A Likely Story

“It was a likely story. But then, all of his stories were likely.” – Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

In a somewhat pointless exchange on Facebook recently (but aren’t they all, usually?) a friend-of-a-friend, struggling to defend against a criticism of current US President Donald Trump, trotted out the “birther” trope: the assertion that Barack Obama was actually born in Africa.

When all else fails, you can always blame it on time travel.

Her conviction is supported by a widely-circulated image of an alleged birth certificate labeled “The Republic of Kenya” and dated August, 1961. The simple historical fact that the Republic of Kenya only came into existence in December of 1964, three and half years after the date on the certificate, is not a deterrent to this woman’s belief in the absolute integrity of the document. She has harnessed her wagon to that particular mule; that the animal is dead and decaying bothers her not in the least. It’s her mule, and she plans to keep lashing away at it until the race has been run.

Meanwhile …

In a throwaway segment on “Good Morning America” a few days ago, television presenter Lara Spencer listed the activities in which Prince George, future King of England, would be participating as he began the new school year: one of those activities was ballet, a fact that Ms Spencer seemed to find amusing – amusing not in a “let’s be happy with this child” kind of way, but in a “let’s all make fun of this little sissy” kind of way.

Ms Spencer, whose credentials as a journalist include such highlights as a stint on “Antiques Roadshow”, and the host slot on “Flea Market Flip”, implied that the young Prince would lose his interest in dance very quickly, because people like her would be making fun of him for it.

We all have our own sacred cows, ideas that are so deeply embedded in our psyches that we are willing to go to any lengths, make any sacrifice, to defend them. Unlike concepts that are patently stupid, like Holocaust denial or trickle-down economics or Adam Sandler movies, these are so intrinsic to our worldview that they are usually invisible to us. Examining them objectively is like trying to see the back of one’s own head. When they cause us to do harm, it’s not because we mean to hurt anyone: Ms Spencer, in laughing at the young prince’s interests, did not intend malice toward the boy but rather was basing her comments on a stereotype, then using that same stereotype to justify her comments.

“We’re making fun of him for his interest in ballet because we are convinced that he won’t enjoy it because people will make fun of him for it.”  Makes perfect sense, right?

It should be mentioned that, had Barack Obama in fact been born in the East Africa colony, he would not have been the only US President born under the British flag. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and William Henry Harrison were all born in the British Colony of Virginia; John Adams and John Quincy Adams were born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; and Andrew Jackson was born in the Carolina Colony. The first President actually born in the United States of America was Number Nine, Martin Van Buren, born in New York in 1782.

For the birther, it’s obvious that Barack Obama did not belong in the White House. She believes this because her background, her socialization, her identity all tell her that a non-white person cannot be President of the United States; but phrasing the issue in that explicit way conflicts with her conscious self-image, which says that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” – so she has to find a likely story that will mesh the very real revulsion she feels at the spectacle of a black man in a position of power with her view of herself as an educated and unbiased judge of persons and events. Toss in the (to her) unusual name, and the acknowledged fact that Mr Obama’s father came from the place that would eventually become the Republic of Kenya, and the solution is obvious: she can tell herself that her objection isn’t that Barack Obama isn’t white enough, it’s that he isn’t American enough.

“I don’t care whether the man is black or white; I’m just saying that the only way a black man could have been elected President is if there was a complex multinational conspiracy at all levels of government and society to put him there illegitimately. It has nothing to do with race.” 

I like to consider myself pretty reasonable: my worldview is not based on animist superstition or the even more bizarre pronouncements of Jenny McCarthy or Franklin Graham, but on science and observation. This is what I want to believe about myself. This is my “likely story”.

When a paper wasp from the colony living above my front door lands on my arm, I don’t dance and scream and flail: I just stand there and wait for her to get bored and move on. Paper wasps (genus Polistes) have incredibly painful stings, so the visitor represents a very real threat, but I am sufficiently rational that I can remain calm and avoid confrontation. On the other hand, if one of the absolutely harmless camel crickets that infest my basement jumps onto my shoe, I go flying out the door and across the yard, hopping and squealing like a three-year-old at a pool party. I explain this behavior in a variety of ways: the creatures are close relatives of the cockroach; they are slimy to the touch; they feed on the kind of nasty detritus that one finds in a hundred-year-old dirt-floor basement; and so on. None of my “logical” explanations are at all convincing, but I have to try, because otherwise I’d have to accept that I’m behaving in a completely ridiculous, irrational way, out of unthinking fear, and that’s uncomfortable for me.

