The last and the next 20 years

Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation is perhaps the seminal text on awakening human consciousness about nonhuman animals. More of a philosophical tract, it presents an even-handed narrative of why animals’ interests should be considered that is neither ‘good’ not ‘bad’ per se. It’s big idea of ‘the greatest good’ is an effective route to ethical behavior, and it resonates with the challenge of how to get people to care about nature, which – if not cast as satire – is one of the most urgent ideas of the last and the next twenty years:

It is easy to see how bleak accounts of the state of the planet can overwhelm people and make them feel hopeless. What is the point of even trying if the world is going down the drain anyway?

To muster public and political support on a scale that matches our environmental challenges, research shows that negative messaging is not the most effective way forward. As a conservation scientist and social marketer, I believe that to make the environment a mainstream concern, conservation discussions should focus less on difficulties. Instead we should highlight the growing list of examples where conservation efforts have benefited species, ecosystems and people living alongside them.

The promise of positive messaging and marketing language to sway greater environmental sh*t-giving is cynical, but here we are. He’s not wrong, though the degree to which the vision of this kind of promotion will necessarily muster the language of commodity (great cause of said looming catastrophic scenarios) to save the Earth makes the pain in my neck throb. It could also make the messages that feel like Coca-Cola ads that much easier to dismiss from familiarity. Optimism in the face of destruction has its limits, and sometimes we need to look at things as they are and act accordingly. Like adults instead of media companies.
Still, Lost & Found is a good idea. We can do worse than trying to invigorate the public with the wonder of natural wonder, as long as they don’t begin to believe too strongly in its resilience. We can lead the water to horses, but can we make them care?

Dos Passos U.S.A.

Published in 1938 as USA, the trilogy recounts the evolution of American society during the first three decades of the 20th century. The jazz age had been engulfed by the stock market crash, the depression, and the rise of fascism. Dos Passos was still a communist, mindful of the gaps between rich and poor in America. The first volume, The 42nd Parallel employed “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye” motifs inspired by nascent efforts at mass communications that also encapsulate the inescapable isolation of the time, and that which was to come:

The young man walks fast by himself through the crowd that thins into the night streets; feet are tired from hours of walking, eyes greedy for warm curves of faces, answering flicker of eyes, the set of a head, the lift of a shoulder, the way hands spread and clench, blood tingles with wants, mind is a beehive of hopes buzzing and stinging, muscles ache for knowledge of jobs, for the roadmaster’s pick and shovel work, the fisherman’s knack with a hook, the swing of the bridgeman’s arm as he slings down the whitehot rivet, the engineer’s slow grip wise on the throttle, the dirtfarmers use of his whole body when, whoaing the mules, he yanks the plow from the furrow. The young man walks by himself searching through the crowd with greedy eyes, greedy eyes taut to hear, by himself, alone.

The streets are empty. People have packed into subways, climbed into streetcars and buses, in the stations they’ve scampered for suburban trains; they’ve filtered into lodgings and tenements, gone up in elevators into apartment-houses. In a show-window two sallow window-dressers in their shirtsleeves are bringing out a dummy girl in a red evening dress, at a corner welders in masks lean into sheets of blue fame repairing a cartrack, a few dumb drunk bums shamble along, a sad street walker fidgets under an arclight. from the river comes the deep rumbling whistle of a steamboat leaving dock. A tug hoots far away.

The young man walks by himself, fast but not fast enough, far but not far enough (faces slide out of sight, talk trails into the tattered scraps, footsteps tap fainter in alleys); he must catch the last subway, the streetcar, the bus, run up the gangplanks of all the steamboats, register at all the hotels, work in the cities, answer the wantads, learn the trades, take the jobs, live in all the boarding houses, sleep in all the beds. One bed is not enough, one job is not enough, one life is not enough. All night, head swimming with wants, he walks by himself, alone.

No job, no woman, no house, no city.

