Monday, February 20, 2017
Things We Learn
Things come to us
out of nowhere
Surfers riding waves
we learn the nuances of gravity
its center-of, its bonding property,
its Gs, its fatal promise, we learn
how to stand erect and,
for the most part, stay that way
learn how to take a fall
how to shuck and jive
through sticky moments
through disequilibrium to stoop
or, chest out, stand tall
falling even into the troughs of its waves
we ride, we glide skulls full of juice
snapping, crackling through calculations
needed to adjust, adjust
we learn to know the force of the wave
behind, its feel, learn to fear and not to,
to not let its immensity in terror lock us,
to knock us off our board, we learn
immediately where our feet should be,
the optimal pose, how to shift without thought,
to enter the exhilaration of a barrel
and ride despite threat of a lethal dive
to surface sane, with soul intact, alive
Sughra Raza. Hong Kong Alley; Jan, 2017.
Monday, February 13, 2017
On particle “action at a distance”: “…if particles have definite states even when
no one is looking (a concept known as realism) and if indeed no signal
travels faster than light (locality)… (and, as has) recently been
discovered … you can keep locality and realism by giving up just a little
bit of freedom.” This is known as the “freedom-of-choice” loophole.
Action at a Distance
He was not looking but
she really was not an apparition
standing at the center of the room
She was standing but
being there in that spot
precisely where she was,
not on the moon, say,
nor in the wind gathering speed
toward eternity (though
that wind always blew) he knew she
They were free but
things are not always what they seem.
The world’s a funny place.
Even Einstein said parts of it are spooky,
yet we love and hate
in the places we stand
practicing all in freedom, or not
Yet he knew
All models are wrong, some are useful
by Hari Balasubramanian
Thoughts on the differences in math applied to the physical and social sciences.
The quote in the title is attributed to the statistician George Box. The term ‘model' could refer to a single equation, a set of equations, or an algorithm that takes an input and carries out some calculations. Box's point is that you can never capture a physical or biological or social system entirely within a mathematical or algorithmic framework; you always have to leave something out. Put another way, reality yields itself to varying degrees but never completely; something always remains unknown that is not easily describable.
And in any case, for the practical matter of achieving a certain outcome that extra effort may not be necessary. If the goal is to put a satellite into orbit, the equations that define Newton's laws of motion and gravity, though not 100% correct, are more than sufficient; you don't need Einstein's theories of relativity though they would provide a more accurate description. But if the goal is to determine a GPS device's location on earth you do need relativity. This is because for an observer on earth a clock on an orbiting satellite ticks at a different speed than a clock on earth and if the necessary adjustments are not made, your phone's location estimate will be inaccurate.
So there is this art in modeling, this choosing of some aspects and ignoring others, trying to create the the right approximations. As Box notes: "there is no need to ask the question 'Is the model true?'. If 'truth' is to be the 'whole truth' the answer must be 'No'. The only question of interest is 'Is the model illuminating and useful?'"
Models vary widely in the amount of truth they capture. In the engineering disciplines that exploit physical laws – mechanical, chemical, civil, electronics and communications engineering – the test of a model is whether the mathematical answers match empirical observations to the degree of precision needed and whether the results can be reproduced again and again.
Standards are high: if equations or computer simulations describing some physical phenomena do not match empirical observations, they eventually will be abandoned or modified. Evidence of this precision and repeatability is all around us – consider that, for the most part, light comes on when turn on the switch, a bridge is able to withstand loads, sensors are able to measure accurately, images and voices and messages can be searched and transmitted at near-instant speeds. Indeed, the evidence so pervasive that it is often taken for granted.
Contrast this with mathematical models in what we can call social domains – economics, healthcare delivery, election polling, psychology and human behavior. In these fields, you can't get – at least not yet – the kind of precision and repeated successes that you get in physics. You can use the models to sharpen your thought process; you can predict general trends and derive insights. But predicting the precise value of a future quantity is quite challenging. For example, models in economics often assume rational actions when of course there is always a rogue factor in how individuals and groups behave, throwing off chances of an accurate prediction. Indeed, one use of such models is to show that equations and theorems, however elegant, have little basis in reality. Friedrich Hayek captured the spirit of this beautifully in his quote: "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."
Another difficulty in social systems is that cause and effect and not so neatly separated. This is particularly true when you try to analyze historical data. If we consider multiple regression and other statistical models – very much in fashion these days: easy to use them at a click of a button and a dizzying array of graphs and numbers pop out, and the users may not be aware of the nitty-gritty details that generated these results – in the case of statistical models, it could well be the case that the effects have little to do with the hypothesized causes. A complex matter gets reduced to p values, percentage improvements or other newly defined metrics, meant to highlight the modeler's principal claims and inadvertently masking deficiencies. Sometimes the deficiencies can't be detected since the datasets are so large and have so many variables, they are not easily visualized; so anything goes. Perhaps this is why one study may find that such and such is true – media outlets enhance the effect by providing attention-grabbing titles – while another discovers the opposite result.
Once in a while we get something remarkably successful like Nate Silver's election forecasts, which aggregate and weight various polls. So successful that we are lulled into thinking that there is a rock-solid science of predicting how a population will vote in an election. This perception lasts until an election like 2016 comes along. Looking at the comments section of Silver's website on Nov 9, 2016 you could feel the anger – and the anger turned on the pollsters and statisticians: how could everyone get it wrong?
Like stories, models have a kind of seductive power: we get psychologically attached to them more than is warranted, forgetting that they may be more wrong than we think. If we are clear-eyed about what these models really are – in Silver's case, projections based on samples where errors could easily creep in – perhaps we wouldn't be so surprised. The advent of big data and machine learning only seems to have made us more confident, more triumphant – there's a feeling that social systems, human behavior and consciousness will finally yield themselves to massive computing power and advanced statistics, that algorithms of the same status as the great laws of physics are about to be unveiled. Maybe we really are on the verge. Already the impact of big data, both for beneficial and nefarious purposes, is undeniable. But there is also reason to be skeptical; there is no substitute to looking closely under the hood of the new algorithms, on a case by case basis, to note whether the expectations are unrealistic to begin with.
Many of the thoughts in this piece come from my own modeling experience in a field called operations research. A relatively new branch of mathematics and engineering, operations research is concerned with ‘optimal' ways of running organizations and making things more ‘efficient'. (I use quotes here since these terms are far more difficult to define and achieve than it seems at first glance.) An airline needs to match its pilots, crews and passengers to flights each day and reschedule in case of unexpected events; a corporation like Intel or Apple needs to manage its far flung supply chains so that its products are delivered on time; Doctors Without Borders needs to deploy its clinical staff and equipment on a short notice during infectious disease outbreaks such as Ebola. From a computational viewpoint, these problems become difficult quickly; it is not unusual for there to be billions or trillions or many orders higher number of solutions that even the fastest computers cannot parse through. Without models and search algorithms, finding good answers in a reasonable amount of time would be impossible.
But in the end, the optimizations that are carried out in an abstracted mathematical world have to be implemented in situations where human behavior – all those messy, inexplicable, contradictory, delightful, mischievous things we do – plays a non-trivial role. And so the results, I've noticed, are far from optimal in practice. Some groups may feel unfairly treated; unintended consequences pop up sooner or later in parts of the system that the model did not consider; or the environment changes to an extent that the so-called globally optimal solutions, obtained with great effort, turn out to be short-sighted.
On a personal front, I find myself – and this is the side of me that is drawn to the humanities – rebelling against excessive quantification, metrics and buzzwords such as ‘predictive analytics'. "Don't count too much," my aunt said to me sternly last August in India when I kept telling her how many of her delicious sweets I'd greedily consumed, and which I was feeling guilty about. "Don't count too much – just tell me whether you enjoyed them." That comment has stayed with me and it seemed to summarize what I'd been feeling: that perhaps we are overdoing models and analyses in situations where numbers are far from the full story.
Shia LaBeouf. He Will Not Divide Us. January 2017.
"The actor turned performance artist's latest collaboration with fellow performance artists Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner invites the public to say the words "HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US" as many times as they like and for as long as they like into a camera mounted on a wall outside the Museum of the Moving Image in New York."
Monday, February 06, 2017
I take the sidewalk a step at a time,
shards of its exposed aggregate form archipelagos,
and there’s Jesus in a cloud, or is it Lao Tzu
explaining Is without a word
Deep clefts in the bark of a tree just passed
define the humps of Appalachians.
I saw Scranton strewn along a gully on the lichen side
of the fat trunk of a sugar maple when I glanced
A net of angst chokes a birch in the side yard
of a small house, but it’s just Bittersweet being a garrote.
Its hot orange berries are incendiary cherries.
Its network of vine is untamed thought
A wall of desiccated siding, its south face
so in need of paint some of it is dust
some parched raised grain, is the surface of Mars.
What’s left of its spent red pigment
is the feel of utter space
Hairline cracks in river ice in the dam pond
are rifts of splintered glass silvered on one side
full of mere reflections falling to the sea
A crow measures distance between
gutter pebbles with her beak
aligning as if she were a smart array of atoms
laying out the footings of a house or universe
The patterns in her brain must be
the forms she seeks
Alicja Kwade. Resistance, 2013.
Are we deranged? (global warming part 2)
by Leanne Ogasawara
In recent days, watching friends and family reeling over the Trump win, I keep thinking that climate disaster will be a disaster-of-denial just like this. Shell-shocked and busy blaming, who will be in a position to lead the way forward when the unthinkable happens?
Why do we remain in denial about climate change?
And by denial, I mean, why aren't we making the changes we need to make in our own lives to reduce our carbon imprint and step away from the systems and corporations that are destroying our planet? Is it because it seems too impossible to imagine that our beautiful and perfect earth will suddenly become less hospitable? Or hard to really understand that species of animals we love are disappearing? Impossible to wrap our minds around what warmer oceans mean?
For me, the most compelling description I have read of imagined things to come was the last chapter of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks. By the time things fall apart in the world, according to Mitchell, it is too late for most people to protect themselves, as governments collapse and the world is divided into a few oil states with the rest of the world descending into pure chaos. In the novel, we find ourselves in rural Ireland, in 2043
as the electricity’s running out, the Internet seems about to crash for good and people are reduced to foraging for rabbits and eating dried seaweed.
Within months of what becomes known as the "global endarkenment," gangs are roving the countryside stealing and killing and even the most common medications are no longer available. It all happened so quickly so that no one had the time to really prepare before resource scarcity caused total collapse. Toward the end of the novel, a young gangster is robbing an old woman of her solar panels; and when she protests, he says,
"They had a better life than I did, mind. So did you. Your power stations your cars, your creature comforts. You lived too long. The bill; due today."
The old woman protests, "But it wasn't us, personally, who trashed the world. It was the system. We couldn't change it."
Not missing a beat, the young gangster retorts: "Then its not us, personally, taking your panels. It's the system. We can't change it.
Like Trump, the end of the world kind of crept up on people.
Part of the problem is the media. Another problem is that we are living in what amounts to personal echo chambers. I am not convinced a lot of people even break bread anymore with those whose views they disagree with. Extended families and neighborly relations seems to be on the decline and social media really exacerbates the situation by enabling people to fine tune their filtering of other people. We pick and choose our friends in real life and further "curate" our interaction in social media. So,Trump's win took many people by surprise. It was a failure of imagination that has some strong similarities, I would argue, to the way we are behaving concerning global warming and the environment.
And, I can't get David Mitchell's novel out of my mind.
On the topic of climate change, the most thought-provoking book I read last year was by Amitav Ghosh. He is one of my favorite novelists, but this book was a work of non-fiction. Called The Great Derangement, in the book Ghosh explores the reasons why the extreme nature of climate change is hard for people to wrap their minds around.
He calls it, "climate change and the unthinkable" and begins asking why contemporary fiction is not taking this topic up. And it must be fiction, he says. Because science fiction is not equipped to connect emotionally and viscerally with readers on this topic. Magical realism won't cut it either. That is because SF is largely taken up with what is not real. But, global warming is real. And given its almost daily mention in the media, what is it, Ghosh wonders, that makes global warming so resistant to the arts, specifically why are novelists not taking the topic up?
Ghosh points to Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, Flight Behavior, as what fiction is capable of achieving in terms of stimulating an awakening in readers. Not set in the dystopian future, Kingsolver's book takes place in contemporary Appalachia, where countless monarch butterflies have mysteriously descended on a rural town in Tennessee. At first, people think the millions of fluttering butterflies are an act of God. A miracle. The Burning Bush. But it soon turns out that the butterflies have deviated from their usual migration path due to habitat destruction caused by climate change in Mexico. Yes, the beautiful butterflies are climate refugees.
There is not a happy ending.
Memory of Water is also a great example of literary fiction taking up the topic of climate change. Like David Mitchell, Emmi Itäranta does not see a rosy future--and she focuses on water scarcity. It's a very interesting read. On the topic of water scarcity, at a dinner in Shanghai several years ago, I sat next to a fascinating academic, who told me about a novel he was planing to write. In addition to his research duties at his university, he works for the UN consulting on governance and his idea for a story was about people fighting and dying over diminishing water resources in Bangladesh. I have so often thought of his story over the years. Whether reading about climate change as a factor in the Syrian disaster or in news items about sea level rises and other climate change-induced human upheaval, my mind inevitably goes back to the story he described to me that night. We need stories like his. And I am really looking forward to favorite writer, Lidia Yuknavitch's upcoming novel called, The Book of Joan. I actually cannot wait for this novel!
i first learned about how the corporate takeover of social organization creating a mindless consumer class fearful of its own humanity and the planet from the novels of philip k. dick, william gibson, steve erickson, and samuel r. delaney.
I first learned about the grotesque class systems humans impose on the bodies of the oppressed from the novels of Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy.
The novels of Yukio Mishima, Virginia Woolf, and Carson McCullers first confirmed my suspicions that gender--and thus language and sexuality--as we have inherited them, are false fictions, and must be rewritten.
