Sunday, December 06, 2020

Did The Portuguese Discover the Americas Before Columbus?


One of my favorite historical topics is the European voyages of discovery.  Not only were they pivotal in laying the foundations for the modern world, the writings of those who participated in these voyages provide us with eyewitness accounts, marred though many of them are by the writers biases and misunderstandings, of different peoples and cultures around the world as they were centuries ago.

Recently, a book caught my eye that I decided to read, Before 1492: The Portuguese Discovery of America, by a John Irany.  Apart from the Vikings reaching Newfoundland around the year 1000, I have often wondered if it was possible other European voyages reached the Americas before Columbus that remain unknown to us for a variety of reasons.

Irany argues that the Portuguese had explored the Americas before Columbus, and that the evidence for it is a map of the world from 1507 (see above) by a Martin Waldseemuller which features the continents of North and South America with Pacific Ocean coastlines, including the narrow isthmus connecting Central America with the South American continent.  The mystery of the map is how it could have represented the Pacific Coast with such uncanny accuracy when the first known European explorer to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean was Vasco de Balboa in what is today Panama in 1513.  Irany is of the opinion that the Waldseemuller map incorporates information the mapmaker received from Portuguese voyages that had over time explored the coastline of South America all the way around the southern tip and up the Pacific coast, because Portugal was the only kingdom at the time that could conceivably have the ability to conduct such voyages.

While the way the Americas are depicted in the Waldseemuller map is definitely interesting, I don't think Irany quite makes his case.  I do believe that it is possible that Portuguese navigators may have accidentally stumbled upon either the Brazilian coastline and/or one or more islands in the Lesser Antilles in the years before Columbus first voyage across the Atlantic.  For the better part of the 15th century, the Portuguese had been gradually working their way down the coast of Africa with the intent to eventually sail around it and across the Indian Ocean to India and the Spice Islands.  After rounding the West African bulge and reaching the Gulf of Guinea, they encountered the Benguela Current, which flowed counterclockwise and made it virtually impossible to proceed further down the coast.  To overcome it, the Portuguese developed an ingenious technique called a "volta do mar" which involved sailing westward with the current into the Atlantic and then following it as the current turned south and then east.  One can picture it as a series of loops.  It was in this way that Bartolomeu Dias was able to round the Cape of Good Hope and find the Indian Ocean.  While Christopher Columbus wins the lion's share of the fame for discovering the Americas, if one looks at it objectively, the voyage of Dias was far more impressive in terms of the sheer distance he sailed.

If you look at a map, you can see that the present day African countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia are not that far across the Atlantic from the easternmost Brazilian state of Paraiba.  It is not inconceivable that one or more Portuguese navigators conducting a "volta do mar" sailed far enough to the west to make landfall on or at least see the Brazilian coast, which the Portuguese monarchy wanted to keep secret upon learning about it when the sailors returned home.  Irany also cites in his book a handful of instances from Columbus's later voyages where they encountered tantalizing traces of possibly earlier European contact with the natives, such as a native who had a crossbow.

I have some questions though which I would love to ask Irany if I had the opportunity, and which I will set forth here.

If the Portuguese were really engaged in the long term exploration of the Americas that provided the information for the Waldseemuller map, then why were there no permanent Portuguese settlements in the Americas that were extant at the time Columbus returned from his first voyage in 1493?  While it is understandable that the Portuguese may have wanted to keep any information about the discovery of the Americas a trade secret in the late 15th century while they focused on their primary objective of sailing into the Indian Ocean to have access to the riches and goods of Asia, there was nothing to stop them from establishing settlements that would have served as way stations.  It certainly would have strengthened their position in the negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Tordesillas if they could say "Hey, we already know about this place and we have had our people living there for years!"

Even in the absence of permanent or even temporary settlements, one should reasonably expect that any Portuguese voyages to the Americas that predated Columbus would have left padraos, which are stone pillars Portuguese explorers would erect at places they made landfall along the Atlantic coast of Africa in the late 15th century.  If the Portuguese were also frequenting the coast of South America, then why were padraos not placed at various harbors or landing points there as well?   Had the South American coastline been dotted with padraos dating to the late 15th century, it would be strong evidence to support Irany's claim.  That they do not exist, in my opinion, seriously undermines his case.

Lastly, even if some Portuguese navigators had at a bare minimum sighted some part of the Americas in the years before Columbus, it had no impact on the course of history.  It wasn't just that Columbus discovered the Americas, but that its discovery was made known to the rest of Europe, and resulted in what historians have come to call the Columbian Exchange.  

I imagine that Irany would reply that one still has to explain the Waldseemuller Map.  I have to admit that I can't explain it.  One could, as have some have done, chalk it up to a lucky guess.  We don't know why Waldseemuller represented the Americas in the way that he did to anticipate a western coastline.  However, I am not prepared to make the leap to the belief that the information provided to him was compiled by decades of Portuguese naval expeditions sailing in secret all the way around Cape Horn and then up the Pacific Coast of the Americas all the way up to the Pacific Northwest.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

The Curious Contradictions of Trump Supporters on Coronavirus


The guy who inspired my previous post about his desire to execute all Democrats for treason appeared in the comments section of the Facebook post above, which shares a sentiment I have heard expressed often, which is that the Coronavirus epidemic we have been experiencing is due to deliberate biological warfare waged by the People's Republic of China.

Let's pretend for the sake argument that it is true, China did this to us on purpose.  Then, if you are a die-hard America First Trump supporter, wouldn't it make absolute sense to do everything possible to limit the spread of virus so that it infects fewer Americans?   Like wear masks?  Engage in social distancing?  

For example, for reasons not entirely clear to me, motorcyclists are often represented as stalwart patriots who love America more than the average America citizen.  I don't know why, maybe because they like to sport American flag patches or fly flags on their motorcycles?  Wouldn't it be expected then that they would want to be in the vanguard of combating the "Chinese Virus"?  One way they could do that would be to agree to cancel the annual motorcycle rally held in Sturgis, South Dakota, where tens of thousands of them converge every year from all across the country, so as to prevent the state from turning into a coronavirus hot spot and then carry the virus back with them to their hometowns.  Nah, who am I kidding?  Many thousands of them decided it was more important to celebrate their freedumb, excuse me, freedom, by attending the gathering this past August.  A look at the graph chart below illustrates better than words could what happened next.

If memory serves, the rally ran from August 9 to August 21, and as you can see, not long after that, South Dakota's daily new COVID cases exploded.  And it was all preventable if the so-called patriots of America had exercised some self-restraint to fight the Chinese Virus.

Another contradiction I see from Trump supporters on Facebook is that on the one hand, they argue that concerns about Coronavirus are overblown because only 1% of people who catch it die from it, or they latch onto the misinterpretation of the findings that 94% of COVID deaths were from people who were already in ill health from other diseases, etc., but on the other hand they claim that Trump's China travel ban saved the lives of millions of American citizens.  But wait a second, if the mortality rate is so low, then even in the absence of a travel ban, hardly any more people should have died from it then did so with the travel ban.

