Skip to content

Taking a two-week break


I’m off to Scotland with my camera and walking stick. I’ll return to blogging the last week of August.

The destination this year will be the Outer Hebrides — the islands of Lewis and Harris. I’ll also have a couple of days in Edinburgh and a day in Oxford. On the way to the west coast of the Outer Hebrides, I’ll pass through Inverness, Ullapool, and Stornaway.

Deciding what to read on this trip was difficult. I wanted fiction set in Scotland. I finally settled on a historical novel by Nigel Tranter, Sword of State. It’s set in the 13th Century and has to do with Patrick (a future earl of Dunbar), and King Alexander II of Scotland. Tranter, I believe, is well known in Scotland. He wrote something like 90 historical novels, which is a lot of novels to crank out.

These are interesting times in Scotland and the United Kingdom. The U.K. has a new prime minister, and Brexit is looming. The Scottish people are very worried about Brexit and are rethinking the 2014 referendum in which Scotland voted against becoming an independent country. It is possible that, if the referendum were held today, Scotland would vote to break with the United Kingdom.

Summer here in the American South has been brutally hot. I’m looking forward to some cold, blowing rain off the North Atlantic and a bit of moor and bog.

New title from Acorn Abbey Books



Denial will be released September 16


Acorn Abbey is proud to have Jonathan Rauch as the newest Acorn Abbey author. The book is Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul. The book will be released September 16 in a paperback edition and digital editions.

This actually is a new, revised edition of this book. It first was published in 2013 by The Atlantic Books. Acorn Abbey is the exclusive publisher of the new edition, which includes a new afterword by the author. From the book’s description:

A young boy sitting on a piano bench realizes one day that he will never marry. At the time this seems merely a simple, if odd, fact, but as his attraction to boys grows stronger, he is pulled into a vortex of denial. Not just for one year or even ten, but for 25 years, he lives in an inverted world, a place like a photographic negative, where love is hate, attraction is envy, and childhood never ends. He comes to think of himself as a kind of monster–until one day, seemingly miraculously, the world turns itself upright and the possibility of love floods in.

Jonathan Rauch is the author of seven books and the winner of the National Magazine Award, the magazine industry’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His most recent book other than Denial was published last year by St. Martin’s Press: The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. His most recent article for the Atlantic is in the August 2019 issue: “Twitter Needs a Pause Button.”

The paperback edition of Denial is available now at Amazon for pre-order: Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul.

How hatred and racism are backfiring on Republicans


Periodically I hold my nose and look at the Facebook group of the Republican Party in my county. It’s a swamp of hatred and stupidity. There’s a sample above. Notice that someone named Sam Hill calls Democrats “Demoncrats.”

Is the racism study cited above legit? I believe it is. Right-wing media made much of the study and naturally interpreted it to mean that Trump truly is making America a kinder place. That seems to be true where racism is involved, but not in the way that Republicans suppose. Trump’s true believers, a group that I’d estimate at about 35 percent of the population, are feasting on the official approval of their of hatred and meanness. But everyone else is increasingly disgusted. That disgust is liberalizing people other than Trump’s deplorables. People are seeing that racism is real and that racism is dangerous. People are seeing what Republicans are trying to do.

In other words, Trump’s endorsement of hatred and racism is backfiring, politically. While feeding red meat and meanness to the deplorables, Trump is driving all the kinder people away. Trump is far too stupid to understand this, or to care. But one would think that there are Republicans in Washington who can see that Trump actually is hastening the end of the Republican Party.

Dan Hopkins, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, writes about this at Five Thirty Eight. The article is “White Americans Say They’re Less Prejudiced.”

Hopkins writes:

But in fact, there is evidence that Trump’s election did not make Americans more racist; instead, it may have emboldened those who were already prejudiced. As FiveThirtyEight contributor Matt Grossman wrote last October, the research doesn’t show “an overall increase in racist and sexist attitudes among white voters; rather, the evidence shows that liberal-leaning voters moved away from [Trump’s] views faster than conservatives moved toward them.”

Though these are hard times for decent human beings to live through, and though the dangers are rising as Trump and his deplorables lash out, we can hope that Trump is expediting our return to a decent America, just by showing decent human beings how ugly the worst of us can be.

They’re doing well


The white deer is now well known in this area and is frequently seen on game cameras. I had not had a chance to photograph her in a while, though. She came through this morning with this year’s fawn. This would be at least the second year that she has raised a little one, and maybe the third. Everyone in the area looks out for her, and hunters have sworn to leave her alone.