This echoes Ghosh, who stresses again and again in the Great Derangement, fiction has a peculiar ability to touch us in ways that news reports might not be capable of doing. Climate change is a complicated issue and maybe not something we can even imagine, much less understand the reasons for which we ourselves are responsible. Stories like Barbara Kingsolver's or David Mitchell's can help illuminate these uncomfortable truths that are perhaps too painful --or mind-boggling to face.
Anyway, after Trump's win and all the talk of identity politics, I wondered if this wouldn't also be applicable to our total fecklessness concerning the environment. I then found Ghosh's book. Starting off discussing failures in imagination and current fiction, he then detours into issues of self-expression and identity (politics). Much as Charles Taylor did in his A Secular Age, Ghosh argues that it was the Protestant Reformation that played "one of the major roles in the creation of our modern world." And specifically that the Reformation brought with it a strong focus on personal expression--since Salvation was no longer given by Good Works or grace but by a person's authentic self expression of faith (sola fide). This over-focus on self-expression is something, Ghosh writes, that permeates all aspects of modern life, including our political lives as well.
In other words, the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied if content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum for secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world as church. Politics as thus practices is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness.
Real power and governing, then; rather being held by politicians, is being wielded by an interlocking association of powerful corporations and institutions. This is known as "deep state." The politicians that we see on the TV function more as a kind of performative display. This is why, for example, our political sphere has taken on what can only be described as a reality TV aspect and personality cults. And we, "the viewers" are involved only in terms that relate to our personal journeys toward authenticity and personal expression.
I do think it is safe to suggest that our political lives have taken on a TV show-quality. And, what is much more worrisome is that in this total spectacle, rather than working together toward collective action, as citizens, we are more like consumers, exercising our "free choice" in terms of self expression. Citizenship as consumer. This perhaps can explain why, now we will be seeing more and more people decrying climate change in terms of the personality of who is in the White House--rather than in how the global capitalistic systems that we ourselves are participating in and enabling are destroying the planet.
Amitav Ghosh happens to be one of my favorite novelists. And his Ibis Trilogy is my own go-to source for understanding the problems of unregulated capitalism and colonialism. You can read a thousand news items or works of nonfiction, but nothing will illuminate the big issues like fiction. And Ghosh is very good at it. I would argue, one of the best.
In his novels (like in real life), it's like there was a big party called empire. And there are those who were invited to the party and those who were not. Not only are there winners and losers (a topic that came up a lot in the aftermath of the Trump win) but there are also necessary dark areas in our consciousness. Indeed, the system functions precisely by creating these dark spots, where we choose not to look. Ghosh spends some time in the Great Derangement linking global warming to imperialism, since “the patterns of life that modernity engender[ed could] only be practiced by a small minority of the population.” For echoing Gandhi, he then cautions: if “every family in the world” acquired “two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator,” we’d all be asphyxiated. Whether it is the "slave labor" force in China building our stuff or the rivers in Africa or South America that are being poisoned: these are the dark places we choose not to see. We know that the world cannot support more than one North America--and yet not only do we not change our own hyper-consumerism at home but we turn away from the effects that it is having in these dark areas--as if that is all China's fault.
In Roy Scranton's must-read Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, he describes what he saw in the 2014 Climate March in New York. Without clear aims or proposed concrete steps, the march was staged, he says, to raise awareness and for the personal self-expression of the participants. Raising awareness and self-expression are not bad things, by any means, but in our current predicament something seems to be getting confused. This lack of focus, he says, was reflected in the UN Climate Summit --which was what the march was ostensibly organized around. According to Scranton, the speakers were basically "mouthing vacuities and volunteering to toothless voluntary emissions reductions that were all too little too late;" while China was a no-show. The summit ended with President Obama taking the stage. Scranton was put off by Obama's indirect blaming of China without any mention of America's own growing 2.9% that year (6% since 1990) and worse of America's role in pushing an economic system and hyper consumerism around the world that is directly behind the growing crisis.
The Great Derangement ends with a close examination of the two major publications devoted to climate change to come out of 2015. Those are the Paris Agreement and the Pope's encyclical letter, Laudato Si. Ghosh criticizes the very ambiguous language contained in the Paris Agreement, which basically serves only to invoke what is impossible. That is, limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Centigrade is something that is widely considered to be impossible; and certainly will be impossible since the Agreement is not binding. This is a fair criticism, I think. And Ghosh is not the first person to make it. He then goes on to do something far more thought-provoking by disparaging the way the Agreement is embedded in the fundamental values and notions of the neoliberal capitalist system, the very framework that caused the problems in the first place.
As Einstein might have said: We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.(Thanks Ivan)
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” - Fuller (thanks Misha)
We will fail if we continue placing our hopes in "innovation" and government-corporate associations that never even question the idea that limitless growth is the answer to our problems.
In contrast to this, the Pope's Encyclical takes a truly ecological approach. In much the same way that I described in my last post on deep listening, the Pope in his letter, is asking us to really listen to the non-human voices of the planet; as he continuously reminds us that a "true ecological approach always becomes a social approach." For it "must integrate questions of justice in debates o the environment so as to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. This line really struck me. We need to hear each other and listen to the earth. But if we are so busy in self-expressing and surrounding ourselves with those who support our own projects, how will we be able to ever listen? Much less be called to action?
Whatever we do, in some sense it will be too late. But Ghosh is surely right that the future must see human beings leave behind their isolated understandings of being to join together in group efforts to focus on addressing the needs of the poor and the cry of the earth. For in transcending the current isolation that characterizes this "time of derangement" as well as moving beyond the paradigm that has caused so much destruction of our planet, we might, Gosh suggests, re-discover a sense of kinship with other human beings and with animals and the world. It has to start from home and in communities. (Next time, will offer some concrete suggestions, hoping others will as well). Peace.
It's a wonderful read: Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (great review from The Hindu here)
A Call to Arms
by Akim Reinhardt
I have a friend of Indian descent who was born in Africa, but raised almost entirely in London.
Or, I should say, I had such a friend. About a year ago, maybe more, we got into an online argument about the Pope, and that was that. Much to my surprise, he de-friended me from social media. And since we haven't lived in the same town for well over a decade, it was over.
That we're both atheists just makes the whole episode even stranger.
No matter. The point is that I recently heard from a mutual acquaintance who said my ex-friend is now attempting to move back to Great Britain.
"Have you spoken to Nigel lately?" the mutual acquaintance asked me
"Not in about a year," I replied, not wanting to give anything away. This mutual acquaintance didn't speak with Nigel much after the latter had moved, but remembered him fondly and had occasionally asked about him.
"Not in about a year," he echoed. "Well, he's looking at a job in London. He wants to move out of the country because he cannot abide the Trump administration."
"Ah, I see. That's all well and good I suppose until England gets its own strong man."
The mutual acquaintance, an elderly gentleman from sub-Saharan Africa, smiled and chortled. Then his chuckle bubbled up into a laugh, as loud a sound as I've ever heard emanate from this very calm and quiet man.
He knew. My quip wasn't just a commentary on Brexit and lord knows whatever comes next after the towering doltishness of Theresa May. He knew that it can happen anywhere. No society is immune from falling under the spell, either through ballots or bullets, of a shitty nationalistic strongman; the kind Donald Trump aspires to be, although he is probably too inept to ever attain such lofty heights of villainy.
We each turned and wandered off to our respective destinations, the mutual acquaintance still laughing.
Why sit in the center of the storm when you have a way out? Especially as a person of color with a British passport, why endure the absurdities and horrors or America's Trumpist turn?
No, I don't blame him one bit for wanting to get out.
But me? I'm gong to stay here and fight. And this is not a decision I have reached recently. It's a conclusion I drew 25 years ago.
I am not a person of color. According the American racial palette, I am white. But I am a half-breed of sorts. My mother is Jewish, the daughter of Eastern European refugees who arrived not long before World War II. My father is a redneck from rural North Carolina whose family, at least according to the amateur genealogy assembled by my great aunt, has been in America for close to 300 years.
Racial whitness is a mutable concept, and a hundred years ago, even less in some quarters, my mother's family would not have been considered white, despite my grandfather's red hair and blue eyes. Jews simply weren't in the club. That all changed with America's transformative WWII experience. Afterwards Jews, Italians, and other eastern and southern Europeans were "in."
So I'm white and have been my whole life. I have all the perks and privileges of American whiteness. And maleness. And middle classness.
Basically, I hit it big in the global lottery.
I wonder if that explains why I like to gamble. I mean, how can I possibly lose? I'm just playing with house money.
Anyway, despite my whiteness, I am not ethnically homogenous. My identity is somewhat riven by disparate parentage.
If you are not descended from a family that claims residence back before the French-Indian War (1754-63), then allow me to explain the sense of belonging and entitlement that can stem from it. It's a lot like that one scene in The Good Shepherd, a mediocre movie about the early years of the CIA starring Matt Damon and directed by Robert Deniro.
Damon plays a well to do WASP, Yale-educated, CIA official meeting with a mob boss played by Joe Pesci. After the two strike a corrupt bargain, Pesci poses a question Damon. Let me ask you something, he says.
"We Italians, we got our families and we got the church. The Irish, they have the homeland. The Jews, their traditions. Even the Niggers, they got their music. What about you people Mr. Carlson, what do you have?"
"The United States of America," Damon calmly responds. "The rest of you are just visiting."
That's what it can feel like to have deep and enduring American whiteness.
Even if you're not a racist prick, even if you're a decent, warm, welcoming person who doesn't think everyone else is just visiting and that they're Americans too, you can still come away with a sense that you're just a bit more American than them. That your roots are deeper and stronger. That you help form the ownership class of this nation, if not materially (you might be poor after all), then spiritually.
What does it mean to be American? You're what it means to be American.
Like a lot of things, that sensation can be quite seductive despite its ugliness.
I was never seduced by that feeling, thankfully. But I'm not going to toot my horn and claim it's because I'm so smart and insightful or morally superior. Quite to the contrary, under different circumstances I might have fallen into that identity trap. And I know exactly why I didn't.
It's because I'm half-Jewish.
Being Jewish, like being anything else, can mean a lot of things. For centuries, one thing it has meant is that you don't feel like you fully belong. There are too many expulsions across Europe and north Africa to keep track of.
There are the pogroms and the blood libel, the inquisitions and the scapegoating. And there is of course, above all else, the Holocaust that my grandfather's family escaped by not much, and in my grandmother's family's case, mostly not at all.
Lots of Jews living in the aftermath of expulsions and the Holocaust were (are) plagued by a uncertainty. No matter how good it got here in America, there was always caveat.
They've thrown us out before, they might throw us out again.
Most Jews don't think about this consciously all that much. Rather, it's a fear that exists deep down inside for many of us. You don't belong. You'll never fully fit in. It can all go very wrong at any moment.
This insecurity does not afflict all Jews of course. Many integrate quite easily and feel quite at home in America. This sense of belonging increases as the generations pass. But for many Jews, the tension of an uncertain future never really goes away. And if you want to understand why so many American Jews support Israel no matter how badly it behaves towards the Palestinians, then you need to understand that.
Outsiders are occasionally perplexed. How could some Jews, who are otherwise secular and progressive, display what seems to be such an irrational support of Israel even as its right wing government continues building a program of colonial rule over the indigenous Palestinian people?
The answer does not lie solely in some tribal kinship towards other Jews, in bigotry towards Muslims, or even in the old notion of Israel as charming, upstart underdog, a premise that now seems quite ludicrous. Rather, for some Jews, loyalty to Israel is connected to what it represents: a life raft. A way out. A safe exit strategy for when things go wrong again.
These fears are fading generationally, which is on reason why American Jews are split over Israeli policies towards Palestinians in a way that seemed inconceivable when I was a child. Polling from three years ago shows that only 40% of Jews still believe Israel was given to them by God (while 64% of Protestant Christians do, which in a way is much more frightening). Among orthodox Jews, that figure is 84% (and 82% among Evangelical Protestants), but among secular Jews it's a mere 16%.
Many American Jews also display a healthy skepticism over Israeli government policies towards the Palestinians. Only a fifth of secular Jews believe Israel is making a good faith effort to find a two state solution. Even among all Jews, that figure is just 38%. Meanwhile, a firm majority of Jews believe the ongoing Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories do not help Israeli security, with 44% recognizing that it actually hurts it.
Yet the emotional attachment to Israel remains. Thirty percent of American Jews said they felt very emotionally attached to Israel. Another 39% categorized themselves as somewhat attached. Despite the growth of secularism among American Jews, and even increased criticism of Israel's behavior, only 9% of them said they felt no emotional attachment whatsoever to the Jewish state. And nearly half of all American Jews have found the time and money to visit Israel.
Living in the shadow of the Holocaust, overcoming such insecurities is a generations-long process for American Jews that will continue to unfold during the 21st century.
I earnestly struggled with these issues for the first time during the early 1990s. After finishing my bachelor's degree in East Asian History and eventually returning to the Bronx, my early 20s were given to an autodidactic pursuit of books. I read a lot of American Indian history, which eventually led me to pursue graduate studies in that field. It also forced me to begin thinking seriously about issues of indigeneity. During this period, I also read a fair amount of modern literature by great African American writers, such as Richard Wright's Black Boy and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
I found myself deeply contemplating my own identity for the first time. Swimming in ideas, I asked myself one day, what would I do if the weather turned stormy and the tide brought fierce waves crashing upon me.
If it got really bad here in the United States, would I stay or would I go?
My mother was Jewish, I had had a bris and a bar mitzvah. Israel would take me. My mother, the daughter of Jewish refugees, taken care to keep the appropriate documents for me and my sister so we could cash in on the Law of Return and escape to Israel if we ever needed or wanted to.
