Critical Thinking PSA

I’ve written on this topic—how to find the truth, and why sticking to facts is so important—more than once, three longish articles about critical thinking in today’s Wild West of Journalism.

Eschew Ignorance. Pursue Truth.
I Don’t Care If You’re Partisan. I Do Care If You Perpetrate Lies
The Year in Review

            I’ve probably got another longer article about the difference between news and propaganda in me too—but for now I think I’ve got a couple down and dirty examples that should help those who still don’t get it.* The difference between straightforward journalism and the biased comes down to use of words and use of photos.

Here’s an example of word use:

On Tuesday, with respect to tearing down Confederate monuments, President Trump bravely stood before the world and asked, “Where does it end?”

That’s an example from the Daily Wire, a right-wing opinion website that looks like a news site, complete with “breaking news” headlines. But you see it in the words: “President Trump bravely stood before the world.” Really? I’m rolling my eyes. Legitimate news reportage would simply say, “Donald Trump said.”

Here’s an example of photo use from the same not-news site. In a piece** that has very little to do with Hillary Clinton (except for the fact that the far right would like it to and has been trying to connect her to it for months), the headline mentions her (words, again) and is followed by an unflattering photo of her. One sees this “ugly photo” activity over and over in the right-wing press.

There’s a third principle at play here. The legitimate press doesn’t try to make something out of a long-debunked issue (here’s what PolitiFact says about it), using the name of their favorite bête noire to draw in readers anxious to hear some dirt on someone they dislike intensely.

So there you have it: words and photos. As a last thought, John Wiley & Sons, publishers of the For Dummies series, offers these points for discernment:

  • Look for a slant. Some articles are fair and balanced, but others look more like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If an article has only one source, beware.
  • Consider the source. Even if an article cites external sources, check out those sources to see whether they are being cited fairly and accurately—and do, in fact, reinforce the article’s points.
  • Look who’s talking. If you research the contributors themselves and find that they are experts in their fields, you can be more confident in the entry.

My BS meter goes off all the time, y’all, but I have experience in research and parsing words, and that’s why. I offer this in the hope it helps make it easier for others to spot.

* Actually I think some folks just don’t want to get it. But there comes a time in everyone’s life, I think, when you realize you really need the truth. The facts. No sugar-coating and no prevaricating either. Maybe you’ve reached that point.

** I really hate linking to this website, so I’ve made a screengrab instead.


Do You Know Me?

Some years ago—back before I obsessively kept notes about these things—I read an interview with Frances Mayes (of Under the Tuscan Sun fame).

Mayes said that while she often asks about local customs when she travels outside the United States—how things are done and so forth—she is not often asked those things in return about the States. The reason, she believes, is because foreign visitors think they know us already. That is, our culture (think Hollywood) has been so vigorously exported that the rest of the world feels it already knows what our lives are like.

It’s something to think about.

Travel to the US Is Down

They call it the Trump Slump in the travel industry:

“[The travel industry is] currently drawing attention to an unintended consequence of the Trump-led efforts to stop many Muslims from coming to the U.S., pointing to a sharp drop in foreign tourism to our nation that imperils jobs and touristic income. It’s known as the ‘Trump Slump.’ And I know of no reputable travel publication to deny it.” —Arthur Frommer, Frommersdotcom, undated

European travel groups have pulled their plans, I’ve read. Flights from Australia to mainland US are the cheapest they’ve been in a decade, I’ve seen; they can’t fill the planes. Even our friends the Canadians are going elsewhere, the Washington Post says. The Toronto Metro says Canadian searches for US flights dropped 43 percent after the first trump travel ban. The state of Georgia expects the loss of tourism will have a $27 million impact. NBC notes that last year US tourism experienced a 4.6 billion dollar loss.

Four billion dollars is a lot. Forty thousand jobs lost in services and hospitality.

And it’s not just tourism: educational institutions are suffering too. Canadian CTV News reports that international applications to Canadian universities surged after the trump election. American universities are some of the most highly respected in the world, but now that children are shooting up schools with semi-automatic weapons (again), international parents are rethinking where they send their precious children for higher education. Applications to American boarding schools that court international students are down too.