The genetic differences between a “black” American and a “white” American are often no greater than the distinctions between two people in a single family. Race is an artificial social construct that has no biological basis. The very definition of “black” or “white” is ambiguous: for many Americans a blue-eyed blond with one Nigerian grandparent can’t be considered white, while for others having a white mother meant that Barack Obama was about as black as Tilda Swinton. The terms of the argument are so deeply flawed that the argument itself can’t be anything but meaningless – yet, here we are.

Likewise, the idea that Prince George deserves a certain amount of ridicule for enjoying ballet derives from two completely valueless premises: one, that people will assume that he is gay, and two, that being considered gay will justify his being ridiculed. Both of these assertions have weight only because the people using them to support their beliefs give them that weight.

“My argument is valid because it is based on premises that are valid because the argument I’m making that is based on those premises is valid …”

I’ll be damned. There it is.

In the end, the birther lady on Facebook slunk away, outraged that nobody bothered to challenge her, to give her a forum to vent some spleen, but instead just treated her like a doddering relative appearing unwanted at the dinner table: “Bless her heart, she doesn’t know what she’s saying, poor old thing …” Lara Spencer, meanwhile, published a non-apology on Instagram, accompanied by a picture of a lovely, but quite empty, landscape: in a more prescient individual, one could interpret that as a bit of self-deprecating humor, but … well, it’s probably just the first picture she found that wasn’t a selfie.

Barack Obama continues to bask in very high popularity numbers, and presumably Prince George will have a good time learning his pliés and I wish him well in the struggle he will face to find an identity for himself in the goldfish bowl in which he and his family live their lives.

Me? I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got. Camel crickets still give me the heebie-jeebies, and I’m still no better at examining the back of my own head than anybody else, but at least I try to remember that it’s there.

Paddling Point Nemo

There it is. The middle ground. Enjoy.

I like to think that I’m a pretty easy-going sort of person.

I have strong opinions about a lot of things, but they don’t get in the way of my being able to talk to just about anybody, about just about anything, and I try to be courteous to, and considerate of, the people I deal with in my day-to-day life – regardless of who they are, and who I am. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I think it’s important to give it my best shot. Continue reading

Really and truly.

Uh, oh. This can’t be good.

Many years ago, during a visit to my family in my hometown of Boaz, Alabama, I got the notion to prepare a really fabulous meal for everybody.

On the face of it, this would seem like a nice gesture, but don’t fool yourself. I was thirty years old, and my snobbery knew no limits. I was from Boaz, but not of Boaz; I had gone away and become part of a wider world, and a fancy meal was just another way to prove my superiority. (I suppose all escapees from small towns go through that phase somewhere down the line. We’re Truman Capote or Andy Warhol: We go away for a few years, then come back to visit, proudly bearing suitcases full of Robert Rauschenberg and Igor Stravinsky and W. H. Auden and chicken recipes in Italian.) Continue reading

Calculating the value of pie.

piOf all the obnoxious and unpopular universals we have to deal with – gravity, conservation of momentum, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, the speed of light in a vacuum, the way coffee never tastes as good as it smells – the one that seems to be the hardest for most of us to accept is entropy.

Just when we think we’ve gotten a handle on things, figured out how to survive, how to be happy, how to get through the day, we discover that the universe has marched on and the situation has changed. Suddenly all the systems and workarounds that we rely upon to keep us sane no longer work the way we expect them to. The rules have changed on us. Loved ones die, things break down, the places that are important to us become strange and different. “For no reason!” we insist, red-faced and frustrated, but in fact there is a reason: simple entropy. Continue reading

Moody madness laughing wild

If you gotta ask the question, you'll never understand the answer ...

If you gotta ask the question, you’ll never understand the answer …

The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is a bizarre allegorical romance attributed to a German theologian named Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.