Apparently Trump being consistently wrong about Coronavirus hasn't shaken their faith in him either.  Here is a comment dating sometime late March or early April from a Trump supporter who frequently comments on one of my anti-Trump friends Facebook posts.  This guy clearly only believed it at the time because it echoed what Trump was saying at the time, and because this guy would often claim "I trust Trump."

And here are Trump's classic "it may not come back at all in the fall" comments from the April 22 White House Coronavirus briefing.

In the same briefing, Doctor Fauci insisted that it would come back in the fall.  As I like to say, one of them ended up being right and the other one ended up catching Coronavirus in the fall and having to go to the hospital for treatment.  Of course, Trump supporters still stand by their president and deride Fauci as an idiot.  Go figure.

Friday, December 04, 2020

There's No Reasoning With These People

I took the screenshot of an exchange of comments I had in someone's Facebook post (and which will be the subject of a separate post on this blog).  As you can see, the commenter declared that "every Democrat should be executed."

I was curious to see if he meant Democratic politicians or anyone who is a registered Democrat, and in reply to my query, he made it clear that he meant all of them.  So, this psycho believes that tens of millions of Americans should be murdered for their political affiliation.  And I am sure he is not the only one who feels that way.

Personally, I have been registered as a non-affiliated voter for the better part of the last two decades, though before that I was a registered Republican who tended to vote for Libertarian candidates when they were on the ballot.  However, after George Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, I have voted for Democratic candidates in every presidential race from 2004 to the present.

While the political divide has always existed in America, what the Trump presidency, and in particular, this last presidential election, has exposed is that there is a fair number of people in this country who view many of their fellow Americans as an enemy to be eradicated.  

One of my operating theories about ardent Trump supporters is that he is their vicarious instrument for hurting the people they hate.  For example, when California suffers from devastating wildfires, Trump threatens to withhold federal aid because of some apparent failure to rake the forests, and Trump supporters are okay with that, because after all, California is home to left wing Hollywood supporters that they hate.  Egging on self-stylized civilian militias in Michigan to liberate their state, which emboldened some of them to plot to kidnap the state's governor, is not a deal breaker for them.

And then there is the prevalent view among them that the election was stolen from Trump and that Biden is an illegitimate president, even though Biden ended up amassing more than seven million votes than Trump.

I have long considered myself to be an optimist, but I am starting to fear for my country.  


Saturday, November 28, 2020

On Becoming A Cat Person

From an early age I had a negative opinion of cats.  A big part of it could be that a couple of houses up the block from me lived what would be called one of those crazy cat ladies.  I believe she was also a hoarder before the term became popularized, as what little I ever saw of the inside of her home revealed stacks of newspapers, magazines, clothes, etc.  She probably had about a dozen cats congregating around her house, and she would leave food out for them.  When I would walk past her house on the way home from school, I often held my breath because of the overpowering stench of cat pee emanating from her property.  Around the same time, we got a pet dog, a miniature schnauzer, and so my early exposure to pets was a dog who always seemed happy to see me and eager to play with me.  

Over the years since my wife and I bought our house in 2000, we would periodically have mice roaming around, and my wife would occasionally float the idea of us getting a cat.  I was less than enthusiastic about it.  I loved dogs, and I didn't even want to get one of them, as working full time and raising two children was responsibility enough as far as I was concerned.

Fast forward to May of 2016, and my wife tells me that she thinks there might be some cats living underneath our backyard deck.  I hadn't seen any cats yet, so I was skeptical.  But then a day or two later, while I was getting ready for work one morning, I saw a mother cat and her four kittens playing on our deck.  I started taking photos and videos of them and posting them on Facebook and I would buy cans of cat food and put them out on the deck to feed them.

This is a photo I snapped of Cersei nursing her kittens.

One of my friends who saw my posts on Facebook suggested I capture and try to find homes for them and offered me his trap.  Finding myself taken in with how cute the kittens looked when they were playing with each other and becoming increasingly fascinated with them and not wanting them to come to any harm, I took him up on his offer.  Since I wasn't quite sure what to do with them when I captured them, I purchased a large dog cage as a temporary holding pen.

On June 5, 2016, I set up the trap with a can of cat food inside as bait.  Within a half hour I heard the sound of the trap springing shut and went outside to investigate.  I had caught my first kitten.  I carried the trap down to the basement where I had the dog cage and opened up one end and shook the kitten out into the cage and closed it.  The little critter growled at me with anger and hostility.  "What did I get myself into?" I thought to myself.  I decided I would hold off on trying to capture the rest, as I didn't want to cram them all together into the dog cage.  Over the next several days, we would visit and spend time with the kitten and give him the opportunity to become accustomed to us.  By day four, the little cat had adapted enough that we felt we could take it out and let it roam around the house.  It's disposition had changed radically in such a short period of time that it was totally comfortable in our presence, as evidenced by this photo I took of our reflection in a mirror as he sat next to me on my bed.

I was worried that the mother cat might take the remaining three kittens with her and leave. At one point I did observe her walking across my backyard to the bushes with them behind her, as she appeared to be searching for their missing sibling.  But the next day they were back on the deck again, playing as if nothing had happened, while I continued to feed them.  The following weekend I tried my luck again and set up the trap.  This time I captured two more in quick succession and placed them in the dog cage.  Seeing how quickly the first kitten, who we named Snickers, adapted to us, we tried the same strategy with the next two.  We brought them to our kids rooms on the second floor of our house and they would hide under my son's bed, but setting out food and a litter box for them, I would notice that if we kept still, they would emerge to eat and do their business in the litter box.  Being used to taking dogs for walks where they would spend an eternity sniffing for a spot to pee and poop, I was greatly impressed that these kittens, who were roughly eight weeks old and newly caught after living outside, instinctively headed over to the litter box to carry out their bodily functions.  My respect for cats as pets rose instantly.

That left one last kitten and their mom to be captured.  I decided to name the mother Cersei after Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones.  Just like her namesake in the show, Cersei loved her children but had them all taken from her.  While the trap would work on the last kitten, I did not expect it to work on Cersei, so I developed a different tactic.  Since she and her last kitten kept coming to our deck to be fed, I decided to open our back door and put out a plate of food a few feet inside the house.  Each time she would warily come into the house to eat, and each time I would move the plate a little bit further away from the door.  My plan was to eventually move the plate into the kitchen, and while Cersei was engaged in eating, I would quietly go out the front door and go around the house onto the deck and close the screen door.  

The day came about two weeks after I captured Snickers.  The back door was open and the plate of cat food was in the kitchen.  From my vantage point near the front door, I saw Cersei warily enter and then go into the kitchen, putting her out of my sight.  I went out the front and as stealthily as possible, I crept around to the back onto the deck and quickly closed the back screen door.  The trap worked.  But that ended up being the easy part.  Once Cersei realized what was happening, she started howling and trying to ram the screen door.  She then jumped up and clung to it, about five feet off the floor.  I went back into the house from the front, and if memory serves, I tried to use a broom to prod her off the screen door.  She jumped down onto the nearby dining room table, scattering and knocking over a bunch of items and then running into the living room and jumping up onto the bay window sill, letting out squirts of urine along the way.  I chased after her and then she jumped down to the floor and ran into the kitchen.  I went in and found her cowering under a small table in the corner of the room.  I grabbed the trap and the broom, and facing the open end of it towards her, I used the broom to try and prod her into it.  Surprisingly, it proved rather easy.  It seemed as if she just shut down and stopped trying to resist.  Once I had her secure, I brought her down to the dog cage.  Then later that day, I was able to catch the last kitten.  The first stage was completed.




