Archives for category: Journalism

 

I thought I would discuss this Atlantic article in the context of political love languages, but there are so many other problems with Conor Friedersdorf’s Take the Shutdown Skeptics Seriously that I’m just going to get into it as a political discussion.

Friedersdorf argues several points:

  • That the discussion isn’t as clear-cut as pro-human and pro-economy. However, he goes on to argue the pro-economy stance much of the way through.
  • That because we don’t know how long a solution will take, or if we will reach a solution, “Americans should carefully consider the potential costs of prolonged shutdowns lest they cause more deaths or harm to the vulnerable than they spare.”
  • That supply chain interruptions and a prolonged depression are equally great risks to life and not to be discounted.
  • That crashed healthcare and education systems are also hard to recover.

He cites Michael Klare’s warning in The Nation that “Even where supply chains remain intact, many poor countries lack the funds to pay for imported food,” he explained. “This has long been a problem for the least-developed countries, which often depend on international food aid” This is not new. Starvation and poor access  to food has always been a hazard because of (among other things) how international trade and exploitation are arranged now and have been since the admitted colonial times. (These places are still colonies – of multinationals now, not other countries, but still.) When we talk about developing/developed countries, there’s often the assumption of dependence on foreign assistance. The problem here is that there are so many internal and external forces at play that keep such countries in the ’not developed’ column. Using this as an excuse not to work on those issues is just a continuance of the problem.

And note the absence of discussion of the plague of locusts in Africa – no global locust watch dashboards but the problem still exists, and people will starve because of it.

Note, too, that there’s currently enough food gin the US supply chain if we’re processing it carefully and not sending it to China. The web of trade can’t be brought back but government stimulus – paying a fair wage for fair work harvesting the food that’s rotting on the vine right now and planting for the next season will feed more people. But again, it seems to be a matter in American politics and the US media that dividing people works in some folks’ favour, and bringing people together to support the effort and each other runs counter to that. This might be a dream that free people will do manual labor in the absence of other labor to do, or in the interest of the country not going underfed in a land of plenty.

The part of the article that really got my blood boiling is the assertion that this crashing economy won’t leave the healthcare systems standing, sourced to Esther O’Reilly’s Arc Digital article Economic Costs Are Human Costs. In the West, this is mostly a problem in the US where a large portion of the economy rests on a fragile but very lucrative system of people paying large sums of money to insurance companies on the slim chance those companies will take care of them in the event of catastrophe. Those companies have a bottom line dependent on not covering care in the event of catastrophe. This is the big hole in how the US economy works that Obama and many before him were trying to fix and now we’re seeing how that affects the rest of society. In the context of the pandemic, we find that we had an opportunity to meet the disaster head on by working with manufacturers to build up the stockpiles of ventilators and PPE that were going to be necessary. See above about the ease of dividing people rather than bringing together to meet the challenge.

Healthcare systems running out of cash on hand is one of the symptoms of poorly run healthcare (and a poorly run country, in my opinion) – or healthcare run on a for-profit basis. We can fight the virus and put the economy on hold if the money we’re borrowing to shore up the economy goes into fighting the disaster and to the people it needs to help. It’s the same with giving tax breaks at the top rather than minimum wage increases at the bottom. That wage increase gets plugged right back into the economy. But a few more people are fed first.

Stimulus works a lot better when it’s effectively directed as well. Hospitals (nursing homes, prisons, food processing plants), three months into this disaster, should have all the PPE they need. There were hundreds of ways to reconfigure our manufacturing base temporarily to address the situation in testing as well as equipment. We (the executive branch of the US government) simply didn’t and made excuses for not doing so. And continues to. Gracious, DJT. You can’t blame the system for that – you can, but we saw disaster on the horizon and decided not to prepare and identified who we’d sacrifice and which corporations would reap the benefit of stimulus packages that should have supported humans in need.

