Thank God for the Reflexive Contrarians

“I thank G-d for the annoying obstructionists, for the nitpickers, for the devil’s advocates, for the people who hear something that’s obviously true and strain to come up with an absurd thought experiment where it might not be, for the reflexive contrarians, for the people who always vote third party, for the people who urge you to sign petitions on whitehouse.gov because “then the President has to respond”, for the people who have two hundred guns in their basement “just in case”, for the people who say “well, actually…” all the time, for the mayors of sanctuary cities and the clerks who refuse to perform gay weddings, for the people who think being banned on Twitter is a violation of their human rights, and for the people who swear eternal hostility to other people on the same side who agree with them on 99% of everything. On the spectrum from “totally ungovernable” to “vulnerable to Nazism”, I think that we’ve erred in the right direction.”

—Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Eichmann In Jerusalem” on Slate Star Codex

A Nation that Produces an Immensity of Pain

“The immensity of the pain that Roof has inflicted upon Charleston is not contained by geography. It conforms perfectly to the contours of the nation that produced him.”

—Jelani Cobb, “Prodigy of Hate” in The New Yorker

Everything Isn’t Always OK

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I was listening to an Ezra Klein podcast interview with Elizabeth Kolbert as I cleaned the bathroom today (BTW, Klein’s podcasts are consistently worth listening to).

As they discussed the fragility of our life on this planet, I thought of a quote from a whisky tour in Scotland last summer that has stuck with me:

Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky.

(Pronounced in a heavy brogue, of course.) In other words, what is maybe not-so-pleasant but necessary gloom now will replenish our stocks and become, with time, refined and complex and to be savored much later.

Elizabeth Kolbert made the point that we live in the climate of the past, while altering the climate of the future, and that’s why this quote came back to me. Because there’s that flip side, too:

Today’s abnormally warm but kind-of-pleasant winter will become tomorrow’s drought.

In other words, at a more general level, everything may not always turn out OK.

We might not make it as a nation. We might not make it as a species. There might not be a technology or leader or alien lifeform or god that will save us.

The fact that we exist at all, on this particular planet, right here and now at this moment in time, is remarkable. (Read Sean Carrol’s superb From Eternity to Here for more on this). The happenstance cosmic circumstances and events and conditions that have come before us that enable us to now live are tenuous. We are lucky to be alive. Our existence, as a species, as an individual, is highly fragile, just as our planet’s current state is highly fragile.

There are moments in our lives when we suddenly see our extreme fragility through the lens of our own frail existence. Times such as when a friend or loved one dies, or when any other cherished relationship or job or possession is lost or close to being lost. When we have an accident. When we are sick or our health is compromised, whether due to circumstances beyond our control, or due to our own shortsighted decision-making. When we are expecting a child, and realize just how precious and influential every feeling, every nutrient, everything that we say and do has on our child to be.

Our lives are short and so very, very fragile. And only precious when we recognize them as such.

As my first love, Sade, croonsI cherish the day. I won’t go astray. I won’t be afraid.

We may not be able to have much influence over the cosmic and planetary changes under way, nor the brutal reactions of a nation’s mob. But we can channel our attention. We can savor the ones near to us. We can love every moment of our lives as closely and dearly and desperately and passionately as we can.

Even as our bodies or nation or earth may crumble.

 

Reading is Knowledge

When he was still in juvenile hall, a friend who was in prison elsewhere sent him the “Mexica Handbook”—a tiny book, the size of a cell phone, about the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the colonial plantations that had conscripted and subdued the native populations. Murillo began to understand that his people had a history, and he read that the Mayans were not primitives: they had astrologers and architects and high priests. After he read the “Mexica Handbook,” he decided to read whatever he could get his hands on. At first, he read the kind of genre fiction that was available in the shu: Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Dan Brown. But one day when he was out in the yard—in solitary, the “yard” was a small concrete enclosure that had high walls but was open to the sky—a man on the other side of a wall told him that he should stop reading crap and get some good books from the prison library. After that, Murillo had many conversations with the man about books, although he never saw his face.

The man told him to start with Voltaire’s “Candide.” Murillo read it, and was amazed at how resonant it was—its depiction of the slave sounded very similar to what he’d heard about sweatshops. He came across a list of American novels with social-justice themes, and he read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” He read “Don Quixote” and “Les Misérables.” He read about the Zapatistas, and about how the Spanish had pillaged Latin America.

When he first got to Pelican Bay, he became enthralled by a book called “The 48 Laws of Power”: “I was thinking, Yo, I’m gonna be a fucking smart-ass criminal. When I go home, I’m gonna set up this drug empire and I’m gonna fucking make bank.” But, as he read more deeply in the book, he began to hate it. He still wanted power, but he no longer wanted to get it by stomping on another guy’s neck. He read about Zen Buddhism, and that made him feel that he didn’t need money anymore. And, as he started reading more about the history of Latin America, he stopped believing that his life was a random card dealt to him by fate: he started to think about politics, and about how the way his life had unfolded was partly the consequence of systematic inequality.

, “BUILDING A PRISON-TO-SCHOOL PIPELINE” in The New Yorker

To my future child

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It is something magical, to be able to peer inside of your mother’s tummy to see your perfectly forming outline shimmering in sepia.

The technician pressed the little ultrasound knob harder and harder, jiggling it around impatiently atop you, to try and get you to turn, as if she were trying to entice a fish, but you shrank away into the depths, as if you knew you were being looked at. She slowly took the measure of each and every one of your bones, and we could see your little feet and hands flailing, lit like candescent bulbs. You liked curling around yourself and kept turned towards your mother’s spine. We could see your brain, the flow of blood through your developing veins. We could see and hear the fluttering of your heart, still split into halves. The technician kept making your mother turn from side, to side, and back again, to try and see you in profile.

You were still sort of amphibian, a primeval force swimming in the darkness, your segmented spine twisting like a little stem.

But then, finally, there was your face, already singular, universally human, projected as an image before your mother and father and a weary technician, holding hands in this little room on the 10th floor on the east side of Manhattan.

It struck me then that I too am developing, shedding my vestigial self-involvement to become a father. I will be your father. This is no longer a thought, a hope, a fear. This is what will be. My soul grows towards the moment when I will see your face in the light of the sun, and hold you and speak to you and call your name.

Losing Our Common Understanding

“A couple of years ago, reporting from San Francisco, I noted an erosion of public meaning which seemed to getting in the way of civic progress. A key cause, I suggested at the time, was technology’s filtering effects—the way that, as we lived more of our lives in a personal bespoke, we lost touch with the common ground, and the common language, that made meaningful public work possible. Perhaps filtering effects are at play, but nothing I’ve seen since has changed my mind. The most dangerous intellectual spectre today seems not to be lack of information but the absence of a common information sphere in which to share it across boundaries of belief.”

–Nathan Heller, “The Failure of Facebook Democracy” in The New Yorker