Only the ears busy to catch the speech are not alone, the ears are caught tight, linked tight by the tendrils of phrased words, the turn of a joke, the singsong fade of a story, the gruff fall of a sentence, linking tendrils of speech twine through the city blocks, spread over pavements, grow out along broad parked avenues, speed with the trucks leaving on their long night runs over roaring highways, whisper down sandy byroads past wornout farms, joining up cities and fillstations, roundhouses, steamboats, planes groping along airways, words call out on mountain pastures, drift slow down rivers widening to the sea and the hushed beaches.

Holy Chapter 11, Batman!

“That’s right, Robin.”
The Affordable Care Act has driven down personal bankruptcies by 50% since 2010:

As legislators and the executive branch renew their efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act this week, they might want to keep in mind a little-known financial consequence of the ACA: Since its adoption, far fewer Americans have taken the extreme step of filing for personal bankruptcy.

Filings have dropped about 50 percent, from 1,536,799 in 2010 to 770,846 in 2016 (see chart, below). Those years also represent the time frame when the ACA took effect. Although courts never ask people to declare why they’re filing, many bankruptcy and legal experts agree that medical bills had been a leading cause of personal bankruptcy before public healthcare coverage expanded under the ACA. Unlike other causes of debt, medical bills are often unexpected, involuntary, and large.

Emphasis added. There’s no way to be flippant about this. President Obama took a beating over this for years. Congresspeople lost their jobs, and knew they would, for voting for it. Still, they did it. This is what the whole thing is about – all the politicking, all the voting, all the clever name-calling and ratfcking. It mobilized the entire right-wing firmament because they are expressly against this. This!
This is socialism?

Perfect Cases in Point

We wish they were more rare. But just as rising wages are bad news for business(?) and solar most horribly spells doom for coal, word in the oil game is that consistent catastrophes are needed for oil to remain strong:

The weakness comes at a time when speculators have started rebuilding bullish positions after a sell-off last month, betting the market will tighten in the second quarter. Yet, Brent physical oil traders say the opposite is happening so far, according to interviews with executives at several trading houses, who asked not to be identified discussing internal views.

“We need to see the market going really into deficit for oil prices to rise,” Giovanni Staunovo, commodity analyst at UBS Group AG in Zurich, said. “If this is temporary, it could be weathered, but it needs to be monitored.”

The weakness is particularly visible in so-called time-spreads — the price difference between contracts for delivery at different periods. Reflecting a growing surplus that could force traders to seek tankers as temporary floating storage facilities, the Brent June-July spread this week fell to an unusually weak minus 55 cents per barrel, down from parity just two months earlier. The negative structure is known in the industry as contango.

There’s a new word for you. And yes, many of the other words they use are the ones you know, with commonly agreed-upon definitions. I know one needs a lot of sophisticated financial knowledge to really get the subtleties of these economics, but is the overall message really lost? Of no consequence whatsoever? Yes, we can play terrible music on beautiful instruments, just as we can vote against our interests and condemn ourselves with our own words ( though it really isn’t necessary to do all three at once). Thanks to Bloomberg for delivering the straight dope in the top story today. It’s important, you know? Just like it will be to move past the market riff, as I hope to soon.
And also, the term ‘oil futures.’ FY, irony.

Piggies, markets

A can of worms, wrapped in a puzzle, buried inside an enigma, with a little pink flag sticking up, the only thing visible, while the sound of one hand clapping faintly echoes in the background

:

By the time the subject of the movie finally comes up, we’d already spent half an hour discussing the ossification of our own culture. We talk about how New York City, the place in which Gray set his first five films, has changed so drastically since the mid 1990s; Gray says the Brooklyn of Little Odessa “is totally gone,” and that, while the 1920s tenements in The Immigrant are still there, they now tower above John Varvatos boutiques. Gray specifies that he’s less interested in romanticizing the crime-ridden city of the past than questioning what’s led to the kind of environment in which, he says, one of his friends seems to be the only person actually living in his apartment building on Central Park West, not using it as an investment.

