Saturday, August 12, 2017

EndTimes

After Hiroshima, many people--from scientists to ordinary citizens to journalists to high ranking military officers and even a few politicians--realized that nuclear war could threaten to end global civilization.  For at least a generation beginning in the 1960s, that threat was very real, and people felt it.

Today the end of civilization from nuclear war is still possible, if it cascades and  causes enough damage that civilization can't come back.  And while it is of less conscious concern today--except perhaps for times like the past week or so--it still is a background fear.

Since the early 1990s, many people--from scientists to ordinary citizens to journalists to high ranking military officers and even a few politicians--realized that the climate crisis could end global civilization.  Since around 2009, that threat became very real, and people feel it.

It would be interesting to track the similarities and differences in our responses to these two threats, and I may do a little of that here in passing.  But basically, this post is about the climate crisis and the end of civilization.

In early July, New York Magazine published an article by David Wallace-Wells titled "The Uninhabitable Earth" which took existing data on climate, and instead of choosing the most conservative prediction of consequences, or the happy medium as official reports often do, it chose the worst.  Not the worst imaginable, but the worst possible.

In Part I: Doomsday, subtitled Peering beyond scientific reticence, the author began:  "It is, I promise, worse than you think...

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century."

I won't go into the details.  The author also provides an annotated version.  But the piece quickly became the most read article on the New York site ever, and started a controversy, including among climate scientists and activists.  Among them were climate scientist Michael Mann, one of the past targets of  denialists, who criticized the story for being "doomist."

Besides critiquing aspects of the science cited, Mann and others expressed the view that such doom drains people of hope, and in despair they will refuse to do what's necessary to address the causes of the climate crisis because it just won't matter.  Mann even took to the Washington Post to declare that "Doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial" (as the headline of his oped says.)  Emily Atkin in the New Republic called it "Climate disaster porn."

Others disagreed.  Susan Matthews in Slate wrote that ""alarmism is what we need to fight climate change" and that the Wallace-Wells story wasn't "scary enough." Science News looked at both sides of the question.

All of this was happening just as Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Sequel was being released.  In her New Yorker review of the film, Michelle Nijhuis mentioned the New York Magazine controversy, and seemed to come down against it, in praising an element of the movie:

"Psychologists have studied the dynamics of what advertisers call “fear appeals,” and they have found that while fear is very good at getting our attention, it’s not very good at keeping it. For that, the scary stuff must be followed by solutions that are small enough to be practical but large enough to be meaningful. Wallace-Wells’s article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” successfully got attention... But it offers little in the way of fixes, nodding briefly to the allure—if not the wisdom—of geoengineering and suggesting that civilization will eventually cobble together a substantive response to climate change, if only because the alternative is so appalling. “An Inconvenient Sequel,” which is a work of advocacy rather than journalism, pivots efficiently away from its disaster reel and toward solutions, cheering the rise of cheaper renewables and the promise of the Paris climate accord, even in the wake of the U.S.’s withdrawal."


Perhaps surprisingly then, Gore (who used to talk about "solving the climate crisis and calls himself an optimist) not only praises Wallace-Wells article, but appeared with him in a live program after a film screening.  Gore said:
"I really admired the article you wrote, took note of some of the snipes and critiques, and I agreed with some of the climate writers that I most respect, like David Roberts and Joe Romm, who said, good for David Wallace-Wells, it’s a real wake-up call. We need to be aware of how things could go really badly wrong."

Even as this controversy was ongoing, news kept coming of how much worse things are getting.  Just a sampling of the stories, studies, and headlines: 
Hopes of mild climate change dashed by new research
 (the Guardian),
Earth to warm 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, studies say (CNN: 2 degrees is the red line scientists use to indicate the likely tipping point into irreversible and catastrophic climate change, hence some of the headlines that follow.)

Climate change will almost certainly heat the world so much it can never recover, major study findsThere's only a 10 per cent chance we'll avoid widespread drought, extreme weather and dangerous increases in sea level (the Independent.)  Similar stories ran in Wired, Science Daily, elsewhere.