After the Parkland, Florida, shooting, even Americans are staying away from Florida, which has virtually no gun laws at all.

More and more travelers are deciding to bypass the US for someplace … safer. On Twitter one reads comments like this: “As a Canadian, I will not spend my tourist dollars in US as long as the @NRA owns the lawmakers.” Or “I teach in South Korea right now. One of my students told me her family cancelled a trip to the States because they don’t feel safe travelling there. And she lives literally a one hour drive away from the North Korean border.” And “My partner lived in and loved the US before returning to UK, I’ve visited and would love to travel coast to coast. But right now, no thanks.” And “I’m Canadian. I don’t feel comfortable visiting the US anymore. I live 20 min from the border, used to shop across the line all the time. No more.”

It’s a shame, but seriously—would you come to this shithole country while the Shithole-in-Chief is in power? I sure wouldn’t. I’ve long wanted to take my immigrant husband to Washington DC to see the monuments (inspiring stuff!), but there’s no way I’m setting foot in that city until the trump stench has dissipated.

Of course, we’ve been a bit nervous about traveling abroad, at least until Gerry’s green card status becomes permanent—but as you know, last December we had no choice. (And also no hassle, thank goodness. The center continues to hold … at least for white folks. I’m not being flippant; we recognize our privilege. People of color always have it harder.)

I wasn’t raised in wealth, but my parents were big on driving trips. They wanted us kids to see things, and we did see a lot of the United States. Some of Canada and Mexico. I was a parent myself, though, before I got farther afield (England!). I’m no “elite” that the republicans delight in denigrating, and yet … I must be. Because even in my limited experience, I’ve become convinced that travel to foreign countries changes us in good ways. It opens our eyes and hearts to the notion that all of humanity is the same, no matter what color we paint our houses or what type of clothing we wear.

Still, I wouldn’t want to come here either.


The Year in Review

It’s been a strange year, yeah?*

About this time last year,** a woman I used to think kindly of posted some [ridiculous, biased, highly charged, partisan] article on Facebook with the comment, “The left can’t see the truth.” (Later in another post, she shared a similar sentiment: “The left can’t see past their noses.”) At the time, I wondered, What TRUTH does she think I am missing? It was a generic statement without a clear meaning.

Did she mean the truth about her candidate, the one she’d self-righteously announced she voted for because she believed he represented her Christian values? (Her words, from an earlier post.) What values,*** exactly, are those?

  • The multiple divorces and infidelities? (I know for a fact the Bible has commandments about those.)
  • The serial lies? (WaPo keeps a list of them.)
  • The lewd behavior? (The man bragged about the size of his penis in an election debate. He bragged about grabbing women’s genitalia. UPDATE: And it appears he had an affair with a porn star, to whom he paid $130K hush money during his presidential campaign.)
  • The white supremacists? (He can’t bring himself to disavow them. Of course, that’s because he’s a well-known racist.)
  • The talk to the Boy Scouts? (His profane performance was deplorable.)
  • Throwing around racially offensive comments like “shithole countries”? (I’ve mentioned the racism, right?)
  • Rounding up immigrants? (The Bible says: “For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. … Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” —Matthew 25: 42–43, 45)
  • I could go on and on and on.

But it’s not just this specific “friend.” (I say this in quotations because I don’t feel we are friends any more, frankly.) I can’t tell you how many times I have read (or had said to me), “She lost. Get over it.” (To which I think and might answer, angrily, that she didn’t actually lose.) A year later, people are still saying that, as if it is a meaningful response to this Seussian world we are living in. In which people like me are left saying, “But the facts are …” and “The law says …”

I realize now that this friend was just spouting some verbiage she’d heard, mostly likely on Fox (Not)News. Or that her husband read on Breitbart or listened to on Rush Limbaugh. “Talking points.” And for the last couple years I’ve been telling myself, Well, they’re just brainwashed. Remember, a year ago it had been six months since I’d spoken with my brother. I was already aware of the political brainwashing phenomenon. As an article about this issue in Vox points out:

Information [on the right] is evaluated not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.