The fundamental issue on Gray’s mind when we talk is how capitalism impacts our priorities as human beings. Saddled with student debt from the moment we set foot in a university, our ability to “study for the sake of learning” is over; instead, we’re “forced to become budding capitalists.” It’s a critique that received major airtime during Bernie Sanders’s campaign, and Gray’s clearly given it some serious thought. “We haven’t figured out a way to monetize integrity, and when you can’t monetize integrity, and you can’t incentivize integrity and incentivize individuality, and you pray at the god of the market, you get a very strange beast that almost consumes itself,” Gray says. “It’s almost like everyone is beholden to this market god, and nobody knows what to do.”

All in one place, this short article has it all. Best of luck to Gray with the The Lost City of Z.

Fifty Years In

Like smartphones teach us to be dumb – to not know things, to not be able to find our way except by using the device – we are also learning how to forget the past. Or how to remember it inaccurately, disconnected from the forks in the road where our path darkened and we lost something irretrievable, something we did not make nor deserve but that came from us and birthed us, was us, the best and the worst, that pushed us in the right direction because we were scared to go on our own until we learned we could pull ourselves there if we could just join enough hands.
April 4, 1968, the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, TN, the alternately riotous and trippy sixties, the whole twentieth century, came crashing to a sudden end.
Now, 50 years into the 21st we wonder how long it’s going to last. This should not be our mindset; it wasn’t his. Is there an ideal that’s not an ideology? Is there optimism greater than hope?
Can we contemplate the breadth of shared possibility? How much justice will the market allow? The answers are not in your phone.

Criticizing the market

In a society wherein it is the final arbiter, is the market beyond criticism?

Is the very idea that an arbitrary arbitrage of value could be subject to notions of virtue, inspected for justice, honesty, moderation, only now a naive trifle? Question its wisdom and identify yourself as an unschooled radical. We know better, so we say little. Good sense about our prospects in the market gets the better of us and we ‘trim our sails’ and ‘keep our powder dry.’ But these are boats that won’t leave the harbor, stocked with guns that won’t fire. What if we are poised upon the very footbridge that people will one day look back to and identify as the last chance? How many more opportunities can wait? Upsells, upgrades, limited offers, monopolies on that perfect, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, bucket lists… the language of premium experience and exclusivity harkens, tugging at heartstrings, it is assumed, in crass attempts to woo because of course it would. Nothing shall be off limits. But the organs blacken. We feel it but do not fight back. It’s just the market – this is what it does – equanimous and unyielding. It is the only entity that will pursue its truth, and follow the trail wherever it goes. Its judgment is neutral, unbiased, equal opportunity, nonracial and irreligious. Abiding by its decisions relieves the burden to prove anything: the market has spoken. Slowly boiling amphibians may at least have the semblance of regret.

This is the saddest article I’ve read in quite sometime, and extremely well-reported. Right-to-work. The American South is Seoul’s Mexico.

Image: Market Place II by Charles Nkomo

Secular values, temporary tattoos

Interesting op-ed on a longitudinal study on religion and family life in America, which added the non-religious to observant and produces interesting findings that also come as no surprise:

High levels of family solidarity and emotional closeness between parents and nonreligious youth, and strong ethical standards and moral values that had been clearly articulated as they were imparted to the next generation.

“Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious’ parents in our study,” Bengston told me. “The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.”

My own ongoing research among secular Americans — as well as that of a handful of other social scientists who have only recently turned their gaze on secular culture — confirms that nonreligious family life is replete with its own sustaining moral values and enriching ethical precepts. Chief among those: rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of “questioning everything” and, far above all, empathy.