And it kept on coming:Climate change pushing Asia towards doom, says report  (Gulf Times.) Climate change to cause humid heatwaves that will kill even healthy people (Guardian.) Extreme weather 'could kill up to 152,000 a year' in Europe by 2100 (BBC.)

In the past few days, there's the leaked final draft of a US interagency report which Slate said "paints an unsettling picture of dramatically rising temperatures that are already affecting the lives of Americans..."  The New York Times had extensive excerpts of this extensive study that confirms global heating due to carbon pollution and other "human activities," and the likely extent of consequences felt right now and in the future.

Meanwhile other headlines confirmed what is happening now. Suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers linked to climate change, study claims (Guardian), We're choking on smoke in Seattle (New York Times: triple digit heat and smoke from forests burning in British Columbia), etc. etc. and finally:2016 Was Hot, Weird, and Unprecedented, Says NOAA (Atlantic) as the US agency formally announced that 2016 was (stop me if you've heard this one) the hottest year on record.

So what does it all mean?  What, if anything, is different?  And who is right in this doomist debate?

These latest studies, particularly predicting a range of the temperature rise already "baked in" which we can't do anything to stop, as well as how steeply humanity will have to cut greenhouse gas pollution to prevent much higher temperatures, tend towards confirming worse case scenarios.

But some observers have been quietly acknowledging this for some time--starting especially from the shocking acceleration in Arctic and Antarctic melting nearly a decade ago, which is still accelerating.  Here's what I think has changed.  While a cascade of possible effects would probably have to happen to make much of the planet uninhabitable by the end of this century,  the possibility has gone up that these global heating effects, plus socioeconomic and probably military effects they cause, will lead to a breakdown in global civilization by the mid to late 22nd century.  And yes, it could get worse from there.

That does not mean things will remain as they are until one of these vague dates in the future.  It could get very much worse suddenly at some point (a pulse of sea level rise, for instance) but it is likely to get gradually worse, with ever more obvious consequences.  (Several years ago, some experts suggested that the reality and direction of change will be obvious to everyone by 2050.  They may have revised that date by now.)

What is all but certain is that we haven't begun to imagine, let alone face, the consequences of the climate crisis.  As far as I've seen it hasn't been really done in fiction.  Kim Stanley Robinson acknowledges the climate crisis as the cause of major changes but doesn't write about the worst of those changes.  And doomsday explorations like The Road don't relate their apocalypse to the climate crisis.

Because of global heating, life in the future is very likely to be very different than it is today.  The life of every person is going to be different, beginning at least with children now in school.  In some ways they may have more fulfilling lives, but they may well have harder lives.  Gore says we're in the early stages of a revolution, and those lives may be in the thick of that, addressing the causes and effects of the climate crisis, including at very basic levels.

 Beyond that, and beyond the next generation or two, it's hard to say.  But it will never again be as it is now.  Not this planet, not civilization, not humanity.

As for doom, there's always a difficulty in discussing apocalyptic futures, in that this is a big world, and the future is even bigger.  Describe a dystopian future, and there are probably people somewhere living in it right now.  So whose future are we talking about?

But I believe there is one aspect of the future that seems extremely likely, and this touches upon the doom debate.  For years, people in the environmental community especially have refused to talk directly about one probable consequence of the likely cascade of effects caused not only by the climate crisis itself but by mass species extinction, deadly pollution of the oceans, deforestation and other ongoing destruction to the Earth as a living system.

That consequence was once whispered about, borrowing a term from plant biology, as "dieback."  Human dieback.  It is likely that Earth of the future, perhaps the relatively near future, will have a significantly smaller human population, and while some of that decrease will occur naturally, some or much of it will be the result of mass deaths.

This occasionally sneaks into environmental analyses, such as the 2011 book The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding.  Billed as an "optimistic" view of the climate crisis--that is, that civilization will somehow get through it--it nevertheless contains this single astounding sentence:“I expect we’ll tragically lose a few billion people.”

