Archive for May, 2020

/rant on

MAD is a term I haven’t thought about for a good long while. No illusions here regarding that particularly nasty genie having been stuffed back into its lamp. Nope, it lingers out there in some weird liminal space, routinely displaced by more pressing concerns. However, MAD came back into my thoughts because of saber-rattling by U.S. leadership suggesting resumed above-ground nuclear testing might be just the ticket to remind our putative enemies around the world what complete assholes we are. Leave it to Americans to be the very last — in the midst of a global pandemic (that’s redundant, right?) — to recognize that geopolitical squabbles (alert: reckless minimization of severity using that word squabble) pale in comparison to other looming threats. Strike that: we never learn; we lack the reflective capacity. Still, we ought to reorient in favor of mutual aid and assistance instead of our MAD, insane death pact.

The authoritative body that normally springs to mind when MAD is invoked is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Ironically, it appears to be an independent, nonprofit 501(c)(3) entity, a media organization, not an actual collection of atomic scientists. (I’ll continue to italicize Bulletin as though it’s a publication like the New York Times even though it’s arguably something else.) I’ve blogged repeatedly about its iconic Doomsday Clock. In an otherwise astute post against sloppy appeals to authority using the increasingly meaningless term expert, Alan Jacobs takes to task the Bulletin for straying out of its lane to consider threats that are political in nature rather than scientific. Reminded me of when Pope Francis in his encyclical deigned to acknowledge climate change, recognizing that Mother Earth is our “common home” and maybe we shouldn’t be raping her. (OK, that coarse bit at the end is mine.) What? He’s not a climatologist! How dare he opine on something outside his official capacity? Go back to saving souls!

At the same time we desperately need expertise to accomplish things like building bridges that don’t fall down (yet still do) or performing an appendectomy without killing the patient, it’s inevitable that people form opinions about myriad subjects without the benefit of complete authority or expertise, if such a thing even exists. As students, citizens, and voters, we’re enjoined to inform ourselves, discuss, and learn rather than forfeit all opinion-making to, oh I dunno, the chattering classes. That’s intellectual sovereignty, unless one is unfortunate enough to live in a totalitarian regime practicing thought control. Oh, wait … So it’s a sly form of credentialing to fence off or police opinion expressed from inexpert quarters as some sort of thought crime. Regarding MAD, maybe the era has passed when actual atomic scientists assessed our threat level. Now it’s a Science and Security Board made up of people few have ever heard of, and the scope of their concern, like the Pope’s, is wide enough to include all existential threats, not just the one assigned to them by pointy-headed categorists. Are politicians better qualified on such matters? Puhleeze! (OK, maybe Al Gore, but he appears to be busy monetizing climate change.)

As a self-described armchair social critic, I, too, recognized more than a decade ago the existential threat (extinction level, too) of climate change and have blogged about it continuously. Am I properly credentialed to see and state the, um, obvious? Maybe not. That’s why I don’t argue the science and peer-reviewed studies. But the dynamics, outlines, and essentials of climate change are eminently understandable by laypersons. That was true as well for Michael Ruppert, who was impeached by documentarians for lacking supposed credentialed expertise yet still having the temerity to state the obvious and sound the alarm. Indeed, considering our failure to act meaningfully to ameliorate even the worst case scenario, we’ve now got a second instance of mutually assured destruction, a suicide pact, and this one doesn’t rely on game-theoretical inevitability. It’s already happening all around us as we live and breathe … and die.

/rant off

Ours is an era when individuals are encouraged to explore, amplify, and parade various attributes of their identities out in public, typically via social media. For those just coming of age and/or recently having entered adulthood, because identity is not yet fully formed, defining oneself is more nearly a demand. When identity is further complicated by unusual levels of celebrity, wealth, beauty, and athleticism (lots of overlap there), defining oneself is often an act of rebellion against the perceived demands of an insatiable public. Accordingly, it was unsurprising to me at least to learn of several well-known people unhappy with their lives and the burdens upon them.

Regular folks can’t truly relate the glitterati, who are often held up aspirational models. For example, many of us look upon the discomforts of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with a combination of perverse fascination and crocodile tears. They were undoubtedly trapped in a strange, gilded prison before repudiating the duties expected of them as “senior royals,” attempting an impossible retreat to normalcy outside of England. Should be obvious that they will continue to be hounded while public interest in them persists. Similarly, Presley Gerber made news, fell out of the news, and then got back into the news as a result of his growing collection of tattoos. Were he simply some anonymous fellow, few would care. However, he has famous parents and already launched a modeling career before his face tattoo announced his sense of being “misunderstood.” Pretty bold move. With all the presumed resources and opportunities at his disposal, many have wondered in comments and elsewhere whether another, better declaration of self might have been preferred.

