White liberals courageously listening

Author’s Note: If it is in any way unclear, I’m writing this in disgust at my own silence up until now.

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In the wake of the Charleston, SC, massacre which left nine dead at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, white liberals all across the country are paying close, silent attention to activists of color.

This Wednesday, Dylann Roof sat with church goers for an hour before drawing a gun, making racial threats, and then killing nine people of color in cold blood inspiring impotent disgust among most of America’s white liberals.

“I’ve been reading material from Rev. Denise AndersonBlack Girl Dangerous, the NAACP, and Black Lives Matter nonstop these past couple days,” said Bloomington, MN, resident Audra Johnson. “It’s the least I can do, of course.”

Thousands of white liberals read in reserved, unexpressed revulsion as news broke that Roof wanted to start a race war.  Many quietly bristled as mainstream news sources called Roof “mentally ill” and “a lone wolf” instead of a terrorist motivated by racial hatred endemic in American culture.  Some even considered contacting the media and demanding better, more honest reporting, but felt it wasn’t their place.

“It really disgusts me to hear that the NRA is already blaming the victims, saying that this could have been prevented if they had guns,” Niel Clerks of Aurora, MA, considered telling a coworker he knows to be a proud NRA member, but then thought better of it. “That’s another political issue.  I mean, I could bring up Sandy Hook or Columbine, but that might make things too complicated. I should educate myself more,” Clerks thought to himself with resolve.

Both Pew Research and the Public Religion Research Institute have both found that since the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, and Eric Garner, more white liberal Americans than ever before are silently listening in righteous rage to activists and community leaders pleading for action.

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Trump Plan for Helping Working Americans: $50 per vote

Stating that he has already instituted his policies to help lower and middle class Americans and combat income inequality, Donald Trump paid average citizens to cheer him on as he announced his bid for the presidency.

“For every red-blooded, white American born in these United States, I promise to give you $50 for your support in the 2016 election,” Trump said conspiratorially, adding loudly, “And I will make this nation great again!”

Critics point out that Trump could not pay $50 to every registered voter, but his spokesman said that he does not expect every voter to support him. “We just need enough desperate people for him to be president,” said a member of the campaign team. “Besides, if every registered voter threw in for him, the difference would be negligible. Can you imagine what you would do with $42?”

Walmart has come out in support of Trump’s campaign. “Many of our products are more attainable with Trump’s stimulus plan,” they said in a press release.

Trump closed his announcement speech by saying, “We need to re-brand American. And if you want to know my plan for defeating ISIS, I’ll let you in for a limited-time offer of $25.”

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Republicans criticize “alarmist” report that 97% of astronomers agree asteroid will kill most life on Earth

A new report released by NASA has re-ignited the political debate over the Extinction-Event Asteroid.

While the study finds that 97% of actively publishing astronomers agree that the oncoming asteroid will kill the majority of plant and animal life on Earth, Republicans criticized it as “alarmist rhetoric” created by the liberal media. One of Congress’ most vocal Asteroid skeptics, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), took to the floor today holding a fist-sized rock, saying, “In case you have forgotten, these are all over the place,” before tossing it at the Chairman’s desk.

“Just look up, people!” says Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX). “Do you see a fiery ball of interstellar matter hurtling toward us? I didn’t think so.”

Asteroid activists across the country and world, however, have praised the new study. “If we don’t take action soon, we may miss our two-year deadline before Earth’s next extinction event,” said an exhausted and exasperated Bill Nye “the Science Guy,” his trademark bow-tie hanging limply from his neck. “Twenty years ago, we had options. Now… maybe Hollywood has some ideas.”

Astronomers say the Asteroid fits the hypothesized description of the asteroid that allegedly caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event during which three-quarters of the planet’s species went extinct. Numerous solutions to address the Asteroid problem have been presented, most notably using a gravity tractor, focused solar energy, a mass driver, and even launching a nuclear explosive device at the near-Earth object. Skeptics say all these proposals are “economically infeasible.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) released a response shortly after NASA’s announcement, stating, “Asteroid activists would have Americans (and indeed all of earth’s citizens) catastrophically reorganize our world economy and way of life to appease science fiction conspiracy theorists. NASA itself acknowledges these plans will directly lead to increased taxes, job losses in the disaster recovery sector, and decreased household disposable income.”

