The False Narrative of Racism

You have undoubtedly seen or heard from anthropologists, historians, and biologists that there is no such thing as race, and that race is a sociological construct. I agree, but I also understand why this truth about race doesn’t stick with so many; it doesn’t match their experience. What we know is what we experience, not what we are told. The enslavement of Africans was justified biologically, and for many that false narrative continues. So, let’s talk explore the biology and sociology of race a bit.

We are a young species, and 150,000 – 200,000 years ago, in the early history of our species it is thought that we were once nearly extinct—with our population reduced down to a few thousand individuals. Because of this (and a piece of evidence for this near extinction), across our species, from one individual to the next we are virtually genetically identical. Individual humans are much more the same genetically than the individuals of just about other species.

However, one readily visible variation evolved during this time: skin color. During our short evolutionary history, the expression of the trait for skin color evolved into a broad spectrum of pigmentation as a result of two forms of the pigment melanin: eumelanin and pheomelanin. The different shapes of these two molecules reflects different aspects of the light spectrum, so eumelanin is either black or brown and pheomelanin has either a red or pink hue.

Melanin is stored in our cells in structures called melanosomes which form an “umbrella” of sorts above the nucleus containing our DNA. This umbrella absorbs UV radiation from the sun, thus protecting our DNA from degradation caused by harmful UV rays. The darker the pigmentation, the more UV light is blocked from reaching the nucleus. In addition to the melanosomes protecting our DNA in our cells, thus offering protection from skin cancer, it also protects the vitamin folate stored in our cells. Folate is needed for healthy embryo development and health sperm production.

If there are two obvious advantages to darker skin, why don’t we all have the maximum eumelanin to give us all the most protection from the sun? Evolution is often a story of compromise. The darker the skin from eumelanin, the less UV-B radiation is absorbed which is necessary to produce vitamin D.  The darkest possible skin blocks most of the UV-B radiation needed to make vitamin D. However, such individuals living near the equator, even with maximum melanin pigmentation protecting the DNA and folate production, still let enough UV-B through to produce enough vitamin D.

As populations of humans migrated further from the equator, they underwent microevolution to have less eumelanin and more pheomelanin, thus lightening the skin and reducing the efficacy of the melanosome umbrella. The further from the equator, the less intense the UV radiation, so the individual can safely have reduced melanosome umbrella coverage and not suffer DNA and folate degradation, but still get enough UV-B to make vitamin D. Thus, we a see a lightening of skin pigmentation in individual’s as their more recent evolutionary ancestry can be traced to latitudes further from the equator. You can tell a person’s ancestral latitude of origin based on their skin tone.

Genetically and biologically it would seem I’ve made a case for the concept of “race.” Except one thing is abundantly clear. Skin pigmentation is simply a product of natural selection and nothing else and the production of eumelanin versus pheomelanin is not any indication of other characteristics. Genetically, we are all approximately 99.9% the same. In fact, our closest related species, the bonobo chimpanzee, is genetically more similar to us than they are to gorillas. Looks can be deceiving. The genetic variation we see in skin color is literally only skin deep. It makes as much sense to separate individuals by their skin color as it would to separate people by whether they have attached or unattached earlobes, can roll their tongue, or have a widow’s peak (well maybe not that last one. We need to keep that one for TV vampires).

According to Resmaa Menakem (2017), author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, the conception of blackness and race were invented in the 17th century. Prior to this, individuals in North America were identified by their place of origin/tribe: English, French, Dutch, Pequot, Narragansett, Mohawk, etc., and “European colonists and their children did not think of themselves as belonging to the white race—or to any race” (p. 63). This historical opinion is based on review of the books, diaries, pamphlets, public records, letters, etc. from that era which do not provide any evidence of racialized descriptions of individuals.

Without the biological classification of “race” then it is more likely the concept of race is a sociological construct used to justify the advent of enslavement of peoples based on race. Prior to the first enslaved Africans being brought to North America in 1619, there was certainly a long-established tradition of slavery not only in North America, but globally. However, people tended to be enslaved more often based on tribalism, not on the color of their skin, and often the result of wars and raids.

From the perspective of the enslaved individual, the reason doesn’t matter of course. It’s all equally cruel. However, the enslavement of Africans by Europeans, primarily in North America, became an economic foundation upon which this country was built.  When racialized enslavement officially ended with the Emancipation Proclamation and the defeat of the Confederate secession, those with the advantage had to create new forms of racialized separation and enslavement in the form of sharecropping, poll taxes, redlining, separate but equal, and the list goes on to this day.

What biology tells us is that race is only skin deep and that in reality we are all of one tribe. And that goes deep into our core—the DNA in the nucleus of each our cells. Perpetuation of racialized separation continues to imprison us all in the ongoing trauma caused by such brutality.