This is the frighting situation we face. There is an entire industry devoted to disseminating an alternate version of reality that is “good for the [Republican] side.” And the lunatic right wing is snapping it up and passing it around amongst themselves: a University of Oxford study has found that trump supporters and extreme conservatives consume and share more “junk news” on social media than every other political group combined. (You can read more about that here and here.) The McClatchy News Bureau spoke with the lead researcher, Philip Howard:

The findings suggest “that most of the junk news that people share over social media ends up with Trump’s fans, the far right. They’re playing with different facts, and they think they have the inside scoop on conspiracies.”

As a result, he said in a phone interview, it appears that “a small chunk of the population isn’t able to talk politics or share ideas in a sensible way with the rest of the population.”

When I was growing up, our family watched the six o’clock news every night without fail. (I continued this habit well into adulthood.) There were three networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—and each had a respected journalism unit that produced the news program. Everybody had a favorite, a preferred vendor for news. My family watched Walter Cronkite on CBS.

The networks were competing with each other, sure, although not for alternate facts. But now … we have the Fox network. It is utterly biased and often just lies. Fox is all about the “good for our side” (which is the far-right, conservative, wingnut version of the Republican party) and not particularly concerned about the true. I understand that some folks may have started watching Fox fifteen years ago, before this bias was so blatant. It’s like putting the frog in the pot of water on the stove and then turning on the heat—the frog is cooked before it knows what’s happened to it. And Fox viewers are boiled frogs; anyone watching Fox these days doesn’t know what the truth is, because they’ve been gradually brainwashed and thoroughly misinformed over a period of time.

Vox goes on:

From Reagan forward, the US has become much more politically polarized, but the polarization has not been symmetrical—the right has become far more extreme than the left. (That story is exhaustively told in Asymmetric Politics, by political scientists David Hopkins and Matt Grossmann.)

But it doesn’t help much to think of polarization as working purely along a single left-right axis, as though the right has simply moved further right. Instead, there has been a break, a divergence of political worldviews.

On one side is what we might call the classic liberal democratic (small-l, small-d) theory of politics. In this view, politics is a kind of structured contest. Factions and parties battle over interests and policies, but the field of play on which they battle is ring-fenced by a set of common institutions and norms. Inside that fence is “normal politics” — the subject of legitimate political dispute. Outside that fence is out of bounds, in violation of shared standards.

The “game” of politics is defined by explicit rules (e.g., the Constitution), enforced by various legally empowered referees (e.g., courts and the executive branch). But it is also defined by implicit norms, unwritten rules more informally enforced by the press, academia, and civil society. These latter institutions are referees as well, but their enforcement power operates not through law but through trust. Their transpartisan authority exists solely because participants in the game agree it does.

The idea is that when political participants step outside the ring fence and violate some shared rule or norm, they are called on it by referees and must pay some penalty, reputational or otherwise. In this way, political contests are bounded and contained, prevented from spilling over into violence or illiberalism. That’s how democracy—indeed, any framework of cooperation among large numbers of diverse people—works. Institutions and norms provide structure and limits, the shared scaffolding of cooperation.

That is the classic, some might say naive, view. But there has always been a powerful strain in conservatism (think the John Birch Society) that resists seeing itself as a participant in the game at all. It sees the game itself, its rules and referees, as captured by the other side, operating for the other side’s benefit. Any claim of transpartisan authority is viewed with skepticism, as a kind of ruse or tool through which one tribe seeks to dominate another.

That’s the view Limbaugh and others in right-wing media have consistently articulated. And it has found an increasingly receptive audience.

And so people like me sputter on the sidelines. It doesn’t matter how often people with nothing more untoward in their hearts except to point out that the law has been broken, people like my friend will call us names and post ridiculous memes and deny the evidence that truly is right in front of them. My friend lives in an echo chamber in which everyone is repeating the lies, in particular their news sources.

