Cutting people off from the Human connection

black and white photo of woman
Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944

For a while now, it’s been an enduring mystery how so many ostensibly intelligent people can harbor such fantastically reactionary political opinions, believe utter nonsense, vote for incompetent racists, support hatred and bigotry in all its forms. I mean to say, don’t they know any people? Don’t they have friends and encounter strangers, at least once and a while? The great Hannah Arendt explained the relationship between lonely isolation and the inability to think:

Organised loneliness, bred from ideology, leads to tyrannical thought, and destroys a person’s ability to distinguish between fact and fiction – to make judgments. In loneliness, one is unable to carry on a conversation with oneself, because one’s ability to think is compromised. Ideological thinking turns us away from the world of lived experience, starves the imagination, denies plurality, and destroys the space between men that allows them to relate to one another in meaningful ways. And once ideological thinking has taken root, experience and reality no longer bear upon thinking. Instead, experience conforms to ideology in thinking. Which is why when Arendt talks about loneliness, she is not just talking about the affective experience of loneliness: she is talking about a way of thinking. Loneliness arises when thought is divorced from reality, when the common world has been replaced by the tyranny of coercive logical demands.

We think from experience, and when we no longer have new experiences in the world to think from, we lose the standards of thought that guide us in thinking about the world. And when one submits to the self-compulsion of ideological thinking, one surrenders one’s inner freedom to think. It is this submission to the force of logical deduction that ‘prepares each individual in his lonely isolation against all others’ for tyranny. Free movement in thinking is replaced by the propulsive, singular current of ideological thought.

In one of her thinking journals, Arendt asks: ‘Gibt es ein Denken das nicht Tyrannisches ist?’ (Is there a way of thinking that is not tyrannical?) She follows the question with the statement that the point is to resist being swept up in the tide at all. What allows men to be carried away? Arendt argues that the underlying fear that attracts one to ideology is the fear of self-contradiction. This fear of self-contradiction is why thinking itself is dangerous – because thinking has the power to uproot all of our beliefs and opinions about the world. Thinking can unsettle our faith, our beliefs, our sense of self-knowledge. Thinking can strip away everything that we hold dear, rely upon, take for granted day-to-day. Thinking has the power to make us come undone.

Read the whole thing, because it is amazingly perceptive about what we’ve been experiencing for a while. And of course, she got there first. Perhaps the single greatest intellect of the 20th century.

One-Hundred-Year Storm

photo of house with flag over fence
A house damaged by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, 2005

With another hurricane approaching the Louisiana coast this weekend (Delta? does that mean they ran out names for this year? Yes, yes it does), the NYRB reviews a new book about New Orleans – Katrina: A History, 1915-2015:

“I ain’t proud to be American no more,” Dean Blanchard, a shrimp distributor, told a reporter in 2015.1 Ten years earlier, his business was nearly ruined when Katrina, one of the most ferocious hurricanes in American history, pummeled New Orleans, killing at least 1,440 people and causing $150–$200 billion in economic damage, including nearly $1.5 billion to the local seafood industry. Five years later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, spewing more than 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and its coastlands and decimating food populations. A lawsuit brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority to hold oil companies responsible for the environmental damage they had caused was opposed by the governor, then dismissed by a federal court. Blanchard became convinced that nothing—not government, not infrastructure, not the courts—was protecting him or his neighbors, that no one was fighting on their behalf.

Blanchard was not alone in this view. As Andy Horowitz, a historian at Tulane University, shows in his new book, Katrina: A History, 1915–2015, “The experience of Katrina, compounded with the oil spill, increasingly served Louisianans as a metonym for federal illegitimacy.” He argues that while President Obama described the oil spill as “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” and the media presented it as “an efficient drama” unfolding over the course of eighty-seven days, “few people on the coast experienced that tight narrative arc.”

Disaster histories are usually written for entertainment, not diagnosis. They tend to begin in a calm, tranquil moment. Suddenly, there is a disruption: water from a tsunami breaches the nuclear power plant; Patient Zero leaves the market; the levee breaks. When political leaders arrive on the scene, they attribute the damage to an “Act of God,” “Mother Nature,” an unforeseeable error. Horowitz argues that Hurricane Katrina obliterated this narrative. “The more I have thought about Katrina,” he writes, “the more uncomfortable I have become with the idea of ‘disaster’ altogether.” Disaster, Horowitz believes, is a political category—“at best an interpretive fiction, or at worst, an ideological script”—one that’s usually invoked to defend or maintain the status quo. His book asks a necessary question: What happens to the story of this one moment in time if we stretch it forward and back, looking for causes and consequences that reach beyond the storm?

