Later On

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Archive for the ‘Memes’ Category

The Decline of the American World

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Tom McTague writes in the Atlantic:

“He hated America very deeply,” John le Carré wrote of his fictional Soviet mole, Bill Haydon, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Haydon had just been unmasked as a double agent at the heart of Britain’s secret service, one whose treachery was motivated by animus, not so much to England but to America. “It’s an aesthetic judgment as much as anything,” Haydon explained, before hastily adding: “Partly a moral one, of course.”

I thought of this as I watched the scenes of protest and violence over the killing of George Floyd spread across the United States and then here in Europe and beyond. The whole thing looked so ugly at first—so full of hate, and violence, and raw, undiluted prejudice against the protesters. The beauty of America seemed to have gone, the optimism and charm and easy informality that entrances so many of us from abroad.

At one level, the ugliness of the moment seems a trite observation to make. And yet it gets to the core of the complicated relationship the rest of the world has with America. In Tinker Tailor, Haydon at first attempts to justify his betrayal with a long political apologia, but, in the end, as he and le Carré’s hero, the master spy George Smiley, both know, the politics are just the shell. The real motivation lies underneath: the aesthetic, the instinct. Haydon—upper class, educated, cultured, European—just could not stand the sight of America. For Haydon and many others like him in the real world, this visceral loathing proved so great that it blinded them to the horrors of the Soviet Union, ones that went far beyond the aesthetic.

Le Carré’s reflection on the motivations of anti-Americanism—bound up, as they are, with his own ambivalent feelings about the United States—are as relevant today as they were in 1974, when the novel was first published. Where there was then Richard Nixon, there is now Donald Trump, a caricature of what the Haydons of this world already despise: brash, grasping, rich, and in charge. In the president and first lady, the burning cities and race divides, the police brutality and poverty, an image of America is beamed out, confirming the prejudices that much of the world already have—while also serving as a useful device to obscure its own injustices, hypocrisies, racism, and ugliness.

It is hard to escape the feeling that this is a uniquely humiliating moment for America. As citizens of the world the United States created, we are accustomed to listening to those who loathe America, admire America, and fear America (sometimes all at the same time). But feeling pity for America? That one is new, even if the schadenfreude is painfully myopic. If it’s the aesthetic that matters, the U.S. today simply doesn’t look like the country that the rest of us should aspire to, envy, or replicate.Even in previous moments of American vulnerability, Washington reigned supreme. Whatever moral or strategic challenge it faced, there was a sense that its political vibrancy matched its economic and military might, that its system and democratic culture were so deeply rooted that it could always regenerate itself. It was as if the very idea of America mattered, an engine driving it on whatever other glitches existed under the hood. Now, something appears to be changing. America seems mired, its very ability to rebound in question. A new power has emerged on the world stage to challenge American supremacy—China—with a weapon the Soviet Union never possessed: mutually assured economic destruction.

China, unlike the Soviet Union, is able to offer a measure of wealth, vibrancy, and technological advancement—albeit not yet to the same level as the United States—while protected by a silk curtain of Western cultural and linguistic incomprehension. In contrast, if America were a family, it would be the Kardashian clan, living its life in the open glare of a gawping, global public—its comings and goings, flaws and contradictions, there for all to see. Today, from the outside, it looks as if this strange, dysfunctional, but highly successful upstart of a family were suffering a sort of full-scale breakdown; what made that family great is apparently no longer enough to prevent its decline.

The U.S.—uniquely among nations—must suffer the agony of this existential struggle in the company of the rest of us. America’s drama quickly becomes our drama. Driving to meet a friend here in London as the protests first erupted in the States, I passed a teenager in a basketball jersey with jordan 23 emblazoned on the back; I noticed it because my wife and I had been watching The Last Dance on Netflix, a documentary about an American sports team, on an American streaming platform. The friend told me he’d spotted graffiti on his way over: i can’t breathe. In the weeks since, protesters have marched in London, Berlin, Paris, Auckland, and elsewhere in support of Black Lives Matter, reflecting the extraordinary cultural hold the United States continues to have over the rest of the Western world.

At one rally in London, the British heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua rapped the lyrics to Tupac’s “Changes” alongside other protesters. The words, so jarring, powerful, and American, are yet so easily translatable and seemingly universal—even though Britain’s police are largely unarmed and there are very few police shootings. Since the initial outpouring of support for George Floyd, the spotlight has turned inward here in Europe. A statue of an old slave trader was torn down in Bristol, while one of Winston Churchill was vandalized with the word racist in London. In Belgium, protesters targeted memorials to Leopold II, the Belgian king who made Congo his own genocidal private property. The spark may have been lit in America, but the global fires are being kept alive by the fuel of national grievances.

For the United States, this cultural dominance is both an enormous strength and a subtle weakness. It draws in talented outsiders to study, build businesses, and rejuvenate itself, molding and dragging the world with it as it does, influencing and distorting those unable to escape its pull. Yet this dominance comes with a cost: The world can see into America, but America cannot look back. And today, the ugliness that is on display is amplified, not calmed, by the American president.

To understand how this moment in U.S. history is being seen in the rest of the world, I spoke to more than a dozen senior diplomats, government officials, politicians, and academics from five major European countries, including advisers to two of its most powerful leaders, as well as to the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. From these conversations, most of which took place on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, a picture emerged in which America’s closest allies are looking on with a kind of stunned incomprehension, unsure of what will happen, what it means, and what they should do, largely bound together with angst and a shared sense, as one influential adviser told me, that America and the West are approaching something of a fin de siècle. “The moment is pregnant,” this adviser said. “We just don’t know what with.”

Today’s convulsions are not without precedent—many I spoke to cited previous protests and riots, or America’s diminished standing after the Iraq War in 2003 (a war, to be sure, supported by Britain and other European countries)—yet the confluence of recent events and modern forces has made the present challenge particularly dangerous. The . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2020 at 9:59 pm

Permanent Assumptions

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Morgan Housel writes at Collaborative Fund:

If you were told in January what April would look like, you wouldn’t have believed it. If you were told in April that in May we’d face a nationwide protest so important it would crowd out almost all Covid-19 news, you wouldn’t have believed it.

How do you analyze the world when everything feels broken?

And how do you even begin to make sense of the future when things change so fast?

Humbly, is the answer.

But humility doesn’t mean clueless.

Some things are always changing and can’t be known. There can also be a handful of things you have unshakable faith in – your permanent assumptions.

Realizing it’s not inconsistent to have no view about the future path of some things but unwavering views about the path of others is how you stay humble without giving up. And the good news when the world is a dark cloud of uncertainty is that those permanent assumptions tend to be what matter most over time.

Amazon is successful because it predicted how the world would change. But it’s been really successful because it bet heavily on what wouldn’t change – a permanent assumption. Jeff Bezos said:

You can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, “Jeff I love Amazon, I just wish the prices were a little higher.” Or, “I love Amazon, I just wish you’d deliver a little slower.” Impossible.

So we know the energy we put into these things today will still be paying off dividends 10 years from now. When you have something you know is true, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.

When you have something you know is true, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it. That’s why permanent assumptions are important.

I have no idea what’s going to happen next in the economy or society. But I have a handful of permanent assumptions I’ve put a lot of energy and faith into that guide almost everything I think about business and investing.

Here are nine.

1. More people wake up every morning wanting to solve problems than wake up looking to cause harm. But people who cause harm get more attention than people who solve problems. So slow progress amid a drumbeat of bad news is the normal state of affairs.

2. The world breaks about once a decade. There are so few exceptions it’s astounding. It can be economic, political, military, social, or a mix. But it breaks all time, in ways few see coming. The breaks aren’t as scary if you have a permanent assumption that they’ll keep happening and don’t preclude long-term growth.

3. Stories are more powerful than statistics. And most statistics are incomplete props to justify a story. Stories are easier to remember, easier to relate to, and emotionally persuasive.

4. Nothing too good or too bad stays that way forever, because great times plant the seeds of their own destruction through complacency and leverage, and bad times plant the seeds of their own turnaround through opportunity and panic-driven problem-solving.

5. Knowing there will be a . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 June 2020 at 2:07 pm

NFL players speakout

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 June 2020 at 1:37 pm

Corporate Power, Protests and the Breakdown of a Social Contract

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

In 2012, I published a law review article titled “The Housing Crash and the End of American Citizenship” predicting the rise of protests and social disorder on the one hand and authoritarian politics on the other. I wrote it after several years as a Congressional staffer working on the bailouts, Federal Reserve transparency, and the foreclosure crisis. The trends playing out now were evident back then.

With that in mind, today I’m going to make a few observations about the relationship of corporate power to protest. It’s hard not to have sympathy for the aims of the protesters, considering the murder of George Floyd is just the latest in a long line of obvious and flagrant violent acts. I do suspect that the outpouring of anger reflects something deeper than frustration with police brutality. There’s a broad sense of impotence, and not just among protesters, a feeling that our social contract has broken down, that we no longer have the means to come together and address social problems via politics.

This is something of a long essay, because these are delicate topics, but if you want the short version, here you go: Protestors Criticized For Looting Businesses Without Forming Private Equity Firm First, an article in The Onion.

And now…

Wall Street, the New Deal and Jim Crow

William Levitt was the creator of the modern post-WWII suburb, and in many ways, his thinking illustrated how we chose to structure a key part of the long New Deal era, in the form of the American home. Two quotes illustrate his views. First, he argued for homeownership as an important instrument in social order. “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist,” he said. “He has too much to do.” In other words, a working person with a stake in society takes seriously their obligation to society, whereas someone with no stake has nothing to lose and turns radical.