The four kittens were split into two, with Mayonnaise and Nutella staying in my son's room and Snickers and Wishbone staying in my daughter's room, with the doorways to both rooms facing each other.  They were very playful, and it was not uncommon when lying in bed to hear above me what sounded like a cattle stampede as the kittens would chase after each other across the floor.  I decided to keep Cersei penned up in the cage in the basement, as I was worried that if she could interact with the kittens it would prevent them from becoming accustomed to being around people.  Plus, I was worried her behavior would be too unpredictable. She was clearly upset and would often let out sad wailing noises that almost sounded like "Why me?"  Several times I was brave enough to try to pet her through the bars of the cage, well away from her head.  She would freeze up, not offering any resistance, but she was not happy about it either.

The next step was figuring out what to do with all of them.  We decided to keep Snickers, the first kitten we caught.  The friend who loaned me his trap had a sister-in-law who wanted to adopt one of the male kittens, so we gave her Wishbone, who I so named because he had this shape in the fur pattern on his back that reminded me of a wishbone.  My friend also graciously took Cersei to the Town of Oyster Bay animal shelter to get spayed.  I figured I would set her free once she had healed from the operation so that at least she wouldn't be able to get pregnant again and add more cats to the local population.  To my surprise, in asking my colleagues in my office if any of them were interested in adopting a kitten, a friend of one of my coworkers offered to take Cersei instead.  Meanwhile, as my wife, daughter and I had to drive upstate in early July to pick up my son from ice hockey summer camp in Lake Placid, another one of my coworkers offered to have Mayonnaise and Nutella over at her apartment to take care of them while we were gone.  Snickers would be boarded at a vet clinic along with the rabbit and guinea pigs we had at the time.

Since the man who would take Cersei was in Westchester County in upstate New York, we were also going to drop her off on the way up Lake Placid.  We had her in the dog cage while Mayonnaise and Nutella were in a smaller cage next to her in the back of the car.  The drive to my coworker's apartment in Brooklyn was the first time Cersei had seen any of her kittens since we captured her and it would also be the last.  After some interminable traffic delays in Brooklyn, we finally made it up to the man's house in Westchester to drop off Cersei.  To my pleasant surprise, after we returned from vacation, my coworker had become so taken in with Mayonnaise and Nutella that she told me she wanted to keep them.  So, in the space of a week, I had gone from five cats down to one.

Snickers very quickly became a beloved and cherished member of the family.  While cats have a reputation of being aloof, he can be quite friendly when he wants to be.  One habit he adopted was the practice of sitting upright as if he was a human.  I don't know if it is common for cats to do this, or if Snickers was consciously trying to model the way we sit.  He is very vocal and lets us know when he wants something, which usually means giving him his favorite snack, Greenie's Hairball Control treats.  He also has some quirky habits that make him annoyingly endearing, such as when he lays down on a jigsaw puzzle I am working on on the living room floor or chewing on my wife's plants.  I suspect he likes me the most of the four of us, owing to me being the only one who doesn't pick him up and hold him all the time.  I refrain from doing it because I notice he does not seem to like to be held and constrained like that.  He also seems to like hanging around me and if I am sitting in one place for a period of time he will nape on the floor close by.  It didn't take long for me to say that I captured Snickers, and then he captured my heart.  I also felt a sense of pride that I had removed five cats from the local outdoor population, who had they been left to their own devices, could have created countless more litters.  But that didn't mean there were no more cats in the neighborhood.


Not long after we captured Cersei and all of her litter, we spotted a very large cat walking across our deck sometimes at night.  I thought maybe it was the father looking for Cersei.  But it wasn't until the following year that this cat became a more frequent visitor.  It was clearly a different breed of cat from the tabby cat that Cersei, Snickers and his siblings were.  It was almost like a miniature lion and had a very regal bearing.  Apparently he was a Maine Coon Cat.  We called him Gilbert.  He became our outdoor cat.  He would show up, usually at night, to be fed.  While he would keep his distance from us, as he grew more accustomed to us, he would let us get closer to him, though he would never let us pet him.  Sometimes he would come on to our deck during the daytime as well.  After shutting Snickers in my bedroom, I would open our back door and Gilbert would come in and eat from Snickers food bowl and he would linger for a few minutes under the dining room table.  I never tried to capture him like I did with Cersei, as I was concerned that having two male cats in the house would turn my home into a warzone between two territorial males.  Gilbert became such a regular fixture that his absences were noted more than his appearances.  There would be a day or two here or a week or so there where we would not see him, but Gilbert would reliably return.  But in early 2019 his absences became more frequent.  After a longer than usual period of time where he was gone, Gilbert showed up on our deck one evening in May of 2019.  I took a photo of him, posted it on Facebook and captioned it "Gilbert always comes back."  We never saw him again after that night.


Right around the time we started to see less of Gilbert, we noticed the bushes in the front of our house smelled strongly of cat pee.  And then we noticed a new cat who we would come to call Oscar.  He looked to be a coon cat like Gilbert, but with radically different coloring.  Maine Coon Cats are noted for having dog-like characteristics, and Oscar certainly fit the bill.  I gather he picked up that Oscar was the name we gave him, as sometimes I would go into the backyard and call out his name, and then he would come running quickly towards me from one or two yards away, and then rub up against my leg.  When I would open the back door to let him come him into our house, he did so not warily like other cats, but rather with an arrogant strut as if he owned the place.  Again, as with Gilbert, I had to keep Snickers shut away during such visits so as to avoid a fight between the two.  I wonder if Oscar drove Gilbert away, as it seemed rather coincidental that the arrival of one followed the disappearance of the other.

The winter of 2020 saw the arrival of two more regular cats, a tuxedo cat I called Bandit owing to the top half of her face being black like a robber's mask while the bottom half of the face was white, and Lilith, another coon cat who bore a stunning resemblance to Gilbert, with the only difference being the fur coloring.  


While Bandit disappeared after a couple of weeks (only to resurface again for several weeks last month), Lilith remained a regular fixture for quite some time.  Like Gilbert, she would keep a wary distance, but did not run away when approached.  She also made the same noises as Gilbert, leading to be to wonder if he was either her father or if they were siblings.  I concluded she was a female based on the way Snickers reacts to cats that come to our back door.  When the cat is a male, Snickers becomes agitated and hostile, and he even bit me a couple of times when Gilbert was at the door.  But with Lilith his reaction was more subdued and the sounds he made were different.  I don't recall exactly when, but by late spring or early summer, Lilith stopped coming around.  My wife thought that she might have been pregnant and had babies someplace else.

And then there is Katrina.