I honestly don’t know how to remedy the situation we find ourselves in. It’s tough to believe in the American ideal of the First Amendment when it forces us to tolerate people like Alex Jones (the proprietor of an unhinged, far-right conspiracy theory radio show and website), whose reason for existing on God’s beautiful blue earth is unclear at best. How a man who earns his living telling public lies (actually, I think he makes his living selling merchandise—T-shirts and suchlike) manages to stay out of jail is beyond me. In fact, in a child custody lawsuit (ex-wife says he’s unstable) Jones’s lawyer admitted Jones is a “performance artist” who is “playing a character,” though that makes no difference to Jones’s equally unhinged followers.

It’s a slippery slope, trying to make distinctions in the First Amendment, but I think that’s where we have to look. The European Union, which also prizes a free press, has passed some strong laws against hate speech. That’s a start, and we can look to the EU for what’s working and what’s not. There must be a way to preserve our free press.

But I think eventually as a society we’ll have to address the concept of fake news. (A good definition is this: Fake News is the deliberate attempt to publish hoaxes and/or disinformation for the purpose of profit or influence. That is, for the purpose of keeping the tribe in power.) As we learned in the documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad, when the filmmaker’s father could no longer watch Fox (Not)News, he gradually returned to the mild-mannered person he had been before he started watching. This truth is demonstrated even more dramatically in the story of Derek Black, a former white nationalist whose father started the first and largest white nationalist website, whose godfather is David Duke … and who went off to college and learned new things and met new people (got out of his echo chamber, in other words) and completely changed his way of thinking (read this post-Charlottesville interview with him here). Eventually he came out—that is, disavowed his racist mind-set and disavowed white nationalism altogether—publicly, first in a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center and later with an op-ed in the New York Times.

I find Black’s story very moving and inspiring.

It gives me hope.

* It’s been a strange couple of years, actually.

** This was on the day of President Obama’s farewell speech and public (right-wing) outrage about some comment Meryl Streep made.

*** Full disclosure: I’m willing to bet it’s the abortion issue, even though we have the data that shows countries with free access to abortion have lower rates of abortion than those which don’t, just for starters. Even though she would scream bloody murder about Muslims trying to establish sharia law in this country, and her desire to eliminate legal abortion would essentially establish “Christian sharia” law. But you knew it was a rhetorical question, right?

Ken Burns and Me

Lots of people have been asking me about this new multiepisode documentary from Ken Burns. Have I watched it?

No, I have not. I like Ken Burns’s work. I’ve seen some of his documentaries, and I know he’s a talented storyteller. But I’ll need to be in a really happy place before I sit down and watch The Vietnam War, which aired in the last half of September 2017. Because, you know, I lived it.

Have I said this before? My father never carried a gun; he had a government-issued one, but it stayed on a high shelf in my parents’ closet. He was not a gun person; he was born in the city (St. Louis), raised in the city. He hated guns (because he knew what they could do), and was vocal about it, and about war in general. (He’d studied military history in college. He didn’t think war solved much.) He was a guy who loved people but thought humanity could think up some pretty bad stuff.

My father was a US Air Force pilot (he enlisted during the Korean War, to avoid being drafted into the army). He went in as an enlisted man but was noticed as officer material and went first to OCS (Officers’ Candidate School) and then to pilot training.

My mother, who was crippled from polio when she six (one gimpy leg, always walked with a limp) was diagnosed with MS when I was six or seven (this would have been ’59 or ’60). When I was ten, she could no longer sign her name (too shaky to write). They barely knew what MS was back then, much less how to treat for it. So I became the joint signatory on my dad’s checking account and wrote out all the bills. Why? Because Daddy was on-7-off-7, because he was in SAC (Strategic Air Command—the guys who run to the planes when the sirens go off). He wasn’t always there to take care of those things, so I, the oldest child, did. I did the family grocery shopping and wrote checks for them. (Another ordeal, since in theory little kids don’t write checks, right?)

At that time Daddy was flying KC-135s. (These planes are for in-air refueling; I did not appreciate how dangerous a task this was until years later when I saw the movie Air Force One, such is the innocence/ignorance of youth.) But he had flown helicopters when he was—and we were—younger. Now, the Vietnam conflict had been going on for some years and they had lost a lot of helicopter pilots. Helicopters are hard to learn (longer training period), hard to fly—much, much harder than a plane. So Uncle Sam started rounding up people like my dad.