All the declared and expected Republican presidential candidates quickly condemned the NASA report. “Meteors have hit the Earth before,” said Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). “Experts even say that we get hit by a meteorite five to ten times a year.”

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, the favored candidate of the Koch brothers, has gone even further, suggesting, “If there’s actually a giant asteroid hurtling toward earth, it may even be a good thing,” In a time of limited resources, population reduction will lead to greater prosperity for the survivors, Walker said.

After being contacted for this article, writer and activist Naomi Klein refused to answer interview questions, saying only, “I told all of you assholes. Do you really think this changes anything? We’re all fucked.”

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Thoughts on Gratitude

When I was working at a housing rehab nonprofit in New Orleans one of our celebrity donors was working on-site working with my friend Josh. She asked Josh how much he and the rest of us were paid and he explained that we have a living stipend of about $12,000 for ten months.

She said,  “You get $12,000 a month?”

“No,” he said, “$12,000 total for ten months.”

When he had his back turned and was holding up a piece of drywall, he felt her reach into his pocket and leave something there. Josh’s first thought was that her boyfriend, who was present and a lot bigger and stronger than him, was going to beat the shit out of him. Then Josh realized she had put a hundred dollar bill in his pocket.

Josh told this story to me and our supervisor later. Our supervisor just nodded and said, “And you know what you do in a situation like that, right?” We both shook our heads. He said, “You say ‘thank you’ and mean it, and you accept their generosity.”

I hate accepting help. If someone offers their time or money or any other resource to me, I usually decline as politely as possible. God forbid I’d ever ask for it in the first place. At least, that was my way for most of my life, but after that conversation and my term of service in New Orleans, my attitude started to change.

When I moved to the Twin Cities, I finally got a job where I was paid more than a living wage (after about six months of job-searching). It was then that I was finally able to donate my time and money to my friends’ arts projects and causes in which I believe. The first, of course, was NPR.

But, being able to support these organizations is a privilege. I earn more than I need to live and I’m happy to give what I can. With that in mind, that’s ironic because I was irked by how vehemently most people try to refuse help.

I’m a fundraiser, which is a skill set that few people have and even fewer enjoy doing. Since many of my friends and acquaintances are artists, I’ve offered on several occasions to help out by finding grants, patrons, and audiences, but usually people would decline or never follow up.

“Philanthropy is vanity,” so the saying goes. To be upset that people didn’t want my help was childish. But there is something about how refusing help categorically does bother me, but for a different reason than vanity.

In American society, we are raised to believe that hard work leads to success is a natural law just like gravity is the reason objects fall toward the earth. You get out exactly as much as you put in. A person’s success in life is how much wealth they’ve accumulated.

The insidious flip-side of that attitude is that failure is entirely your fault. To accept help is to be weak and shameful, because you shouldn’t need it in the first place. After all, we’re pioneers. If you can’t survive on your own grit, you don’t deserve to. It’s individualism taken to the brutal extreme.

But then, isn’t there something a little insulting about accepting someone else’s help? Who wants to be in a position where they have to accept gratuity from someone better off, let alone admit it? It’s humiliating to say that you can’t make it without assistance.

Maybe not. None of us are self-made and no one lives in a vacuum. As babies and seniors, we’re more or less entirely dependent on other people. We rely on others for our education, resources, and consumers of our work. So why is Giving different?

I don’t believe in altruism. You’re always getting something whenever you give, whether its in an actual monetary transaction or making a donation to a food shelf for the good feeling it gives you. That doesn’t mean that doing something that mostly benefits someone else is invalid because there might be a bit of selfish intent. We all depend on one another. What’s important is realizing that generosity, reciprocity, and empathy are essential.

To give is Good. And so is to receive gratefully.

