How Do We Sleep While Our Beds Are Burning?

A hazy morning today, like yesterday, here in New York, on the eastern coast of North America. The smoke from the wildfires along the western coast of North America clouds the air. A hazy evening, the sun a sharp clear circle beyond the dirt. As it reached the horizon, it grew large, red, and covered with horizontal lines like photographs of Jupiter. My camera doesn’t capture the colors my eyes see.

The evening Sun through the haze of smoke and ash in the upper atmosphere from the wildfires in western North America

The stars in the night sky recently, before the fires, have been especially bright, as if dust and dirt had been scraped off my glasses. I still can only see hints of the majesty of the Milky Way from where I am in New York, which leads me to believe the improved visibility was from less particulate matter rather than a reduction in glare from all the artificial, terrestrial lights. Because, one assumes, of the economic effects of COVID-19.

I am not the only one, by a long-shot, who can put two-and-two together and observe that the increase in fires–not only in North America, but also in Asia and Oceania–and the newly visible brightly twinkling stars are due to our behavior. What we do en masse has an effect on our common home. What I don’t understand are those folks who deny the evidence of their senses and reason in order to parrot arguments that our cumulative behavior is so insignificant that we will never consume all that the Earth has to offer. Or, worse, those who argue that a conception of the common good should be at the heart of law and justice–and then promptly sanctify politicians whose main concern is profiting from exploitation.


For the younger generation, who might not yet have encountered the music of the latter part of the 20th Century, the title of this post is from a song by the Australian band Midnight Oil, “Beds are Burning,” off their album Diesel and Dust (1987). Shocking, I know, but our environmental problems are not new; we’ve been ignoring them for longer than I’ve been alive. And while it may be tempting to blame everything on late-stage capitalism or neoliberalism, the Soviet Union and China, the most prominent examples of command economies, have their fair share of hubris and more than their fair share of environmental disasters. What’s interesting, in terms of where do we go from here, is that the concentration of market power in a few hands is effectively identical to a command economy. Very few people simply need to decide to be better people.

Maybe they will, once there’s no more skiing at Davos.

One could argue that this has always been the case, that the actions of a few key players, and not billions of consumers, determine outcomes. The auto manufacturers didn’t have to design internal combustion engines that ran only on petroleum; they just did. They and the oil companies didn’t have to hide the effects of leaded gasoline; they just did. The beverage and bottling companies didn’t have to switch to single-use plastic and aluminum containers; they just did. They don’t have to drain aquifers, bottle the water in plastic, and sell it, but they do. Kellogg’s didn’t have to repackage sugar as fifty-gazillion new flavors of disgusting Pop-Tarts, but they did, even when everyone knows that the only good Pop-Tarts are unfrosted strawberry.

The Wall of Pop-Tarts

What if the large consumer products companies–Proctor & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever, Nestlé–simplified their portfolios and cut out plastic? Over the course of my life, soaps of all kinds have shifted in form from powder or bar wrapped in paper to liquid bottled in plastic. I distinctly remember mom not buying SoftSoap. Someone made the decision to make ninety flavors of liquid hand soap. Someone can decide to stop. What if the large beverage companies–Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola–did the same? The grocery shelves are full of plastic-wrapped options. What if the grocer, in my case Ahold Delhaize, decided to stop selling them? What if they actually did it, now, instead of just talking about it doing it, in the future?

What would they lose, a small monetary profit? Of course, the counter-argument runs that someone else, Wal-Mart and Amazon perhaps, will make and sell these to meet consumer demand, and the consumer will simply buy from them. They are only, after all, responding to consumer demand. Somewhat. One is expected to forget that demand for these goods is often created by the dulcet tones of advertising. Nothing in our inmost being tells us to go out and buy Tide or All-Temperature Cheer.

Part of the problem, and the reason addressing it is deferred, is that the effects of choices are not always obvious. Or, even if they are, the person making the choice doesn’t bear the cost of his decision. What if the producer absorbed the full cost of a product’s lifecycle? How many sugar cereals would Kellogg’s willingly produce if it had to buy insulin for everyone with Type II diabetes?

The United States didn’t have to allow corporate entities to live forever for any undefined purpose, but we did. We don’t have to consider them people, but we do. Corporations are blind, deaf sociopaths. They never look up at the night sky in wonder. They never wake to birds singing.

But we humans do.

Wake up. Your bed is burning.

