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 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)

What I've been reading, featuring my vote in the 2016 election and the mediocrity of “Vice”

“By now it should be obvious that Facebook’s so-called pro-democracy rhetoric has been fundamentally damaging to real democracies and to democratic movements around the world. It has also directly benefited authoritarian regimes, which have relied on the platform to spread untruths in order to control and manipulate their citizens. In the Philippines, as content moderators busily remove posts and pictures according to a bespoke metric developed by “mostly twenty-something-year-olds” in Menlo Park, California, the president, Rodrigo Duterte, is busy on Facebook too, using paid followers to spread falsehoods about his critics and his policies. The journalist Maria Ressa, whose news organization, Rappler, has been keeping a database of the more than twelve million Facebook accounts that have attacked critics of Duterte and have been traced back to the president, has been a target of those accounts as well, at one point getting as manmy as ninety hate messages an hour via Facebook—messages like ‘I want Maria Ressa to be raped repeatedly to death.’

“…in countries like the Philippines and Myanmar, where the vast majority of people access the Internet through Facebook, not using the platform is likely not an option. Indeed, establishing an equivalence between Facebook and the Internet is one of the payoffs of Free Basics, an app Facebook created that provides purposefully limited Internet access—there is no stand-alone e-mail server and Facebook is the only social media platform—to people in developing countries who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to go online.”

There was a special futility in my mailing my overseas ballot against Duterte in 2016 when I lived three minutes from Facebook’s East Palo Alto–gentrifying campus. Like even though I could well have been the only voter in the Philippine elections living in this historically disenfranchised American city still suffering from its legacy of redlining, racial segregation, crime, violence, and public neglect, the net contribution of my small neighborhood to my home country 7000 miles away was nothing less than the corrosion of its democracy.

“Hatred might not come into it for Finnis, but there is little doubt that hating, disliking, maligning gay people – and creating the conditions under which gay people come to loathe themselves – follow from his proposals…

“When I read my straight colleagues telling everyone else to give Finnis the ‘respect’ of engaging with his opinions, to ‘make arguments’ in response, I wonder how many times they have had to ‘make the argument’ for their happiness, for their home and their partner, for the life they’ve built with the people they love. At times, I’m not even sure what I am meant to be making the argument for. It does not matter if my gayness was innate or chosen, it is so deeply a part of me, such a root cause of any fulfilment that I feel and any good that I do, that it becomes clear that what really follows from Finnis’s view is that I should stop existing as me. I should retreat into some other Sophie, who lives without the woman who makes her a better teacher, listener, thinker. Finnis thinks my good would be actualised in an unhappy marriage with a man. But almost everything I know about the virtues, I learned from my experiences as a gay woman: courage, constancy, generosity, love. I can engage, certainly, I can make arguments in response, but there is also a sense, at a deeper level, in which there is nothing I can say.”

  • I didn’t really like “Vice” (2018), the Adam McKay film about Dick Cheney

    • As with McKay’s previous film “The Big Short”, which I enjoyed, the movie is defined by its narration, dark comedy, and hyper-stylized editing. I’m all for that and bought in the instant the trailer was released. It just wasn’t done nearly as well in the final product. Definitely some highlights, but if you take on Cheney and the neoconservative world order on this large a platform, you have a responsibility to do so thoughtfully. That’s not a criticism of the stylization or comedic take of the film; I just mean that if you’re going to take on this subject and license the recency, pain, and footage of real events, you should submit a product that demonstrates more effort went into its formulation. Everything about this felt unfinished .

    • For one thing, the 2-hour, 12-minute movie didn’t decide whether it was going to be a biopic or an exploration of the cruelty of the Bush-Cheney Iraq War. The first half runs through Cheney’s life, but he’s already a diabolical opportunist from the outset: early scenes include him unbothered by a colleague’s shattered leg and only choosing to identify as a Republican for its career advantages. This isn’t a character study then. Similarly, if the second half of the movie is about the cruelty of the Bush-Cheney administration during the Iraq War, why did we spend the entire first half on a mostly-irrelevant overview of Cheney’s career path? The movie’s “Where Are They Now?” epilogue suggests McKay’s movie is ‘about’ the cost of the unnecessary Iraq War; if that’s the takeaway of the movie, then humanizing Cheney and spending time on anything more than the broad strokes of his non-political life story shouldn’t occupy nearly as much time as it did.