On the other hand, I could probably pass for non-Jewish. Having a last name like Reinhardt was a big help. So were my blue eyes and my ability to channel my father's speech patterns and persona. Back in Michigan where I went to college, I'd had the experience of listening to people who didn't realize I was Jewish tell me Jew jokes. I could play it off if I needed to.
But in the end, neither of those options appealed to me.
I realized that I, like the 9% mentioned above, don't have any real attachment to Israel. As an atheist, the overt religiosity of the place unnerves me, and I obviously put no stock in the fantasy that some omnipotent God has decreed it to be my special place. As someone who thinks ethnic nationalism is a blight on humanity (the fact that modern Israel exists largely as a reaction to the horrors ethnic nationalism only adds deep irony to the situation), the idea of a Jewish state did not appeal to me; I still hope it finds the wherewithal to become a genuine and earnest multi-ethnic democracy in the truest sense. And as someone who has never been to Israel, the physical land had no hold on me. Yes, my mother spent two years on a kibbutz during the early 1960s, and some of her father's family moved to Palestine in the early 20th century and remain. But that's them, not me.
At the same time, I find the idea of consciously passing to be fairly repugnant. In no way do I judge people of color who choose to pass for white when possible, or Latinx who pass for Anglo. That's their choice and I absolutely respect it. Passing is an intensely personal decision. However, it simply has zero appeal for me. As God said to Moses, I am who I am.
What then was left for me in the event of the United States turning sour and completely giving itself over to brutal racism and anti-Semitism?
A young and vigorous man, I decided that I would stay and fight should that day ever come.
That despite my divergent family backgrounds, the common thread was indeed America, a place born in the blood of dispossessed Indigenous peoples, African slaves, and poor whites, and also a place of relative opportunity and freedom, which allowed my mother's parents to come here when there were precious few places to escape to.
When it all goes down, this is where I will make my stand. This is where I will give my all to beat down the final convulsions of our bloody, hateful legacies, and to nurture the still growing promise of what America can be, and sometimes has even been.
Thus, I do not begrudge my former friend who seeks to high tail it back to Great Britain amid the fatuous roars of Donald Trump. Not in the least. We all must make the decision that seems right for us.
He will leave if he can. And I will stay here and fight, as I swore to do a quarter-century ago.
This is not 1939. The dangers facing us are nowhere near as great. And I absolutely do not think Donald Trump is the next Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini. I don't even think he's a fascist; he's too artless and unlearned to adopt a coherent and complex dogma.
But I do think he's a racist, sexist piece of shit. I do think he's an impetuous, ignorant, greedy, bully given to fits of rage. I do think he's a narcissist, a chronic liar, and a con man who cares about absolutely no one but himself. I do think he is authoritarian by nature, has no real understanding of or respect for our democratic republic, and has surrounded himself with petty villains and incompetent cronies. I do think in his shameful and infuriating charge to the White House he has stirred up angry and hateful passions among some of his supporters. And I do think he's very, very dangerous.
This is my home. This is my nation. And it is every bit as much yours. It is ours.
Let us make union and defend it. Let us join together and fight. Let us beat him back at every turn until we have vanquished this abominable cancer from our body politic and the corpus of our society.
We, Americans all.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Walls, Bans and Border Patrols: The Fearsome Fallout for Children
by Humera Afridi
At the age of ten, my biggest fear was a dread of heights. Childhood weekends were sun-drenched (chlorine-filled) idylls during which I worked myself up to fling my body off the high board at the Sind Club into the gleaming swimming pool below. I lived in Karachi, and, yes, in a bubble.
We were surrounded by inequity, yet my ‘innocence’ or, rather, naivete remained intact. I was certainly aware of the sudden, politically motivated strikes and pained by the striking poverty—lame beggars who hopped over to car windows at traffic stops; gangs of wily, threadbare children left to roam the danger-filled streets. Nevertheless, within the highly-selective, members-only club, the harsh world outside with its mayhem of cars, motorcycles, trucks and water lorries threatening to run over the cripples weaving their way through the honking maze, seized to exist for me. The water shimmered, spangled with sunlight; I can still recall the sensation of my toes curling on the edge of the cement precipice, and a frisson of nervous excitement overcoming me in those excruciating moments before leaping towards the joyous shouts that rose to greet me as I plummeted. The beleaguered world of the city at large disappeared.
That life seems unthinkable, unconscionable, today, especially after having lived away for many years, first as an expatriate and then an (accidental) immigrant. But that was how things were: the disparity was deep-rooted and historical. Even as a child I learned to build invisible walls.
Fast-forward to the next generation and a change of setting: my son who is nine and a half, born and raised in America, possesses an awareness around issues of social justice and race, and nuanced identity politics—LQBTQIA is the more current, more inclusive term I learned from him two weeks ago—that simultaneously awes and alarms me. Even as I am grateful for his attunement and ability to perceive and articulate feelings arising from instances of injustice that he witnesses, hears about, or personally experiences, a part of me wonders: isn’t he too young to know all this? Isn’t it too soon to have to create the space in his mind to sort through a myriad possibilities of how to be? And what about facing the facts—far too many— of a cruel and unjust world?
But the age of innocence has vanished. And children aren’t exempt. Last week, over an ice-cream after school, he casually slipped in, “Mom, today I pulled my teacher aside because I was feeling really depressed.”
Words to make a mother’s heart sink.
“Depressed is a big word, sweetheart! What exactly were you feeling?”
“Really, really sad, mama. About the Muslim ban.
As a child, I worried about high diving. My son, just shy of ten, on the other hand, is anguished that I will not be allowed back home to New York next week when I return from my trip to France. He worries that he will never get to visit his ancestral village in Northwestern Pakistan, something he’s been hankering for in recent months. “If we go to Pakistan, will they let us back in? How will I learn Urdu? How will I ever learn Pashto if I can’t go to Pakistan?”
At his school, they hold community meetings during which they raise concerns and break down the damaging effect of words like “hate” which have been tossed around liberally since the election campaign. Teachers and students have been sharing their feelings of vulnerability in the face of the new America unfolding before us, seeing how as a community they can support each other to feel safe and secure. To enable these conversations, the students are empowered with facts and the vocabulary to engage in sincere, heartfelt exchanges.
When I think back to my childhood, my most prominent memories are the feel of the hot sun on my face, the confusing thrum of water swallowing me as I rocket into the depths, the cool, green ice-cream soda bottle, slippery with condensation, after my swim. Politics formed, at best, a background murmur in the domain of the grownups, which I didn't tune into, and which wasn't shared in a meaningful or serious way with the children. I was an apolitical child; illiterate in the ways of how society actually worked—a cringe-worthy realization—especially in contrast to my son, who speaks about the effects of the policies being revealed each day by the new government, who feels the discriminatory gaze of the new president on him and experiences it viscerally, sees that gaze eviscerating the hopes of bereft Syrian refugee children and their families, and feels it so deeply that he has actually lain on the ground and heaved sobs, or then exploded with anger and promised to personally “tackle” the leadership.
My gentle, guitar-loving nine-year old: it's heart-wrenching to witness his sadness and worry. How does a mother protect her child from all the noise and ugliness while at the same time provide him with the tools to feel empowered? These are urgent times and innocence, it seems, has become collateral damage, a ‘war-time’ casualty. Three weekends in row, he has attended marches, protests and demonstrations demanding justice and equality, and freedom of the press, and protested the Muslim ban. I celebrate his participation. Will this be the stuff of his childhood memories?
It is ironic that the demonization of select groups of people by the new American President is precisely what is awakening and alerting my son and his young generation to the American values of dignity, justice, equality, diversity, unity and individual freedom, inspiring them to stand and uphold these ideals. What joy to witness him chanting: This is what democracy looks like!
For those who have been directly labeled and targeted by the leadership, how much more onerous their challenge is right now. To be perceived as an embodied threat. How does a young child take that in? What does it do to a developing psyche? And how dare we, in this late age, let the lessons of so many devastating wars and genocides go unheeded?
It is of a young boy looking through the metal bars of a barrier dividing Afghanistan from Pakistan at Torkham. I took the photo in January 2002 when I tried to enter Afghanistan across that border. (In the end I didn’t go. I was notified that if I did, I would be breaking Pakistani law and would most likely be imprisoned upon my return). In the wake of the recent travel ban in the Unites States that has devastated so many families, I’m reminded of the time when America lunged at Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and the heartbreaking scenes of chaos at the Pak-Afghan borders, the dismal refugee camps. Today, as a mother, I wonder if that boy was an orphan. Perhaps, that’s why he was standing there alone. What became of him, what ‘choices’ were left for him in his war-devastated country? Did sadness and disappointment in time turn to anger and a desire for vengeance?
As families are torn apart and terrorized by the draconian laws of the new government and the bullying of border patrol officers, we must remember that the economic, emotional and social aftershocks will shape the new generation of warriors— perceived through one lens as knights and knightesses and through another as potential ‘terrorists.’ Much healthier then, surely, to let children play ball in the park and splash in swimming pools? Why is it so difficult to cast off divisiveness in favor of a path that seeks, instead, peace, harmony, unity, and dignity for all?
Stuck in Traffic: The Story of Civilization
One day several years ago I waited an hour in traffic to go a quarter of a mile so I could enter the Holland Tunnel and cross under the Hudson River to my home in Jersey City. While sitting in the queue I kept thinking why why why? Why?
After saying a bit more about traffic to and from Manhattan, I answer the question with a boiling-frog story, a parable about Happy Island. I conclude by suggesting that the world is happy island and we’re stuck in traffic.
At that time I was living in Jersey City, New Jersey, which is across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan (I’m now living in Hoboken). Whenever I go to Manhattan I use public transportation, which is reasonably good, though just a bit inconvenient from my present location. But driving my car through a tunnel or over a bridge and parking it on Manhattan, that’s VERY inconvenient. And so I avoid doing it.
But I had to go to rural Connecticut to meet Charlie for a trip to Vermont. I could have taken public transportation to a point where Charlie could pick me up. But that’s a longish walk and four trains, or a longish walk and three trains and a long walk or a cab. Which was a hassle. So I decided to drive. Yes, I’d have to cross the Hudson River, but the Holland Tunnel is nearby and I could avoid rush-hour traffic on both trips, too and from. Driving in Manhattan would be a bit of a hassle, but not too bad on this trip because I’d be mostly on the West Side Highway.
So I drove. I left on Thursday morning at, say, 9:45 AM. By 11:30 I’d crossed off the northern end of Manhattan and was headed toward Connecticut. That’s an hour and forty-five minutes to go the first 15 miles, and probably an hour to go the first four miles, from my place in Jersey City through the Holland Tunnel and onto the West Side Highway headed North.
And that wasn’t rush-hour.
Nor was it rush-hour mid-afternoon on Saturday when I made the return trip. It took at least 45 minutes to get from West Side Avenue and 12th street into the tunnel, and traffic was unusually slow inside the tunnel, for whatever reason.
I’d be very surprised indeed if tunnel traffic was that bad when the Holland Tunnel first opened early in the 20th century. Nor do I have any idea when traffic began to build-up at the tunnel. It was opened in 1927 and the first tube of the Lincoln Tunnel followed a decade later; the second tube took another eight years. Was it built in response to traffic build-up in the Holland Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge? Seems possible. A third tube was opened in ’57, a response to increased traffic.
These days local news has regular reports on traffic delays at all tunnels and bridges crossing to Manhattan. The information is, of course, readily available on the web. Rush-hour delays run between half an hour and an hour. It’s crazy.
Several years ago the Governor Chris Cristie of New Jersey killed a project to build another railroad tunnel under the Hudson. It would have doubled the number of passenger trains at peak hours. Meanwhile the mayor of New York City at the time, Michael Bloomberg, billionaire, wanted to change zoning in Midtown Manhattan so that higher office towers could be built. You know what that means, don’t you? More traffic on the already over-loaded bridges and tunnels.
Of course, that traffic had no direct meaning to Mayor Mike. He could afford to live in Manhattan, along with his executive cronies. When he crosses the Hudson or the East River he can fly his helicopter or he can sit in the back of a nice limo, with his laptop Wi-Fied to the world, along with a wet bar, pool table, squash court and whatever else he needs to pass the time while the limo waits in traffic. Bridge and tunnel traffic is just numbers to him; it’s not a reality that hits him directly.
Sure, build taller office buildings in Midtown. You know what that meant to Mayor Mike, Billionaire? More business for his company, that’s what it meant. His company and the companies of his buddies. That’s the reality that’s most immediate to him. Not all the hassle more traffic will cause for the people who work in those bigger buildings, but can’t afford to live on Manhattan.
More recently, the last few years have seen thousands upon thousands of new apartment units appear, especially along Manhattan’s West Side. Now we have housing for people working in those taller office buildings. But the people who live there are not going to spend all their time on Manhattan. Nor are they going to helicopter in and out. They’re going to clog the tunnels and bridges. As are the people living in the new apartment buildings in Jersey City and Hoboken.
No one would ever design a system to have so many transportation bottlenecks. But that is how the system has evolved over time. And it’s going to get worse. And if another hurricane should come though and take out one of those tunnels...
How could sensible people possibly get trapped like this?
The Story of Happy Island
Once upon a time, perhaps in a land far away, but maybe right next door, or even under your feet, there was a wonderful island in a protected bay. I wasn’t a large island, but large enough. People lived there, grew crops, hunted rabbits and deer, fished the sea beyond the bay, and occasionally crossed over to the mainland, perhaps to hunt, or maybe do a bit of traveling. Life was hard, but it was good.
The island’s population grew, and grew. In a few generations things were getting tight. There was no longer enough land to grow the crops, nor enough wild game. The forests were beginning to thin out as people used wood to make houses and shops.
And a ferry. People now went to the mainland everyday to trade with the villagers there, for a village had grown up across from the island. The trip back and forth took up a bit of time, but not too much. Thus the islanders were able to meet the needs of their growing population. Life was hard, but it was good.