Earplugs Removed

I turned off the air-conditioner and opened the windows letting in the air and sounds from outside. The day grew warmer and the house grew hotter, until at nightfall I went to sleep outside with the insects. It was not cicada which kept me from sleep, but automobiles. They are tucked safely in garages now, put to bed for a day of rest.

This Sunday morning all is quiet and soft. Breezes blow and rain falls upon leaf and roof. In my kitchen, only the hum of the refrigerator now that ham and eggs have fried, but I can barely hear a thing over its roar.

No lawnmowers today: mourning doves, crows, and jays.

When the machinery stops, I feel my sense restored. I wasn’t deaf, exactly, but cut off and dumb, ears and mind too full. Now I am here, all around surrounded with sounds.

The War of All Against All

Across the street from where No. 1 Daughter lives, two dogs sat in a closed car. They barked at her when she left for work. They barked at her when she came home from work. A neighbor boy walking his dog said they’d been there since last night. She didn’t know whose dogs they are, or who lived in that house. What should she do?

An adult friend of someone I used to know was unstable, in the mentally ill bi-polar disorder kind of way, with little understanding of the world he lived in. He was childlike, in the sense that he needed someone to take care of him, and had no understanding or intention to do harm. His friends tried to help, but there was only so much they could do. Someone gave him work, but he was irregular. Someone fed him, but he wouldn’t feed himself. He could not live on his own. State and local government institutions could help–if he’d committed a crime; he hadn’t. He lived far from the community that had raised him, and seemed lost. He’d ostracized himself; he wouldn’t return from shame. I often wonder how he is.

Once, late but well before midnight, on the way home I saw a cat hit on the side of the road. He was injured, alive and hissing. Perhaps it belonged to the house just there, so I went to the door. An angry man answered. No! Not his cat. Slam.

No. 1 Daughter eventually found help, someone who’d go knock on the strange door with her. An angry man answered–what is it with men and answering the door? He bristled at the very idea a hot car was not the best place for his dogs.

What kind of society have we built where we don’t know where to turn for help? Where a neighbor is not only a stranger, but an antagonist?

Knowing One’s Place

My youngest (12) asked, out of the blue, why do some people want a monarchy when they can’t be the king?

I’m not sure. Maybe we should ask the British.

I was boiling water for tea when he started with his “Hey, Dad” question. Usually he asks these, as I did, late at night when I’m settling in for bed. He has a knack for asking questions when I’m tired. I had been up all night for work, and didn’t give the question the attention he deserved, but it has stuck in my head. Why do some people want a monarchy when they can’t be the king?

This is separate from the question of why some people like to beat on others, or why they like to be beaten–that’s the part of organizational hierarchy that doesn’t make any sense to me, even if it’s hard to avoid learning that shit rolls downhill. Unless someone is a political theorist, I suspect a liking for monarchy is less a preference for monarchy than a preference for stability. It has more do with the predictability of well-defined roles and responsibilities: There is comfort in knowing what is expected. There is comfort in routine. There is comfort in not making decisions. And there is delight in helping, of being part of something larger than yourself.

But there is discomfort in being on the shit end of the stick, in being ordered around, in being expected to do all the dirty work, in having demands placed on your time, in being nothing more than a tool. There is injustice in forcing people to do something we would never do ourselves. How do we choose who does what?

And, as always, we’re left with distinguishing good rulers and bad, and the question of what to do with the bad ones.

The Sacred Forests of Ethiopia

Here is a sad and hopeful story of the church forests of Ethiopia.

The land outside the church forest looks like desolation to me. So stark. Where’s the grass? I’m accustomed to the high valleys of Appalachia. I wonder, how did the land become like this? What processes keep it that way? In Highland County, the valleys are, for the most part, pasture for sheep and cattle. They keep saplings from growing, but the land is still green. Is it climate? Was it that the movie was filmed in February? (Yes.) What does the landscape look like with the plague of locusts? Can we ever understand the history and circumstances of another place when we can barely understand our own? A summary is just a start.

Either way, a missing forest saddens me. I’m glad Alemaheyu Wassie Eshete is taking care of what he loves.

“A church without a forest is like a naked person. A disgraced person.”

I like the thought that a church without a forest is somehow incomplete. Growing up around churches, their yards were as much part of the church as the building. My earliest memories are the smell of the sanctuary’s old wood and playing in piles of leaves. And climbing trees. Perhaps that’s why I felt like Sycamore Church in Loveland, Ohio, disappeared when I heard they’d sold their adjacent land.