Jim Clarke. The best there ever was.

The year I was thirteen we learned he was to go to Vietnam—a thirty-nine-year-old with a sick wife and three young kids—so I had to get an emergency driver’s license, because by that time my mom couldn’t drive either (too shaky). This was unheard of; it was a MAJOR ORDEAL for that to happen. But it did happen, and I began doing all the family driving at thirteen while Daddy was in Vietnam the first time. I carried a gasoline credit card.

Daddy did a second tour, right near the end of the war. He took photos (slides, Ektachrome) during both assignments. A few years ago G took all our family slides—40+ magazines of 36 slides each—back to Dublin to put them through a professional-grade scanner, then color-corrected them and loaded three sets for each of us kids. Lots of these were growing-up family stuff but there were a few magazines from Vietnam. We’d seen the family stuff many times. We’d never seen the Vietnam stuff. It was eye-opening. Heartbreaking. He wrote captions on the slide-carriers, like “Sometimes I just cry.”

He was stationed in Thailand and flew into Vietnam, low, under the radar, at night to pick up downed pilots. Extremely dangerous. He also evacuated women and children from active war zones. It is a miracle he came back to us, twice. But after the second time he was done. He’d intended to stay in the Air Force longer, but he left after twenty-three years. He was never the same after Vietnam. (Although as a human, he was magnificent.) That first year after his return, he sat in the living room and stared at the walls a lot. He cried sometimes.

Meanwhile, of course, those of us back home got to see “live from Vietnam” reports every night on the six o’clock news.

Anyway, I have not yet looked at the slides, much less the Burns documentary. Vietnam profoundly affected my family, and I have been burdened with the unpleasantness of it my entire life. Maybe later.

Sunshine Patriots

These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.                                                                                 —Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, 1777

Ah, fall. It’s football season again, and the armchair patriots are passing judgment yet again. But, excuse me, did our false president just publicly call American citizens sons of bitches? Why yes … I believe he did.

This guy has been working overtime to conflate #TakeaKnee with disrespect for a) the national anthem, b) the American flag, and c) U.S. military veterans. And it’s working. He’s creating anger and discord across our nation. Everybody’s a superpatriot. I wrote about this a year ago, and you should read it again if the Great National Anthem Argument is raising your blood pressure.*

Look familiar? Hmm.

So, patriots, let’s talk.

a) The national anthem. You know it’s a drinking song, right? Here’s what the the Los Angeles Times says about Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem, Defence of Fort M’Henry:

Key wrote his poem to fit the beat and melody of British composer John Stafford Smith’s “To Anacreon in Heaven”—a popular tune [at the time].

… Most elementary school classes note that the music for “The Star-Spangled Banner” came from a British drinking song. But in his well-received book, historian Marc Ferris, author of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem (Johns Hopkins University Press, August 2014) gives a more sophisticated reading.

“The words of ‘To Anacreon in Heaven,’ the song that Francis Scott Key borrowed for the melody of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ is a sly 1700s paean to drinking and sex. Though understated, the line ‘I’ll instruct you, like me to entwine; The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine’ is unambiguous,” he wrote.

For the record, Venus is the goddess of love and Bacchus, the god of wine, and entwine is defined in any dictionary.

Key’s poetic effort grew in popularity over the years, but sectarian interests hindered the drive for a national anthem. Who thinks about unity during a Civil War? New lyrics were added to reflect that war, but disunity was the watchword and the era became more attuned to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie.”

Prior to 1931—when it became the national anthem by congressional resolution—various other songs were played at important occasions.

But wait, patriots! When did a football game become an occasion for the national anthem? My Irish husband has always scratched his head over this propensity to reel the anthem out at every little sports gathering. But we Americans are a sentimental people, and though the anthem had been played at occasional games (“important” ones, like opening day) since 1918, it didn’t really become a thing until after World War 2. Author Marc Ferris says, “The anthem was heard everywhere” during the second world war. “Before the opera, before the movies, before the theater.” At the end of the war, NFL commissioner Elmer Layden called for the anthem to be played at every NFL game. And that’s how it started.