In early 2018, we started to get another regular feline visitor.  It was a smaller tabby cat with a white chest who would run across our desk while nervously peering at us.  At first we thought it was a male and called it Milo.  But after capturing it the summer of that year, we discovered it was a female.  So we renamed her Katrina.  The top portion of her left ear was also clipped off, leading me to believe that someone had previously captured her and had her spayed.  We also noticed that Oscar's left ear was similarly clipped.  Maybe because she was older, Katrina never really became accustomed to being a house cat.  She spent most days hiding underneath the love seat in our living room, emerging only to eat and use the litter box.  I actually set her free after two attempts at housing her, the first time because she pooped behind the love seat.  But I didn't want to give up on her and for a third time I was able to entice her into the house and then shut the door behind her.  Katrina ended up living with us for about a year and a half.  She still spent a lot of time hiding from us, but sometimes she would nap out in the open on top of the love seat or even on my bed.  Every now and then I would be lying on my bed with the door open, and Katrina would walk in, sit near the entrance, and make noises at me.  Snickers would rough house with her a lot, but at times he could be affectionate towards her as well.  One time I was sitting on the sofa watching television and Snickers was napping at the other end.  Katrina jumped up onto the sofa and woke up Snickers, who proceeded to start licking her.

In February of 2019, when Gilbert was still a regular visitor, I opened the door and let him in.  Since I wasn't able to pick Katrina up to shut her in my bedroom, I had to take my chances with her.  She went up to Gilbert and they seemed to share some level of affection together.  She went out into the deck with him and then disappeared.  On the previous two times where I drove her out of the house, she was back on our deck within minutes.  This time, she did not come back.  That night was rather unseasonable warm for February, but several nights later it had gotten very cold.  I flipped on the deck lights to see if there was any feline activity and was stunned to see Katrina at the door looking up at me almost pleadingly, as if she realized she had made a big mistake.  I opened the door and put some food nearby to entice her, and after a while she came inside and I shut the door behind her.  She remained with us for almost the remainder of the year, but was able to escape out the back door around Christmas of 2019.  She was not to be seen for weeks, and then in late January my daughter said she would sometimes see her on our front stoop.  Then she began to visit our deck again in February.  She looked to us to feed her but did not seem keen on coming in the house.  However, I noticed that if Snickers was in the dining room, she would want to come in.  So, rather than shutting Snickers away, I let him stay.  I opened the back door and as before had a bowl of food to entice her.  Katrina warily came in after a number of false starts and started to eat, but she looked up at me as I started to close the door.  But this time, Snickers had conveniently placed his body between her and the door so that Katrina could not escape as I closed it.  Katrina was back in the house again, but not for long.  This past May, with the weather warm again, we would slide open the glass back door while keeping the screen door shut.  Snickers though, being the clever cat that he is, learned that he could use his paws to push open the screen door, which enabled Katrina to escape again.  She did not disappear though, returning to our door regularly to be fed, and retreating to hide under our deck if we got too close to her.  I have been able to entice her into our house to play with Snickers a number of times, but she seems wise to my tactics now and all of my further attempts to shut her in have failed.  Katrina seems perfectly content to be our outdoor cat, engaging with us on her own terms while spending her days napping on our deck and her nights sheltering underneath it.  With winter approaching, I may try to make further attempts to capture her again, but only time will tell if I succeed.  

Before the spring of 2016, cats were not a factor in my life.  I never contemplated owning one and barely took note of the cats in our neighborhood.  But ever since that morning when I observed Snickers, his mom and his siblings on our backyard deck, cats have become a permanent fixture in my life.  Barely a day goes by where I am not feeding or taking notice of daily visitors like Katrina and Oscar, or taking note of new cats who appear for a day or a few weeks and then are never seen again.    

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Thank God I Didn't Waste My Money on One of These!

For those of us sane Americans, it is astounding the level of cult like devotion that some of our fellow countrymen and women have for Donald Trump.  On Long Island, where I live, the days leading up to the election have seen Trump caravans consisting of cars and trucks festooned with Trump flags driving up and down our major roads.  For me, one of the more ironic manifestations of Trump support are Trump 2020 face masks, given that he consistently downplayed the severity of Coronavirus to the American people and generally eschewed the wearing of masks, only to himself end up being infected with the virus last month.

But one of the more bizarre offerings I have seen from the Trump Cult comes from this brochure that I received in the mail several months ago.  I have no idea how I ended up on their mailing list, but at any rate, I found it so hilarious I decided to hold on to it and revisit it after the election.

The part I find especially funny is the motto "Unbowed, Unbroken, Vindicated" etched into the rifle, as it is a shameless ripoff of the motto of House Martell from Game of Thrones, "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken."

While it is still too soon to call the race, it seems pretty clear that Trump has no chance to achieve the needed 270 Electoral College votes he will need to win.  In fact, it looks to be the reverse of the 2016 race, where he will end up with the 232 that Hillary Clinton got while Joe Biden will end up with the 306 attained by Trump in the previous election.  One wonders if Trump will agree that Biden will have achieved one of the greatest presidential wins ever, considering that Trump's 306 Electoral College votes in 2016 were not accompanied with a win in the popular vote, whereas Biden is currently on track to have approximately 5 million more votes than Trump.  Donald Trump is neither unbowed, unbroken, nor vindicated.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

The Forgotten Story of the Canary Islanders

It's the month of October, which means another Columbus Day where we recognize the European discovery of the Americas by the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus.  However, for his detractors, Columbus is not a hero, but rather a villain who inaugurated the rape, murder and plunder of the indigenous inhabitants of the New World.

While Columbus is an easy target on whom to pin the blame for all that followed, what is often overlooked is that his story, though clearly an important one, is just one part of the larger story of the European voyages of discovery that sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean in the 15th century.  When Columbus first encountered the inhabitants of the islands he discovered in late 1492 in what are today the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles, the Spanish monarchy in whose service he sailed already had a template for dealing with indigenous peoples that involved subjugation.

After Columbus departed from Palos in Spain on August 3, 1492, he did not immediately sail out into the unknown.  His first destination was the Canary Islands, a chain of seven islands in the Atlantic approximately 100 kilometers west of the Moroccan coastline, where he could take advantage of the trade winds. The Canary Islands were claimed by and in the process of being conquered by the Spanish.  These islands, believed to be the islands referred to in antiquity as the Fortunate Isles, began to be visited by European navigators since the 14th century, who found them to be inhabited by a race of people known to us as the Guanches.

The origin of the Guanches has been the subject of much debate, though the consensus is that they are related to North African Berbers.  Some descriptions of them from the Age of Discovery tell of tall men with blond hair and blue eyes.  It is believed that their presence in the island chain dates to roughly the 5th century BCE, though no one is sure under what circumstances they arrived there. By the time Europeans began to visit the Canaries regularly in the 14th century, they noted that the Guanches did not seem to have any knowledge of seamanship.  If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that a Carthaginian expedition lost to history attempted to colonize the islands and that over time communications with Carthage were cut off and their descendants forgot how to navigate the seas and even how to build ships for sailing between the seven islands.  They must have forgotten a lot of things, as the medieval Europeans found them living at what we would call today a Stone Age level of technology.

Beginning in 1402, the Kingdom of Castile, which by the time of Columbus would be unified by the marriage of its queen Isabella to King Ferdinand of Aragon to form the Kingdom of Spain, began the military conquest of the Canary Islands.  In Rivers Of Gold, Hugh Thomas writes of the Guanches that "They had no horses, and Castilian cavalry terrified them.  They had many languages and were ruled by numerous independent kinglets.  They fought well with stones and sticks, but their numbers were already falling because of contact with European diseases."

