World world

A theme park, opening soon along the gulf coast of Arkansas, promises visitors – and investors – more than just memories and a fun time with family.

Luring adventurers to the Land of All Time-themed playground, guests enjoy lily pad accommodations floating throughout the 38-square-mile park, on water and undulating, recycled “terrain.”

“It all started here – everything is from the closed loop, after all. So we just call it all natural,” said Stan Brimmingway, mastermind of the park and keeper of its honorary specimens. Modestly dressed in a smart Tyvex onesie, Stan pets a miniature bull before shepherding the creature back to its keeper. “Back when land was still bought and sold, people were fine with trading money for all of this,” he said and gestured broadly. “So we were glad to just get as much as we could – people thought they were losing land, but look at that view. The water is so much more alluring when its closer to the mountains anyway.”

And it’s unmistakable. A kind of Mediterranean vista, nestled in the Ozark foothills. Whether technology saved this landscape or invented it, it has definitely changed. “And that’s not new – and kinda the point,” Brimmingway said with a glint of enthusiasm not entirely absent of P.T. Barnum. “What is fitness after all other than the result of the effort it takes you to do normal things – otherwise it can be really hard to see this.”

Impossible, he means. Living in a moment most often means being defined by it. Unless you can imagine the Land of All Time, seeing today in context can be simply too much work. But that’s where the park comes in.

“It’s true that we brought ourselves to this place – totally our fault,” he said. “But imagine a glacier sitting on New York, or the invention of writing 3,500 years ago.” His voice trails off, galloping after his ow, quite visible sense of wonder.

“The thing about this is, it’s not only possible. It all happened. Check it out.”

Happy American Day

April 9th is the day Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Commanding General of the US Army, received the surrender of Robert E. Lee, a renegade US Army Colonel who was a leader of a violent rebellion against the United States which killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Grant offered generous terms to Lee and the other traitors making up his army. Six days later President Lincoln was assassinated in Washington, DC.

The reality of the past is unchanging, as immutable as time proceeds only in one direction. But our perceptions of it, our understanding of its meaning and the stories we tell about it are perpetually in flux. Humans are story-telling creatures. Many of the great artifacts of human intellection are analytic, mathematic, visual. But at the deepest and most penetrating level we understand the world through stories, narratives. The production of these narratives become histories in themselves.

Nowhere is this more viscerally apparent than in the century of valorization of the traitors who led the pretended state called the Confederate States of America. This even goes down to the deep valorization of Southern military culture and the Confederacy’s top generals. This goes for Lee himself, a very skilled tactician but a highly conventional commander. This applies equally to the denigration of the commanders and common soldiers of the North whose reputations were downgraded as an offering to the wounded pride of the South.

Measured words from Marshall, but a great appreciation of the rehabilitation of Grant’s reputation at the link. For some reason(!), we really don’t commemorate this day, I guess some still don’t want to talk about, much less admit the truth about the outcome. But it is not in doubt, and would do everyone a world of good to get better acquainted with the endemic sore-loserdom that followed this day and cuts a raggedy jib even unto today.

Also highly recommended if you’ve never read it, The March, by E.L. Doctorow.

Image: Stacked weapons at Appomattox, 1865.

THE QUESTION

With apologies to Henri Alleg*, do self-identifying Republicans (elected and otherwise) embrace “American fascism” based on white supremacy, irrationality, ignorance, xenophobia, antisemitism, violence, and anger and dehumanization?

Those who haven’t, need to decide. It’s a pretty easy question, and for all those who have answered in the affirmative, they should be treated as such.

Recommended reading. Sartre’s introduction is important, the book itself, harrowing.

And… scene

With the Washington Monument in the background, President-elect Joe Biden with his wife Jill Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris with her husband Doug Emhoff during a COVID-19 memorial, Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Today, who we are gives way to who we would like to be. That violent scene on Jan.6, that’s us in every way – armed, ignorant and preferring to follow rather than think. There’s no back in the bottle for the white supremacist urge. It must be watched, left out in the sun, allowed to finally wither and die.

The new administration gives voice and presence to wisdom, empathy, courage and humility. We pitched in to make it happen, and we’ll have to continue to do a little bit of that everyday even though we aren’t obliged by new atrocities to pay attention every second. Get used to that, remember it’s a luxury, and use the time better than we quite know how, better than we have. The constitution is not magic, and the bald eagle has no special powers. Those are yours.

Get back in the game. Push back. Don’t put up with nonsense, and reserve the benefit of the doubt for only when it’s absolutely warranted. Make, share, give, help, and mask up until we can plant big kisses everywhere.

Squamish Nation not squeamish on blending indigeneity and urban design

Clunky title, but this story on the re-development of one of Canada’s smallest First Nations reserves mixes boldness with vision for Vancouver that is easy to romanticize but more nearly resembles a living model for cities going forward.

