The trap of the system

Today Jay Rosen describes and asks about the perversely self-reinforcing system that is threatening us all:

This reminds me of Vaclav Havel’s central essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” which is sometimes reprinted in a longer book by the same name. (Not sure, but I think I recall that Jay Rosen is an admirer of Havel.) The essay was circulated in spite of the censorship of the Eastern Bloc just a few years before the seemingly impossible, breath-taking collapse of the Soviet empire there.

Through the middle parts of this long essay, Havel details the self-reinforcing corruption of every institution in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. For example, in section 17 he says that the legal system sometimes creates an opening for dissidents to push back against the totalitarian system, but more often even the legal system and the law itself is corrupt. Once or twice along the way, he says in passing that his homeland is not so different from the more liberal countries in the West.

Then, a few pages from the end, Havel asks what can be done?

It’s a long and challenging essay, and to help students make their way into its pages a few years ago I wrote a summary. I tried to accurately and clearly summarize each paragraph of each section, so it’s a long summary. I numbered my notes like this: 20.2 indicates section 20, second paragraph, and >> indicates a stray thought of my own.

I will include the final pages of my summary here. Section 17. One feedback loop is: corrupt government, corrupt legal system, corrupt society. Section 18. Nevertheless, people attempt to assert values of their own choosing in pockets in the society.

Section 19. These dissidents seek to take responsibility for their own lives, their own freedoms, the welfare of their neighbors. They lead with responsibility, not with programs for civic change.

These dissidents attend to the fine grain reality of their time and place. (This is something that savvy horse-race journalists don’t have time for, to use Jay Rosen’s terms.) Section 20. (Written more than 35 years ago.) Techno-fixes and better parliaments alone won’t solve problems caused by technology and power politics cut loose from responsibility, or caused by a people’s self-destructive commitment to living private lives.

So, again, what can we do now, Havel asks, as so many have been asking today. Section 21. The answer, if we can manage one at all, lies far beyond the installation of classical parliamentary democracy. Organize, yes, but at a much more fundamental, interpersonal, ethical level, based on the demands of individual and community experience and allegiance. Look at the local clues, make our own judgments, and build upward and outward from there. See also the recent David Brooks column on Scandinavia.

The darkness around us is deep

So many prepackaged memes we can all post are out there, some thoughtful and some seemingly not so much.

I wonder if we have a chance to get the two political parties to improve, to be more responsive, if we keep sending each other kinda-true, sorta-true, maybe-not-very-true meme postings and comments instead of trying to be precise and accurate when we speak to each other, so we can count on each other more. So we can know where we stand together, know what the other person needs help with.

Then maybe we can speak more strongly and precisely to elected officials. Many of them like our silence. Many of them take advantage of our confusion. Many of them know that in the jangle of social media it’s easy to manipulate and to crowd out good sense.

Some of them have said explicitly that they don’t have to use censorship when they can, instead, just “flood the zone” with nonsense, which we sometimes help them do with our repostings and comments when we don’t take care to go beyond the is too-is not style we probably learned as children.

The stakes are very real, as you know.

I have to read this poem slowly. At the end William Stafford says that “the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe — should be clear: [because] the darkness around us is deep.”

Why this academic turns to Twitter

I have to miss most of today’s campus meeting about this, sorry to say, so I am sending these notes on ahead. Why I turn to Twitter:

Open notebook. Of course you have to “follow” selectively, but no matter what topic interests you, there are thoughtful, well-read people tracking their work, their thinking, their reading, using Twitter as an open notebook that you can look into. And you can usually talk with them about it.

Follow even just a handful of key people to open a window on a topic. These folks screen new publications and link to the best. They introduce current debates. For example, Ian Dunt explains Parliament and British political parties well enough for an American to start to get the picture. James Rebanks on shepherding and sound agriculture. Alan Guebert on food policy. Margaret Atwood on handmaids and seabirds and many a thing.

Threads and live-tweeting. Sometimes Ian Dunt live-tweets a Parliamentary debate, which gives you a fine-grain experience of a distant society. When I check into the Twitter streams of some writers in Africa, I get a much finer sense of voice and detail than I almost ever find in US news. And instead of being written about, these people are speaking and writing in their own voices, on their own terms.

And it grows. Following two or three writers about a topic leads you quickly to another half-dozen reputable ones. From that base, you can keep your eye on an issue or open up a new area of understanding. Our ordinary news media and academic publishing always create and maintain silences, but Twitter offers voices not easy to hear elsewhere.

Poets and painters build a supportive community, sharing their creative process and helping each other spark new work. Writers solidify and extend their readership. They live part of their creative life together via social media. Scientists and science journalists help share news and strengthen the science literacy of their readers.