This trauma, both historical and current, affects everyone, even the oppressors. The evidence can be seen on their faces and in their words. Are they the faces and words of someone who is content and happy or someone in deep pain? Why choose pain? We can honor, embrace, and celebrate cultural diversity that has evolved (and sometimes aligns with superficial traits such as melanosome umbrella production) while still embracing our universal humanity. I think we are at a tipping point in history were we either choose this path, or we tear our country and democracy apart.

Story of a Song

About a year ago I had one of those life moments that leaves an indelible stamp. I was privileged to be able to attend the “Casa de Musica” songwriting workshop run by Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka, Don Richmond, and Cisco Ryder Gilliland in Taos NM. It’s a rough life I know.

On the last day of the workshop, I shared a song I originaly began writing in 2014, My Heart Aches. Since, I and Eliza have each recorded and released a co-written version this year.

I wrote the original first three verses in August of 2014 after Michael Brown Jr. was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, thinking about how it’d been 50 years since the civil right act of 1964 and about 500 miles from where Emmett till was lynched in Mississippi and Ferguson, Missouri, and maybe we hadn’t made as much progress as we thought (and sang about a couple generations ago).

And then it sat for a while. And then about a year later Dylann Roof killed nine individuals in a church in Charelston South Carolina, and I wrote the rest of the first version of the song.

We marched 50 years and 500 miles
From Mississippi to a Ferguson mistrial
Stepping over bodies of other mother’s sons
Singing how someday “We shall overcome.”

We marched 50 years and so many miles
With folded hands and tacit smiles
Comdemning a generation to circumstance
And “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”


My Heart Aches

We marched 50 years and countless miles
Ignoring signs, living in denial
Waiting for another to take a stand
And “Hammer out justice all over this land.”


My Heart Aches

For a country trapped in racist rhetoric – my heart aches
For those with hearts filled with rage – my heart aches
For families crying over graves – my heart aches
For communities torn apart by race – my heart aches
For my struggles with forgiveness and grace – my heart aches
For my complacency and restraint – my heart aches

Here’s a recording of the song as I played it at the workshop. What made the moment indelible on me was hearing all of the other students/musicians sitting in front of me, and the pros sitting behind me echoing “my heart aches” after each time I sang that line. Hearing two songwriters in Eliza and John I had long admired, and Don and Cisco (playing the cajon) who I had just met singing and playing a song I had written was simply awesome.

It was a decent song that captured a moment. I continued to work on the second half, updating with more specific (and recent imagery, such as children in cages) and then sent it to Eliza who took it the rest of the way to completion, making it something special.

We marched 50 years and 500 miles
From a Mississippi bridge to the Ferguson trial
Stepping over bodies of other mothers’ sons
Singing how someday we shall overcome


My heart aches

We marched 50 years and so many miles
With folded hands and complacent smiles
Condemned a generation to circumstance
And all we were saying was give peace a chance


My heart aches

We marched 50 years and countless miles
Ignoring the signs with our own denials
Waiting for some others to take a stand
And hammer out justice all over this land


My heart aches

For the children locked in cages far away where no one sees
For the helpless and the hopeless, for the homeless refugees
My heart aches
For the voices who’ve been silenced at the mercy of our greed
For the prisoners of conscience who speak out for those in need
My heart aches
For the victims of the hatred lying on the ground
In the churches and the schoolyards. From the shots that took them down
My heart aches
For the claims made on our bodies, and who we can and can’t embrace
For the children of tomorrow and the world they have to face
My heart aches

You can listen to Eliza’s recording here, and purchase from her directly here. I really like her version. Covid-19 has wiped out all touring income. For musicians such as Eliza, this is their primary source of income. So, I encourage purchasing music instead of or, better yet, in addition to streaming it.

You can listen to my version and purchase here. It doesn’t have Eliza’s wonderful voice, but it does have Linnea’s, which is pretty damn sweet. I still get chills when I hear her sing the harmony on the line “From the shots that took them down.”

Thanks for reading and listening.

Fall and Rise

Protestors toppled the Christopher Columbus statue outside the state capital in St. Paul last week. This was met with responses of outrage to tacit approval by the Walz administration. This has caused me to reflect on the presence, purpose, and appropriateness of monuments and what this says about our nation.

Why hold on to such monuments of our history if not to protect what those monuments stand for?

Many argue keeping them to honors the best men and women of American history—end of discussion. Others rationalize keeping them to remember that component of our history, even the negative or evil aspects. Still others argue it is unfair to judge the subjects of monuments out of context of the time and by today’s standards. They were monumental at the time.

I appreciate the last answer because it is honest. However, I do not accept the argument that we need to preserve the monument as a means of preserving the history. Monuments are not designed illuminate and teach history. They tell the preferred story as understood by the artist who made it and the society that commissioned it. Monuments preserve a perception of a person and what he or she represented at that. Monuments are designed to elicit adulation.

That isn’t the only purpose, however. In addition to highlighting an historical figure, they chronicle who the society was when the monument was erected. A great many confederate-leader monuments were erected years after the civil war during the Jim Crow era of the late 1800s and early 1900s. More in the 1950s. These were a response to civil rights efforts. They served as reminders of oppression and slavery, reminders of knowing one’s place in society. They were tools of further oppression.

