What I've been reading, featuring the abolition of billionaires; music's #MeToo; and "Die, My Love" by Ariana Harwicz

Richard: “You’re still basically a billionaire.”
Russ: “Not if you round down! If you round down, I have zero billion!”
Silicon Valley (2014)

  • Noticed a funny dichotomy on the frontpage of the international edition of the Feb. 8 New York Times (pdf): two above-the-fold headlines on opposite sides: “It’s high time we abolish billionaires” on the left and “Trump casts socialists as Americans’ new threat” on the right. In between is an article about a growing trend of labor protests in the country with the second-most billionaires.

    • The content of the abolition article is pretty simplistic. Its author Farhad Manjoo is a veteran tech journalist, which is appropriate enough given his proximity to Silicon Valley tycoons, but the tech-centricity of the column maybe blunts the generality of the titular argument. In order, the industries that produce the most billionaires are finance, fashion and retail, real estate, manufacturing, and then tech. The part questioning the hypocrisy of tolerating “good” billionaires such as Tom Steyer—who “ticks every liberal box”—is interesting though. Vox had a more precise article on that topic in the context of the annual Gates letter’s recent publication.

    • Nick Gillespie, editor at large for Reason magazine, responds in a blog post titled “Should Paul McCartney and Other Billionaires Be 'Abolished'?” although the URL says simply “destroy-all-billionaires”, which recalls the Silicon Valley scene embedded above.

      The ‘economic’ arguments aren’t really worth addressing (the poor have washing machines), but most of all, I’m tired of libertarians only invoking the suffering of “the wretched of the earth” and “especially in the developing world” to defend the interests of the super-rich (whose suffering is “the direct result of government action”) and considering the general improvement in living standards over time to be a convincing argument for no change. I know I already took issue with this recently, but it really does keep coming up.

    • I found Business Insider’s offering to be better delineated than the Times column and much closer to definitive. They’ve been surprisingly strong on the topic as part of their series, “Better Capitalism”.

      I think it’s interesting to think of how distinct this “millennial socialism” (The Economist’s term) seems to be from Occupy Wall Street. When I was reading Jonathan Franzen’s “Purity” last term, its repeated references to Occupy felt dated and like unfortunate relics of his beginning to write it four years before it would be published at a time when many expected it to have more staying power than it proved to have. I was living in downtown Manhattan attending a business school at the peak of the movement, but still forget it happened. Other than the language of percentiles, it seems it hasn’t had much of a legacy.

      I’m finding other explanations to be unconvincing: The Economist repeatedly frames it as generational ignorance of the Cold War, others chalk it up to the leadership of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I have some other ideas, but I wonder if the question should really be why older generations were more resistant.

    • Some of the most specific progressive policy prescriptions I’ve seen from economists at prominent American universities (Profs. Suresh Naidu, Dani Rodrik, and Gabriel Zucman). Headline: “Economics after Neoliberalism”, a set of essays published in the Boston Review introducing their project, Economists for Inclusive Prosperity, self-described as “a network of academic economists committed to an inclusive economy and society.” I can’t say I really understand what this institution is.

    • And from Nature, the super-rich and climate change:

Calculating the emissions from 0.54% of the wealthiest of the global population, according to our estimates, results in cumulative emissions equivalent to 13.6% of total lifestyle-related carbon emissions. In comparison, the world’s poorest 50% are responsible for about 10% of lifestyle consumption emissions.

“Every couple of months, something happens where, like, a dude in my periphery will make a very visible misstep, or say something inappropriate and you have to feel comfortable calling people out. Always. If someone really means a lot to you, you should be able to explain to them that they fucked up. And I’ve found that apologies are so easy, and [they're] always well received. Not enough people apologize.”

…Why is music’s #metoo moment so far behind that of fashion and film?

“A thought—it’s pretty sinister—but Harvey Weinstein, for example, he targeted women who would then become famous. But band-dude culture, a lot of the time it’s targeting a fan from, say, Wisconsin, that’s super young, someone you can sort of gaslight into believing it’s not abuse or who might be such a big fan that it’s not that hard for you to get them to shut up… that fan is so isolated.

“If 15 supermodels come out and say 'fuck that guy', people are more inclined to listen to them than if it’s a young girl from butt-fuck-nowhere, being like, ‘Hey, this one thing made me feel uncomfortable’ as the musician just moves on to play a gig in the next town.”

It has by the fall of 2018 become commonplace to describe the 499 known victims of Larry Nassar as “breaking their silence,” though in fact they were never, as a group, particularly silent. Over the course of at least 20 years of consistent abuse, women and girls reported to every proximate authority. They told their parents. They told gymnastics coaches, running coaches, softball coaches. They told Michigan State University police and Meridian Township police. They told physicians and psychologists. They told university administrators. They told, repeatedly, USA Gymnastics. They told one another. Athletes were interviewed, reports were written up, charges recommended. The story of Larry Nassar is not a story of silence. The story of Larry Nassar is that of an edifice of trust so resilient, so impermeable to common sense, that it endured for decades against the allegations of so many women.

Today’s familiar figure, enormously self-controlled, morally towering, and powerfully eloquent—the man who would ultimately drive South Africa’s peaceful transition to full democracy—was largely shaped during his decades of confinement. Those qualities were forged, deepened, or revealed during years of hard labor and deprivation of many basic human needs, such as a warm blanket and a mattress. During his first several years behind bars on Robben Island, where he would remain until he was transferred in 1982, Mandela was assigned a so-called D Grade, the lowest classification of South African prisoner, with fewer rights and more restrictions than even the most violent criminals. He and his codefendants in the trial that had resulted in his life sentence were regularly subjected to humiliating anal searches in front of other inmates.

…These were conditions that seemed designed to break ordinary men, but Mandela drew lessons from them. And even as he absorbed innumerable vicious personal blows, he somehow grew stronger.

…This is the picture that emerges with remarkable force from The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, which draws on hundreds of letters to loved ones, friends, and, in surprising numbers, to the authorities who confined him… They reveal a man who grew wiser and more resourceful behind bars, who developed a monk-like self-awareness and stoic discipline, and who became both more strategically astute and increasingly generous of spirit toward others, including, ultimately, the men who presided over the country’s morally repugnant government.

  • “Die, My Love” by Ariana Harwicz, book #5 in our college book club (h/t Charlotte)

    • Sam read half of this in its original Spanish. With hateful writing this vivid, I wonder what I missed out on, especially after reading this article on the art of translation.

    • Not a lot of action takes place in this short book (124 pages in my copy), but it still felt cinematic throughout—a lot of disorientation, mid-paragraph time skips, abrupt metamorphizing into natural imagery, implicit perspective changes, and no names. I said that if I were a theater actor, this would be great material—I found myself having fun just reading some passages out loud while reading—and Meredith mentioned Harwicz was previously a screenwriter.

    • I think we spent two hours talking about this one and it was probably the book that had the most diversity in responses. For example, I did not have the sympathetic and feminist reading of the violently misanthropic main character that others did.

    • Instead, I kept thinking of “No Children” by The Mountain Goats (embedded below) throughout, which has the most spiteful and singable lyrics over catchy and folksy acoustic strumming:

And I hope when you think of me years down the line
You can't find one good thing to say
And I'd hope that if I found the strength to walk out
You'd stay the hell out of my way

I am drowning
There is no sign of land
You are coming down with me
Hand in unlovable hand

And I hope you die
I hope we both die

  • Rep. Ilhan Omar was right, obviously

  • Watch a single cell become an organism in a six-minute time lapse (h/t Tim):

 
 

What I've been reading, featuring climate change, here and now; and identity politics, everywhere and always

A prolonged drought has killed 70 percent of the area’s livestock in the past three years, devastating the region’s pastoral economy and forcing tens of thousands of families to flee their grazing land for urban camps, according to authorities.

…In such circumstances, efforts to find solutions can feel futile but Somaliland has some ideas. The government wants to settle 2 million people on the coast—where fish stocks remain abundant—by 2030 and reduce the rural population, currently at 50 percent, by half to take the pressure off the land, Shire says. At the same time, the country will try to develop its “blue economy”—fishing, aquaculture and shipping—and begin a reforestation program, he adds.

“We are a global village now—what is affecting one country is affecting every country and, if the impact of climate change in the less developed countries is not addressed, then we will all be in a big, big mess. There will be more displacement, there will be huge migration, and there will seriously be more insecurity.”

Relevant: With the government shutdown over, NOAA and NASA finally affirm 2018 was the fourth-warmest year in recorded history: “The five warmest years in recorded history have been the last five... 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001”

Relevant: An overview of American climate policy in the last 30 years. See also this video (repost), of the last 12 years of the United States stalling on climate change. Climate change did not come up in the recent State of the Union or in the 2012 or 2016 presidential and vice-presidential debates, but looks to be a principal part of the 2020 Democratic primary. I don’t know much about the Green New Deal proposal at the moment other than that on its face, this seems to be an irresponsible way to evaluate it.

Relevant: The New Yorker on the false choice between economic growth and climate policy, quoting my Stanford supervisor and discussing our paper from last year demonstrating substantial economic benefits from climate change mitigation.

Relevant: Todd Miller (whose book “Storming the Wall” was mentioned in my last post) on the link between climate change and border militarization:

All of the assessments about climate change—whether coming from the United Nations, the private sector, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Homeland Security—are talking about accelerating migration, displacement of people, and how it will “challenge stability.” Already, 22.5 million people are already being displaced per year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, with projections ranging between 150 million and one billion by 2050. There’s a lot of talk about risk, and that slips easily into talk about “terrorism,” they talk about conflict, and so on. A significant part of today’s border militarization exists in a context where it isn’t about today or the immediate present, but rather anticipating future events that could happen. DHS and others are planning 30 years into the future—for what they believe will happen—and climate is definitely on their minds.

