Archive for September, 2017

The storms referenced in the earlier version of this post were civilization-ending cataclysms. The succession of North American hurricanes and earthquakes earlier this month of September 2017 were natural disasters. I would say that September was unprecedented in history, but reliable weather records do not extend very far back in human history and the geological record extending back into human prehistory would suggest that, except perhaps for their concentration within the span of a month, the latest storms are nothing out of the ordinary. Some have even theorized that hurricanes and earthquakes could be interrelated. In the wider context of weather history, this brief period of destructive activity may still be rather mild. Already in the last twenty years we’ve experienced a series of 50-, 100- and 500-year weather events that would suggest exactly what climate scientists have been saying, namely, that higher global average temperatures and more atmospheric moisture will lead to more activity in the category of superstorms. Throw drought, flood, and desertification into the mix. This (or worse, frankly) may have been the old normal when global average temperatures were several degrees warmer during periods of hothouse earth. All indications are that we’re leaving behind garden earth, the climate steady state (with a relatively narrow band of global temperature variance) enjoyed for roughly 12,000 years.

Our response to the latest line of hurricanes that struck the Gulf, Florida, and the Caribbean has been characterized as a little tepid considering we had the experience of Katrina from which to learn and prepare, but I’m not so sure. True, hurricanes can be seen hundreds of miles and days away, allowing folks opportunity to either batten down the hatches or flee the area, but we have never been able to handle mass exodus, typically via automobile, and the sheer destructive force of the storms overwhelms most preparations and delays response. So after Katrina, it appeared for several days that the federal government’s response was basically this: you’re on your own; that apparent response occurred again especially in Puerto Rico, which like New Orleans quickly devolved into a true humanitarian crisis (and is not yet over). Our finding (in a more charitable assessment on my part) is that despite foreknowledge of the event and past experience with similar events, we can’t simply swoop in and smooth things out after the storms. Even the first steps of recovery take time.

I’ve cautioned that rebuilding on the same sites, with the reasonable expectation of repeat catastrophes in a destabilized climate that will spawn superstorms reducing entire cities to garbage heaps, is a poor option. No doubt we’ll do it anyway, at least partially; it’s already well underway in Houston. I’ve also cautioned that we need to brace for a diaspora as climate refugees abandon destroyed and inundated cities and regions. It’s already underway with respect to Puerto Rico. This is a storm of an entirely different sort (a flood, actually) and can also been seen from hundreds of miles and weeks, months, years away. And like superstorms, a diaspora from the coasts, because of the overwhelming force and humanitarian crisis it represents, is not something for which we can prepare adequately. Still, we know it’s coming, like a 20- or 50-year flood.

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I revisit my old blog posts when I see some reader activity in the WordPress backstage and was curious to recall a long quote of Iain McGilchrist summarizing arguments put forth by Anthony Giddens in his book Modernity and Self-identity (1991). Giddens had presaged recent cultural developments, namely, the radicalization of nativists, supremacists, Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), and others distorted by absorbed in identity politics. So I traipsed off to the Chicago Public Library (CPL) and sought out the book to read. Regrettably, CPL didn’t have a copy, so I settled on a slightly earlier book, The Consequences of Modernity (1990), which is based on a series of lectures delivered at Stanford University in 1988.

Straight away, the introduction provides a passage that goes to the heart of matters with which I’ve been preoccupied:

Today, in the late twentieth century, it is argued by many, we stand at the opening of a new era … which is taking us beyond modernity itself. A dazzling variety of terms has been suggested to refer to this transition, a few of which refer positively to the emergence of a new type of social system (such as the “information society” or the “consumer society”) but most of which suggest rather than a preceding state of affairs is drawing to a close … Some of the debates about these matters concentrate mainly upon institutional transformations, particularly those which propose that we are moving from a system based upon the manufacture of material goods to one concerned more centrally with information. More commonly, however, those controversies are focused largely upon issues of philosophy and epistemology. This is the characteristic outlook, for example, of the the author who has been primarily responsible for popularising the notion of post-modernity, Jean-François Lyotard. As he represents it, post-modernity refers to a shift away from attempts to ground epistemology and from from faith in humanly engineered progress. The condition of post-modernity is distinguished by an evaporating of the “grand narrative” — the overarching “story line” by means of which we are placed in history as being having a definite past and a predictable future. The post-modern outlook sees a plurality of heterogeneous claims to knowledge, in which science does not have a privileged place. [pp. 1–2, emphasis added]

That’s a lot to unpack all at once, but the fascinating thing is that notions now manifesting darkly in the marketplace of ideas were already in the air in the late 1980s. Significantly, this was several years still before the Internet brought the so-called Information Highway to computer users, before the cell phone and smart phone were developed, and before social media displaced traditional media (TV was only 30–40 years old but had previously transformed our information environment) as the principal way people gather news. I suspect that Giddens has more recent work that accounts for the catalyzing effect of the digital era (including mobile media) on culture, but for the moment, I’m interested in the book in hand.