A final point in the article that made me scratch my head was this: ‘The shuttering of auto manufacturing plants led to an 85 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths in the surrounding counties over seven years, according to a recent study.’ (The referenced article by Heather Mac Donald in The Spectator – https://spectator.us/consider-costs-coronavirus/ doesn’t cite a source for this statistic.) Friedersdorf is trying to argue about the social costs of a depression should this shutdown last too long. There’s a leap of logic here that I can’t fathom. Opioid deaths are also associated with the companies pushing the opioids, other healthcare issues associated with manufacturing and the holes in our healthcare system and the generally accepted disposability of workers in general in the US. Topic for another blog

And finally, I found this related sentiment on Facebook, but am having a time sourcing the original tweet:

medically-informed

We absolutely can do much better.

Rob Cox in Reuters argues that ‘China Does It’ is a bad antitrust argument (6-minute read). But before I get into the arguments the biggest companies in the US and Europe make for maintaining their monopolies, I want to talk about how we are able and not able to occupy space in society.

I’ve had two discussions in the last few days that I want to connect. In one, my friend was complaining about nudity at Dutch spas. Nudity is generally the norm at spas in the Netherlands unless it’s a rare kledingsdag (clothing day). My friend complained that one should be able to wear a swimsuit or not. The issue is not one of prudishness, but that my friend has a surgical scar that a swimsuit hides. It’s not even that the scar is problematic. It’s the threat of unwanted intrusion in what should be a relaxing space that gets tiresome.

Another friend is an expert in her field and occasionally gives free practical courses associated with it to the public. And what is the first question raised in a recent class? Something about how and where she gained her expertise, or her interest in the subject at hand? No. It was ‘Where are you from?’ The adult child of Japanese immigrants born and raised in Los Angeles. Not that that part matters. Again, it’s the impertinence – and the unspoken question of whether my friend had a right to occupy the space at the front of that classroom.

These two experiences play into a larger narrative of how the spaces occupied by people are no longer personal. They probably haven’t ever been, really, but we had a couple of decades where it seemed that they might be. If one wasn’t paying very close attention.

Where to I fit into this narrative? As a cisgender, adult, heterosexual presenting (I’m out as bisexual in most areas of my life, but you can’t necessarily tell that by looking at me) white male, my right to occupy space is rarely questioned. Nor is most expertise I claim. I’m also Jewish which you can probably tell from my physical profile. I’m somewhat removed from the racism I’m about to discuss, but only just. It’s a topic for another entry.

On a good day, however, I might classify as an ally to those who face harassment and verbal and physical violence simply for being.

The right to occupy space. I read a tweet sometime in the last few days that read something like ‘A survey of transgender people asked “What is the one thing you would do if you had a day during which no one would judge or comment on your appearance?” The majority of respondents said “Go swimming.”‘ This Vox article (approx. 5-minute read) on a 2016 survey doesn’t have that nugget, but it tells quite a lot about how difficult it is to be trans and occupy space.

All of this is leading up to a connection I want to make to that Reuters article on big business in the west and China, but I’m going to toss in one more thing about swimming and occupying space. About twenty years ago I dated a black man who grew up in Detroit in the 70s. In response to a suggestion we go to the beach, he laughed me off, saying “Negroes don’t swim.” He didn’t share any of the history of the difficult efforts to integrate swimming facilities that continues. The New York Times ran a long article on the subject just last summer. In short, the right to occupy space unharassed in America is tenuous, and far more extensive than even some close followers of the news guess.

I could stop here and say, ‘look how enlightened I am for acknowledging my privilege’ and all the blah blah blah attendant to such a claim.

The Reuters editorial linked at the top of this entry has nothing to do with occupying space, except insofar as Facebook policies turn a continuing blind eye to the racism on its platform – not within the editorial’s scope. It has nothing to do with how we as a society address or don’t address our responsibilities to each other. It has nothing, really, to do with respecting the privacy and autonomy of people in their private and professional spheres. What struck me reading the arguments of people like Sheryl Sandberg (CEO, Facebook) and European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is the distance between how we look at business and how we look at humans. Both of these people argue competition policy as it relates to the Chinese.