Maybe life was even better. More people, more festivals and celebrations. More parties. With better music, and the wine they traded with the villages was better than their homebrew beer.
As the population grew, so the ferry had to make more trips for trading. In time it became necessary to build a second ferry line. The fisherman had to go further out to sea to catch enough fish, both for the islanders, and to use in trade with the mainlanders. Thankfully the fish were plentiful. And so the island continued to prosper. True, there were sometimes lines at the ferry docks and people had wait longer to get on. To tell the truth, life was perhaps just a little harder, and it was getting harder to make it really good. Though the best festivals were very fine indeed.
But things, as time moved on, things began to get really tight. Farms had to be broken up to free land for more houses and businesses. The wild game was gone, the remaining forests became enclosed as parkland, and fishing was no harder and harder; larger and more powerful boats had to go further out to sea. They needed larger dock facilities. Prescient people could see the shoreline beginning to crowd up with ferries—several more had been built, and docks. They could see more time lost to waiting getting to and from these facilities.
Tighter and Tighter, but It Feels So Good!
And so they built a bridge to the mainland. That helped a lot. The mainland was now more accessible. Life eased up, but just for a bit, a generation or maybe two. Because that better transportation brought more people. And more people made it more difficult to maintain the good life on the island. The buildings became taller. More people could live in them. Requiring more shops to service them. And more time lost just to getting around on the island and off it too, for more people spent more and more time off the island.
But the music at it’s best was very good indeed. Not to mention the movies. And the theaters, all the little art galleries. For some of the islanders life was better than it had ever been. For many, though, it was not so good. Mind you, it was not actually bad, and it was nice to go to the occasional show, or look at the art galleries. But things really were getting tight.
And it’s not like they could just up and move to the mainland. Things were getting tight there as well. The prosperity was widespread and general. That meant there were more population centers people could move too, but fewer places to put new centers. So many islanders decided to stay put.
The fact is, with the best art and entertainment in the world, and the best parties, many mainlanders actually wanted to move to the island, crowded though it was. Or, if not actually move there, work in the shops and the clearing houses for the port facilities. So the island got more and larger apartment buildings and office buildings.
And more bridges and tunnels. The cycle continued. First things improved a bit, enough to make folks feel good about the last bridge, or the most recent building. And then things began to tighten. More time lost to just getting around. More people came on to the island just to shop or take in a show. More people would leave the island just to go to a park or down to the shore — for the island’s beaches had long since disappeared to commercial development. Life continued to get better for a few, more irksome for the many. But the many really had no choice, because all the major decisions were made by the few. And the few liked things just the way they were.
The island continued to construct more and bigger buildings. It had more and more jobs. And more traffic not only on the island but also moving to and from the island. For the many, it meant more and more time eaten up just getting from one place to another. Life wasn’t all that good any more, but what could they do? You had to have a job to buy the goods that allowed you to eat, and there were jobs on the island. Not so many jobs on the mainland, which, at any event, was getting a little crowded as well.
What to do? There didn’t seem any choice but to build build build. If the ancestors had seen this coming, would they have built that second ferry? Or the second bridge? The whole set-up didn’t make much sense any more, except for a few. But there didn’t seem to be any way out.
Like Boiling a Frog
At every point in history of Happy Island it was possible to make an improvement by building more, and during the early years that’s all there was, improvement. But then things started closing in. The improvements were real, but short term. The improvements brought growth, and growth brought the squeeze. And the squeeze brought the need for more improvement. Another bridge or tunnel, another immediate improvement, but then growth, the squeeze, and things are worse.
Over the long-term, things slowly get worse, with intermittent improvement. Just enough to keep trying to make more improvements. But it never really works.
It’s the old story of boiling a frog. At first the warmer water feels good. Increment by increment, no harm, feelin’ good. But then, wham, the frog’s dead. Too late. (I’m told, BTW, that this isn’t actually true. Frog’s aren’t dumb enough to sit still for it. I’m not so sure about humans.)
The World: Stuck in Traffic
So that’s Happy Island, an imaginary island in a little parable. And that’s Manhattan Island, a real island in a real-life mess that’s getting worse. The rich people will be able to live above it all, though they’re going to have to go higher and higher. But the rest of us, we’re going to spend more and more time stuck in traffic.
And that, I submit, is where the world is today. In one way or another, the whole world is stuck in traffic.
No one planned it that way. Lots of good things were done with the best of intentions. But the earth, as a whole, is an island in the universe. And there’s no mainland out there we can go to.
We’ve got to decouple and downsize. If we don’t, the traffic’s going to become a permanent jam. And then it’s going to explode. Perhaps not physically—though that, of course, is possible. But explode it must. Or, what amounts to the same thing, implode.
There’s nothing else for a traffic jam to do. The world’s not going to end in a bang, nor a whimper, but a universal traffic jam.
Monday, January 30, 2017
‘Alternative Facts' and the Necessity of Liberal Education
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Kellyanne Conway's January 22 appearance on Meet the Press (transcript) has already attracted a good deal of attention, given her use of the seemingly Orwellian expression ‘alternative facts.' The idiom serves to confirm the view many take of the Trump administration's approach to honest deliberation. In light of the fake news and post-truth politics issues and the fact that the Trump administration has required many agencies to close down their communications with the public, Conway's line is an easy fit with a broad and disconcerting narrative of willful irrationalism and bold abuse of power. In many ways, we are sympathetic with this interpretation of Conway's term; as she deployed it, it indeed sounded as the Orwellian assertion our-say-so-trumps-is-so. However, there is an interpretation of Conway's turn of phrase and her broader point that, though still disappointing, is considerably less Orwellian. And it occasions a crucial lesson about the place of liberal education in a democratic society.
First, consider the more charitable interpretation of Conway's term. In both cases where Conway uses the expression alternative facts, she is talking about how the evidence relevant for settling a question is often more complicated than it may at first seem. In the two cases where she appeals to ‘alternative facts,' the point at issue is whether Sean Spicer's claim at his January 21 Press Conference, "That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period," was accurate. Chuck Todd's challenge was that Spicer's claim flew in the face of widespread photographic evidence that showed clearly that the crowd at Trump's inauguration was smaller than the crowd at Obama's '09 inauguration. Yet Spicer claimed that the size of the crowd at the mall belied a number of things about how the crowd was handled for the inauguration; moreover, his statement precisely was that the event was witnessed by more people – which included television and live-streaming. So, as the reasoning went, the photographic evidence doesn't seal the deal, because none of those folks watching Fox News or streaming the event on Breitbart were in the frame.
And on this matter of crowd size, I think it is a symbol for the unfair and incomplete treatment that this president often receives. I'm very heartened to see Nielsen just came out with the ratings, 31 million people watching the inauguration. President Obama had 20.5 million watching his second inauguration four short years ago. So we know people are also watching the inauguration on different screens and in different modes.
Conway was arguing that Spicer's claim referenced the number is of witnesses to the event, which includes those who see it on their screens, not the number of attendees in Washington.
Now, of course that's slippery. And it doesn't reflect the reasons Spicer gave at the 1/21 Press Conference (analysis here). But the point is that there is a considerably less disconcerting interpretation of Conway's lines. She said to Todd,
You're saying it's a falsehood. And . . . Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.
And later, Conway claimed
. . . we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.
Interpreted more charitably, Conway's ‘alternative facts' involve (1) clarifications of the Press Secretary's claims, and (2) evidence in favor of those clarified claims. To be sure, even on this charitable interpretation, Conway's remarks are disappointing, if only because it's the Press Secretary's job to clarify claims by the administration, not to deliver statements that are in need of clarification. But there is another, more significant, disappointment.
The trouble starts with Conway's use of the word ‘facts.' She really means something like counter-evidence or complicating consideration. Confusion emerges because, when disagreeing over the facts (in this case, the number of people who witnessed an event), one must present other facts. That is, one must argue, and when we deploy, we must first distinguish between premises and conclusions and then assess how the premises support those conclusions. That's simple logic, but it's all important.
The Orwellian interpretation has it that Conway flatly asserted a favored alternate conclusion, and presented no arguments, but only referred to ‘facts' of her own creation. But the more charitable line we've suggested has it that she presented complicating reasons, or rebutting facts: (1) Spicer was talking about witnesses rather than attendees; (2) the number of witnesses to the inauguration (on television and streaming media, et al, worldwide) was far larger than the number of attendees in Washington.
Still, the conclusion is muddied, and Conway even concedes this:
Look, I actually don't think that-- maybe this is me as a pollster, Chuck. And you know data well. I don't think you can prove those numbers one way or the other. There's no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that.
Conway here makes it hard to defend Spicer's "period" at the end of his statement. But what's important is that, even on the charitable reading of ‘alternative facts', Conway is confused. Why? She's still employing the word ‘facts' to make a point about evidence and reasons. Had she claimed to be interested in presenting countervailing evidence, there would be nearly nothing remarkable about her interview.
There are a few lessons to be drawn from the Meet the Press debacle. First, things have spun out of control precisely because Conway did not employ the right concept for making her intended point, and then proved unable to clarify it. In addition, on all sides of the subsequent dispute, there seems to be an unwillingness to identify cases where discussants are simply talking past each other. There are related difficulties in identifying conditions under which a disagreement is about a value and not a fact; and mot generally an incapacity to recognize when operative vocabularies are too simplistic to do all the things we need to do with them.
In the coming months and years, we as a democratic citizenry will need to develop the skills necessary for avoiding and diagnosing such failures of discourse. We need to reacquaint ourselves with concepts like reason, evidence, justification, argument, and objection. We need also to cultivate skills of reading and listening closely, not with suspicion, but with a critical eye and ear. And these skills enable creative and clear thinking, too.
It's for this reason we think that the humanities and liberal arts are good for democratic citizens. Reading, thinking, and writing about literature and ideas sound to too many like only so much indulgent bullshit, but it's not. At least when it's done well. (We addressed this point in reply to Marco Rubio's line about "less philosophers, more welders" line.) Why is this? For starters, it's because these activities teach us how to disagree and argue properly with each other over things that matter. A liberal arts and humanities education teaches us that when it comes to the most important matters, things are complicated, the evidence is complex, and smart people disagree. And we see how smart people handle their disagreements. How do they do it? They've developed not only particular skills, but they've been deploying vocabularies for working out those disagreements, making clear how they see the reasons come out in their favor. Even in the process of acknowledging that someone else has made a good point.
On our more charitable interpretation, then, Kellyanne Conway's alternative facts phrase isn't the dark Orwellian statement so many see. Rather, it's an awkwardly phrased and largely inept observation that issues are complicated and reasons can conflict. And she's frustrated that she's being interpreted so consistently badly. But it all comes out in such a muddle, and it's all too easily seen in the objectionable frame of willful and brutish anti-intellectualism. It's a great irony that the necessity of liberal arts education and the humanities in a democratic society can be recognized only when we are on the brink of being too late to save them.
Perceptions of Refugees
Great outdoor action from Amsterdam. This shadow art was made for World Refugee Day on June 20, 2013, and was shown at various locations in the city.
The idea behind the campaign is about invisibility of refugees. We don’t know their faces and their background. What we do know is that they need help.
The copy that was placed next to the visual: “There are over 40 million lives hidden today, living as shadows suppressed by war and violence. We often don’t know about them. But they deserve to be seen. And helped. Support another family through Stichting Vluchteling – The Dutch Refugee Foundation”.
For years now, I have been dreaming this dream that our national park rangers would rise up and lead a coup.
Whenever I used to return to the US from Japan or Hong Kong -it was always so appalling flying into LAX (a truly banana republic experience), our infrastructure seemed as shabby as our healthcare was inhumane. Things felt incredibly chaotic and wild west--in many ways, quite uncivilized. On the few occasions, however, when I managed to find myself in a national park, everything began to look up. Suddenly things ran smoothly. There were trams to get people from point a to point b; rooms for all budgets, great cafeteria food often with local ingredients-- and everything felt somehow rational. Kind of like Europe, I always thought.
We have to thank the rangers for this. For they are an amazing group of people. Committed ecologists and educators, so many of them even have a sense of humor. Able to live off grid, I think they are totally bad ass! How many times have I thought over the years that if only the United States was run like our national parks we wouldn't be nearly as much trouble.
One of the things I love best about them is they don't negotiate when it comes to the environment. The parks are not about "consumer choice." You have to keep things green--or else. There is no blaming Republicans or Liberals, no discussion of faith when it comes to the environment, climate "believers" or not, you have to live by the rules of the parks. Yep, that means no plastic water bottles are sold. Hallelujah, and is it really that hard?
Given my great fondness for them, I took more than a little delight to see them running rogue last week with NASA.
I am going to write here next week about Amitav Ghosh's new book, The Great Derangement. Has anyone read it yet?
In the book, Ghosh asks, Are we deranged?
And guess what his answer is.
For the upcoming post, I decided not to talk about the ending of his book, because I thought it might make people uncomfortable. That is because in a very unexpected move, Ghosh,suggests that it is religious groups that are perhaps best suited to tackle the wicket issue of climate change. Why, you might ask. Well, believing that there is no time to wait for momentum to mount in creating a secular movement, he suggests that these groups are already mobilized to work together in a way that goes beyond personal self-expression. Religious organizations are able to quickly mobilize as a group working on a shared cause.
This issue of "self expression" in politics is really interesting. Much as Charles Taylor did in his A Secular Age, Ghosh sees the Protestant Reformation as having played "one of the major roles in the creation of our modern world." And that this Reformation brought with it a strong focus on personal expression--since Salvation was no longer given by Grace but by a person's authentic self expression of faith. This over-focus on self-expression is something, Ghosh writes, that permeates all aspects of modern life, including our political lives as well. He says:
In other words, the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied if content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum for secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world as church. Politics as thus practices is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness.