The 1940s through the 1970s was a time when Wall Street had lost its power and relevance, and the American economic order was a diversified mix of manufacturing, agriculture, services, social welfare, military equipment, research, and high-technology. The collapse of financiers and monopolists was epitomized by the public financing of housing stock that enabled Levitt to build what he did. America had an increasingly empowered middle and working class.

And yet, this era co-existed with a fascist Jim Crow regime in the South enforced by vigilante terrorism against the black population, especially black leaders who were economically empowered. There was wide and broad cultural support for segregation, though not the specific violent tactics used to uphold such an order. As an example, just 4% of Americans in 1958 approved of black-white interracial marriage.

Segregation in the North was almost as bad as it was in the south, but was organized through economic arrangements, not public Jim Crow statutes but private contract law. Levitt, whose first suburbs were in the North, believed that racial segregation was a necessary mechanism to address the serious housing shortage Americans confronted. “We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem,” Levitt argued. “But we can’t combine the two.”

There was a massive housing shortage immediately after World War II, because America essentially hadn’t built any housing stock since 1933. Levitt was a businessman, but he refused to integrate his housing developments racially, and had white-only covenants which made it impossible for black people to buy into his suburbs. Broadly speaking, Levitt was reflecting the social consensus of the era.

While bigotry was a widely held cultural attitude, racism as an institutional phenomenon was buried in every nook and cranny of the American order. It was not just police violence, Jim Crow laws, or the subtext of vigilante racial terrorism, though those were the most obvious signposts. There were serious disparities in health care treatment, access to capital, auto insurance, business insurance, patent law, hiring decisions, housing, media ownership, transportation, education and nutrition options, not to mention the endless number of opportunities closed off because of segregated social networks. Most of these disparities still exist. Even today, with an increasingly wealthy number of black businesspeople, monopolists like Comcast undermine the ability of black business leaders to operate as independent sellers of content.

Throughout American history, racism and corporate power have intersected in a variety of important ways. Sometimes our market structures have aided the struggle for racial liberation, sometimes they’ve impeded it, and oftentimes racial backlash has been used as a pretext to implement autocratic economic policies. There are moments when economic inequality comes wrapped in the language of justice, and moments when those who seek broad economic equality diminish the importance of racial discrimination. The relationship between corporate power and racism is not simple.

So to look at the post-war suburban creation as purely a moment of monstrous and publicly sanctioned racism is to miss that the Jim Crow order was weakening because of some of the same trends propelling Levitt’s success. Jim Crow, as I’ve written, was a *deal* between Northern monopolists and Southern whites, and it was both social and economic in orientation.

Attacks in the 1930s on financiers undermined racial segregation by replacing monopolists with public institutions responsive to a broad middle class. FDR in the 1930s made fun of Virginia Senator Harry Byrd, a segregationist Democrat who had grown wealthy growing apples. In one instance where Byrd opposed a program to put Americans to work, FDR told a subordinate Rex Tugwell, “I know what’s the matter with Byrd, he’s afraid you’ll force him to pay more than ten cents for his apple pickers.” Roosevelt did not attack segregation directly, but he did attack its economic roots. The Civil Rights movement then built on top of the political structure Roosevelt created. Political leaders, and black and white activists, sought the same economic and political empowerment for blacks that the New Deal had offered to whites.

The narrative of Jim Crow as an economic deal was first characterized in rigorous scholarly detail by W.E.B. Dubois in the 1930s in Black Reconstruction, and then reiterated by C. Vann Woodward in the The Strange Career of Jim Crow. There’s been a lot of critical and important scholarship advancing and critiquing these ideas, but Martin Luther King Jr. called Woodward’s book the “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement.” At Selma in 1965, MLK said the following.

If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.
By the time MLK spoke these words, the collapse of Jim Crow was evident. Woodward dubbed the post-war era a “Second Reconstruction,” analogizing it to the hopeful period after the Civil War when America had a brief chance to forge a racially egalitarian nation.

In the 1950s and 1960s, racial terrorism existed, lynchings were common, and racism was open and brutal, but gone were the days of the 1920s, when the Democratic Party feuded over whether to openly align with the Ku Klux Klan, which was then so powerful it could elect Governors and Senators all over the country. From the 1940s onward, blacks were moving out of the South due to a low unemployment rate organized by New Deal economists, and income among blacks rose at roughly twice the rate as whites for decades, albeit from a much lower base. Lifespans too closed a yawing gap.

America did chip away at these immoral racial disparities, slowly and incompletely, until the late 1960s. We used politics in the 1930s to restore economic liberties to citizens, and then we gradually broadened the scope of who could be a citizen. It is easy to sound callous in making this observation; someone killed by racial violence in the 1960s never got to experience the improved circumstances. Broadly, though, circumstances for lot of people began getting better, though not quickly enough.

And then came the 1970s, and the attack on racial egalitarianism. This was framed not as attacking the idea of racial equality, but on its economic underpinning, the New Deal. As Judith Stein observed in Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies as well as Running Steel, Running America, policymakers like Paul Volcker, Jimmy Carter, and William Simon chose to trade away increasing chunks of the middle class through offshoring jobs for geopolitical purposes. There were legitimate problems with the New Deal order, such as bad regulations, a loosening financial order, and gruesome errors like the Vietnam War, so change was coming regardless. But the change we sought was to elevate the political power of financial middlemen, and downgrade the political power of workers, farmers, engineers, and businesspeople.

As Stein chronicled, this was most evident in the deindustrialization of unionized heavy industry. Offshoring steel and automobile production had a special role in fueling racial tensions. White workers usually had a longer tenure of work, and according to union rules would be the last laid off because of this tenure. So offshoring would cause black layoffs first, and then white layoffs. Civil rights groups rightfully understood that as racist, but few recognized the largest context that racial tension was a result of white and black workers feuding over a smaller and smaller pie.

In my research, what I found is that an increasingly upscale neoliberal Republican and Democratic Party elite were oblivious to the underlying dynamics at play. The New Right, led by Ronald Reagan, was animated by racial backlash politics and social conservatives, as well as a goal of rolling back the New Deal order of constraining corporate power. Still, Robert Bork, an intellectual leader of the Reagan revolution, never achieved the conservative popular culture he wanted, but he did end antitrust law and public constraints on financiers.

The left, meanwhile, did not understand that the Civil Rights movement was built on top of the New Deal, and many were obsessed with New Age rhetoric, elite technocracy, and consumer and environmental politics. Futurist Alvin Toffler talked of getting rid of that “old New Deal clap-trap” and was a constant presence at Democratic party convenings in the mid-1970s, as well as an advisor to Al Gore. Michael Milken, the godfather of private equity, used countercultural rhetoric in his justification for financial power, saying in the 1970s, “Unlike other crusaders from Berkeley, I have chosen Wall Street as my battleground for improving society.” (He’s still at it today, pretending he was inspired to work in junk bonds after talking to a young black man following the Watts riots in 1965. “I was 19,” Milken recalled in 2016. “Everything I knew, I had to rethink. I changed my major from physics and math to business.”)

Culturally speaking, America is far less bigoted than it used to be. In the 1950s, virtually no one approved of intermarriage between blacks and whites, and even into the 1990s, a majority of Americans still did not approve of it. Today intermarriage rates are higher than they ever have been, and 87% of Americans favor interracial marriage. . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

And note his conclusion:

. . .  What I found in researching housing is that Levitt was a small part of a specific social contract, one in which a house would be the focal point for a white community, a school, a neighborhood, as well as a forced savings vehicle. Income growth, aka raises, would structure the middle class, which was rooted in producing things. The Federal Reserve, though the banking system’s connection to housing, could control swings in the economy, connecting the financial elite to the middle class directly. This contract existed because working class people had power, and were willing to seek other social organizational forms if they did not have their needs met.

Ronald Reagan shifted this social contract, by making the home a financial asset more than a bulwark of community. People no longer really got raises, but they were able to continue consumption by drawing down on savings and borrowing, a substitute of credit for income. The 1980s saw mass offshoring, as America turned increasingly into a rentier economy. The connection from the Fed to the real economy was weaker, but it still held. It was in this era that black people were finally able to buy homes, and so they never were able to build wealth as white people had. And most people were falling behind.

The housing crisis of 2007-2012 snapped the spine of the Reagan-era weaker social contract. Bankers and politician not only didn’t stop the foreclosure crisis, but began asserting that homeownership wasn’t an important social goal. The Federal Reserve’s strategy turned entirely towards buying or selling the financial assets of the wealthy as a means of engaging in macro-economic stabilizing. And so, leaving aside the moral validity of any particular movement, popular radicalism returned, on the right and the left. in the the form of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Trump, right-wing anger at lockdowns, and now protests over police brutality, as well as riots.

To take just one issue, and not the only one at issue, reducing police brutality is a question of leadership, of bureaucratic management, and it requires the ability to come together as citizens and do politics. But since the 1980s, predatory financial elites have worked aggressively to break our public institutions so that we can’t collectively do politics. In some cases, they adopted the rhetorical form of racial tolerance while fighting its economic underpinning, in other cases they adopted the rhetoric of racial backlash. Either way, they have destroyed the ability of citizens to come together and do politics to foster needed social change.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, has dedicated his whole career to blocking democratic institutions from functioning, with the goal of putting conservative judges on the bench so they can write the law, immune from popular social pressure. That’s a brilliant strategy for maintaining rigid social hierarchies, but it doesn’t allow for any release of social pressure except despair and popular explosions.