Trump administration prosecutors argued this week that members of the borderland faith-based organization No More Deaths broke the law by leaving jugs of water and cans of beans for migrants trekking through a remote wilderness refuge in the Sonoran Desert. The arguments came in the first of a series of high-profile federal trials in Tucson, Arizona, where humanitarian aid volunteers are facing prosecution under a litany of charges.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Wright, who is currently spearheading multiple cases against members of the humanitarian group, assured Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco that the evidence would clearly show that on the afternoon of August 13, 2017, four No More Deaths volunteers… broke the law when they drove onto the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, just outside the tiny town of Ajo, Arizona, and left humanitarian aid supplies for migrants passing through the region.

Christopher Dupont, an attorney for the defendants, argued that by devoting their time to putting out food and water in one of the world’s deadliest regions for migrants traveling on foot—where a minimum of 3,000 people have died making their way north since 2000—the No More Deaths volunteers were acting on deeply held principles to confront a “crisis of the soul” that has turned much of southern Arizona’s most remote federal lands into a “veritable cemetery.”

The most serious charges have been leveled against Scott Warren, a 36-year-old academic, whom the government charged with three felony counts of harboring and conspiracy, for providing food, water, and a place to sleep to two undocumented men over three days last January. Warren faces 20 years in prison if convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms.

The land manager of the Arizona refuge where more than 70 “sets of human remains” were found between 2015 and 2017:

“Even worse,” he said in the email. “They are now putting our [sic] protein shakes and canned foods. This is beyond saving lives, as the added food can help energize folks to hike another day or two, thus continue their journey.”

  • The Friday before her response to President Trump’s State of the Union address, Stacey Abrams published a response to Francis Fukuyama’s criticism of identity politics.

    In Fukuyama’s words:

What we call identity politics grew out of the social movements of the 1960s, around the demands of African Americans, women, gays and lesbians and other marginalized groups for recognition of their dignity and concrete remedies to social disadvantages. These demands have evolved over the years to displace socio-economic class as the traditional way that much of the left thinks about inequality. They reflect important grievances but in some cases, began to take on an exclusive character where people’s “lived experiences” determined who they were. This created obstacles to empathy and communication. — Source: WaPo

The reason I wrote this book on identity was that you've now seen the rise of a right-wing identity politics. If you want to know what that means, just look at the behavior of Donald Trump before the Nov. 6 midterm election. He was advised to campaign on his tax cuts and the fact that the economy was doing great. And instead, all we heard about was this horrible migrant caravan and taking away birthright citizenship and sending the military to the border to protect us from these terrorists trying to get into the country. I mean that's really an example of what we mean by identity politics are shifting the conversation away from economic policy to these identity issues, where essentially your identity is fixed by your birth — by the ethnicity and the religion and the characteristics of your parents. And I just think it's very hard to have a democracy under those conditions. It feeds the polarization in the country, which I think is our single biggest vulnerability right now. — Source: PRI

Abrams’ response:

The facile advice to focus solely on class ignores these complex links among American notions of race, gender, and economics. As Fukuyama himself notes, it has been difficult “to create broad coalitions to fight for redistribution,” since “members of the working class who also belong to higher-status identity groups (such as whites in the United States) tend to resist making common cause with those below them, and vice versa.” Fukuyama’s preferred strategy is also called into question by the success that the Democratic Party enjoyed in 2018 by engaging in what he derides as identity politics. Last year, I was the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee in Georgia and became the first African American woman in U.S. history to be nominated for governor by a major political party. In my bid for office, I intentionally and vigorously highlighted communities of color and other marginalized groups, not to the exclusion of others but as a recognition of their specific policy needs.

…Beyond electoral politics, Fukuyama and others argue that by calling out ethnic, cultural, gender, or sexual differences, marginalized groups harm themselves and their causes. By enumerating and celebrating distinctions, the argument goes, they give their opponents reasons for further excluding them. But minorities and the marginalized have little choice but to fight against the particular methods of discrimination employed against them. The marginalized did not create identity politics: their identities have been forced on them by dominant groups, and politics is the most effective method of revolt.

The New York Review also published a response to Fukuyama and Mark Lilla, the Columbia professor whose op-ed titled “The End of Identity Liberalism” was the New York Times’ most-read political op-ed of the election year 2016:

There are no pre-identity politics, just as there are no pre-identity economics, in a country in which political, economic, and legal rights were only ever granted to some identity groups and not to others. The only thing new about “the omnipresent rhetoric of identity” is the voices that have been added to it, reshaping it in ways that alarm and affront those who used to be its sole authors. But it was always omnipresent.