In addition, real power and governing--rather being held by politicians-- is wielded by an interlocking association of powerful corporations and institutions. This is known as "deep state." Ghosh argues that the politicians that we see on the TV function more as a kind of performative display. This is why, for example, our political sphere has taken on what can only be described as a reality TV aspect and personality cults. And we, "the viewers" are involved only in terms that relate to our personal journeys toward authenticity and personal expression, for example, on social media or in marches.
I do agree with Ghosh that our political lives have taken on a TV show-quality. And, what is much more worrisome is that within what is a kind of spectacle, rather than working together toward collective action, as citizens, we have become more like consumers, exercising our "free choice" in terms of self expression. Citizenship as consumer. This perhaps can explain why, now we will be seeing more and more people decrying climate change in terms of the personality of who is in the White House--rather than in how the global capitalistic systems that we ourselves are participating in and enabling are destroying the planet.
(Highlighted quote just above from Roy Scranton's must-read Learning to Die in the Anthropocene).
Ghosh continues by saying that even more than their capability for issue-focused group mobilization, religious organizations can serve a crucial role in combatting climate change because they are already standing outside the current paradigm. And this is a crucial point. He says:
“Religious worldviews are not subject to the limitations that have made climate change such a challenge for our existing institutions of governance: they transcend nation-states, and they all acknowledge intergenerational, long-term responsibilities; they do not partake of economistic ways of thinking and are therefore capable of imagining nonlinear change…in ways that are perhaps closed to the forms of reason deployed by contemporary nation-states.”
He is very critical about the way the current environmental movement remains embedded in the fundamental values and notions of the neoliberal capitalist system--- the very framework that caused the problems in the first place.
This echoes Einstein, of course, who famously said: We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
I agree with Ghosh that we will ultimately fail when it comes to the environment if we continue placing our hopes in "innovation" or worse, in government-corporate associations that never even question the idea that limitless growth is the answer to our problems. I think we will also fail if we think that just saying we believe in global warming or somehow blaming politicians for the situation in which we find ourselves is also counter-productive, as Roy Scranton says above.
But, religious organizations are not the only groups that stand outside the current neo-liberal and global capital worldview. And this is what I really love about the park rangers.
One of my favorite novelists to read in my bleaker moments is Tom Robbins. The man simply refuses to conform. Like a lot of people, I first got "turned on" to Tom Robbins when I was young. Just back from India and living in Berkeley, all I wanted to do was travel back in time to become a flower child. So for me, eternal hippie and ultimate playmate Tom Robbins was the perfect read. He was--and maybe still is-- utterly uninterested in practical life or bourgeois concerns. From mortgages to inner angst, he has so much better things to do. In one of his more recent novels, Villa Incognito, there are these three Vietnam Vets who decide to go MIA. Choosing to remain in Laos after the war is over (why not, right?), the men live in Sybaritic indulgence in a village full of high-wire walkers and pretty ladies--living the life, until things fall totally apart and their paradise found becomes paradise lost. All good things come to an end, of course, and main character Dickie Goldwire eventually finds himself back in the old US of A. And the changes stun him. I think his adjustment disorder was even more intense than my own (both of us gone missing for twenty years). Dickie cannot get over the advertising on everything. Everything was stamped with brand names and consumer choices ruled the world, which was, I probably don't have to explain an utterly and relentlessly consumer-driven world. He hates it and doesn't really see the point either. Life is short and the people back home don't even seem that happy.
Zizek said this the other day (I realize not everyone likes him--but he makes an important point):
"Isn’t is sad that the best left-liberal critique of Trump is political comedy? People like Jon Stewart, John Oliver and so on. It’s nice to make fun of him, but you laugh at him and he wins. My God! There is something terribly wrong with playing this game of ironically making fun of Trump. You know, in medicine they call it symptomatic healing, when you take some things, they just neutralize the effects, like you have this pain, but they don’t heal the disease itself. Criticizing Trump is just symptomatic healing. Trump is an effect of the failure of the liberal-left. Everybody knows this knows this now. The only way to really beat Trump is to radically rethink what does the left mean today. Otherwise he will be getting ordinary people’s votes. "
Trump is a wake-up call.
Injustice and inequality did not suddenly happen on January 20th. Trump did not cause climate change. He did not oversee what was the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the US or introduce relentless money into politics. At most, he is a symptom --and even though we cannot ignore this odious and malignant symptom-- we also need to take a hard look at the causes. And, keeping our eye on the ball, we must as Zizek urges, radically rethink what the Left means and come up with a fundamentally new approach.
For if we don't get money out of politics and resist the current financial models that have caused so much destruction to the earth we will be lost.
But maybe we are too big and things are too far gone to fix? Because let's face it, after 8 years of outrageous and very costly obstructionism by congress, we are now witnessing a power grab akin to a coup (airports were distraction for Bannon's quiet power grab) Is this even fixable anymore?
I personally have come to like the idea of a West Coast secession. Uniting to create a truly progressive state --with west coast federation universal healthcare; federation-funded democratic education; and bullet trains connecting our totally green cities-- we would aim to create a new society that is sustainable to the earth and achieves true economic justice. With Portland as our capital, we could organize our progressive homeland on sustainable values. We are, after all, paying more to the federal government than we take out ---and all this without fair representation. And looking around, it seems that for years, we are so engaged in fighting a kind of culture war that there is no loner any room or energy left to move forward in terms of the environment, education, and health. Maybe we simply don't work anymore?
This is not just about dismantling this administration --but it is about fundamentally reinventing our society to create a country where economic practice and policy serve the common good. For justice and a fair distribution of wealth and services for all. Like the national parks, we must create a place where financial bottom lines are never prioritized at the expense of the earth; and where love and ecology are our national religion.
Either that or take to the hills...?
To join the darkside: www.altnps.org -Arches, Glacier, Everglades, Cuyahoga Valley, Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah, Yosemite, Badlands, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Who Can Afford to Call 911?
by Olivia Zhu
As I wrote in a post back in June, reporting bias is a phenomenon that significantly detracts from the efficacy of potential predictive policing measures. Simply put, if underserved communities don’t trust the police and are less likely to report crime as a result, the resulting data is incomplete, inaccurate, and therefore useless when considering measures such as hotspot analysis or setting new patrol routes. This month, I’d like to explore a particular reason why underreporting of crime might occur, with a particular focus on socioeconomic factors that drive who can or is willing to call 911.
It’s easy to make two major assumptions about 911. First, that 911 services are free, or at least are public services paid for by taxpayer money. And second, that they are consistent across the nation. After all, there’s a whole alphabet soup of government agencies that establish standards and rules for dialing 911, among them the Federal Communications Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Consider also organizations such as the National Emergency Number Association and any number of police, fire, and emergency medical service professional organizations to increase oversight and regulation of the service.
The first assumption is proven false by the fact that most states charge a 911 service fee. In theory, fees such as these feed into a Universal Service Fund intended to normalize 911 service across a coverage area, thereby reducing socioeconomic effects. However, the FCC collects this fee from mobile service providers, and while the “FCC does not require this charge to be passed on to you… service providers are allowed to do so.” That’s just for standard 911 calls. For Enhanced 911 (E911) calls, which provide latitude and longitude data for callers using cell phones instead of land lines, service providers may charge a fee as well. E911 calls are especially important given that most 911 calls today are made from mobile phones, not land lines, and without E911, it’s difficult for first responders to accurately locate callers. Let me add onto that.
The second assumption, that 911 services are consistent across the nation, hinges on the availability of E911 and the more advanced Wireless 911 Phases I and II across the nation. NENA’s county-by-county 911 deployment map (with color legend here) indicates significant swathes of the country only have basic, or possibly even no 911 services. That doesn’t even begin to speak to the fact that some public safety answer points (PSAPs), the call centers that handle 911 calls, may not be equipped with dispatch software that is E911 compatible. That is, even if someone calls 911 and location information is available, it may not be recorded or usable if the PSAP is running legacy software.
It’s actually this second point—about the consistency of 911 resources across the country—that I think is more critical here, for the simple reason that I assume all service providers are going to want to pass on those 911 service fees to their customers. This is a topic I’d like to explore further, but my guess would be that it’s the wealthier cities and counties (with the higher-earning tax base) that can afford E911 and Wireless 911 enhancements along with better PSAP equipment. So, already there are going to be socioeconomic inequalities here based on where a 911 caller lives.
Let’s add on to that the fact that there are cities and councils that are charging people who call 911 an additional first responder service fee—on top of what is already paid to the service provider—sometimes in the hundreds of dollars.
Now, there are startups that are trying to address the gaps in 911 service (related to location-finding or other infrastructural flaws) by providing location data via an app. BlueLight, the manufacturers of eponymous emergency call phones on campuses, have launched an app that connects dispatchers to callers faster in rapidly-gentrifying Oakland, and they are charging a $20 annual subscription for it. Essentially, BlueLight stratifies rapid 911 access to those who can afford a smartphone, its data plan, and the app subscription while taking pressure off local authorities to improve connectivity and location-identification—a double whammy. Then there’s BlueLight’s fast-emerging competitor, RapidSOS, which offers its location-providing emergency app for a monthly subscription of $2.99 for an individual (an annual subscription of $35.88). RapidSOS does provide fee waivers, but again, the issue of smartphone access and taking pressure off city and county governments still stands.
These factors add up. It’s noted in some studies that there’s correlation between insurance and employment status regarding willingness to call 911 for a stroke, although the main study at the link found no significant association between financial factors and willingness to call 911. Another study found that poorer communities that do call 911 for stroke treatment do experience “statistically significant delays in prehospital times,” although these time differences were relatively small and “living in a poorer area does not appear to delay access to acute care for stroke in a clinically significant way.” I’ll add a quick note to these studies to say that they do have to do with a critical medical emergency, not those regarding criminal activity or less serious medical concerns, so it’s possible that there are socioeconomic differences that manifest more clearly under those conditions.
In sum: 911 service is not equal across the country, and may depend on the wealth of a particular region. Individuals can be served an additional first responder service fee that may be too costly for poorer callers. On top of that, faster and more accurate 911 service can be obtained through expensive apps, and all these factors may contribute to socioeconomic imbalances that skew who calls 911 when they really need to.
Plastic Words are Hollow Shells for Rigid Ideas: The Ever-Expanding Language of Tyranny
by Jalees Rehman
Words are routinely abused by those in power to manipulate us but we should be most vigilant when we encounter a new class of "plastic words". What are these plastic words? In 1988, the German linguist Uwe Pörksen published his landmark book "Plastikwörter:Die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur" (literal translation into English: "Plastic words: The language of an international dictatorship") in which he describes the emergence and steady expansion during the latter half of the 20th century of selected words that are incredibly malleable yet empty when it comes to their actual meaning. Plastic words have surreptitiously seeped into our everyday language and dictate how we think. They have been imported from the languages of science, technology and mathematics, and thus appear to be imbued with their authority. When used in a scientific or technological context, these words are characterized by precise and narrow definitions, however this precision and definability is lost once they become widely used. Pörksen's use of "plastic" refers to the pliability of how these words can be used and abused but he also points out their similarity to plastic lego bricks which act as modular elements to construct larger composites. The German language makes it very easy to create new composite words by combining two words but analogous composites can be created in English by stringing together multiple words. This is especially important for one of Pörksen's key characteristics of plastic words: they have become part of an international vocabulary with cognate words in numerous languages.
Here are some examples of "plastic words"(German originals are listed in parentheses next to the English translations) – see if you recognize them and if you can give a precise definition of what they mean:
Even though these words are very difficult to pin down in terms of their actual meaning, they are used with a sense of authority that mandates their acceptance and necessity. They are abstract expressions that imply the need for expertise to understand and implement their connotation. Their implicit authority dissuades us from questioning the appropriateness of their usage and displaces more precise or meaningful synonyms. They have a modular lego-like nature so that they can be strung together with each other or with additional words to expand their authority; for example, "resource development", "information society", "strategic relationship" or "communication process".
How about the word "love"? Love is also very difficult to define but when we use it, we are quite aware of the fact that it carries many different nuances. We tend to ask questions such as "What kind of love? Erotic, parental, romantic, spiritual? Who is in love and is it truly love?" On the other hand, when we hear "resource development', we may just nod our heads in agreement. Of course resources need to be developed!
Pörksen published his book during the pre-internet, Cold War era and there have been new families of plastic words that could perhaps be added to the list in the 21st century. For one, there is the jargon of Silicon Valley that used by proponents of internet-centrism. Words such as digital, cyber, internet, online, data or web have entered everyday language but we rarely think about their actual meaning. The word internet, for example, technically refers to a bunch of servers and input devices and screen connected by cables and routers but it has taken on a much broader cultural and societal significance. An expression such as internet economy should elicit the important question of who is part of the "internet economy" and who is left out? The elderly and the poor have limited access to the internet in many countries of the world but we may gloss over this fact when we speak of the internet. The words innovation, integration, global and security/safety have also become key plastic words in the 21st century.
How do these plastic words become vehicles for the imposition of rigid views and tyranny? Two recent examples exemplify this danger.
The British Prime Minister Theresa May justified Britain's decision to leave the European Union after a campaign characterized by anti-immigrant prejudice and nationalism in a speech by invoking Britain's new global role:
"I want us to be a truly Global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too. A country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike."
It is difficult to argue with the positive connotation of a Global Britain. Global evokes images of the whole planet Earth, and why shouldn't Britain forge new relationships with all the people and countries on our planet? However, the nationalist and racist sentiments that prompted the vote to leave the European Union surely did not mean that Britain would welcome people from all over the globe. In fact, the plastic words global and relationships allow the British government to arbitrarily define the precise nature of these relationships, likely focused on maximizing trade and profits for British corporations while ignoring the poorer nations of our globe.