If you have a good set of news sources on Twitter, and check in for a few minutes once or twice a day, you’ll rarely be surprised about the front page of the morning NY Times or the top stories on NPR. You’ll already easily be tracking these stories already, if you want to.

Once in a while, you’ll get breaking news ahead of most everyone via Twitter. Earthquakes are now almost always talked about there first, ahead of any kind of news publication. Some of the people talking about the earthquake two minutes after it took place will be experts on the subject. They will link to the first data sets on the quake, the first maps, the first evaluations.

Longer pieces. While you can write and post threads on Twitter, it’s best to have a blog where you can develop longer pieces, similarly accurate and yet perhaps informal: more detailed pages of your own open notebook. Here you give back to the community by tracking and sharing your own reading and thinking. You’ll sometimes feel constrained by Twitter’s 280-character limit, no doubt, but by keeping an open notebook on social media and a blog, you can make yourself a public resource on your issue. Do a good job, which you will, and your department and your campus look good too.

Yes, 280 isn’t a lot of space. But you’ll enjoy the discipline of getting to the point. For most of us as academic writers, that is a deeply worthy form of writerly discipline. So is translating our academic field into terms usable by a wide audience. No need to Ivory Tower our whole lives, right? 

Is there an unmet need or an unsolved problem in the region? A handful of skilled researchers could share the best information on that subject in a focused way. We have the skills and tools for that today. Model for your students what an active citizen can do with good academic training, to benefit the community and country.

Use vivid images, charts and graphs, and especially links. Without links, you might as well be posting your opinion on the door of your office. With links, we help build out the networked knowledge of the Internet.

And if you enjoy iMud-Wrestling with distant propaganda engines, you can do that on Twitter too. But you don’t have to. And if you see something that raises your blood pressure, don’t repost it—that spreads the poison. Photograph it, maybe, and write about it, maybe, but don’t RT or reply, since that shares the poison with your readers. Don’t let anyone tempt you from being your best, most professional self. Life is brief, and there is a field you love that would benefit from another lively, well-informed, clear-headed public voice.

PS. Do these writers have views and opinions, even blind spots? Sure. Would they be human, and would you respect them, if they didn’t? Count on this: you will learn and learn and learn.

And keep your eye out for cool hashtags. For example, once a week a few dozen people post the most amazing sentence they have read during the week, using the #SundaySentence hashtag. Clicking the hashtag takes you to all of their posts.

And don’t forget occasionally to relax, take a quick break. See live nature filming in Africa, for example, from Wild Earth. It’s a big beautiful world out there.

Feels more like America

It feels more like America when our willful, crude, chaotic President Trump loses control of the national conversation.

There’s a beautiful episode several years before the Communist government began to crumble in Czechoslovakia, when Vaclav Havel strategized about no longer reacting to the actions of the tyrannical government but making the government react to him and to his brother and sister dissidents. (Though he didn’t care for the name dissident.) He wanted his voice, anyone’s voice, to have a chance to matter in the public sphere.

Havel wrote directly to Dr. Husak, the head of the Communist government, explaining the ways Husak and his people were ruining the country’s best traditions and values. Havel made sure friendly newspapers across the free world had a copy. Then he waited to be arrested and interrogated. And he was. But he was released, in part because there was enough publicity about Havel and the Letter that could serve as a form of pressure and defense. For a time, the government lost its monopoly on the national and international conversation about Czechoslovakia.

Havel’s essay is called the Letter to Dr. Husak. It’s not terribly long. Some of the most moving parts are about the recovery of a people’s dignity. Inside the country, the Letter could only be distributed secretly via samizdat–typed carbon copies! People who were brave enough could tune into Radio Free Europe and hear it being spoken of there.

There were fewer, clearer channels of communication available then. It’s not so easy to see how to make a similar move today. But let’s keep thinking about the general principle and how it might be practiced.

If it doesn’t have a feed

If it doesn’t have a feed it isn’t a podcast,” Dave Winer wrote and then defined further. This is what I thought at first he meant:

  • No feed? You won’t know something has been published until you go looking for it. The new publication sits stewing in its electron suit, wanting to go out, hoping a new friend calls, but nobody’s got the phone number. We have to walk up to each door every day and knock.
  • On the open web, information can be loaded almost instantly into multiple locations, in multiple formats, for use by new audiences, automatically. No feeds, and that grinds to a halt. No feeds, and you’ve lost the open web. You’re reduced to posting and reposting things by hand. You might as well do math without multiplying. Go ahead, calculate 2 to the tenth power by adding a whole lot of 2s together. Life’s too short, your hair is turning gray, and the ice caps are melting all around us.
  • No feeds? Then you lose access to some new information or rely on a company to gather it for you. They’ll charge for the service or sell your soul as data. Maybe both. Smile and pretend you like the deal.
  • No feeds? The aforementioned company will help choose the information for you. They’ll decide who belongs in your affinity group. You’ll never meet certain people, never learn from them, never get a little friendly pushback on your worst ideas, because you’ll never hear their voices. You won’t know certain interesting folks exist.
  • No feeds? Not really! Those same companies are probably using feeds left, right, and center. They’re just not letting you play in the same sandbox that they enjoy.
  • No feeds? A beautiful tool is made clumsy, a window is painted shut, a grocer refuses to stock spices. The world is made smaller.
  • No feeds? Then somebody clever is making a good living, you can bet.