Virtually every major event in the long and troubled history of the United States was a direct consequence of identity politics. Start whenever you think America begins, and power struggles based on identity will be staring you in the face, starting with the genocide and forced resettlement of indigenous peoples by European migrants… That’s identity politics.

Black people were enslaved, white people were free: it takes a colossal set of blinders to keep from seeing that as identity politics. Political judgments and legal decisions based on identity underwrote white supremacy from the start: measuring African Americans as three-fifths of a human is identity politics, a logic that led to the one-drop rule, the Dred Scott decision, Jim Crow segregation, and the Birther movement… Electoral colleges were established in order to solve the “problem of the Negroes,” as James Madison put it, rigging the number of electors a state received in order to put a white supremacist thumb on the constitutional scale. Insofar as identity politics helped elect Donald Trump, electoral colleges seem a more proximate cause than debates over gender-neutral bathrooms.

That The Economist did not even notice that its checklist of identity politics skipped gender altogether is both ironic and typical. In 1776, Abigail Adams famously pleaded with her husband to “Remember the Ladies” in drafting the nation’s new code of laws… John Adams replied by telling her thanks, but he preferred male privilege: “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”

In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.

American access to abortion services has as expected been targeted by the Trump administration and (unlike climate change) did feature in the State of the Union address:

The ongoing assault on Americans’ constitutional right to access abortion care is nothing new, though efforts to curtail that right have taken on a different sense of urgency since President Donald Trump became president. In 2017, 19 states passed 63 legal restrictions on abortion access, the largest number of anti-abortion laws enacted since 2013, according to the Guttmacher Institute. During the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Trump promised to appoint Supreme Court judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade; a promise he has certainly kept.

Indeed, just recently, in the State of the Union address, the president regurgitated outright lies about abortions that occur later in pregnancy, evoking the image of a mother holding a newborn in an attempt to demonize not only the act of abortion but the people who have them. “There could be no greater contrast to the beautiful image of a mother holding her infant child than the chilling displays our nation saw in recent days,” he said, before intentionally misrepresenting New York state’s newly passed law that codifies Roe v. Wade and allows abortion past 24 weeks gestation in the case of severe fetal abnormality or a threat to the patient’s life, as well as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s recent comments about end-of-life infant care.

On the Run purports to provide an ethnographic “account of the prison boom and its more hidden practices of policing and surveillance as young people living in one relatively poor Black neighborhood in Philadelphia experience and understand them.”

…We identify your published, widely lauded, easily obtainable book as  dangerous, Prof. Goffman, because it divulges tactics that the subjects of your inquiry intentionally coded for surviving life under siege… And it does so in a manner that erases the pervasive structures of white supremacy and racial colonial capitalism that created the material conditions described above in the first place. You position your “findings” as “new,” largely ignoring decades-worth of Black scholarship that has taken up “fugitivity,” carceral logics, and militarized surveillance.

We wonder, who did you understand your intended audience to be, Prof. Goffman? It could not have been people from West Philadelphia. Not Mike, not Chuck, nor any of the other young men, women, and children from “6th Street” whom you wrote about but with whom you admittedly maintain minimal contact. Your book could not have aimed to benefit materially Black communities in Philadelphia, or similar ones throughout the larger country.

Did you write On the Run for people like yourself? For white researchers, scholars, and educators, to provide them a voyeuristic view into realities they never otherwise see? Did you ever consider that people such as these historically have (and continue to) ignore and perpetrate the very same violence against Black communities which you claim to bring to light?

 
 

What I've been reading, featuring our blindnesses, Tony Romo's vision, and Theranos' blind vision

We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members.

…I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.

….Talk of giving women the ballot-box? Go on. It is a normal school, and the white women of this country need it. While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.

I’m disheartened by the defensiveness of the NYT reader comments; there is value in the type of introspection these challenges evoke. This week, I was called out by a caring friend for what they considered half-hearted allyship and I tried to take it as an opportunity to step back and re-assess. I hope others have done the same when I worked up the same courage to share my pain with them. Critically revisiting our shortcomings and identifying our blind spots are the purposes of events like Black History Month (this month in the States) or LGBT month (this month here in the UK). Addressing ongoing struggles should be uncomfortable; let’s not sterilize and misremember the details for palatability and peace of mind. Sorry if this paragraph reads as trite, but I’ve been feeling this a lot lately and wouldn’t mind erring on the side of trite enunciation.

I hold with Wordsonfire from Minneapolis who wrote:

I'm struck by all the defensiveness and whataboutism in the responses to this column. Cloaking responses in "what was possible at that time," and "black men did it too only worse," suggests that it's harder to just accept history and those flawed individuals who came before us as they were.

