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.

So that persons could thrive once more

Some time ago, as I was going through Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera, I would re-type sections into a message for a good friend, C______. Herein are some of the reasons we were so locked-in with the heart and mind of the Victorian savant:

The second major stage of his career may be said to begin in 1858, when Ruskin was visiting Turin and, having been depressed by a boring and stupid sermon, saw Veronese’s painting of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba. He was utterly overwhelmed by the sensual immediacy of the work, which seemed to him far more obviously true than the spectral doctrines of the Christianity whose hold on him had been gradually (though insensibly) loosening. He experienced what he later called his “deconversion,” and this lasted for nearly twenty years. This was the period of Ruskin as political economist—though, thanks to his incapacity to separate the forces that most of us find it convenient to separate, his thoughts about political economy were always connected to his aesthetic convictions and even (though in a new and often subterranean way) to his deep and detailed knowledge of the biblical call to justice.

The major product of this period of Ruskin’s life was the collection of monthly pamphlets known as Fors Clavigera. Ruskin thought of these pamphlets as open letters: the full title of the project was Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. After decades of work as a historian and critic of art and architecture, Ruskin had come to believe that (1) the arts of his own age were, generally speaking, far less excellent than they should be; (2) that those deficiencies were inevitable by-products of a corrupt system of political economy that promoted profit for the industrialist above all and so enforced impersonal efficiency and productivity over the flourishing of makers and craftsmen; and (3) that, therefore, a critique of political economy must be articulated before anything else. The political economy of Britain had to be altered so that the conditions of labour could be improved so that the arts could be renewed so that persons could thrive once more. Thus Ruskin’s first major exercise in this endeavour was a series of 1857 lectures published as The Political Economy of Art.

EmPHAsis added. I can love some old-fashioned-y-ness, especially retro-fit with eye shadow and boots of punk or, like here, the scholarly sense of seeing so many things as inseparable.

The Young(ish) Fogey

A few days ago, I was confronted by a real-life fogey, and while neither of us is young, neither are we truly old, and my Young(ish) Fogey is definitely not sufficient in his years or dryness of ears to espouse what he openly shared with me. Of similar views on many things, and even proximate views on the very thing, we nonetheless diverged in a way I will essay to describe.

Familiarity, and a kind of nonexistent kinship, led me to quickly, too quickly, venture where I should I not have when my Young(ish) Fogey was apprising of the latest in personal developments. We were standing in the midst of an under-lavish event, raising fundraising drinks with an expected enthusiasm, but not more. It was only when I extended too quickly, dashed into an opening that was not one – and I should have known better – that the room and our association shrunk back to its actual dimensions. I will only say, as for his occupations, he is a lobbyist. But that’s okay! We need those, I thought and still want to believe.

It was on a related subject to his issue – central in my mind but certainly not to his – that I for better and likely worse parried, drifted too quickly, giving him the obligation to correct my wanderings, follow them up with further remonstrances, all tell-tale of the Fogey, I already knew. ‘But he was so young(ish),’ I ignored my own warnings. You think you may speak freely, but you may not understand how little your interlocutor may have given themselves to do so, or how long since they had given up on doing so. A quarrel was afoot, one that I had no real use for, nor did I wish to engage for amusement – either of which would have been a better prospect.

Friendship – really acquaintance – is not openness nor grounds for sharing. People can get offended by forward comments, especially in under-lavish settings. An assumption that he might provide helpful insight turned into a realization that I was dealing with a guardian of the middle. It was genuinely startling – a young(ish) fogey in the wild, though actually it was I who had wondered absently into his habitat. I was exhilarated, but all the same terrified with indifference. Convinced that compromise, a return to some unstated agreement and mutual concession was the key to progress and problem-solving, he counseled further, extensive negotiation with the facing-eating leopard Party as the ONLY way forward. I looked around the room and all the exits were sealed. I realized even the bar staff were trapped behind scrimmed tables. The folly of continuing was real and apparent, of further incursions where I only emphasized my blasphemy, or of re-winding the preceding five minutes back to some reparable shore, was all but impossible. I could go neither forward nor back.
I explained the leopards, the half-eaten faces littering our discourse. But, he objected then summarily effused, ‘if you demonize the leopards, you are part of the problem.’