Monuments are not effective teaching tools for history. We teach about the rise of Hitler without preserving publicly displayed monuments to the man. To do so would be offensive to most. Imagine confronting by such a monument in daily routines such as rounding a traffic circle during the morning commute. We don’t allow such unsolicited, unwelcomed, painful reminders. To do so would be to inflict further trauma on the victims or their descendants. Most would considered it cruel.

That is exactly what we do, however, to the marginalized, non-white, non-dominant culture every day by continuing to honor individuals that engineered, or at least represent, a history of genocide and slavery. In fact, I can see how even the presence of my Caucasian face might serve as a reminder of the history of genocide, slavery, and continued oppression.

I think that is the truly honest, naked answer to why we don’t take down such monuments. To the victors go the spoils and the winner gets to write the history, right? We tell a white supremacist history and continue to hold the spoils in the form of wealth, opportunity, and access to clean natural resources. And we don’t want to let go of that advantage. That’s the ugly, honest answer we must acknowledge.

The irony is that we are not the victors. The war isn’t over. This society built on an economic model of extraction of natural resources from the earth often to the detriment of those living there, in the pursuit of ever an expanding economy only has one outcome—our eventual demise. We will all lose.

To truly tell our American history, learn and honor it, the story should be told through the eyes of the victims and oppressed, not the victors and their descendants. That is why we tell the story of WW II largely through preservation of concentration camps and museums such as the holocaust museum and not with monuments to Hitler and Mussolini.

Regarding monuments that represent the original sins of this country, I say tear them all down and erect monuments to those that fought for the victims of the original sins. Those heroes deserve public display which becomes a casual backdrop to the daily life of the average citizen. That’s how their heroism becomes the story we enact. The rest belong in curated museums for the purpose of education, not adulation.

And if you are offended by having to see the monument of a resistor of oppression on  your daily rounding of a traffic circle, or walking the steps of a state capital, then you’ve got some serious explaining and work to do.

When the statues come down
Silenced voices lift up
No longer hearing the din of oppression
We live by the rising chorus of liberation
Removing constriction of shackles for some
Provides freedom for all
Caging ghosts of the victors
Frees spirits of victims
Reconciliation of sins
Provides opportunity for grace

It’s Been My Privilege

If you begin reading, please read to the end.

My youngest daughter turns 21 today. Woohoo, nothing like celebrating your 21st on Zoom with friends, while living with your parents, and sheltering from a pandemic. And she’s lucky to have it so good compared to so many! We shared a birthday dinner Last night with the grandparents—a somewhat socially distanced dinner on my parent’s deck. Watching my children interact with their grandparents is a privilege.

My kids have had the privilege to have four stable, involved, mostly healthy grandparents their entire lives. The grandparents were actively involved in raising my children, not just being around, but helping to nurture and guide them. They would not be who they are without them. I did not have this privilege. My kids have the privilege of feeling “at home” in the homes of their grandparents. What is it like to know there are six adults who’ve got you covered—who would do anything to protect and care for you, who love you unconditionally—even enough to set limits to scold and reprimand if necessary?

My parents grew up either poor or very modest working class. But they did so in post WWII America and worked their way from that strata of society to middle class or even higher. Their generation could work and pay cash for college, and/or work blue collar jobs and possibly work their way to professional, higher paying careers. They could, and many did, do this without any assistance from their parents. They even raised children while doing this.

The primary means of accumulating potentially generational financial security was through home ownership and a long-standing career with one employer who provided a secure and steadily increasing salary concluding with a reliable pension. This financial backdrop of an expanding middle America provided employment, housing, food, public schooling, and higher education security for most who had the privilege to access it and wherewithal to grab hold of it.

From this foundation, my wife and I could choose careers that paid modestly, but still provided middle America security and stability for our family. However, during my adult, working life, the economic reality has shifted. We were fortunate to have the village of our parents—our kids’ grandparents. We knew that we would never go hungry, lose our home, or be faced with an unexpected bill that could push us into bankruptcy. We had family that could catch us and help us back up if we fell. We had the privilege of this safety net because of the middle class wealth our parents were able to accumulate. This was the trajectory of post WWII middle America.

That has not been the case as much for my generation or my children’s generation. The wage and wealth gap has grown to historic proportions since the early 1980s. In fact, I believe that for every year of my adult life as a public school teacher/public university professor, my basic salary increase (not counting promotion, continuing education, or longevity increases) has never kept pace with the rate of inflation. So, my profession, on average, pays less every year. Additionally, every year, the cost of health care or my portion of health insurance has always increased. I still consider myself privileged to be in a profession that did provide increases for continuing education and experience, and stable employment with a (so far) reliable pension. Many do not have such a career.