Some questions for the animals



Chaser. Wikipedia photo

A few days ago, the New York Times carried an obituary for a dog. The dog was Chaser, a border collie who was taught to understand 1,022 nouns. Here’s a link to the story:

Border Collie Trained to Recognize 1,022 Nouns Dies

I often wonder if I should be ashamed of my own thoughts. My thoughts in this case were that, in many cases, it is perfectly reasonable to value the life of an animal as much as the life of a human being. And — let’s admit it — we value the lives of some animals more than the lives of some human beings. Not everyone gets an obituary in the New York Times, but this dog did.

You may remember back in 2015, when Cecil the lion, a much-loved resident of a national park in Zimbabwe, was murdered in cold blood by an American big-game hunter. As outrage and grief poured out in social media, the usual small-minded moral scolds went to work, berating people for being concerned about the life an animal when so many people … [fill in the blanks with their personal cause]. I was so irked that I posted here about that at the time, with the argument that it is perfectly possible to have more than one moral concern at the same time.

One of the most mysterious subjects in metaphysics and biology is consciousness. We don’t know what consciousness is or where it comes from. But, one hopes, we have laid to rest the idea that animals are different from human beings in any essential way. They are just as conscious. They have a full range of emotions, just as we do. They love just as deeply. They are greatly troubled by fear and worry. They love their lives. The differences between human DNA and animal DNA are trivial.

Ask your average witless Christian whether animals have souls, and the answer will be that of course animals don’t have souls, that only humans have souls. Witless Christians who are more theologically inclined may then say something about how God gave us humans the fruits of the earth, to “harvest” as we please. That’s dominionism, one of the ugliest theologies there is. They actually apply the word “harvest” to animals.

But if the question of souls, whatever souls may be, is inherent in the nature of living things, as opposed to some magical ontological theological notion about which ancient and ignorant religionists knew more than we do, then it seems safe to assume that animals are not different from us in any essential way. If we have souls (a question I think we cannot answer), then they do, too. Consciousness suffices. Simply to be a living, feeling being is to have rights and claims on fairness.

According to the New York Times story, not only did Chaser know 1,022 nouns, he also understood sentences containing a prepositional object, verb and direct object. Chaser was able to learn so much language because border collies are a very smart breed and because his owner spent many, many hours teaching Chaser language. But everyone with a dog or cat knows that every dog and every cat learns enough language to manage daily routines. The more you talk to your dog or cat, and the older your pet gets, the more language your pet will learn.

My cat, Lily, now eleven years old, used to be terrified of the abbey organ because the organ can be quite loud. But after a while she developed a new routine whenever the organ is played. She goes to a table facing the organ console and watches. I soon learned that, if I play quietly, she likes the music (a collie I once had used to come and lie under the piano any time I played). And then I learned that Lily has a favorite song. That song is “Danny Boy,” which I play quite softly with velvety stops and tremulant, adding in some soft reed stops as the song develops. A couple of months ago, after I had played “Danny Boy,” I got up from the organ, and Lily was crying. She came to me, bumping her head against me, very emotional, crying the same way she had cried after I returned home from two weeks in Scotland. She understands, I believe, what that song means. It is a song about loss and grief, with the hope of reunion in some unknown world. The song expresses a feeling — a condition of the soul, if you will — and I believe that Lily understands that feeling just as well as we humans do. Because music is a universal language, she knows what “Danny Boy” means.

In John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, a book that I have mentioned here often, Rawls does not take up the issue of animal rights and fairness to animals. But he practically begs someone to do that work, which mostly remains undone. If you are familiar with Rawls, then you’re aware of his concept of “the original condition,” in which we arrange the world as though we can’t know before we come into this world what our circumstances will be — male, female, black, white, rich, poor, beautiful, ugly, smart, dumb. We would want the fairest possible world. It’s not at all difficult to add another condition to Rawls’ thought experiment. What if we didn’t know whether we would be born human or animal? Whether we were a wild animal, or a farm animal, or somebody’s pet, would make no difference.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were the kind of society in which, in a presidential debate, we could talk about fairness for all living things, rather than the usual agenda based on increasingly mean and increasingly cruel right-wing talking points.

The Rawls thought experiment is incredibly easy to apply to animals. Talk to a chicken, a cow, a lion, a dog, a bird, a whale. Ask them what they want, and what they would consider fair. You know what they would say.

Liberals and self-defense: Are things changing?



To qualify for a concealed carry permit in my state, one must get 21 of 30 shots inside the “7” line. That’s not difficult, frankly. The green lines show how my 30 shots were clustered during my shooting trial. Only two of my shots were in the “9” area, and the others were much closer to the bullseye. I tend to shoot slightly to the left because the sights on my gun need adjusting. But I think it would be fair to say that I’m a liberal sharpshooter. Click here for high-resolution version.