The story takes the form of a vision – what you New Age folks would call “lucid dreaming” – in which our hero, Christian Rosenkreutz, experiences a series of episodes that supposedly illustrate great cosmic truths which are never explicitly articulated. The symbolism is lavish and highly detailed: for the uninitiated, it all seems like some sort of paranoid fantasy, but for those with the proper training and insight there is supposedly much useful information to be gleaned. The nature of that information is, again, not clear: Is it a cookbook of alchemy? Recipes for the Philosopher’s Stone? Procedures for turning lead into gold, or quicksilver into the Elixir of Immortality? Or is it perhaps a glimpse behind the veil of reality, offering clues as to the fundamental powers of our universe? As with so many esoteric systems, those who tell don’t know, and those who know aren’t telling – at least not for free. Continue reading

The Barbarians at the Gates

"Get off my lawn, dammit!"

“Get off my lawn, dammit!”

Last Tuesday, in a California courtroom, a judge sentenced 23-year-old Casey Nocket to two years’ probation and 200 hours of community service after Nocket pleaded guilty to seven counts of damaging government property. Over the span of about a month in 2014, Ms Nocket had used indelible markers to paint large cartoonish figures on prominent rock surfaces in various national parks in California, Colorado, Utah, and Oregon; she had then posted photos of her doodles to Instagram.

News accounts of Ms Nocket’s exploits invariably use terms like “vandalism” and “vandalized”. This was a characterization to which the defendant objected during the court proceedings, and I would have to agree with her: real Vandals don’t deserve such a comparison. Continue reading

Journal: Friday, May 6

I don’t necessarily agree one hundred percent with this author’s conclusions, but the argument is cogent and timely today as it was more than a century ago. From the Notebooks of Mark Twain:

“A man can be a Christian or a patriot, but he can’t legally be a Christian and a patriot — except in the usual way: one of the two with the mouth, the other with the heart. The spirit of Christianity proclaims the brotherhood of the race and the meaning of that strong word has not been left to guesswork, but made tremendously definite — the Christian must forgive his brother man all crimes he can imagine and commit, and all insults he can conceive and utter — forgive these injuries how many times? — seventy times seven — another way of saying there shall be no limit to this forgiveness. That is the spirit and the law of Christianity. Well — Patriotism has its laws. And it also is a perfectly definite one, there are not vaguenesses about it. It commands that the brother over the border shall be sharply watched and brought to book every time he does us a hurt or offends us with an insult. Word it as softly as you please, the spirit of patriotism is the spirit of the dog and wolf. The moment there is a misunderstanding about a boundary line or a hamper of fish or some other squalid matter, see patriotism rise, and hear him split the universe with his war-whoop. The spirit of patriotism being in its nature jealous and selfish, is just in man’s line, it comes natural to him — he can live up to all its requirements to the letter; but the spirit of Christianity is not in its entirety possible to him.

“The prayers concealed in what I have been saying is, not that patriotism should cease and not that the talk about universal brotherhood should cease, but that the incongruous firm be dissolved and each limb of it be required to transact business by itself, for the future.”

— Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”)

Sweet Poison

If you change your mind, maybe you can spit it out later...

If you change your mind, maybe you can spit it out later…

During the first twenty years of my life, a time I mostly spent romping around the woods and fields of Sand Mountain (that’s in northeastern Alabama, for you heathens), I saw exactly two venomous snakes. One was a cottonmouth swimming in a catfish pond, who took one look at me and swam the other way; the second was a copperhead sunning himself on a rock next to that same pond. I was able to sneak up close enough to spy on the copperhead for about two seconds before he, also, detected my presence and bolted.

There are, in fact, four venomous snakes native to my home state: the water moccasin, the copperhead, the coral snake, and an assortment of rattlesnakes. (The latter two varieties managed to elude me for the entire two decades, despite my habit of placing myself very much in their way. To this day I’ve never seen a rattlesnake or a coral snake outside of an open glass tank in a church … but that’s a story for another day.) The majority of the snakes in the region are harmless to humans, or even highly beneficial, efficient predators on mice, rats, moles, and other farmyard pests. Continue reading

Sighting the target

burning computerLike millions of other people sitting in front of their computers yesterday, my reaction to the sad story of Cecil the lion was both visceral and vehement. The impulse to react accordingly was irresistible: it was also wrong.