We’ve worked hard to build careers, advance our education, build equity in homes, but we would never have had that opportunity without the support of our extended village. The economic landscape is even more difficult for our children entering the world. They could capitalize on our family’s generational support and stability and go to the college of their choice and pursue areas of passion and interest for (potential) careers. At least so far. As the wealth gap continues to spread, the road to financial security only gets rockier with more and more barriers. Wages continue to stagnate, health care and college costs increase at nearly exponential rates, and home ownership is more and more difficult without family support.

Now imagine if we weren’t white.

My parents and my family faced no systemic, structural barriers. We never had to fear the very world in which we tried to make our way with no possibility of escaping a world that continually erected barriers. To the contrary, our world was structured to guide us along the way. This is my experience with and my understanding of white privilege.

Honestly I cannot imagine life without that privilege. So I’ll let someone who can share that perspective. This is Kimberly Jones, co-author of I’m Not Dying With You Tonight. I’ve included a transcript after the video.

Transcript:

So, I’ve been saying a lot of things, talking about the people making commentary  Interestingly enough, the ones I’ve noticed been making the commentary are wealthy black people making the commentary about you should not be rioting, you should not be looting, you should not be tearing up our own community. And then there’s been an argument of the other side of we should be hitting them in the pocket, we should be focusing on the blackout days where we don’t spend money. But, I feel like we should do both, and I feel like I support both, and I’ll tell you why I support both.

I support both because there’s…when you have a civil unrest like this there are three type of people in the streets. There are the protestors. There are rioters, and there are the looters. The protestors are there because they actually care about what is happening in the community. They want to raise their voices and they’re there strictly to protest. You have the rioters who are angry, who are anarchists, who really just want to fuck shit up, and that’s what they’re gonna do regardless. And then you have the looters, and the looters almost exclusively are just there to do that. To loot. Now, people are like, “What did you gain, well, what did you get from looting?”

I think that as long as we’re focusing on the what we’re not focusing on the why, and that’s my issue with that. As long as we’re focusing on what they’re doing, we’re not focusing on why they’re doing. And some people are like, “Well those aren’t people who are legitimately angry about what’s happening. Those are people that just want to get stuff.”

Okay, well then, let’s go with that. Let’s say that’s what it is. Let’s ask ourselves why in this country, in 2020, the financial gap between poor blacks and the rest of the world is at such a distance that people feel like their only hope, and only opportunity to get some of the things that we flaunt and flash in front of them all the time is to walk through a broken glass window and get it. But they are so hopeless that getting that necklace, getting that TV, getting that change, getting that bed, getting that phone, whatever it is that they’re get is that in that moment when the riots happened and if the present an opportunity of looting, that’s their only opportunity to get it.

We need to be questioning that why. Why are people that poor? Why are people that broke? Why are people that, that food insecure, that clothing insecure and that they feel like their only shot that – that they are shooting their shot – by walking through a broken glass window to get what they need. And, then people want to talk about, “there’s many people that pull themselves up by their bootstraps and got it on their own. Why can’t they do that?”

Let me explain to you something about economics in America. And I’m so glad that as a child I got an opportunity to spend time at Push, where they taught me this , is that we must never forget that economics was the reason that black people were brought to this country. We came to do the agricultural work in the south and the textile work in the north. Do you understand that? That’s what we came to do. We came to do the agricultural work in the south and the textile work in the north. Now, if I right now, if I right now decided that I wanted to play Monopoly with you, and for four hundred rounds of playing monopoly, I didn’t allow you to have any money, I didn’t allow you to have anything on the board, I didn’t allow for you to have anything. And then, we played another fifty rounds of Monopoly and everything that you gained, and you earned while you were playing that round of Monopoly was taken from you. That was Tulsa. That was Rosewood. Those are places where we built black economic wealth. Where we were self-sufficient. Where we owned our stores. Where we owned our property. And they burned them to the ground.

So that’s four hundred years. So for four hundred rounds of Monopoly you don’t get to play at all. Not only do you not get to play, you have to play on the behalf of the person you are playing against. You have to play and make money and earn wealth for them and then you have to turn it over to them. So, then for fifty years you finally get a little bit and you are allowed to play. And every time that they don’t like the way that you’re playing, or that you’re catching up, or that you’re doing something to be self-sufficient, they burn your game. They burn your cards. They burn your Monopoly money.

And then, finally at the release and the onset that they allow you to play and they say, ‘okay, now you catch up.’ Now at this point, the only way you’re gonna catch up in the game is if the person shares the wealth, correct? But what if every time you share the wealth, then there’s psychological warfare against you to say, “Oh you’re an equal opportunity higher.” So if I played four hundred rounds of Monopoly with you and I had to play and give you every dime that I made, and then for fifty years, every time that I played, I…if you didn’t like what I did, you got to burn it like they did in Tulsa, and like they did in Rosewood. How can you win? How can you win?

