Monday, October 12, 2020

Facts, Opinions, and Lies

A friend on social media recently posted to ask the difference between facts and opinions. I assumed they already knew, but it is a useful exercise to ask ourselves that question periodically, and ruminate on what constitutes truth and honesty versus lies and manipulation. The following is an abbreviated version of my own assessment, please take from it what you will. You are also encouraged to share your own perspectives in the comments. United States readers, please exercise your right to vote next month.

Facts are, ideally, bits of information for which there is widespread consensus as to their validity, achieved through independent and unbiased evaluation with reproducible results. This is essentially the scientific method, writ large to cover non-scientific subjects. Consulting documentation from a variety of resources that yield the same answer is usually indicative of something factual. There is consensus that gravity exists, for example, and no one is going to suggest water is any other compound but H2O.

Are facts absolute? Not always, and not always indefinitely. This is another lesson science can teach us: today’s conclusion may not hold up tomorrow, if a newer, better tool of evaluation is made available, or the same tools do not yield the same results as those found previously. This demonstrates the importance of peer review, and continued repetition of experiments and observations.

An opinion is a personal interpretation of observations and experiences that lead you to a perspective or conclusion that may or may not reflect reality. Opinions are important, as they can illuminate another side to a subject or condition that others may not have entertained previously. The overriding emphasis here is on “personal.” You may share this opinionated definition of “opinion” with me, or you may have a different description. Perception is very much reality for individuals in abusive households, toxic workplaces, and similarly oppressive conditions. The reality of the abused will differ from that of the abuser.

A lie is a knowingly false assertion disguised as fact. The important aspect here is intent, not the tidbit of “information” provided. A lie essentially has an agenda, or is used to further an agenda. An agenda is irrelevant to a fact. Let me repeat that: an agenda is irrelevant to a fact.

One can argue that politics and religion are the least fact-based endeavors of humanity, overrun with agendas, opinions, lies, and manipulation of the English language. This is because the principal agenda is one of power-seeking, or maintaining power that is owned already. Any matter of genuine importance to the citizenry is fair game for twisting, depriving, or enforcing in order to strengthen the power of those with existing privilege.

The worst kind of lie may be in architecting a false agenda and assigning it to the opposing party (and “party” refers to any individual or group, political or otherwise). We see this abuse committed repeatedly in campaign advertising leading up to elections. Marketing professionals are ninja-level experts when it comes to manipulating language to trigger the desired audience response. “Defund the police” is graphically equated with a flaming cop car by opponents of those who seek accountability of law enforcement, for example.

How can we avoid becoming susceptible to lies, distortions, and manipulation? Dust off the dictionary and keep it handy. Avail yourself of dependable fact-checking sources online. Be more personally inclusive of people of color, lesbians, gays, transgendered persons, non-binary individuals, and others who suffer from a profound lack of privilege and respect. Broaden your circle of associates to include those who may be of differing political or religious affiliations.

Cultivate a sixth sense of truth- and motive-detection. Ask whether media use of the word “democracy” is habitually conflated with “capitalism,” for example. Such exercises can help unmask hidden agendas, in this instance related to the preservation of concentrated corporate wealth, as opposed to an altruistic pursuit of justice and equality for all, regardless of privilege.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Supreme Injustice

You do not know where this is going, just from the title, do you? Oh, he’s going to write about the rush to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat. No, he’s going to write about the verdict in the Breonna Taylor murder. The answer to both assumptions is “yes.”

The press and the pundits have revealed themselves to be tone deaf by not linking these two events. The Supreme Court is still viewed largely as all about decisions that affect privileged white folks, while individual cases at the local and state levels are of vastly more importance to people of color….at least unless and until they reach the Supreme Court, which they too rarely do. One decides what kind of life decisions you can make for yourself. The other decides whether or not you are, or were, entitled to live at all.

The Kentucky decision regarding Breonna Taylor’s assailants, and I don’t know what else to call them, regardless of whether they were representatives of law enforcement, completely devalued her life. That there was not a single shred of empathy is appalling. It is also evidence of no intent to hold police accountable for their behavior towards people of color. Ever. That we are not talking about how to elevate this issue to the level of something that should be addressed by the Supreme Court is telling.

No indictments, no appeals, obviously, but there should be another avenue for the victim and their kin, beyond civil litigation that does nothing but determine monetary damages. It is clear that this kind of preventable tragedy is going to keep on happening without intervention from some greater authority. Short of God, it would be the Supreme Court.