Let me give these three the benefit of doubt. Although they all have numerous enviable attributes, the accident of birth (or in Markle’s case, decision to marry) landed them in exceptional circumstances. The percentage of celebrities who crack under the pressure of unrelenting attention and proceed to run off the rails is significant. Remaining grounded is no doubt easier if one attains celebrity (or absurd immense wealth) after, say, the age of 25 or even later. (On some level, we’ve all lost essential groundedness with reality, but that’s another blog post.) Those who are children of celebrities or who become child prodigies may not all be consigned to character distortion or a life irrevocably out of balance, but it’s at least so commonplace that the dangerous potential should be recognized and embraced only with wariness. I’ve heard of programs designed to help professional athletes who become sudden multimillionaires (and thus targets of golddiggers and scammers) make the transition. Good for them that structured support is available. Yet another way average folks can’t relate: we have to work things out for ourselves.

Here’s the example I don’t get: Taylor Swift. She was the subject of a Netflix biography called Miss Americana (2020) that paints her as, well, misunderstood. Thing is, Swift is a runaway success story, raking in money, fans, awards, attention, and on balance, detractors. That success is something she earnestly desired and struggled to achieve only to learn that the glossy, popstar image sold especially but nonexclusively to 14-year-old girls comes with a lot of heavy baggage. How can the tragic lives of so many musicians launched into superstardom from the late 1950s onward have escaped Swift’s awareness in our media-saturated world? Naming names is sorta tacky, so I demur, but there are lots of them. Swift obtained her heart’s desire, found her songwriting and political voice, maintains a high public profile, and shows no lack of productivity. Sure, it’s a life out of balance, not remotely normal the way most noncelebrities would understand. However, she signed up for it willingly (if na├»vely) and by all accounts perpetuates it. She created her own distinctive gilded prison. I don’t envy her, nor do I particularly feel sorry for her, as the Netflix show appears to instruct.

Caveat: rather overlong for me, but I got rolling …

One of the better articles I’ve read about the pandemic is this one by Robert Skidelsky at Project Syndicate (a publication I’ve never heard of before). It reads as only slightly conspiratorial, purporting to reveal the true motivation for lockdowns and social distancing, namely, so-called herd immunity. If that’s the case, it’s basically a silent admission that no cure, vaccine, or inoculation is forthcoming and the spread of the virus can only be managed modestly until it has essentially raced through the population. Of course, the virus cannot be allowed to simply run its course unimpeded, but available impediments are limited. “Flattening the curve,” or distributing the infection and death rates over time, is the only attainable strategy and objective.

Wedding mathematical and biological insights, as well as the law of mass action in chemistry, into an epidemic model may seem obvious now, but it was novel roughly a century ago. We’re also now inclined, if scientifically oriented and informed, to understand the problem and its potential solutions management in terms of engineering rather than medicine (or maybe in terms of triage and palliation). Global response has also made the pandemic into a political issue as governments obfuscate and conceal true motivations behind their handling (bumbling in the U.S.) of the pandemic. Curiously, the article also mentions financial contagion, which is shaping up to be worse in both severity and duration than the viral pandemic itself.

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/rant on

Had a rather dark thought, which recurs but then fades out of awareness and memory until conditions reassert it. Simply put, it’s that the mover-shaker-decision-maker sociopaths types in government, corporations, and elsewhere (I refuse to use the term influencer) are typically well protected (primarily by virtue of immense wealth) from threats regular folks face and are accordingly only too willing to sit idly by, scarcely lifting a finger in aid or assistance, and watch dispassionately as others scramble and scrape in response to the buffeting torrents of history. The famous example (even if not wholly accurate) of patrician, disdainful lack of empathy toward others’ plight is Marie Antoinette’s famous remark: “Let them eat cake.” Citing an 18th-century monarch indicates that such tone-deaf sentiment has been around for a long time.

Let me put it another way, since many of our problems are of our own creation. Our styles of social organization and their concomitant institutions are so overloaded with internal conflict and corruption, which we refuse to eradicate, that it’s as though we continuously tempt fate like fools playing Russian roulette. If we were truly a unified nation, maybe we’d wise up and adopt a different organizational model. But we don’t shoulder risk or enjoy reward evenly. Rather, the disenfranchised and most vulnerable among us, determined a variety of ways but forming a substantial majority, have revolvers to their heads with a single bullet in one of five or six chambers while the least vulnerable (the notorious 1%) have, in effect, thousands or millions of chambers and an exceedingly remote chance of firing the one with the bullet. Thus, vulnerability roulette.