You can’t win. The game is fixed. So, when they say, “why do you burn down the community? Why do you burn down your own neighborhood?” It’s not ours. We don’t own anything. We don’t own anything. There is…Trevor Noah said it so beautifully last night. There’s a social contract that we all have. That if you steal, or if I steal, then the person who is the authority comes in and they fix the situation. But the person who fixes the situation is killing us. So, the social contract is broken. And if the social contract is broken why the fuck do I give a shit about burning the fucking football hall of fame, about burning a fucking Target? You broke the contract when you killed us in the streets and then didn’t give a fuck. You broke the contract when for four hundred years we played your game and built your wealth. You broke the contract when we built our wealth again on our own by our bootstraps in Tulsa and you dropped bombs on us. When we built it in Rosewood and you came in and you slaughtered us. You broke the contract. So fuck your Target. Fuck your Hall of Fame. Far as I’m concerned, they can burn this bitch to the ground, and it still wouldn’t be enough. And they are lucky that what black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.

This Moment in Time

The most historic time that I’ve experienced in my memory has been interrupted with another event and now global social movement. Now, all of those commercials that begin with “In these unprecedented times…” are not specific enough. Which extraordinary event are we referring to?

Because of that, I’m now viewing and processing most I read, watch, and listen to through the lens of global pandemic and equity social justice. Those two, like everything are actually connected. Yesterday I read two items that helped me begin to process these events.

Barbara Kingsolver said in an interview published in the March 2014 issue of The Sun:

Five hundred years ago people burned witches. two hundred and fifty years ago slavery was still acceptable. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Those are the words I come back to on the bad days…like on the morning of the Boston Marathon bombing, or any other morning when hatred seems entrenched. The arc of history is so long you can’t see the end of it, so you don’t sense the movement. It’s an arc. It goes around to the other side of the horizon.

One way to draw an arc is to mathematically plot out precise points and then connect them. The closer together the points, the easier it is to draw an accurate arc. We are at a point on the arc of history. We are in a crucial moment in time our children and grandchildren will read about, reflect on, learn from, analyze, and evaluate.

Tim O’Brien reflected on his decision to go to the Vietnam War in his 2019 book , Dad’s Maybe Book (p. 85):

I was aware that the war had done things to me that could not be undone. Partly, I guess, I was full of anger. There was guilt, too, and lots of it. I had betrayed my conscience – my own heart and my own head – by going to a war I considered unjust. I had participated in a killing, and I had done so out of moral cowardice. There were no other words for it. I had been afraid of ridicule and embarrassment. I had been afraid of displeasing others, including my parents and my hometown and my country, and when you do things you believe are wrong because you were afraid to not do them, you cannot call it anything but what it is, and the correct word is cowardice.

The last two weeks are forcing the white supremacist majority culture to confront our (including me) moral cowardice. We have looked away or done things we knew were wrong. That was moral cowardice. In this moment we can do the hard work of reflection, analysis, conversation, and action to connect the last point on the arc to the next, and the next; or we can once again turn away and remain silent or worse, do more of the same. This would be moral cowardice.

I hope we have the courage to stand up this time.

I will stand up to, and face down our personal and systemic racism. I will be heard and seen, no matter how difficult and uncomfortable, advocating for equity, lifting voices that need to be heard, giving of myself, my time, my money, and my privilege to remove barriers to equality.

It will be difficult. It will require that I possibly clash with friends and family and maybe even painfully part ways with some. It will mean I as part of the the dominant white supremacist majority must share power and wealth, and give up advantage and privilege.

I begin by listening. Truly listening and hearing the stories of deep pain I have participated in causing and allowing those voices to lead what we do in this moment in time.

Join me.

What If There Was No Curfew?

What if there wasn’t a curfew? I wonder if there would more or less peaceful protesters late into the night. I think that we are seeing evidence that rioters/looters are, for the most part, different groups than the protesters engaging in peaceful protest and civil disobedience.

In efforts to break up a peaceful protests and enforce a curfew, it appears from the images I’ve seen, that police use violent, militarized tactics as their first tool (weapon) and all hell breaks loose. Maybe then, feeling a need to continue to communicate outrage and frustration, protestors reassemble as soon as possible and have even more resolve to protest the police actions (including the enforcement of a curfew). Have none of these people raised a determined, spirited child? Escalation never works. You cannot defeat that “spirit” unless you absolutely crush it.

What if peaceful protesters were allowed to do their thing and still prominent presence of police as actual “peace” officers to react when and if individuals take action to burn and loot? Might the peaceful protesters welcome them as possibly even fellow citizens and allies to protect their neighborhoods and their civil liberties? To keep the peace? What if the police didn’t treat them as enemy combatants?

This requires peaceful protesters to engage in civil disobedience and not in rioting. Evidence indicates that is in large part the reality. If the police changed their tactics right now and if politicians sincerely begin the arduous process of changing police tactics, legislation, policies, and procedures, then peaceful protesting would be enough. The desired change to the system would actually be happening.