Again, this is only interesting and not a great surprise, unless you were convinced that heathens are, by nature, evil (one study-aid among many provided to you by one flavor of good book or another). And speaking of which, contrast this with the good-natured white nationalism of strong christian and Iowa congressman Steve King. How (rhetorical) does an adult human living in this country in 2017 believe in some kind of civilization that relies on demographic purity? Might it be a view emanating from, if not sanctioned by, very strong beliefs in Judeo-Christian tradition? Forgive the broad brush but come on – it almost seems like too much to be able to withstand such certainty. And no, there is no convincing this person or others otherwise. But there is calling them out as pathetic and racist, and that we must resolve to do.

The Pelvis of a Bird

No need to resist this. From an interview with W.H. Auden, published in the Paris Review in the Spring of 1974:

INTERVIEWER
Did you have good teachers?
AUDEN
Except in mathematics, I had the good luck to have excellent teachers, especially in science. When I went up for my viva, Julian Huxley showed me a bone and asked me to tell him what it was. “The pelvis of a bird,” I said, which happened to be the right answer. He said: “Some people have said it was the skull of an extinct reptile.”
INTERVIEWER
Have you ever taught writing?
AUDEN
No, I never have. If I had to “teach poetry,” which, thank God, I don’t, I would concentrate on prosody, rhetoric, philology, and learning poems by heart. I may be quite wrong, but I don’t see what can be learned except purely technical things—what a sonnet is, something about prosody. If you did have a poetic academy, the subjects should be quite different—natural history, history, theology, all kinds of other things. When I’ve been at colleges, I’ve always insisted on giving ordinary academic courses—on the eighteenth century, or Romanticism. True, it’s wonderful what the colleges have done as patrons of the artists. But the artists should agree not to have anything to do with contemporary literature. If they take academic positions, they should do academic work, and the further they get away from the kind of thing that directly affects what they’re writing, the better. They should teach the eighteenth century or something that won’t interfere with their work and yet earn them a living. To teach creative writing—I think that’s dangerous. The only possibility I can conceive of is an apprentice system like those they had in the Renaissance—where a poet who was very busy got students to finish his poems for him. Then you’d really be teaching, and you’d be responsible, of course, since the results would go out under the poet’s name.

Emphasis mine. Anyone who might ask will know this is something I consider quite bothersome. In my recent interview with the great Latina novelist Judith Ortiz Cofer, I had to, because I had the chance, ask her about teaching this subject. And her answer was confident. But I think she knew what i was getting at and I didn’t ask her to agree. Even aside from the John Gardner’s take on writers using academia for a living, how it keeps them at an analytical level that doesn’t serve their own work, I consider the overwhelming overlap of MFAing, publishing, agenting, editing and writing to be a net negative. AT any rate, Auden is wonderful. Spend a month with The Dyer’s Hand. You’ll be better for it.

Tactics v. Strategy, an ongoing series

So… who ever thought The Cossacks Work for the Czar would become a literal trope? If you are keeping score at home, and really should be, the skullduggery looks like this. A campaign received election assistance from a foreign government, discussed potential policy changes as recompense for the successful assistance [ON TELEPHONE CALLS THAT WERE MONITORED], publicly complimented and assured the leader of the same foreign government, and blames enemies and the media (Venn diagram available) for existence of, as well as attempts to call out, this treason.
Not unrelated, continued efforts in the only actual work the administration is currently pursuing consists entirely of working the refs:

While the administration is battling a large swath of the media, the fight with CNN has special intrigue because its parent company has a massive piece of business awaiting government approval: a proposed $85.4 billion sale to AT&T Inc. Messrs. Kushner and Ginsberg, who have been friends for a decade and whose discussion covered a variety of issues including Israel and the economy, didn’t discuss the merger in their recent meeting, said the people familiar with the matter.

If you know where to jump in here, please do. In the trumped up [ugh] dispute with CNN, its president’s relationship to the reality show that launched this whole fiasco is only mentioned in passing. But there it is.
Image: Painting by Ilya Repin, The Zaparozhe Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan