exists to do just one thing—to grow and to force other corporations out of the marketplace. A corporation then becomes like a bacterial infection in the nation and society. The rich people who own or manage these corporations, likewise, simply want to get more money, even if their greed kills the corporation, the society, the country. They are like a bacterial infection that kills the host animal.

This would seem to be a bad idea for bacteria, and natural selection should cause such ultimately self-destructive bacteria to go extinct. And, in many cases, this is just what happens. But if the bacteria are able to launch themselves onto another host, they will continue to survive on the new animal even as the previous one dies. The situation with rich people is similar. If they can get their money out of the corporation they are killing in time to invest it in a secret overseas bank account, they can continue to enjoy their wealth even after the demise of their corporation. The only victims are the employees of the corporation, and the small investors, and the customers. Right at this moment, there are thousands of wealthy people who never have to work again because they have fortunes that they took from corporations that they helped to kill.

And hyper-conservatives think that this is a good system. They want the very, very rich people to be as free as a cow, or as free as a bacterium, rather than free as a bird. A bird can see danger ahead and fly in another direction. Birds usually do not blindly follow a leader. Each bird makes its own decision about what to do and when to do it. Even migrating flocks of birds have no real leader, but respond to cues from one another about when to take flight and where to go.

Hyper-conservatives are leading our country toward the slaughterhouse. They have already infected us, and our death is imminent unless their strangle-hold on American minds is broken.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Mass Shootings: Everything Is Just as It Should be

Donald Trump has recently announced that there is no need for any strengthening of background checks, certainly no need for any further gun regulation, in the United States. In doing so, he was following orders from the NRA, whose advice he admitted was very, very important to him. Therefore, it appears, everything is exactly as it should be. We have exactly the right amount of gun safety, and the mass shootings that we have had and continue to have—I haven’t checked the news yet today—is a small price to pay for the freedom of crazy people to carry guns around and be ready to use them at a moment’s notice. From the Trump-NRA viewpoint, there should be no legal restrictions on firearms, until the moment the first shot is fired, and then the gunman should be neutralized.

I would like to present here a list of the deadliest mass shootings since 1949, according to an article published August 19, 2019, on CNN.

Number killed
Las Vegas
White man
Arab man
Virginia Tech
Asian man
Sandy Hook CT
White man
Sutherland Springs TX
White man
Killeen TX
White man
El Paso
White man
San Ysidro CA
White man
University of Texas
White man
High school in Florida
White youth
San Bernardino CA
Arab couple
Binghamton NY
Asian man
Columbine CO
White youths
Seattle WA
Asian men
Wilkes-Barre PA
Black man
Camden NJ
White man
Virginia Beach
Black man
Thousand Oaks CA
White man
Washington Navy Yard
Black man
Aurora CO
White man
White man
Pittsburgh synagogue
White man
Santa Fe TX
White youth
White man

*includes unborn child

This, apparently, is an acceptable situation. Let us consider these data a little further:

Ethnicity                     Incidents         Deaths
White man                   15                    279
Arabs                           3                      77
Asian man/men           3                      58
White youth/s              3                      40
Black man                   3                      37
Total                            27                    491

From this tabulation, we can see that all ethnicities are capable of mass violence, but it is overwhelmingly a phenomenon of white males.

These incidents have become much much much much more common in recent years. Consider this tabulation:

Year                Incidents         Deaths
1949                1                      13
1966                1                      18
1982                1                      13
1983                1                      13
1984                1                      21
1986                1                      14
1991                1                      23
1999                2                      25
2007                1                      32
2009                3                      37
2012                2                      39
2013                1                      12
2015                1                      14
2016                1                      49
2017                2                      84
2018                4                      50
2019                2                      34

There has been a huge acceleration of mass shootings. This is also, apparently, a situation that is acceptable to Trump and the NRA. And 2019 isn’t even over yet. I am not predicting that this acceleration will continue, but the rate will certainly not decline. Other countries such as France think we are freaking crazy. Their conclusion is understandable.

What does this have to do with evolution? Quite a lot. Evolution has given the human brain instincts for altruism, as well as instincts for killing. We have a choice as to which ones we will use. We have the freedom to choose peace over racism, yet the vast majority of the killings were inspired by racial hatred. Our instincts of altruism toward members of our tribe and hostility toward outsiders may have served us well in prehistoric times, but we Americans, led by Trump and the NRA, are taking us boldly back to caveman days.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Conservative Hatred of Science Even at Its Most Basic Level

We all know that conservatives hate science. Conservatives want you to get all your truth straight from Donald Trump, without questioning it. Even the Bible has given way to Trump as the authority for all knowledge among conservatives.

One reason conservatives hate science is that science forces you to question your assumptions, your definitions, and it forces you to seek information to test your beliefs.