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Prompt: Someone you used to know

A friend of mine recently contacted me to say that he was in acting school and I keep coming up in his subconscious. The context is that there’s an exercise the actors do in which you imagine talking to someone you know well and act it out.

As acting techniques go, that’s on the kinder end of the spectrum. Another friend of mine in college told me about when her teacher made her do a monologue given by Allison in Proof. The character is afraid she’s beginning to exhibit signs of schizophrenia and so my friend’s teacher made her go sit in the corner and scream “Please, God, don’t make me crazy!” For five minutes. I saw her a few hours after this and she was still chain smoking. And they say writers are masochists.

But, I can’t claim the moral high ground. When I directed plays, I used to make my actors shout their lines at each other. Besides the fact that it’s amusing as hell, it actually is very effective in getting people to memorize their parts.

Back to the first friend and his subconscious. The exercise he described sounds a lot like one of my favorite prompts, which I will now share with you.

Ideally, someone else is supposed to read this aloud. It’s almost a form of meditation or therapy, but this will have to do.

Imagine you are in a place you know very well. It’s a place you find comforting and meaningful. Maybe it’s your childhood bedroom, your college Animal House-style living room, a church sanctuary, your old office (assuming you liked that job), or your favorite bar.

You walk in, and you are alone. It’s quiet and peaceful. But, there’s a difference: the walls are covered in pictures. Photos of friends, family, people you associate with a the place you’re in, and people who never set foot there.

One picture, in particular, catches your attention. You walk over and study it. It’s of someone you know very well, but haven’t spoken to for a long time. Suddenly, that person walks through the door.

Write the conversation you have.

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(Iowa City, the Ivy House. The living room is crammed with furniture buried under layers of junk, jackets, and books. It smells like pizza, dust, and wine. Autumn. The back door opens, closes, and someone walks through the mudroom, kitchen, and library and stands in front of me. It’s Siouxsie Sioux from the Banshees.)

SS: You know, we’ve never actually met. I don’t think this is really in the spirit of the exercise.

Me: (Aside to the audience in the style of Shakespeare or Frank Underwood) In the three years that my friends occupied the Ivy House, about twelve people lived there sporadically. They left all sorts of stuff behind, particularly the guy who occupied my room before I moved in. One thing that he left was this poster. At first it terrified me, but then Stockholm Syndrome kicked in. Three months later, when he came to collect his shit, I hid the poster and have had it with me ever since.

SS: I can hear you.

Me: The People need context.

SS: There’s really no context to explain why I’m here.

Me: Why don’t we talk anymore, Siouxsie?

SS: You graduated college. As imaginary friends go, I had some staying power.

Me: What does that say about my current state?

SS: I’m not going to speculate. So, what do you want to talk about?

Me: … Want to go to Uglies?

SS: Sure.

(Exit all. End scene.)

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This is a great prompt to exercise writing dialogue. The idea is that if you write a conversation between yourself and someone you know well, the dialogue will sound more natural. That’s the trick to writing dialogue — you have to know your characters and their intentions well enough that they seem to you like old friends.

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Defending “Nothing in Particular”

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the rise religious non-affiliation in America. While everyone expected the usual angry rants from the conservative right, a lot of material has been put forward by the “Nones” (I know the term is offensive to some, but I kind of like it). Being unaffiliated, and having had a rough time of it when I was a kid, I’ve tried to look for stories about my own experience. So I was surprised when I found nothing out there.

Or, at least, I have found practically nothing from the agnostic point of view, but plenty from the atheist and militant anti-religion camp. A few months ago I read Alternet’s Greta Christina’s “Christianity’s Faith-Based Freakout: Why Atheism Makes Believers Uncomfortable” which resonated with me, for the first half at least, and was compelled to write the following. I was reluctant to publish it because talking about my faith makes me uncomfortable, but I’m tired of reading gems like this, which is basically hateful trash and makes all of us Nones look bad. Moreover, I haven’t read anything expressing my point of view. Then I read Christina’s article and thought I’d found a voice I liked, but was mistaken.

Christina relates several stories about professed Atheists and other Nones being asked, and sometimes forced by friends and family, to “go through the motions.” They weren’t allowed to not practice religion. This fit my own experience, and I appreciated finding out I wasn’t alone.