We now have two paths. Restoring a stable social contract broadly will mean restoring the ability to do politics, to rearrange our productive capacity in ways that are safer, more efficient, and more fair, which will necessarily mean a reorganization of power. Or it will require a far more authoritarian society, one in which we accept a much higher level of security spending to protect a narrow elite from a disempowered and angry populace.

Either way we go, William Levitt understood that people without a stake in society tend to rebel. And that is what we are seeing play out.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 June 2020 at 3:12 pm

The direction the US is going: The Messengers

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Maddy Crowell writes in the Virginia Quarterly Review:

The offices of Caravan, a small but influential Indian monthly magazine, are housed on the third floor of a Soviet-style building in New Delhi. For a long time, Vinod Jose, the magazine’s executive editor, didn’t give much thought to the view outside his window: a budding thicket of gulmohar trees where, down below, smokers convened in small circles on their lunch break. But then, a few years ago, the view began to change. The netted steel cage of a new building began to rise out of the foliage, piquing Jose’s interest: It would be, he soon found out, the New Delhi headquarters for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s most powerful right-wing Hindu-nationalist organization, and a longtime fixation of Jose’s journalistic career.

“A colleague once told me that if he were writing a profile of me, that this would be the opening scene,” Jose said, gesturing to his view of the RSS headquarters, when we met in April 2019. Jose, who is forty and speaks in tranquil bursts, carries himself with a calm authority that can often feel out of place in Delhi’s cacophony. He crossed his office, passing precariously stacked books and locked filing cabinets with labels such as “The Gujarat Files” and “Amit Shah,” then fell into a worn swivel chair. For Jose—one of India’s more subversive journalists, and my former boss when I was an intern at Caravan six years ago—pointing out a good opening scene was no different than providing me with the weather forecast for the day. His life and his journalism are practically inseparable.

He was right: The scene was, indeed, a good metaphor. Caravan and the RSS are intimate adversaries in the Indian public sphere. Founded in 1925, the RSS has long advocated for India to abandon its pluralistic ambitions and become an entirely Hindu nation—an idea that has only gained strength since Narendra Modi, an early protégé of the group, was first elected prime minister in 2014 through the RSS’s unofficial political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Caravan, meanwhile, has embraced a mission of protecting India’s tradition of democracy and religious pluralism, more often than not through exhaustive investigations into the RSS and its affiliates.

For the most part, confrontations between the magazine and the nationalist organization have remained in the courts and online. This should go without saying in just about any democracy, but lately there has been concern that a story could lead to actual violence. In one incident, a few months before Modi’s election, Caravan published an explosive cover story based on a series of interviews with Swami Aseemanand, a right-wing Hindu monk who claimed that the RSS had been aware of his plans to bomb multiple venues targeting Muslims from 2006 to 2008, attacks that left more than a hundred dead. The day the story was published, around one hundred RSS protestors gathered outside Caravan’s offices, waving the party’s saffron flags and carrying signs reading ban anti-hindu caravan as they set fire to copies of the magazine. That morning, Jose received dozens of calls, to both his office and cell phone, from anonymous numbers: “We are coming for you,” several callers told him; another screamed “motherfucker” and threatened, vaguely, to “stop” the magazine. Police and private security arrived to prevent protesters from entering the building, while television reporters covered the chaos outside. Since the protests, menace toward the magazine has persisted in the shadowy, nebulous way that most journalists are pressured these days: online trolls, breaches of its computer network, and, in Caravan’s case, a handful of defamation lawsuits.

Living under a constant, simmering threat is, for Jose, evidence that he’s doing something right as a journalist. Nearly every day, he receives ominous online messages that accuse him of being “rabidly anti-Hindu” or “anti-national” or a “Christian bigot” or “DEEP STATE JOURNALIST VINOD K JOSE…FROM COMMIE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY.” Jose is almost certain that his cell phone is bugged, not to mention the entire Caravan office. Six months after Modi first became prime minister, Jose fired his personal driver, who had been acting suspiciously; friends, meanwhile, began warning him to take different routes to work each day, just in case.

As tense as the atmosphere was for India’s free press following Modi’s first election, things have only worsened since. A number of editors claim to have been bullied by Modi loyalists seeking to remove online coverage that was critical of the BJP; newspapers that have published negative stories have been penalized financially, often through the loss of government-funded advertisements. At the same time, journalists at mainstream outlets have become ever more explicit, if not boastful, about their political connections. When Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s finance minister, died in August 2019, a reporter from one of India’s largest television channels, Times Now, tweeted: “I’ve lost my Guiding Light my mentor. Who will I call every morning now?”

Most sinister of all, the censorship of Modi’s critics has escalated into violence. Since he first came into office, twelve journalists have been killed because of their work, and at least nine have been imprisoned. In 2017, the prominent journalist and editor Gauri Lankesh was gunned down in the early evening in front of her estate in Bangalore. Lankesh, an outspoken feminist and human-rights activist famous for her left-wing tabloidesque attacks on Hindu-nationalist figures, was a close friend of Jose’s—the two had worked together covering contentious riots in Goa in 2005. Her death confirmed the seriousness of what Indian journalists were up against under the new regime. Not long after, a right-wing nationalist followed by Modi on Twitter posted: “One bitch dies a dog’s death all the puppies cry in the same tune.”

After Lankesh’s murder, Jose began implementing protocols for Caravan’s staff to follow: All communications are now handled on encrypted channels, such as ProtonMail or Signal (WhatsApp, he believes, is compromised in India), and reporters working on sensitive stories are instructed to be especially vigilant in protecting their sources. And yet, like almost everyone else I spoke with at Caravan, Jose wasn’t all that interested in talking about the government’s intimidation. “You . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it shows what can happen.

Later in the article:

. . . One of the best known of those features was written by Jose in 2012—an eighteen-thousand-word profile of Modi, a star of the BJP who was rumored to be considering a run for prime minister. The article traces Modi’s political evolution, beginning at age eight, when he volunteered to join an RSS training camp in his hometown in Gujarat, to his ascent as one of the BJP’s leading figures. At the same time, the story exposed the inner workings of one of the most powerful political machines in India’s modern history. “The story of Narendra Modi,” Jose wrote, “is also the story of a series of organizations under which he was nurtured and trained,” the most important of which, he argued, was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

According to Jose, to understand Modi’s rise is to understand a history nearly one hundred years in the making—one that begins with the birth of the Hindu-nationalist movement in 1925, when an Indian doctor named K. B. Hedgewar founded the RSS. Hedgewar was concerned that the Hindu identity—which he saw not just as a religion but as an entire race—needed to be protected, purified, and preserved from other religions, and believed India’s Muslims and Christians were actually descendants of Hindus who had been converted to their respective religions by force.

A self-proclaimed admirer of European fascists, Hedgewar soon established military training camps in his hometown of Nagpur, in central India, in order to tutor young Hindus in combat techniques using swords, trishuls (three-pronged spears often seen in Hindu mythology), explosives, and gas cylinders. After Hedgewar died, in 1940, the group’s new “supreme director,” Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, maintained the RSS’s extremist views, writing glowingly of Nazi Germany in his popular manifesto, We, or Our Nationhood Defined. “To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture,” Golwalkar wrote, “Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.” To Golwalkar, India was not a pluralistic, religiously diverse country but “Hindusthan”: To him, Muslims and Christians were godless “invaders.”  . ..

Written by LeisureGuy

5 June 2020 at 2:11 pm

Heather Cox Richardson on May 30

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Dr. Richardson writes:

It is too early to know what is actually happening inside the protests and riots happening in cities across the country, especially Minneapolis, after the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin there on Monday. That is, we know there are protests and looting and violence, but who is doing what remains unclear, and will stay unclear for a while. There are plenty of videos and tweets, but they can only give us windows into events, not a full picture.

That being said, there do seem to be some patterns emerging.

The protests began as Black Americans and allies protested Floyd’s murder, coming, as it did, after a number of similar murders—such as Breonna Taylor’s, shot in her own home during a botched police raid—that illuminated police brutality against Black Americans. Quickly, though, the protests appeared to turn into something else, as more people—possibly (and I would guess probably) from outside the cities—rushed in to create chaos.

It is not clear who these people are. This morning, Trump tweeted that the protesters at the White House were “professionally organized,” and midday, Attorney General Barr gave a hasty press conference in which he claimed that “outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate and violent agenda.” He said, “in many places, it appears the violence is planned, organized and driven by anarchic and left extremist groups, far-left extremist groups, using antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from outside the state to promote the violence.”

There is currently no evidence that what Barr said is true.

He went on to say “It is a federal crime to cross state lines or to use interstate facilities to incite or participate in violent rioting, and we will enforce those laws.” After Barr spoke, Trump tweeted: “80% of the RIOTERS in Minneapolis last night were from OUT OF STATE. They are harming businesses (especially African American small businesses), homes, and the community of good, hardworking Minneapolis residents who want peace, equality, and to provide for their families.” He added: “It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left. Don’t lay the blame on others!”

About the same time Barr was speaking, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter told reporters that “Every single person we arrested last night, I’m told, was from out of state,” and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz estimated that 80% of those destroying property were from out of state. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey added: “We are now confronting white supremacists, members of organized crime, out-of-state instigators, and possibly even foreign actors to destroy and destabilize our city and our region.” The Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said they had begun tracing those they arrested to see if they were part of larger networks.