It’s all one story – the land development, the discovery of oil, the expansive canal digging, the sinking, the demolished wetlands, the unprotected infrastructure at risk from large storms exacerbated the very activity of said infrastructure – that bleeds out into a completely understandable loss of civic faith. A few get rich, many suffer, told and re-told over and over again, from slave markets to oil refineries. Katrina, a long time in the making, can but remind us of other slow-motion catastrophes coming due just now.

Who’s the sucker?

Or, in the case of facebook, if you can’t tell what the product is – it’s you:

Facebook is the prime online, global incubator of racist, quasi-fascist propaganda, conspiracy theories, state-run psyops and agit-prop operations, even in at least one case actual state-backed programs of population transfer and arguable genocide. But to really understand the problem with Facebook we need to understand the structural roots of that problem, how much of it is baked into the core architecture of the site and its very business model. Indeed much of it is inherent in the core strategies of the post-2000, second wave Internet tech companies that now dominate our information space and economy.

Facebook is an ingenious engine for information and ideational manipulation. Good old fashioned advertising does that to a degree. But Facebook is much more powerful, adaptive and efficient. That’s what all the algorithms do. That’s why it makes so much money. This is the error with people who say the fact that people do bad things with Facebook is no different from people doing bad things with phones. Facebook isn’t just a ‘dumb’ communications system. It’s not really a platform in the original sense of the word. (The analogy for that is web hosting.) Facebook is designed to do specific things. It’s an engine to understand people’s minds and then manipulate their thinking. Those tools are refined for revenue making but can be used for many other purposes. That makes it ripe for misuse and bad acting.

As Josh says, fB is in the middle of another round of bad publicity and they deserve every bit of it. Obviously also another meaning of being green, but we CAN learn, get older and [a bit] wiser.

And speaking of TPM and green, find some good media you trust and pay for it. Support it. Help it exist. TPM is a good one that I’ve read for many years now. But don’t believe me, go check it out for yourself. Hit ’em up.

Image via.

Taking the Slow Boat

photo of crowds on a beach

People sunbathe at Levante Beach on July 22, 2015 in Benidorm, Spain. Photographer: David Ramos/Getty Images Europe

This being Amurrika and all, I started linking to the business press a little more regularly sometime ago, to be aware of how the world looks to those who see everything through the prism of money. Bloomberg Green has some good reporters and this digression on Mass Tourism’s Carbon Impact is valuable:

a model built by and for the masses, one that thrives on low-cost flights, all-inclusive hotel resorts, giant buffets and endless sangria. Spain, the world’s No. 2 destination with 83.7 million visitors in 2019, is a magnet for mass tourism (it’s no coincidence that package tours were invented not far from where I was standing). In total, the industry flew, accommodated, fed and entertained a good chunk of the world’s 1.5 billion tourists last year.

Globally, it was a booming sector before the pandemic, growing at about 4% every year, employing 10% of the world’s workers and representing 10% of global gross domestic product. The enormous cruise ships, fossil fuel-powered planes and the hotels in remote, water-scarce locations make it incredibly carbon intensive too. Total footprint is estimated at around 8% of overall human emissions.

The sector’s climate record before the pandemic was already discouraging. Efforts to lower the carbon footprint have mostly been limited to climate neutrality pledges and headline-grabbing small steps like eliminating mini-shampoo bottles, replacing plastic straws with paper ones and serving sustainable food on flights.

Just calculating the impact is hard. Any serious account should include carbon emitted directly from tourism activities, but also from the whole supply chain, also known as Scope 3 emissions. That would involve food, accommodation, transport, fuel and shopping.

Scope 3 emissions are an important benchmark, and we should be aware of how to think about carbon footprint. As for global travel, I have been an active participant for more than twenty years. I remember at one point looking into the cost/feasibility of traveling to Europe by ship instead of plane for a completely different set of reasons. Considering it again, it still makes sense – and is completely unaffordable vs. comparable flights. The reality of mass tourism is a conundrum – yes, people need to travel, to expand their mindfulness of and about the world. Yes, small communities without other industries need viable economic lifelines. Yes, it creates an environmental disaster in more ways than ten.