As late as Columbus's visit in August of 1492, the Guanches were still holding out in several of the islands, and their conquest was not fully completed until 1496.  From Rivers Of Gold, "The Canary Islands became a source of wealth for Castile.  Numerous Canary Islanders had been kidnapped since the 1450s and sold as slaves in Andalusia."  Sugar mills were established on the island, and of course missionaries sent to convert the natives to Christianity.  Over time, the Guanches ceased to exist as a distinct people, though today there are still people who are descended from Guanches ancestors who intermarried with Europeans.

When we look in horror today at the destruction the Spanish perpetrated in the Americas during the age of the Conquistadors, it is clear that what happened was not an aberration nor policies that were made up on the fly, but rather was a continuation of what they had already been doing in the Canary Islands over the course of the previous hundred years.  

Sunday, August 23, 2020

There Is Nothing Wrong With Ivanka Trump's Trademarks in China

While I am no fan of Donald Trump or his family, I cannot abide criticisms and accusations of them that are not based in fact.  It adds credence to the narrative that Trump and his supporters have that it is all "fake news."

One accusation that I see pop up often that particularly annoys me is when I see people refer to Ivanka Trump's trademarks (sometimes mistakenly referred to as patents) in China as if there is something shady going on.  Specifically, suspicions are raised about Ivanka Trump having a trademark registration for voting machines in China.  I am guessing these people conjure up visions of Ivanka Trump having voting machines manufactured in China that will then be brought into the United States as part of some nefarious plot to rig the election for her father.  

This is all nonsense, and the reason I know this is because by profession I am a trademark paralegal with over twenty years of experience and who has overseen the registration and maintenance of trademarks in China. While I have not handled Ivanka Trump's trademarks (and legal ethics would bar me from publicly commenting on them even if I did), I have a pretty good idea why her company would have one or more registrations in China that cover voting machines.

But first, a quick primer on trademark laws.  There is an international classification system that classifies goods and services into classes, depending on the kind of good or service being provided.  This is called the Nice Classification.  Both the United States of America and the People's Republic of China are contracting parties of this classification system.  Now on to what the U.S. and China don't have in common.

In the United States, in order to obtain a trademark registration, an applicant must use the mark in the United States for the goods and/or services covered by the application.  There are two exceptions to this, (1) if the application claims registration of the mark in a foreign country, or (2) if the United States is designated in an International Registration via the Madrid Protocol.  However, even if a foreign applicant obtains a trademark registration in the United States via these two exceptions, the applicant will still need to file a Declaration of Use by the 6th anniversary of the United States registration, or else the registration will be cancelled.  In China, on the other hand, there is no requirement to prove that the mark sought to be registered is in use for any of the goods or services covered by an application.  If you were so inclined, you could coin some unique word for some item of goods or services for which it will never be used, apply to register it in China, and if the Chinese Trademark Office has no grounds for rejecting it, you will be the proud owner of a trademark registration in China.

Back to the classification of applications.  In the United States, applicants have the option to describe the goods or services in an application the way they want, as long as it fits within the parameters of what is wording accepted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.  China is different.  For each class of goods and services, the Chinese Trademark Office has a list of subclasses with specific wording for everything covered by each class.  So, if you wanted to file a trademark application in China, you would have to select the subclass or subclasses that best approximate the goods or services for which registration is sought.

Now on to the last difference that has a bearing on the matter of Ivanka Trump.  In the United States, you cannot register a mark that consists of the name of a living individual without providing the consent of that person, whereas in China no such consent is required.  If you were to look on the USPTO's TESS database and search IVANKA TRUMP, every one of them filed by her company will note in the record "IVANKA TRUMP" identifies a living individual whose consent is of record.  

It is these differences between the United States and China that has made China a breeding ground for trademark pirates and squatters who will apply to register marks in China identical or similar to famous brand names or the names of famous people, as they are unfettered by the need to prove they are using the mark in commerce in China or to provide the consent of the actual living person whose name is being trademarked.  Because China is what is known as a "First to file" system, a lot of these pirates will try to register marks of people or companies outside of China before their legitimate owners do so that when they get around to trying to file their own marks in China they find themselves blocked by the trademark pirate.  The pirates will then offer to sell their marks to the legitimate owner for money.

 So now we get to Ivanka Trump.  While the records of trademarks in China are not publicly accessible (unlike in the United States where there is a public database called TSDR which lets you look at all of the documents filed in a trademark application), I can be fairly confident about why Ivanka Trump has registrations that cover voting machines.  Like I wrote above, you can register a mark in China for any good or service, even if it is not in use.  Voting machines are a subclass item in International Class 9.  If Ivanka Trump were to obtain a registration in China only for the limited Class 9 products her company offers, a trademark pirate could still apply to register IVANKA TRUMP for voting machines in Class 9.  Therefore, what she and owners of other famous marks often do in China is that they apply to register their marks for every subclass in the goods or services classes of interest because they do not have to prove use of the mark for these goods and services.  In countries such as China, these are what are called defensive registrations, where the owner of the famous mark will obtain a registration simply in order to prevent someone else from doing so.

As you can see then, just because Ivanka Trump has one or more registrations in China covering "voting machines" does not mean that it is part of some villainous plot. 

Saturday, August 22, 2020

When Jehovah's Witnesses Can't Knock on Your Door

 A few months ago I had shared a meme on Facebook about how agonizing Coronavirus has been for Jehovah's Witnesses, knowing that everyone is home but they can't go around knocking on peoples doors.  Well, it looks like they are trying to explore alternatives.  A couple of days ago I found this in my mail box.

What can I say?  I am truly touched.  LOL!

Friday, August 14, 2020

Thoughts on Living in the Age of Coronavirus

It seems like a lifetime ago when COVID-19 was not a part of our lives.  I don't recall the specific date when I first read about it, but it was roughly in late December or early January when it was first mentioned in the news as an epidemic that had broken out in the city of Wuhan in the People's Republic of China.

For most of January, coronavirus was just another story in the news.  Here in the United States, most of us didn't think very much about it except that it was a problem that was "over there" on the other side of the world.  Maybe it would come here, but if it did, would it be serious?

My Facebook feed serves as a sort of timeline for my own thoughts and observations about coronavirus.  My first post mentioning it is dated February 9.  I was channel surfing and paused to watch a figure skating competition in Seoul and couldn't help but notice that everyone sitting in the bleachers of the rink watching the competition was wearing surgical masks.  The next day I posted a link to an article about China harassing Taiwan and expressing my disgust with the PRC for bullying Taiwan when China was dealing with and was the source of the coronavirus epidemic.

Fast forward to March 1st, and suddenly coronavirus had become like a tropical storm that hadn't arrived yet but you knew it was coming.  It was starting to become commonplace to see people in public wearing masks.  As someone who was rather militant about trying to avoid using single use plastics, I was irked that the Starbucks near my office would no longer allow its customers to have the option of having their drinks served in reusable containers that they brought to the store.  On the plus side, I noticed that there were more parking spaces available at my train station from where I would commute into work in Manhattan.  The higher ups in the firm started to circulate e-mails that they were keeping tabs on the situation and were drawing up plans on what would be done in the event that the firm's various offices nationwide would need to close.