Regular readers of this blog (I know of one or two) already know my armchair social criticism directed to our developing epistemological crisis (challenges to authority and expertise, psychotic knowledge, fake news, alternative facts, dissolving reality, and science denial) as well as the Transhumanist fantasy of becoming pure thought (once we evolve beyond our bodies). Until that’s accomplished with imagined technology, we increasingly live in our heads, in the abstract, disoriented and adrift on a bewildering sea of competing narratives. Moreover, I’ve stated repeatedly that highly mutable story (or narrative) underlie human cognition and consciousness, making most of us easy marks for charismatic thought leaders storytellers. Giddens was there nearly 30 years ago with these same ideas, though his terms differ.

Giddens dispels the idea of post-modernity and insists that, from a sociological perspective, the current period is better described as high modernism. This reminds me of Oswald Spengler and my abandoned book blogging of The Decline of the West. It’s unimportant to me who got it more correct but note that the term Postmodernism has been adopted widely despite its inaccuracy (at least according to Giddens). As I get further into the book, I’ll have plenty more to say.

Some phrases have a wide range of applicability, such as the book title “______ for Dummies.” The popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black is another, claiming cachet in criminality. Let me jump on the bandwagon and observe how Transgression is the New Chic. There are two aspects to how transgression has become the new “it” thing: committing a transgression and being transgressed. Seems these days everyone is positioning themselves along one axis or another, sometimes both.

Not many of us possess the ability to transgress others without consequences. To do so basically requires fuck-you money. Celebrity also helps. With those characteristics, however, one can get away with an awful lot of mischief and make themselves look pretty damn cool in the process (if one is impressed by such foolishness). At the top of the heap is our Bully-in-Chief, who is busy testing another man-child in a reckless exercise in brinkmanship that could easily blow up in our faces (and theirs, too, which would be criminal considering the mismatch of power — like a billionaire stealing from a fast food worker). Yet the impulse to puff up one’s chest and appear unwavering in resolve or whatever other silly justification enters the minds of status seekers is awfully strong. To rational minds, it looks like insanity. Sadly, the masses do not possess rational minds and so give the game credibility.

On the flip side, claiming victimization at imagined transgressions is another fantasy league populated by the emotionally needy. Snowflakes. Or the Strawberry Generation of people prone to spoil at the slightest whiff of life’s difficulties. The so-called microaggression and the demand for safe spaces are frequent power plays used by star players, where points are scored by cowing into submission administrators too timid to call bullshit on the charade. Berkeley administrators offering counseling for students “terrorized” by a speech delivered by Ben Shapiro (whether students actually attend is beside the point) is a good example. Feigning offense works when lying to oneself, too, so the master player get double points for transgressing him- or herself. Well played. When the cycle of blaming and bullying will subside is anyone’s guess.

Here’s a familiar inspirational phrase from The Bible: the truth shall set you free (John 8:32). Indeed, most of us take it as, um, well, gospel that knowledge and understanding are unqualified goods. However, the information age has turned out to be a mixed blessing. Any clear-eyed view of the the way the world works and its long, tawdry history carries with it an inevitable awareness of injustice, inequity, suffering, and at the extreme end, some truly horrific epaisodes of groups victimizing each other. Some of the earliest bits of recorded history, as distinguished from oral history, are financial — keeping count (or keeping accounts). Today differs not so much in character as in the variety of counts being kept and the sophistication of information gathering.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, a part of the U.S. Department of Labor, is one information clearinghouse that slices and dices available data according to a variety of demographic characteristics. The fundamental truth behind such assessments, regardless of the politics involved, is that when comparisons are made between unlike groups, say, between men and women or young and old, one should expect to find differences and indeed be rather surprised if comparisons revealed none. So the question of gender equality in the workplace, or its implied inverse, gender inequality in the workplace, is a form of begging the question, meaning that if one seeks differences, one shall most certainly find them. But those differences are not prima facie evidence of injustice in the sense of the popular meme that women are disadvantaged or otherwise discriminated against in the workplace. Indeed, the raw data can be interpreted according to any number of agendas, thus the phrase “lying with statistics,” and most of us lack the sophistication to contextualize statistics properly, which is to say, free of the emotional bias that plagues modern politics, and more specifically, identity politics.

The fellow who probably ran up against this difficulty the worst is Charles Murray in the aftermath of publication of his book The Bell Curve (1994), which deals with how intelligence manifests differently across demographic groups yet functions as the primary predictor of social outcomes. Murray is particularly well qualified to interpret data and statistics dispassionately, and in true seek-and-find fashion, differences between groups did appear. It is unclear how much his resulting prescriptions for social programs are borne out of data vs. ideology, but most of us are completely at sea wading through the issues without specialized academic training to make sense of the evidence.

More recently, another fellow caught in the crosshairs on issues of difference is James Damore, who was fired from his job at Google after writing what is being called an anti-diversity manifesto (but might be better termed an internal memo) that was leaked and then went viral. The document can be found here. I have not dug deeply into the details, but my impression is that Damore attempted a fairly academic unpacking of the issue of gender differences in the workplace as they conflicted with institutional policy only to face a hard-set ideology that is more RightThink than truth. In Damore’s case, the truth did set him free — free from employment. Even the NY Times recognizes that the Thought Police sprang into action yet again to demand that its pet illusions about society be supported rather than dispelled. These witch hunts and shaming rituals (vigilante justice carried out in the court of public opinion) are occurring with remarkable regularity.