A preliminary study today by local network KARE found that, in fact, 86% of those arrested were from Minnesota. Of the others, at least one was associated with a white supremacist group.

While we cannot know yet what’s going on now, it is of note that the president has encouraged violence lately in his tweets, retweeting a video in which a supporter says “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat,” and a famous line from segregationist politician George Wallace “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

In some places, police are deescalating protests and things are calming. In others, they seem to be deliberately escalating riots and violence.

In the places the police are escalating the riots, they seem to be targeting journalists and photographers, as well as people of color—there are harrowing videos of young men dragged from cars or from the street and mobbed by officers. Multiple stories tonight tell of journalists arrested or shot with rubber bullets, even after identifying themselves as press. One has lost an eye.

This recalls the president’s constant attacks on the press. He has tweeted the phrases “Fake News” and “Enemy of the People” 796 times, and suggested in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that he, Trump, should “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia [where Putin has journalists killed], but we do.”

If we cannot yet fully know the dynamics of the protests, there are a few things we do know.

First, the protests have wiped from public discussion all the major stories that were distressing Trump: the deadly toll of the coronavirus and his administration’s abysmal response to the pandemic, the skyrocketing unemployment as the economy falters, and Friday’s revelations about his 2016 campaign team’s collaboration with Russian spies.

Second, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 May 2020 at 10:04 am

Racism in action in Central Park

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Gina Bellafonte writes in the NY Times:

Of all the ways Amy Cooper might have expressed her exasperation during a dispute with a birder in Central Park — rolling her eyes as she agreed to restrain her cocker spaniel, railing against avian life-forms, giving him the finger and moving on — she instead chose a potentially lethal option. Confronting her adversary, Christian Cooper, she said that she was going to call the police to report that “an African-American man” was “threatening” her life.

It was the dissonance in her language that immediately distinguished the episode from the countless other occasions in which white people have become dangerously unhinged in the presence of black men.

Three times, before and during the 911 call in which her voice climbed to horror-movie pitch as she leveled a phony accusation, she found the space to specifically identify Mr. Cooper as “African-American.” A resident of the Upper West Side with a graduate degree from the University of Chicago, a rescue dog and a face mask, Ms. Cooper engaged in a calculated act of profiling even as she accommodated the dictates of progressive speech.

The moment provided a bracing tutorial in what bigotry among the urbane looks like — the raw, virulent prejudice that can exist beneath the varnish of the right credentials, pets, accessories, social affiliations, the coinage absorbed from HBO documentaries and corporate sensitivity seminars.

Two years ago, a Manhattan lawyer named Aaron Schlossberg announced to the world that he was not “a racist” after he was caught on video ranting about immigrants. As he put it in his apology, the tirade did not capture who he really was, someone who had come to New York “precisely because of the remarkable diversity.” As it turned out, this was not Mr. Schlossberg’s only ethnically charged outburst.

In the video Mr. Cooper recorded, after Ms. Cooper refused to follow park rules and leash her dog, he asked her to keep her distance. Still, the next day, she told CNN by way of explanation for actions she now deemed inexcusable, that she had been scared — that before he began filming her, Mr. Cooper appeared out of nowhere.

“He came out of the bush,’’ she said, failing to recognize, given the racial context, that there was surely a better way to refer to the shrubbery of central Manhattan.

Judgment of Ms. Cooper was swift and fierce. Within 24 hours, she had lost her job as an investment manager at Franklin Templeton; members of New York State’s legislature introduced a bill that would make filing certain false reports actionable as hate crimes; a neighborhood group, the Central Park South Civic Association, called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to impose a lifetime ban from the park “on this lady for her deliberate, racial misleading of law enforcement.”

Despite Ms. Cooper’s public statement to Mr. Cooper — “I hope that a few mortifying seconds in a lifetime of forty years will not define me in his eyes and that he will accept my sincere apology” — by Wednesday night, various city officials were demanding her arrest.

It was Mr. Cooper who publicly extended more generosity toward her than anyone else, telling my colleague Sarah Maslin Nir that although he could not excuse the racism, he wasn’t sure if Ms. Cooper’s life “needed to be torn apart.”

In the most forgiving interpretation of these events, Ms. Cooper didn’t understand . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 May 2020 at 9:33 am

Posted in Daily life, Memes

A sensible take on racism in the US

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Shola MRichards on Facebook has a very level-headed take on racism in the US:

Twice a day, I walk my dog Ace around my neighborhood with one, or both, of my girls. I know that doesn’t seem noteworthy, but here’s something that I must admit:

I would be scared to death to take these walks without my girls and my dog. In fact, in the four years living in my house, I have never taken a walk around my neighborhood alone (and probably never will).

Sure, some of you may read that and think that I’m being melodramatic or that I’m “playing the race card” (I still have no clue what the hell means), but this is my reality.

When I’m walking down the street holding my young daughter’s hand and walking my sweet fluffy dog, I’m just a loving dad and pet owner taking a break from the joylessness of crisis homeschooling.

But without them by my side, almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks. Instead of being a loving dad to two little girls, unfortunately, all that some people can see is a 6’2” athletically-built black man in a cloth mask who is walking around in a place where he doesn’t belong (even though, I’m still the same guy who just wants to take a walk through his neighborhood). It’s equal parts exhausting and depressing to feel like I can’t walk around outside alone, for fear of being targeted.

If you’re surprised by this, don’t be. We live in a world where there is a sizable amount of people who actually believe that racism isn’t a thing, and that White Privilege is a made-up fantasy to be politically-correct. Yes, even despite George Floyd, Christian Cooper, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (and countless other examples before them, and many to come afterward), some people still don’t seem to get it.

So, let me share some common sense points:

1) Having white privilege doesn’t mean that your life isn’t difficult, it simply means that your skin color isn’t one of the things contributing to your life difficulties. Case in point, if it never crossed your mind that you could have the cops called on you (or worse, killed) for simply bird watching then know that is a privilege that many black/brown people (myself included) don’t currently enjoy.

2) Responding to “Black Lives Matter” by saying “All Lives Matter” is insensitive, tone-deaf and dumb. All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.

3) Racism is very real, and please don’t delude yourself into thinking it’s limited to the fringes of the hardcore MAGA crowd. As Amy Cooper proved, it’s just as prevalent in liberal America as it is anywhere else.

4) While racism is real, reverse-racism is not. Please don’t use that term, ever.

5) In order for racism to get better, white allies are absolutely critical. If you’re white and you’ve read this far, hopefully you care enough to be one of those allies. Please continue to speak up (despite some of your friends and family rolling their eyes at you), because your voices matter to PoC now more than ever. Special shoutouts to my friends Becky, Catherine, Dory, Elizabeth, Greta, Jessica, Kayte, Kurt, Peter, Sharri, and Teri (and anyone else who I missed) for doing it so well.

6) And if you’re white, and you’re still choosing to stay silent about this, then I honestly don’t know what to say. If these atrocities won’t get you to speak up, then honestly, what will? Also, it’s worth asking, why be my friend? If you aren’t willing to take a stand against actions that could get me hurt or killed, it’s hard to believe that you ever cared about me in the first place.

As for me, I’ll continue to walk these streets holding my 8 year-old daughter’s hand, in hopes that she’ll continue to keep her daddy safe from harm.

I know that sounds backward, but that’s the world that we’re living in these days.


VIRAL EDIT: Whoa, so this post blew up. I am deeply touched by all of your kind words, and also, for your willingness to step up as allies. The comments on this post have only strengthened my faith in humanity, and for that, I am very grateful. We have a lot of work to do, and I’m ready to stand at your side to do it ❤️.


Written by LeisureGuy

30 May 2020 at 9:18 am

Posted in Daily life, Memes

Colleges Are Deluding Themselves

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And not just colleges — this pandemic will alter many institutions and conventions as we adapt to life in an era of pandemics, this being the first. Covid-19 is a meme-altering mechanism, and common memes will be altered (or go extinct). World War II was the same kind of global event, and when it was over, things did not go back to the way they were before. Things changed. Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, writes in the Atlantic about one meme change:

Crises challenge all of us. They reveal our true character and provide great tests of our strength. For college presidents, the coronavirus pandemic is the direst crisis we have ever faced. Even in the best of times, leading an institution of higher education demands an ability to weigh many competing individual interests against moral responsibility for the whole. The current health emergency makes striking the right balance all the more difficult—and multiplies the damage any missteps could cause.

Just as elected officials in many states have moved to end sheltering in place and return American life to pre-COVID-19 standards, leaders at many high-profile colleges and universities have announced plans to welcome students back to their classrooms, residence halls, and playing fields in the fall—with some modifications to allow for greater social distancing. But rushing to reopen our society and our schools is a mistake that will ultimately result in hundreds of thousands of citizens falling sick and worse. We should not let our own financial and reputational worries cloud our judgment about matters of life and death.

American higher education was in crisis long before the coronavirus showed up at our doors. For what feels like an eternity, our sector has been criticized for being too slow to respond to changing realities. Student debt in the United States totals more than $1.5 trillion. Alternative credential providers are nipping at the heels of degree-granting schools. Unfavorable demographic trends suggest that the number of college students will decline. In this environment, we face fair questions about higher education’s business model, cost, and long-term prospects—and about whom higher education ultimately serves. Do we serve the students and families who appear at our doors each fall full of hope and faith? Or does self-preservation come first?

The pandemic makes those questions more urgent than ever.