Fine, but prior to 2009, players stayed in the locker room until after the anthem was played! What happened? In 2015, Axios tells us in an anthem timeline,

Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake released a report revealing that the Department of Defense had spent $6.8 million between 2012 and 2015 on what the senators called “paid patriotism” events before professional sports games, including American flag displays, honoring of military members, reenlistment ceremonies, etc. The DoD justified the money paid to 50 professional sports teams by calling it part of their recruiting strategy. However, many teams had these ceremonies without compensation from the military, and there was nothing found in the contracts that mandated that players stand during the anthem. [Emphasis mine.]

So in the wake of reduced enlistments eight years after the September 11th event, the DoD decided to goose its pool of potentials, and this is when the conflation of patriotism and professional sports really kicked into high gear. Only in America.

b) The American flag. Here’s what CNN tells us about flag respect:

The Supreme Court has ruled twice that destruction of the American flag is protected by the Constitution, specifically the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, even if the act is unsettling.

One of the staunchest defenders of the decisions, and a key vote in favor of both, was conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who was widely praised by Republicans after his death in February, including by Trump.

Scalia spoke about the matter in a 2012 interview with CNN, saying that while he does not approve of flag burning, it is fundamentally protected by the Constitution and the Founding Fathers’ efforts to create a government not ruled by tyranny. [Emphasis mine.]

“If I were king, I would not allow people to go around burning the American flag. However, we have a First Amendment, which says that the right of free speech shall not be abridged—and it is addressed in particular to speech critical of the government,” Scalia said. “That was the main kind of speech that tyrants would seek to suppress.”

… The cases were Texas v. Johnson in 1989, and US v. Eichman in 1990. The former case stemmed from a flag burning protest at the 1984 Republican National Convention and a Texas law banning desecration of a venerated object, and the latter responded to a bill from Congress that made harming the flag illegal.

In both cases, the Supreme Court ruled that burning a flag is an act of expression and “symbolic speech,” and exactly they type of action that the First Amendment was designed to protect.

But wait, wait, patriots. Nobody’s burning the flag (which, as we’ve noted, is permissible). The U.S. Flag code has a whole list of dos and don’ts for respecting the American flag. Here are just a few of them that you may have seen being abused around your own hometown (I know I have):

  • The flag should not be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should not be used for any decoration in general (except for coffins).
  • The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It should not be embroidered, printed, or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use. Advertising signs should not be attached to the staff or halyard.
  • The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, firefighters, police officers, and members of patriotic organizations.
  • The flag should never have any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind placed on it or attached to it.
  • The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
  • In a parade, the flag should not be draped over the hood, top, sides, or back of a vehicle, railroad train, or boat. When the flag is displayed on a motorcar, the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender.
  • If the flag is being used at a public or private estate, it should not be hung (unless at half staff or when an all-weather flag is displayed)[10] during rain or violent weather.
  • The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally [as on, say, a football field], but always aloft and free.

The U.S. Flag Code suggests we stand when the flag is passing in a parade or being hoisted or lowered; it says nothing about standing or kneeling when the national anthem is performed. And, as we’ve already noted, a professional athlete’s right to a peaceful protest is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S Constitution.

c) U.S. military veterans. This is the one that just breaks my head, patriots. How in the world does a peaceful protest about injustices perpetrated against people of color offend—or involve in any way—American veterans? Well, it doesn’t. Here’s what Kaepernick’s colleague Eric Reid wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times:

It wasn’t until after our third preseason game on Aug. 26, 2016, that his protest gained national attention, and the backlash against him began.

That’s when my faith moved me to take action. I looked to James 2:17, which states, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” I knew I needed to stand up for what is right.

I approached Colin the Saturday before our next game to discuss how I could get involved with the cause but also how we could make a more powerful and positive impact on the social justice movement. We spoke at length about many of the issues that face our community, including systemic oppression against people of color, police brutality and the criminal justice system. We also discussed how we could use our platform, provided to us by being professional athletes in the N.F.L., to speak for those who are voiceless.