    • Also it used its ending monologue to accuse the audience of complicity in Cheney’s empowerment. That would be OK if there were any lead-up to it, but the movie showed he was unelectable whenever he ran at the front of a ticket and entered the private sector because of it. Cheney’s power came from unprecedented diminution of a president behind the scenes and away from public scrutiny. How then is Cheney’s foreign policy the public’s fault? Just felt completely out of left field for that to be presented as the message of the movie.

    • The narration is awful. It’s somehow indignantly sanctimonious and condescending while also not explaining enough what was wrong. It spent a lot of time re-emphasizing the same point about the Unitary Executive Theory—not that hard a concept from what I can tell—while glossing over the exact details of how it was exploited. We had a very cool montage of Cheney installing his men in different sections of government, but we never actually see how he used the machine he built to create the war he wanted other than when they mention he had a lot of offices. Yes, we see that Halliburton influenced his Iraq policy—very subtle: on election night, Cheney reads his wife a text saying they got “double what we expected” as their exit bonus—but other than a map of oil wells and a spreadsheet of energy companies, we don’t know what the administration actually did for them in Iraq. At one point, Rumsfeld asks Cheney whether they’d be indicted and the audience doesn’t even really know what the hypothetical charges would be.

    • Sam Rockwell in the wake of last year’s Oscar win turns in a bad SNL impression as George W. Bush. Similarly lazy: at some point McKay asked himself how to convey Steve Carrell’s Donald Rumsfeld’s evil and decided the answer was to have someone ask him what his values are and have him laugh and shut the door on them. Come on now, how are you going to spend all that runtime on Cheney’s pre-political years but not spend time on Rumsfeld’s brand of evil?

    • “Vice” as in ‘vice president’ and “Vice” as in ‘bad’ because the vice president was bad

    • Rare instance where the Reddit comments are generally on point

    • All in all, my frustration stems from seeing an argument I sympathize with being made poorly and without focus or sense of story-telling, which I feel is almost more devastating to an argument than a good counterargument.

    • If you wanted a ridiculously over-the-top challenge to the moral corruption of the crony capitalist elite, the WWE did it better:

 
 
 
 

“When people of color enter elite spaces, they make those with unearned advantages conscious of how they’ve been favored by the system. That poses a choice to those whose access to such cloistered communities is unquestioned: They can recognize that others might also succeed given the right circumstances, or they can defend the inequities of that system in an effort to preserve their self-image, attacking the new entrant as a charlatan or the group they belong to as backwards.”

  • Spotify’s revenue-sharing model is dumb

  • Book club selection #3: “Pnin” (h/t Lucy) by Vladimir Nabokov (whose last name I learned to mispronounce from Sting). The theme of blissful ignorance made this tweet a somewhat apt unintentional summary:

  • Have aliens found us? The interview is a mess but even more enjoyable when you imagine Dr. Avi Loeb as the scientist in a B movie whose calculations correctly predict an incoming alien invasion but everyone ignores him because his hair is messy and whenever he tries to explain his theory, he keeps dropping papers of printed-out spreadsheets and then a high-ranking bureaucrat who’s in cahoots with the aliens sneeringly tells him that they’re cutting his funding and confiscating his desktop computer.

  • Conan O’Brien contemplating his legacy as his late-night show restructures into a 30-minute format (h/t Junho)

“Calvin Coolidge was a pretty popular president. I’ve been to his grave in Vermont. It has the presidential seal on it. Nobody was there. And by the way, I’m the only late-night host that has been to Calvin Coolidge’s grave. I think that’s what separates me from the other hosts.

“I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.”

Relevant: his recent appearance on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast. The style of the podcast is often absurdist, fast pace, and highly improvisational. Associating Conan with the late-night monologuing format that I’ve long found trite, I was really impressed by his ability not just to keep up with host Scott Aukerman, but to outwit him with ease. It’s a strange duality that I frequently confront with Conan, Late Show-era Stephen Colbert, and the best SNL alumni: their undeniable innate talent and intelligence contrasted against the mediocrity of their TV shows.