Few are willing to say what needs to be said: "That was wrong. Let's strive to do better."

So little was required of the readers of this column and yet they were unable to demonstrate even the smallest bit of remorse or solidarity with black women.

Photo taken from  this Filipino-American morning-show panel discussion  on the legacy of American colonization

Photo taken from this Filipino-American morning-show panel discussion on the legacy of American colonization

  • America as an empire in decline. It’s only mentioned as a supporting example in the article, but the American occupation of the Philippines tends to be mischaracterized, especially by Filipinos, as one of a benevolent variety despite its brutality and hyper-racialization. Something on the order of 250,000 Filipinos died, the Philippines’ culture and institutions were Americanized, and a very prevalent internalization of American ‘superiority’ persists. Not to overdramatize, but it’s a personal source of shame to almost personify that colonial ideal with my Western name and almost entirely Western education; I become acutely aware of it every time someone mistakenly identifies me as American or only finds the American parts of me accessible.

    So to relate this back to the thrust of the article, I’d just say I find its depiction of America as a contradictory nonterritorial empire pretty convincing. Foreign Policy had a complementary reframing of the postwar world order, though I only skimmed it.

  • We need audacity, imo:

Those who want to change the world can’t shape their ideas according to the conventional wisdom about what the public will accept, whether on refugees, climate change or anything else.

Who does the most to make people richer, healthier, happier, and less likely to be killed by lightning? Is it those who accentuate the positive or those who accentuate the negative? Rosling notes that progress in human rights, women’s education, catastrophe relief, and many other matters is often largely thanks to activists who believe things are getting worse, though he speculates that they might achieve even more if they were readier to recognize improvements. Bill Gates, in his call to optimism, acknowledges that to improve the world, “you need something to be mad about.” Focusing on bad cases is indeed no mere cognitive malfunction. Voltaire would hardly have waged his campaign against clerical abuses of power if he had been struck by the fact that, statistically speaking, most priests were perfectly decent chaps.

When he coined “the new optimism,” George Patrick argued that dissatisfaction with the state of the world was not a defect. It was instead “the voice of progress proclaiming its discontent with the present and demanding improvement.” Perhaps new optimists should not forget to thank old pessimists for the fruits of their discontent.

I find these optimists usually don’t define a meaningful counterfactual and that when they are convincing, the change in perspective is usually that things were worse before not that things seem better now. In that framing, new optimism would seem an argument for complacency and usually a validation of the (neoliberal) status quo. We don’t evaluate, say, civil rights movements this way by asking oppressed people to be grateful for the gains they’ve made; we ask why they couldn’t be afforded them sooner and why injustices persist today:

 
 

Also would like to see a new-optimist response to the finding by Alesina, Stantcheva, and Teso (2017) that “pessimists [about social mobility] are far more supportive of redistributive welfare policies” because to me, new optimism comes from a place of privilege.

I also haven’t seen one meaningfully approach the topic of the coming climate refugee crisis that could imperil billions. But do let me know if you come across a new optimist from a developing country. Here’s The Nation on Steven Pinker’s perspective on climate change:

But even if we grant that in many domains human life has indeed improved enormously over the past two centuries, there remains a simple question: Can we count on the progress continuing? What, for instance, about climate change? Pinker is no climate-change denier, and admits that “the challenge is daunting.” But then he quickly pivots from his position that things are getting better and better to say that we can avoid the looming doom if only we start taxing carbon emissions, increase the use of nuclear power, and engage in deliberate climate engineering to lower global temperatures.

He largely disregards the fact that the political will to move in any of these directions is wholly lacking and will remain so as long as the party that controls the White House and Congress refuses to admit that a problem even exists. When it comes to his favored technological solution, nuclear power, Pinker also seems determined to ignore the problem that the people who manage plants do not always follow their own safety procedures and cannot plan for every possible natural disaster (as Fukushima showed all too dramatically). The industry, he insists, has learned from its mistakes.

Until they were ready to go public, Holmes ruled that Theranos was to operate in ‘stealth mode’: no published papers open to peer review, no demonstrations to anyone who hadn’t signed a non-disclosure agreement. All visitors had to be accompanied at all times, even to the loo. Holmes’s corner office – modelled on the Oval Office, and with the same arrangement of desks, sofas and armchairs – had windows made from bulletproof glass… To reporters, to investors, Holmes would say that her technological breakthroughs were a ‘trade secret’, like the recipe for Coca-Cola.

…But as for how it all worked, Holmes would only say that ‘a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.’

There is also a brutal invokation of Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” at the end. An Adam McKay adaptation of the book is already in development.