Similarly, an executive order issued by the new American president Donald Trump within a week of his inauguration banned the entry of all foreigners heralding from a selected list of Muslim-majority countries into the USA citing concerns about security, safety and welfare of the American people. As with many plastic words, achieving security, safety and welfare sound like important and laudable goals but they also allow the US government to arbitrarily define what exactly constitutes security, safety and welfare of the American people. One of the leading enforcement agencies of the totalitarian East German state was the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit - Ministry for State Security). It allowed the East German government to arrest and imprison any citizen deemed to threaten the state's security – as defined by the Stasi.
How do we respond to the expanding use of plastic words? We should be aware of the danger inherent in using these words because they allow people in power – corporations, authorities or government agencies - to define their meanings. When we hear plastic words, we need to ask about the context of how and why they are used, and replace them with more precise synonyms. Resist the tyranny of plastic words by asking critical questions.
Pörksen, U. (1988). Plastikwörter: die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur. Klett-Cotta.
Poerksen, U. (1995). Plastic words: The tyranny of a modular language. Penn State Press.
The (Slow) Art of Wine: Part 2
by Dwight Furrow
Over the past several months I've been writing about creativity in the arts, a project motivated by skepticism among philosophers that winemaking could legitimately be considered an art form. (See Part 1, and here, here, and here)
As Burham and Skilleas write on the decisions made in the vineyard and winery:
These decisions are intentions certainly and wine is also a product of human artifice. However, it is not intention in the same sense as a painter might have when he approaches a blank canvas. Vintner's decisions have only a very tenuous connection with expression in the arts which is typically expressions of aesthetic intention, feeling, and the like…Wine is not as malleable to intention as paint and the most important factor beyond the vintner's control is the weather. Try as they might few vintners can remove the sensory impact of the vintage. (The Aesthetics of Wine, p. 99-100)
Burnham and Skilleas seem to think that although winemakers have intentions they are not about aesthetics. This is a questionable assertion. There are countless decisions made by winemakers and their teams in the vineyard and winery that influence the intensity, harmony, finesse, and elegance of the final product and are intended to do so.
Burham and Skilleas go on to insist that "a vintner is simply not to be understood on the model of Kantian or Romantic aesthetics of fine art for whom originality or creativity are absolutely central features." Again, this is a questionable assertion, although it may be true of commodity wines. As James Frey, proprietor of Tristaetum Winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley and an accomplished artist as well as winemaker, told me in an interview: "Originality matters a great deal. No winemaker wants to hear that his wines taste like those of the winery down the street." Originality and creativity are central concerns of at least those winemakers for whom quality is the primary focus.
In addition to their circumscribed conception of winemaking, I think part of the problem with the analysis of Burnham and Skilleas has to do with confusion about what counts as creative intentions. When we get the right account of creative intentionality in the arts we see that winemaking and artistic production really belong in the same category.
As I argued last month, some of the best wines in the world do not involve a lot of high-tech manipulation in the winery but are largely expressions of their vineyard site. Thus part of the challenge will be to show how these wines, which require the cooperation of nature, can embody the creativity of works of art which are, after all, artifacts.
The role of inspiration in creativity has long puzzled philosophers and gave rise to the ancient idea that artists are divinely inspired, afflicted by a muse, or simply crazy. Where do their outlandish ideas come from? It is not at all obvious that the idea of intention does much work in explaining inspiration because artistic ideas often arise, not when we intend them, but when we least expect them. No doubt some works of art begin with a precise idea about what the artist is aiming at. But many do not. They begin with vague ideas which involve a lot of brainstorming or playing around in a medium until something interesting emerges. Inspired ideas often occur to us when we're not even focused on an artistic project.
A study of the creative process by neuroscientist Nancy Andreasan found common phrases used to describe the serendipity of creativity: "I can't force inspiration. Ideas just come to me when I'm not seeking them-when I'm swimming or running or standing in the shower." "It happens like magic." "I can just see things that other people can't, and I don't know why." "The muse just sits on my shoulder." "If I concentrate on finding the answer it never comes, but if I let my mind just wander, the answer pops in."
Thus it doesn't appear that creative activity at this generative stage requires specific intentions about aesthetic properties. It is the unconscious aspect of this that has fascinated writers throughout the centuries.
However, it would be a mistake to think there are no aesthetic-relevant intentions at work in these moments of inspiration. Behind the scenes there are general intentions that guide artists in their projects. There is a general conception of their project operating in the background. They intend to produce something of aesthetic interest, with some originality, and meaning. They may know the genre they wish a particular work to be placed in, have a sense of what can be done in the media in which they work, and be cognizant of their audience or patrons and what they will respond to. They may adhere to theoretical commitments or a sense of how their own body of work is evolving. Most importantly, through their training, history, and observations artists develop a cluster of norms and ways of making perceptual discriminations among works of art. In other words, they develop an aesthetic sensibility that guides their decisions about their own work. It's one thing to generate lots of ideas that are sufficiently unconventional to count as creative. But successful art is a matter of selecting which ideas are worth pursuing. These general intentions, an artist's sensibility and background, act as a filter enabling the experimentation and brainstorming to be productive and focused by tossing out what doesn't work and preserving what does.
These high-level, general intentions may be unconscious and inarticulable and do not require overt judgments about specific aesthetic properties. Nevertheless, they operate in the background regulating creativity activity. Thus, although specific aesthetic properties of a work of art may not be intended, they are a product of the more generalized intentions that arise from artists working within their art world. This, I want to suggest, is the best way to understand creative intentions that avoids attributing excessive deliberation and calculation to the creative process.
The crucial point for my purpose is that winemakers also have these background commitments that guide their winemaking. They also intend to produce something of aesthetic interest that has meaning in light of the winemaking traditions they work in. They also are cognizant of the creative possibilities within their medium and materials, the genres and styles they work in, how their work is evolving. Many, such as winemakers committed to natural wines, have theoretical commitments to which they adhere. Furthermore, since originality and distinctiveness are abiding concerns, part of this background is an implicit understanding of what counts as original within their winemaking culture. This is not to say they all succeed at making original wines. But neither do all artists succeed in their struggle for distinction.
As noted, there are countless decisions made in the vineyard and winery that are designed to realize these aesthetic intentions. But the most important background commitment that shapes the final product is an aesthetic sensibility developed through years of tasting. Winemakers taste repeatedly throughout the process of winemaking from sampling grapes in the vineyard to determining the final blend. In the end, it is what they taste that determines what they do. And because each individual tastes differently, their final product, if not distorted by the goal of homogeneity or consistency, will be different as well. The goal for many artisan winemakers is to preserve terroir, the distinctive features of grapes from a particular vineyard or region. But what that means will differ for each winemaker; each has an interpretation of what it means to preserve terroir through the idiosyncrasies of taste.
However, there is one fundamental difference between winemaking and creativity in the arts. Painting, music composition, literature, etc. usually involve persistent activity with lots of experimentation, erasure, and more experimentation as the work takes shape. Winemaking is different. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, one of the most inventive winemakers in the world, told me that artisan winemaking primarily involves a lot of "watchful waiting", waiting for the weather to give shape to the growing season, waiting for grapes to develop in the vineyard, waiting for fermentations to finish, and especially waiting for the wine to age in barrel and bottle before it's ready to release. Watchful waiting does not seem like an accurate description of painting or musical composition and performance.
Nevertheless, given the above account of creative intentions, "watchful waiting" in the vineyard and winery turns out to be the way in which winemakers realize their creative intentions.
I've been arguing that we should understand creativity in the arts in terms of the possession of general intentions that regulate decisions, even in the absence of deliberation or the carrying out of specific, consciously held intentions to realize specific aesthetic qualities. I want to suggest that the central regulative role that these general intentions play is to provide criteria for a variety of "stopping heuristics", intuitive judgments about when a process is complete and needs no further additions or modifications. At various stages in every work of art there are points at which the artist says OK—that is what I'm looking for. She may not have known what that was ahead of time; she may in fact be really surprised by the result. So we are not talking about a conscious process here. But that eureka moment when you say "aha that's it", the moment when the aesthetic intention is realized, is possible only given a sensibility that defines the parameters of what she's doing. And of course these commitments can change during the process. This is not a set of rules but a sensibility that defines a point of view that is always a moving target.
Yet that is precisely what winemakers are doing with their watchful waiting. They are, after all, watching for something and waiting for something. These are intentional activities the aim of which is to identify when the grapes or wine show the aesthetic potential intended by the winemaker given her aesthetic sensibility.
Thus, a good artist (or winemaker) is not only someone who has the gift of coming up with new combinations of ideas and the skill to manipulate the medium in which she works. It is someone who also has the ability to react sensitively to his or her results selecting those that correspond to a scheme of artistic value embedded in the aforementioned general intentions. And, of course, part of this scheme will be an understanding of what counts as a new development or a departure from the past.
No doubt, in painting or musical composition there is more active, moment-to-moment, shaping of materials when compared to winemaking. The results of brush strokes or new harmonic configurations can be assessed immediately or at least without undue delay. Not so with winemaking. It is a slow art because experiments can take years to unfold. The results of modifications in vineyard practices or winemaking techniques may not be apparent until the wine has aged for several years. Yet, surely the slow pace of experimental results does not subtract from the aesthetic quality of the intention. Neither does the fact that winemakers depend on the cooperation of their materials, as I argued last month. The fact that winemakers give direction to nature in the development of their work is no more an impediment to artistic intent than the fact that painters depend on the cooperation of light or musicians on the structure of their instruments. The medium always shapes the message.
Thus, when sipping your next glass of Pinot Noir—because if you've made it this far in this essay you probably have one in your near future--slow down and savor the moment, for it was made with more patience than even Monet or Mozart could manage.
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution
Monday, January 23, 2017
THE LIMINALITY OF LYME DISEASE
by Genese Sodikoff
One does not normally think about infection, illness, and recovery in terms of a three-staged "rite of passage" as European ethnographer Arnold van Gennep defined it, although catching a disease certainly involves a period of physical transition and disruption of our sense of self.
Of course, a "rite of passage" conventionally refers to a ceremony that marks a change in status, such as a wedding or commencement, where one social identity is shed and another assumed. Van Gennep's three stages include the separation from peers, a liminal or in-between period, and reassimilation into society with a new status. But if we loosely apply this concept to other life experiences, such as illness, we begin to see a structure to the stories that make up our lives.
Say an individual goes from healthy person, to ill patient, and finally to some resolution. At this point the individual has either returned to the prior state of healthiness, dies, remains somehow marked by the period of suffering, or persists in a state of impaired health, neither here nor there. Certain diseases seem to occupy the liminal space, casting their victims into medical limbo as neither diagnosable nor well. Chronic Lyme disease is one of those. Since the source of prolonged suffering is contested by doctors, many sufferers must seek help at the edges of the medical mainstream.
To turn back to the "rite of passage" schema for a moment, anthropologist Victor Turner was intrigued by Van Gennep's demarcation of a liminal period, the "betwixt and between" stage. In the late 1960s, Turner elaborated the concept, finding it rife with both social ambiguity and possibility. For Turner, liminality evoked an unstructured space, an opposition to the dominant structure at the edges of the cultural mainstream. It is here where people experience "communitas," a spirit of camaraderie and equality. Liminality is counter-cultural, a state of flux in which the dominant structure is recast in the image of the oppositional force until that new image becomes the structure from which to pull away.
Liminal pathology comes to mind with chronic Lyme disease and other contested medical conditions that are difficult to cure and often deemed illusory or psychosomatic. Medical anthropologist, Dr. Abigail Dumes of the University of Michigan has carried out an ethnographic project on chronic Lyme disease in the American Northeast, on its believers and naysayers and the battle over what constitutes evidence. Her forthcoming book chronicles the perspectives of doctors, scientists, and patients who have divided perspectives of the disease.
It is important to note that no one disputes the existence of Lyme disease, known to many by the bull's-eye rash that often (though not always) follows infection. Chronic Lyme disease refers to symptoms that linger, sometimes for years, after the regular course of antibiotics ends. The persistent presence of Lyme antibodies in the bloodstream can mean either past exposure or active infection. This is another source of contention between the camps: whether Lyme antibodies indicate the immune system has vanquished the disease (giving a "false positive") or is actually still at war. Dumes explains that diagnosis relies on an antibody test rather than isolating the bacteria from the body because Borrelia burgdorferi and its DNA are difficult to culture and isolate from patients' bodily fluids.
Chronic Lyme disease is not recognized by mainstream doctors, so patients' symptoms are chalked up to other possible causes. In contrast, "Lyme-literate" doctors do recognize the disease, as do its sufferers. Lyme-literate proponents recommend an intensive and extended course of antibiotics to treat symptoms, including fatigue, joint pain, vertigo, neuropathy, and cognitive impairment, while mainstream doctors consider such treatment ineffective and potentially harmful.
The occurrence of Lyme disease dates back thousands of years, and today it is the leading vector-borne disease in the United States. Small mammals, as well as deer, are reservoir hosts of the bacteria. Approximately 30,000 new cases per year are reported, but the actual number is probably closer to 300,000. Infection rates are increasing; in fact, they have doubled since the early 1990s. Lyme disease burdens the northern United States more than the South, though incidence of Lyme or Lyme-like symptoms in the South is climbing. The more moderate climate of the Northeast (less severe and later winters than in the Midwest and Canada) has been favorable to more dangerous strains of Borrelia for people. Late summer is the feeding period for larval deer ticks, and infected nymphs (juvenile ticks, the size of tiny specks) feed in spring. Scientists report that in the Northeast, persistent infections of Lyme disease, caused by the more virulent bacterial strains, are tied to the long gap between larval and nymphal tick feeding times. In contrast, the severe winters of the Midwest end up shortening the duration of tick feeding, as well as the gap between nymphal and larval feedings. As a result, fewer cases of Lyme disease in the Midwest have been reported.