 
 
  • Two-time Oscar-nominated director Jonah Hill and Tony-nominated Broadway star Michael Cera in conversation for the A24 podcast. Apparently they co-starred in a movie together when they were teenagers.

 

What I've been reading, featuring the cruelty of the US-Mexico border and Viktor Orbán’s constitutional coup

  • A former Border Patrol guard reflects on life at the American-Mexican border, which he calls a “permanent zone of exception” with a man-made “disregard for human life”:

The borderlands have slowly become a place where citizens are subject to distinct standards for search and detention, and where due process for noncitizens is often unrecognizable by normal American standards. It is a place where migrants are regularly sentenced at mass hearings in which the fates of as many as seventy-five individuals can be adjudicated one after another in a matter of minutes, after which they are funneled into a burgeoning immigration incarceration complex. It is a landscape often written off as a “wasteland” that is inherently “hostile”—without recognition that it has, in fact, been made to be hostile. Violence does not grow organically in our deserts or at our borders. It has arrived there through policy.

…[the former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service]’s damning admission—that the loss of hundreds of lives on America’s doorstep each year was not enough to cause the government to reevaluate its policy—reveals the extent to which the desert has been weaponized against migrants, and lays bare the fact that the hundreds who continue to die there every year are losing their lives by design. Deterrence-based enforcement has steered the immigration politics of every administration since that of President Clinton, and has resulted in an official tally of more than six thousand migrant deaths along the southern border between 2000 and 2016. This figure, it should be said, does not account for the thousands more who have been reported as missing and never found, not to mention those whose disappearances are never reported in the first place.

…Standing at an altar assembled from remnants of wooden refugee boats, Pope Francis looked out over the port of Lampedusa and asked his audience, “Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept?”

So not to get political, but don’t be this guy:

 

“They do everything by law—there will never be an illegal action. Any one law didn’t look that bad, but if you stack them together it creates this web. That’s why the EU is unable to cope. They look at one thing at a time, but Orbán is a systemic thinker… it’s absolutely ingenious.”

Central European University rector Michael Ignatieff on CEU’s forced relocation to Vienna:

“In Hungary, the law is a tool of power. It looks like a law, sounds like a law, walks and talks like a law, but it’s just a piece of arbitrary discretion.”

Also:

“Around ninety per cent of Hungarian media is now owned or controlled by people with personal connections to Orbán or his party, and eighty per cent of Hungarians who listen to the radio or watch television hear only news that comes from the government.”

  • A selection of the New York Times’ visualizations and multimedia stories from 2018

  • Sally Rooney profiled by The New Yorker. The article mentions how well technology is integrated into her work, which I alluded to in my last post discussing her second novel “Normal People”. I had considered elements like texting and social media to be too clunky and distractingly of-this-era to incorporate well into a book or even a movie, but I’m realizing maybe it’s just that older people and Jonathan Franzen are bad at it in the same way fan fiction botches sex scenes. The article gives this sentence as an example of Rooney doing it well: “I didn't feel like watching the film on my own so I switched it off and just read the Internet instead."

An older novelist might have written “surfed the Internet” or “looked at the Internet,” but “read the Internet” has the ring of native digital literacy. There’s also something current about the flatness of Rooney’s tone; like “breaking the Internet,” “reading the Internet” makes a little joke of the juxtaposition of a puny active verb and the vastness of the thing upon which it is acting.

Trailer for “Searching” (2018), 92% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

The movie “Searching”, whose gimmick is that all footage is set on a computer or phone screen, also incorporates modern technology extremely well and convincingly. Recommended!

  • Rolling Stone: 20 years on, “How Britney Spears Changed Pop With ‘Baby One More Time’”. I found it to be a poorly written article that doesn’t do much to answer its title question, but I appreciated the prompt to reflect on Spears’ debut album. In retrospect, its opening with “…Baby One More Time”, “(You Drive Me) Crazy”, and “Sometimes” back-to-back-to-back is a hell of a self-introduction.