But I take exception is the second half of Christina’s essay where she says,

“Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. But the simple act of coming out as an atheist denies it this consent. Even if atheists never debate believers or try to persuade them out of their beliefs; even if all we ever do is say out loud, ‘Actually, I’m an atheist,’ we’re still denying our consent. And that throws a monkey wrench into religion’s engine.”

Her point is that atheism is objectively better than theism. That belief in God, or any religious dogma, crumbles before skepticism and dissent.

Defending your beliefs is admirable, but using that to de-legitimize someone else’s is just mean-spirited.

Anyway, her argument is flawed because it works both ways: if an atheist’s nonbelief should be threatening to a theist, so should the reverse. I know a lot of rational, well-informed believers (and there are a whole hell of a lot more of them than us Nones), but that doesn’t make me uneasy about my convictions.

That said, I’ve never felt oppressed for my lack of religiosity – just insulted. I don’t harbor ill-will towards religious people, and I know I’m privileged to have grown up in a town where expressing my differences didn’t get me ostracized or make me the target of a hate crime.

Still, I don’t like narcissism, or evangelism, or the glib way anyone with firm beliefs denounces someone else’s. And I’m really skeptical of absolutes.

Since the nineties, it’s become less stigmatized to identify as non-affiliated – whether that means calling yourself atheist, agnostic, indifferent, or just nothing in particular. I’ve noticed a lot of articles written by atheists, especially responding to a late-2012 Pew Research study that found that one in five Americans identify as “none,” which is an all-time high (in 1990, it was 8%). Most spend a lot of time dwelling on “why?” Why is non-affiliation becoming so popular?

Explanations range from the rise of the internet to mainstream American religion’s intolerance of gay marriage. Others argue that because media has given us so much access to atrocities all around the world, and the ability to talk about it, that it’s hard to believe in an all-loving god. No matter what the reason, there seems to be a consensus that religion, not God, is dying in America

I’m skeptical. Written language has been around for a long time, but remembering things hasn’t gone out of style, like Plato feared. That may be a bad comparison, but my point is that people always think the world is ending and it never is.

I feel there’s a simpler explanation: there have always been a lot of atheists/agnostics/desiring–non-affiliates and it’s only now become socially acceptable to be openly None. I’ve got nothing to back that up, so it’s just a hunch.

Here, I’m tempted to draw a parallel between Nones and a plethora of innate but formerly unrecognized identities, but I’m not entirely sure that’s fair. You choose religion, not sexual identity.

Or do you? Beliefs, I mean, not religion (which you can choose) or sexual identity (which you can’t choose). Can you choose to believe in something? You can choose to put your faith in a political party, but could you make yourself believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Or Russell’s Teapot?

I cannot bring myself to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. The idea strikes me as absurd (no offense meant to believers). My rationality prohibits it, because I can’t reconcile the idea of an OSPB God with the Problem of Evil (or Suffering). I’ve been fair to the apologists and looked for arguments against me, and the most compelling one I’ve found is that Good necessitates Evil, but that doesn’t seem right because of the whole omnipotent thing.

And I’m frankly insulted (and believe others should be, too) by Pascal’s Wager, which basically says “if God exists you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by believing in God.” It makes Belief into an act of ultimate (literally) selfishness.

Similarly, I can’t convince myself not to believe in God. That may be a vestigial sympathy from my upbringing and cultural heritage, but it’s about as entrenched as my belief in causality and the intrinsic worth of human life.

So, I’m an agnostic, which is the reason I’m writing this in the first place. Plenty of atheists and theists have thrown in to this debate, but I haven’t seen anyone give a passionate defense of agnosticism. Moreover, a lot of the authors who’ve discussed the Great War between non-affiliation and religiosity talk about agnostics and the other Nones who don’t identify as atheist with bafflement and contempt.

Somebody’s got to stand up for the “nothing in particulars.”