The high court (and I’m not talking about the basketball gymnasium in the same building) is entirely too politicized, and that is putting it politely. This particular vacancy could not have come at a worse time, when Republicans and Democrats are at such polar opposite ends of the spectrum, let alone right before a potential change in the party in power at the executive level. Fortunately, it is not lost on the press that to ram through a conservative nominee just prior to what could be another contested election would favor the incumbent President. That scenario alone should be the end of the debate: no nominee until after the inauguration.

Our judicial system is about one thing and one thing only: law. Please do not confuse the judiciary with religion, morality, or God. Those are all separate things. Religion is a human institution like business and government. Morality is an independent social construct to help inform our daily personal conduct towards others. One could argue that God, too, is a human invention, and It may be, but from my own perspective, I at least view It as an independent entity that does not play favorites, even between species. I digress.

The ideal nominee for a seat on the Supreme Court would be an individual with impeccable examples of personal conduct, who has respect for the history of the court, who has a depth of legal experience commensurate with the position, strong research skills, and a mind open to persuasion through constructive deliberation with their colleagues. They should be moral, yes, but not be a vehicle for imposing their definition of morality on the citizenry.

The ideal nominee realizes that respect for previous decisions is at least as important as the impact of what they rule for future generations. Lastly, but not least, they recognize their power to elevate the lives of minorities to the same level as those who enjoy white (male) privilege.

Justice and equality and ethics should all have the same definition. At the least the application of justice should have ethics as its driving force, and equality as the goal. That ethics so seldom plays a role in the process is heartbreaking and infuriating, at all levels of our judicial system. I’ll be paying more attention to the judges on my November third ballot this year.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Soul Purpose

You do not have to be religious, nor even spiritual, perhaps, to recognize that there is a part of your being that is completely independent of everything tangible and external that others perceive about you. If you are of a theological persuasion, then please take time to reflect on whether that internal identity squares with your chosen denomination. Then, act accordingly.

Do you know what is not white, black, brown, red, yellow, male, female, or non-binary, gay, straight, queer, or other, young or old, rich or poor, democrat, republican, independent, libertarian or anarchist? Your soul. That’s right, your soul is none of these things, and that is not an exhaustive list. Those external qualities are immaterial to your central persona. Your soul can only be corrupted if you allow it to be, if your mind and body do not fuse with your purpose, your innate sense of peace, justice, equality, and connection to all other species.

There is no shortage of influences that can conflict with our soul. We are biological entities, and that immediately entails a mind that can be bent, a body that can be compromised. We are inherently social animals, and vulnerable to coercion, brainwashing, and other tactics designed to benefit others at the expense of ourselves. We fall for distractions from the more important concerns of the day, losing ourselves in entertainment and “coping” mechanisms like alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, and other vices.

Civilization has erected economies with the sole purpose of aspiring to, and attaining, gratuitous material wealth at the expense of whole classes of the citizenry. Economics dictates what is acceptable as an avocation based again on external characters of race and sex. We demand that women bear children because the economy needs more consumers, whether or not those children ever amount to anything “productive.” After all, we outsource and automate the production side. Women are also considered servants of men. We expect black people to serve us through entertainment professions: athletes, musicians, actors, and comedians.

While the private, business sector has made clear its rules of social order for the benefit of overly-privileged straight, white males, the public sector of government has largely agreed with, and reinforced, those parameters. We have yet to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women. Laws and legislation continue to ignore the poverty, mass incarceration, environmental injustice, voter suppression, unemployment and underemployment, and crime that plague entire communities of people of color (not an exhaustive list of woes). In many instances, laws are passed that make matters worse.

Religion should be a savior, or at least a voice of reason, insisting that all of “God’s children” are created equal, but too often the church is mute when it comes to demanding reform. The Bible, like the Constitution and economic theory, is now revealed to be insufficient for a more complex age where the meek are finally asserting their God-given rights. Of course we are going to adhere to outdated rhetoric if it continues to preserve conditions that allow us, personally, to prosper in terms of financial and social rank.

Are police going to stop killing black people? Are we going to stop believing this is “justifiable” use of force? Only when we start seeing through to our souls. When we stop assuming anything based on perceptions of exterior presentation, and preconceived expectations of what is “permissible,” we will begin to advance. We have to start by looking at ourselves that way. A mirror reflects only the body, our occupation merely reflects our current economic role.

Our mind is the closest thing to our soul, and we must free it from undo influence. That may well require economic sacrifice, even hardship, to honor what our soul insists upon. Your life purpose may have nothing to do with your career. In fact, that is probably the case for everyone if our “soul purpose” is to architect a more fair, sustainable life for every human being, and for all species. If that is not your personal answer to your life’s purpose, let’s hear your rebuttal. Our collective dialogue must begin to transcend everything we have come to believe defines our very existence because right now we are denying the existence of others.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Those Who You Thought You Knew

© Costawomen.com

There has been an unspoken understanding in the community of birders and other naturalists that one’s belief that other species matter automatically assumes the same sentiments are extended to all members of our own species. If the last four years have taught us anything, it is that we do not know each other at all. How we reconcile that, or whether we even choose to acknowledge that condition, will steer the future of the entire planet.