If those things do not happen, and historically they have not, then peaceful protesting isn’t effective and the next step will naturally be violent acts bubbling up out of well-deserved anger and frustration. And if violent protests continue despite actual change happening, then those violent “protesters” must have a different objective than to change the system. Maybe, instead, an objective of tearing down and destroying the system. That isn’t peaceful civil disobedience. That’s revolution (or maybe civil war).

Short of abandoning curfews, it would seem the first tactic of the police is to “peacefully” zip-tie cuff and arrest those individuals they feel need to be removed from an area. Maybe that is happening and we just aren’t seeing those images, but it appears the strategy is to beat some individuals into submission in order to intimidate others into dispersing as if they are enemy combatants and not citizens. If they are truly peacefully demonstrating, then they should be willing to be taken into custody peacefully. That’s how civil disobedience works. The system is overwhelmed with processing civil disobedient citizens and changes as a result until there is no more need for civil disobedience.

This does require the protesters have confidence they will be peacefully arrested and humanly treated throughout the legal consequence of acts of civil disobedience. A significant portion of our population has seen no evidence to believe this is will occur.

So, here we are stuck in a classic positive feedback loop. Positive feedback loops always escalate and “snowball” as the system responds to the disturbance in the same way–in the same direction. This causes the disturbance to continue as force meets force.

I see three possibilities to such system dynamics:

  • The inputs and reactions continue in the same “direction,” and the systemic response escalates until the system collapses. Maybe some want that, but I hope the majority want to remain in our current capitalist, democratic society under the current constitution and bill of rights;
  • the system completely eliminates the disturbance by dominating and crushing it–which has been the tactic for a very long time, and appears to be gleefully pursued by the current president; or,
  • the system uses the feedback of the disturbance to adjust the norms of the system until that “feedback” is no longer driving the system to change. That’s when a new normal is reached and our imperfect union gets gets “more perfect” at living up to and enacting equal rights for all.

I’d like to think that option 3 is the desired goal of our government officials who take an oath to uphold the constitution, but it doesn’t appear that is always the case, as the populations of color have never been given those equal rights by their own government.

I dunno. I’ve got more questions than answers. I don’t have the requisite experience to speak to the pain and frustration of such systemic oppression.

I can speak to how systems operate. And I know this. What we’ve been doing for a long time is not working, so something is going to change. It’ll be positive (if even still difficult and painful), or it is going to be ugly, violent, and bloody.

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A Militarized “Immune Response”

This country was built on a foundation of genocide and slavery. It has continued to grow and develop from that foundation. While slaves were officially emancipated in 1862, structural and systemic racism has continued and can be found in our economics, wealth inequity, health care, education, policing, and much more. Like it or not, this is a core element of this country’s identity and it privileges all others in the dominant white culture.

It might be easier to understand thinking of this country from a systemic viewpoint, and even as a living system built on relationships, feedback loops, and interconnected parts making a greater whole. The living country grows and develops like a living thing within its own environment.

Like all living things it is (and prefers to remain) in equilibrium, working to maintain a state of balance—in biology the term is homeostasis. From a living cell to a human-made social construction of a country, to the entire planet, the rules are the same; living systems maintain homeostasis by using energy and resources to fuel that effort.

When a perturbation (something that disrupts that equilibrium) happens, the system responds with negative feedback loops to maintain the desired state. A house system uses a thermostat and furnace or air conditioner to keep the house at a comfortable temperature by responds “negatively” to temperature changes in that it does the opposite. House heats up, AC cools it down, house cools down, furnace pumps heat out to restore preferred temperature. The salts in a person’s skin cell closes or opens mechanisms in the cell membrane to regulate the amount of salt. When adequate salts are present they “plug” the mechanism that pumps in more salt. When the salts get used up, then that mechanism is unplugged and more salts can be pumped into the cell. Systems self-corrects using the substance/condition that it is regulating. Walmart manages inventory using such feedback loops. When inventory dips below set points, the tracking software automatically triggers increase in production. When inventory sales lag, requests for production of that product are automatically reduced. These are all negative feedback loops and they are the normal state for a system maintaining status quo, norm, equilibrium, or homeostasis. You can pick your term.

Living systems also grow, develop, and evolve in response to changes in their environment. Sometimes things begin to build, snowball, and the perturbations compound to drive the system so far away from the preferred equilibrium state that it cannot self correct and get back to “normal.” A new normal must be established. If it cannot adjust or find a new normal, the living system collapses and stops functioning. It dies. It goes extinct.

In our bodies, the immune system is one a system amongst all our other body systems working to maintain homeostasis. When a perturbation such as a virus, bacterium, cancer, etc., upsets that balance, the immune system kicks in and neutralizes the disturbance. If it does this successfully, then a new normal is established when the body remembers how to ward off that invader/disturbance. When the invader evolves and changes, the body again is “perturbed” and adjusts and learn again and use another resource or tactic—a new antibody often. If it can’t, it dies. But it fights until the bitter end in the effort.