Agnostics get a bad rap. In the Life of Pi, the narrator says, “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” Richard Dawkins feels the same way, calling agnosticism “intellectual cowardice.” (I like to think agnosticism is even more hardcore than atheism, because it even finds the certainty that there is no god suspect. In that way, atheists actually have more in common with theists than agnostics do.) Most people seem to think the philosophy is milquetoast at best or, like atheism, heretical/sacrilegious/irreverent (choose your term) at worst.

But, we’ve got the majority (of the minority) on our side. The Pew Study divided the “Nones” into three groups: atheists, agnostics, and ‘nothing in particular.’ Seventeen percent identify as agnostic and “Among the ‘nothing in particulars,’ about eight-in-ten (81%) say they believe in God or a universal spirit – and a plurality of those who believe in God say they are ‘absolutely certain’ about this belief.”

Religious affiliation is declining in the United States, but that doesn’t mean spirituality and faith are, too.

I think that most of the Nones would agree that faith is complicated and emotional and there are more immediate things begging our attention. That’s how I felt about it for years. For most of my adult life, I’ve just side-stepped the problem and not thought about it. The technical term here is apatheism (functional indifference to religion and theism) or, in my case, pragmatic agnosticism.

Those are the terms that probably best describe most Nones. Jezebel’s Madeleine Davies writes a pretty good sum-up, “I guess I’m an atheist. Or I would be if I identified as anything, except — like a lot of my peers — I don’t… The only thing that unites us is the belief (if you can even call it that) that there is no god. This is also why (for me), the idea of an atheist convention is so stupid.”

I included that last part because I do think atheist conventions are anything but stupid. I’m sympathetic to her definition of identity (or lack thereof), but conventions and institutions like the Secular Coalition of America are important. The religious majority throw us together into one big pot and are distrustful of non-theists. By virtue of other people’s prejudices, it’s important to have an advocate to prevent and combat discrimination (or worse).

Back to my original point, just because I choose to be unaffiliated doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to the conversation. I’ve studied religion and philosophy, but, until recently, I haven’t asked myself how I felt. I can, of course, only speak for myself, but I think that my sentiment is shared by a lot of the Nones out there.

The English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term “agnosticism” in 1869, and defined it thus,

“Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle … Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

Wikipedia offers a more technical definition that goes, “Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, as well as other religious and metaphysical claims—are unknown or unknowable.” I prefer the former, but the latter describes what most people think of as “agnosticism,” that the existence of god (OSPB or otherwise) is impossible to prove to disprove.

There is a political angle to this. Bertrand Russell has a terrific short piece about how rationalism cuts two ways. Basically, he says there are limits to human knowledge, so everyone needs to calm the fuck down and stop doing things like burning people at stake.

For me, agnosticism means embracing skepticism, humility, and pragmatism.

It’s an attitude more than a method or view. Treat other beliefs with respect and listen carefully, because you might find some new ideas useful and appealing. Realize that there’s a sliding scale of certainty. There are things we can be pretty certain about (like that you’re reading an article about agnosticism right now) and others that are basically impossible to prove (like the non-existence of, well, anything).

That suits me. I write grants for a living, so structured arguments based on documented facts are kind of important to me. But I have also experienced transcendental feelings, have spiritual leanings, and am frequently afflicted with sensawunda.

And this isn’t all to say I don’t have firm beliefs or that agnosticism prohibits them (like not burning people at stake for disagreeing with me). I believe education and health care are rights, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is ridiculous, we have a responsibility to care for our environment, that people are mostly good but capable atrocities, and a plenitude of other things. Moreover, I think I have pretty legitimate reasons for believing all of it. And if you disagree, then I’m more than happy to fight you on the issue.

I’m not evangelizing here, or trying to denounce anyone else’s firmly held convictions. It seems to me that in all the angry clamor someone needs to point out that there’s a middle ground and you don’t need to submit entirely to one dogma or another to lead the Good Life.

Sometimes, it’s fun to just marvel at how interesting the world can be without absolute truths.