Corrections and additions welcome.

Art in the last hour of restorative human possibility

Trying to understand a difficult sentence about the chances we humans might have of not completely destroying ourselves, a difficult sentence uttered by Gabriel García Márquez in the final paragraph of his 1982 Nobel Lecture, I wrote two new versions.

First, let me say that I can’t evaluate the original in Spanish with any skill:

Ante esta realidad sobrecogedora que a través de todo el tiempo humano debió de parecer una utopía, los inventores de fábulas que todo lo creemos nos sentimos con el derecho de creer que todavía no es demasiado tarde para emprender la creación de la utopía contraria. 

Here is the difficult English translation I encountered first:

Faced with this terrifying reality that throughout all of human time must have seemed a fantasy, the inventors of fables we all believe feel we have the right to believe that it still isn’t too late to undertake the creation of the contrary utopia.

I first tried to understand that sentence by translating it into a more detailed English sentence:

Faced with this terrifying reality, which throughout all of human time must have seemed no more than an unlikely fantasy, we who for all cultures and in all times have invented the transforming fables our fellow humans come eventually to believe in and live by, we writers and artists and other visionaries feel we have the right and duty to believe that now is not too late to undertake the literal creation of a contrary utopia.

And then into a simpler English sentence:

Faced with this terrifying reality, which throughout all of human time must have seemed only a fantasy, we the inventors of transforming stories still have the right and duty to believe that now is not too late to undertake the literal creation of a contrary utopia.

There are tasks for every trade and craft and walk of life as we get to this work. But, the Nobel Laureate suggests, the work in these last minutes of this last hour of restorative human possibility must in part be done by our heart- and mind-transforming artists and writers.

From the Nobel site, here is the full final paragraph of Gabriel García Márquez’s lecture:

Un día como el de hoy, mi maestro William Faulkner dijo en este lugar: “Me niego a admitir el fin del hombre”. No me sentiría digno de ocupar este sitio que fue suyo si no tuviera la conciencia plena de que por primera vez desde los orígenes de la humanidad, el desastre colosal que él se negaba a admitir hace 32 años es ahora nada más que una simple posibilidad científica. Ante esta realidad sobrecogedora que a través de todo el tiempo humano debió de parecer una utopía, los inventores de fábulas que todo lo creemos nos sentimos con el derecho de creer que todavía no es demasiado tarde para emprender la creación de la utopía contraria. Una nueva y arrasadora utopía de la vida, donde nadie pueda decidir por otros hasta la forma de morir, donde de veras sea cierto el amor y sea posible la felicidad, y donde las estirpes condenadas a cien años de soledad tengan por fin y para siempre una segunda oportunidad sobre la tierra.

Photo–Boston Globe, no photographer listed.

Powerless: not good enough

I feel powerless, I admit. But that’s not good enough.

I know I’m not alone in feeling powerless. I assume that when half of my country’s citizens don’t vote, it’s partially because huge numbers of them also feel powerless. Well, that’s not good enough either.

People I respect feel powerless. I can tell from their hallway conversation and their social media posts. I get it, I’m there too, but it’s not good enough. I keep telling myself that.

Journalists who have run out of ideas sound like they feel powerless too. They reach for something stirring to say, but it comes across fuzzy and kind of hopeless, like the ending of this column* by Scott Martelle that is largely about addressing climate change through innovation, changes in consumer behavior, and voting:

And as voters, we don’t put enough pressure on politicians to use the power of government to move markets away from products that are killing us in favor of those that might keep the world habitable for humans for a longer period of time. In the end, we know what we’re doing to ourselves, yet we do it anyway.

The column’s last sentence sounds pretty hopeless. The second-to-last sounds pretty fuzzy–not much better than saying, “Hey, y’all, we better do something!”

Doing something isn’t good enough because something is too vague, too weak, too powerless. Changing consumer behavior isn’t good enough either–we have been changing but not fast enough, not far enough. Voting, yes, but for who and for what? Too fuzzy to be enough of an answer. We need to use more potent words than words like do something. We need some particular ideas, some actual knowledge, not just ideas about climate change but, with the same urgency, ideas about activism. How it really works.

So: are there any lessons to be gained from history? Are there patterns visible in activism of the past? What are the most potent stories whose lessons still apply?

