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

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.

The Lesser Bohemians: A Steamy, Intense Read

The Lesser BohemiansThe Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Combine A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Trainspotting, and The Clan of the Cave Bear, and you have The Lesser Bohemians. The sex is so steamy I felt totally weird reading it on the bus. The narrator’s voice and mind is transcribed in a lyrically compelling stream-of-consciousness. This is like a teenage girl’s gothic wet dream, written for intelligent adults. There’s intensity and brilliance here, though at times all the hot and heavy got a bit much for this staid reader. Regardless, McBride’s sentences are refreshing to read in their innovative and passionate broguish breathiness, surprisingly fluid, and a welcome respite from formulaic trends.

View all my reviews

The Homeostasis of a Porter

Porter

A number of years ago, I hiked the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu. I thought I was pretty cool because I hiked the whole thing in my sandals and moved along at a good clip in comparison to other gringos.

But I was rarely quicker than the porters who carried pounds of equipment and food on their backs, all wearing sandals far less technologically crafted than mine. Their sandals are made from discarded tire treads.

The porters not only lug around everyone else’s stuff, but they then set up the camp and cook the food. And sleep all together on the ground in the main tent.

Their calves are like steel, and their mere presence neatly undercuts any fleeting grandiousness a gringo may feel for trudging up a mountainous pass. Porters literally run up and down tiny, steep ancient stairs carved into rock, as you can see in the photo above.

Why do I bring this up?

Because I recently read a book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, and the following passage made me harken back to those porters:

“The reason most people don’t possess … extraordinary physical abilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of ‘good enough.”

For a porter, homeostasis is constant physical activity that is extreme for most people.

What is your homoeostasis? And in what way is it either softening or steeling you for infinity?

We’re battling our own habits

History also shows that if we want to tame antibiotic resistance, we have to be ready to fight for a long time — perhaps forever. The problem is that we’re not really fighting against bacteria. We’re battling our own habits, which are deeply ingrained and hard to change.

 

—Carl Zimmer, “The surprising history of the war on superbugs — and what it means for the world today

Consumerism Meets Ayahuasca

By Awkipuma (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Awkipuma (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“If cocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale.”

—Ariel Levy, “The Drug of Choice in the Age of Kale

The Cluetrain anti-Manifesto: People are Corporations

I have no idea who recommended The Cluetrain Manifesto, but it ended up on my Goodreads “want to read” list, and it arrived in my local library a few days ago. I honestly thought it was a fiction book from the title, something along the lines of The Monkey Wrench Gang, perhaps.

Turns out The Cluetrain Manifesto is a breathless paean to the Internet circa 2001, about how the internet will revolutionize business (though the version I’m reading has been updated with some sobered hedging by the authors ten years later).

The primary thesis of the authors is that markets are at heart conversations, and that businesses will either enable the freewheeling conversations empowered by the Net, or fight a losing battle for control.

I don’t want to wave away the advances that the internet has engendered, as I think it’s too easy to downplay, especially for you young whippersnappers who don’t even recall rotary phones. It really has been transformative. But from the vantage point of 2016, we can also see that the breathless prognosticating of the original Cluetrain hasn’t quite panned out. We’re seeing the once wide open, seemingly endless forests of internet anarchy, Grateful Dead-and-Phish-tape-trading freedom turn into gated communities as glossy, ad riven, and manipulative as the corporate fiefdoms of old.

So what went wrong? Why aren’t we living in an unmitigated bliss of genuine, heartfelt connection to one another across digital divides?

While markets have indeed become more about peer to peer sharing, people themselves have become more like corporations. 

Ever heard the term “personal brand”? That’s right – as individuals, we now carefully cultivate and craft our online personas, targeting our messaging, delivering elevator pitches to our friends, and twisting our faces and extending our arms to capture selfies at perfectly calibrated angles.

Successful businesses today support our social posturing, while gathering our data, as defined by every click, post, and geospatial movement. Successful online personas, such as Kim Kardashian, harness the hall of mirrors to their advantage.

In this manner, we market ourselves while allowing ourselves to be marketed. The damning thing about all of this is that the internet of yore – that wild, ecstatic beast – is still right here around us but we gild ourselves into gated, controlled, glossy realms like moths to bulb. 

Why? Because that’s where all the cool kids are.

Outside of the Cluetrain, I’ve been grappling with this lately in terms of my use of Facebook. I deeply appreciate how the platform enables me to interact and relate to others. I’m not always the most personable person in everyday life, and Facebook helps me to communicate different aspects of myself with people I wouldn’t otherwise.

But it’s also a gated community designed to keep me posting and clicking so it can stay in business.

This is the Faustian bargain we make. And if I assume some kind of radical stance on Facebook and delete my account or just stop using it (both of which I’m considering), well, I’ve also then got to justify why I am still actively using Google services, or Twitter, or Instagram, or …

… Or even why I am so tethered to a smartphone in the first place. Do I really need to be notified the minute I get an email? Do I really need GPS instead of a map? 

Are the things I’m actually spending my time on each day adding meaning to my existence?

Would I do more of the things I really want to do if I didn’t have addictive attachments to social media? Would my relationships with people around me be more positive?

I don’t know. But I do remember the internet of the early 90s, back when I would spend summer nights chatting to random strangers on IRC. And yes, even then, we vied for social status with any nerdy signifier we could lay claim to, whether it was our handle, our ASCII graphic skills, our quick wit with a keyboard, or our creative use of asides. Even without the like buttons and the notifications, we found ways to develop and curate our online personas.

The difference is that nobody was really watching, outside of the Cheers-like regulars we came to know at our regular watering holes.

There was a freedom to it, and a loneliness.

Do I still have the wherewithal for that kind of thing? I’m not sure.

But surely in a day and age in which wildernesses both virtual and real are ever diminishing, it’s worth escaping from the everyday mall of mirrors–even if only for a blog post B&B–and exploring.