For us liberals, guns are a touchy subject. I even hesitate to write here about guns, partly because I know that Europeans see the gun question in a different way than we Americans. I wish that we Americans were more like Europeans in our attitudes toward guns. But, here in the U.S., it’s not just me. There is evidence that American liberals are rethinking the question of guns for their own self-defense. It’s not hard to imagine why. I’m not saying that this is a good thing. I’m only observing that it seems to be happening, and that I’ve gotten on board, though with some doubts and worries.

There have been a number of articles about this recently, including this one at the Guardian: ‘If others have rifles, we’ll have rifles’: why US leftist groups are taking up arms.

While Obama was president, right-wingers rushed to buy guns, having been convinced by the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association that Democrats would take their guns away. The “prepper” market also flourished, because racist right-wingers naturally assumed that a black man in the White House could only cause a collapse of society. After Trump took office, gun sales slumped, either because Trump makes his supporters feel safe, or because gun-lovers weren’t as afraid that Democrats would take their guns away. After Trump, the bottom fell out of the prepper market. Right-wingers feel all cuddly and hunky-dory with a criminal lunatic in the White House who incites his supporters to violence. The rest of us don’t.

Among liberals and leftists, new groups are forming. Among them are the Socialist Rifle Association, the Liberal Gun Club, the John Brown Gun Club, and an LGBTQ group, the Pink Panthers.

Though I have owned a pistol for about ten years, it mostly sat in a drawer, unused. A few months ago, with the encouragement of Republican neighbors (with whom I get along great because we focus on our own neighborhood and don’t talk politics), I resolved to get proper training for shooting and to get a concealed carry permit. These neighbors have made a shooting range down in the woods where the road ends. I practiced my shooting for three months and shot several thousand rounds of ammunition to prepare for the concealed-carry process. I learned to shoot a rifle when I was a boy (I was taught by my dad and my older brother). I was a good shot then. I’m even better now, with both rifles and pistols.

My state, North Carolina, has tough requirements for getting a concealed carry permit. You must attend eight hours of safety and legal training, pass a shooting test, go through a background check and mental health check through the State Bureau of Investigation, and have your fingerprints taken. People with shady intentions are not going to apply for concealed carry permits. If you ever do lawfully use a gun to defend yourself (that’s much more rare than gun-lovers would have us believe), then holding a concealed carry permit is the best possible way to demonstrate that you are a responsible gun owner and that you are competent to use a gun.

I did put a lot of thought into the decision, including talking with some of my liberal friends about the ethics involved (they all said go for it), and getting advice from conservative friends who already hold concealed carry permits. I also learned that people who hold concealed carry permits are five to seven times less likely than the general population to be involved in gun crimes.

At this point, I have no plans to carry a concealed weapon. But I like knowing that I could, should I ever feel the need. Am I afraid that right-wing militias will start targeting liberals? No, not at all, though I can imagine a dystopian future, if as a country we don’t have a change of course. In rural areas, the greatest dangers are associated with drug use, drug dealing, and the crime that involves.

Part of my motivation is public relations. I want the local Republican Party to know that the local Democratic chair has a concealed carry permit. That serves two purposes. For one, it lets them know that the Democratic Party is aware of the Second Amendment and is not going to take their guns away, no matter what the NRA says in order to stimulate gun sales and stoke right-wing paranoia. For two, it gets the word out that I may be armed, that I am a crack shot, and that I’m not to be messed with. Crimes against Democrats and liberals in this county have not risen above the level of insults and defacement of our roadside political signs (which is very common). There are a lot of guns in this county, and the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding and responsible, whatever their politics. We have an excellent sheriff and sheriff’s department.

There are people who carry guns with them illegally. I consider that very dangerous. A month or so ago, there was a story in the news about a woman somewhere in North Carolina who, while putting a pistol into her purse, accidentally shot herself and died. Proper training in gun safety should prevent that sort of thing. It’s highly likely that her pistol was either old or poorly designed, or that she was storing it in an unsafe condition. I would never under any circumstances have a gun near me that is ready to fire. How to safely store a gun is part of what one learns in a concealed carry class. For those who do have a pistol and carry it illegally, I would say: Don’t do that. Get a permit. Carrying illegally exposes oneself and others to risk, not only safety risks, but also legal risks.

I have decided not to join any organization for liberal gun owners. That’s not because I think such organizations are a bad thing, but because all of them seem to have some kind of manifesto that I don’t necessarily agree with. I’m also not suggesting that anyone ought to get a gun. But I am saying that anyone who does have a gun should be trained in how to use it and should know and honor the regulations that apply in the state you live in. And though I do not believe that more guns make us all safer, I do believe that we have a natural right to defend ourselves and others.