Institutions such as mine understand crisis better than most. Thirteen years ago, when I was named president of Paul Quinn College, a historically black school in Dallas, it was on the precipice of closure. The board of trustees and staff made hard choices. We eliminated football and shifted our educational model. The decisions we made—both early in my tenure and ever since—were all sensitive, because the population we serve was as economically vulnerable as the institution was. In subsequent years, despite the risk to the school’s finances, we reduced tuition for students’ sake.

Paul Quinn is located in a neighborhood that is filled with good people who have been underserved and largely ignored. The majority of our students, 80 to 85 percent of whom annually are eligible for Pell Grants, have lived the entirety of their lives on the margins, where nothing is simple. While the institution may have faced an existential crisis 13 years ago, many of our students face their own existential crises daily. Navigating such paths not only forces you to confront reality, but it also gives you clarity as to what is truly important.

During the present health crisis, administrators at colleges and universities should harbor no illusions. In the absence of a vaccine or much more widespread testing, our institutions are the perfect environment for the continued spread of COVID-19. In a recent working paper, the Cornell University sociologists Kim Weeden and Benjamin Cornwell used data on course enrollments to analyze the potential spread of epidemics on college campuses. They found that—even without the effects of shared residences and extracurricular activities—physical classes alone put almost all students on campus in close proximity to one another. Weeden and Cornwell concluded that, as the former wrote on Twitter, “the ‘small worlds’ networks on college campuses create fertile social conditions for an epidemic spread.” Even replacing the largest lecture courses with online classes would not be enough to reduce the risk, they found.

Because of the manner in which most residential colleges are operated, these institutions cannot use traditional face-to-face instructional methods and expect anything other than an unacceptable rate of disease transmission. Because we do not yet have the ability to bring students and staff back to campus while keeping them safe and healthy, we simply cannot return to business as usual. To do so constitutes an abdication of our moral responsibility as leaders.

We must ask ourselves: What would make leaders gamble with human life this way? The answer is twofold: fear and acquiescence—both of which, when left unchecked, lead down a path to moral damnation. The fear of the fiscal damage associated with empty campuses in the fall is the primary reason that schools are exploring every option to avoid that possibility. Many schools literally cannot afford an online-only existence; students would not want to pay the same amount for such an experience, but charging them less would lead to bankruptcy for some institutions. Exploring options to avoid financial ruin does not make you a bad leader. On the contrary. However, if a school’s cost-benefit analysis leads to a conclusion that includes the term acceptable number of casualties, it is time for a new model.

The other reason higher-education leaders may be forced into questionable decisions is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 May 2020 at 9:25 am

Declaration Grooming’s Milksteak Base shaving soap

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I finally decided that I had to try Declaration Grooming’s new formulation:

Stearic Acid, Water, Castor Oil, Potassium Hydroxide, Vegetable Glycerin, Bison Tallow, Mango Butter, Avocado Oil, Shea Butter, Sodium Hydroxide, Lanolin, Bentonite Clay, Yogurt, Buttermilk, Egg Whites, Coconut Milk, Goat’s Milk, Tocopheryl Acetate, Maltodextrin, Milk Protein, Salix Alba L. (White Willow) Bark Extract,  Arctium lappa (Burdock) Root Extract, Hippophae Rhamnoides (Sea Buckthorn) Fruit Extract, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract, Silk Amino Acids

I said “Aha” as I looked at the ingredients just now. I did have to add a little water to load the brush, and there it is: Bentonite clay. That’ll do it.

I think you’ll agree that this is a very interesting set of ingredient. Bonus points to them for labeliing the tub both on top and — for those who stack tubs of soap — on the side. This one is named “Cuir et ́Épices (translation: Ledo kaj Spicoj). This, they say, was the very first out of the gate with the new formula, and they describe it thusly:

“Cuir et Épices” is the first scent exclusive to our new premium soap base.  It is a blend of leather, tobacco flower, cedar, anise, oakmoss, and patchouli. This scent is unique unto itself and somewhat difficult to describe.

They also mention that it suggests John Wayne’s kitchen. 🙂

I found the fragrance quite pleasant, and the soap remarkably good in its lather, with exceptionally good glide The surface of the puck before first use has an interesting crinkled appearance.

If you go to the link above, you’ll see that this particular soap is sold out at their site. I ordered a tub from Maggard Razors, which still has some in stock, along with other fragrances in this formulation.

I’ve mentioned already the superb glide provided by the thick, creamy lather. As I worked it into my stubble I was thinking I’ve got to compare this to Creed’s Green Irish Tweed shaving soap (just in terms of lather, not fragrance), given that this soap costs $25 for 4 ounces and Creed shaving soap currently runs $158 for 4 ounces. I believe that, as a shaving soap, this (and some other artisanal soaps) are superior to Creed’s shaving soap (which is quite good, but products are subject to evolutionary pressures, so that better products can emerge rather quickly under the right conditions).

I would guess that in many product categories an established company with a large customer base finds it difficult to change their product line in any very drastic way because their customers don’t want change. Technology companies don’t have this problem because they have trained their customers to want new (faster, better, cheaper) versions of products, and the same is true of (say) automobiles and fashion: newer is thought better, with cars today significantly better (in terms of mileage, safety, convenience, and capability) than (say) cars of the 1950s. But some products have a customer base that loathes change — take, for example, foods and beverages. Coca Cola stubbed its toe badly when they tinkered with their product.

Moreover, many large companies — even technology companies — have a kind of change-slowing internal viscosity that comes from the number of managers and employees whose careers and identities (and comfort) are attached to their current products. When IBM dropped the 1400 line of computers in favor of the 360 series, Thomas Watson, Jr. had to personally go to the development sites for the 1400 computers are break up the teams, reassigning and scattering the employees, who had continued stubbornly to work on 1400 development.

In fact Creed’s own site includes now no shaving soaps at all — I found only this Creed shaving soap from Saks Fifth Avenue in a search. I suspect they’ve thrown in the towel, as it were, deciding that they simply could not keep up with the rapid evolution of shaving soaps in the past couple of decades.

Artisanal soapmakers, in contrast, eagerly improve their products. The companies are quite small and generally controlled by a sole proprietor, who can make decisions without regard to stockholders and a battalion of managers and employees. The small companies are thus more agile and also more oriented toward product improvement. Thus we see substantial changes to improve product performance: Declaration Grooming’s Milksteak line, Barrister & Mann’s Reserve line, Phoenix Artisan’s CK-6 line. And even if it’s not an entire line, smaller companies will create interesting innovations like RazoRock’s The Dead Sea.

Creed was probably wise to get back to their basics: fragrances, not shaving soaps. But tomorrow I’ll use my one Creed soap just to see.

Now, about today’s shave.

In honor of Maggard Razors having the soap on hand (and their general wonderfulness as an online shaving store), I used their 22mm synthetic as the brush. I’ve discussed the lather already — really remarkable. For the razor, I wanted something special, so I went with my trusty RazoRock Stealth: And to carry forward the leather theme, I went with Geo. F. Trumper’s Spanish leather (“Ledo Hispana”) for the aftershave:

Top Notes – Clove, Lavender
Middle Notes – Geranium, Rosemary, Rose
Base Notes – Patchouli, Sandalwood, Vanilla

Hmm. I see why I like it: vanilla.

As I sit writing this, I am noticing that my skin seems softer, smoother, and more supple than usual, and I attribute that to the soap, with an assist from the razor.

Father’s Day is coming up (this year on the summer solstice, for which I have an appropriate soap), so perhaps now would be a good time for dropping hints.

Thought for the day:

When wealth is passed off as merit, bad luck is seen as bad character. This is how ideologues justify punishing the sick and the poor. But poverty is neither a crime nor a character flaw. Stigmatize those who let people die, not those who struggle to live. -Sarah Kendzior, journalist and author (b. 1978)

Written by LeisureGuy

14 May 2020 at 9:52 am

On Asking People What They ‘Do’?

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I have not asked that question of any new acquaintance since the time someone responded with some sense of despair, “I just lost my job, so right now I’m unemployed. What I “do” is look for a job?”

That made me realize how intrusive the question can be and reminded me of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictum “Questioning is not the mode of conversation among gentlemen. It is assuming a superiority, and it is particularly wrong to question a man concerning himself.

I do realize the question is commonly asked, and it seems not inappropriate if you’re at some business conference or convention. This piece discusses the switch from “Where are you from?” to “What do you do?”

The world became modern when people who met for the first time shifted from asking each other (as they had always done) where they came from – to asking each other what they did.

To try to position someone by their area of origin is to assume that personal identity is formed first and foremost by membership of a geographical community; we are where we are from. We’re the person from the town by the lake, we’re from the village between the forest and the estuary. But to want to know our job is to imagine that it’s through our choice of occupation, through our distinctive way of earning money, that we become most fully ourselves; we are what we do.

The difference may seem minor but it has significant implications for the way we stand to be judged and therefore how pained the question may make us feel. We tend not to be responsible for where we are from. The universe landed us there and we probably stayed. Furthermore, entire communities are seldom viewed as either wholly good or bad; it’s assumed they will contain all sorts of people, about whom blanket judgements would be hard. One is unlikely to be condemned simply on the basis of the region or city one hails from. But we have generally had far more to do with the occupation we are engaged in. We’ll have studied a certain way, gained particular qualifications and made specific choices in order to end up, perhaps, a dentist or a cleaner, a film producer or a hospital porter. And to such choices, targeted praise or blame can be attached.