In the midst of an epochal pandemic and financial crisis, who gets sacrificed like so much cannon fodder while others retreat onto their ocean-going yachts or into their boltholes to isolate from the rabble? Everyone knows it’s always the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder who unjustly suffer the worst, a distinctly raw deal unlikely ever to change. The middle rungs are also suffering now as contraction affects more and more formerly enfranchised groups. Meanwhile, those at the top use crises as opportunities for further plunder. In an article in Rolling Stone, independent journalist Matt Taibbi, who covered the 2008 financial collapse, observes that our fearless leaders (fearless because they secure themselves before and above all else) again made whole the wealthiest few at the considerable expense of the rest:

The $2.3 trillion CARES Act, the Donald Trump-led rescue package signed into law on March 27th, is a radical rethink of American capitalism. It retains all the cruelties of the free market for those who live and work in the real world, but turns the paper economy into a state protectorate, surrounded by a kind of Trumpian Money Wall that is designed to keep the investor class safe from fear of loss.

This financial economy is a fantasy casino, where the winnings are real but free chips cover the losses. For a rarefied segment of society, failure is being written out of the capitalist bargain.

Why is this a “radical rethink”? We’ve seen identical behaviors before: privatization of profit, indemnification of loss, looting of the treasury, and refusal to prosecute exploitation, torture, and crimes against humanity. Referring specifically to financialization, this is what the phrase “too big to fail” means in a nutshell, and we’ve been down this stretch of road repeatedly.

Naturally, the investor class isn’t ordered back to work at slaughterhouses and groceries to brave the epidemic. Low-wage laborers are. Interestingly, well compensated healthcare workers are also on the vulnerability roulette firing line — part of their professional oaths and duties — but that industry is straining under pressure from its inability to maintain profitability during the pandemic. Many healthcare workers are being sacrificed, too. Then there are tens of millions newly unemployed and uninsured being told that the roulette must continue into further months of quarantine, the equivalent of adding bullets to the chambers until their destruction is assured. The pittance of support for those folks (relief checks delayed or missing w/o explanation or recourse and unemployment insurance if one qualifies, meaning not having already been forced into the gig economy) does little to stave off catastrophe.

Others around the Web have examined the details of several rounds of bailout legislation and found them unjust in the extreme. Many of the provisions actually heap insult and further injury upon injury. Steps that could have been taken, and in some instances were undertaken in past crises (such as during the Great Depression), don’t even rate consideration. Those safeguards might include debt cancellation, universal basic income (perhaps temporary), government-supported healthcare for all, and reemployment through New Deal-style programs. Instead, the masses are largely left to fend for themselves, much like the failed Federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Some of this is no doubt ideological. A professional class of ruling elites are the only ones to be entrusted with guiding the ship of state, or so goes the political philosophy. But in our capitalist system, government has been purposefully hamstrung and hollowed out to the point of dysfunction precisely so that private enterprise can step in. And when magical market forces fail to stem the slide into oblivion, “Welp, sorry, th-th-that’s all folks,” say the supposed elite. “Nothing we can do to ease your suffering! Our attentions turn instead to ourselves, the courtiers and sycophants surrounding us, and the institutions that enable our perfidy. Now go fuck off somewhere and die, troubling us no more.”

/rant off

I’m aware of at least two authors who describe American character in less than glowing terms: Alexis de Tocqueville and Morris Berman. Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America (two vols., 1835 and 1840) is among the most cited, least read (by 21st-century Americans, anyway) books about America. (I admit to not having read it.) Berman’s American trilogy (titles unnamed, all of which I’ve read) is better known by contemporary Americans (those who read, anyway) and is unflinching in its denunciation of, among other things, our prideful stupidity. Undoubtedly, others have taken a crack at describing American character.

American identity, OTOH, if such a thing even exists, is somewhat more elusive for a variety of reasons. For instance, Americans lack the formative centuries or millennia of history Europeans and Asians have at their disposal. Moreover, Americans (except for Native Americans — multiple synonyms and euphemisms available) are immigrants (or their descendants) drawn from all around the globe. Accordingly, we lack a coherent unifying narrative about who we are. The American melting pot may come closest but is insufficient in its generality. National identity may well be fraying in other societies as each loses its distinctiveness over time. Nonetheless, two influential factors to formation of a loose American identity are negative identity (defining oneself as against others, e.g., adolescent rebellion rather fitting for a young nation) and borrowed identity (better known as cultural appropriation). The latter has been among the chief complaints of social justice warriors.

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