Catastrophic media failure


It is rare to be an observer at an important event and then to see how the media report on it. I watched the Mueller hearings yesterday, as well as the Democrats’ press conference afterwards. What I saw was not what the media are reporting — at all.

What I saw was a dignified and meticulous accounting of a vast array of damning evidence against Donald Trump. What the media saw was a “flop” and a “fizzle” and “such bad TV” (Politico). The Washington Post wrote, “The Mueller testimony didn’t deliver the spark the Democrats wanted. That puts the onus on House leaders and heightens the stakes for next year’s presidential election.” The New York Times wrote, “For all the dismal reviews of his performance, the day did not end talk of impeachment.”

I learned many things during my years in the newspaper business. For one, I learned that reporters are not the smartest people in the world. They tend to be dim bulbs for thinking in terms of ethics and principle. But in matters of perception and reaction, they are perceptive. They also are a blind herd. They come together as a herd very swiftly to align their narratives, and once they all begin reporting essentially the same thing, they cannot imagine that they might be wrong. Remember the Iraq war?

Our media also have become addicted to spectacle. In many ways, we owe Donald Trump for that. A more ethical, more principled, and more thoughtful media would reject spectacle and focus on substance. Notice the unconsciousness in the words of the New York Times: “dismal reviews,” which reveals more than they mean to reveal about how they evaluated the Mueller hearings. Politico was more conscious of the low standard they were applying, the circus standard: “such bad TV.”

Once again, our mainstream media have become a clueless herd, as when they caught war fever and helped Bush and Cheney deceive the nation into war. Now our mainstream media have caught Trump fever, and we can’t hold Trump accountable for his crimes because it might make bad TV.

A friend sent me a quote from Twitter. I am unable to identify the source, but the quote is spot on: “Who can forget when a flood of Americans responded to the election of a racist wannabe authoritarian by backing the New York Times so it could tell us that the author of the most damning indictment of a president in our history wasn’t good enough on TV.”

As a young editor, I was given special training in media law, and, along with it, responsibility for holding the line against sloppy reporting that could get us sued. I have often said that, to do that, you don’t really need to be able to cite case law such as New York Times v. Sullivan. Rather, you only have to apply some ethical principles, to use the words of a wise old editor I once worked for: Be fair, and don’t lie. I have sometimes walked a story back to a reporter, pointed to a particular passage, and asked: “Is this fair?” Inevitably I would get a blank look. Most reporters don’t think that way. They just write what the rest of the herd is writing.

Was Mueller slow and halting yesterday? Yes he was. He was trying very hard not to make any errors. He knew quite well that many questions would try to lead him to say more than he could say, based on principle, the law, and the authority that was given to him. I also believe that he might have a hearing problem, and that because of noise in the room and his distance from the questioners, he often had to ask for clarification to make sure that he had heard correctly. He wrote the report, but does that mean that we expect him to have it memorized?

Our media long ago stopped caring about Trump’s obvious stupidity, which Trump puts on display for us every day. But a careful slowness on Mueller’s part is big news — “halting and faltering,” according to the Washington Post. The questions from Democrats were meticulously aligned with fact and law. Democrats treated Mueller with great respect, and they also got the answers that they expected and wanted. But the media couldn’t care less, because it “lacked the dramatic moment” (New York Times) that Democrats were assumed to have wanted. That Republicans lied and bullied and demeaned Mueller is not even being reported, based on what I’ve read this morning. Lying and bullying by Republicans is no longer news. It’s just the new normal.

During the Iraq war, I watched virtually the entire newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle catch war fever. The same thing happened in almost every newsroom in America, including the Washington Post and the New York Times. (The McClatchy Washington bureau was the only news organization that did not succumb to war fever.) Once a news person succumbs to one of these psychic epidemics, I have found that it is impossible to get through to them. It was years before most people in the media were able to awake from their madness, admit that the war was a disaster, admit that we had been lied into the war, and admit that the media were grossly guilty of being complicit in misleading the U.S. into war, that the media had been duped and played. As I said above, reporters are not the smartest people in the world.

Once again, we are in a state of media madness. The media have now normalized Trump to such a degree that sober, rational Democrats in House committees leading us through evidence and law is weird, because it’s not a circus. Everyone wants a circus now — except those of us who want to be well governed. I commend the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. History, at least, will be able to see what they did yesterday to try to save us.

I am ashamed of our media. And I am terrified that some very bad things are going to have to happen before we awaken from this mass psychosis.


Update: As pundits and the media continue to blindly expose themselves as fools today, at least one piece gets it right — Lillian Rubin in the Washington Post. The piece is “Mueller didn’t fail, the country did,” and a link is below.