“These forests are not just good for people,” Alemayehu said, “they are also the last shelter for wild animals. In our tradition, the church is like an ark. A shelter for every kind of creature and plant. If a wildcat or little kudu or vervet monkey leaves the church forest, immediately he will be killed. Here the animals are safe.”

Surrounding the cathedral at Canterbury, in its precincts, are gardens. If it weren’t for this COVID-19, I probably would not have looked far afield for morning and evening prayers, and they would not have been saying them daily outside in the garden where we can hear the gulls and see the cats drink the milk for the Dean’s tea.

“In this world nothing exists alone,” he said. “It’s interconnected. A beautiful tree cannot exist by itself. It needs other creatures. We live in this world by giving and taking. We give CO2 for trees, and they give us oxygen. If we prefer only the creatures we like and destroy others, we lose everything. Bear in mind that the thing you like is connected with so many other things. You should respect that co-existence.”

One of the dispiriting aspects of globalization has been the spread of a monoculture world-wide, particularly since it needn’t be that way: We do not need to voraciously consume everything in our path. Isolated pockets of true alternatives, not the false choice of twenty Pellegrino flavors offered by Nestlé, are useful–even if only to give a glimpse of the full breadth of life.


I forgot to exercise, I caught so caught up in learning about these forests. Maybe I should learn how to build a wall. 🙂

See also, among other places,

Bedeviled

The first was that I was very busy.
The second — I was different from you: whatever happened to you could not happen to me, not like that.
….

Magdalene — The Seven Devils,” Marie Howe (2008)

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles, for it was to her whom Jesus first appeared after rising (John 20:10-18). We meet her today in Luke 8:1-3.

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

Luke 8:1-3 (ESV)

In his reflection along with this morning’s prayers, the Very Reverend Dr Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, observed that women supported Jesus throughout his ministry. Women are ever-present in the gospels, doing what we would today call invisible labor: the necessary work of care. These three rather wealthy, well-connected women, and many others, “provided for them out of their means.”

Because they had been freed of their demons.

The world then was demon-haunted, much as it is today, full of afflicting spirits. Marie Howe in her poem imagines Mary Magdalene’s seven devils.

Some are familiar to me. What relief this cure of the soul must have been!

Thank you, Pádraig Ó Tuama, for drawing my attention to this poem.


What First Principles?

Tonight’s film was Romero (1989).

Earlier this year my eldest and I were talking about a paper due for her international politics class on the Middle East, the U. S. national interest, and grand strategy. She didn’t know where to start. I asked, what are our interests globally? Whose interests are they? How does the Middle East fit in context? What is the objective? How is why we do something different from what we say is why we do something? The professor had opened a can of worms asking about “strategy.”

What if post-war American foreign policy had been less concerned with Communist aggression and commercial imperialism? What would it have looked like? How would the world now differ in that case? Not how would things be better or worse, but how would they be different? Each decision opens some paths, closes others.

It was not necessary, for example, to choose France over the Viet Minh, but we did. It was not necessary to choose the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company over Mohammad Mosaddeq, but we did. Nor United Fruit over Árbenz, Batista over Castro, Pinochet over Allende, and so forth. But we did. Which would seem to indicate some sort of strategery—an excellent neologism, BTW—but perhaps not one in the national interest as much as in the interests of those who’ve held the reins of government.

It’s strange to even imagine how policy might change, much less what policies one might have, to benefit the nation as a whole. Inertia seems inevitable. It’s almost as if one needs some principle of behavior, some concept of what the public good is, that could guide government actors. Perhaps this could be a principle that might suggest what a just government is and what it can and should do. Perhaps this principle could suggest it might not be prudent or just to sell weapons to a country which primarily uses them to kill its own citizens, particularly those citizens who dare ask it to stop killing them.

Such a principle might even inform domestic policy. It might even make it relatively simple to decide the correct course of action when an agent of the state like, oh, I dunno, a police officer, murders someone on camera while several of his fellow officers stand idly by.

If only we knew what the right thing to do was. How will we ever know?

The integralists’ arguments might be more enticing if they themselves weren’t personally cheerleading the abuse of power. To put this another way, they would spit on Dorothy Day because she dared tell Cardinal Spellman he was wrong. Some are old enough that it is not inconceivable they approved of the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Romero, for the same reasons that today they disapprove of protests against police brutality.