It was in early March that the baffling phenomenon of the panic buying and hoarding of toilet paper began to affect the country that to date had seen few deaths from the virus.  My daughter's high school closed, at first for seemingly just one or two days, but the days then turned to weeks and then until further notice.  It never reopened for the remainder of the school year, and all school work was conducted online.  Still, even in early March, many of my coronavirus posts on Facebook were humorous in nature.  It was still common at the time to see some friends post memes on Facebook with the message that we were overreacting to the virus, which had only killed maybe a couple of dozen or so people in the country at the time, compared to the tens of thousands who die annually from the flu.  Those memes certainly did not age well.  My own feelings at the time, from what I recall, was that I didn't take it seriously, but I wasn't sure what to expect.

The real turning point, from my perspective, was Friday, March 13.  I commuted to work in Manhattan as I normally did.  When I arrived at the office, I was surprised to see how many of my coworkers decided to work remotely from home.  I had been provided with a laptop with which to work from home in the event that the office needed to close.  I was still adamant about working in the office as long as I was able to.  The following Monday I showed up again to work and there was virtually nobody there, except one of the mail room staff.  Going through my e-mails, I saw that the office was actually closed.  Since I was there, I decided I would work there for the day, but around 11:30 the office manager, having somehow learned that I was there, called me and told me I had to leave immediately.  I have been working remotely from home ever since.

It was around this same time that New York City and the surrounding metropolitan area began to experience a pronounced and sustained surge in coronavirus cases.  The storm that had been lingering off in the distance had now arrived.  Each day would bring with it the grim tally of the number of new cases and deaths from the previous day.  While I was working from home, my wife had to continue to commute to work in Manhattan to her job as a nurse in a nursing home.  She told me of one nurse who died from the virus a week after having retired from her job there.  

As March progressed, another disturbing phenomenon emerged.  People who insisted on wearing rubber gloves when going shopping were discarding them on the pavement in parking lots.  There were a number of articles about it in the local news and I shared a video I took from one lot by me that was affected by the problem.  Being someone who is rather militant about not littering, it greatly angered me to see so many people behave so irresponsibly by casually discarding gloves on the ground.  At times I would observe other shoppers in the parking lot to see if they would toss their gloves on the ground so that I could confront them, but to my surprise I never personally witnessed anyone doing it.

My son had been taking a welding class at Suffolk Community College that started in late January, which he really enjoyed.  He had quit his job at a nearby retail store because the manager wanted him to work full time hours.  Looking for an alternative, I directed him to apply for a part time job as a package handler at Federal Express.  The hours were kind of crazy, starting at 4 am and ending about 7 am, but it would be a way for him to earn some spending money and work a shift that would not interfere with his welding class, which was on Monday and Wednesday evenings from 5:30 pm to 9:00 pm.  But as with my daughter's high school, Suffolk Community College closed down in mid-March.  It was not long afterwards that my son's job at Federal Express morphed into a full time job.  With stores closed, more and more people were ordering goods online, and the volume of packages that passed through the Federal Express distribution center where my son worked increased enormously.  Concomitant with that, my son and the other employees received a temporary raise to $18.00 per hour.  It struck me as rather odd that the coronavirus epidemic threw so many people out of work, and yet my son, who was less than a year out of high school, had serendipitously found himself in a situation where he was making money hand over fist. 

Sadly, the wearing of masks in public has become the subject of a culture war here in America.  I have to admit that throughout March I still refused to wear a mask when I went into stores.  But as the epidemic grew worse, Governor Cuomo mandated the wearing of masks in indoor public places in April.  I accepted, grudgingly at first, but as time passed I got used to it.  Since late May, the number of new cases in New York has plummeted, and while we had a rough two or three months, we can honestly say that we have flattened the curve here.  As I noted in a recent post, there has been a sharp divergence with other states such as Florida, which initially appeared to have the spread of the virus under control, but have since gone on to experience daily new cases and deaths to rival some of New York's worst days.  

While many of the restrictions imposed by Governor Cuomo have since been lifted due to the decline in new cases and many stores have reopened, the impact on the economy has been devastating and it is hard to see when we will see a return to the way things were before the pandemic turned up on our shores.  My son was saddened to learn that the gym where he worked out at would not be reopening.  A friend of mine who does Thai massage essentially saw her business wiped out.  Without the means to make a living, she was unable to pay the rent for the office space she used to conduct her business.  Even after she resumed business, many of her customers, like me, were people who were no longer commuting to work in Manhattan, and therefore were in no position to make an appointment with her.  So, she found herself in a situation where she was not getting enough customers to afford the rent for the office space she rented, causing her to move. But without the office space, she no longer has the means to carry out her business.  I honestly do not know what she is going to be able to do to support herself, as she is a single immigrant from Thailand with limited job skills and experience outside of her field of Thai massage.

The coronavirus epidemic, in tandem with the protests that flared up in the wake of the death of George Floyd, have torn at the fabric of our nation.  While I am not going to lay the blame for the severity of the epidemic solely at the feet of President Trump, I believe he has failed as a leader in this time of crisis, though of course his ardent supporters still back him 100%.  It is quite apparent though that if Hillary Clinton was currently president of the United States and the coronavirus situation in the country was identical to what we have been experiencing under Trump that the Republican base that maintains that none of this is his fault would be taking exactly the opposite position with Hillary Clinton.

This epidemic, sadly, is far from having run its course, and who can say what the future holds.  The best case scenario is that we collectively as a nation can contain the virus long enough for a vaccine to be developed and deployed.  Until quite recently, the world was becoming closely linked by international travel.  Thanks to the virus, travelling abroad is not possible for the foreseeable future.  My dive group had to cancel its trip to the Cayman Islands this past July, though we hope that we can go in July of 2021.  Countries that were just a few hours away by plane now might as well be on the other side of the moon.  

On the other hand, I am an optimist at my core, and the coronavirus epidemic still pales in severity and lethality to the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which killed more people than World War I.  The Spanish Flu also took place close in time to the Red Scare that followed the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia and racial tensions in the United States that were far greater than what we are experiencing today.  We eventually bounced back and moved on from these things a hundred years ago.  It should not be impossible that we can overcome the challenges we are facing now.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

An Exercise in Futility?

It is a bit of an understatement to say that the year 2020 has been a depressing year.  The United States of America leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths.  My home state of New York, driven primarily by New York City, leads the United States in COVID-19 cases and deaths.  The nation is politically polarized by the protests that have broken out in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.  New York City is becoming depopulated and many storefronts are boarded up.  There's a sense that things are breaking down.  I know it has me feeling depressed.

But rather than succumb to hopelessness and despair, I feel the need to counter these feelings by striving, in ways however small and insignificant, to try and make a positive difference, however infinitesimal.  For example, whenever I am walking from my house to nearby stores, I will pick up litter such as empty bottles and plastic bags lying around and put them in a trash receptacle.  This is one of the easiest things to do because I can just do it.  It does not involve trying to persuade anyone else to take any action.

