Weekly Digest – January 17, 2021

The goal of democracy is not unity. The goal of democracy is productive disagreement and conflict management through legitimate elections and representative government.

-Lee Drutman

Transactional leadership is no less important that transformational leadership.  We need both.  Joseph Nye, Good Leaders Don’t Always Need a Vision:

Two centuries ago the newly independent American colonists had a transformational leader in George Washington. Then, they invented a different type of leadership when James Madison and other transactional leaders negotiated the US constitution. Madison’s solution to the problem of conflict and faction was not to try to convert everyone to a common cause but to overcome division by creating an institutional framework in which ambition countered ambition and faction countered faction. Separation of powers, checks and balances, and a decentralised federal system placed the emphasis on laws more than leaders. Even when a group cannot agree on its ultimate ends, its members may be able to agree on means that create diversity without destroying the group. In such circumstances, transactional leadership may be better than efforts at transformational leadership.

One of the key tasks for leaders is the creation, maintenance or change of institutions. Madisonian government was not designed for efficiency. Law is often called “the wise restraints that make men free” but sometimes laws must be changed or broken, as the civil rights movement of the 1960s demonstrated. On an everyday level, whistleblowers can play a disruptive but useful role in large bureaucracies, and a smart leader will find ways to channel their information into institutions such as an ombudsman. An inspirational leader who ignores institutions must consider the long-term ethical consequences as well as the immediate gains for the group.

Lewis R. Gordon, Trump Loyalists Want to Uphold a Long American Tradition: White License:

Want a democratic republic? Inaugurate a systematic overhaul of institutions that are premised upon disenfranchising whole groups of people, and radicalize voting and access to other forms of political participation for all.

Said change would be transactional leadership as well as transformational leadership.

On the Media, Why Appeasement Won’t Work This Time Around  [Ed.:  Appeasement has never worked.  There’s no reason to believe it will work now either.]

If historic parallels about white resentment and violence are useful for understanding Trumpism and other contemporary expressions of white supremacy, they may also help us to figure out what to do — or not to do — next. We can start with the contested election of 1876, when Southern democrats — then the party of slavery — alleged fraud in the election of Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes and his Republican Party, meanwhile, alleged massive voter suppression of southern blacks.

On Wednesday night, in his attempt to delay certification of Biden’s election victory, Texas Senator Ted Cruz asked: why not do what his 19th century predecessors did? Back then, white southerners called it “redemption.” To Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum, it was a catastrophe of appeasement and an object lesson in the politics of reconciliation.

Nye is right.  Gordon is right.  Crenshaw is right.  Our challenge is to square that circle.

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Weekly Digest – January 10, 2021

Excerpts from the pieces at the top of my reading list from the past week follow below.

Don’t Let This Week’s Events Distract Us From Other Critical Issues

Jim Aloisi, We cannot be passive actors in COVID recovery

The choice before us is unambiguous: we can be passive actors in the process of COVID-19 recovery, or we can be active participants engaged in “building back better.” Passive actors let others make the choices for them or rely on the “marketplace” to collectively choose what recovery looks like…

We can’t build back better without transportation, land use, and housing policies that squarely meet the demands of an extraordinary time. My objective here is to address the transportation component of that triad…

Our destiny remains in our hands, and we can build a better post-pandemic metro Boston only by developing broad consensus and taking decisive action. That is what leadership is all about. Passivity is no answer. Retreating to the false comfort of the pre-COVID status quo is no answer. History, and future generations, will rightly judge us harshly if we fail to take up the task of rebuilding a better, more sustainable and equitable society following COVID-19. There is no time to waste.

Miriam Wasser, Want To Know If Raw Sewage Gets Dumped In Your Local River? There’s A Bill On Baker’s Desk About It

Among the many bills sitting on Gov. Baker’s desk is one requiring cities and towns to notify residents any time raw sewage ends up in a local river or water body... The bill, if enacted, would require wastewater operators to send out email or text notifications to local and downstream residents within two hours of discovering a sewage discharge, and updates every eight hours for as long as the problem persists. They will also have to publish information online about how much sewage-laden water was released and put up signage near problem areas.

Send Gov. Baker via this link – https://www.mass.gov/forms/email-the-governors-office.

Call and leave a message on Gov. Baker‘s Constituent Services line – (617) 725-4005.

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Weekly Digest – January 5, 2021

I’m a couple days late this week.  When I went through my ‘worth reading’ list for the week there were a higher than usual number of environment-related pieces.  Environment-related pieces are first and then a handful of others follow.

Before the links to those pieces:  It doesn’t appear that Gov. Baker is going to sign it before the legislative session expires in several hours but the MA Legislature passed an excellent climate bill by huge margins in the House and Senate several days ago.  It’s a damning statement on leadership that they didn’t pass it soon enough to force Baker’s hand.  When the legislative session ends at midnight the bill is dead if unsigned.  He can ‘pocket veto’ it or actually veto it.  Despite the bill passing by a veto-proof majority when the legislative session ends there’s no legislature to override his veto.  They’d need to pass a new bill next session.  Legislative sessions run two years in MA so a new bill may be a while coming.  Unfortunately, we don’t have time to waste.  The bill is S.2995, An Act creating a next-generation roadmap for Massachusetts climate policy.  WBUR story on the bill here.

Worth Reading

Will Collins, Paul Kingsnorth’s Surprising Conservatism

To certain readers, especially those familiar with Kingsnorth’s background as an environmental activist and climate change Cassandra, this might sound like left-wing ecological primitivism. Alexandria’s environmental message will certainly resonate on the left, but there is also an idiosyncratic strain of conservatism running through the book. One expects a modern fable set in a small religious community to valorize characters who violate taboos and question the established order. Kingsnorth neatly inverts this expectation. In Alexandria, the received wisdom turns out to be true. Those who ignore the community’s strictures and wander off into the forest are lost.