He doesn't say much more about that, and nobody does.  But it does suggest more than Gilding's subtitle--"an end to shopping."  A few billion people--meaning what? More than two billion, I'd guess-- is a significant chunk of the 7.5 billion now living.  The most vulnerable first, probably, and heating is predicted to be worst in the poorest parts of the world, but epidemics and the fragility of our civilization's supply lines could change that calculus.  It's a horrible thought, and nobody wants to say it out loud.

But that doesn't mean people--ordinary people-- haven't thought it.  Generations of Americans were told and taught not to express fears about nuclear war, because those fears played into enemy hands, showed lack of confidence in our leaders, were unpatriotic.  (That's after officials stopped lying about how pleasant radiation poisoning is, and how you can protect yourself from a nuclear explosion by 'duck and cover.')

But those fears just dove deep into individual and societal unconscious, emerging in nightmares and neuroses, and got expressed and defused in popular entertainment--specifically the bug-eyed monster movies of the 1950s, that Susan Sontag had the insight to see were more than they seemed.

 Eventually after the atomic monsters brought the subject into the open, movies could be made about the real causes and effects of nuclear war,  from Fail-Safe and Doctor Strangelove, to the UK's The War Game, US televisions Threads, to two films that actually changed minds and galvanized public support to control nuclear weapons: the 1959 star-studded feature On the Beach, and the TV drama The Day After.

There are lots of reasons for the current plethora of dystopian fictions and movies, or the fashion for zombies on television as well as film and print.  But the unconscious fear of endtimes is an unacknowledged wellspring.  The climate crisis and other environmental catastrophes are part of that fear. Whether these indirect approaches eventually result in a more conscious approach that changes minds and policies remains to be seen.

It may be too late to prevent large-scale changes (and therefore personal changes affecting everyone) and hardships, but perhaps the worst may still be averted, and the times to come may better be faced by a more prepared generation.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Presidential Portrait


I've avoided even a single photo of our apprentice dictator since the election of November 2016.  Why feed the beast?  But since he's truly outdoing himself this week, it's time to show him as he really is.

Consider this also an illustration of that comforting story in the Washington Post, in which the effect on the careers of military officers in refusing to carry out an order for a nuclear strike is the rationale for carrying it out.  A dilemma for today's General Buck Turgidson.

 Because according to this story, essentially this is the one and only case in which one person-- the guy pictured above--can give an order and it will immediately be carried out.  He can order transgender people out of the military and nothing happens.  He can order an unhealthcare bill be passed and nothing happens.  He can order me to get him a sandwich and I guarantee you that nothing will happen.  But he can order thermonuclear war and within minutes it will begin.

But Of Course! Blame It On the '60s

Not that it matters all that much these days, but I haven't been so annoyed by such a wrongheaded and overreaching piece in a long time as by Kurt Andersen's opus in the Atlantic, "How America Lost Its Mind."

It's frustrating because the piece makes a case--an easy-to-make case--that the minds of some Americans are conspicuously untethered to reality, and that this has political consequences.  But his analysis why this is happening right now is either glibly nebulous and unconvincingly supported or just oversimplified to the point that it's simply wrong. The question of "How America Lost Its Mind" is therefore in reality unanswered.

It really goes off the rails when he attributes much of the phenomenon to that grand bugaboo of our time, the 1960s.  Of course!  Why be original when you can be popular? He tries to lend his thesis credence by noting that he was a child then.  Well, I was a young adult at the end of the decade, and I saw things a lot differently.

I don't deny that some of what we are seeing now constitute perversions of cultural phenomena of the 60s, but not only of the 60s or after. The '60s also did not invent ignorance and isolated cultural myths.  He does mention some of this history, but always we come back to the 60s.  In many ways the 60s are just a target of convenience, not to mention a right wing bugaboo popularized by Newt Gingrich in the early 90s, that still plays well in certain quarters today.