However, as the climate warms, Midwest winters are becoming more like Northeast winters have long been, foreshadowing an increase in Lyme infections in the Midwest. To make matters worse, a new species of Lyme-causing bacteria, Borrelia mayonii, was recently discovered in the Midwest. Meanwhile, the warmer atmosphere has enabled ticks to move steadily northward towards Canada, bringing Lyme with them.
Another factor contributing to the rise of Lyme disease in the Northeast are housing developments in former wildlife habitats. Suburban sprawl and people's desire to live near nature have brought humans, woodland mammals, and ticks into close contact. Dumes reflects on the conflicting views of wilderness in the North American imagination: Nature is deemed both soul-soothing and dangerous. For well-to-do Northeasterners who value properties that abut woodlands, the proximity to nature enriches people's lives, even as Lyme disease has wreaked havoc on many people's health.
You have to adapt to Lyme zones. Dumes recounts the bodily practices adopted by residents who have suffered Lyme disease. Family members often do the daily routine of intimately scouring each other's bodies for ticks, including all the nooks and crannies where ticks are prone to hide. People don knee-high socks outdoors, even in the heat of summer. They slather their skin with repellent, and toss their clothes in the dryer to roast off ticks before going indoors. Some deliberately choose white-furred pets so ticks will be more visible. Each household has its Lyme-inspired rituals, but tick checks are the common denominator. These folks dread re-infection and fret over their children playing outdoors, yet they are loath to give up the beauty and restorative effects of the forest.
The disease is caused by a spiral-shaped bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, named after its scientist discoverer, Willy Burgdorfer. It is transmitted from from small mammals and birds to people via the saliva of blacklegged or deer ticks. (Adult ticks favor deer as hosts.) Lyme refers to the town in Connecticut where in the mid-1970s a cluster of patients in Lyme and nearby rural areas manifested unusual symptoms, including fever, chills, rashes, arthritic joints, severe fatigue, and headaches. The cause of these ailments was a mystery, one that compelled a pair of determined women from the patient pool to further investigate on their own, contacting scientists, self-advocating, and pushing the boundaries of medical science. I suppose their efforts turned these women into "edgemen," Victor Turner's word for the folks at the margins of the mainstream. It was not until 1981 that Burgdorfer and colleagues identified the spirochete that causes Lyme.
For over eighteen months, Dumes interviewed and observed patients, doctors (both mainstream and Lyme-literate), Lyme scientists, public health workers, politicians, and patient advocates to understand the two sides of the debate about the existence of chronic Lyme disease--that is, Borrelia-caused malaise that lingers beyond the 10 to 21 days regimen of antibiotics.
Regarding the divided camps, Dumes remains firmly nonpartisan, as it is not the job of the anthropologist to determine the truth or falsity of a disease, but to analyze how social groups construct and experience their realities, whether inside or at the margins of the medical establishment. She investigates why the dominant paradigm of "evidence-based" medicine, built on randomized control trial design, has managed to intensify the disagreement around chronic Lyme disease rather than forge consensus.
As Dumes points out, evidence-based medicine is what informs clinical guidelines, and these determine insurance coverage, treatment plans, and public health advisories. So the stakes are high for patients. Evidence-based medicine, she explains, shapes ideas about the "right ways to be sick" (the medically explainable ways), with familiar symptoms corresponding to objective "signs" in the body. It also fosters ideas about the "wrong ways" to be sick (the medically unexplainable ways) that involve a symptomatology that doesn't neatly correspond to microscopic signs and can only be described "subjectively" by the patient.
Dumes says that in mainstream medical parlance, chronic Lyme disease is a "medically unexplainable illness," as opposed to "Lyme disease," which is understood to be diagnosable. If you suffer from Lyme-related "illness," your clinically ambiguous symptoms thrust you into the liminal space of medical alternatives. In the liminal zone, you are at odds with the mainstream medical authority yet determined to collect the kind of evidence that will legitimize your condition.
The sense of community among chronic Lyme patients and Lyme-literate doctors is evident in patient support groups and shared views on the causes of chronic Lyme and its effective therapies. Through interviews with patients, Dumes learned that many attribute their condition to the profusion of toxins in the environment and in their bodies. These patients believe that highly toxic environments (both external and internal) enable pathogens such as Borrelia to thrive. For them, our modern-age bodies are seen as "toxic swamps," fertile for Lyme.
The worry over toxicity derives in part from patients' concern about their reliance on pesticides to keep ticks at bay. To detox after performing the necessary evil of spraying and applying insecticide to the skin (and patients are well aware of the contradiction), many Lyme patients eat organic and use chemical-free products as much as possible. The preference for an organic lifestyle is often accompanied by the embrace of complementary and alternative therapies. These are usually alongside a regime of antibiotics (another acknowledged contradiction).
For example, Dumes describes the Rife machine, an apparatus invented in the 1930s and tested by the medical establishment for a while. The Rife machine, no longer accepted by mainstream doctors, emits a range of electromagnetic frequencies. The theory is that bacteria and viruses can be rendered inactive if targeted with the correct frequency. Beyond Lyme, some patients, I have read elsewhere, believe that the Rife machine helps to cleanse their systems of neurotoxins, reduce co-infections, and strengthen their immune systems. Since it can run a couple thousand dollars, Dumes told me that some patients have developed a sharing economy so that more may benefit. Chronic Lyme patients may also seek out a range of other often pricey holistic health products and treatments, such as BioMats, infrared saunas, and hyperbaric oxygen chambers. To some, it's all snake oil; to others, the sources of real relief.
Looking back on the patients from Lyme, Connecticut, who in the 1970s embarked on a quest to figure out what happened to them, it is easy to imagine them in a similar situation, occupying that liminal state of neither acutely ill nor healthy. They were laid low by a disease without a name or cure, and without much will by the establishment to demystify the symptoms. After time wore on and they never fully recovered, were they considered malingerers? The evidence of a microbe, Borrelia, and its vector, the tick, transformed not only the clinical approach to a constellation of symptoms, but also the perception of the "right way to be sick." The evidence also transformed northeastern semi-rural culture, the everyday habits, thoughts, and emotions of people living at the forest edge.
"All humans are genetically 99.9 per cent identical.”
—Roger Highfield, Science Editor
Great Wall, Tremendous Wall
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall one poet said
imagining friendly neighbors working their way
along that which stood between, resetting
fallen gneiss and granite loaves and balls
that had fallen to each to keep their wall intact
while one questioned the irony of friendly walls
and the other made a prima facie case
for an inherent friendliness in their practicality.
And so we’ve had walls and walls remain
not of stone but of blood and bone,
walls built of double helixes spiraling through time,
hydrogen-mortared pairs of adenine,
guanine, cytosine, thymine,
smaller than any past poet’s wall-builder might imagine,
but centuries stronger than Hadrian’s real
or Alexander’s mythic one which imprisoned
the Gogs and Magogs of alien tribes
behind stone or iron barriers to keep the builders safe
from differences that barely exist in the protein hieroglyphics
of the nature-made chemical bonds of a double helix
making us all Gogs and Magogs of each other
as we spiral through worlds hurting and killing
to uphold our imagination’s chronic beliefs
in quixotic walls and spurious distinctions
which heap between us grudges and griefs
Will the End of Obamacare Mean the End of Cancer Care?
by Carol A. Westbrook
You can't afford to have cancer without insurance. Medical bills from cancer run from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention the unreimbursed personal costs, such as loss of income, babysitting, caregiver's costs, and transportation.
Paying for this is a complex process. About 60% of peple with cancer will be 65 or older, and thus will be insured through Medicare. A few percent more will qualify for Social Security disability insurance. Some of the rest will have health insurance. The others face loss of savings, huge loans, and even bankruptcy.
But even with insurance or Medicare, many medical costs are not reimbursed--these include deductibles, co-pays for clinic visits, medical supplies, and outpatient medication. Cancer patients face especially high unreimbursed costs because their treatment may require frequent clinic visits or expensive chemotherapy pills with exorbitant co-pays.
Cancer patients and their doctors are concerned about the uncertainty of health care costs with the threatened repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare with the new presidential administration. What will be the impact on cancer care?
In reality, the impact may be smaller than you think. Obamacare has helped with cancer care in some ways, but has made it worse in others. The most significant positive impact is guaranteeing health insurance coverage even in the face of pre-existing conditions, including cancer. Another improvement is in the ability to obtain insurance, even if you never had any in the first place. But the uninsured are still liable for the medical bills they already owe before their insurance kicks in--and they have to wait for the open enrollment period (December to January) to sign up for it through the insurance exchanges.
Where Obamacare has really failed is in cost containment. Enactment of the ACA led to rapid and often exorbitant increases in insurance premiums, or even the loss of coverage for those whose policies did not meet ACA standards. Worse yet, medical costs have continued skyrocket; there are continued increases in deductibles, co-pays, medication, medical supplies, and hospital charges. Although Obamacare does not apply to Medicare, there were collateral effects on its recipients, who faced mounting costs for their medication, for their Medicare supplemental insurance, and higher deductibles. Obamacare did nothing to stop the increase in health costs, and may have made it worse.
The other sector where Obamacare has had a negative impact is on physicians, particularly those who are in small, independent practices, unafilliated with large health-care organizations systems. These are the very doctors that serve small town, working-class or rural America. The mandate to participate in Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) or face lower Medicare payments has forced many to close their practices, or sell them to the large health care systems.
Similarly, the mandate to implement electronic records--and show "meaningful use" by their patients, was an expense many small practices could not manage. It was particularly irrelevent in communities where few people had internet access--particularly older adults, who carry a disproportionate share of the cancer burden. It was another factor driving small doctors out of business.
Marginal communities lost their only cancer provider; other patients lost family doctors that served them for years. I know from first hand experience, as I practiced medicine in small, working-class community in rural Pennsylvania. I, for one, was not surprised that so many of my patients switched their allegiance to the presidential candidate who vowed to repeal Obamacare.
These voters are now very concerned about what will happen to their medical care when Obamacare is repealed, as President Trump promised to do. Cancer patients depend on their lives for health care. What will replace it?
Perhaps we shouldn't replace Obamacare with yet another insurance plan. Why continue a dysfunctional system in which for-profit insurance companies call the shots on the practice of medicine, while patients' costs continue to increase? Is it possible to lower health care costs, improve quality, and increase access, in some entirely different way than mandatory health insurance?
What American voters liked about Obamacare, and want to keep, is that it made health insurance available to everyone, it removed pre-existing condition exclusions, and allowed young adults to remain on their parent's policies through age 26. What people hated is that everyone was forced to purchase insurance, yet it did not lower health care costs. And it drove their doctors out of business.
The reality is that is impossible to keep these insurance features people loved without paying for them. Insurance requires that everyone contribute to the pool from which these costs are paid. You cannot have a system in insurance is purchased only when needed; medical care is expensive, and the money has to come from somewhere.
But what if health care costs were much lower, representing, say 7-9% of the GNP--as it is in most first-world countries--instead of the current 20% that we pay in the US? If that were the case, health insurance would be much more affordable, and many would sign up voluntarily, especially if it were not tied directly to employment, and did not exclude pre-existing conditions. Others would pay for their own care out of pocket.
What if drug costs were as low in the US as they are in other countries? What if we had cost transparency, so you could shop openly for the best price in tests and hospitals, regardless of state boundaries? What if large "non-profit" health care systems actually had to pay taxes on their profits? These funds could be used to subsidize care for the poor, and to help pay for cancer research and clinical trials. With lower costs it may even be possible to pay outright for routine medical care--like we used to do--purchasing insurance only for coverage of catastrophic conditions, such as cancer.
Lowering our country's medical costs would take a good administrator, someone who can negotiate like a businessman with insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and large health care systems. Someone who will not be influenced by lobbyists for Big Pharma, Insurance, and Mega-hospital systems. It will be interesting to see how the new administration approaches this problem.
I am hopeful that the Obamacare repeal--as inevitable as it appears to be--will mean a new beginning for cancer care.
(Reprinted in part from Ask-An-Oncologist.com, 1/10/2017 ).
Jiang Zhi. Love Letters (12), 2014.
Archival inkjet prints.
"In 2010, Jiang Zhi’s wife, whose name meant Orchid, died suddenly at the age of 37. His photo series Love Letters (2011–2014) was his way of mourning her: “She loved flowers,” he says. Selecting one or two flower stems—first orchids and later lilies, roses, peonies—he sprayed them with alcohol, set them alight, and, with his shutter clicking at 60 frames per second, captured the blossoms haloed in pale flames. The artist, who is also a poet, likens the flames to the butterfly in a fairy tale he once wrote. The butterfly fell in love with a flower, and when the flower died it wanted to die too, to “be with its beloved forever”. In Jiang Zhi’s pictures, the flowers are wreathed in flames but miraculously untouched by them. It is as if their beauty, like love itself, is immortal."
Walking Past the White House: March comes in January
by Maniza Naqvi
A very decent, elegant, graceful and intelligent man, the kind who opens doors for his wife, and wins a Nobel prize for Peace just by being has for eight years occupied the White House, furthering and expanding the indecency of war. And Mr. Trump may slam doors on everyone and not win a prize but will do the same.
Because in this system, it doesn't matter who is elected, they become part and parcel of, let me coin a term the: war industrial complex kitkaboodles endless dreadfulness (WICKED).
Let me locate myself. If you draw a straight line from here, Karachi, to there—DC, both points are home. Most days of the year walking past it I stop and gaze at the White House—at its glory—with appreciation as well as with many grievances in my heart for the policies unleashed across the globe.
Grievances against the kind of endless war policies which have now brought us inevitably, shamefully, tragically, criminally up to year sixteen of relentless erosion of public space, privacy, discourse and the increase of war and the propaganda necessary for it—books have disappeared—we rely on google and social media for all our information.