It might be that financial reporting is always like this. If I read Reuters’ Breakingviews and the Economist as assiduously as I do popular news assessments of social policy, this wouldn’t surprise me. But reading Cox’s look at how large corporations address competition got me thinking about how to decrease concern with monopoly power and increase respect for each other in our common spaces. More to the point, I started thinking, again, how little discussions of monopoly power have to do with how humans interoperate in the world. I’m not arguing anything here that five millennia of (mostly privileged white male) philosophers and teachers (not to mention three seasons of The Good Place) haven’t argued better. But the question remains:

How do we get where we need to be?

There’s a collision of autonomy and respect and privacy and intrusion from so many different areas that any conclusions I draw are either meaningless, or pablum. The social media waters that we swim in constantly invite – and foster – invasion and misunderstanding. And outright hostility. Note again my generally unchallenged white male expertise. I know that I can step up and say that the status quo is untenable and quietly slip back into enjoying my position with respect to it. In my What If Future, the status quo is that no one is challenged in their right to occupy space, but gracious, that future is bloody far away.


And entirely unrelated: The one-two punch of The Talking Drum and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part Two on King Crimson’s Meltdown: Live in Mexico (Spotify link) is superb. To be played at maximum volume.

I’d not read Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in at least twenty years and I’m not sure if before this week I’d ever actually finished the thing. Now I have, and on a certain level, I think I might be too old for it. It’s one of those books like Catcher in the Rye and possibly On the Road that are best enjoyed before the sheer irresponsibility of the story in the telling is too obvious. In the heart of Thompson’s drug-addled tale of not reporting on two events for which his alter ego Raoul Duke is paid, he makes a stunning indictment of what has become of the American Dream™.

In one of the novel’s more cogent paragraphs, Thompson spells out the moment when Hell’s Angels faced off on the Oakland/Berkeley border with anti-war protesters in 1965, somewhat to the detriment of the nascent anti-war movement and to the greater detriment of the American Left in general. Later, he starts discussing those Timothy Leary took down with him, followers ‘who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit’ , certain that some one or some thing was ‘tending the light at the end of the tunnel’ (p. 178).

He goes on to gather several leaders together who followed in the failure of Leary to unite the movement: Jesus, Manson, Hell’s Angels leader Sonny Barger, and concludes with the book’s most potent idea, ‘…no point in looking back. The question, as always, is now…?’ Whatever we’re going to do, we have to do it, rather than bemoaning that we haven’t.

While I put Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s tales of their American nightmare in an unfavourable bucket with Kerouac and Salinger (both of whom wrote some brilliant, long-lasting work, just not those novels for which they’re best remembered), another comparison that comes to mind is Sterne’s Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. In a similar way to Sterne, Thompson invites us into a series of vignettes that insist to the reader that they’re actually going somewhere, but don’t ever really make it there. Whereas Sterne’s volume ends without ever getting to Italy (as promised in the title), and possibly in the middle of a sentence, Thompson ends his without ever producing (as far as the reader can tell) the articles his character promised. The expectation from a book that is at least tangentially about writing is that there will be a submission and maybe even a reaction to it. Thompson subverts this by his alter ego barely attending or participating in the events he goes to Las Vegas to cover. To be fair, there is one extended sequence in which Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, attend one of the presentations of the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (thoroughly ripped, as the two characters are for the entirety of the book), so our expectations are only partially subverted.

FandLinLVSubtitled A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, what strikes the reader (or at least this reader) about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the savagery with which Thompson/ Duke treats primarily the female characters and really most of the book’s secondary characters. One way of looking at the nastiness of the interactions with the waitress in the chapter ‘Back Door Beauty & Finally a Bit of Serious Drag Racing on the Strip’ is that Thompson wants to implicate all of us in the nastiness that America became after the “Main Era” ended. The Main Era is what he names that time in the 60s when ‘You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning’ (p. 68). He continues, ‘We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.’ (I love the idea of a ‘steep hill in Las Vegas,’ a place in the middle of a desert and nearly as flat as The Netherlands.)