What began as simple disbelief that the United States had elected the current occupant of the White House has since become an outrage. Every step of the way it evolved and crystalized into clear recognition that the President has zero empathy for all other human beings, unless they are in a position to improve his personal economic and social status. Initially, we forgave our friends who voted for this person. We could empathize with their desire for change, for someone outside the establishment politics that rule our national government. We sought understanding, but maybe gave up eventually and returned to a relationship with those friends that had nothing to do with politics.

The expectation is that among those who espouse an all species matter philosophy, every other belief aligns

Then came the “me, too” movement, and after that the global pandemic, and in the midst of that the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis policemen. The same friends who had voted for our President were eerily silent through all of that. We were appalled already because they were quiet when borderland policy was incarcerating refugees and immigrants in conditions we would not tolerate for violent felons in prison, and separating parents from children. The rise of Black Lives Matter finally appears to have made things….excuse the analogy….black and white.

The conversations on social media finally exposed the depth and pervasiveness of hatred, even by people we had formerly respected. It was, and still is, jarring to our core. Birding communities that had been divided over etiquette in “chasing,” listing, and observing birds are now divided between racists and inclusivists. The expectation is that among those who espouse an all species matter philosophy, every other belief aligns, including impartial justice, equal rights (not special rights, whatever those are), and acceptance, not mere tolerance, of non-binary identities, and the full spectrum of sexual orientation, including asexual persuasions.

Other animals must change physically to cope….Us? We have only to change our minds in order to adapt.

We begin re-evaluating all our personal relationships, from childhood friends to the person who we trust to fix our computer when it breaks down or behaves strangely. More devastatingly, we question ourselves, and whether we can truly trust anyone to be sincere in their sentiments, and embracing of equality.

”Wait until they come for your heroes,” we are told, as statues fall and monuments are defaced. They already have “come after” John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and others I once revered, but I appreciate the enlightenment and have no fear that the accomplishments of such people will be eroded. Learning the full story, warts and all, is called education, and it has long been overdue.

The success of every species is its ability to adapt to change, but Homo sapiens has the hardest time with that. Other animals must change physically to cope with our ever-widening urban and agricultural landscapes, alter their food selection, and learn to take advantage of human mistakes and neglect. Us? We have only to change our minds in order to adapt. Politics, religion, and economics are the enemies of human adaptation. They cling more fiercely to the past than any other social institutions because those past rules and assumptions serve them in their rise to greater and greater power.

In the end, the inescapable conclusion we reach about those we thought were our friends is that they do not truly care about what is truly important. They fail to understand that only by elevating the status of less privileged people will we ever achieve the sustainability and prosperity that enables other species to thrive alongside of us. The time has come for sacrifice, not continued exclusion. Material gain, or even comfort, can no longer be tolerated when it means oppression of others. A different lifestyle or identity in no way diminishes your own. The only threats to your white, middle-class life are the stereotypes and fears your have manufactured. Get over it, or get out of my life.

Note: This may be my last post unless Blogger retains the "legacy" option as an alternative to its "new," abominable interface. I tried doing this post on the new interface and it was essentially impossible.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Book Review: A Season on the Wind

Kenn Kaufman does something ingenious in A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). He compares and contrasts the way migratory birds harness the wind to propel them northward versus the bumbling attempts of our own species to capture the wind to meet our energy needs. He and his wife, Kimberly Kaufman, live in a unique location where these powerful phenomena clash head on, quite literally. To his credit, Kaufman exercises remarkable restraint in addressing the downside of renewable wind energy, while exhorting the miracle that is spring migration at Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio, U.S.A.

The book is a brilliant and colorful chronology of the history of tracking bird migration in the Americas, and northwest Ohio specifically. While many birders recoil at the notion that anything good can come from hunting, the author reminds us that the first major strides in bird conservation came about as a result of preservation of wetlands by waterfowl hunters. The organization of hunters into a cohesive unit of persuasion and legislation is something birders should take note of and emulate to achieve more widespread measures to preserve and protect our avian fauna.