In the vicinity of where I live in Washington DC and where I work there used to be many bookshops and now there are next to none. Yes, Politics and Prose and Kramers--- one or two keep chugging on—but more as coffee shops, bars and restaurants then bookstores. With the erosion and disappearance of books and with the rise of IPhones and social media—we are getting more and more connected with nothing—and informed about nothing. Perhaps the march across the USA on January 21, 2017 has finally woken up America, thanks to the over the top fascistic rhetoric of Donald J. Trump. Perhaps Trump has managed to build that wall—after all—but of people rising against injustice and fascism. Perhaps against war and the killing of people and genocide and not just for the sake of protection of our women's right to birth control.
On January 20, 2009 I stood freezing on the Mall with beloved friends most from the Midwest and Spain and England watching with millions as Mr. Barack Hussain Obama took the oath and became President Barack H. Obama. A dear friend turned to me flag in hand, tears flowing down his cheeks, snot accumulating, sobbing with happiness and relief—hugging me. It was this incredible moment in American's history—it was not just a personal journey for Mr. Obama but for all Americans. But for this cynical bitch—it was just a packaging change in an ongoing and still unfolding unjustifiable war in a whole huge half continent which was also beginning to pivot to Africa---and due to the accusations of racism and crusades—the country had with relief voted for the product put forward by its deep state—an absolutely beautiful couple and a man who was the product of a white and black parentage. The product of slavery—and of Kenya and of a beautiful single mother a development specialist for God's sake was becoming President. It was so lovely so beautiful. And that dear close friend turned to me—his eyes saying it all—the pain and happiness he felt and ---I detected in them an insistence that I banish my cynicisms and my heart aches of grievances and rebukes and anger and rage and accept this as the dawning of a new day---and that I stop, that I stop insisting that there wasn't hope, or change and that I agree that yes there would be change—that I stop repeating like a broken record the fearful warnings that fascism was on its way….
And here we are. This time none of us will be on the Mall on January 20th. None of us—will be treating the week before the inauguration like a new day coming—like a long Thanksgiving feast for which we were preparing. I will not go searching for the perfect ball gown---I had worn a peacock blue with shots of brown---taffeta—with matching silk beaded shoes to an official ball in 2009…..And had danced the night away at a lovely similar ball in 2012…..Same friends—same joy…..But by 2012 I had danced for the chance to simply dance and nothing more.
This time I watched the inauguration in my town from far away from home---at home in Karachi---Like geese from Siberia I too fly here every January or February in search of warmer climes. I'm doing my own marching here—trying my best to save a bookshop: The Pioneer Book House—A Law Books Shop-the oldest Book Store in Karachi. Perhaps I will not succeed---I'm rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic I feel. But I must keep trying, resist, resist, resist. I dust and wipe book after book on laws, and regulations and acts and amendments and poetry and some fiction. And even a book on General Zia-ul-Haq that awful fascist General supported fully and totally by the United States of America and Saudi Arabia in that then war that has gone on endlessly in Afghanistan since 1979. That endless war that has murdered millions and that became the epicenter of murder of so many in the world and in Afghanistan, Pakistan and in Karachi. My urge is to throw the book in the trash bag—but I resist that urge. All opinions are valid. And after all he has been the muse for most of my fiction.
Telecommuting by night, moonlighting by day. Phoning, skyping, webexing with DC by night---talking Safety Nets, Poverty, Fragility, and so on by night—and dusting off books—law books in the Pioneer Book House for Law books and hoping for more poetry and fiction by day……sweeping floors. Hoping, hoping----hoping that somehow that this will make an iota of a difference.
On the TV screen, my town and the Mall, at 2.30 a.m. in Karachi, appeared as though Spring had come to DC in January—March in January, the entire Mall from the aerial view was an ocean of pink ---as if the blossoms that appear in Spring have already arrived. Pink hats and banners. An estimated 2.2 to 2.5 million women and men marched in DC. Another five hundred thousand in New York. And five million worldwide. Finally a protest against racism and war? This is a beautiful thing. The muse for this? I guess we have Mr. Trump to thank.
Monday, January 16, 2017
A couple of hours before twilight
a gibbous moon rose in the east
over the serpentine spine of the mountain
a bright hole in a bluegrey scrim,
just there without reason,
as uncomplicated and expected
as a shard of granite on the slope of a talus,
as common as the little moons that rise
above the cuticles of each finger
of your familiar hands, as singular,
as sure as the hidden sun it mirrors,
and I wondered at what the ancients thought
as it appeared and disappeared
regular as breath, opulent as a third eye,
as crisp as the feel of a January breeze
slapping my cheek as I cross the bridge
from here to there. I’m as stupefied
as they must have been,
even though I’ve been told this bright hole
is no more than dust and rock
tethered by a wrinkle in space
which holds it in a groove of time
like a stylus spiraling in black vinyl
sending mute tunes
hushed as the sure breath
that billowed from our mouths
as we threw row cover
over the kale
Sopheap Pich. Wall Structure No. 2, 2015.
Bamboo, rattan, and wire.
Digital photograph by Sughra Raza at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Jan 15, 2017, thanks to Amna Naqvi who recommended the visit!
Monday, January 09, 2017
Why I'm Not Writing this Essay
by Akim Reinhardt
I've been writing 3QD Monday columns for over six years now. Never missed a deadline. Not a one of ‘em. Every fourth Monday: Bang! 2,000 words. More like 2,500. I enjoy it. I look forward to it.
Each December, when the city of Baltimore mails every resident a Baltimore City Department of Public Works paper calendar, I open it up, flip through the months, and write 3QD in the box of every fourth Sunday, reminders to have my essay done in time for the Monday column to be posted. Right there, beneath color photos of workers standing in sinkholes and shoveling to get at busted water mains; of latex gloved volunteers picking up garbage; of jerryrigged snow plows rambling somewhat ineffectively through snowy streets; of schoolkids ogling a big truck at the city dump. That is where I make happy little notes so I don't forget: compose another essay for 3 Quarks Daily!
And lo and behold, today is that fourth Monday. Today I'm up to bat, along with a handful of other semi-esteemed writers, like Adam Ash (not his real name), Leanne Osagawara (not her real name anymore), and that guy who uses his real name while comparing cheesy Hollywood films to real world events (love it!). And all the others who've come and gone. There used to be some woman in Canada who was a nurse, maybe? Or a dentist or something? I don't know. She wrote good stuff. But she and a lot of others have burnt out or moved on. Yet here I remain. And it's my turn again.
But I'm not doing it. I'm not writing my essay this week. I'm taking early January, 2017 off. Why, you ask? How did it come to this? Well, there's a whole bunch of reasons, really.
I'm a Lazy Bastard: My whole life I've loved nothing better than doing nothing. Sometimes I come clean and admit my lethargy, but people often refuse to believe me. "You have a Ph.D. You've published three books. You helped negotiate the Peace of Westphalia. You can't possibly be lazy." I protest. I insist that I am. I remind them that professors are notoriously lazy, barely rousing themselves to sleep with their students. But the skeptics just pshaw and insist I'm energetic.
Yeah? Well not energetic enough to write this essay.
It's been a couple of weeks now, maybe a little more. We gotta figure out if we're keeping him. I posted a couple of Lost Cat announcements on Craig's List. The only response I got was from some woman warning me about a convicted animal mutilator up in Delaware. I've asked all my friends. No takers. But if we bring him into our home, what about our nearly 17 year old cat? He can be a real prick and will never actually become friends with Coon kit. But during their interactions on the back porch thus far, the old fella's been surprisingly amenable. Meaning, he just ignores the newcomer and hisses at proposed play dates.
The new guy has shown no inclination to leave, and in an effort to make sure he had sufficient calories to survive the cold, I gave him all our tuna fish and kippers. Then I bought some actual cat food. Not a good sign. He might be ours now. But it's not official until you name him. Haven't named him yet. Toyed with some ideas. Hieronymus Bop. The Incredible Mr. Jingle Pants. Ulysses S. Cat. None of them have stuck yet.
Anyway, the point is, I can't be bothered with my 3QD essay. I have to figure out what we're doing with this goddamned cat.
Timmy McTinkles? Hair Pie? Blammo the Wonder Cat?
I'm Turning 50 this Year: It's not until much later in the year, but I'm already using as an excuse to not do things. You don't wanna fall behind on this stuff.
I Have Nothing to Say about Princess Leia: I wish I did, but nothing's coming to me. And it's pretty obvious that you can't be culturally relevant right now unless you have something to say about Carrie Fisher and/or her mother Debbie Reynolds and/or their closely edited death scenes and/or how Elizabeth Taylor stole Debbie's husband/Carrie's dad Eddie Fisher from them. And who the hell was Eddie Fisher anyway? My mother always acted like Fisher was a real celebrity, and she casually spoke about him in a way that assumed I should know who he was, but I never knew who he was. I couldn't even remember if he was Carrie Fisher's dad or Jamie Lee Curtis's dad, who was Tony Curtis.
I know, I know, the last name's should kind of be a dead giveaway on that one, but they're both just Jewish guys from the Bronx who married a series of hot Hollywood shikshas and sired daughters who went on to be famous actors themselves. Honestly it all sort of runs together for me, especially since I can't really tell Debbie Reynolds from Janet Leigh. Leigh sounds like Leia. But she's actually Jamie Lee Curtis' mom, via Tony Curtis. So maybe confusion's at the root of it, but either way, I don't have anything to say about any of this, and as the old adage goes, If you don't have something topical to say, don't say anything at all.
I'm Going to Florida: Actually, I'm already there. Flew down on Saturday. True. Sat in a tikki bar in Sarasota this weekend and watched football games. Gonna drive to the Keys on Wednesday. Might even buy some flip flops. I fuckin' hate flip flops. But I'm trying to do this right. It's all part of my annual commitment to get warm for a week every January. You see, the thing is, I'm soft. I'm weak. I hate being cold. And this means a lot to me. It means more than writing this goddamn essay, that's for sure. And anyway, I had to figure out what to do with the cat that's not my cat yet while I was gone. If it had a name, I'd probably woulda just taken him with me. Set him up on the bar. Buy him a fish taco and a daiquiri, maybe a straw hat. But we're not at that point in our relationship yet, so he stayed behind and slept in the papa san. Or maybe he slept in the impromptu Cat House we made for him. No, not that kind of Cat House. You're filthy. I can't write for people like you. Minds in the gutter.
I'm Drunk: Fuckin' A right I am.
The fuck you lookin' at?
THANKS, Obama!: As a historian, I have no assessment of Barack Obama's presidency. My lot usually waits a generation before making professional, academic analyses of people and events. We're all about the 20/20 hindsight, ya know. But as a regular ole person in this here United States country, I think Obama was pretty middle-of-the-road mediocre. He did some things really well, like work hard to compromise, maintain the dignity of the office, rise above the ever worsening partisanship, voice good values, put the nation's interests in front of his own, and keep us out of anymore stupid fucking wars. He also did some things really badly, like failing to realize that working hard to compromise and maintaining the dignity of the office weren't enough to overcome ever worsening partisanship, or that voicing good values and putting the nation's interests first weren't enough to coax many of his political opponents into putting the nation's interests in front of their own, or that threatening military action (Assad's use of chemical weapons is "a red line" that would have "enormous consequences") and then not following up might actually make things worse when someone calls your bluff.
But most of all, I think Obama was a plain old middling president. His signature achievements are middling. ObamaCare wasn't horrible like Republicans said. For starters, guess what? There aren't any fucking death panels! Federal star chambers aren't issuing death warrants for Gradma. Go figure. And some insurance company abuses were reined in. But at the same time, pushing all of the uninsured working people into the shitty private insurance system didn't actually make things a lot better. It just expanded the broken system instead of fixing it. Don't believe me? Go talk to someone who's actually gotten health insurance through ObamaCare. It's still private insurance, the prices for individuals didn't come down as much as promised/hoped, and the only thing most people on it can afford is something that amounts to catastrophic care: big co-payments and enormous deductibles mean you're still paying out of pocket for almost anything short of a genuine calamity like cancer or a major injury. And that's on top of thousands for premiums. Don't forget, ObamaCare is basically the early 21st century Republican Party's market-oriented plan for helatcare reform, not some grand Liberal experiment, much less socialism.
Oh, and the economy. Obama inherited a very broken economy. And he kinda, sorta fixed it, but too slowly and not as much as he could have. Is it better than when he found it eight years ago? You bet yer ass it is. Even a guffawing little Republican, sitting in a coat closet on the day after Christmas and quietly masturbating while reading Ayn Rand, can't deny that. But did he fix it enough? Obviously not. Or we wouldn't have an orange hot air balloon as our next president. Could he have done more? Not after the 2010 midterm elections. Once the Republicans got the House, it signaled the bitter end of Obama ever having an effective domestic agenda, even if Obama himself seems to have been the last one to recognize that. But he could've done more during those first two years when Democrats had Congress. Instead, he focused on passing mediocre healthcare reform. Which is now going to be dismantled anyway, in part because people are angry that the economy's not as good as they want it to be, so some of them voted for a balloon.
In the end, what did we get out of all this other than Obama's admirable examples of dignity and comportment? Don't say LGBT marriage. We were getting that anyway.
The truth is, I'm not really sure. Feel free to chime in.
Maybe it's because everything feels fuzzy and even numb at the moment, but if I had to guess, when the time comes I suspect they'll rank the 44th president 22nd. However, at least until he's out of office in a few weeks, Republicans continue to pretend Obama's the anti-Christ, blaming him for everything from Benghazi to getting caught masturbating in the coat closet the day after Easter while eating Cheetos and reading Milton Friedman. And I don't want to miss this opportunity.
I'm not writing this essay. And it's Barry Hussein Obama's fault. And Hillary Clinton's. It's probably her fault too.
TrumpMania!: The nation is eating itself, like a farmer's pig breaking free of its pen, running down to the swamp, turning feral, and gnawing on its own ham hock. Nothing matters.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com, where you can read more things he hasn't written.