Nobody denies there were excesses in the 60s.  But there were reasons for those excesses.  What happened in the 60s relating to conventional wisdom didn't happen all on its own. Much of it was in reaction to the failures and limitations of the conventional wisdom, and the fact that these failures were causing real harm, from stultified and despairing lives, to dead Americans and Vietnamese.  As well as threatening the planet with the thermonuclear logic of the Cold War.

In fact the major critique made in the 1960s was: underneath this mask of rationality, America is already insane.  If America lost its mind, it was already gone by the premier of Doctor Strangelove.

Andersen writes that the 60s fostered crazy conspiracy theories, and anti-science attitudes.  He mixes politics and New Age assertions as the reasons.

But let's separate a few things.  First, conspiracy theories of any kind did not begin in the 1960s.  Nor did the belief in UFOs, etc.

Second, let's remember the political situation.  The critique against the Vietnam War was begun, not by ideologues or conspiracy theorists, but by scholars.  The teach-ins of the mid-60s showed how the conventional wisdom in Washington was wrong about history, geopolitics and warfare in Asia.  They also asserted a different set of values and moral calculations, but their point was: the conventional wisdom was wrong.

Later in the 60s it was asserted, documented and proven that in addition to being wrong, those in charge of the conventional wisdom about Vietnam were lying.  There was in fact a conspiracy to keep facts from the American people.

Also, among the "conspiracies" that protestors talked about were that anti-war groups were being infiltrated by government agents and government provocateurs, and that lots of people were being monitored for their anti-war activity.  All of that turned out to be true.  Just as the later conspiracy 1970s theory that there was an organized coverup of ongoing authoritarian crimes in the White House.

Or the 1950s conspiracy theory that there is a military-industrial complex that perpetuates a certain conventional wisdom in foreign and domestic policy.  I believe that was started by that noted nutcake conspiracy theorist, Dwight David Eisenhower.

Anderson apparently sees the roots of today's anti-science crowd in the New Age movement, tracing it all to the Esalen Institute.  And the justification for believing anything counter to science is the fault of the 60s philosophy: "Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative." 

Anderson appears to have no idea of the meaning of those phrases in their contexts.  Breaking out of the strictures of convention, not settling for mind-numbing, soul-destroying conventional careers, especially those that were actively destructive, and not being afraid to live creatively,  were the references.  "It's all relative" and reality as a construct were philosophical--and scientific-- statements about the nature of reality.

Yes, it was about questioning authority.  It was fundamentally about questioning authority.  Which science is supposed to do, but not only science.

The excesses of New Age thinking (which didn't get formalized by that name until the 70s) have been individually critiqued, often by prominent participants of the time.  But Esalen was also home to Gregory Bateson (author of Steps To An Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature) and others who developed concepts crucial to systems thinking and cybernetics, as well as ecology.

Exploring relationships of mind and nature, science and spirituality, the individual and society, fact and value, and well as bravely exploring areas that may yet find a place in explaining reality, remain relevant.  As messy and goofy as some of those explorations may have been in the 60s.  (At least we had some fun.  Maybe that's behind all this.  We had too much fun.  Well, don't worry.  We also had a lot of pain.)

Some of those "unscientific" explorations are, fifty years later, accepted within the body of science. Esalen developed or introduced therapies that explored mind/body connections, and the application of nonwestern practices such as yoga, that are part of holistic medicine as practiced today, including by certified physicians who integrate it into their conventional medicine practice.

Even some of the apparent excesses Anderson "exposes," like R.D. Laing's approach to mental illness, were responses to the corruption of the conventional treatments of the day, yielding insights that today are themselves conventional.

Lynn Margulis, a hero of science who
questioned conventional evolutionary
science--and won.
And that's really the problem that pieces like this share with others that try to explain the origins of today's attitudes towards certain scientific findings.  They tend to be all or nothing, either/or.  Either you adhere to the conventional wisdom on evolution, say, or you must be an anti-science creationist.