For example:

Rosa Parks didn’t just sit down on the bus that day. She had a plan that she worked up ahead of time with allies. They considered their options; they practiced; they worked out how things might go. They looked at what kind of court case might go their way. They were a team and in it for the long haul. They knew something about getting into the news and staying there, making things embarrassing for politicians and corporate leaders. Parks and her colleagues knew that they faced specific people and institutions, specific historical circumstances. They didn’t imagine that they were living in a cartoon. It was a real place with particular structures that they could study and adapt to and challenge.

What Rosa Parks did changed the country. What Rosa Parks did was so far from do something that we can hardly overstate it. Knowing the true story of Rosa Parks helps explain why feeling powerless is understandable but not good enough. Why do something is a failure of knowledge and imagination. Why voting isn’t a wise enough conception of active citizenship. Why the country needs to get serious and look into the toolkit of activism.

*”Carbon emissions are up. Don’t blame Trump, this is on all of us,” January 2019 column, LA Times.


Hungry for candor and respect

Concerning climate change, Christopher Lydon believes people have a “hunger for clarity on a street corner, and candor about the pickle we’re in.” That need has recently been satisfied “warmly, humanly,” he says, by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.*

This hunger “had to be there all along,” Lydon suggests. Surely that must be true. Daniel Schrag replies that President Obama’s team was afraid of speaking directly and candidly about climate change. At times I thought the Obama administration’s approach was to say to the American people, roughly, “Leave it to us, we’ve got this,” when in those early months there were millions of us who wanted a way to pitch in.

In his first year in the White House Obama could have asked that a hundred protestors stand round-the-clock watch at the offices of each reform-resistant member of Congress and we would have gladly done it. But he closed his campaign website, containing all the news and come-to-meeting tools that might have shown people day by day how to keep the pressure on in Washington. He and his team decided more or less to go it alone, leaving millions of citizens out of the people’s business. Next, Congress was intentionally hobbled by his opponents, and in terms of legislation Obama was usually defeated.

So Lydon is correct that the hunger for candor is probably always there. People know when they are ignored or condescended to; they know what it feels like to be treated with candor and respect. Recently Kurt Bardella put it this way:

The American people don’t want a string of facts that have been repeatedly proven to be false. They don’t want to be lectured. What they want is for their political figures to respond to the challenges of our time with empathy, authenticity and candor. They want to hear their elected representatives talk about these issues with the same vocabulary that they talk about them around their kitchen table or in their living rooms. That’s what Ocasio-Cortez did so well.

The half of the population that never votes probably intuits what the statistics of Gilens and Page imply: that the general public gets what it wants in Washington occasionally, yes: when what they want happens to align with what the economic elites already want. That’s a pretty good reason for the country’s widespread alienation.

Gilens and Page spot the alienation; Lydon, Schrag, and Bardella identify the hunger. Ocasio-Cortez  knows it’s there, too. She has the spine and some of the rhetoric we’ll need going forward. If we’re fortunate, new presidential candidates will also hear the urgency, find language that speaks honorably, respectfully, to the people, and follow in her steps.

*Radio Open Source, Is the Green New Deal For Real?, January 2019, 25:10 and forward.

Green new deal: making it real

“Is the Green New Deal For Real?” Radio Open Source‘s January 2019 episode that asks question in worthy detail.

But about 19:16 minutes in, Christopher Lydon’s second guest, Naomi Oreskes, describes, almost in passing, the integrated toolkit we’re going to need to have a chance to get there. Taking a lesson from the fight against cigarettes, she says:

That is a good example of the combined power of science and political movements, because we got tobacco control in this country through both. Without the science, we would not have known that tobacco use was so dangerous, so deadly. But the science alone was not enough. It also required political movements, legal action, grass roots movements to ban smoking in public places, things like that. So I think we have the same situation with climate change. The science is crucial, remains crucial for explaining to people what is happening and how we know that all of this is related to fossil fuel use. That message continues to be essential, but it has to be linked, as [@BillMcKibben] said [earlier in the episode], to political mobilization, to political education, and to political action.

Used one at a time, the tools of activism are useless, she implies.

My own shorthand for the toolkit includes these categories of tools: bodies of knowledge, empowering attitudes, diverse and appropriate skills, sets of information and communication tools, affiliations and the skills to make, sustain, and extend them, all in the context of fairly healthy civic institutions.

Knowledge, attitudes, skills, tools, affiliations, and healthy institutions. Without the full toolkit, citizens are easy for the powerful to brush aside. Simple as that.

And that’s why Naomi Oreskes is right to say that we’re going to be needing good science linked to political movements, legal action, grass roots affiliations, political education, and more, to have a chance.

Voting is necessary but not sufficient. Oreskes has named a good portion of the toolkit we’ll be needing, oh, later today and then ongoing for years to come.