So that moment of mind-altered optimism was undone, or undid itself through subverted protest, Nixon’s treachery, an unwinnable war, and the crackdown of the original war on drugs that Nixon instigated with the help of Elvis Presley. But in the retelling, Thompson says, yes, it all fell apart and to a one, even me, we became nasty and crass.

Thompson shares that, beyond the Strip, you find ‘the shoddy limbo of North Vegas…out there with the gunsels, the hustlers, the drug cripples and all the other losers,’ and here Duke and Gonzo drop into the North Star Coffee Lounge for late night eats. Their waitress, extensively described as, ‘large in every way, long sinewy arms, and a brawler’s jawbone…A burned out caricature of Jane Russell: big head of dark hair, face slashed with lipstick and a 48 Double-E chest that was probably spectacular about twenty years ago…but now she was strapped up in a giant pink elastic brassiere that showed like a bandage through the sweaty rayon of her uniform, (p. 158)’ finds herself on the receiving end of a pass from Gonzo, a napkin with ‘Back Door Beauty’ scrawled on it. On receipt, she lays into our heroes with vitriol. Duke just watches while Gonzo deflects the waitress’ accusations and cuts the receiver off the pay phone with a switchblade when she threatens to call the cops.

Duke understands that Gonzo has struck a nerve, ‘The glazed look in her eyes said her throat had been cut. She was still in the grip of paralysis when we left,’ but doesn’t comment or dissuade Gonzo from his behaviour. We as readers follow along, but Thompson not only lets his narrator off the hook, he relates the events that follow as being drawn verbatim from a tape recording transcribed by the editor. He doesn’t give Duke the opportunity to respond and lets himself off the hook at the same time.

From a wider perspective, Thompson’s after roping the reader into some kind of complicity. The more you enter the heads and the behaviours of the main characters the less you can say that you’re not part of the great destruction being wrought. Thompson attempts, through the excess of his protagonists, to separate the freaks – the ones who stepped out of the mainstream before that wave receded – from the normals who flock for whatever reason to Las Vegas’s casinos from the rest of the country. However, through that excess, he implicates all who see themselves on some version of the correct side of that divide. To what we now call coastal elites as well as those citizens of flyover states, Thompson seems to say: ‘You’re all in on this. We’re all in on this. Through silence or engagement. And I’m in on it as well.’

I’m not sure that this is what the man who famously asserted, ‘I wouldn’t advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me’ meant to imply.

I wanted to add something about how Thompson’s anti-Nixon stance (against all hypocrisy propounded and promoted by the Nixon White House) had come back to taunt him when George W. Bush was selected for a second time, and might have contributed to his suicide a month into Shrub’s second term, but this doesn’t seem to be borne out by a suicide note which indicated that 67 was ‘17 years more than [he] needed or wanted.’ On the other hand, In October 2004, Thompson wrote: ‘Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for—but if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush–Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him.’ Six months after Thompson’s death, there was a hell of a memorial.

I’m just going to riff on this for a bit and see if I reach any conclusions. Let’s start, as my friend Brian suggests, with more than one legally owned firearm for every man woman and child in the US. In other words, we can’t make something immediately illegal tomorrow that was legal yesterday.

The big news this week is that kids are now leading the fight for common-sense gun laws and (as heard on the BBC yesterday) companies are now starting to dissociate themselves from the National Rifle Association. Firms that formerly gave discounts to NRA members are no longer doing so. That’s a huge step in the right direction – the NRA brand has never been this toxic. For decades, Wayne LaPierre and his cold-dead-hands predecessors have fought for money to buy off legislators so that it’s always easy to get guns, no matter what your criminal background. Of course, state by state, your mileage may vary. And once you commit a crime with a gun, in many states including Florida, these stand-your-ground laws have made it more possible to get off if you happen to be white or white-ish. I’m looking at you, George Zimmerman. (NRA-written statutes enacted in Florida in 2005 and in two dozen other states made it impossible to arrest Zimmerman because he claimed self-defense. In addition, jury instructions made it impossible for them to convict even though Zimmerman stalked Martin and was told by the cops to back down and not confront the teenager.)