A profoundly traditional view of human nature lurks just below the surface of Kingsnorth’s fiction. In Alexandria, taboos and customs are vital guardrails against our darker impulses, the same impulses that nearly destroyed the planet some 900 years ago. This apocalyptic pessimism echoes the Catholic science fiction of Walter Miller, who imagined a community of monks painstakingly preserving scientific knowledge after a nuclear holocaust in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller’s book ends with humanity rediscovering science, ignoring the church’s warnings, and promptly destroying the world all over again. The apocalyptic visions of Miller and Kingsnorth are quite different from each other, but both authors take a dim view of technological advancement and humanity’s capacity for collective restraint.

Kingsnorth has said that, “The central question that runs through the novel—the question that has riven humanity and created an entirely new world—is to what degree humans should live within the bounds that nature has set for them, and to what degree they should attempt to break them and remake the world in their own image.”

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Weekly Digest – December 27, 2020

Just three things on my Must Read list this week:

Masha Gessen, One Year After Trump’s Election, Revisiting “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”  (Ed.: From Nov. 2017):

Trump has moved faster, assaulting our senses in more ways and more often than I (and, I think, most other people) expected. The sun still rises every morning, but an early-morning barrage of Trump’s tweets might obscure it. The word “Presidential” has gradually faded from the conversation: no one expects the President to live up to the standards of speech and behavior that his office would seem to demand. Instead, we have settled into constant low-level dread: a state in which a person can function, but can hardly be creative or look into the future. A Russian writer who blogs under the name Alexander Ivanov-Petrov, writing of a different time and place, has called this state of living “provincial time.” It is a time in which people continue to think and create, but “in some fundamental way lack agency or the ability to be fully aware of themselves.”

Fred Bahnson, The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere:

Like the Kardashians, the American Christian family has become obsessed with its own profile. It has become faith as public spectacle, faith as political engagement, as party affiliation, as reputation—anything but faith as paradox, as mystery, as the hidden and seductive dance between spiritual desire and satiation, the prolonging of a hunger so alarmingly vast and yet so subtle that it disappears the moment it’s made public.

In early monastic Christianity, that hunger was acknowledged and channeled, given shape and form and expression. It went by different names—contemplatio (silent prayer) or hesychia (stillness)—which led first to an inner union with Christ, and then to a deep engagement with the suffering of the world. The order was important. In John Cassian’s Conferences, a fifth-century account of the early Christian monastic movement in the deserts of Egypt, a certain Abba Isaac describes how the monks modeled their prayer on Jesus’ practice of going up a mountain alone to pray; those who wished to pray “must withdraw from all the worry and turbulence of the crowd.” In that state of spiritual yearning, God’s presence would become known. “He will be all that we are zealous for, all that we strive for,” Abba Isaac said. “He will be all that we think about, all our living, all that we talk about, our very breath.”

What the early monks and the Christian mystics who followed sought was union—an intense experience of inwardness that is glaringly absent in what many of us get from American Christianity today. Perhaps this absence is the real reason for the mass exodus from churches. Perhaps it is not Christianity that many followers are disappointed in, but Christendom…

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Weekly Digest – December 20, 2020

Top of My Reading List

This list covers two weeks so is longer than most.

Biden needs to help the United States take a deep breath, without presidential appointees sniping at each other and jostling for position. He’s gathering a Cabinet that mirrors his own strengths — sane men and women, each one likable and competent. Like Biden, they can play the old tunes so well that maybe Americans will begin to forget what they’re so angry about.  But the virtues of calm and collegiality can be overstated. A team of elbows-in former colleagues and aides may end up looking more like a Senate staff than a dynamic Cabinet… Biden’s challenge is that after cooling the national fever, literally and figuratively, he needs to shake things up.

Biden is a decent man.  Attempting to restore an Obama- or Clinton-esque government will fail.  The salad days of corporate centrism are long gone and will not return.  Biden needs to lead with an acknowledgment of what hasn’t worked – which he was intimately involved with – as well as a vision for where we want to be as a country in a generation.  Haaland for Interior Secretary is an excellent nomination.

Our desire for simplicity is understandable. We like our stories to have plots, for life’s messiness to form a neat arc. In reality, we don’t get to start at the beginning. We’re thrown into the middle of things, into the chaos of history…

Yet we all have to face the question of how best to act within the world’s complexity, and the way “normies” cope isn’t ultimately so different from the conspiracists’ reductionism. We tend to steer away from complex explanations, to make things easier for ourselves.

What is simplicity? It’s a quality we feel we can intuitively identify. Simplicity is minimal and elegant. A simple object has no ornament. Everything that is not essential has been refined away. Simplicity is, in most of the ways we commonly talk about it, an aesthetic criterion, something to do with Platonic forms or a white canvas. But it turns up at the foundations of scientific thinking too…

The German theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder has interviewed colleagues about how beauty influences the way they judge their theories, and how it shapes the avenues they choose to pursue. Her book Lost in Math (published in German under the more informative title The Ugly Universe) makes the startling claim that not only do aesthetic notions of beauty have no necessary basis in physical fact, but they might be responsible for the failure of fundamental physics to progress substantially since the Seventies.

Sabine Hossenfelder is always thoughtful and thought-provoking.  As well as the book Kunzru cites, she has a blog and a YouTube channel. Continue reading