In a day and age where so much information (too much information, as it turns out) is available to us to guide our thinking, one might hope for careful, rational analysis and critical thinking. However, trends point to the reverse: a return to tribalism, xenophobia, scapegoating, and victimization. There is also a victimization Olympics at work, with identity groups vying for imaginary medals awarded to whoever’s got it worst. I’m no Pollyanna when it comes to the notion that all men are brothers and, shucks, can’t we all just get along? That’s not our nature. But the marked indifference of the natural world to our suffering as it besets us with drought, fire, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the like (and this was just the last week!) might seem like the perfect opportunity to find within ourselves a little grace and recognize our common struggles in the world rather than add to them.

rant on/

As the next in an as-yet unnumbered series of Storms of the Century (I predict more than a dozen at least) is poised to strike nearly the entirety of the State of Florida, we know with confidence from prior experience, recent and not so recent, that any lessons we might take regarding how human habitation situated along or near coastlines vulnerable to extreme weather events, now occurring with increasing frequency and vehemence, will remain intransigently unlearned. Instead, we’ll begin rebuilding on the very same sites as soon as construction labor and resources can be mustered and deployed. Happened in New Orleans and New Jersey; is about to happen in Houston; and will certainly happen all across Florida — even the fragile Florida Keys. I mean, shit, we can’t do without The Magic Kingdom and other attractions in the central-Florida tourist mecca, now can we?

This predictable spin around the dance floor might look like a tragicomic circus waltz (e.g., The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze), or even out-of-tune, lopsided calliope music from the carousel, except that positioning ourselves right back in harm’s way would be better characterized as a danse macabre. I dub it the Builder’s Waltz, which could also be the Rebuilder’s Rumba, the Catastrophe Tango, the Demolition Jive … take your pick.

Obstinate refusal to apprehend reality as it slams into us is celebrated as virtue these days. Can’t lose hope even as dark forces coalesce all around us, right? Was it always so? Still, an inkling might be dawning on some addle-brained deniers that perhaps science-informed global warming and climate change news might actually be about something with real-world impact, such as dramatic reduction of oil refinery output or a lost citrus crop. So much for illusions of business as usual continuing unhindered into the foreseeable future. Instead, our future looks more like dominoes lined up to fall — like the line of hurricanes formed in the Atlantic. Good luck hunkering down and weathering once-in-a-lifetime storms that just keep coming. And rebuilding the same things in the same places, well, just let it go, man, ’cuz it’s already gone.

rant off/

This is the inverse of a prior post called “Truth Based on Fiction.”

Telling stories about ourselves is one of the most basic of human attributes stretching across oral and recorded history. We continue today to memorialize events in short, compact tellings, frequently movies depicting real-life events. I caught two such films recently: Truth (about what came to be known as Rathergate) and Snowden (about whistle-blower Edward Snowden).

Although Dan Rather is the famous figure associated with Truth, the story focuses more on his producer Mary Mapes and the group decisions leading to airing of a controversial news report about George W. Bush’s time in the Air National Guard. The film is a dramatization, not a documentary, and so is free to present the story with its own perspective and some embellishment. Since I’m not a news junkie, my memory of the events in 2004 surrounding the controversy are not especially well informed, and I didn’t mind the potential for the movie’s version of events to color my thinking. About some controversies and conspiracies, I feel no particular demand to adopt a strong position. The actors did well enough, but I felt Robert Redford was poorly cast as Dan Rather. Redford is too famous in his own right to succeed as a character actor playing a real-life person.

Debate over the patriotism or treason of Edward Snowden’s actions continues to swirl, but the film covers the issues pretty well, from his discovery of an intelligence services surveillance dragnet (in violation of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) to his eventual disclosure of same to a few well-respected journalists. The film’s director and joint screenwriter, Oliver Stone, has made a career out of fiction based on truth, dramatizing many signal events from the nation’s history, repackaging them as entertainment in the process. I’m wary of his interpretations of history when presented in cinematic form, less so his alternative history lessons given as documentary. Unlike Truth, however, I have clear ideas in my mind regarding Snowden the man and Snowden the movie, so from a different standpoint, was again unconcerned about potential bias. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does well enough as the titular character, though he doesn’t project nearly the same insight and keen intelligence as Snowden himself does. I suspect the documentary Citizen Four (which I’ve not yet seen) featuring Snowden doing his own talking is a far better telling of the same episode of history.

In contrast, I have assiduously avoided several other recent films based on actual events. United 93, World Trade Center, and Deepwater Horizon spring to mind, but there are many others. The wounds and controversies stemming from those real-life events still smart too much for me to consider exposing myself to propaganda historical fictions. Perhaps in a few decades, after living memory of such events has faded or disappeared entirely, such stories can be told effectively, though probably not accurately. A useful comparison might be any one of several films called The Alamo.