  • I was finally able to watch “If Beale Street Could Talk.” I’m still processing my thoughts, but the music:

 
  • Tony Romo’s sensational color-commentary genius. I don’t think an NBA player could replicate Romo’s intuition for basketball broadcasts—the pace of a football game lends itself to these pre-action analyses and I think it’s a skill quarterbacks need to hone more than do point guards. But even if there were, it would go against ESPN and TNT’s propensities to promote inane under-informed voices in place of intelligent analysts. I wasn’t able to find the tweet I read a while back that bemoaned the massive gulf in quality of basketball analysis between television announcers and (a select few) writers and bloggers, but it rings very true.

 

What I've been reading, featuring how we write about other cultures, how we write about racism, how we write about climate change, and how we write about the Animorphs

  • For the New York Review of Books, Alma Guillermoprieto has the review of “Roma” I’ve been waiting for.

    When I first watched “Roma”, I wrote here: “reading the responses… revealed a homogeneity in the backgrounds of the cultural intelligentsia. In the face of an obviously intimate film in a very specific setting and depicting a complex familial dynamic, they seem to use technical observations as a crutch for their unfamiliarity—I don’t think that’s good enough.” I then linked to this collection of Latino critical responses.

    But this review stands apart and is a prime example of why diversity matters. It’s not enough to make note of the hierarchy or power dynamics of the society depicted. A movie this compassionate calls for more: “Cuarón is not interested in portraying Cleo anthropologically: he wants to show us what she was to him, and to tell the story of Mexico City and what happened to Cleo the year that his own family shattered.” With the attention bestowed upon it by a Best Picture nomination, this film is too rare, important, and (above all) good to not be talked about with the specificity and insight Guillermoprieto provides.

I once interviewed a couple of dozen domestic servants about their work. It was hard to get young empleadas to talk to me, particularly if they were from the countryside… But the older women had plenty to say. A surprising number stated that they were happy with their families… But what I heard most frequently was the rage they felt at previous employers who had fired them with no warning or thought for their feelings. What about the children? they would ask. They fire us, we have to abandon them, and then you have to learn to love a new set of children, and you’re always afraid you’re going to be fired all over again and lose them. One woman cried as she explained this. “They never think about the fact that we love the children,” she said.

…That the women I interviewed could love the children they cared for—and love them, in fact, to the point of heartbreak—was to me nothing short of miraculous."

…So much happens in “Roma”. It is so bursting with life, Mexican life!… When I saw the movie in New York, the entire audience sat in silence as the credits rolled over a long, meditative shot of the staircase and the sky, until the screen blacked out over the title, and they sighed, and moved on.

Graphic from  the  Boston Review

Graphic from the Boston Review

A 1956 profile of Georgia senator Herman Talmadge called him “an advocate of ‘White Supremacy’” and noted that “he makes no bones about this.” Talmadge and his southern white colleagues did not shy away from racist language. For example, at the 1948 breakaway States’ Rights Democrats (aka Dixiecrats) convention, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond claimed, “There’s not enough troops in the army, to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” There was nothing “racially tinged” about Thurmond’s comments. He saw no need to hide his racism, and journalists, accordingly, saw no need to describe it in euphemistic terms. When Thurmond filibustered the 1957 Civil Rights Act, an article about it in the San Rafael Independent Journal was surrounded by pieces with the headlines “Racists Hit Rights Bill as ‘Vicious’” and “Racists Rally in Nashville.” These straightforward descriptions may shock modern readers accustomed to the imprecise language of “racial provocateurs” and “nakedly racial” actions.

There were four books in the box. They are very different from one another, but as a whole they represent a generational break with the climate change books before them. This is because not one of them is strictly about the topic at hand. Not one of them bothers to argue that climate change is real. Not one bothers to explain how societies can work to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Not one gets hung up on atmospheric science or computer models or the Paris Agreement. Instead, they simply take for granted that temperatures will rise and that the world as we know it will soon be fundamentally altered. The migration scholar writes about migration and the seed scientist about seeds and the ecosocialist about urban capitalism, but climate change – the biggest, most pervasive ongoing event in the world – is always present in the background. This is by necessity. Climate change is and will be everywhere. It doesn’t stand apart from our daily existence, not any more.

Two of the cities I’ve lived in the longest come up in “Extreme Cities” by Ashley Dawson:

Dawson’s book is about the way responses to climate change are being shaped by the entrenched interests of capital. He takes aim at the comfortable notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘green growth’ pushed by – among others – the former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg and his cast of visiting Dutch architects, questioning post-Hurricane Sandy projects like the Big U seawall proposed for lower Manhattan: it would attract tourists and protect Wall Street, but displace storm surge waters to surrounding, poorer neighbourhoods. ‘Under present social conditions,’ he writes, such schemes are ‘likely to be employed by elites to create architectures of apartheid and exclusionary zones of refuge’. For Dawson, New York is the ‘extreme city’ problem in microcosm.