I am increasingly proud of the Democrats in Congress, who displayed yesterday the concern for reason, fairness, and equal justice that are among the defining characteristics of liberals. Those characteristics also happen to be among the founding values of our democracy. The media, having taken leave of its collective mind, somehow expected the Democratic Party to behave toward Donald Trump yesterday the same way that the Republican Party behaved toward the Clintons, including with the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Whereas Republicans yesterday put on full display their reliance on distortion, their contempt for law and process, their sheer meanness, and their willingness to embrace and protect criminality and corruption to preserve their power, Democrats showed that we remember who we are and that we remember and respect what America is supposed to be about.

As I have said here before, Republicans who support Trump have lost all claim to being considered decent human beings. They proved that yesterday. Who knows how long justice will take. But at least we liberals showed yesterday that we are not like them.

Mueller didn’t fail. The country did.


Clues to the future in how people talk


This video has been dubbed so that Trump is speaking with a British accent. His words are the same. How many fans would Trump have if he actually talked like this?


We Americans believe that the British are excessively judgmental about how people talk (and they are). But not only are we Americans just as judgmental, some linguists say that Americans are even more judgmental than the British. Does how people talk affect our politics far more than we realize? Does it shed some light on who will prosper and who will not?

Our reactions to how people talk are largely unconscious. But, as we listen to someone talk, we are rapidly making judgments about how smart they are, how nice they are, how rich or poor they are, how educated they are, and whether they are, or are not, like us. If the way people talk marks them as a member of an out-group, then we apply the stereotypes that we associate with that out-group.

Let’s listen to the Trump supporters in the video below. I don’t think many Trump supporters read this blog. But if they did, they’d recognize the people in the video as members of their own in-group, just like everyone else at a Trump rally. Those of us who despise Trump, however, will have very different responses. We will realize — quite correctly — that the people in the video are not very smart, not very nice, not very rich, not very well educated, and not like us:

After you watch these two videos, it’s easy to see that Trump supporters like Trump because of how he talks to them. Trump comes across as just as stupid, just as mean, just as hardscrabble, and just as ignorant as they are. Thus they see Trump as one of them. Nothing else matters to them, because they don’t know and don’t care what it actually takes to manage and govern a world as complicated as the world we live in. Because they’re enraged and confused, cruelty toward out-groups seems to be their only domestic policy, their only foreign policy, and their only economic policy.

Unfortunately for Trump supporters, their ignorance makes them easy to deceive. Trump is not like them. Trump is a rich guy from New York City whose social set is the global oligarchy, an oligarchy all about money and power and that lives on the shady side of law and ethics. Trump is deceiving and exploiting his supporters for the benefit of people who are like Trump. Trump’s narcissism feeds on their adulation. In return, Trump flatters them with his attention. They believe that someone is finally speaking up for them. He assures them that they will be great again. But that is not going to happen. Trump is, if anything, expediting their obsolescence by convincing them that they don’t have to change, or learn, or be nice, or educate their children, and that it’s the rest of the world that is the problem.

After the catastrophic election of 2016, many liberals were quick to blame themselves. If only we had reached out to them! We must engage them and empathize with them! That is a delusion. Trump supporters are too far gone for liberal reaching-out, because liberals are a demonized out-group. As they see it, only one of them can save them. Trump is quite literally seen as the answer to their prayers.

But back to language. It’s a shame that linguists have had so little to say about the culture war now raging in America, because linguists have a long, long memory, for cultures as well as for languages. Most people who write about American politics invoke American history, and there they stop. But no matter how much one knows about American history, I suspect that American history is a shallow source for understanding this culture war. To my lights, the part of American history most relevant to today’s culture war is not Jefferson vs. Hamilton but the displacement of native Americans and the loss of native American culture.

Linguists have a lot to say about what occurs when one language (or culture) replaces another. It’s always complicated, but the factors tend to be similar, whether the cultural replacement occurred 5,000 years ago (as when the Indo-European languages and cultures became dominant in Europe and parts of Asia), or 2,000 years ago, as when Latin took over in western Europe. (We need to keep in mind that, though English is a Germanic language, about 60 percent of English words derive from Latin.) Among those factors are technology (going all the way back to the wheel), migration, and the kind of economic power that comes from trading, or from political or economic exploitation.

At the level of causes that can be keenly felt by every human individual, there are two factors that are pretty much always involved in cultural displacement: prestige, and its opposite, stigma.