The fifty-something American from Minnesota whose adventures launched such a firestorm was perfectly cast for the role of villain. He was a dentist, a job that arouses pretty negative feelings in many of us; better yet, he was obviously a wealthy dentist: How many of us can afford to walk away from our jobs for weeks at a stretch to go jaunting off around the globe (especially when we have dental bills to pay)? Most importantly, he was an avid sports hunter, not just of the local turkey and deer but of animals that most of us only dream of ever seeing in the flesh. Continue reading

An insane pronouncement.

Copernicus_solar_systemLet’s suppose you’re doing last Sunday’s crossword puzzle.

You’re stumped on seven down: a five-letter word for “indistinct”. There are a couple of possibilities here, but the one that pops into your mind first is “fuzzy”, so you drop that in, very faintly, in pencil.

Okay, now what? Fifteen across, a six-letter word for “mystery”, is now coming up “enizma”, which is obviously wrong. A moment’s thought gives us a 99.9% certainty that we should be seeing “enigma” in that slot, but that gives us “fugzy” for seven down, our original problem clue: once again, it’s safe to assume that something’s not clicking. Continue reading

Journal: Monday, March 23

CruzThe ruler of the Aztec empire was called the “tlatoani”, which roughly translates to “the one who talks the loudest”. From the founding of Gran Tenochtitlan in 1325 to the final collapse in 1521, the Aztec civilization survived for a grand total of 196 years, during which time they had become so hated by all of their neighbors that even the rapacious Spanish invaders were embraced as the lesser of two evils.

Ted Cruz for President? Being the one who talks the loudest does not necessarily mean that what you’re saying is right, or smart, or good for your people, or for your country. In fact, it usually means that you don’t really care about any of those things: you simply want to be king, you want to sit on the big chair where everyone has to listen to you, like it or not (like the students at Liberty University this morning who were required to attend Mr Cruz’ announcement speech) — even as fundamentalist religion, anti-intellectualism, environmental collapse, and ill-considered military adventurism are bringing your nation to its knees, as they did in Tenochtitlan five hundred years ago.

I suppose that if you’re someone who believes that allowing same-sex couples to marry is the greatest threat the United States faces in the twenty-first century, then by all means, Ted Cruz is probably your guy. But denying me my rights is not going to protect you when the conquistadores arrive, and burning the books and crucifying the thinkers because they describe problems you don’t want to face is not going to make you better equipped to cope with the real world when it comes crashing through your gates.


Journal: Saturday, March 7

birdandfish_600My painting “Dialogue Between the Bird and the Fish” will be finding a new home this weekend, and I thought this might be a nice time to tell the story that the picture illustrates. So, without further ado …

A fly, hovering near the surface of a pond, finds itself suddenly the target of not one, but two predators: a bird who darts down from the nearby cattails and a fish who rises up unexpectedly from the depths of the water. Fortunately for the fly, his attackers are so startled that he has the opportunity to dart out of reach of either (only to be eaten later by a dragonfly — such is life).

The bird, retreating to an overhanging willow branch, stares at the interloper, who rises to the surface and returns her gaze with equal astonishment.

“Such a miserable beast!” the bird thinks, not without pity. “Unable to rise into the open air, never to perch in a tree to sing the dawn into being, lost forever in the dim and the wet. For him the sun can only be a dim glow, and the wind but a rumor. His sky is a ceiling beyond which he may never go, and summer and winter, spring and fall, down in the depths are all one. His song is nothing but a croak, and his feathers are hard as glass. How sad!”

The fish, for his part, finds the bird’s lot equally distressing. “Suppose the poor creature is traveling and wants to pause for a moment to admire the view; why, she would crash to the ground and be eaten by snakes in a moment. Only amid the obscuring tangle of the trees and shrubbery can she rest. And even then, she must be prey to wind and weather, extremes of temperature, never safe from sun and storm. Her scales are frayed and frazzled, hardly adequate protection from anything. And those sounds she makes, as though in terrible pain! Pitiful thing.”

The two stare, hesitating, until a hawk sounds in the distance and the bird darts away to her covert among the cattails, and the fish scents the approach of a pike and drifts down into a secure niche among the rocks of the bank, each filled with pity for the unfortunate other.