Lands Now or Formerly of

Over time I have lived on the lands of Lenape, Mohican, Wappinger, Manahoac, Piscataway, Powhatan, Monacan, Osage, Shawnee, Miami, Adena, Hopewell, and the Chickahominy. I currently live on land once used by the Lenape and the Mohican.

The modern sense of property in land is European. When you claim title to land, and file a map with your claim, because ownership changes over time adjacent properties are marked as “now or formerly” belonging to a given holder. With some diligent work, one can trace the history of an individual parcel back as far as records go. Our home on native land expands our perspective away from what’s on file with the county clerk.

There are layers and layers of history wherever you are, sometimes only surviving in place names, sometimes not even then. The names are remembered by the people who live there, but outsiders can have trouble finding the place. Perhaps the automobile leads us to forget our geography; certainly changes in population and politics do, as the colonists eliminated the indigenous population, and New York absorbed The Bronx and other outer boroughs. The Post Office’s delivery system follows along, as Fordham becomes a ZIP Code within New York, or Hampden-Sydney disappears into Farmville—or Poughquag into Hopewell Junction.

This latter amuses me somewhat as there are post offices in both the hamlet of Poughquag, Town of Beekman, and Hopewell Junction, Town of East Fishkill, while the sorting and distribution facility serving them all is in Arthursburg, on a parcel divided between the Town of East Fishkill and the Town of Lagrange, and associated with the Lagrangeville post office. The Poughquag post office itself isn’t in the hamlet of Poughquag, but it’s certainly closer to homes in the hamlets of Beekmanville and Clove Valley than Hopewell Junction is. Which leads to the silliness of the corner Stop & Shop (owned by Ahold, a Dutch company) posting a sign lauding our local store here in Hopewell Junction.

(Perhaps this explains why adventurers can land on a planet and immediately find the single person they seek: All places are identical.)

Acknowledging that we weren’t the only ones ever here, learning the stories of where we are, and of the people who were here before us, requires a bit of humility to look away from the narcissistic mirror of our solipsism to curiously ask, “Who are you? Where are we?”

Together Alone

I have been joining in the morning and evening prayers from the garden of Canterbury Cathedral these past several months. Because this is the Internet, and we aren’t in person, it often seems that I am alone here. This could be my paper journal; who can say without a conversation. So yesterday I was surprised to find that many others have been joining in the prayers, when the computer at YouTube recommended that I view this clip from The Independent.

I have been far too wrapped up in asocial media these past four months. Everything there seems like a tempest in a teapot when I look out at the real world and engage with real people—and the real weeds growing in my own garden.

Think Before You Speak

My mother admonished me to think before I speak, and now sometimes I do. Sometimes I even think before I write, and take a breath, which was good advice I was given early in my career of sending professionally damaging e-mails. Before that though, the Senate confirmation hearings for Robert Bork and the presidential election campaign of Bill Clinton argued strongly that an ambitious man should avoid a public opinion or carefully construct a mask. Or, as Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Aaron Burr puts it, “Talk less. Smile more.”

But all that was before the Internet’s instant publishing platform let everyone’s hot takes wash over anyone daring to read the comments. No editor except myself will stop me, either from putting two spaces after a period or publishing an opinionated screed railing against the latest fad in the war against culture. The young, and those with no filter, properly took to this state of affairs like fish to water, which, as those of a certain age or with children know, led to warnings from the school principal to be more careful of one’s online activity than of one’s reputation in the cafeteria–because the Internet never forgets and a youthful indiscretion might harm one’s future.

Somehow all of this is forgotten in the current uproar over woke cancel culture, whatever that is, stifling debate and making it risky to say the wrong, i.e. unpopular, thing. One wouldn’t want to diminish one’s prospects now, would we?