In The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, a book about how Indo-European languages swept over Europe during the bronze and iron ages, David Anthony writes:

The pre-Indo-European languages of Europe were abandoned because they were linked to membership in social groups that became stigmatized. How that process of stigmatization happened is a fascinating question, and the possibilities are much more varied than just invasion and conquest…. Negative evaluations associated with the dying language lead to a descending series of reclassifications by succeeding generations, until no one wants to speak like Grandpa anymore. Language shift and the stigmatization of old identities go hand in hand. [p. 340, sentence order inverted for emphasis]

And:

Usually language shift flows in the direction of paramount prestige and power. [p. 341]

As the world relentlessly globalizes (whether for good or for ill), something remarkable is happening with language. It is very rapid, because it has happened in our lifetimes. English is becoming the global lingua franca. Millions of people are learning English. I did not realize until I was Googling for this post that more people today speak English as a second language (more than 1 billion) than speak English as their first language (less than 400 million). Whether as a first or second language, to speak English today (as long as your accent is not stigmatized) is a matter of great prestige.

In the American culture war, what we have is not language displacement but culture displacement, driven by the usual factors — technology, economics, migration, and prestige vs. stigma. Trump’s supporters speak English, but many or most of them speak stigmatized dialects of English. When Trump speaks to his supporters, he speaks to them in a stigmatized dialect — a New York working-class dialect.

In a piece in the Washington Post, “Donald Trump’s accent, explained,” a linguist is quoted: “He wants to sound macho. As part of his whole tough-guy persona, he adopts almost a working-class style of speech.”

I lamented above that linguists haven’t had more to say about American politics and the American culture war. But I would mention two papers by linguists that are relevant:

Talking Donald Trump: A sociolinguistic study, by Jennifer Scalfani

Silencing nonstandard speakers: A content analysis of accent portrayals on American primetime television, by four linguists

What I’m arguing here is that what we are living through is not just a culture war but actually is the rage and death throes of a doomed culture — white, rural, Christian America. At the risk of making it sound facile, I’d have to say that their doom is obvious. They lack the skills, the knowledge, the intelligence, and even the will to adapt to a changing world. They are stigmatized. The world looks down on them, and they know it. Almost all of the social goods required for success and expansion in today’s world belong to the other side. As for the rage of rural white America, that is easy to understand, because, in their lifetimes, they have seen a reversal of prestige vs. stigma, aggravated by economic humiliation. In the glory days of white rural America, black people and gay people were stigmatized. White rural churchgoers had prestige. Now it is the other way around, which is why these changes seem like the end of the world and the work of the devil to them.

Given that Trump supporters do speak English, it would be possible for them to save themselves. They could, through education, better information, better politics, and improvement in their language skills, unload some of the stigma and work to adapt. Many of their children will do that. But the older ones won’t. As they slide into minority status, they could join a coalition, as other minorities do. But they won’t do that either. Part of what Trump and the Republican Party is teaching them is not to join a coalition of, say, working class minorities. White, rural, working-class America has everything in common with black (or Hispanic), rural, working-class America. But the Republican Party has cleverly assured that today’s older Republicans will never, even if it would make them less poor and get them medical care, join a coalition that isn’t all white and waving the Christian flag. The 2016 election, I believe, is the last national election that the Republican Party will ever be able to win, unless it completely re-invents itself. Republicans lost the popular vote. Only by lying, cheating, and relying on Russian help could they pull it off. That won’t happen again. We’re onto them.

I have another suspicion here about what may be going on in the longer scheme of things. The rotting away of white, rural, Christian America is probably just an ordinary, localized event, if you look at it from a global perspective with a timeline of 100 years or so. Theirs is not the only culture that is is dying or that has recently died. But from a 2,000-year perspective, this may also be the last stand of Christian true believers. If the test of true belief is the willingness to go to war with the infidels, then only white, rural, evangelical and fundamentalist Americans are still standing. Europe, and the Catholic church, passed that point long ago. In not too many more years, good-byes may be in order not only for white, rural, Christian Americans, but also for true-believing Christianity.

What do we owe Trump supporters? We owe them what everyone is owed: equal justice, equal rights, equal opportunity, and all the goods that go with a decent society, including public education, medical care, jobs, retirement, and self-respect. Those are the very things that they would deny to others.

I am not a linguist, nor a sociologist, nor a political scientist, nor a historian (though I can read). But I do know these people. Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and the church have brought out the very worst in them. Even if it had been otherwise, and if the authority they crave had brought out the best in them, I believe they still would remain in decline, because they are unfit for a changing world and cannot adapt, as a consequence of their own failings. There ought to be a word for it, because it’s something I’ve seen over and over in how dysfunctional people live their lives. They cling, as though for dear life, to the very thing that is pulling them down.

Fried oysters, and a wandering mind



Fried oysters, French fries, and hushpuppies. The hushpuppies are barely visible, underneath the oysters.

If you can’t find any good escape fiction, then how about some escape food instead? Fried oysters should do the trick.