From the almost primitive practice of bird banding, to next generation radar, citizen science initiatives, and birding festivals like the Biggest Week in American Birding right there at Magee Marsh, we are constantly improving our collective and individual understanding of spring migration. Kaufman deftly walks the line between what is often seemingly dispassionate formal scientific research and the nearly anthropomorphic appreciation of birds by non-scientists. The book, like the author himself, delivers fact, humor, emotion, and honesty in its appraisal of our constantly-changing, nearly schizophrenic relationship to the natural world, with birds at the center.

It would be easy to write effusively about the spectacle of bird migration as if it exists in a vacuum, a historical constant, a changeless exercise that goes on relentlessly regardless of our own existence. Most writers would simply paint a rosy picture that serves to recruit new birders and birdwatchers, and entertain readers without ever hinting at the negative impacts our species can have on migrant fauna.

Likewise, it would be easy to write a downer of a narrative that focuses solely on the perils birds face during their aerial journey north. There is certainly enough material for one to take a full manuscript in either direction. Balancing the joys with the sorrows, anger, and frustration is no easy task, but that is clearly what Kaufman set out to do, and he executes it flawlessly. When you think you cannot recover from the devastation of the previous chapter, the next one renews your enthusiasm and optimism.

One of the most significant points illustrated in A Season on the Wind is the growth of birding as a social activity. Thanks to advances in communication, formerly isolated naturalists and leisure birders can connect with each other to any degree they wish. Some still prefer “alone time” communing with the nature, but that no longer has to be the default setting. The speed of learning about birds has increased by several orders of magnitude, and the diversity of the birding community has the potential to explode as well.

Kaufman, his wife, and their contemporaries in the ornithological community are as relentless in their pursuit of justice for birds and birders as the birds are committed to their instinctive drive to move seasonally. The birds must navigate both the constant starlit sky above and the radically shifting landscape below. Climate change is a force we are attempting to mitigate for ourselves and other species, yet it is also the driving force behind wind turbine technologies that are cutting birds out of the sky.

This conundrum forces us to confront problems of scale. Bird migration is not a stream of birds like a river in the sky. The birds are widely dispersed and the grand scale of migration guarantees that migrants will confront lethal obstacles wherever they exist. The scale of wind farms, in both height and breadth, is the problem. Bird-safe technologies exist, but offer little profit for utility companies, so they remain neglected. By now we should have reciprocal power grids, mostly localized, where individual households and businesses can feed a centralized source with surplus energy in sunny, breezy times and draw from it on cooler, calmer days.

I am already anxious for a sequel to A Season on the Wind, as the emerging discipline of aeroecology recognizes the complex web of organisms that exists overhead, and seeks to unravel those aerial interactions. Meanwhile, you will find this current book a thoughtful, stimulating, and optimistic read.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Writing Wishful Fiction

I confess that I have always looked down a little on fiction writers, perhaps because I know something about insects and how their natural history often rivals or exceeds anything our imaginations could conjure. Consequently, I never seriously entertained the idea of writing fiction myself. Then I realized that every time I write a comment on social media, or publish a blog post about how I wish the world was, instead of how it is, I am doing precisely that: writing fiction.

Never could I craft a novel about some dystopian future, I think we are already living that. I write in part to fend off depression and articulate rage, not plunge deeper into it. I want to provoke, get people to think outside the institutions that they have relied on to guide them through life. Every human institution, be it government, business, religion, or education, is deeply flawed. They all create belief systems that support aspirations of material wealth, rewarding greed, and then “educate” us on why it can be no other way.

The more I age, the greater the urgency to put out my ideas and viewpoints before I die; and most days I feel like I cannot die fast enough. The truth is that I would rather be living in a different time. One thing education has taught me is the “history” in “natural history,” and now I know what I am missing. Carolina Parakeet. American Chestnut, and on and on. All species matter to me, but how can we get there if we cannot respect all of our fellow Homo sapiens?

There is a certain degree of fear to be faced in being true to yourself, let alone publicly articulating your interpretation of the world. Most of us shut the door too quickly on unsolicited views that disagree with what we have grown-up with, and feel threatened by anything contradictory. Some respond with verbal or physical hostility to new ideas. We are seeing that now with the disgusting backlash against those who are, finally, forcefully asserting their rights as human beings and citizens fed-up with oppression in every form it has taken.

I used to feel fortunate to have been born white, male, and a citizen of the United States. I no longer find much pride in any of those circumstances. Privilege is now a burden, a shame, but it should be. I have accrued my status less by what I have achieved, than by what others have been deprived of. Higher still are those on social and economic pedestals that require reinforcement through deprivation of those beneath them. Do they not see they are eroding what is supporting them?

Our cultural evolution should be far more advanced than it is, but in America at least there are orchestrated attempts to halt it, if not return to less enlightened times. Those that long for the comfort and consistency of discrete norms and gender roles and monochromatic populations are doing a disservice to all people, including themselves.

