The simplest form

On a now-defunct blog, I wrote about something I intended to write there someday: a summary of a memorable conversation with one of my law professors. I closed up shop at that blog soon afterward, without having written about that conversation.

I’m glad I didn’t write about it then. While I had a glimmer of an idea about my professor’s insight, it was fractional.

The books I’ve read the last couple of weeks have dramatically changed how I understand that conversation, and how it ties to … everything that’s frustrated me since I realized I’d confused a vision of reality with reality itself. Since I saw I’d been creating my vision of reality by fixedly looking at a little pond of things known to me while pointedly turning away from the vast oceans of information, ideas, perspectives that existed outside the pond. Since, most importantly, I decided to dive into the ocean.

The easiest way to summarize what I now understand is this: What’s left out of the pond is at least as important–often more so–as what’s let in. (Nowhere is this more startlingly clear than in the first few chapters of Goldacre’s Bad Pharma.)

But, of course, the simplest form seldom reveals–and often conceals–much. There’s more to come, after I’ve (1) finished reading Taleb’s Incerto books and (2) had time enough to articulate what I’ve seen so that it’s not as abstract as this … seed of what I hope will come.


Civil obedience

About midway through my time living in Japan, I bought Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which tells American history from the side of conquest’s victims instead of its victors.

When I’d finished reading it, I set it aside and classified it as representing interesting perspectives. That was the extent of my engagement with its material: “interesting perspectives.” I left my copy of the book in Japan, and thought little of it afterward.

I just checked out the audiobook from my library. I’m still very early in, but it’s discomfiting to approach the same text with such different understandings of the world. 

2005 me thought the book interesting, but failed to engage with it in any meaningful way. 2017 me looks back and wishes my 2005 self had tried just a little harder to look beyond the moments captured to instead explore the themes, patterns, and power dynamics they reflected.

None of this is “just history.” History is the foundation on which the present continues to be built; its cruelties and assumptions are perpetrated today, as long as people broadly assume that then was then, now is now, and there’s not much understanding then can do to improve now.

While I am still a small part of the American problem, I’m nevertheless heartened–in one regard–to compare these two points in time. Now, at least, I recognize that there is a problem.

With any luck, 2029 me will have gone yet another step beyond, having moved from seeing the problem to effectively working to change it.

So you lose your perspective after a while. If you don’t think, if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong. But you have to get a little detached, and then come back and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start from that supposition-that things are really topsy-turvy.

And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them.

Howard Zinn

The Fifth Shelf

Last night, I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. This completed my fifth shelf of “politics-plus” reading since middle of last August. Back then, I’d picked up Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some in hopes it’d answer some new-to-me questions about the troubling state of so-called U.S. democracy.

In my hometown for the fiftieth anniversary of some of my adopted parents, I’d get my kids in their hotel beds nightly. Then I’d pace the length of our hotel room, back and forth, back and forth, unable to read such horrifying things sitting in place.

I really thought one book would do it for me, but … you can see how that turned out.

fifth shelf.png

As I discovered after finishing my first Greenwald book, even an excellent book can only answer so many questions, doing so while opening many more: Continue reading “The Fifth Shelf”

Hope in history

My last post, “Austerity the Dangerous,” summarized what I’d taken away from Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. I mentioned I’d had to read slowly to ensure I grokked enough to proceed.

After I wrote that post, I picked up a copy of Richard D. Wolff’s Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens. Within reading the first couple of essays, I wished I’d read it first. Wolff explains a lot in clear, straightforward language. The “key purposes of austerity policies,” for example, are “to (1) shift the burden of paying for crisis and bailouts onto the total population, (2) reduce the economic footprint of the government, and (3) reduce creditors’ concerns about rising US debt levels.” 

(As to number three, Wolff sums it up thusly: “because big banks and other large capitalists are among the major creditors of the US government, they wanted signs that their crisis-increased holdings of US debt were safe investments for them. Austerity policies provide just those signs.” Basically, to sum it up, austerity policies show investors that the government ranks paying lenders back as a far higher priority than, say, the health or employment of its citizens.)

While walking my dog a few minutes ago, I saw a chart that (1) made my blood boil and (2) reminded me yet again why understanding history is important.

From my last year of reading, I understood that a memo written by then-future Supreme Court Justice Powell in 1971 hugely shifted the U.S.’s economic and political history. Basically, Powell said that U.S. business was getting the shaft and needed to combine its various actors to change that situation. In response, U.S. business began acting in concert to ensure it succeeded–over labor and human rights advocates–in shaping the nation; the more resources for business, the better.

While lots of folks point to 1980–the beginning of Reagan’s presidency–as the beginning of U.S.’s takeover by corporation (“inverted totalitarianism,” per Wolin), business won some huge victories against its “detractors” in the couple years just prior. Powell had had his way, so that the foundation had already been laid  for Reagan and his cronies. 