…The $40 billion, Dutch-built Great Garuda seawall in Jakarta, soon to be the biggest in the world, will displace thousands of shack-dwellers on an existing seawall and put tens of thousands of fishermen out of work – but it will give developers a chance to profit from selling luxury homes on artificial islands. The Eko Atlantic development on a peninsula off the coast of Lagos is patrolled by heavily armed guards and surrounded by shanty towns built on stilts where the chefs and nannies live. ‘Both Eko Atlantic and the Great Garuda,’ Dawson writes, with excusably escalating rhetoric, ‘offer visions of the extreme social injustice of emerging neoliberal urban phantasmagoria in a time of climate change.’

My home country in Todd Miller’s migration-oriented “Storming the Wall”:

One important revelation in Miller’s book is that climate change science is wholly uncontroversial inside the military and security establishment, even high up in the Trump administration. It’s widely accepted that the warming world will soon see many more refugees – 50 million, 250 million, a billion, nobody can say for sure – even if climate migrants can’t formally be called refugees under present international law… He shares Dawson’s concern that we’re hurtling ever more rapidly towards a world of haves and have-nots. ‘More dangerous than climate disruption was the climate migrant. More dangerous than the drought were the people who can’t farm because of the drought. More dangerous than the hurricane were the people displaced by the storm.’

Miller tells the story of Yeb and A.G. Saño, two Filipino brothers whose hometown was largely destroyed by 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan and whose home region was arguably destroyed by the police state that rose in the typhoon’s wake. The brothers marched a thousand miles on foot across the Alps to arrive in Paris for the start of the 2015 UN Climate Summit, with Miller joining them for the last few kilometres. But the climate talks took place just weeks after Islamic State’s attack on the Bataclan concert hall, and Paris was in a state of emergency when the marchers entered the city. The brothers – foreign, brown, idealistic – put their arms around each other outside a café for a photo op, and a man came out and yelled at them, thrusting a newspaper with an image commemorating Bataclan in their faces. ‘People here in France are not concerned about climate change,’ he told them. ‘The people of France are concerned about terrorism.’ The next day, Miller walked alongside protesters demanding carbon cuts, running when they were attacked by riot police. It’s a blunt but effective metaphor. ‘As I ran,’ he writes, ‘I realised I had arrived at the true climate summit.’

  • New Yorker profile of Marlon James, whose third novel won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the first for a Jamaican writer. He describes his upcoming novel as the first part of a planned “African Game of Thrones” trilogy.

Several years ago, after a frustrating argument with a friend about the all-white cast of “The Hobbit,” James had an impulse “to reclaim all the stuff I like—court intrigue, monsters, magic,” he told me. “I wanted black pageantry. I wanted just one novel where someone like me is in it, and I don’t have to look like I just walked out of HP Lovecraft, with a bone in my hair, and my lips are bigger than my eyes, and I’m saying some shit like ‘Oonga boonga boonga.’ Or else I’m some fucker named Gagool and I’m thwarting you as you get the diamonds.”

…When it comes to feedback on his own work, James is headstrong and malleable by turns. He resents many forms of editorial imposition, nursing cherished grudges against the people who, for instance, told him that “John Crow’s Devil” was too foreign for American readers. (…I would recommend it only to people who also enjoy, say, the very early work of Cormac McCarthy.) BUt, if someone offers an astute correction, he never forgets it. For most of his career, he’s been working off a note that the Trinidadian novelist Elizabeth Nunez gave him in 2002. “She told me that I was talented, but that I didn’t know how to write women,” he said. “I didn’t know how women related to each other, how they processed the unthinkable.” He reread Iris Murdoch, Alice Walker, and Muriel Spark, and concluded that Nunez was right."

As if accepting a challenge, he set his second novel entirely in the world of the feminine unthinkable… “I really tried to get my Jane Austen on!” he said.

There’s also a great discussion in there invoking Chinua Achebe, VS Naipaul, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the topic of non-Western writers Westernizing their work out of shame. I can relate to that: when I’d write short stories as a kid growing up in Indonesia, the addresses in my stories would be named “Main Street” and would feature characters named “Mark Johnson” or similar. (You internalize these feelings when neither the works in your syllabi nor the adults with the authority to teach them are from the continent you live in.)

The series ran from 1996 to 2001 and consisted of fifty-four books plus spin-offs, all credited to “K.A. Applegate” (in reality, they were written by the husband-and-wife team Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant, with ghostwriters taking over after Book 25)

Sad to learn that all these years later. Still, I felt like the writer is overapologizing for liking these books. It was a legitimately fun series with an iconic gimmick! Plus this series and Tomorrow, When The War Began were the first Western books I’d come across that had non-white characters regarded romantically. That was a mild revelation for me at that age though it seems I’m not the only one who read a lot into those books:

Consequently, today’s Animorphs apologias share a tendency to assert that the series wasn’t really about five teenagers morphing into animals to fight aliens—that it was really about something else, though there’s no consensus on precisely what. Matt Crowley of the AV Club argues that the whole thing was a metaphor for puberty. Meghan Ball of Tor and Lindsey Weedston of The Mary Sue play up its feminist message. Tres Dean of Geek.com claims that Applegate was a “prophet” whose books anticipated 9/11 and the Iraq War. Many fans, including me, find a compelling transgender narrative in the character of Tobias, who chooses to remain in the body of a red-tailed hawk forever rather than continue living as a boy. In drafting this essay, I briefly considered making the argument that the series was really about the experience of being a child inappropriately entrusted with an adult secret.