Things Fall Apart. Look at the photo up top. Look at what has become of Venice. Without factoring in the true costs of these experiences – cruise ships, quick trips, cheap tour packages – the viability of these this places and practices have already fallen into great peril. They are at risk, even as they continue unchanged. The cruise ship industry is revving their engines, despite the inherent contradictions of scale. We need to re-think broadly. Disperse the destinations. Stay longer, take longer to get there. Yes, it costs more. These experiences already costs more than we think.

Record melt of Greenland ice sheets in 2019

Alaska, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR, the Narrows from Schrader to Peters Lake.

After a two-year slowing period through 2018, Greenland’s ice sheet lost a record amount of mass last year, according to a study published on Thursday:

That loss of 532 gigatons of ice – equivalent to about 66 tons of ice for each person on Earth – was 15% more than the previous record in 2012.

Greenland’s ice melt is of particular concern, as the ancient ice sheet holds enough water to raise sea levels by at least 20 feet (6 meters) if it were to melt away entirely.

The study adds to evidence that Greenland’s icy bulk is melting more quickly than anticipated amid climate warming. Another study last week indicated the island was no longer getting enough annual snowfall to replace ice lost to melting and calving at the glaciers’ edges.

“We are likely on the path of accelerated sea level rise,” Sasgen told Reuters. “More melting of the ice sheet is not compensated by periods when we have extreme snowfall.”

The study, published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, used data collected by satellites to the gravitational force of the ice mass, which scientists can use to calculate how much snow and ice is locked within.

Other research has shown the melting is being helped by water pooling atop the ice and at meltwater streaming between the ice sheet and the bedrock beneath.

These studies are helping scientists refine their projections of how climate change will impact the Arctic, and how quickly. Sasgen compared the sobering process to getting difficult news from a doctor.

“It’s always depressing to see a new record,” Sasgen said.

But the studies offer insight into “where the problem is, and you also know to some extent what the treatment is,” Sasgen added.

Emphasis added, good grief. We know what we need to do, and if we reduce CO2 to limit global warming, then all these other concerns including sea level rise and ocean acidification can also be reduced.

But of course,

the Department of Interior approved plans to open ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for leases to drill for oil

Event though, “At current and foreseeable oil prices, the industry’s appetite to drill in ANWR will be exceptionally low and quite possibly will be zero.” So we know what we need to do. Vote – by mail, carrier pigeon, with your honey, whatever it takes.

Image: Via Getty Images.

Never having to say you’re sorry

bull's eye view photo

For Wall Street, that’s what it means apparently. Torn over whether a Biden win brings joy or misery. Really.

Those with the rosier outlook point to Biden’s mostly pro-business inner circle, his significant campaign contributions from the financial industry and his longtime support of credit card companies located in his home state of Delaware. Plus, a Biden victory would likely be driven by U.S. voters seeking change because they believe the country is a mess. Wall Street thinks it has a strong argument to make that reining in lenders would be a fatal mistake when unemployment is sky-high and the economy remains ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

The enthusiasm, however, is tempered by fears over how much sway Biden will give progressives and their firebrand leaders, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. That’s especially true when it comes to picking appointees to run the powerful agencies that police banks and securities firms, jobs that the activists are mobilizing to fill with industry critics. At a minimum, progressives want to ensure that the days are long over when Democrats appointed officials like Robert Rubin, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, who is a key Biden adviser.

The stakes for Wall Street couldn’t be higher. Centrist regulators would be less likely to overturn rule rollbacks approved under Trump that have saved financial firms tens of billions of dollars. Progressive agency heads, on the other hand, could pursue what the C-suite calls the “shame and investigation agenda.” Policies like taxes on trading, curbs on executive pay and even breaking up behemoth banks would be back on the table.

To wonder whether ‘Wall Street’ has some understanding of our current morass, much less the words ‘joy’ or ‘ misery,’ is to weep. Of course they do. Always check the business press if you’re wondering at all about the soul of a consumer society. Mantra for post-2016 world: it’s always worse than you think.

Image: Replica golden calf. Subtlety is NOT their strong point.

What does Bruised Red mean?

More ridiculous by the day, wasted time, wasted lockdown, wasted lives for reasons unexplained. People are not human resources.