Martin had just turned 17 at the time and was killed six years ago this week (26 February, 2012).

Of course, there are racist aspects to how the various laws regarding gun ownership and use are treated. Note the cold-blooded murder of Philando Castile, a black Minneapolis school employee who noted to the officer at a traffic stop that he had a concealed carry permit. Within twenty seconds of reaching for his ID had five bullets fired into him. The officer in question was acquitted of all charges, despite dashcam footage from the cop car and Castile’s death livestreamed by his girlfriend just after the shots were fired. Arming school employees is all well and good, I suppose, but I can’t (as others who have pointed to the Castile case in the wake of the Florida massacre two weeks ago) see such things working out equally for all concerned. I tried to read the Wikipedia article on Castile’s murder and couldn’t stomach the heartlessness of the cop, of the jury, of the system.

And lets not lose sight of the domestic terror aspect of this latest case. Who trained N.C. (let’s stop naming the animals who do this stuff, please) to carry out his massacre? Had it been a Black or Muslim organization, they would have been hounded out of the woodwork so quickly heads would be spinning. As it stands, he was raised by a member of Republic of Florida, a white supremacist group. The ROF leader who claimed Cruz trained with them has since walked that back.

There’s also the speech by Florida AG Pam Bondi in the direct aftermath of the shooting. I recognize that there was a certain pressure to say something, but for crying out loud, couldn’t she have talked about something other than what the state of Florida was going to pay for? When someone carelessly breaks something precious and irreplaceable, the last thing you want to hear is that person saying they’ll pay for it. (Are Florida Governor Rick Scott and Bondi shills for the NRA in the same way Florida Senator Ted Cruz is ($77,000 in the 2012 election cycle alone)? I’m not sure. Yes, linking to a tangentially related article like that is shitty and shoddy journalism.) But what we’re not hearing from any of these people in so-called leadership positions is how to prevent these things.

The same Brian I quote at the top shared the following response to calls the current arguments:

Things a Constitutional amendment banning firearms will not fix:

An absence of compassion for fellow citizens.
An absence of value of lives of fellow citizens.
An absence of value in the success of others.
An absence of value in the health of others.
An absence of value in the welfare of others.
An absence of value in the education of others.
The patriarchy.
Toxic masculinity.
Radical conservationism.
Selfishness.
Dangerous nationalism.
Xenophobia.
Homophobia (not a phobia, you’re just an asshole).
Institutionalized racism.
General racism.
Intentional incarceration of minorities to deny their communities of viable male role models, at a critical mass, to actively prevent the establishment of viable successful family models.
Redlining.
Predatory lending.
Criminalization of poverty.
Criminalization of homelessness.
Criminalization of addiction.

And and infinite list of other things.

Our culture is diseased, broken, and rotting, but by all means, keep overlooking that, and keep focusing on the end-result.

There are a lot of one-liners out there in response to these latest deaths – If teachers should be armed, presidents should be required to read is one. Another compares the gun rights supporter (and presumed Republican) suggesting that those who don’t know the difference between certain kinds of firearms shouldn’t legislate from a position of ignorance, to which the gun rights opponent (and presumed liberal) responds: Please draw and explain the female reproductive system.

Image credit: http://military.wikia.com/wiki/FlintlockHowever, this evinces the kind of whataboutism that makes political discussion today such a bloody fraught proposition. The gist is that occasionally white people are refreshed in the fears for themselves and their children that POCs live under all the expletivedeleted time. This is something that happened in Florida this month – nice suburban white high school terrorized by a young man with a gun irrationally marching through what should have been a safe space to learn and grow. Black Americans going about their daily business should expect and experience not being harassed or killed without probable cause, right? And I’m engaging in a variation of the same whataboutism, I suppose. A recent parallel is the Netflix dramatization of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Again, not an original though on my part, but in Atwoods’ vision of the future, white women are treated the same way black women have been treated in America for centuries. I’m sure I’m not the only one to draw this comparison between Atwood’s fiction and the news treatment of our various tragedies. This situation is wrapped up in a lot of other American situations including the school to prison pipeline, Riker’s Island, and the stop-and-frisk policies all over the country.