Now I have decided to try to take action to the next level.  I was inspired to try when I recently discovered two sections of public sidewalk on Old Country Road, one in Hicksville and the other in Plainview, that are in a serious state of neglect.  See for yourself:

This is a representative example of the state of the sidewalk on the north side of Old Country Road in Hicksville across the street from the PSEG facility.  The pavement has been overgrown with grass and other vegetation, and in some places the exposed concrete is barely wider than the width of a bicycle tire.  In fact, the overgrowth is so bad that you can even see it when you zoom in on a Google satellite map of the area.

This section of Old Country Road in Plainview, again, on the north side of the road, is across the street from the Cravings deli.  In addition to the overgrowth, the large trees that stand along the roadside have uplifted entire slabs of sidewalk as seen in the photograph above.

What both of these sections of sidewalk have in common is that no homes or businesses face Old Country Road along their length.  Instead, the sidewalks are lined by the backyard fences of houses that face side streets north of Old Country Road.  According to the Town of Oyster Bay law on the duty to repair, maintain and keep sidewalks clear, "Each owner and occupant of any house...shall keep the sidewalk in front of good and safe repair and maintain it in a clean condition and free from filth, dirt, weeds or other obstructions or encumbrances."  The law says nothing about homeowners being responsible for maintaining sidewalks behind their houses.  It would also be an onerous requirement, as just about any home that has a backyard facing a major road will have a privacy fence that prevents them from seeing the sidewalk, and none of them have gates that enable the residents to step out onto the sidewalk in order to be able to maintain it.

The responsibility for maintaining these public sidewalks must therefore lie with the appropriate local governmental body, which in both cases is the Nassau County Department of Public Works.  

I have long been an adherent of Broken Windows Theory, which posits that if a neighborhood shows signs of physical decay and neglect, then it sends a signal to the population that government is unresponsive and does not care.  So, I decided, let's see if I can get Nassau County government to show that it cares by fulfilling what should be one of the most basic and simple responsibilities we expect of local government, maintaining a public sidewalk.  The uplifted sections of pavement alone I should think is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as a person in a wheelchair would not be able to use the sidewalk in its present condition.  

What I have done to try to get the County to take action to repair these sidewalks is to write to the Commissioner of the Department of Public Works, the Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, and the two Nassau County legislators whose districts respectively cover the neighborhoods in which these neglected sidewalks are contained.  I sent out the letters this week, along with copies of the photos displayed above.  I estimate that it should take about two weeks to get written responses from at least one if not all of the parties that I have contacted.  I am not naive and I am under no illusion that the responses I receive will be along the lines of "Why you're absolutely right!  We will address this problem immediately!"  At a minimum, I would want the County to concede that it is an issue that needs to be rectified, with vague reassurances that someone is looking into it and will get back to me.  No matter what response I receive, I will continue to press the matter and insist that the necessary repairs and maintenance be carried out.

The name of this blog is Exercise in Futility, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as "an activity that is not successful or worthwhile."  Time will tell if this endeavor on which I have embarked will itself be an exercise in futility.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

If Donald Trump was Coach of the 2019-2020 Detroit Red Wings

Before the NHL's 2019-2020 season was abruptly ended due to the COVID-19 outbreak this past March, the Detroit Red Wings, once a dominant team that had made the playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons, was the absolute worst team in the league.  After playing 71 games, the Red Wings compiled a record of 17 wins, 45 regulation losses and 5 overtime losses, for a paltry 39 points.  To put things in perspective, the next worst team in the Eastern Conference, the Ottowa Senators, had amassed 62 points in 71 games.  Any coach who had overseen such an abysmal performance would be hard put to explain it as anything but a failure.  But what if Donald Trump had coached the Red Wings this past season?  What would he have to say? 

"Yeah, sure you could look at the statistics and say yeah, that's really bad.  Look at the Red Wings!  They're the worst team in the NHL!  But if you want to be honest, we really were one of the best teams in the league.  A lot of those games were close games, really, really close.  We lost by one or two goals.  If things had gone just a little bit different, if we had scored one or two more goals and the other teams had scored a little bit less, we would have won those games and we would have made the playoffs.  Plus the refs were really unfair to us, calling penalties on us that we really didn't deserve, which gave the other teams some power play goals. So a lot of those losses were because of the refs, who were really, really vicious to me.  The fake news media won't talk about that.  If you only listened to them, you would never know that I coached one of the best teams in the NHL this season."

Friday, July 03, 2020

If Donald Trump Was Captain of the Titanic

Being the consummate salesman and bullshit artist, Donald Trump has always had the ability to find ways to spin every failure or setback on his part as stunning success.  So, I imagine ways that he would try to gloss over other real life disasters if they happened on his watch.  The first one I thought of is if he was the captain of the Titanic.

"The Titanic was a beautiful ship on a perfect cruise until the iceberg, which no one could have seen coming and no one could know how much damage it would cause.  I saved a lot of lives, probably more than any ship captain in history, and thanks to our tremendous work, we got hundreds of passengers and crew members to New York, but the fake news media doesn't want to talk about that.  All in all, despite the ship sinking, it really was a fantastic success."

Trump's Reelection Message In a Nutshell

The American people need to give me another term as president because very bad things are happening in the United States right now that weren't supposed to happen when you elected me in 2016.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

A Potentially Ominous Development for COVID-19 in the United States

While it was only this past winter, it seems almost ages ago when COVID-19 first emerged on the world stage.  One of the hopes being bandied about, even by President Trump, was that coronavirus would go away as temperatures got warmer.  

Now we are seeing that hypothesis being tested in real time.

With roughly similar population sizes, the states of Florida and New York have had very different experiences with COVID-19.  New York, particularly New York City, saw a tremendous surge in new cases in mid-March, and rarely had a day with fewer than 4,000 new cases from March 22 through April 30.  Meanwhile, Florida, with a slightly larger total population, rarely experienced more than 1,000 new cases per day as late as June 2.  However, starting in early June, there has been a radical change in the numbers of new cases the two states are reporting, and this line graph chart I prepared pretty much tells the story:

Beginning on June 3, Florida started to surpass New York in new cases.  Still, it was not by a significant margin, and as you can see in the chart, the difference in the numbers is not that much.  But since June 9, Florida has seen a noticeably upward trajectory in new cases, while New York continues to trend lower and the gap between them widens.

One thing's for sure, these developments should put to bed any hopes that COVID-19 would disappear in the summer heat (Florida being a southern state, experiences New York summer temperatures in early spring).  Hopefully Florida will hit its peak soon and the numbers will go back down again.  Only time will tell.

About a month or so ago, conservatives were comparing New York and Florida's Coronavirus numbers as evidence that Florida's governor Ron DeSantis was handling the outbreak much better than New York's governor Andrew Cuomo, as New York has a roughly comparable population.  However, the Coronavirus game is not over yet, and it may be too early for DeSantis to start running a victory lap.

Where's George?

Anyone in the United States who hasn't been living in a cabin in the woods knows about the death last month of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands (or more accurately, the knee) of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, as well as the subsequent protests and riots that followed.