Stuffed in a new thing:

He didn’t mean to use the word enemy, but now that he had, it was difficult to take back. What’s worse is that he was less confused than ever. Sides had been taken and _____ knew, like people always know, what side they are actually on. The more dangerous slide waited at the very beginning of every turn, steeper for those shod with the wrong footing or none at all, quick decisions about direction that appeared at first correctable were only so because of the misplaced training. Maybe the training had all been designed, at the turn away from classical disciplines, to produce this very result, but choosing that cynicism inferred a luxury it had also already eliminated. The speed and efficiency were proportional to the devastation. People completely bought into how fast everything was happening even though nothing outside of them had changed. Nothing beyond their own habits and consumptions against missing out, losing something nonexistent, closing an opportunity – ideas that had long been propagated on the under-educated.

Requiescat in pace, John Lewis. The great man.

Patience or patients

The good news wrapped in the bad: COVID-19 seems to mutate slowly enough that a vaccine could be available by yearend or early 2021.

Opening schools for in-person instruction, at every level, would seem best AFTER that time. Do we have the ability/courage/wisdom to wait it out? Only complete answers accepted. Show your work.

Image: Plants listening to Puccini in Barcelona, via the Guardian.

Powering Down

Necessarily ambitious climate targets to meet the Paris Agreement goals earlier must actually be designed to surpass them. As we’ve said often these efforts are results of broad collective action, by governments:

The centerpiece of Leonore Gewessler’s plan is a radical revamp of Austria’s public transportation networks, giving residents nationwide access to buses, trains and subways for a flat yearly fee that works out at 3 euros ($3.38) a day, encouraging citizens to leave their cars at home. Austria’s minister for climate, energy and transportation policy, is drafting new laws that’ll redistribute billions of euros toward more ecologically-friendly activities in the euro area’s sixth biggest economy.

“That’s the project that is very dear to my heart,” said Gewessler in her first interview in her ministry since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Road traffic remains a “key concern” for Austria to meet its goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2040—a decade earlier than the target set by the European Union.

Note when this is happening – now. Even and especially during the pandemic. The localities we’ve heard about where streets have been restricted to pedestrian-only traffic requires another couple of steps to complete the process. Paired with (cheap!) alternative transportation options, this will seem like another thing we just had to do. (Narrator: Because. It. Is.)

Image via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Continuous Profile

Take him back to Tulsa, indeed.

Raise your hand if you thought the original Juneteenth date was a coincidence. Wow. No Takers.

The absurdism of this fascist performance art expresses the thin smallness of this entire four-year escapade of MAGA authoritarianism led by a needy, under-educated man-child. We can be grateful in many ways for the incurious incompetence on continual display. People joke about slogans that sounded better in the original German, but the sheer unstudied pettiness of it makes the earlier epoch seem practically elegant by comparison:

ONE HUNDRED years ago, on the early morning of March 23, 1919, a small crowd gathered in the Piazza San Sepolcro in Milan, a few blocks west of the Duomo. Many had arrived from other cities the night before, drawn to hear a charismatic young journalist, former socialist, and recent war veteran, who—with a vigor that would mark his discourses for two decades to come—duly trumpeted the ambitions of a new political movement. As a self-declared “anti-party,” Benito Mussolini’s Fasci Italiani di combattimento (Italian Combat Fasci or, simply, Fascists)1 aimed to yoke growing social unrest to an unabashed nationalism, freshly stoked by the country’s victory in World War I alongside the Entente powers (Britain, France, and Russia). Dubbed the Sansepolcristi for their presence at this fateful first meeting, the so-called Fascists of the first hour counted among their number syndicalists and ex-soldiers, even a few women and Italian Jews, as well as artists and writers such as the painters Achille Funi and Primo Conti and the Futurist poet-impresario, F.T. Marinetti.

For the preceding ten years, Marinetti’s Futurists had upended Italian culture in every imaginable domain, from painting and poetry to clothing, music, architecture, photography, and theater. A political phenomenon as much as an aesthetic crusade, Futurism lent Fascism much of its early ideological impetus: anti-Communist and anti-clerical, interventionist and irredentist, hostile to academic pedantry and cultural patrimony alike.

Substitute ‘reality TV’ for ‘Futurists’ in the above for a more accurate, recent rendering.

Image: author photo, Rome.