As noted, I’m riffing. There are no conclusions here, just frustration.

First off: I live in a country where the highest tax bracket is 52% and one reaches it pretty quickly. I’m an experienced technical writer by profession and could probably make USD 75-85,000/year if I returned to the US. I’ve worked in The Netherlands for over seven years and almost the entire time have had the benefit of what’s called the 30% ruling. Under this plan, the first 30% of the income of expats who qualify (based on age and earning capacity, primarily, though the tax authority here can be capricious) is untaxed. For the next 2 1/2 years, I will still benefit from this ruling. After that, half my income goes to the taxman.

When that time comes, I will probably complain a bit, as will my wife who earns a great deal more than I do. That said, we took on a mortgage three years ago and are generally happy to continue living here, even after our taxes go up. When we moved here, there were no austerity measures in place and the euro was a great deal stronger, but the system here mostly works. First responders are responsive, the city is clean, there are very few homeless. While we live in a college town about the size of Cambridge (123,000) and a little larger than Santa Barbara (90,000), even Amsterdam basically works as well – more homeless, more crime, but we’re not talking San Francisco levels of either.

I want to suggest that my tax euros go towards making the place I live a place I want to live. (Yes, I also pay a very small portion of Geert Wilders’ salary. It’s another price one pays to live in a democracy.) I don’t have a hard time saying that I don’t necessarily want those at the next income level above me to take a tax hike so that I can get a break. I don’t know much about the capital gains, inheritance, or corporate tax laws here. I also can’t speak for my family and friends in the US (where the top tax rate is much lower than it is in Nederland). That said, I think most of them aren’t so interested in tax cuts of their own, but would like to see higher taxes on the very wealthy so that the infrastructure of the US might work again.

NPR suggests, in a blog entitled State of the Union: 5 Things To Watch, that President Obama will introduce a plan to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to provide a tax break to working families. I know that money is tight all over, especially now that the 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest, and I would’t begrudge any working family whatever break they can manage. I would, however, say that tax increases on the wealthy might benefit working families in more ways:

  • After school programs so that kids have something to do while whatever parentage they have in the home can work until quitting time without worrying about what junior is up to
  • And on the subject of schools: smaller class size and better supported teachers.
    And on that topic: When did public school teachers, who do some of the hardest and most thankless work, become the bogeymen for all that is wrong in America?
  • Funding for public hospitals
  • training programs for the unemployed and underemployed
  • Fully staffed mental health facilities and VA hospitals

For a start.

When I moved to San Francisco in 1985, there were homeless, but they were mostly holdovers from the late 60s and people who followed expecting the city to resemble the parking lot at a Grateful Dead show. (A fine dream, but one that generally only existed at some music festivals.) That’s a bit disparaging, I know, but that was my experience of SF’s street population, such as it was when I was relatively young. The issues in San Francisco become much bigger with successive booms and busts and of course it’s happening again and on a larger scale with the most recent boom. With all the money that city has had for the last three decades, it’s never been able to address its own social issues, or think big enough to tackle them effectively. Higher taxes on business and the wealthy – if put to good use – might help. I use SF as an example I know (not that I know too many people who can still afford to live there – of 70 or so close friends who lived there when I left in 2002, I’m certain of four, two of whom managed to buy their own houses at auspicious times. Cities large and small across the US have impossible tasks of making the infrastructure work for the greatest numbers of people. I’m sure there’s more to say on the matter, but I think NPR’s bloggers, and possibly Obama as well, have it wrong if they think tax cuts are the only possible balance to tax increases on the wealthy. It’s not a zero sum game, either. Do those at the top really feel that a better functioning society isn’t to their benefit too?

ETA: I’ve now skimmed much of the SOTU address and was rather glad to see that Obama addressed these things as well. Of course with the Republicans in charge of both houses, we’re in for a rocky, suicide pill-laden two years, but I’m hopeful.