Everything Isn’t Always OK

connection-to-the-world

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

Do we know our own history?

King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

While I was talking to Durham, a family of Norwegian tourists stopped by. In the summer months, the park gets a lot of business from Europeans, who relish extreme heat of a kind they may never have encountered. (To New Yorkers, the park feels not unlike the lower level of the West Fourth Street subway station on a hundred-degree day.) After the Norwegians left, Durham said, “The Europeans romanticize us. They’ve seen all kinds of versions of us on TV. But they tend to know more about Native American history than the average U.S. citizen.”

–Alex Ross, “Desert Bloom” in The New Yorker

Have we lost Madison’s vision of a representative democracy?

By Polar Cruises (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Polar Cruises (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
George Thomas has an insightful piece exploring the perils of populist democracy that is worth reviewing, especially in light of what happened last night.

Thomas critiques the movement on both left and the right during this election towards a simplistic, “folk theory” of democracy, in which political leaders are completely beholden to populist will. And what is lost, he argues, is the educative function of representative leadership.

Obscured by the turn to populist democracy is any sense that representatives and political parties play an important role in educating and shaping the public mind, or that democracy depends on political leadership to refine, channel, and elevate popular wants. This is curious because it is so at odds with the understanding of liberal democracy that underlies our Constitution, an understanding that is increasingly under pressure. It is particularly curious that Republicans, who not only purport to revere America’s Constitution but have made a habit of insisting that it is being undermined, have embraced a populist view of democracy.

As a recourse, Thomas turns to Madison’s vision of a representative democracy. We’ve reviewed Federalist #10 before, examining the distinction that Madison makes between a direct democracy and a representative democracy (in fact, it’s one of the more popular posts on this blog).

Our political institutions were crafted to be responsive to the people over time, but also to put space between the people and their representatives. Self-government also required self-restraint. This would allow the often inchoate and disparate views of the public to be formed by way of the political process.

. . . Republican and democratic government were both forms of popular government rooted in the authority of the people, but Madison favored a republic to “pure” democracy precisely because of its educative and enlightening ambitions.

A populist democracy requires a populace deeply knowledgeable about policy and politics. This is not a realistic expectation to hold about the general populace.

Ordinary citizens are busy with private life and obligations closer to home. Self-government requires them to be generally informed and able to make judgments about their representatives, but we cannot expect them to be experts on the range of issues they are now asked to speak to during elections.

Yet increasingly, voters are asked, such as on ballot propositions in California, to make complex policy decisions. And politicians, on the other hand, increasingly bow to the “will” of a populace calling for untenable extremes. As Thomas states, “[Politics] requires compromise.”

But what happens when political leaders and the parties themselves seem to be composed of the “less inquiring”? What happens when our leadership class abdicates the educative role that Madison envisioned?

What happens is what we’ve seen from the Republican party all throughout Obama’s presidency: a complete unwillingness to compromise in order to govern more effectively. Which resulted in the “abuse” of executive power that conservatives so loathed the Obama administration for.

Insistence on political principle is an important feature of democratic politics, but it must be coupled with a recognition that persuading others and building coalitions is a crucial part of politics and essential to the creation of viable public policy.

. . . Achieving numerous ends requires a recognition that the difficult business of politics is often about finding the right balance between competing goals, given limited resources.

Thomas concludes his essay by stating, “Educating the public mind, and preparing it for democratic self-government, is more important than ever.” I’m afraid that Trump’s presidency will be guidance precisely on how NOT to govern. The extreme contrast to Obama’s measured, dignified, and intelligent administration will be illustrative indeed.