But they hate science at an even more basic level than this. For centuries, all scientific research and communication has used the metric system. This system is very logical, and is based on the Earth, water, and powers of 10. Scientists have universally, even in America, adopted this system to avoid miscommunications. When two different entities use two different systems of measurement, the result can be disastrous and costly, as happened in 1999. A Mars probe got all the way to Mars then crashed, because the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) used the metric system while Lockheed Martin, a contractor, used the “English” system, which the English no longer use.

Only three countries in the world reject the metric system: Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States.

Conservatives hate science all the way back to the very basics of measurement. They hate the metric system. At least Tucker Carlson, who represents the extreme right wing of Republicans who hold sway under Donald Trump, hates it. On June 5, 2019, Carlson said, “Almost every nation on Earth has fallen under the yoke of tyranny—the metric system...The United States is the only major country that has resisted...Esperanto died, but the metric system continues, this weird, utopian, inelegant creepy system that we alone have resisted.”

Actually, it is not we alone. Standing with us are the other two most wealthy, stable, and free nations on Earth: Liberia and Myanmar.

Carlson’s guest, James Panero, went further. He called the metric system “the original system of global revolution and new world orders.” Now there he has a point. The metric system was born out of the French Revolution. Carlson’s response was, “God bless you.”

What next? Maybe Trump can slap tariffs on imports from any country that uses the metric system.

If Carlson intended this as a joke, I have seen no indication of it.

But here is a fundamental(ist) point that the conservatives have missed. I wonder what fundamentalist Mike Pence would say about this. Fox and Friends seems to think that God wants us to use feet, inches, pounds, etc. But the Bible uses no such measures! The Bible uses the cubit as the basic measure of length. Any nation that does not base its measurements on cubits has fallen under the condemnation of the Almighty.

I’m not going to touch that one with a 25-cubit pole!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Will We Lose Even the Remembrance of Biodiversity?

And now, time to get really depressed.

In the July 30 essay, I  speculated about the loss of biodiversity in a future world, producing a natural world that may more resemble my Garden of Contemplation than a rainforest. In this essay, I speculate about not just the loss of biodiversity, but the loss of the remembrance of biodiversity.

Dedicated scientists have recorded over a million species of organisms on Earth. You can find many of them on the Encyclopedia of Life website. In Oklahoma, we have a vascular plants database. Most of these species remain unknown to anyone except scientists. Photographs of many of them appear on calendars sent out by conservation organizations, but for most of us, we look at the photos and then forget the species. I tried to keep all of my old conservation calendars, but it was an impossible task. Information in a huge pile of old calendars or Nature Conservancy magazines is as inaccessible as if it were hidden away in a vault. Only a few experts really know the truth about biodiversity. If you put me in a room and told me to list all of the plant species in Oklahoma, of which there are thousands, I would run out at about 300. There might be two people in Oklahoma (Amy and Bruce, that’s you) who might know all of them. And in a rainforest? The fabled acre of rainforest in Peru that has more species of birds than all of Europe? Only a few experts know what those species are. For the rest of us, it is hearsay.

These species are rapidly becoming extinct. And one of the reasons is global climate change, resulting from carbon emissions for which the coal and oil industries are largely responsible. People want solar and wind energy; but the coal and oil industries, and the United States government which they own, do not. Furthermore, the coal and oil industries want to be self-righteous. They want us, and future generations, to admire them, even to love them. Therefore, it is imperative that future generations NOT know about these extinctions for which the corporations are partially responsible.

In my imagination, I foresee a future in which databases of species, many of which will by then be extinct, will be purged. Paper backups—including scientific papers, which few people read even now—can be locked away and kept from public knowledge. The Republican government, by then a dictatorship, can then proclaim to the world, “We are not responsible for the sixth mass extinction. There never was one! The species that you see today are the only ones that were on the Earth before we began releasing energy from fossil fuels. And anyone who accuses us of causing a mass extinction, of destroying God’s creation, is a liar and an enemy of the state! An enemy of God! Anyone who says a mass extinction occurred, show us the data! You cannot! It does not exist! We cannot have harmed God’s creation; we Republicans are God’s people!” I will leave it to you to guess whether such a scenario might ever happen. What is more likely is that biodiversity information will simply be forgotten, even as it sits in digital piles.

A couple of decades ago I wrote a short story set in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I used to teach field botany in the summer. In the story, what had once been forests of ponderosa pine had eroded into an artificial desert. People lived in walled cities with artificial resources. Except for some wild people called rock bunnies because they jumped from one rock to another. The rock bunnies had found, and hidden, a herbarium that showed that not only pines but many species of wildflowers from lilies to shooting-stars had once lived there, and birches had once grown along clear brooks.

(This photo from 1994 shows a student named Lily holding a lily in a meadow at the top of the Black Hills, here in Wyoming.)