It turns out that in being asked what we do, we are not being asked what we do, we’re being asked what we . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2020 at 3:29 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Memes

Fungi’s Lessons for Adapting to Life on a Damaged Planet

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Merlin Sheldrake talks to Robert Macfarlane:

Merlin Sheldrake’s new book Entangled Life looks at the complex world of fungi, its adaptive ability, and its interconnectedness with all other forms of life. He spoke with Robert Macfarlane, author of Underland, about his relationship to fungi and its strategic lessons on growth in the face of climate crisis.


Robert Macfarlane: I want to plunge straight in and ask about the title of your book, Entangled Life. I hear echoes of Darwin’s famous “tangled bank” paragraph, closing the later editions of On the Origin of Species, and “entanglement” is one of the favorite tropes of what might be called Anthropocene ecology, conspicuous in the work of Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway, for instance. What do you mean by “entangled”—and for that matter, what do you mean by “life”!?

Merlin Sheldrake: Plunge! I think of the word “entangle” as a knotting and re-knotting, a ravelling, an intertwining. The word appears to have some of its roots in Nordic and German words for “seaweed,” presumably because they are life forms that knot and clump with themselves—besides oars and fishing nets. According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology “entangle” was originally used to describe human involvement in “complex affairs” and only later took on other meanings.

Entangled Life is a book about fungi, most of which live their lives as branching, fusing networks of tubular cells known as mycelium. Mycelium is how fungi feed. Animals tend to find food in the world and put it in their bodies; fungi put their bodies in the food. To do so, they must ceaselessly remodel themselves, weaving their bodies into relation with their surroundings. This entanglement—with themselves, with their physical surroundings, and with other organisms—is their staple mode of existence. On a very literal level, then, I use the word entangle to refer to the ancient growth habit of this little-understood kingdom of life.

But fungi don’t keep to themselves. Mycelium is the living seam by which much of life is stitched into relation. Fungi string their way through the soil, through sulphurous sediments on ocean beds, through coral reefs, inside plant leaves, roots and shoots. Bacteria use mycelial networks as highways to navigate the bustling wilderness of the soil. Nutrients circulate through ecosystems through fungal networks. Tug on strand of mycelium and you’ll find it hitched to something else. Fungi embody the most basic principle of ecology: that of the relationships between organisms. This is another sense in which I use the word entangled. Fungi form literal connections between organisms and in doing so remind us that all life forms, humans included, are bound up within seething networks of relationships, some visible and some less so.

This relates to your question about life. Evolution’s most well-worn iconography is that of a tree, mirroring the genealogical trees used to portray lines of human descent. Since Darwin, the dominant narrative within evolutionary circles has portrayed lineages as endlessly diverging from each other like the branches of a tree. But over the last several decades, it’s become clear that divergence is only part of the story. Some of the most dramatic moments in the history of life occurred when single-celled organisms engulfed unrelated single-celled organisms which continued to live inside them. Within the bodies of these new composite organisms, branches of the tree of life that had been diverging for hundreds of millions of years did something entirely unexpected, and converged.

In light of these discoveries, many biologists have begun to reimagine the tree of life as a reticulate mesh formed as lineages not only branch, but fuse and merge with one another. Strands of the mesh loop in and out of the realm of viruses—entities that many don’t consider to be living organisms at all—and make it clear that life shades off into non-life gradually. If anyone wanted a new poster organism for evolution they needn’t look far. It is a vision of life that resembles fungal mycelium more than anything else.

Are we in broad agreement, would you say?

RM: Yes, I think so. I remember in reading Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, where they take aim at the ubiquitous metaphor of the “tree” on basis of its implicitly hierarchical-vertical structure; they propose, as you know, in its place the model of the “rhizome,” which weaves and moves by node and network. But I always felt they were a little harsh on trees; for as your research as a plant scientist, and your writing in Entangled Life both reveal, trees are themselves participants in a vast web of mutualisms, wafting aerosol signals between each other above ground, and sharing resources below ground via mycorrhizae…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2020 at 3:14 pm

Posted in Daily life, Memes, Science

Twelve Tones, by Vi Hart

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So far as I’m concerned, this is a must-watch.

Some thoughts I had as I watched:

One thing about learning a new language is that it requires the acquisition and understanding of new patterns because two lanauages don’t really fully match up any more than the lives of people in the same line of work in the same village match up: there are commonalities, but there are also differences difficult to match.

A mild example from this morning: Esperanto has the word kuri, to run, which matches the English verb quite well: replacing to run with kuri  works well: “He runs” and “Li kuras” mean the same thing..

But I could not think of a simple Esperanto verb that would match to walk. There is marŝi, but that definitely includes the idea of walking in step — it matches “to march,” not “to walk.” And there’s promeni, to walk to see sights or for exercise, but it has for me overtones of “to promenade,” “to stroll,” and “to amble.” I wanted a neutral word, in the same way that “to run” is neutral.

I posted a question in the Lernu forum, asking for an Esperanto verb that means “iri per piedoj” (to go by foot) or “iri piede” (to go footwise). An immediate response: piediri. And that does seem to match, and it also illustrates how in Esperanto (as in Forth) one constructs new words to do the exact job you want, whereas in English one must dig through the drawer of words to find the closest match and perhaps be satisfied with a phrase — though it should be pointed out that the poet’s role is to take current words and, through context, stretch them to take new shapes and do new jobs. By putting a word in a new context, the poet fills it with a different color and charges it with a different energy. And not only poets: writers of fiction and drama do the same — think of some of the significant words in (say) “Death of a Salesman,” or “Macbeth,” or some stories of Raymond Carver, and how the impact of those words in that context differs from their workaday use.

A second thought was how the real numbers, being a continuum, contain many numbers and properties that we can never know — very interesting numbers and very interesting properties, if we could only know them. I suppose one of the reasons mathematicians are constantly generalizing is that moving to a more general level you can get a kind of overarching “knowing” of a class and its structure that frees you of having to know the individual elements.

At any rate, I found it a fascinating video, and as I write this I’m listing to Schoenberg (via YouTube), and his music — at least this piece — is indeed very nice.


Written by LeisureGuy

6 May 2020 at 5:43 pm

How America’s Earliest Colonists Dictate Today’s Coronavirus Response

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Colin Woodared lays out an intriguing idea in the Washington Monthly:

President Trump has failed to lead America during the COVID-19 crisis. As a result, it has been up to state and local leaders to fight the virus. The month of March became a macabre laboratory of federalism, illustrating how some places took the pandemic quite seriously—and how others did not.

Some local leaders took the threat seriously early on, moving first to limit public gatherings, then to close schools, then restrict restaurants, close non-essential business and, ultimately, issue shelter-in-place orders. Others chose to follow our criminally irresponsible president in underplaying the virus, encouraging people to carry on as usual, from going out to bars and restaurants to partying on the beaches. The epidemiological implications are obvious, and the unbearable human price will be paid this month.

What is less immediately obvious is why some leaders and constituents acted fast while others lagged behind. At the state level one can track when a governor took steps to lockdown their state to slow the spread of the virus in the hope of preventing the hospitals from collapsing. (This has been analyzed in a study by a group of researchers at the University of Washington.) At the county level, one can see the measurable effect this did or didn’t have among constituents, thanks to cell phone tracking data which allowed the firm Cuebiq to measure how much people slowed their movements (feeding this article in the New York Times.) The geographic maps do not conform neatly to any of America’s most commonly discussed fault lines.

As other commentators have noted, restrictions were not strictly partisan. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, was the first out of the blocks in starting to shutdown his state. His G.O.P. counterparts in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maryland also took the threat seriously, implementing restaurant restrictions and non-essential business closures early on, the UW study shows, while Democratic governors in Kansas and Montana did not.

Others pointed out that, on a county-level, people living in rural areas reduced their movements less than those in urbanized ones. But they failed to explain why rural people in New England, Upstate New York and the Upper Great Lakes States stayed put while those in Kentucky and Idaho—which were also under statewide lockdown orders—did not. Or why rural people in the easternmost counties of New Mexico ignored lockdown advice while those in the rest of the state generally followed them. Or why residents of southernmost Florida stopped in their tracks while those elsewhere—urban or rural, coastal or interior, richer or poorer—did not.

But the pattern is remarkably consistent with centuries old fissures that stem from the earliest days of America’s colonization. Different settlers created communities with divergent ideas about the role of government and the balance between individual liberty and the common good. These divides have stuck around for hundreds of years, resulting in radically different policy responses to the pandemic, further jeopardizing the survival of our Balkanized federation.

I first revealed these differences in my 2011 book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. For those unfamiliar with the American Nations paradigm, the book shows that our country is an unstable alliance of eleven regional cultures, most of them the legacy of rival colonial projects and respective early colonization patterns. These have shaped our history, our constitutional structure, and, of course, electoral politics—past and present. (I have written about its political implications on several previous occasions in the Monthly.)

The fundamental philosophical divide between these regional cultures is over the question of how best to organize American society. There are four “nations” which place a greater emphasis on the common good and the need to sustain and protect a free community. Yankeedom, which constitutes much of the upper Midwest and New England, was settled by religious congregations that prize community and support self-denial on behalf of the common good. New Netherland, the modern-day New York area, has a dedication to free expression and multiculturalism that stems from the eighteenth-century Dutch commitment to globalization. On the Left Coast, New Englanders and Appalachian settlers combined to create a culture with both Yankee utopianism and Appalachian individualism. The Midlands was first founded by English Quakers who believed in human’s inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations; it spawned the culture of Middle America, which is communitarian, even as it is skeptical of top-down government intervention. (First Nation, confined in the U.S. to very sparsely populated parts of northern and western Alaska, is the most communitarian of all.)