I assured him that I would continue the treachery of leopard portrayals, based solely upon the mangled faces left in their ruin. This only precipitated a kind of filibuster that drained my interest as it went, so much that I was able to finish my drink. Uninterrupted, my young(ish) fogey soon also lost the vim of his harangue. I puffed hm back up with a couple of pepper-ish comments on related leopard doings, until he finally asked me: is everyone who voted for the face-eating leopards Party evil? To complain of binaries but reduce your argument to one is almost the truest sign of the young(ish) fogey. But there is one worse, one still more true. Should they deign to make the charge of ‘revolutionary’ in your pitiful direction, it is two-part gambit. For you will be re-assured, at least in the young(ish) fogey’s mind, when he calls himself, as captain protector of his mighty, right and true intentions, a ‘radical moderate.’

All just to remind: we really should be careful about what we say to people.

What does Gilets jaunes mean?

Rumblings on the hustings, the corporate global economic order has Always been predicated on sacrificing the working class. Always:

It’s obvious now, however, that the new model not only weakened the fringes of the proletariat but society as a whole.The paradox is this is not a result of the failure of the globalised economic model but of its success. In recent decades, the French economy, like the European and US economies, has continued to create wealth. We are thus, on average, richer. The problem is at the same time unemployment, insecurity and poverty have also increased. The central question, therefore, is not whether a globalised economy is efficient, but what to do with this model when it fails to create and nurture a coherent society?

In France, as in all western countries, we have gone in a few decades from a system that economically, politically and culturally integrates the majority into an unequal society that, by creating ever more wealth, benefits only the already wealthy.

The change is not down to a conspiracy, a wish to cast aside the poor, but to a model where employment is increasingly polarised. This comes with a new social geography: employment and wealth have become more and more concentrated in the big cities. The deindustrialised regions, rural areas, small and medium-size towns are less and less dynamic. But it is in these places – in “peripheral France” (one could also talk of peripheral America or peripheral Britain) – that many working-class people live. Thus, for the first time, “workers” no longer live in areas where employment is created, giving rise to a social and cultural shock.

Switch out France périphérique for the Rust Belt. They are interchangeable, except that the former has not, as yet, voted straight fascist and retains the habit of taking to the street – as well as tearing up parts of it to throw at the police. It’s how different cultures tackle the same problem: the left-behindness, debt, low pay, high taxes, inequality, and ignorance upon which the limited successes of late capitalism depend. It’s certainly not pleasant, but people have long-understood this and attempted to warn us from the dragons – Dr. K, Joe Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty – nor it is unrelated to the bizarre vortex we’ve been documenting here for ten(!) years. And the Gilets jaunes are not solving this problem. But they are making us look, and we’re not even used to that.

Image: Author photo of a different type of inundation, near Pont Neuf, 2016

Changing the neighborhood

WITH all the courting, cajoling, promises of [decades of] tax breaks and free land and infrastructure upgrades that we see towns and localities using to persuade the tech giants to relocate in and resuscitate moribund burgs large, medium and small, it turns out we could all learn a thing or two from Berlin:

Campaigners in a bohemian district of Berlin are celebrating after the internet giant Google abandoned strongly opposed plans to open a large campus there. The US firm had planned to set up an incubator for startup companies in Kreuzberg, one of the older districts in the west of the capital.

But the company’s German spokesman Ralf Bremer announced on Wednesday that the 3,000 m2 (3,590 square-yard) space – planned to host offices, cafes and communal work areas – would instead go to two local humanitarian associations.

Bremer did not say if local resistance to the plans over the past two years had played a part in the change of heart, although he had told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper that Google does not allow protests to dictate its actions.

“The struggle pays off,” tweeted GloReiche Nachbarschaft, one of the groups opposed to the Kreuzberg campus plan and part of the “Fuck off Google” campaign.

Some campaigners objected to what they described as Google’s “evil” corporate practices, such as tax evasion and the unethical use of personal data. Some opposed the gentrification of the district, which might price many people out of the area.

As we see everywhere, gentrification is a tricky thing to fight off. It helps if you can summon the power to think well and high of yourself, to defend your neighborhoods from a position of strength. An earlier article this past May lays out it pretty clearly:

“I’m not saying [Google] don’t have to come here, but they have to realise they are part of something that is really frightening people … If such a big enterprise wants to join the most cool, the most rebellious, the most creative neighbourhood in Berlin – perhaps in Europe – then there must be a way they can contribute to saving the neighbourhood,” Schmidt says.

Bravi, Kreuzberg!