The time for dreams and other wishful fiction must end now. Those positive products of our imagination demand to be transformed into action and tangible benefits for all. I think I am pretty good at spitting out ideas and concepts, not very good at implementing them. You? We do not each live in a vacuum. Time to make connections and complement each other’s strengths to achieve things greater than we could without cooperation.

Here is an exercise for you. Make a list of things you cannot live without. It should be pretty short unless you list family and friends individually. I hope it includes other living things, too, and clean water, healthy food, affordable shelter, healthcare, and lifelong opportunities for education. Freedom of expression. That is about where my own list ends. Now make a list of everything you are willing to sacrifice so others can have the things you can’t live without.

Demand better, please, of yourself, and of those who represent you in government, religion, and business. Connect more with those “different” from yourself and you will quickly realize you have more in common with them than the elitist class you have always been instructed to aspire to. We deserve better than the ephemeral taste of mere material success.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Statues

What is a statue if not rigid, impermeable, unmovable, defiant of the elements that would change it? Copper to cyan, stone to dust. What does a statue represent if not a memorial, nay, a celebration, of history, right or wrong? Concrete figures, concrete ideas, ideals. This is what we are being asked to sacrifice right now, and it is the most minor price to pay.

© nytimes.com

The hostile, even violent sentiments and actions directed at those who are advocating the removal of symbolic representations of racism, overt or rendered invisible by most of the historical record, is disappointing at best, and an infers personal racist tendencies at worst. Are those Black Lives (that) Matter reaching? Is this a witch hunt in which no white, political, military, or social hero with a sculptural remembrance is safe? Maybe, but more likely white people have never been exposed to the entire truth.

If you are unwilling to entertain changes to something as trivial as statues and namesakes, then how can you possibly be willing to make the necessary changes to social, political, legal, economic, business, and religious institutions that continually oppress people of color?

Personally, I associate Theodore Roosevelt with the founding of the national park system, and other conservation initiatives. I am well aware he was a hunter, and that his attitudes towards some species were, in retrospect, completely uninformed, to put it politely. I choose to acknowledge that and temper my respect for him accordingly. Now that I learn his image is a target of anti-racist activists, I need to do more research, not mindlessly object to voices calling for removal of public monuments depicting him.

Even entomology, my other chosen field of endeavor, has not been immune to serious confrontations. The Entomological Society of America, at its regional and national conferences, features a quiz event called the Linnean Games, after Carolus “Carl” Linnaeus, an eighteenth-century figure known as the “Father of Taxonomy,” the classification of organisms. Many insect species bear his name as author but, apparently, he also attempted to classify our own species, Homo sapiens, into different categories, some of which reflect horribly upon Linneaus’s character. There is now a furious uproar between those who want to rename the Linnean Games and those defending the status quo.

The energy devoted to defending individuals of dubious ethical quality should disturb us all. The obvious but unspoken question is: If you are unwilling to entertain changes to something as trivial as statues and namesakes, then how can you possibly be willing to make the necessary changes to social, political, legal, economic, business, and religious institutions that continually oppress people of color? Your voice speaks loud and clear that you are more interested in protecting the past and the present than you are committing to a new, brighter, better future.

Your comfort is overrated, especially compared to the daily fear that black people have for their very lives. Too many white people who protest they are “not racist!” still accept blacks only under certain conditions. Black servants and entertainers (and I lump professional athletes in this category) are acceptable. Even then, we decry that they are overpaid, and probably thugs off the court or off the field. Blacks in other professions? They only advanced in their careers through the reverse discrimination of affirmative action. They got through college via scholarships for blacks only.

Far more inflexible and resistant to change than statues are our own minds. That is the tragedy in all of this. Even air pollution, bird guano, rain, and wind erode the stone- and metalworks. Why is nothing nibbling at our psyche? We are blessed by our Creator, or through evolution, or both, with an infinite capacity to adapt to changes, be they physical, social, economic, or emotional/psychological. Too often we conveniently ignore that and persist in beliefs and institutions that protect our self-interests at the expense of others. That is not even what other animal societies do. It could be argued that elephants, cetaceans, and Bonobos are light years ahead of us.

Lastly, resisting what Black Lives Matter and others have started is not only futile, it goes against your own self-interest as a middle- or lower-class Caucasian. I promise, no, guarantee, that if you embrace the values inherent in this movement it will elevate your life to unimaginable heights. If you cannot fathom what true equality looks like, simply imagine a more empathetic, compassionate, prosperous version of yourself. Now, act like you are already there.