By contrast, three large and important nations have cultures that see freedom’s path lying almost exclusively with individual liberty and personal sovereignty. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2020 at 9:26 am

The unlisted: how people without an address are stripped of their basic rights

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I really like the Tiny Homes initiative seen in several locales as a means of giving the homeless a residence — and a street address. Examples: in Calgary; in Kansas City; and all over. And those initiative are important. Deirdre Mask writes in the Guardian:

In some years, more than 40% of all local laws passed by the New York City council have been street name changes. Let me give you a moment to think about that. The city council is congress to the mayor’s president. Its 51 members monitor the country’s largest school system and police force, and decide land use for one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Its budget is larger than most states’, its population bigger than all but 11 states. On top of that, New York’s streets have largely been named or numbered since the 19th century, with some street names, such as Stuyvesant and the Bowery, dating from when Manhattan was little more than a Dutch trading station.

And yet, I’ll say it again: in some years, more than 40% of all local laws passed by the New York City council have been street name changes. . .

My street address obsession began when I learned for the first time that most households in the world don’t have street addresses. Addresses, the Universal Postal Union argues, are one of the cheapest ways to lift people out of poverty, facilitating access to credit, voting rights and worldwide markets. But this is not just a problem in the developing world. I learned that even parts of the rural US don’t have street addresses.

West Virginia has tackled a decades-long project to name and number its streets. Until 1991, few people outside of West Virginia’s small cities had any street address at all. Then the state caught Verizon inflating its rates and, as part of an unusual settlement, the company agreed to pay $15m (£12.4m) to, quite literally, put West Virginians on the map.

For generations, people had navigated West Virginia in creative ways. Directions are delivered in paragraphs. Look for the white church, the stone church, the brick church, the old elementary school, the old post office, the old sewing factory, the wide turn, the big mural, the tattoo parlour, the drive-in restaurant, the dumpster painted like a cow, the pickup truck in the middle of the field. But, of course, if you live here, you probably don’t need directions; along the dirt lanes that wind through valleys and dry riverbeds, everyone knows everyone else anyway.

Emergency services have rallied for more formal ways of finding people. Close your eyes and try to explain where your house is without using your address. Now try it again, but this time pretend you’re having a stroke. Paramedics rushed to a house in West Virginia described as having chickens out front, only to see that every house had chickens out front. Along those lanes, I was told, people come out on their porches and wave at strangers, so paramedics couldn’t tell who was being friendly and who was flagging them down. Ron Serino, a firefighter in Northfork (population 429) explained how he would tell frantic callers to listen for the blare of the truck’s siren. A game of hide-and-seek would then wind its way through the serpentine hollows. “Getting hotter?” he would ask over the phone. “Getting closer?”

Many streets in rural West Virginia have rural route numbers assigned by the post office, but those numbers aren’t on any map. As one 911 official has said: “We don’t know where that stuff is at.”

Naming one street is hardly a challenge, but how do you go about naming thousands? When I met him, Nick Keller was the soft-spoken addressing coordinator for McDowell County. His office had initially hired a contractor in Vermont to do the addressing, but that effort collapsed and the company left behind hundreds of yellow slips of paper assigning addresses that Keller couldn’t connect to actual houses. (I heard that West Virginia residents, with coal as their primary livelihood, wouldn’t answer a call from a Vermont area code, fearing environmentalists.)

Many people in West Virginia really didn’t want addresses. Sometimes, they just didn’t like their new street name. (A farmer in neighboring Virginia was enraged after his street was named after the banker who denied his grandfather a loan in the Depression.) But often it’s not the particular name, but the naming itself. Everyone knows everyone else, the protesters said again and again. When a 33-year-old man died of an asthma attack after the ambulance got lost, his mother told the newspaper: “All they had to do was stop and ask somebody where we lived.” (Her directions to outsiders? “Coopers ball field, first road on the left, take a sharp right hand turn up the mountain.”) . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2020 at 3:39 pm

Posted in Daily life, Memes

The plague of Donald Trump

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I do view Donald Trump as a symptom, though he also is an active agent of destruction. Sarah Kendzior, co-host of the podcast Gaslit Nation and author of coming book Hiding in Plain Sight, writes in the Globe & Mail:

“Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,” Donald Trump, then a real estate tycoon bound for bankruptcy, told Playboy magazine in 1990. “You know, it is all a rather sad situation.”

“Life?” the interviewer asked. “Or death?”

“Both. We’re here and we live our 60, 70 or 80 years and we’re gone. You win, you win and in the end, it doesn’t mean a hell of a lot. But it is something to do – to keep you interested.”

For his entire life, Mr. Trump has been a self-described fatalist. He has called himself a fatalist in interviews spanning nearly 30 years. This admission is a rare expression of consistent honesty for a man infamous for lying about everything – his fortune, his criminal ties, objective reality. It’s the outlook he hints at when he does things such as retweeting a meme of himself fiddling like Nero, while the novel coronavirus spreads across the United States.

Nothing seems to matter to Mr. Trump – not only in the sense that the things that matter to other people, like love and loss, do not matter to him. Nothingness itself matters: Destruction and annihilation are what he craves. “When bad times come, then I’ll get whatever I want,” he told Barbara Walters in an 1980s interview. His initial reaction to 9/11 was that the collapse of the World Trade Center made his own buildings look taller. His initial reaction to the 2008 economic collapse was joy at his potential to profit. Everything to Mr. Trump is transactional, and you – all of you – are the transaction.

In February, 2014, when asked about the direction of the United States, Mr. Trump rooted for its demise:

“You know what solves it?” Mr. Trump told Fox News. “When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have a [laughs], you know, you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”

Everything Mr. Trump has done since taking office has served to fulfill this goal, from appointing Steve Bannon, who also called for the collapse of the government, as an adviser; to gutting departments that protect national security and public health; to his disdain for slain soldiers and their widows; to his horrific handling of natural disasters such as Hurricane Maria.

For months, Mr. Trump has done little to stop the coronavirus from spreading . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2020 at 2:49 pm

“Republicans like me built this moment. Then we looked the other way.”

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At least one Republican is accepting responsibility — not Donald Trump, of course. In fact, Donald Trump explicitly refuses to accept responsibility. But Stuart Stevens, a writer and Republican political consultant who has advised a pro-Bill Weld super PAC in the 2020 election, does. He writes in the Washington Post:

Don’t just blame President Trump. Blame me — and all the other Republicans who aided and abetted and, yes, benefited from protecting a political party that has become dangerous to America. Some of us knew better.

But we built this moment. And then we looked the other way.

Many of us heard a warning sound we chose to ignore, like that rattle in your car you hear but figure will go away. Now we’re broken down, with plenty of time to think about what should have been done.

The failures of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis can be traced directly to some of the toxic fantasies now dear to the Republican Party. Here are a few: Government is bad. Establishment experts are overrated or just plain wrong. Science is suspect. And we can go it alone, the world be damned.

[More coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

All of these are wrong, of course. But we didn’t get here overnight. It took practice.

Long before Trump, the Republican Party adopted as a key article of faith that more government was bad. We worked overtime to squeeze it and shrink it, to drown it in the bathtub, as anti-tax activist Grover Norquist liked to say. But somewhere along the way, it became, “all government is bad.” Now we are in a crisis that can be solved only by massive government intervention. That’s awkward.

Next, somehow, the party of idealistic Teddy Roosevelt, pragmatic Bob Dole and heroic John McCain became anti-intellectual, by which I mean, almost reflexively opposed to knowledge and expertise. We began to distrust the experts and put faith in, well, quackery. It was 2013 when former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal said the Republican Party “must stop being the stupid party.” By 2016, the party had embraced as its nominee a reality-TV host who later suggested that perhaps the noise from windmills causes cancer.

The Republican Party has gone from admiring William F. Buckley Jr., an Ivy League intellectual, to viewing higher education as a left-wing conspiracy to indoctrinate the young. In retribution, we started defunding education. Never mind that Republican leaders are among the most highly educated on the planet; it’s just that they now feel compelled to embrace ignorance as a cost of doing business. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, as an example, denounces “coastal elites” while holding degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law School and having served as a Supreme Court clerk.

The GOP’s relationship with science has resembled some kind of Frankenstein experiment: Let’s see what happens when we play with the chemistry set! Conservatives have spent years trying to cut funds for basic science and research, lamenting government seed money for nearly every budding technology and then hoping for the best. In the weeks ahead, it’s not some fiery, anti-Washington populist with an XM radio gig who is going to save folks’ lives; it is more likely to be someone who has been studying this stuff for decades, almost certainly at some point with federal help or outright patronage.

Finally, there is the populist GOP distrust and dislike of the other, the foreign. Yes, it is annoying that the Chinese didn’t come clean and explain everything to us from the start. But it appears that a Swiss company is helping to jump-start us in testing; and it is a German company that American officials reportedly tried to lure to the United States recently to help develop a vaccine for the virus. We talk about how we need to be independent even as we do all kinds of things that prove we aren’t.

What is happening now is . . .

Continue reading.

His book about the Republican Party, It Was All A Lie, will be published next month.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2020 at 11:45 am

How Do You Know Whether You’re Living Through the Death of an Empire?

