Nostalgia for Normal

Lots of talk/pixels about ‘getting back to normal,’ the ‘new normal,’ and returning to a time when things/life were somehow better because they were usual. Primarily related to the pandemic, it’s also an opportunity to unpack a sympathetic but highly questionable sentiment. So this interesting tweet, highlighted by Bloomberg, serves as a good remedy for that nostalgia for normal:

Happy talk about way-back-when presents recklessness on many fronts – political, racial, economic – but it is also woebegone in terms of environmental devastation and the slow thoughtlessness that has brought us to exactly here. No one* wants to go back to Jim Crow and no one should want to go back to the normal, daily burning rates of our fossil-fueled civilization. As the article demonstrates, and this is a note to hit over and over again, the [high] costs of slowing down and reversing the effects of climate change are actually a bargain. Slice it however you want – we’ve already gotten far closer to the tipping point of better and cleaner far faster than imagined. Looking away and ignoring now requires more effort. That normal is depressing – and it should be. Our calculations of the impacts of the burning have become far less abstracted, to the point of easily transposing the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster onto methane well leakage and carbon emissions just by looking at the numbers.

Unfortunately, our numbness to the staggering total of COVID deaths resembles our shruggy attitude to climate-related externalities. We get used to them, consider that state ‘normal,’ and long for the days.

But we shouldn’t, and we can’t go back, the comforting but perilous blindness of ‘normal’ notwithstanding. Instead of normal, how about a different better? As our friend says, Don’t Be Afraid.

*Admittedly, sometimes my optimism overwhelms

Abundance of scarcity

That’s where we are now, or one of the places, so sayeth Matt Levine:

Basically it is easy, using blockchain technology, to create scarce claims. You could I suppose use this technology to create scarce claims to scarce resources: You could put, like, housing deeds or shares of corporate ownership or cargo-container manifests on the blockchain. This would — people have argued for years — have benefits in terms of efficiency and legibility and tradability. It would create value by improving the processes by which real-world assets are transferred and allocated. Classic financial-services stuff. Nobody talks that much about this anymore.

Instead, people like to use blockchain technology to create scarce claims to abundant, or infinite, resources. There is absolutely no shortage of JPEGs, they are infinitely reproducible more or less for free, but that means — or meant — that you couldn’t become a millionaire by having good taste in JPEGs. But now people can create a unique non-fungible token representing ownership of a JPEG and use it as a status symbol or a speculative asset. Nobody will pay you for a number in your computer’s memory, but people will pay you for a scarce number in your computer’s memory.

Stop shaking your head – it’ll hurt your neck. Or just wait.

Theoretical normal person: If you could do a thing that wasn’t just bad for but ruinous to your country’s political system – but it was very good for your profits, would you do it?
Our actual media: Do what?

Such is our national media paralyzed on the question of how to cover Biden, how to normalize authoritarian white nationalism and get Trump back. Ratings are down and they’re in a bad way, which means they’ll gladly put us [all] in a worse one to keep the eyeballs rolling in and the clicks coming.

It’s really something.

Luxury, re-imagined

At the risk of sounding like some past (and very likely coming to screen near you in the adjacent soon) Mercedes Benz and/or other brand advertisement, the luxury of being in a position to do something about climate change is also a handy rationale to not do that something. Worry over the future of polluting industries and their investors as equal to concerns about the planet implies a false choice. And we love those:

Sorry, but there is no Trump Light, or Trump without the fill-in-this-blank. It’s only a sleep walk into fascism, sorry. Listen to what they run on. Banning Beloved would only be a starting place.

Meanwhile in Scotland, some of our betters are engaged in the COP26 think-scussions:

Humm recently shifted Eleven Madison Park from an omnivore’s menu to one focused on plants, a change that took effect this summer after his restaurant reopened from the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. Hearst has focused much of her energy on reducing waste in the New York design house that bears her name, as well as at Chloe, the Paris-based luxury firm where she is creative director. In October, Chloe became a certified B Corporation, which means it meets independent standards for environmental and social performance, as well as transparency.

“It’s not only about climate change, but it’s also about what does luxury mean,” Humm says about their upcoming conversation in Glasgow. “I think we both realize that, you know, not everyone — or only a few people — have access to our restaurant or Gabriela’s clothes. But we do have these incredible resources and this incredible platform that people are actually paying attention to.”

“Some of the ideas of luxury are old ideas that have to be refreshed,” Humm continues. “For example, we are still celebrating caviar as a luxury ingredient … and there is nothing luxurious about caviar. It’s farm-raised. It’s flown in. It’s not rare at all. And it doesn’t even taste good. This is an old idea.”

A future is not THE future. Reckoning with the many complications of the actual problem of a warming planet caused by out-of-control carbon emissions will re-define luxury, and perhaps even put the concept out to pasture. We will realize that enjoying privations is not luxury but sociopathy. Basking in a scarce resource – whether it be time, security, clean water, or perceived reasonableness – has to be treated as wasteful, if not immoral. Like shrugging before you give your vote to a soft authoritarian. That’s a luxury you can’t afford.