Without delving into the data, it does seem like an awful lot of blacks, adults as well as adolescents, die in encounters with the police that appear to happen for very stupid reasons.  Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, was shot multiple times in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building at night because an undercover police unit driving by deemed he looked suspicious.  When they approached him, he reached for his wallet, causing the officers to assume he was reaching for a gun, and they opened fire on him.  The catalyst for the incident that led to Michael Brown getting shot to death in Ferguson, Missouri was because he mouthed off to a police officer who had reprimanded Brown and his friend for walking in the middle of the street as the officer drove past them in his squad car.  Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes on a street corner on Staten Island and died after being placed in a chokehold after being uncooperative with the officers who had responded to a complaint about him.  Sandra Bland was found dead hanging in her jail cell three days after being arrested from an altercation she had with an officer who pulled her over for failing to signal when changing lanes.  12-year old Tamir Rice was shot to death with very little warning for holding a gun that turned out to be a toy.  And the police encounter that lead to the death of George Floyd came about because a shop owner believed that Floyd had knowingly passed along a counterfeit twenty dollar bill.  These people, among many others, were either doing nothing wrong or at worst committed a rather petty offense that no white person would ever expect to lose his or her life over.

The death of George Floyd and the response it has generated reminded me of an incident I had witnessed some years ago in which a black person found herself seemingly out of nowhere and for no good reason subdued and arrested by the police.

I don't remember the specific date, or even the year for that matter, but I was in Penn Station in Manhattan as I was on many an evening waiting for a train to go home.  At some point, I took note of a white man who I guess was in his thirties, and a black woman who looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties, walking together.  Sometimes when I am standing in a public place with nothing much to do, I will take note of the people around me, especially if something about them draws my attention.  I don't know what the extent of their relationship was, whether they were friends or if they had met in a bar or got high together earlier in the day and had never even known each other before that.  At some point, I saw the white man separate from her and he went into the pizzeria.  I was standing outside of the pizzeria in the promenade, about twenty or thirty feet from the entrance.  Rather than ordering a pizza, I noticed the white man walk further into the pizzeria, looking back to see if the black woman could see her, a rather mischievous look on his face, until he walked out of an exit at the other end of the pizzeria.  Moments later, the black woman, who realized the man was gone, started calling out for him and looking for him.  She sounded like she was high, judging by the affect of her voice.  I recall it almost being childish, like a kid looking for a missing pet, but not yet at the point of frustration.  "George, where are you?" she called out.  She walked into the pizzeria, looking around, asking rhetorically, "Where's George?"

I was watching this play out with a bemused fascination when one of the pizzeria employees, who deemed that she was starting to become a nuisance to the customers, began yelling at her to get out.  The black woman then became argumentative in response and they got into a heated exchange.  I don't remember if someone specifically called the police, or if the officers who approached the woman just happened to be nearby, as Penn Station has a very visible police presence, but it didn't seem to take long for them to arrive on the scene.  The black woman, who I presume was not in a sound frame of mind due to being high, was uncooperative with the police, and the incident quickly escalated out of control, with the officers wrestling her to the ground and handcuffing her.  I distinctly remember a young black man witnessing the incident plead "Come on, this isn't necessary!"

As for myself, I was shocked at how quickly what seemed to be an amusing episode I observed while waiting for my train turned into a police incident that resulted in a woman, who only moments before struck me as peaceful and harmless, being arrested.  I was angry with George, whose ghosting of this woman caused her to become so distressed in the first place.  I even felt angry at myself, as I was contemplating approaching her in the pizzeria to help her find George, as I saw he had slipped out the other end of the pizzeria.  Maybe if I had, the altercation with the police would not have happened and she would not have been wrestled to the floor and handcuffed.   Even if George couldn't be found, maybe I could have helped her in some way, maybe convince her to go home.  I don't know.

While the woman was black and I believe the several officers involved were white, I don't think it was a matter of white police officers being overly harsh with a black person.  I can easily imagine a white person high on drugs and belligerent and resisting the police being treated the same way.  But regardless of the race of the people involved in the incident, it struck me as sad to see how something can so needlessly and quickly spin out of control like it did.  Who can say how many times incidents like this happen in America every day?

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

On The Misunderstanding of White Privilege

Every now and then I will see a fellow white friend on my Facebook feed rant that there is no such thing as "white privilege" because poor white people had to struggle to survive and get ahead in America.  They interpret the term as meaning that every white person in America has an easy life compared to every black person. 

Like myself, many of my white peers who hail from the same suburban Long Island town as me are descended from immigrants from Europe during the last century or so.  The prism through which they view America is that of plucky, determined immigrant ancestors from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Greece or any of a number of other European countries who arrived on these shores and through dint of hard work made better lives for themselves and their descendants.  As far as they are concerned, they had no part in the enslavement of African-Americans, segregation and legal discrimination.  From their point of view, African-Americans (or "blacks") are just another group in America and that today at least they should theoretically be equal to whites, and if they aren't, it's their fault because they don't try hard enough.

What they remain ignorant of, whether willful or not, is the pervasiveness of institutionalized racism that has corrupted American society and victimized blacks in a manner that European immigrants to this country and their descendants did not have to experience, no matter how poor or destitute.

Would an Irish or Polish working class family need something like The Green Book to know which hotels, bars and restaurants they would be welcome at when driving across the country on vacation?  Or how about something as basic and All-American as going swimming in the local pool or the beach?  Just yesterday I watched a documentary called White Wash about how surfing essentially became a predominantly white activity because of the obstacles that kept blacks from learning to swim and have access to beaches.  Consequently, there are many blacks in America today who do not know how to swim and are more likely to drown than whites.

Last year, I read a book called Black Tudors, wherein I learned that once upon a time, it was blacks who were more likely to swim than whites.  The following passage from the book is a useful summary:

"As most Renaissance Europeans were unable to swim, the free-diving skills of Africans such as Francis were admired and prized across Europe and the Atlantic world.  A 1500 painting by Gentile Bellini, Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, shows an African about to jump into a Venetian canal.  In Genoa, Cardinal Bandinello Sauli employed an African as a swimming and diving instructor.  Ferdinando I de Medici was saved from drowning in the River Arno in 1588 by 'a negro of his, a very notable swimmer'.  When Richard Hawkins visited the Spanish pearl fishery at La Margarita, off the north-eastern coast of Venezuela, in 1593, he observed that the Africans deployed there were 'expert swimmers, and great divers' who over time and with 'continual practice' had 'learned to hold their breaths long underwater, for the better part of achieving their work.'  Pieter de Marees, a Dutchman who travelled to the Gold Coast in 1602, noted that Venezuelan slaveholders sought men from that specific area to employ as pearl divers as they were 'very fast swimmers and can keep themselves underwater for a long time.  They can dive amazingly far, no less deep, and can see underwater.'

In the post-World War Two migration to the newly created suburbs, if you were white you did not have to worry about racially restrictive covenants that forbade the sale of homes to blacks.  Home ownership helped build the white middle class by creating a source of equity and the accumulation of wealth with the rise of property values.  The lack of access to home ownership for blacks also denied them access to such means of wealth accumulation.  Even when blacks could buy homes, they were often steered towards predominantly black neighborhoods that were deemed undesirable and where property values were lower.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways in which blacks have been disadvantaged in comparison to whites, but rather a short summary and brief starting point to further explore the issue of white privilege and institutionalized racism.