After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.

It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.

It baffles me too. I grew up in a military household with an American patriot (i.e., my daddy). I know plenty of servicemen and –women, and the ones I know will tell you straight up that an American’s right to all the protections of the Constitution is one reason why they got into this military gig. They signed an oath to protect the Constitution.

So take a chill pill, armchair patriot.

Take a step back from your outrage and listen to the protestors before you start spouting off. There’s a lot of social injustice going around, if you have eyes to see. (Another post for another time.) But let me leave you with this thought:

  • 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t salute the flag.
  • 200 thousand Amish don’t stand for the national anthem.
  • Some Quakers don’t recite the pledge of allegiance.

But one black man** kneels respectfully to draw attention to injustice in his community and all hell breaks loose.*** The ugly comments all over social media from our fake president right on down to you are just mind-boggling. Shame on him for being a criminal and a self-centered fool. Shame on you for letting a criminal and a self-centered fool shape your opinion about anything.

* And seriously: how many times have you stood up in your living room when the national anthem was played? I’m willing to bet on none. So please: shut up.

** And have you donated a million dollars to charity like this unemployed NFL quarterback has? No? Shut up.

*** Some people might construe this as racism. The fake president is a well-known racist. Is that the sort of person you want to be associated with? No.


Me and My Loved Ones View the Eclipse!*

Why, yes, we did get out to watch the eclipse.

Eclipse fever was pretty high here in Tennessee, especially for those of us in the “Path of Totality.” Admittedly on the edge of it, but Nashville—the largest city in the path, we were told, and we’re just thirty-five miles southeast of it—was near the center (maximum eclipse time), and many smaller towns near our home were too. Cookeville—home of Tennessee Technological University and, not coincidentally, home of my son and his fiancée, though they were in the process of moving—was a NASA official viewing location, with activities planned for months. There were all sorts of goings-on in Nashville, and even here in town, Middle Tennessee State University had big things planned too.

Not that we wanted to be anywhere close to that madness. Traffic’s bad enough around here on a normal day, and we knew every hotel in Middle Tennessee had been sold out for weeks. Pundits estimated there’d be a hundred thousand extra people driving around in Tennessee, and we’d already seen photos on social media to prove it.

Now, our house was a couple miles out of the path of totality, and the yard has a lot of trees, so we planned to drive into town, while avoiding anything close to MTSU. One of us was a bit meh about the whole thing, too, so we kept said plans low-key. 🙂 I’d been studying the satellite map of town for days, and settled for Evergreen Cemetery on Greenland Drive. Does that sound crazy? I beg to differ. It’s beautiful and historic—some of the headstones are more than 140 years old—and we were looking for a quiet, wide-open space in the middle of town.

We weren’t the only ones with this idea—I’d say there were about a dozen or so other groups scattered throughout the grounds for this same purpose. (But it’s huge—90 acres.) We just looked for a bench and some shade to wait in. 🙂 In a few minutes, Jesse and Katie found us.

Our shade tree. Watch that spot!

It was an absolutely splendid day. As noted, we’d heard about all the hotels being full and the interstates being packed, but honestly, none of that affected us. We just chatted with each other and other folks who were walking around while we waited for the moon to get close to the sun.

Or checked our phones. 🙂

And yes, we had good eclipse glasses. I’d purchased some weeks earlier, long before all the warnings came out about the bogus glasses that were being marketed. And in fact, I’d purchased the bogus ones, but Amazon let us know we had and refunded our money too. But that happened on the previous weekend. Yikes. So I found the list of NASA-approved manufacturers, and started searching at the top of the list. Many were sold out. But I found a German manufacturer (of telescopes and suchlike) whose sole American outlet was based in Washington State. I ordered four pair immediately, paid, and started hoping they’d arrive. The good folks at Anacortes Telescope and Wild Birds did not disappoint: the glasses arrived in Monday’s mail!

What I hadn’t prepared for is taking photos. Turns out you need filters for your camera too. So even though I’m all about my nice cameras, all the photos here were taken with my phone. And I’m delighted with them! You can see plenty of professional photos online, yeah? So can I.