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Two Farmers

I started listening to Intelligence Squared debates recently and have enjoyed as much as I hate them. The level of civility (usually) and cogency of argument are refreshing compared to shows like Cross Fire or Politically Incorrect, but I dislike the way the motions are phrased, because they usually presuppose and give bias to one side or the other. For instance, I just listened to he Big Government Is Destroying the American Dream episode, the title of which assumes that we have a Big Government and that big government is Bad. Predictably, the side arguing for the motion won, but the part that really bothered me was Art Laffer’s comment:

“… [I]f something doesn’t work in a two person economy, it’s not good economics. Take two farmers, that’s the whole world. If one of those farmers gets unemployment benefits, guess who pays for it? The other farmer.”
What a ludicrous and brutal claim. How can the economics between two people have anything to do with financial policy? If that were true, we wouldn’t have two separate fields, micro and macro economics, that operate according to completely different rules and in completely different environments.

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, I’ll roll with it.

So, let’s say our two farmers are named Mary Room and Cato Schroedinger. They’re the only two farmers after some horrific apocalypse.  According to Wikipedia, citing the Future of Humanity Institute, the most probable apocalyptic scenarios are (ignoring global warming) molecular nanotechnology weapons and artificial intelligence. We’re all familiar with the latter thanks to Terminator, so we’ll go with that route.

Mary and Cato are the last two farmers on earth, probably as a pet project of our new AI overlords. They are both master organic farmer-survivalists the likes of which are only seen in the Swiss Family Robinson. Everyone dies during the winter, which leaves them both ample time to assess and come to terms with their current situation:

MR: Everyone’s dead.

CS: I guess so.

MR: You checked online, right?

CS: Of course.

Having prepared for this moment their entire adult lives, they’re set. They’ve got one-acre farmhouses with cows, chickens, seeds, woods, and all the things one needs to run and independent farm. Because they are both of the same opinion about how the world’s going to end, their farms are adjacent.

Things are going well. Everyone’s dead, but they have a crop coming up, sufficient canned food, and the high morale that only comes with vindication. Being both pragmatists, they decide to re-start the human race and fuck as often as possible, which isn’t often because running a farm independently is really hard work.

But then, Cato’s cows and pigs die. His field is hit by a drought, which inexplicably affects him without hitting Mary (AI overlords). His well dries up, his farmstead burns down, and his chickens are eaten by wild boars.

So, Cato goes to Mary’s homestead and explains the situation:

CS: I’m going to die. Please help.

But, little did Cato realize that Mary was a student of the Chicago school of economics. She replies:

MR: How is that my problem?

After a protracted debate about the free market and entitlement programs, Cato goes back to his homestead and never returns. Mary assumes he died, but isn’t sure. She is sure, however, that if she had shared her food she would have just given a free lunch (breakfast and dinner) to a slacker who didn’t have the determination to survive in the post-apocalyptic reality of the world. The AI overlords reward her with a piece of cake, but in private comment:

A1: They really thought that was a good idea?

A2: Well, they are made of meat.

Meanwhile, the two writers left alive and thrown together in a cramped apartment somewhere else on the depopulated earth spend a few days grumbling about how they don’t have the writing tools they prefer, drink, scribble, make awkward sexual advances, and then die of dehydration.

We won’t discuss the two remaining CEOs. It’s too gruesome.

 

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Book Review: This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

I admittedly have a crush on Naomi Klein.

Well, This Changes Everything is excellent. That’s the gist of it. And I think everyone should read it.

I don’t feel like explaining the book or Klein’s arguments, because you should read and interpret them yourself. But, to sum up, she says that the societal changes we must undergo to address and mitigate climate change will create a more just and equitable society. Klein isn’t so much concerned with climate change itself as with its relationship to modern progressivism. I find it refreshing, since I have always been, and increasingly am, more skeptical of the philosophy that unfettered free market capitalism is Good and anything in the public sector is Bad.

My admiration for the book isn’t diminished by the one flaw I find with it, and the one that I’ve been struggling with professionally for a while: what is this zero-carbon world supposed to look like?

A friend of mine is a PhD student specializing in environmental communications. When I asked him if he knew of any books or resources that talked about what exactly we’re are trying to achieve, he said, “That’s a problem with the field: lots of critique with no vision of how to improve it.”