The current flavor of public opinion differs from that enforced by Mrs. Grundy, but the enforcement is not at all dissimilar. Contracts for public school teachers contain morals clauses, for example, limiting their behavior outside of work, as one would not want to provide a poor example for children by public consumption of alcohol or by wearing a lewd dress, but the primary means of enforcement is a frown or tsk tsk. In some regions, while it may be illegal to fire someone explicitly for organizing a union, other excuses are found. Some have lost employment over racist remarks made outside the context of work, while others, notably James Bennet, have lost employment due to not doing their job–editing does involve reading, after all–which seems not all that different from any other time in history. Admittedly I have not had the audacity to enjoy video games while female or to appear in a Star Wars movie while black, nor have I given a speech on a college campus–though I have made many a stupid remark–but I think it’s still possible to distinguish between the harm caused by death threats and heckling. The signatories of Harper’s letter on justice and open debate are not stupid; to pretend that chilling effects are new is disingenuous. The difference is in who is affected. What appears to be even more different is how quickly the Internet lets everyone pile on, ad absurdum.

But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.

To a large extent public opinion works through shame and opprobrium, but carries a latent undercurrent of violence. It’s physically unsafe to ask the wrong questions or make unpopular opinions known. Recently this has involved driving automobiles into crowds, most notably in the 2017 incident in Charlottesville that killed Heather Heyer, or police rioting–or abstaining from suppressing rioting–in response to Black Lives Matter protests. These events are little different from 1970’s student strike and the killings at Kent State, Jackson State, and the Hard Hat Riot; or even the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X.; or, earlier, the West Virginia Mine Wars, the Red Scares I (1917-1920) and II (1947-1957), the Palmer Raids, and the Sedition Act of 1918; or, earlier still, Haymarket. The common thread is that the violence is, more often than not, on behalf of the status quo and established power.

Businesses offering a service to the general public, such as hotels, are, even though they are private businesses, required to offer accommodations to everyone. Bus companies, shippers, telephone companies, and railroadscommon carriers all–must do the same, for the same reason. In the United States, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these accommodations were segregated, and not open to all. One counter-argument offered against the legal requirement of public accommodation was that discrimination is economically inefficient, that it is in the best economic interest of an Atlanta hotelier to let rooms to blacks as well as whites; in addition, because of this economic interest, public opinion, will, over time, change so that discrimination would no longer be popular, and that, thus, there is no need to require active de-segregation measures such as busing. That is, the choice of the public to boycott a discriminatory enterprise is sufficient to change behavior.

Well, that time of changed public opinion would appear to be here. The marketing departments of large corporations have noticed that certain images may have adverse effects on their branding, and adjusted their masks a tad. Ross Douthat and others suggest this has other, unspoken, advantages for the corporate consensus.

Indeed the successor ideology seems particularly adaptable (as DiAngelo’s career attests) to the corporate world, where it promises a framework for regulating an increasingly diverse work force that conveniently emphasizes psychology and identity rather than a class solidarity that might threaten the corporate bottom line.

Ross Douthat, “The Tom Cotton Op-Ed and the Cultural Revolution,”
The New York Times, June 12, 2020

I’d sign that Harper’s letter; no one asked: not sure why they didn’t. It would be nice if we could have reasonable conversations in good faith. I’d like that, especially if we could have them in person, perhaps around a campfire or over dinner. The idea of a secluded, quiet place for discussion has been a dream since Socrates corrupted the youth in Athens’s agora. The privileges and immunities of the autonomous university provide a framework for that. It’s not a coincidence that such a life is sheltered, cloistered, away from the rough-and-tumble cannibalism, as it were, of the polis.

Or at least of Twitter.


Should We Talk About the Government?

Every budget is a document of priorities filled with moral and ethical decisions. Every budget is the result of political wrangling over who and what matters. Who has the power, who keeps the power, who loses, who benefits, and who does not.

For my entire adult life political discussions, at least what passes for those in the media, have concerned various aspects of some imaginary culture war and who is ahead in the Legislative or Judicial or Executive standings. No one cares who’s on first, unless you’re a betting man.

Let’s talk about money again. Let’s talk about the purpose of society. Let’s talk about how we the people want to promote the general welfare. We cannot have either justice, or liberty, or domestic tranquility if we do not.


A Song of Grit

What are our guiding precepts? By which lamp do we light our way?

Langston Hughes asked a simple question in 1951.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Langston Hughes, “Harlem” (1951)

The founding myths of this country are not of twins suckled by a wolf, nor of a magic sword held in wait for the true king, nor of a God leading his people out of slavery, but of, on the one hand, a religious sect fleeing persecution and, on the other, rampant commercial speculation and exploitation of a vast, empty continent, beginning again with a compromise: a declaration of independence and a war for, of all things, Liberty. We are old enough now, 244 by some reckonings, 413 by others, that we could find the clear-eyed courage to face the past, and the present. We are old enough to comprehend that Santa Claus does not fly around delivering the newest plastic parcel from Mattel; we can certainly see the chasm between ideals and practice.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 

The Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776)

Other minds have left their voices for us to hear. One such is Frederick Douglass who, in 1852, addressed the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, presumably a sympathetic audience, on the subject of the Fourth of July. It is stern stuff.