I had to make a miserable trip out yesterday afternoon in 95-degree heat. I could have just gone to a haircut appointment and then scurried back home, but I try to combine errands as much as possible to minimize travel. So I also went to — no kidding — the mall. (The nearest mall is in Winston-Salem. More about Winston-Salem in the update, below.) I needed a travel shirt for my U.K. trip next month, something that wouldn’t have to be ironed that would be suitable for evensong at the cathedral in Oxford, followed by a nice pub dinner somewhere. After that, it was Fresh Market for a few groceries.

It just so happens that Coronet Seafood at Rural Hall opens at 4 p.m., and it just happened to be 4:04 p.m. when I drove past on the way home. I call that serendipity, because I had been thinking about fried oysters for a couple of months, after a friend who used to live in these parts asked me in a text message if fried oysters are still a thing. The answer is yes. I call them fried fish houses. Some are better than others, but, as a rural genre, they thrive.

Are fried oysters a thing everywhere? — at least, everywhere you can get fresh oysters? Certainly, in California we had them. I’ve had them fried at a little oyster house that perches on a pier over Tomales Bay. I’ve bought them fresh from Hog Island Oyster Co., then shucked them and fried them while vacationing at Inverness, on the other side of Tomales Bay.

I was always alert for opportunities to have oysters while in Scotland last year. In Edinburgh, as I recall, the oyster bar we went to had some fried oysters, but they were a delicacy, very expensive, and they were meant more as an accompaniment to an evening of drinking than they were meant for a feast. The excellent little eatery at the Ulva Ferry had oysters, but only raw. Raw oysters are a little much for me.

The fried oysters in the photo above cost $10.95 and included french fries, hush puppies, and slaw. That’s the small platter. There’s also a large oyster platter for $13.95. For getting there early, before 5 p.m., I got an early-bird 10 percent discount.

If you go out for fried fish (or oysters) in these parts, you’ll be reminded how someone like Donald Trump became president and why his approval rating is 44 percent. I was the first to be seated, and as I waited for my oysters to be fried I glanced around as others came in. Everything about them — how they dress, how they move, their homely manners, how they hold their faces, how they talk and what they say — reveals that they are entirely monocultural. The white people don’t even have any awareness of the African-American culture that is all around them. The smallness of their world is suffocating. This is my culture of origin, and yet I feel culture-shocked when I am exposed to it. I can’t help but think that there go I, had I not been born a heretic and a misfit, equipped to think for myself, sassy enough to tell fools what to stick and where to stick it. After years in San Francisco, I sometimes wonder if it was a mistake to come back. And yet, I don’t get out much. Each year, the woods loom a little closer to the house. My real neighbors are the raccoon family that is harassing the chickens and the creatures that come out of the woods to eat the clover. I should travel more, I tell myself. And I have been traveling more.

The truth is, the Trump people don’t possess this place as fully as they think they do. Any place as unspoiled as this county is going to be discovered. The young people leave, but the retired people who move in were employees of the World Bank, or were reporters for the New York Times, or were university professors or airline pilots. Part of my job as a political operative is to find those people, though I also know people who have lived here for their entire life who identify as democratic socialists.

Much of my reading lately has been focused on prehistoric Europe and the origins of our contemporary Western languages. Cultures, of course, come and go. When one culture is displaced by another culture, there are reasons. When a culture with wheels and wagons, horses, bread, butter, ale and cheese came up against the old foraging cultures of western Europe, which culture might you suppose would win? Which languages would spread, and which would die out?

There really is a culture war. White rural culture really is dying, and now they know it. It’s dying because it is worn out, corrupted, insular, ignorant, obsolete in its skills, and unable to adapt. Its politics and its religion grow ever uglier as it panics, pulling it down that much faster. Theirs once was a culture that could spread across America and overwhelm the natives. A few hundred years later, now it’s payback time and their turn to be overwhelmed. We liberals and Democrats are hated because we represent the next wave. It’s been going on for ten thousand years.

There’s an irony here, too. No culture is ever completely forgotten. Some bits of its DNA linger on in folkways whose sources are lost in the remote past. Are there things in white rural culture that deserve to live on? We can only guess. But my guess would be that Appalachian musical styles will be conserved. Some of the cuisine, no doubt, will be conserved. If those bits of DNA do linger on, then the conservation will not get done by monocultural types who were unfit to engage the next wave. It will be done by those who had a foot in at least two cultures, curating and providing a channel for conservation of the old toward the new. Another irony: The coming next wave of culture speaks English. But it’s Spanish or Chinese that scares the rural white people, because they’re too deceived by political propaganda to understand what’s really sweeping over them.

Good-bye, white rural America, though you gave birth to me. And thanks for all the hushpuppies and fish.