None of these readings are wrong. But none of them feel exactly right to me, either—not as an explanation of what made the books great. I don’t think we loved them for their allegorical resonance. We loved them because they were exactly what they appeared to be: a series about five teenagers morphing into animals to fight aliens.

What I've been reading, featuring carbon dividends, Robert Caro's research process, and a breakthrough in non-line-of-sight imaging

  • Guillermo Del Toro reflects on “Roma”, his countryman and friend’s masterpiece now nominated for Best Picture:

Finally, he raised his head. “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,” he said. “From now on, you do investigative work.”

I responded with my usual savoir faire: “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.”

Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.

Caro is famous for the obsessive research underlying his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. The latter has been a four-volume project (publications in 1982, 1990, 2002, and 2012) with a fifth and concluding volume characteristically overdue. His next book, “Working”, is a memoir and is due out in a few months:

Why am I publishing these random recollections toward a memoir while I’m still working on the last volume of the Johnson biography, when I haven’t finished it, while I’m still—at the age of eighty-three—several years from finishing it? Why don’t I just include this material in the longer, full-length memoir I’m hoping to write?

The answer is, I’m afraid, quite obvious.. I am well aware that I may never get to write the memoir, although I have so many thoughts about writing, so many anecdotes about research, that I would like to preserve for anyone interested enough to read them. I decided that, just in case, I’d put some of them down on paper now.

I also recommend listening to his appearance last year on the New Yorker Radio Hour (embedded below), which he at the end calls the best interview he’s ever had. Read also this interview with the New York Review. I have not read any of his books.

  • This is California, the creepy progressive dreamland of contradictions dominated by the real-estate lobby

“I have interviewed a number of the characters Mark Lilla cites in his essay' ‘Two Roads for the New French Right’. Lilla’s account fails to confront the white supremacy at the heart of a movement he ultimately describes as a ‘coherent worldview'.’ Although he is correct that there are important evolutions underway on the French and European right, he overlooks an implacable bigotry that remains the essence of the project. Any responsible discussion of the movement’s new developments must begin and end there.”

And Lilla replies:

“Writing about the political right has never been harder. Different kinds of right-wing ideologies and political formations are proliferating and shaking liberal governments around the world… This makes it difficult to keep track of all the developments, distinguish them, and establish the connections between them. At the same time, liberal and left forces that want to resist these developments are increasingly hostile to learning anything that does not conform to their settled ideas about the right.

“…a reader of McAurley’s letter who had not seen the piece might come to a different conclusion: that it was intended to whitewash Marion [Maréchal ] (or her grandfather, or right-wing forces everywhere; it’s unclear which) and ignore the real animating forces on the right, which are ‘white supremacy,’ ‘hatred of the other,’ ‘bigotry,’ and ‘an ideology of exclusion,’ all whipped up by the phantom of immigration. In other words, never mind all the things that seem new, forget the writings about family and sexuality, forget all the talk about organic community, forget the lashing out against neoliberalism and tech giants, forget Pope Francis. It all comes down to hatred: ‘Any responsible discussion of the movement’s new developments must begin and end there.’”

  • Questions that have been weighing on my mind ever since I’ve thought about working in development:

Figure 1: “Controlled by a laptop PC, the standard digital camera obtains a snapshot of the irradiance distribution on a visible imaging wall, which is induced by the penumbra of an occluding object owing to light emanating from a scene of interest. The scene of interest is displayed on an LCD monitor for ease of performing experiments with many scenes. The snapshot is fed through a computer algorithm to recover an image of the scene of interest and an estimate of the position of the hidden occluder.”  From: “  Computational periscopy with an ordinary digital camera   ”, Nature   565 , 435-436 (2019)

Figure 1: “Controlled by a laptop PC, the standard digital camera obtains a snapshot of the irradiance distribution on a visible imaging wall, which is induced by the penumbra of an occluding object owing to light emanating from a scene of interest. The scene of interest is displayed on an LCD monitor for ease of performing experiments with many scenes. The snapshot is fed through a computer algorithm to recover an image of the scene of interest and an estimate of the position of the hidden occluder.”

From: “Computational periscopy with an ordinary digital camera”, Nature 565, 435-436 (2019)