(So sad for so many lives that this jackhole later became a Supreme Court justice! Business and other elite interests were given great power long before Citizens United.)

With each page of just about everything I read, I understand how the foundation for business supremacy was being crafted for at least decades before Carter’s presidency. Still, some sentences jar me especially as they remind me how much our (mis)understanding of history influences what we understand of now.

Referring to the above grid, Wolff writes, “After the war, corporations went to work to change the federal tax system. Not only did they succeed in shifting the tax burden from corporations to individuals already by 1960, but that shifting had gone on steadily to the present.”

Further, he summarizes more succinctly than anyone I’ve read so far, “The US federal tax system that right wingers portray as burdensome to the richest Americans allowed them for the last two decades to gather still greater income than everyone else. The US federal tax system enabled greater inequality.”

None of this was inevitable. It was shaped by people with shared vision and commitment. To move toward a different system–one which favors human life over corporate profits (and their executives’ obscene pay and bonuses)–will take like shared vision and commitment by people with different ideals.

In my vision, food, education, health, and shelter are human rights which want of profit cannot overcome. The U.S. tax system is completely overhauled so that corporations pay much, much higher portions of their income to taxes than do individuals with actual bellies to feed and thirsts that cannot be quenched without funds, given how privatization has granted these things to corporations (for their profit) at the expense of human wellness. Storing funds in offshore tax havens is criminal, with consequences for evasion that would help dramatically increase tax revenue to pay for life-improving human benefits. If corporations thrive, in my vision, it is because they’re bringing just benefits to all, not crushing more and more human lives so their balance sheets warrant gross bonuses.

Seeing anything like this come to fruition seems impossible … but then, the more I read history, the more I understand how today’s impossible was yesterday’s actual.

I didn’t see it a year ago, but today it’s crystal clear:

There’s hope in history. 

Founding Myths

arundhati.pngLast Thursday, I readwalked outside L.A.’s Aratani Theater while waiting to hear Arundhati Roy speak. Though I’d received a copy of her new The Ministry of Utmost Happiness with my ticket, I was reading another book: Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past.

I finished Founding Myths just before the program (which was so moving I cried one half-syllable in). The book takes apart thirteen different American founding myths, many–despite having been debunked–still passed along as truth in U.S. textbooks. More than that, it explores why those founding myths hold such power … and how much power they continue to have.

I recently wrote about Winner-Take-All Politics on my main blog. One quote I’d hoped to include but couldn’t quite fit in that post was as follows:

That we tell the Everest saga, and so many others like it, as one of individual initiative is revealing. Such a view is deeply rooted in our culture. Observers of the United States have long identified the tendency to see the world this way as distinctively American. More than most societies, Americans believe that people rise or fall as a result of their own efforts, and therefore get what they deserve. Critically, when we say this is a nation of individualists, we don’t just mean Americans embrace individualism as a social ethic. Underpinning this ethic is a tendency to interpret the world in highly individualistic terms …

This preoccupation with specific personalities and insistence on attributing everything that happens to the qualities of individuals is a form of blindness. We see individuals, but not the organizations that help to pool their resources and can vastly extend their range of social action.

But for Founding Myths, I’d have gone on thinking this “form of blindness” was a phenomenon of the last few decades. Founding Myths revealed otherwise, demonstrating how such blindness was cultivated over centuries to foster a pliant and politically disengaged populace.

Take, for example, the tale of Paul Revere, who barely warranted mention in historical texts before Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took literal poetic liberty with his story more than a hundred years after it transpired. Longfellow’s poem, which was treated as source material in many subsequent texts, brought people to worship the individual Revere and what he represented, all while failing to address the hard work a great many “country folk”  had done to prepare for battle for months prior. While ignoring that several others rode that night, including one unnamed messenger who “successfully delivered [the] message … three hours before Revere would mount his horse.”

Sam Adams was elevated for different reasons:

Not wanting to grant legitimacy to any form of protest, conservatives in the 1760s and 1770s maintained that all troubleds in Boston were the machinations of a single individual. In the words of Peter Oliver, the Crown-appointed chief justice who was later exiled, the people themselves “were like the Mobility of all Countries, perfect Machines, wound up by any Hand who might first take the Winch.” Mindless and incapable of acting on their own, they needed a director who could “fabricate the Structure of Rebellion from a single straw.”

According to this mechanistic view, one man led and everyone else followed.