Before I started working for an conservation nonprofit, I was aware but didn’t particularly care about environmental issues. My roommate, Derek (the Viking), a botanist, and I had a conversation about Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and how I didn’t like it because the book’s prescription sounds genocidal.

“Do you know the term ‘Carrying capacity?'” Derek asked. “It’s the maximum population size a given environment can sustain and the human population is way beyond it.”

I argued that Thomas Malthus predicted that the population couldn’t move past where it was in the 19th century, but never anticipated the tractor. Derek looked bewildered by this and now I understand why. Because we have thousands of years of innovation-saving-society scenarios to look at, it’s hard to imagine that we won’t invent our way out of the problem. But as soon as there is one catastrophic event that we can’t use brute intelligence to get out of, that’s it. That we, as a species, could be living on borrowed time and debt sounds absurd. But if you really think about it, assuming that some genius is going to save us all is pretty repellant, too (see, The Watchmen). In other words, it’s hubris, or, worse, a stupid acquiescence.

But the Malthusian thing still bothers me. If the situation is going to get as bad as the research indicates, how do we save seven billion people, let alone provide a just standard of living for them? Klein talks about it, but doesn’t offer any concrete advice, but mostly because the answer is: it’s complicated. Or, maybe, she does say what we need to do and it’s “that depends…”

The greatest obstacle to overcoming climate change is not technical, but conceptual. Just like the eponymous Ishmael explains, we need to see ourselves as part of the world, not masters of it. The world isn’t a resource, but a source. Everything that we take, we take from ourselves or future generations. Likewise for giving.

The reason this all interests me is that I work for an environmental nonprofit and am in communications. The environmental movement is in a bit of a predicament right now because we just fended off a concentrated attack from the denialist camp that eroded confidence in the science and we’re only starting to climb our way out of the post-2006 slump in public opinion. While most people are paying attention to the facts and are aware that we are in a serious situation, it’s still a low priority.

It’s just not fair.

When Fox News gets to say, every day, that the world is ending, people act. When environmentalists say the apocalypse is taking place right now, people shrug it off and say, “That’s just the price we pay.”

A lot has been written about this phenomenon, but I really do think that the problem is in the messaging. Progressives abhor hyperbole and are distrustful of Doom and Gloom. It doesn’t help that the language of science doesn’t really work in American political dialogue, because, in science, the data can always be re-interpreted and new theories could, and probably will, replace the old. Whenever something is asserted scientifically, it’s in the form, “The data indicates…” not “the data proves…”

The protagonist of Thank You for Smoking makes a similar point, that political power and public opinion follow the people who offer the least doubt and most confidence. Demagogues don’t have to prove that they’re right, just that we might be wrong. By offering the data with caveats, we’re winning the argument for our opponents.

The Left’s greatest weakness is one of it’s defining strengths: skepticism.  Progressivism is an agnostic political theory that can’t stand absolutes. What I’ve learned by reading Klein’s Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything, is that the progressivist’s position is often portrayed by the reactionary as “absolute” when it is, in fact, not. It’s not communist, socialist, totalitarian, Nazi, or whatever else, to say our society should regulate the market and ensure a reasonable standard of living for even our poorest.

That’s what I really admire about Klein, that she takes a hard-line in a philosophy that prides itself on not being hard-line. Freedom and independence is good. But so is compassion, reciprocity, generosity, and duty toward the society that enabled us to thrive.

So, the book means a lot to me. I recommend it. Also, Greed Is Not Good.

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Filed under Nonprofiteers, Progress, Rant, Reading Recommendations, Review

New Year’s

On New Year’s Eve, my girlfriend and I went to a comedy performance and party at the Fox Egg Gallery. After the show a handful of us stayed around to help clean up and have a small celebration. Of course, someone started singing “Auld Lang Syne” and one of the performers said, “That song means something very different to me after this godawful year. Fuck old acquaintances.”