Update 1: While I was writing this, I started getting emails from farflung friends saying that the New York Times has discovered Winston-Salem, which is 25 miles from Acorn Abbey. It happens that I have roots in Winston-Salem. I went to high school there, and my first job was at the Winston-Salem Journal, in 1966. Every retiree needs access to shopping and a medical center. I chose Winston-Salem partly for my roots there, but also because I preferred a second-tier city, with slower growth. Winston-Salem also is an old city, by American standards. The Salem half was on the old colonial Wagon Road from Pennysylvania to Georgia. Because Winston-Salem was settled by technically advanced and well-educated Moravians (from Germany, and they were communists, too) before the American revolution, Winston-Salem also has a leg up culturally compared with the cultural vacuum of Southern cities such as Charlotte or Atlanta. For example, I’d imagine that Winston-Salem has as many excellent church organs per capita as any city in Europe.

From the New York Times:

Why Midsize Cities Struggle to Catch Up to Superstar Cities: For decades, smaller metropolitan areas closed the income gap with bigger, richer ones, but no longer. So places like Winston-Salem, N.C., are trying to lay a new foundation for prosperity.


Update 2: Fried oysters in Edinburgh with seaweed and iceberg lettuce, August 2018:


Please, somebody … just get us out of here



Jason Momoa in Apple’s “See”

The diagnosis, I feel sure, is chiefly Game of Thrones withdrawal. Whether you loved it or were disappointed, Game of Thrones ended, leaving us exposed and defenseless in the here and now.

Europe has been in an oven. The American heartland keeps flooding. Many farmers have been ruined. The water is waist deep in the Louisiana lowlands though hurricane season is just getting started. Wildfires have been raging in the arctic and in Hawaii. It’s summer in California, which means that California will soon have fires to go with its earthquakes. Monsoon flooding in India just killed 90 people and displaced more than a million. It’s too hot to go outside here unless you’re back indoors by 9:30 a.m. “Climate despair” is now a mental health diagnosis. Donald Trump’s approval rating rose a point or two as the scrutiny of his concentration camps intensified. The U.K. seems to want its own version of Donald Trump. The yield curve is inverted. Bees are dying faster than ever, though monster-size snakes and armadillos, like Trump’s base, feast and flourish in broad daylight.

Maintaining one’s sanity requires some escape. But where to? I spend more time surfing the streaming services looking for something fit to watch than I spend actually watching stuff. I have never been able to understand the appeal of stories set in the here and now. Where’s the escape in that? I’ve started a collection of the pathetic little blurbs that one finds in the streaming services while searching desperately for something to watch. Who writes these shows? Who watches them? Why do they bother to make them? For example:

• After a bad breakup, a struggling New York comedy writer tries to don a brave face and care for his dying mother in Sacramento.

• His wife wants out. His son’s a pothead. His rabbi can’t help him. Poor schlub. He could do worse, but not by much.

• What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas … when you can’t remember what the hell happened the night before.

If all stories were that useless, I would not have survived childhood, let alone have made it to my present considerable age.

Maybe Apple will help? Later this year, Apple’s streaming service will start. Lists of the shows that Apple has in production have started appearing, for example, this one. There is the now-obligatory dystopian thriller, “See,” but so far it looks like just another show in which half the budget is spent on body rugs and bad hair. At $15 million per episode, right up there with the last season of Game of Thrones, this series can afford a lot of bad hair. I’m intrigued, though, that Apple is taking on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.

Based on this list, I tried to do a rough count of how many of Apple’s new shows are not set in the here and now. I came up with 12, versus 25 shows that are set in the here and now.

Occasionally I do find something that is worth watching all the way to the end. “The Stone of Destiny” (2008) is particularly relevant now that talk of Scottish independence has been renewed because of Scottish exasperation with Brexit. “Crooked House” (2017) got mediocre reviews, but I thought it was a fine production of an Agatha Christie novel, and with a superb cast.

On the other hand, I watched only about two minutes of the Netflix revival of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. I had assumed that it was a proper remake, but instead it appeared to be just a sentimental wallow and a heavy new dose of Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney for those (such as Armistead Maupin) who can’t get enough. I follow Maupin on Facebook (mostly selfies), by the way. He has become a colossal boor with nothing new to say and who hasn’t done anything since Tales of the City other than pursue his climber social life.

If anyone would care to debate me, I would be willing to defend the proposition that decent human beings are now living through the most disturbing times since April 1945, when Hitler put a gun to his head. As evidence of this, you only have to look around and see who is gloating, and why. The worst among us believe themselves to be back on top again. They also believe that God sent Trump to save the world — not from climate disaster or thermonuclear destruction or another war, but from liberals like us.

Stories about Vegas and Sacramento just aren’t going to cut it for me.