The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852)

And then there was a war, a strange one where the losers on the field won the peace. As is the way in politics, power shifts over time. Somewhat.

But look, there is a seed.

that all men are created equal

And invariably there remains a struggle over oppressive power. The downtrodden do not often win, not wholly, but they struggle, sculpting the rock splinter and chip. So that Hughes could send up a plaintive cry,

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.

Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” (1935)

Whom is he asking? We, the people.

That the present demand for justice could be considered borderline treasonous, if not positively un-American, indicts those of us who let our comfort blind us to the suffering of the afflicted.

It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work,

Abraham Lincoln, address at Gettysburg, Pa., November, 1863

to pick up our tools, lend whatever we may, to the task. Lend our voices to the song.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Walt Whitman, “I Hear America Singing” (1860)
Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” (1949)

Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

Heather C. McGhee notes (as heard on the radio) that racism has a cost for everyone.


Let me tell two stories from my time in local government. One involves an easement for a walking trail. One involves a pool.

The Town of Beekman began construction on a walking trail between the town parks, which went speedily enough as long as the trail was within the right-of-way along a town road, but construction stalled once the town needed to seek permission from adjacent property owners and other government entities. The two largest landowners along the proposed route were the Dalton Farm Homeowners Association and the Dutchess County Water and Wastewater Authority. The water authority punted: the town could cross their property, as long as the HOA agreed to an easement to continue the trail along the county road. So the highway department marked the county’s right-of-way, and the trail committee marked a route for the trail, and we walked the proposed route. We then solicited comment from the residents of Dalton Farm along the route. None of the comments were in favor of the trail. They all expressed concerns over strangers using the trail, people from out of town peeking in their back yards, and thieves breaking into homes in the dead of night. The Dalton Farm board tabled the idea of an easement, and the town’s trail still leads nowhere.

Dalton Farm owns a swimming pool and is required by its bylaws to maintain it in satisfactory condition for the use of the residents. Each year we contracted with a pool management company to clean, maintain, and staff the pool. After some years of trouble with late openings and the lifeguards—the pool company hired young women from Eastern European countries who could not always speak English well and so had trouble with the part of the job that involved communication with swimmers—the association board began looking at alternatives. Several alternatives were considered. The two I put forth, neither of which was accepted, were to hire local lifeguards to staff the pool, much as the Town of Beekman does, or to have the pool unguarded and unstaffed. The board decided to hire a security company to check identification—for slightly less expense than the pool management company—in order to prevent the wrong people from using the pool. The wrong people were those from outside of the association, non-residents, or who owed payments to the association. If memory serves, one of the board members suggested that people “from Poughkeepsie” might try to use the pool. Some years and a couple hundred thousand dollars later, the security company’s services were no longer required because it was found that one of the guards had placed video cameras in the rest rooms. The association now hires promising young persons of good character from the neighborhood to check the pool’s pH and guest identification.

“From Poughkeepsie” means “black” and “poor.”

Beekman is 15 miles, 30 minutes from Poughkeepsie.

No one is coming here from there to use any of the amenities we build. And if they did, so what?

The only people not from here who might are our neighbors, whom we see each week at school or the grocery store or church, with whom we play baseball and soccer. The people who use the pool are our children. The people who would use the trail are us: we would walk our dogs there; we would ride our bicycles there.

But we let our fear and prejudice lead us to make the stupidest decisions.

WWJD?

The execution of Jesus Christ was political murder by the klepto class, done with the force of the state, because he demanded lovingkindness, justice, mercy, and the forgiveness of debts.

You may have been pre-occupied with other things this Easter season, like all the rest of us this year, and couldn’t make it to church, or refresh your memory of the story. Perhaps you were caught up in thoughts of plastic eggs, or perhaps you attend a church which likes to pass over where Jesus says, “Love one another,” so that the teaching can get straight to the important part about obedience–which skips the whole point of the law to focus instead on enforcement and punishment, pain and suffering. However, the story tells us why he was killed, not just why he died.