Equilibrium for our country is to continuously build on the foundation of systemic racism and genocide (now expanded to the ecosystem) to maintain the status quo; a desire for perpetual economic growth and an unequal distribution of the wealth, privilege and opportunity to maximize profit gained from perpetual economic growth. The fact that this type of economy is absolutely unsustainable and violates the laws of physics is a different topic.

The murder of George Floyd was yet another perturbation to the equilibrium of that system. And now we are seeing the latest “antibody” of our country’s immune system—a militarized police force. This is what President Trump told Governors in a 55-minute call (a recording of which was leaked from within the White House):

“You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate.” He told the governors, “You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again.” “You know when other country’s watch this, they’re watching this, the next day wow, they’re really a push over. And we can’t be a push over. And we have all the resources—it’s not like we don’t have the resources. So, I don’t know what you’re doing.” “It’s a movement, if you don’t put it down it will get worse and worse….(emphasis added) The only time its successful is when you’re weak and most of you are weak.”

In the past the immune system’s “antibodies” have been segregation, separate-but-equal laws, poll taxes, lynching’s, redlining, Indian boarding schools, forced-march relocation to reservations, and yes, slavery. Make no mistake about it, the white supremacist system (that I have benefited from) is pushing back hard right now with an armed negative feedback loop; it’s getting ugly and violent.

At some point change will have to happen. There will be a new normal. We can continue “push our knee harder down” and support a militarized immune response to further oppress and stave off inevitable change, or we can acknowledge the our country’s original sins and begin sincere work to erase the systemic inequities built on that foundation. Otherwise, we could end up being a system truly at rest and at an equilibrium requiring no use of energy and resources to maintain itself—which is another way of saying dead.

His Name Was George Floyd

His name was George Floyd. He was publicly executed for alleged forgery. On the video you can hear him asking to be let up because he couldn’t breath. The officer’s response was, “get up and get in the car” which George Floyd couldn’t do because he was pinned down by the officer.

You can also hear bystanders asking the officers to let him up because they could see George Floyd was in distress. They didn’t listen and George Floyd died. It doesn’t matter what his alleged crime was or what resistance to arrest prior to what we can see on the video. He was under control and offering no resistance by the time the bystander began recording, and was instead becoming unresponsive because he was suffocating.

I’ve got nothing more to say about this. Instead here’s what I’d like you to do. Close your eyes and sit silently for three minutes. Imagine what would be going through your head if you were pinned down, suffocating, while other police officers and bystanders stood by and watched. You can hear them talking about you and no one does anything as you feel your world fade to blackness and silence. And death.

We watch and we do nothing.

100,000. “Whad’ya gonna do?”

It saddens me that 100,000 individuals have died from Covid-19 this spring. Of course tens of thousands die every year from the flu, car accidents, cancer, etc. I think those numbers have become accepted, not because we are callous or desensitized, but because as a society we have mostly agreed to do what we can to prevent these deaths: we pass and accept seat-belt laws, speed limits, hands-free cell-phone use; we dedicate considerable resources to cancer research and treatment; and a great many of us get vaccinated for the flu each year. We continue to make progress.

I am saddened and shocked by the pace at which this disease took hold and then has spread, knowing that we could have prevented many of these deaths.

I am saddened because many of us have decided to just say “whad’ya gonna do?” But, that isn’t surprising. That’s the attitude we seem to have taken the last 30 years with clean water, clean air, lead poisoning, climate change, income inequality, homelessness, health care, etc. They’re just too hard and too expensive to fix, so whad’ya gonna do?

It doesn’t have to be this way. We make the world we live in. We make choices. I get that we cannot shelter in place until a vaccine is ready. But, are the only choices, shelter in place and watch bankrupt a significant number of the businesses or say “whad’ya gonna do?” and therefore accept a greatly inflated number of deaths due to this disease?

I am sad because we’ve become so polarized there is literally nothing in our society that doesn’t become a left-right issue and therefore 100% black and white, do or don’t issue. Wear a mask and you are a pussy. Don’t wear a mask and you are an asshole. Because of this, we now govern with the intellectual capacity and creativity of a 5-year old. I’m actually not taking a cheap shot at the president. I’m speaking about our current system of politics and decision-making. Everything is either do or don’t (often don’t), met with unreasonable demands and tantrums, resolved with threats or bribes, and rarely discussed with any depth, thus addressing systemic causes and effects. Worse yet, we just ignore the problem. I’m not sure we even have “object permanence” yet.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have the resources and could financially support those in industries necessarily shuttered to minimize loss of life for months if necessary. We choose not to. In the end, it’s possible we will do more long-term harm to the economy, and spend more supporting the destitute by saying “whad’ya gonna do”. Pay now or pay later. Usually, when you pay later, you end up paying more.

We choose to not compromise and make difficult choices. We choose to accept a false narrative that if we increase the welfare state for this crisis, we will never reduce that welfare state and the majority of “those people” will never work again. Some might of course, but most people like to be productive and contribute. So to prevent that potential fraud we are willing to allow thousands upon thousands go bankrupt and/or die a preventable death.