The general consensus going around the room was that 2014 was productive and awful. Everyone said that they had accomplished a great deal over the past twelve months, but they had no idea how much they  would have to pay for it. I tend to read (extremely) progressive media and there seems to be tentative optimism that we may see major reforms in social justice and take steps toward addressing climate change. I wonder if it’s not all just wishful thinking at the beginning of the New Year.

For me, 2014 was nothing if not unusual. It’s the first year since I was a freshman in college that I haven’t moved. It’s the first time since graduating that I’ve held the same job for more than a year, and I’m starting to think that I may have found a career. On the other hand, I feel like I haven’t made much personal progress on a lot of fronts, particularly with my writing and community involvement. Sure, I’ve published a few more short stories and now I’m a producer for the Minneapolis Story Club (and, unexpectedly, now a member of some kind of Story Arts), but it’s hard not to feel that I’m running in place. Or maybe this is just a sign that I’m getting older because the jarring life transitions are going to be fewer and farther between.

When I started writing this post, I had this quote stuck in my head from Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Consulting Wikipedia for material and to procrastinate, I learned that she was good friends with the great mime Harpo Marx, which felt meaningful to me because I don’t just hate writing, I hate not writing. I enter a vicious circle of uncertainty, because I often want to write about issues that concern me, but I can’t find anything meaningful to say about them. So, I tend to stay quiet, which, for most of issues I care about, is part of the problem.

I often hear people talk about how much they hate the New Year, because it’s just a time for making and breaking promises. I’ve always liked the holiday, even though I have rarely kept my resolutions. Sometimes I think it would be easier just to make a list of all the things I won’t do, because that feels more honest. For instance, I won’t run a marathon, nor will I force myself to do things I loathe “just for the experience.” I will not write what I think other people want to read. I will not be timid. I will not tell myself to play less video games. I will take things less seriously.

That seems reasonable, and a lot better for my mental health.

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Filed under Anxieties, Rant, Things That Happen, Uncategorized

Anxiety #1: Writer’s Block

With every sentence there’s that lingering fear that it will be your last.

Is creativity finite? Is there only so much we can use before it’s gone? Or is it a muscle that strains?

What does it mean when you can’t write?

Of course you can write. Pick up the pen. Start typing. Dictate. Commit it to something like a permanent medium.

Then hate it. Tear it up. Rearrange or edit or destroy it. Rarely love it.

There’s no such thing as writer’s block, just the fear of writing shit. And there is so much of it. Not just in the rough drafts and notebooks lining up your bookshelf and cluttering up your hard drive, but in the libraries and bookstores, too. People like it, you think. There’s hope.

But I’m not going to write crap. I’m going to be remembered as a genius. The Sage of Minneapolis. At least I’ll be remembered for not being a hack.

But what’s wrong with being a hack? A good hack probably eats better than a good Serious Writer. There’s always a chance that someone later will read your piles of shit and interpret it as a gold. It happened to Raymond Chandler. Or at least the cultural studies department will create merit.

Again, what’s wrong with being a hack? People want to consume what makes them happy. Willy Wonka seemed okay with what he did, and his products caused diabetes, whereas what you do can, at worst, cost someone a few hours. John Carpenter, Patricia Highsmith, Barbara Kingsolver, Ernest Hemingway. Sure, I could become them, pandering to my audience. Give them what they want and make a living.

Instead, you write an essay with a confused narrator, sliding between first and second person. Is this even an essay?

It’s something. And it’s a couple hundred words of something. Writer’s block = overcome.

Why does this bother you so much?

Because writing is now part of your identity, and it would be stupid not to treat it as something sacred, or a useful body part. Take care of your kidneys.

Someone once told me that when you’re doing a comedy routine you have to treat your audience with contempt. You have to not care if they laugh or not. Transferring the lesson, you have to not care if your readers like your work as long as they read it. Just like Hemingway.

But you really should be writing. Something else. Because this isn’t enough. There’s a notebook filled with story prompts and half filled ideas and you have another notebook with two aborted rough drafts. This isn’t an essay – it’s an excuse not to write something you care about more. But it’s kind of fun.

This is an ending of sorts.

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Filed under Anxieties, Writing