Or in another common formula, you must accept all conventional conclusions--extremely well-founded ones based on years of results taking numerous approaches such as climate change--as well as others that are more narrow, and dubiously aligned with corporate interests--or you are anti-science.

  Or the big one: if you believe that science may not be up to explaining everything about reality, then you are an anti-science bigot.

There are people who are anti-science, at least in one area or another (they don't "believe" in evolution but accept medical science) and then there are people who don't believe in bad science.  The 60s revolted against inadequate narrowness in the conventional scientific wisdom of the day--and there is always very powerful conventional scientific wisdom.

Some of what people in the 60s came up with remains fringe if not disproven, but other ideas have become quite respectable.  It used to be believed that people couldn't intentionally change body states or brain activity.  Now the results of brain scans on Buddhist monks in deep meditation have proven they can.  Again, mind/body relationships are now part of medical practice.  Much of what today is called preventive medicine was dismissed by scientists back then.  Maybe even called pseudoscience and New Age anti-scientific drug-addled hippie nonsense.

Others aspects of Anderson's piece are equally maddening, as in the 60s elevation of fantasy (without the context of its cultural critique, and suggesting that it implied no operational difference between fantasy and reality) as the reason that fantasy movies and television are so prevalent, and so many people are deeply involved in those worlds.

Well, people have been deeply involved in fantasies, and at some level believed them to be true, for not just fifty years but thousands of years. The history of drama, from myths chanted around the winter fire to medieval mystery plays and so on, all suggest such involvement is hardly new.

 Story-telling is a human cultural expression and product, with all kinds of functions.  Quite a few cultural observers explore why fantasies are prevalent, and why particular fantasies are prevalent at a given time. It's an entertaining and at times enlightening game.  I play it myself.  But it requires a less blunt instrument than this piece brings to bear.

We might suggest, for example, one reason for the prevalence of fantasy stories might be the novelty of how they are told, especially the special effects and the relationship to gaming, social media and fandom.

Moreover, many of these fantasies inevitably explore reality through metaphor or character, as stories and especially myth always do, if only in the responses of some of their readers or audience.  They may be as much an escape from the noise of the moment into the nub of reality, or at least other possibilities, as an escape from reality itself.

Anderson makes other remarks about the 60s that also miss the mark.  He skeptically critiques The Greening of America (a 1970s best seller) as if what he has to say is a revisionist expose, when in fact that book was largely laughed at in media of the time, particularly in the alternative press.

 I hope that future writers looking for a cultural fall guy will restrain themselves from choosing the popular target of the 1960s.  But I'm not counting on it.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Library Days

the former Greensburg Public Library on South Main
I was probably nine, maybe ten when I got my first library card.  It was a momentous act.  I doubt that I had ever read a complete book yet.  But apart from the stories in the Book House books, or in Boy's Life magazine, which I started getting by subscription when I joined a Cub Scouts den in fourth grade, the only place that had reading I might be interested in was the public library.

I remember talking it over with my mother, and she accompanied me to the library and they signed me up.  After that, I went to the library on my own--a few times with friends (especially after Saturday afternoon movies) but mostly on my own. It was the beginning of my life of independent reading.

It may be difficult for readers today to believe it, but I walked to town unsupervised before I was ten.  It was just under a mile, a straight shot down and up hills, down West Newton Road and across to continue as Pittsburgh Street, finally, steeply up to the business district on the crest of a hill.

The first public library in Greensburg opened in June 1936, ten years before I was born.  Before that, libraries were associated with schools but mostly the private property of wealthy families.  One such library was featured in the palatial home of Major William Stokes, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, built in 1846 and situated on a high hill where the Seton Hill University campus is now.  (The building itself survived as St. Joseph's Academy, later renamed St. Mary's Hall. As the original building of the college, I believe at least part of it is still there.  It was visible from the window of my very first home on College Avenue.)