Why does it always come down to an apparent lack of empathy for the “other?”

I want to share with you two sources. The first is a daily blog from Heather Cox Richardson, Letters From An American. She’s providing an opinion, and even if you don’t agree with her conclusions, I think what she writes is supported by properly vetted data and sources. In her May 23rd post she provides this quote that I think sums up where we are:

“It’s a personal choice,” one man told a reporter as a wealthy suburb of Atlanta reopened. “If you want to stay home, stay home. If you want to go out, you can go out. I’m not in the older population. If I was to get it now, I’ve got a 90 percent chance of getting cured. Also, I don’t know anybody who’s got it.” Another man agreed: “When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics—I’m not worried.”

Until it affects my family or those that look like me, “whad’ya gonna do?” The others that he has no “object permanence” for do exist. They’ll cling to life as desperately as he will if he gets sick, and they have loved ones that will grieve as much as his family would if he were to die.

The second is “An Incalculable Loss” from the New York Times. I recommend viewing on a computer or tablet, though it does work (but not as well) on a phone.

And in a moment of personal narcissism I’ll share something of my own: A song titled “A Dream of Life.” If you click the link it will take you to my “Song by Song” page where you can read about the writing of and listen to the song (scroll down a bit–it’s the 8th song down).

Empathy. Empathy dammit.

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Eastern Phoebe

Tim Goodwin

I’m at the cabin this morning sitting on this screen porch I wrote about a few years ago in my book Within These Woods (2015) Riverfeet Press. An Eastern Phoebe is flitting around and talking to me as it had been five or six years ago. I’m assuming it is an offspring of the one I wrote about in this essay. Sometimes it is hard as a narcissistic species sitting as the self-appointed pinnacle of creation to forget that no matter what is happening to us, with us, or because of us, the rest of the natural world within which we are deeply embedded just trundles right along.

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all things as they must live together like one being.
-Black Elk, Oglala Lakota medicine man

The air is cool this morning. The screened porch faces the lake on the northern side of the cabin and is ten feet above the ground, and the lake surface is at least thirty feet lower down the hillside, giving me a false sense of elevation. I put on a second layer and set my book down periodically to warm my hands around my coffee mug. The sun has just risen, but the phoebe is already up and active. “Fee-bee” he calls, announcing his presence. His voice is raspy as if he still has sleep in his throat. His call is similar in duration and rhythm to the chickadee’s two-note “spring-time,” but without the clear tone. Sitting above the brush layer of the forest but below the canopy, I’m at eye level with the phoebe’s preferred habitat. This level above the ground cover and the mammals inhabiting those niches and below the thick canopy of the trees, belongs to the flying creatures.

He moves from branch to branch around the deck. My presence this morning has roused him from the nest built earlier this spring on a support beam on the underside of the deck. He attracted his mate to the nest site with flying displays in which he spread his tail to show his genetic fitness. She must have been sufficiently impressed to choose him and his nesting site and, incidentally, to build the nest
without any help from him. Their chicks have yet to fledge, so both parents are busy feeding them.

I presume that feeding the family is his purpose this morning. He is “hawking,” sitting perched at the end of a branch, waiting to nab passing insects. When an insect comes within range, he quickly uses his aerobatics to catch his prey. These are the skills that his mate was selecting for when she looked at his tail, the key tool for these aerobatic maneuvers. She was not making a conscious choice. The females have evolved to prefer the male with the best tail for flying simply because the more females who chose good hunting males, the more offspring they produce that survives because of adequate food supply provided by the male. And since the chosen male had a good tail for flying, so did many of his offspring. This is an example of a positive feedback loop that is a basic principle in natural or sexual selection. In this case, sexual selection and natural selection pressured the evolution of the trait in the same direction. Sometimes the pressure works in opposite directions, which is often the case in songbirds, such as the bright red male cardinal, who sacrifices camouflage to attract the female.

Every now and then the phoebe reminds me of his name. “Fee-bee” he calls, flicking his tail to further express his annoyance with my company. Quite frankly, I do not understand his complaints. Our presence here has not deterred him from a nesting site. In fact, the opposite is true. The phoebes, like barn and cliff swallows, have not suffered from human intrusion into their habitats. Phoebes traditionally nested in the recesses of cliffs and rock ledges along streams. Looking around the cabin, I am not sure what natural site would have attracted a phoebe to these woods before cabins and other structures were built. There are hills, but the terrain does not offer cliffs, cuts in hillsides, or other natural nesting sites. Maybe they followed settlers into new habitats.

Phoebes are now equally at ease building a home in man-made recesses and ledges. It is good to be adaptable, especially as we continue to intrude into each other’s
space—though I would never consider him an intrusion into my morning reading time. “Fee-bee” he calls again. I am tempted to answer, “Timmm-eeee.”

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