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Patrick Wyman writes in Mother Jones:

The fall of an empire is supposed to be a dramatic thing. It’s right there in the name. “Fall” conjures up images of fluted temple columns toppling to the ground, pulled down by fur-clad barbarians straining to destroy something beautiful. Savage invasions, crushing battlefield defeats, sacked cities, unlucky rulers put to death: These are the kinds of stories that usually come to mind when we think of the end of an empire. They seem appropriate, the climaxes we expect from a narrative of rise, decline, and fall.

We’re all creatures of narrative, whether we think explicitly in those terms or not, and stories are one of the fundamental ways in which we engage with and grasp the meaning of the world. It’s natural that we expect the end of a story—the end of an empire—to have some drama.

The reality is far less exciting. Any political unit sound enough to project its power over a large geographic area for centuries has deep structural roots. Those roots can’t be pulled up in a day or even a year. If an empire seems to topple overnight, it’s certain that the conditions that produced the outcome had been present for a long time—suppurating wounds that finally turned septic enough for the patient to succumb to a sudden trauma.

That’s why the banalities matter. When the real issues come up, healthy states, the ones capable of handling and minimizing everyday dysfunction, have a great deal more capacity to respond than those happily waltzing toward their end. But by the time the obvious, glaring crisis arrives and the true scale of the problem becomes clear, it’s far too late. The disaster—a major crisis of political legitimacy, a coronavirus pandemic, a climate catastrophe—doesn’t so much break the system as show just how broken the system already was.

Comparisons between the United States and Rome go back to the very beginning. The first volume of Edward Gibbon’s magisterial The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence. The Founding Fathers had a deep appreciation and understanding of classical antiquity, and to some extent, they modeled aspects of their new nation on that understanding of the Roman past. Southern planters retained a distinct fondness for the Roman aristocracy, cultivating a life of high-minded leisure on the backs of chattel slaves.

As at the beginning, so too at the end. If anybody knows anything about Rome, they know that it fell, and they usually have a theory—lead poisoning is a popular one—to explain why. Every scholar working on Roman history has faced the linked questions of whether we’re Rome and where we are in the decline and fall. Those twin queries might come from students, casual acquaintances at a mandatory social function desperately trying to find conversational common ground, some guy at a party ripping massive bong hits to whom you made the mistake of telling your occupation, or, in my case, from podcast listeners and people on Twitter.

I spent the better part of a decade thinking about the end of the Roman Empire in its various manifestations. Academics, being academics, agree on very little about the topic. The idea of “fall” is now passé, for better and for worse; scholars prefer to speak of a “transformation” of the Roman world taking place over centuries, or better still, a long, culturally distinct, and important-in-its-own-right Late Antiquity spanning the Mediterranean world and beyond. If the Roman Empire did ever come to a real end, all agree, it was a long, slow process spanning many lifetimes—hardly the stuff of dramatic narratives. There are still a few catastrophists out there, but not many.

On one hand, this is all beside the point. While the eastern half of the Roman Empire survived in some form for the next thousand years, brought to an end only by the Ottoman sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453, the Roman Empire in the west did in fact come to an end. After a certain point, either 476 (Romulus Augustulus) or 480 (Julius Nepos), there was no longer an emperor in Ravenna claiming authority over the vast territory it had encompassed, stretching from the sands of the Sahara to the moors of northern Britain. Supply wagons laden with grain and olive oil for garrisons of Roman soldiers no longer rolled along roads maintained at state expense. The villas everywhere from Provence to Yorkshire in which Roman aristocrats had passed their time, plotting their election to town councils and composing bad poetry, fell into ruin.

Depending on the time, place, and the identity of the observer, this process could look and feel much different. Let’s say you were a woman born in a thriving market town in Roman Britain in the year 360. If you survived to age 60, that market town would no longer exist, along with every other urban settlement of any significant size. You lived in a small village instead of a genuine town. You had grown up using money, but now you bartered—grain for metalwork, beer for pottery, hides for fodder. You no longer saw the once-ubiquitous Roman army or the battalions of officials who administered the Roman state. Increasing numbers of migrants from the North Sea coast of continental Europe—pagans who didn’t speak a word of Latin or the local British language, certainly not wage-earning servants of the Roman state—were already in the process of transforming lowland Britain into England. That 60-year-old woman had been born into a place as fundamentally Roman as anywhere in the Empire. She died in a place that was barely recognizable.

Let’s consider an alternative example. Imagine you were lucky enough to have been born the son of an aristocrat in Provence around the year 440. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 March 2020 at 12:33 pm

Posted in Congress, Daily life, Government, Memes, Politics

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We’re not going back to normal: Social distancing is here to stay

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The pandemic may have triggered a mutation in social memes, one that will persist. Gideon Lichfield writes in MIT’s Technology Review:

To stop coronavirus we will need to radically change almost everything we do: how we work, exercise, socialize, shop, manage our health, educate our kids, take care of family members.

We all want things to go back to normal quickly. But what most of us have probably not yet realized—yet will soon—is that things won’t go back to normal after a few weeks, or even a few months. Some things never will.

You can read all our coverage of the coronavirus/Covid-19 outbreak for free, and also sign up for our coronavirus newsletter. But please consider subscribing to support our nonprofit journalism.

It’s now widely agreed (even by Britain, finally) that every country needs to “flatten the curve”: impose social distancing to slow the spread of the virus so that the number of people sick at once doesn’t cause the health-care system to collapse, as it is threatening to do in Italy right now. That means the pandemic needs to last, at a low level, until either enough people have had Covid-19 to leave most immune (assuming immunity lasts for years, which we don’t know) or there’s a vaccine.

How long would that take, and how draconian do social restrictions need to be? Yesterday President Donald Trump, announcing new guidelines such as a 10-person limit on gatherings, said that “with several weeks of focused action, we can turn the corner and turn it quickly.” In China, six weeks of lockdown are beginning to ease now that new cases have fallen to a trickle.

But it won’t end there. As long as someone in the world has the virus, breakouts can and will keep recurring without stringent controls to contain them. In a report yesterday (pdf), researchers at Imperial College London proposed a way of doing this: impose more extreme social distancing measures every time admissions to intensive care units (ICUs) start to spike, and relax them each time admissions fall. Here’s how that looks in a graph. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including the graph.

It’s going to be hard on extroverts.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 March 2020 at 9:41 am

Coronavirus and the Clash of Civilizations

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Bruno Maçães writes in the National Review (of all places):

I spent the last two months traveling through Asia, all the way from Pakistan to the Philippines, with stops in India, Nepal, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam. These were the months when the coronavirus epidemic grew from a faint echo in our daily news feed into what will likely become the most important story of our lifetimes, already shaping up to be the biggest story in Google trends history.

What most impressed me in my travels was the seriousness with which the outbreak is taken all over Asia. In Europe and America, at least among the political class, the coronavirus has been mostly a matter for jokes and general levity, although in countries such as Italy that mood has now changed and taken a dramatic turn.

Singapore, where a vast and methodic system has been put in place to deal with the emergency, relies heavily on technology, but citizens are asked to do their part. In Vietnam and the Philippines, the response has been less methodical, but the anxiety is evident everywhere. In Nepal and India, even the poorest rickshaw driver and the most otherworldly pilgrim have made drastic changes to their behavior.

In some countries, including China, the SARS outbreak in 2003 was a formative experience. For many it felt like a close call. Even if the number of victims was limited, the impact on the regional economy was severe, and everyone had to wonder: What if this happens again, with a more contagious virus? At peak shedding, scientists say, people with coronavirus are emitting more than 1,000 times more virus than was emitted during peak shedding of the SARS infection. The SARS virus sits deep in your lungs. The coronavirus is in your throat, ready to spread.

The outbreak has exposed other divides. As I traveled in increasingly empty planes, one thought kept returning: How notable that we are all together in this, and yet every society seems to deal with the epidemic in its own distinctive way. One of the main divides was between the developed and the developing world. It explained the seriousness in Asia. If poverty and disease are a daily presence or at most two or three generations behind you, you are predisposed to accept that your world can suddenly collapse. The question that Americans and Europeans ask themselves — How was this allowed to happen? — makes less sense than the question of how to survive and how to protect your loved ones.

The subtle changes of political climate and mores that political thinkers used to write about are suddenly very relevant. I wondered if social mores explained why some countries and not others became hotspots of the infection. As the news from Wuhan started to arrive, I thought of my previous visits to the city: the crowded restaurants serving crayfish, the long meals around the hotpot, the communal living, and the chaos of the wholesale seafood market. But it was not just China. Southern Europeans greet themselves with one or two kisses. Iranians spend time crowded together during daily prayer. Perhaps these were factors, but then the response was no less colored by cultural differences.

At present the most hopeful news about our ability to defeat the epidemic comes from what could roughly be called the Confucian cosmopolis. Singapore flirted with disaster at the beginning but quickly recovered. Vietnam has shown a remarkable ability to contain the spread, and South Korea has proven capable of conducting as many as 10,000 tests per day and has built testing clinics that can detect the coronavirus cases in just ten minutes. Do these facts illustrate the benefits of a moral system that emphasizes duties before rights and places high value on the propriety of customs, measures, and rules as defined by the larger community?

Just yesterday I received an email from a Chinese university informing me that a conference planned for May will still go ahead. The author of the message took the opportunity to make the point that, by the time the conference takes place, China will be much safer than Europe or America. He then concluded with the pronouncement that the coronavirus has shown the Chinese model to be superior to the Western one. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

See also: “Come on, you live in a society.”

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2020 at 3:16 pm

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