In the story, many of the herbarium specimens had been collected long before by a long-forgotten teacher named Stanley Rice. A military contingent from one of the cities destroyed the herbarium, since the central government wanted everyone to think that the eroded landscape had always been there, and that they had caused no environmental degradation.

To those of you who think this speculation may be extreme: can you prove me wrong? Can you deny that the current Republican leadership, under its charismatic antichrist Donald Trump, create their own “truths”? How is a student in the year 2080 to know that hundreds of thousands of species that they have never seen, and that their government does not acknowledge, exist or existed?

Those of us who are documenting biodiversity—might our work, someday, be considered treasonous?

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Garden of Contemplation

At the present time, I have been able to relocate and upload the missing videos from my YouTube channel. Watch this blog for further updates, if necessary.

In a previous essay, I speculated that, a couple of centuries into the future, there may be no truly natural world. Instead, I said, “nature” may consist mostly of areas such as municipal parks.

But perhaps a better example of “nature” in the future is my Garden of Contemplation. This garden is just my back yard in rural Oklahoma. Every evening that I can in May and June, I sit in it, sometimes grilling meat, sometimes just drinking and listening silently, trying to ignore the loud pickup trucks driven up and down the street by men whose entire significance of life consists of making fumes and noise.

My son-in-law made this sketch of my Jardin de Contemplation.

This “garden” is certainly not natural. The original ecosystems where I live were tallgrass prairie and cross-timbers forest. No species from either of these natural ecosystems exists in my “garden.” All the plants are adapted to the moist conditions that have come with urbanization and fire suppression.

Furthermore, it is not really a “garden,” hence the quotation marks. I really do not do very much to it. I let “nature” take its course, for the most part, except:

  • I mow the grass.
  • I pluck up or cut down the seedlings and saplings of trees that squirrels planted too close to the house (water oak, red oak, pecan).
  • I try to force the plants to play nicely with one another. That is, I take action against bullies, mainly by cutting back the most aggressive vines.

All of this, of course, is unnatural, especially my action against bullies. But I have planted very little. It is a managed ecosystem that formed from plants that happened to find themselves associated with one another. Here is a little more detail about it.

  • The largest tree is a huge sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), and the second largest is a water oak (Quercus nigra). A squirrel planted the water oak about 2002, and today it fills a large part of what was once a grassy area. Both are species native to Oklahoma, even if not to my precise location.
  • A male Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) has grown near the carport since 2001. Recently, it began spreading clonally, and now there are about five sprouts.
  • A pyracantha (not native) dominates the corner of the fence.
  • I planted a couple of redbuds (Cercis canadensis).
  • A barrier of privet bushes (genus Ligustrum) protects my yard from the stupidity of the road. Privets are not native; indeed, they are one of the dirty dozen of Oklahoma invasives, and if I lived in the country I would feel obligated to cut them down (only to watch them resprout).
  • But it is the vines that celebrate my hands-off approach. Wisteria, from Asia, is very aggressive, but so are the native mustang grapes (Vitis mustangensis) along the side fence; the muscadine grapes (V. rotundifolia) along the alley; the catbriars (Smilax bona-nox); and the snailseed vines (Mennispermum coccineum). All of these vines want to smother my pyracantha and redbuds and even my water oak.
  • Shady microclimates have Geum canadense flowers (not very showy, but quite natural) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).
  • Birds are always planting mulberries (Morus alba) and sugarberries (Celtis laevigata). These trees like to destroy fences, so I spend a lot of time clipping them back. The wind blows in seeds of Asian lacebark elms (Ulmus parvifolia) from across the street.
  • In spring, two species of daffodils, lots of weedy sedges, the hairy species of speedwell (genus Veronica), Hustonia, and both of the Lamium species that real gardeners despise (L. amplexicaule and L. purpureum) fill the yard while the grass is still dormant.

False dandelions (Krigia) fill large areas of my front yard, suppressing grass in the spring. I mow the Krigia like grass, getting milky sap on my flipflops. But I left them as long as I could. The little corner of yellow composite-flowers that opened in the morning stood in contrast to the well-mowed areas around it, and I hope this let people know I deliberately left the Krigia. I also have one of the biggest crape myrtles in town, and a lot of Vinca.

Is this a view of biodiversity in the future? A minimally-managed spot where even the guy who lives there can be surprised at what he finds. And the animal life seems to like it also. Even without a bird-feeder, I get the mimid trifecta (mockingbirds, brown thrashers, catbirds), and cardinals. “Weed” birds such as grackles find my yard too wild and never visit it. As for insects, I have lots of lightning-bugs (lampyrid beetles). The cat is a visitor, not a resident.

It is nothing like natural biodiversity. But there is enough biodiversity that, someday, my granddaughter can explore it and keep asking, What’s this? What’s this? Enough biodiversity, at least, that she will not grow up thinking that a tree is a tree is a tree.

Of course, if civilization collapses—and there are many ways this could happen—then a lot of biodiversity will return in its absence.