Call Them What They Are

Pass the COVID-19 relief bill without Republicans, show and tell (over and over) the public how important the bill was, make republican candidates whine about in the mid-terms.

Merrick Garland ftw. His shameless interlocutors on the R/Q/T side are on halfway down the path to defending white supremacy, contradictory examples of the concept though they, and all defenders thereof, may be. Let them go all the way or turn back on their own.

And Neera Tanden, at least she punches up and at times sideways. Count this blog and its owner as objectively #pro-aggressivewomen:

There is no polite way to capture what Republicans in power have done and continue to do. Tanden can be fairly accused of many things, but she cannot be accused of being soft on the party that just gave us four years of Trump’s misrule, culminating in the attack on the US Capitol last month. With regard to Republicans, at least, she has consistently told the truth, and it’s very revealing that telling the truth is the one thing she’s done that’s a dealbreaker for a majority of the Senate.


Video – the early word from Hurley/Watt/Boone

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.

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.

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.

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.

Akrasia for you

The merest coincidence with the Labor Day interruption, but a turn to British politics, courtesy of the great Fintan O’Toole. He lays bare a striking (sorry – this is not the time!) aspect of Brexit and especially the loathsome Boris Johnson, as smarter than he is playing – but for the sake of, well, you will believe it:

[T]his raises the two central questions about Johnson—does he believe any of his own claims, and do his followers in turn believe him? In both cases, the answer is yes, but only in the highly qualified way that an actor inhabits his role and an audience knowingly accepts the pretense. Johnson’s appeal lies precisely in the creation of a comic persona that evades the distinction between reality and performance.

The Greek philosophers found akrasia mysterious—why would people knowingly do the wrong thing? But Johnson knows the answer: they do so, in England at least, because knowingness is essential to being included. You have to be “in on the joke”—and Johnson has shown just how far some English people will go in order not to look like they are not getting it. The anthropologist Kate Fox, in her classic study Watching the English, suggested that a crucial rule of the national discourse is what she called The Importance of Not Being Earnest: “At the most basic level, an underlying rule in all English conversation is the proscription of ‘earnestness.’” Johnson has played on this to perfection—he knows that millions of his compatriots would rather go along with his outrageous fabrications than be accused of the ultimate sin of taking things too seriously.

“Boris being Boris” (the phrase that has long been used to excuse him) is an act, a turn, a traveling show. Johnson’s father, Stanley, was fired from his job at the World Bank in 1968 when he submitted a satiric proposal for a $100 million loan to Egypt to build three new pyramids and a sphinx. But the son cultivated in England an audience more receptive to the half-comic, half-convincing notion that the EU might be just such an absurdist enterprise.

Do you know any people like this? They would rather make fun of something than think or reckon seriously with ramifications or consequences. How boring! Nihilists to the core, though I prefer the more direct soubriquet – assholes.

And yes, yes you do know some, unfortunately, probably more than a few.

Seeing Green – the ‘color-blind’ age

Films – our most powerful cultural vehicle – are, like our decisions about climate justice and immigration cruelty, only as good as the people who are making them. For a long time, the film industry hid behind a financial rationale behind the dearth of black, Latinx and Native American directors. Then it had to get even more sophisticated.

The NYT takes us back to the 1990’s, when supposedly everything was changing:

But as the decade wore on, a wall was re-erected, black filmmakers now say, and many of the same people who had been held up as the faces of a changing industry watched as their careers ground slowly to a halt.

“I was told that I was in director’s jail,” said Matty Rich, whose emotionally incendiary 1991 debut film, “Straight Out of Brooklyn,” won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival that year. Major film studios hailed him as a prodigy. But he’s made only one other film since — in 1994.

Darnell Martin, whose vibrant 1994 romantic comedy “I Like It Like That” was the first studio-produced film to be directed by an African-American woman (it won the New York Film Critics Circle award for best first feature), said she was later blacklisted in the industry for speaking out against racism and misogyny.

“You think, ‘It’s O.K. — you’re like every other filmmaker,’ but then you realize, ‘No,’” she said. “It’s like they set us up to fail — all they wanted was to be able to pat themselves on the back like they did something.”

The New York Times recently convened a discussion with six directors who were part of a wave of young black talent that surged 30 years ago this month — beginning with the success of “Do the Right Thing” in July 1989 — only to come crashing down, as Hollywood in the 1990s and 2000s reconstituted itself around films with white directors and white casts.

It may sound obvious – it is – but the way filmmakers speak with a forward voice and vision is of course connected to those individual filmmakers. Our tender baby steps on diversity are quietly arriving after a very extended epoch of everything-else-has-been-tried-to-prove-we-aren’t-racist. Some remain convinced that everything hasn’t been tried, but still… teeny, baby steps. For more on the racial politics of the movie industry,  see this interview with the author of The Hollywood Jim Crow.