Weekly Digest – February 7, 2021

John de Graaf, A Conservative for Our Time

By all accounts, including his own, Stewart Lee Udall (1920-2010) was an unabashed liberal. And without doubt, he believed that government could improve lives, a philosophy that came from watching the New Deal transform his hometown of St. Johns, Arizona, bringing electricity and running water to scores of poor ranchers and farmers. This belief motivated his long public service as the Interior Secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and in recognition of his influence, his name now adorns the Department of the Interior building in Washington D.C.

But after a year of research into Udall’s life and work to develop my upcoming documentary film, Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty, I have come to believe that Udall was actually in many ways, a conservative whose creative ideas may help point America’s way forward in a turbulent, polarized, and destructive time. Above all, Udall was devoted to conserving the land and the beauty of the American landscape. He believed they were fragile, endangered by so-called “progress.” Our future was dependent on their care and protection.

Beth Tilston, Literacy of the Fingers

The leaven is sour with me when I get it out of the fridge after its five month holiday. There is an inch of dark hooch on the top.  I pour it off, confident that I know how to sweeten it up. For four days I get rid of half and feed what’s left with warm water and rye. It bubbles over the top of the jar in appreciation.

Back at my desk, starting to write this essay, I think back to my first sourdough loaf. It was dense, wholemeal, overly-acidic from being left to prove for days. It was made at the start of what I have come to think of as my ‘apprenticeship of the hands’. The apprenticeship started after I had emerged, idea-battered, from a master’s degree in English Literature. My degree certificate told me that I had a distinction, but all I felt qualified to do was to build castles in the air. This was 2008; the year that everything broke. I looked at myself and realised that I could write 20,000 words on the Derridean idea of the archive, but I couldn’t bake a loaf of bread. I was an expert in frame narratives but I felt completely unable to look after myself. Theory-sick, I turned my back on the world of ‘thinking’ and embraced the world of ‘doing’. And I found that I was terrible at it.

How did this happen? How had I reached the age of 28 without being forced to develop at least some practical skills? The short answer is, it was allowed to happen; in fact, it was encouraged.  Despite gardening and cooking with my mum as a child, despite helping my dad to put the family’s collection of bikes in good order, I was given a strong message by the society I grew up in that the head ruled the hands. That the thinkers of the world were superior to the makers and the menders. Two millennia on from Aristotle, we had indeed made the architects more estimable than the artisans. It suited me fine: I was good at being a thinker.

This mind-body problem has a long philosophical heritage. René Descartes grappled with the idea in the seventeenth century and came up with the notion that we now know as Cartesian dualism.  Descartes thought that the mind and the physical brain were two separate entities. In his view, it was the mind that was the seat of intelligence rather than the brain. It was the mind that was conscious and self-aware. He did concede though that whilst mind and matter are separate, they are irrevocably linked. The mind cannot exist outside of the body – and the body cannot think. This, I think, is the view that many of us hold of ourselves: disembodied, thinking minds encapsulated in dumb meat. It explains why it seems logical to raise the mind above the meat.

As the machine age has progressed, the number of things that we are required to do for ourselves has gradually shrunk. Thanks to machines, and – crucially – to abundant oil, 21st century Man (unlike any of his ancestors) is now able to blithely declare himself ‘not a practical person’. Unhandy Man has been born. We live in a culture which has turned us into children, unable to look after ourselves, unable to decipher even where to start. Practical skills are often spoken of now as if they possess some sort of magic that only a few salt-of-the-earth folk can master. Continue reading

“Your task is to learn to be patient in an emergency.”

From Paul Kingsnorth’s “What If It’s Not a War?”:

If there’s one thing humans love, it’s war. Even those of us who pretend we don’t like war: really, we love it. We can’t get away from it. Even the pacifists are at it. Even the vegans. The anarchists enjoy it more than the marine corps, at least if they can hide their faces. In my years in the green movement – supposedly a fluffy, caring, co-operative kind of environment – I saw, heard and used more military metaphors than you could shake a stick grenade at. It was always the bad rich guys screwing the planet and the heroic, Earth-loving masses opposing them. When I was a young Earth First!er, back in the nineties, there was a slogan we used all the time. We would scrawl it in oil on the sides of earth-moving machinery when the security guards weren’t looking: The Earth is not dying, it is being killed. And those who are killing it have names and addresses. Yeah! This was exciting and heroic. The names and addresses, of course, were never ours.

Look at any movement for political or social change and you’ll see the war stories proliferating like Japanese knotweed. The 99% must rise up against the 1%! Donald Trump is a fascist and we are the resistance! Ordinary working people must stop the globalist elites! Corporations are causing climate change, and we must fight them! Black versus white, men versus women, elites versus masses, people versus planet: whatever your favoured battle, your choice commits you to fighting. Of course, your team are the goodies. Right is on your side, and the other lot are deluded haters. You are always Luke Skywalker, never Darth Vader.

War metaphors and enemy narratives are the first thing we turn to when we identify a problem, because they eliminate complexity and nuance, they allow us to be heroes in our own story, and they frame our personal aggression and anger in noble terms. The alternative is much harder: it’s to accept our own complicity. The alternative is an environmental campaigner accepting that they are as much a cause of climate change as the CEO of Exxon. It’s a progressive supporter of open borders accepting that they prepared the ground for Trumpism. It’s a European nationalist accepting that their wealth is built on globalisation. We don’t want to deal with this kind of thing. It stops us in our tracks, and the war machine runs on without us. We feel lonely out here on our own. Much easier to run on and catch up.

My favourite war metaphor is the one which pits modern humanity against the Earth itself. I think that civilised, post-Enlightenment humanity has been, and remains, a dark and destructive force. In only a few hundred years we have precipitated a planetary crisis, the details of which readers of this blog will be depressingly familiar with. We have destroyed wildness and beauty and meaning. We have eaten life itself. There is a black magic about our civilisation, I think. If you want me to build a case, I can build a case easily enough. I’ve done it before. But right now I’m more interested in what happens if I don’t.

If it’s not a war, what is it? If we’re not warriors, what are we? Are we monks or hermits? Are we nihilists or hedonists? The thing about war metaphors is that they suck you right in, like wars themselves. If you won’t enroll, you can easily be condemned as a coward: handed white feathers in pubs and spat at on the street. Still, we don’t want a world at war, do we? We want something else. But what? And how?

At the moment, I’m thinking that a trial might be a better metaphor and guide than a war. ‘You might see the situation we are in as an emergency,’ says Wendell Berry, ‘and your task is to learn to be patient in an emergency’. Being patient in an emergency seems harder and more worthwhile than playing soldiers. If I attempt to transmute my favourite war story – people versus planet – into a trial story instead, what do I get? I get a long story of patience and hard work and attention to nature; a story that will outlive me and my children. The poet Gary Snyder has suggested that we are in the early stages of what may be a 5000 year journey towards living well with ourselves and the Earth. All of us, whatever our tribe or team, are on the same journey. That’s a trial: a long, complicated test.

If it is a trial, a long emergency, an intergenerational test of patience, what qualities would we need to undertake it? They would be very different qualities to those – anger, aggression, might, tactical cunning – needed by a warrior. We might need to drop back into the past for a moment and explore some of the non-martial virtues that defined our culture before it was overtaken and half drowned by the siren song of commerce.


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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