That library is intriguing because it may have inspired a young visitor to the house in 1852, a telegraph operator named Andrew Carnegie.  It was apparently the first library he'd seen and it impressed him.  Ironically perhaps, though Carnegie built some 1700 public libraries across America, there was never a Carnegie library in Greensburg.  He did offer to build one in 1896, but he always insisted that the host municipality pay for upkeep, and Greensburg demurred.

The first attempt at a public library quickly outgrew its space, and General Richard Coulter, who commanded troops in World War I and belonged to a prominent Greensburg family wealthy from banking and coal, donated his old home on South Main Street.  (Built in 1881, this may have also been the home of his father, the first Richard Coulter, who was a member of Congress and a state supreme court judge.) It opened as the Greensburg Public Library on June 26, 1940, almost precisely six years before my birth.

This is the building where I got that first library card, and which I frequented until I left for college.  On that first day I learned the terms: I could borrow as many as three books from the children's room (but only from there), for two weeks, with the opportunity to renew for another two weeks.  Fines for overdue books were on the order of a penny to three cents a day.

I was probably asked what kind of books I was interested in, and I mentioned science fiction, or at least spaceships.  I was steeped in Saturday morning shows like Space Patrol, Tom Corbett and Rocky Jones: Space Ranger, and even before that, I'd watched Captain Video every evening.  By then the exciting Man in Space episode of Tomorrowland on the Disneyland hour may have aired. I'd seen a few science fiction movies, and may have read a Robert Heinlein story in Boy's Life.

So I went home that day with The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin.  It looked like this, although I remember the cover as red.

So many times--up the steps, into the front door, with the circulation desk dead ahead.  A sharp left turn and down a few polished wooden steps to the children's room.  In a few years, I would be sneaking behind the bulletin board at the far right corner of the room, which hid the dimly lit adult stacks in the rooms next to it, books from ceiling to floor.

It was a bit spooky in there at first.  But by junior high years, having learned the rudiments of the Dewy Decimal System and how to use the card catalog, I searched and browsed back there.  I also checked the shelves of new books on the wall just opposite the circulation desk, to the left of the entrance.

To the right were a couple of smaller rooms, one of which was the reference library, with a big globe.  I remember reading chapters in the Catholic Encyclopedia in there on a high school evening, shocked by what some of the Popes had gotten up to.

In the early '60s I discovered that I was allowed to take the stairs to the second floor that began just behind and a little to the right of the circulation desk.  On the second floor was a room of recordings, and a record player.  Amazing!  Classical, jazz and most importantly just then, folk music albums.

Then I learned I could take some out.  Just about all I knew of folk music was what was on popular radio--mostly the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary.  So it was the public library that introduced me to Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

I also was introduced to recorded humor--the albums of the new comedians I saw on TV like Bob Newhart, but especially to the satiric Stan Freberg.  I loved those albums!  Freberg (among others) inspired me to write satirical scripts and record them with three friends (The Four Frauds) and later I learned songs and even stole funny bits from those folk albums, as three of us morphed into a folk group, the Crosscurrents.

The public library provided access to records I didn't know about and couldn't afford to buy anyway.  But it mostly put books into my hands--books I had no other way of even touching, let alone reading.

 Going to the library, selecting the books, were among my first independent acts. Being conscientious about getting the books back on time was among my first independent responsibilities...And of course I remember fondly several of the library ladies who were always there--friendly, sometimes scary, but who knew me and talked to me as a reader.

Several years after I'd left for college, in 1969, the library moved to a much bigger building, the massive old Post Office a block away on Pennsylvania Avenue.  The Post Office moved into a new and smaller building across the street.

This building, now called the Greensburg-Hempfield Area Library, itself has a complicated history I haven't entirely put together yet.  It opened in 1911--old enough to offer a prospect for watching one of the last Buffalo Bill Wild West Shows parade into town.

One Greensburg history says it was built according to the plan for the Charlotteville, Virginia post office (1905), and indeed they look all but identical.  (That's Greensburg above, Charlottesville left.)