We like to think that Jesus was outside the mainstream of his society, and he was, much as Mr. Rogers was outside the mainstream of ours, but he was grounded in and closely in line with Jewish tradition. One might even call him a fundamentalist. And in that tradition he took exception to the abuse of authority.

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. [emphasis mine]

Mark 11:15-18 (NIV)

There might have been a riot, and then where would they be?

So perhaps it’s not surprising to find that a number of the voices calling, not for an examination of their souls but for the violent imposition of Law and Order–by which they mean Power and Obedience–are those same voices who, given every opportunity to do so, insist that God teaches us that it is vastly more important to obey rather than to care, to exploit rather than nurture. It is they who, seemingly in all cases, put the interests of the powerful above the meek, despite every evidence to the contrary from the text.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 (ESV)

Nor is it surprising to find widespread outrage at yet another blatant murder by agents of the state. Because, believe it or not, most people think thou shalt not kill.

Caring for others is not some grand conspiracy by deviants, anarchists, and Marxists. It is the very minimum that your mother expects of you.

Our Elections Make No Sense to Me

I really don’t understand electoral politics, especially the selection of candidates for office and how they are chosen. It’s not the procedure that I don’t understand—that I do—but why certain candidates appeal to anyone enough to garner votes. Why would anyone vote for Donald Trump, for example. Or why would anyone in the Democratic Party think that Joe Biden was anything but a creep?

Similarly, I have an intellectual appreciation for the fact that people vote for their team, but at the same time I don’t know why they would vote for someone they’d never invite over for dinner or let alone with their children. It’s easier for me to understand voting for someone with whom one has substantial disagreements over policy, than it is voting for a liar, a thief, a cheat, a smarmy snake-oil salesman. How can you expect someone to be responsible with government if you can’t trust him any further than you can spit?

Trust matters. Character counts.

Or at least I hope it does. And if it doesn’t, why not?

Perhaps it does and my understanding of character and my reasons for trusting just differ from other folks. I have to presume that people did and do trust Mr. Trump, though I’ve no idea why. It’s easier, I suppose, to believe that your neighbors are misled or deluded rather than to think that they may agree with malicious or callous behavior. It’s easier, but not easy.

Of course, I am most likely missing the big picture here, whatever it is, but I am very tired of being presented every four years with a choice between two people I don’t much care for. Choosing the least unappealing option is not at all satisfactory, like choosing among hung, drawn, or quartered. One wonders if either would win under different circumstances, such as if we ranked preferences or could choose None of the Above. I suspect we have neither of those systems because both the Republicans and the Democrats are quite happy with the current arrangement, unless tweaking the system means their party wins more frequently.

The Known Unknown

‪This is the worst game of six degrees of separation ever. Number One Daughter had class with someone who tested positive for COVID-19‬ virus. She has yet to hear if she is to be tested as well. In the meantime, we wait.

She came home from college over the past weekend so that she could be near her people if anything happened. That was joyful. She’s seen and hugged all of her siblings, her mother, me. Made dinner for her siblings and me the first night she was back; a delicious bowl of rice and beans. She’s now at her mother’s house.

What next? Does she quarantine herself in a room far away like a normal teenager, texting for deliveries of food between naps, or mingle with the rest of the households and everybody else with whom she’s already come into contact?

Do I next see her and the others in two weeks, barring any additional symptoms?

It seems prudent, as I mentioned in a post earlier this month, to take precautions in the face of ignorance, not unlike Pascal’s wager on God: We don’t know and the risks are immeasurable. How is this known unknown so much more terrifying than the previously unknown unknown?

A Matter of Life and Death

Here’s a purely hypothetical question for you. Let’s suppose you have a certain number of hospital beds and a certain number of ventilators and a certain number of medical staff. Further, let’s suppose that there are more sick people than there are beds, ventilators, and staff. The system has insufficient capacity to meet the need. Or, in economic terms, demand exceeds supply. How do you determine who receives help?

That question of triage, deciding who is to die, is a difficult moral calculus–for some people. For eugenicists or Nazis, it’s not: kill the old and feeble, the physically or mentally deranged, the scum; cull the weak from the herd and improve the species. Or, as Dominic Cummings, aide to Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, put it: “if that means some pensioners die, too bad.