Few First Nations reserves in Canada are found so centrally in urban areas, and this unique location has given the Squamish Nation a chance to explode local city-building norms. Construction begins in 2021, and at more than 500 units per acre, Senakw’s density will reach Hong Kong levels – a fact that is only allowed because Senakw exists not on city land, but on reserve land, which is technically federal.

Another striking feature is that only 10% of apartments will include parking, unlike the city’s rules that mandate one parking space per unit. The buildings will also forgo the podium-and-tower design that’s become a hallmark of “Vancouverism” in favour of slender high-rises maximising public space. The buildings could be up to 56 storeys tall, towering above the low-rise neighbourhoods nearby.

But beyond even the serious density considerations, there is the language slight of hand that gets at something far more pernicious:

“In the early history of Vancouver, and colonial cities generally, there is this opposition assumed between the civilization cities are imagined to represent, and the imagined savageness of Indigenous people,” [Stanger-Ross] says. 

The ways that the terms ‘urban areas’, ‘cities’, and even abstractions like ‘density’ have been co-opted as code words for racist politicking is maybe coming full-circle. Hopeful, I know. But good work, First Nations folk. Right racists depend on decent people being too nice, too squeamish, plus the ever-present lack of temerity to call out, punch back, or in this case, build up. Re-take the words, then re-make the savage cities with civilizing force of architecture.

Literally Rome

To Repeat:

In actuality, the acquisition of the right to vote by those outside the city had little meaning to all but the wealthy. Membership in the Roman assemblies was not done by election – it was a direct democracy. Voting was done by tribes, and all citizens were assigned to a particular tribe (often based on wealth) where each tribe voted as one. However, to vote a person had to appear in person which was something only the wealthy could afford to do. But citizenship was not eternal. If necessary, an individual’s citizenship could be revoked; this latter condition was mostly reserved for criminals.

Every five years a citizen had to register himself at the Villa Publica for the census, declaring the name of his wife, the number of children, and all of his property and possessions (even his wife’s clothes and jewels were declared). Every Roman citizen believed the government had a right to know this information. All of this data was reviewed and evaluated by the city’s magistrates (censors) who could “promote or demote each citizen according to his worth.” Tom Holland wrote on the value of the census, “Classes, centuries, and tribes, everything that enabled a citizen to be placed by his fellows, were all defined by the census.”

Juxtaposed to discussions at the Supreme Court today:

Multiple times during Tuesday’s hearing on the Trump administration’s move to add a citizenship question to the census, Gorsuch returned to vague allusions to an unsuccessful 2016 Supreme Court case that dealt with that possibility.

Gorsuch’s lines of inquiry didn’t get too much traction at Tuesday’s arguments, which mostly focused on the technical considerations of Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to include the question. But, in a way, they were appropriate, given that overhauling how legislative districts are drawn — a massive voting rights change that would diminish the political power of urban and diverse communities — appears to be the endgame of the current push to add the question.

A Noteful Hope

At the outset of the newest year, with walls incoherently at the center of our discourse as we contemplate how best to keep people out rather how best to help them up, a bit of perspective provides a reminder that we might be mixed up about parts of the story:

For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

It’s from earlier this year in 2018, but read the whole, etc. There is no ‘them’ but there are assumptions and many of ours may be wrong or at least worth re-considering.

Banksy image from the original.

Reading 2018

I’d love to tell you want it all meant, but instead I’ll just share a partial [but unranked] list of the books I read this year.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Primeros Pobladores; Hispanic Americans of the Ute Frontier, by Frances Leon Quintana

God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee talks about life on Sapelo Island, Georgia by Cornelia Walker Bailey and Christena Beldsoe

Les Passions Intellectuelles by Elisabeth Badinter

Do well and be well in 2019.

A.I., A.I., captain!

Joseph Stiglitz, he of former World Bankiness, haver of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics who warned that globalization was taking place at the behest international conglomerates rather than “forces,” now comes to light his hair on fire present similar cautions about Artificial Intelligence:

“Artificial intelligence and robotisation have the potential to increase the productivity of the economy and, in principle, that could make everybody better off,” he says. “But only if they are well managed.”

Beyond the impact of AI on work, Stiglitz sees more insidious forces at play. Armed with AI, tech firms can extract meaning from the data we hand over when we search, buy and message our friends. It is used ostensibly to deliver a more personalised service. That is one perspective. Another is that our data is used against us.

“These new tech giants are raising very deep issues about privacy and the ability to exploit ordinary people that were never present in earlier eras of monopoly power,” says Stiglitz. “Beforehand, you could raise the price. Now you can target particular individuals by exploiting their information.”

It is the potential for datasets to be combined that most worries Stiglitz. For example, retailers can now track customers via their smartphones as they move around stores and can gather data on what catches their eye and which displays they walk straight past.

The data farming of which we are all willing seeds know no boundaries, recognizes no politics and sees only profits. Shaded with the camouflage of complexity, it is a winning hand. Are we up for the ‘boring overwhelming’ of taking on the Tech giants? Wait, let me come in again…

Image: Warehouse operated by Amazon, via The Guardian