Like distortions around Paul Revere, those around Sam Adams were quite purposeful:

Without Boston’s Sam Adams, there might never have been an American Revolution,” the Tories once said, and today we are saying it again. This is not a good sign. The reason we can pass off Tory tales as truth is that we have unconsciously adopted their way of looking at political processes. The tory way of thinking, to which we have regressed, sees common people as “perfect Machines” who need someone else to tell them what to do. One man leads, while the rest follow adoringly.

Had I not kids and tons of work to do, I could go on and on. Because I have plenty else to do, I’ll conclude by saying: This book is a quick, engaging read, and was well worth each of the 798 pennies I paid for it (yay, clearance!). I’d recommend checking it out if you’re interested in probing your own blind spots, as I’ve become in probing mine.

There are reasons for the stories we tell about our past and our present. This book especially helped me see both the embellishments and their democracy-subverting rationales … all while reminding me how much richer my life is for understanding that the present, far from being without context, is instead a (slowly evolving) continuation of all that preceded it.


Not just days, but decades

Last summer, I saw a sizable rift between the Democratic party as I’d envisioned it and as it actually existed. This meant I’d either imagined my own version of the Democratic party forever, or that it had once been–but no longer was–what I’d envisioned.

I dove into reading, and found confirmation as I read. Usually I found little kernels of confirmation in any one book; Winner-Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, on the other hand, provided a wealth of information and details. It also gave me a name for the phenomenon whereby a political body (whether a party or a country) is still perceived as one thing while having become quite another: drift.

“Since around 1980, we have drifted away from that mixed-economy cluster and traveled a considerable distance toward another: the capitalist oligarchies, like Brazil, Mexico and Russia,” write its authors. Later, they define “drift” as “systematic, prolonged failures of government to respond to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy.” In the U.S., drift is a tool intentionally–not accidentally–wielded by politicians to satisfy their owners’ needs.

(The authors don’t describe lobbyists and their funders as politicians’ “owners.” That’s a designation I find more and more fitting with each page I read.)

A concept like drift is central to Sheldon S. Wolin’s 2008 Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Early on, he asks, “how would we go about detecting the signs of totalitarianism? how would we know what we are becoming? how, as a citizenry, would we set about separating what we are from the illusions we may have about who we are?” Envisioning the U.S. as a democracy, we instead live in “a system that legitimates the economic oppression and culturally stunted lives of millions of citizens while, for all practical purposes, excluding them from political power.” Continue reading “Not just days, but decades”

Modern robber barons: using race strategically


U.S. Republican strategist Lee Atwater spoke the words above in 1981. Later in the same interview, he’d try to separate Ronald Reagan’s presidential win from the tried and true race-based success strategy he described, but other factors spoke their own truth.

In particular, after winning the Republican primary in 1980, Reagan chose to launch his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, near where the KKK had lynched three civil rights workers in 1964. Reagan did this after a local official wrote the Republican National Committee “assuring them that the [fair] was an ideal place for winning ‘George Wallace inclined voters.'”

Who was George Wallace, though? What did it mean to be a “George Wallace inclined voter”?

In 1958, NAACP-endorsed, racial moderate Wallace ran for Alabama governor. He lost to KKK-endorsed John Malcolm Patterson, who later attributed Wallace’s loss to the fact he was “soft on the race question at the time.”

Wallace learned quickly. The night of his loss, he proclaimed, “no other son-of-a-bitch will ever out-nigger me again.” Strategically utilizing race and racism in the 1962 governor’s race as promised in 1958, he won the governorship. Unfortunately for the country, this situated him to extend what he’d learned about successful use of coded racial appeals (aka “dog whistles,” heard clearly by one audience while not clearly audible by other audiences) to a national stage. After acting to bar integration of black students into white schools in June 1963, he received more than 100,000 letters from across the United States. Only five of every 100 letters condemned him; the “other 95 percent praised his brave stand in the schoolhouse doorway.” From this, Wallace and politicians nationwide learned that racial resentment wasn’t strictly a southern thing. Covertly evoking race could lead to election successes throughout the nation.

Victory could no longer be gained by overt, explicit shows of racism such as had once been acceptable. It had to be veiled for audiences increasingly discomfited by blatant white supremacist language and action.

Barry Goldwater extended these lessons to the presidential stage in 1964, when “he sold his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a bold stand in favor of ‘states’ rights’ and ‘freedom of association'” (aka “freedom from integration with dark-skinned folks”). Goldwater didn’t win, but Nixon ran with dog whistle law-and-order themes straight to the presidency.

In Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Berkeley law professor Ian Haney Lopez traces the history of dog whistle racism in the U.S. He describes this as strategic racism, or “purposeful efforts to use racial animus as leverage to gain material wealth, political power, or heightened social standing.” Its roots ran deep in the U.S. South, where “the material interests of wealthy whites” inspired creation of a new form of slavery after slavery itself was abolished. Continue reading “Modern robber barons: using race strategically”