Image: Author photo, Brandenburg Tor

It’s always still the Schoolyard

Trying to prove to the bully you are not what his taunts describe, on the presumption that he will finally admit, “You know, you’re right. I’m sorry. You’re really not a _____.”
Cornered by logic, the garbage person – receiving constant affirmation from otherwise ‘neutral’ observers and aficionados alike – finally relents? He wouldn’t know how, he would lose all credibility because the bullying is his only reliable trait. The challenge to not enjoy his taunts on the playground is especially difficult for people like us. We’re as depraved and morally listless as he, he just has no qualms or shame in providing us the rage we need to sustain him. Circle, and vicious as it gets.

Because we have some better idea of ourselves – standards, values, whatever words we use to signal we know and are better. We grow taller but we don’t grow up. Hatred and contempt are strong collective experiences, especially when the bully provides the cover. It’s as though he is ‘taking the bullet’ [which he would never], getting the flack, wearing his vileness like a badge instead of us. He’s the one, and we’d never do that, be like him, though it is the tacit support that bleeds us like a mortal wound.

And what of the focus of the harassment and intimidation that is so alluring, how to fight back?

The question is, are you ready to fight back? Addressing his smears head-on creates the potential for greater vulnerability; you’ve provided credence, confirmed the weakness to which the bully re-commits himself and his acolytes to torment and its enjoyment. Standing up and pushing back is a dirty, ugly business and you will get dirtied and come out at least a little uglier but the bully knows no other language. There is dignity in ignoring the taunts, but this also requires massive courage and stamina. Something is still going to be in your way. Was it always there? Mmm. I think that’s enough for today’s session.

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

Multi-state Cabbage truck pile-up

I’ll admit this is one collision of green I had not [truly] considered, but Is the human race too dumb to survive?

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) questioned Duffy on the factors that contribute to sea-level rise, pointing out that land subsidence plays a role, as well as human activity. Brooks then said that erosion plays a significant role in sea-level rise, which is not an idea embraced by mainstream climate researchers. He said the California coastline and the White Cliffs of Dover tumble into the sea every year, and that contributes to sea-level rise. He also said that silt washing into the ocean from the world’s major rivers, including the Mississippi, the Amazon and the Nile, is contributing to sea-level rise. “Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise, because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up,” Brooks said.

Most everyone who has reckoned with the possibilities seems to understand that, whatever the fate of humans, the planet will eventually survive. So when we talk about the destruction of the planet, we’re thinking of our own, rather than that of the 3rd Rock itself. I’ve been grappling with this in a different but very related context recently – that is, how to best communicate with the public (industry, citizens, local governments) about the solutions to the challenges wrought by climate change, when the posture of state leaders more resembles that of Congressman Brooks. The stock response is: Stop talking about that! Despite the best efforts of Rembrandt, Descartes, Heisenberg, Jessie Owens and Emily Dickinson, maybe we’re just too dumb. Perhaps we can set a date at some point in the [near] future when we can begin talking about sea level rise, erratic weather, internal displacement, clean water, energy… but maybe that’s just negotiating with stupid. In which case, stupid has already prevailed and Groundhog Day is a truck that drives around town all day, picking up the same cabbages that fell from it earlier this morning.

Approaching your commute

It’s one thing to say, “It’s not a bad drive, all considering,” or to actually mean it when you boast, “It’s usually less than an hour each way,” such have we arranged our difficulties that status, relative isolation, and even our means of transport characterize self-worth as much as taste or wit. And this is self-perception, generated through the lens of the times in which we live. Over a barrel, sacrifice of one’s happiness can go all but unnoticed such that alternatives can never be considered, much less under the motivation of broader, planetary considerations. It’s just not possible for many to think about doing something different because of carbon emissions or global warming. For better or worse, it has to be personal:

The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. Nor is it merely the common herd and the unthinking crowd that bemoan what is, as men deem it, an universal ill; the same feeling has called forth complaint also from men who were famous. It was this that made the greatest of physicians exclaim that “life is short, art is long;” it was this that led Aristotle, while expostulating with Nature, to enter an indictment most unbecoming to a wise man—that, in point of age, she has shown such favour to animals that they drag out five or ten lifetimes, but that a much shorter limit is fixed for man, though he is born for so many and such great achievements. It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly.

Emphasis added to words from Seneca, from a wonderful book he wrote in A.D. 49 after being recalled from exile on Corsica. It’s full of useful reminders, if not insights, on the very personal level of you. I’m not telling you to slow down or live closer to work. We should believe that we’re not going to change our behavior on the basis of anything external, but also that doing so for ourselves can bring a multiplicity of benefits.