We’d all read up on some of the eclipse phenomena to watch for, and—thanks to our shade tree, we started seeing the shadows change right away.

Wow, there they were, right in front of our eyes!

There’s no name for this effect, but it’s caused when the moon begins to move in front of the sun. In the photo above, about half the sun was covered, and the effect is hazy. But look at this:

This is when there was just a small sliver of the sun left; now the effect is very sharp and pronounced.

We also began to notice the light dimming. The camera in my cell phone didn’t do a great job of capturing the loss of light as more and more of the sun was obscured. At first it just looked … hazy. And we thought, It’s happening! But then it got dark enough that the streetlights—which are triggered by loss of light—came on.

Can you see them back there? (1/4) Just under the left “arm” of the tree in the foreground. Our shade tree. 🙂

Every minute or so I’d take another photo. This was about the time we noticed the drop in temperature … and remarked that it really gives you a sense of how powerful the sun is—that even when it is almost completely blocked (and at this point it was just a sliver), it is still very light outside!

This one is distinctly darker, and the streetlight is brighter. (2/4)

This whole time the four of us were just chatting, alternately slipping our eclipse glasses on to look at the moon’s progress and slipping them off to talk and take photos. It was … awesome. And I don’t use that word lightly. It was really stinkin’ cool.

You can see the upper sky was getting dark—it’s definitely dusk. Look for the streetlights in the distance. Taken at the same time as (2/4). Yes, there were clouds in the sky, and later we heard some of our Nashville friends had missed seeing the totality due to clouds, but we had a clear view.

Once the light started dimming, it seems as if things speeded up. Again, a cell phone can’t capture conditions in their true form—it tries to let in as much light as possible. Still, if you look at the streetlight back there, you realize, it’s dusk, nearly “sunset.”

The streetlight is very bright. (3/4)

Now it’s dark. (Remember, the phone camera is lying to you about the color of the sky here. It’s darker than it appears.) The cicadas started singing, just for a few moments. (4/4)

Remembering the other eclipse phenomena, Gerry started looking for the “shadow bands” and took a few seconds of video (not uploaded here; maybe later.) We could see them clearly moving over the concrete where we stood. The Los Angeles Times says, “In the seconds before totality you will see thin striations of light and shadow move across the ground—even over your feet. These are known as shadow bands. … Nobody knows exactly what causes them.”

When it got dark—the four of us standing there, looking up with our cardboard sunglasses, gobsmacked and silent—Jesse said, “It’s covered, you can take your glasses off,” and we did. That was cool. Where the “diamonds” shone around the left edge (called Baily’s Beads), the sparkle was actually a fuchsia-pink color. Wow! Of course, with my cell phone, it looked like this.

Yep, this is totality as seen by my phone camera. Up above it’s dark, too, but all the camera can see is that sun!

We lingered for a while, as the moon moved the rest of the way across the face of the sun, repeating in reverse what we’d just watched. We remembered to document the moment for volume 3 of our immigration “scrapbook” too. 🙂

We were really glad we’d gotten out and done this. A total eclipse! Wow!

When we were done, we headed home, stopping on the way to have a late lunch at the Parthenon Grille. I texted a bit with our friends Paul and Judy, who’d been in Memphis Saturday for a family wedding, spent Sunday night with us, then drove over to Lebanon (Cedars of Lebanon State Park, in fact) to view more totality seconds than us before heading home to Colorado.

The next day, I saw all sorts of stories about folks getting stuck in “eclipse traffic” after the event. Not so bad getting there, they’d said (people started early, so the volume was spread over days)—but when it was over, it was over, and everyone wanted to go home. A trip that normally took two hours, one Facebook friend reported, took seven hours. We’d gotten a glimpse of that when we left the restaurant and got back on South Church Street (231) to go home. Traffic was heavy—heavier than you’d expect—and when we got to the city limits (right at our subdivision), we saw some pretty serious traffic headed south on Highway 231. It stretched on toward Shelbyville as far as we could see.

But: eclipse. We saw it, and we’re very glad we did.

* With apologies to Lee Smith.

Hey, Mr. Sun!