That provenance may help account for the prominent columns and portico--though a popular style at the time (variously called colonial revival, neo-colonial and Beaux Arts) it especially echoes a lot of Charlottesville (and University of Virginia) buildings, which themselves echo Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home outside that city.

The Greensburg building's interior was extensively renovated in 1934-5, and it's likely that this project was designed and carried out by Samuel Plato, the first African American to receive commissions to build US Post Office buildings. He was also a builder who insisted on integrated work forces.  (The Greensburg connection is according to the Filson Historical Society in Kentucky, which houses Plato's papers.)

 The 30s and 40s were busy in Greensburg and Westmoreland County, so this was not just the post office but the county Federal Building, housing offices of the Agriculture Department, U.S. Navy, IRS, Civil Service Commission, Census Bureau and the congressional district office.

It seems likely that the renovation was at least in part a New Deal project, but I can't find documentation of that. I'm still looking into the history of this building and this 1930s project, so if anybody in Greensburg could find and photograph a cornerstone dedication or a plaque inside the building, I'd love to have it.  It's puzzling to me that Greensburg seems to ignore this building and its history, even though it seems to be within its official historic district.

 When I returned to town for a couple of hitches in the 70s and 80s I dropped by the library in its new building.  The entrance area was huge, the circulation desk impressively big, and the ceilings very high.  The first time I visited there was even one of the same library ladies there.  I asked her if she remembered me.  "Yes," she said, not approving of my beard, however.  "You look like an old sailor."  I immediately thought of all the books I'd borrowed that featured ships and the sea.

At this point they were getting rid of old books and had them on sale in the lobby or just outside.  I bought my cherished two volume set of William Manchester's history of the 20th century, The Glory and the Dream, for twenty cents.  And a first edition of Wallace Stevens' first book of poems, for a dime.

A final anecdote suggests a different aspect of this story.  Sometime in the late 70s or early 80s I was suddenly inspired to look for a book I'd taken out in high school.  I found it in the stacks. It was obviously the very same copy (dark blue, gold lettering.)  The old card system was still being used, with a card in a pocket just inside the book to indicate the due date.  Often this card traveled with the book, and had its title and number on it, as well as the signature of the person borrowing, so you could actually see how many times it had been taken out, and by whom.  Homeland Security would have loved it.

As I took the book to the circulation desk, I glanced at the card.  The first and last time it had been taken out was 1963, and the first and last person to take it out was me.   The book was by Richard Hofstader: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.


It's a small town library, serving small town people.  But among those people is somebody like me; in fact, for those years, exactly me.  This book, clearly of minority interest, was here.  They bought it and kept it, and it waited for me.  The public library is open to all, but serves individuals within the all.  Even a minority of one.  And we all get to borrow these books, on the same easy terms.  The public library is a miracle.  It's the most democratic of institutions, and therefore, a democratic miracle.

As for the first book I borrowed, The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree, it's a somewhat witty tale that today would remind people of E.T.  But after my two weeks were up I took it back without completing it.  Reading a whole book is a skill, and in my case it took more time to acquire it.

I would soon find on those shelves just the books to really get me started.  But that's for next time.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Resistance: Heart and Soles

Slate has an article describing the Instagram posts of Pete Sousza, President Obama's official photographer.  Of this parade of photos from the Obama years, the article accurately says:

"The timing of each upload is deliberate, designed to contrast the former POTUS’s grace and poise with the current one’s flailing malice. Souza’s Instagram, which now has about 1.5 million followers, feels like a magic mirror swimming with images from a brighter past."

However the writer, Katy Waldman, offers this to castigate it as more evidence of liberal laziness and self-regard.  Of course, if people did nothing more than live in this past, it's not going to make for a better future.  But these posts fulfill several legitimate functions.

When things are so awful that the Obama presidency seems like it couldn't have happened, it's important to know and remember that it did.  It's important to keep in heart and mind that politics and the presidency don't have to be mired in such intense darkness and shame.  There has to be a model.  Not just promises or a plan, but evidence that it can be real. Emotionally, spiritually as well as intellectually. ..So check out the article for the examples offered, or better yet, go to the source.