Image

Each time the United States argues over a national health care system, someone attempts to assert that socialized medicine leads inevitably to death panels, as if rationing life by one’s ability to pay were more humane than a committee. The thought was that at some point the State would decide it’s just too expensive to keep Granny alive and she would be killed–completely ignoring the fact that Congress funds anything out of nothing more than desire.

Yet somehow refusing to order production of medical equipment or prepare for a pandemic does not rise to the same level of callousness. Somehow seeking to profit from the deaths of thousands is just good business. Those actions cause or exacerbate shortages which lead to deciding who will die.

The response to COVID-19 is in a very real sense a logistics problem, in terms of delivering care to the people who need it. But it’s also one of meeting demand. And in that respect economics can offer some ways to think about it, as the field is, after all, concerned with how finite resources are allocated–the case of surge pricing toilet paper to prevent hoarding comes to mind. Though it seems rather insane for the price of N95-rated masks to have jumped from $0.70 to $7.00 each over the past week, the prices reflect a case of insufficient supply available for the demand. Some people, such as New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, redirected existing labor to another task: making hand sanitizer. The Army Corps of Engineers are doing what they do. Others are simply volunteering to help, whether in 3-D printing a valve for a ventilator, or providing patent-free CAD designs, or manufacturing, or sewing.

The response to COVID-19 is also an ethical problem. Most people want to help; the rest are outside society.

R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, has been on a tear recently. He’s very upset that Roman Catholic churches, among others, suspended public celebration of the Eucharist, and argues that the Church could find other ways of adjusting without shutting out the parishioners. (I suspect he might agree with me about locking the sanctuary doors.) There is something quite magical about gathering together, but expecting others to risk their lives so you can receive the Eucharist seems the opposite of courage in the face of death. Perhaps the Catholic churches could find ways to remain open, but they have decided to help prevent the spread of disease by asking their flock to worship at home, not unlike the early Christians. Some non-denominational churches, more arrogant, won’t raise no pansies.

Mr. Reno also worries about the shrinking of our social life:

[R]estrictions on public gatherings have paused institutional life. There are no Boy Scout meetings, no Little League practices, no Rotary Club or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Most book clubs are suspending their evening discussions, even though these small gatherings are permitted. Closed restaurants dissolve informal coffee klatches. Some institutions, organizations, and fellowships will rebound when the draconian limits on social life are lifted. But some will not. And the longer those limits last, the more will wither and fade away.

Questioning the Shutdown,” R. R. Reno
First Things, March 20, 2020

But over the past few weeks, I’ve seen many people whose first response to the pending isolation was not to buy more toilet paper but to reach out to their family, to their friends, to others they hadn’t spoken with recently; was not to hide under the covers with a flashlight but to arrange online substitutes for in-person discussions. AT&T thanks you. We are a gregarious species.

I am lucky enough to be salaried. I am lucky enough to already work from home. My routine is not disturbed one bit. Except the Spring soccer season is on hold.

Others are not so lucky. Staying home, or, more precisely, away from work, has immediate costs that they cannot recoup. They have no help. The financial situation of many households is precarious. The financial situation of many businesses is precarious, even larger businesses. We are, the bulk of us, over-extended, living hand to mouth. Cash money is, these days, what we need to live. We may adjust to having less. Or we may die.

The financial markets, despite their formerly rosy numbers, are an illusion. The real economy always involves real people, real joy and real suffering, real living and real dying. What are we doing for real people?

We are all looking for a middle ground here, between the Scylla of mass death and the Charybdis of economic apocalypse. At this stage of the crisis, it looks like there is no middle ground. This is an intolerable thing, but it might well be reality.

The Hard Road Ahead,” Rod Dreher,
The American Conservative, March 20, 2020

Where we devote our attention, where we give our time, and what we spend money on tells us a lot about our priorities. We have choices to make.

Meanwhile, it appears we won’t have to worry about missing Easter services. The President thinks we can open up for business in just a few days.


The Plague

Our public library has closed indefinitely, and though I will need to return the large stack of books 📚 I borrowed last month at some point, I do not think I will lack for reading matter if I can manage to tear my eyes away from the slow-moving train wreck that is the world these days: I have many unread books in both the fiction and non-fiction rooms of my own library, which sounds much more grand than it actually is.

This one, however, I’ve read before. According to the receipt inside from Dave’s Comics on Three Chopt Road in Richmond, Virginia, I did so the summer of 1988. It seemed apropos to revisit The Plague.

The language [Rieux] used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow men—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.

Truth.