Meanwhile, Obama's legacy is precisely leading to action.  Politico profiles the organization once known as Obama for America, which reorganized itself as Organizing for Action, keeping the same identifying initials of OFA.

The article concludes that among organizations fighting in the Resistance, OFA is the best prepared and most skilled in political action as well as grassroots organizing, and training succeeding generations of organizers.  They meet people in their neighborhoods, churches and community functions, as well as through social media and email, in what used to be called shoe leather politics.

After organizing responses to Republican unhealthcare proposals, OFA is currently sending organizers to town hall meetings and district offices, taking to account those who voted for these proposals.  On the agenda for the near future: "It's already looking at plans to go into 2018 with a massive voter registration drive that could become its main project ahead of the midterms."

But OFA deals with more than election politics itself.  Organizing to spread true information on healthcare and the climate crisis are continuing efforts.

All of this as an independent organization with no formal relationship with President Obama, though things may change when he reemerges to focus on redistricting issues and gerrymandering.  Yet the relationship with his presidency endures:

"Yet six months into a presidency geared toward undermining the legacy of the man these young operatives still revere — more as someone who shaped not just their politics but their entire political consciousness — OFA has found new life. It’s become the lead organizing hub of the Trump resistance."

"Most of the opposition groups that have sprouted up since Trump won are election-oriented and inexperienced in coordination. OFA believes it now has the tools and know-how to keep the fight going when others will fade or stumble.

“Mobilizing in the moment,” Warner said, “is different from organizing in the long term.”  You gotta have heart, but you gotta apply those soles to the job as well.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Hiroshima and the Future

The Atomic Bomb dome, an historical monument (one of at least 60) in the now thriving city of Hiroshima, preserved in the condition it was after the explosion of the first atomic bomb used on a human population in wartime on August 6, 1945.  The Guardian has this nuanced article about Hiroshima today.  Meanwhile, the effort to ban nuclear weapons worldwide continues in the UN.  It seems about as hopeless as banning slavery once did.

When the Resistance Gets Real


Jonathan Chiat at New York has written about what others obviously have thought (and I at least have written about here): the prospect that a cornered apprentice dictator in the White House will attempt to save himself and impose his authoritarian will by starting some sort of war.

Chiat recounts the last few weeks in which the a.d. has become more and more isolated, attacked, stymied or at least ignored (which operationally amounts to the same thing) by members of his own party, of the federal government and the military, as well as by an openly skeptical media, including its automatic and relentless fact-checking.

He sees no way that this regime can save itself--except: "There is one frightening exception. Trump could regain public standing through the rally-round-the-flag effect that usually occurs following a domestic attack or at the outset of a war."

Although this has worked in the past, Chiat argues that it need not work this time.
Trump’s authoritarian tendencies make the prospect of his rebuilding his legitimacy on the basis of security especially dangerous. The number of Republicans who see Trump as a strong leader has dropped by 22 percentage points since January. Trump’s opportunity lies in exploiting fear to demonstrate strength.

"There is an answer to this danger. It is to not simply assume Trump can — or should be allowed to — use war or terrorism to his advantage."

"The ability of a president to gain popularity by launching (or suffering) an attack is not a law of nature. It reflects, in part, choices — by the opposition to withhold criticism and by the news media to accept the administration’s framing of the facts at face value. A chaotic, still-understaffed administration led by a novice commander-in-chief who has alienated American allies deserves no benefit of the doubt. Everything from Trump’s incompetent management of the Department of Energy, which safeguards nuclear materials, to the now-skeletal State Department, to his blustering international profile has exposed the country to an elevated risk of a mass tragedy. A long-term task of the opposition is to prevent the crumbling presidency from transmuting that weakness into strength."

In other words, if he tries it, this is when the Resistance earns its name: when it's hard and potentially dangerous, and not just a matter of waving banners at big block parties in the sun.