Reading/Listening Material – August 29, 2021

I forgot to mention the other week that one of my ‘must-reads’ was “Reading and Writing the Lake District” by Jeffrey Bilbro.  “Erasing the Art of Our Imperfect Past” by Katherine Dalton was also very good.  They’re not available on-line but if you can put your hands on a copy of Local Culture I recommend them.  That noted, my lists from the past week:

Must Read/Listen

At least for my adult life, on foreign policy, our political problem has been that the parties have agreed on too much, and dissenting voices have been shut out. That has allowed too much to go unquestioned, and too many failures to go uncorrected. It is telling that it is Biden who is taking the blame for America’s defeat in Afghanistan. The consequences come for those who admit America’s foreign policy failures and try to change course, not for those who instigate or perpetuate them… The tragedy of humanitarian intervention as a foreign policy philosophy is that it binds our compassion to our delusions of military mastery. We awaken to the suffering of others when we fear those who rule them or hide among them, and in this way our desire for security finds union with our desire for decency. Or we awaken to the suffering of others when they face a massacre of such immediacy that we are forced to confront our passivity and to ask what inaction would mean for our souls and self-image. In both cases, we awaken with a gun in our hands, or perhaps we awaken because we have a gun in our hands.

KLEIN: I want to draw this out to a principal about the way we talk about foreign policy here, which is that the American foreign policy conversation, the establishment that drives that conversation — it focuses very intensely on the harms caused by our absence, our inaction, or our withdrawal, but there is no similar culpability or reckoning for the harms we directly commit or that our presence creates.  And so if you’re only ever looking at one side of the ledger, then, of course, you’re going to be biased towards action… Look at the intense moral fervor we get into when we think about the harms that could be triggered by our withdrawal from Afghanistan. And I don’t want to say they’re not real… [but] where is the conversation about the harms that our continued occupation of Afghanistan have visited upon those people, as opposed to simply the harms that our absence might lead to?

A useful chart created by The Economist based on data from UNAMA other sources makes clear that far enjoying “an affordable status quo” Afghanistan was wracked [in recent years] by endemic violence.

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Reading/Listening Material – August 22, 2021

Must Read/Listen

In a prescient 2020 essay about the pandemic, Ed Yong observed that “instead of solving social problems, the U.S. uses techno-fixes to bypass them, plastering the wounds instead of removing the source of injury—and that’s if people even accept the solution on offer.” No need for good judgment, responsible governance, self-sacrifice, or mutual care if there’s an easy technological fix to ostensibly solve the problem. No need, in other words, to be good, so long as the right technological solution can be found.

I was introduced to L.M. Sacasas via Ezra Klein’s podcast.  This essay prompts me to remember that I became a scientist because I had a (not fully-formed) belief in “Science for Conviviality”. I contrast “Science for Conviviality” with making it an endeavor because it can serve as a basis for dominion over Nature – for the purpose of financial reward or just a feeling of control.

For those of you who don’t know me, here is my background — the perspective from which I write tonight.

I covered the fall of the Taliban for NPR, making my way into their former capital, Kandahar, in December 2001, a few days after the collapse of their regime…. I reported for a month or so…. Within another couple of months, I was back, not as a reporter this time, but to try actually to do something. I stayed for a decade. I ran two non-profits in Kandahar, living in an ordinary house and speaking Pashtu, and eventually went to work for two commanders of the international troops, and then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff….  From that standpoint — speaking as an American, as an adoptive Kandahari, and as a former senior U.S. government official — here are the key factors I see in today’s climax of a two-decade long fiasco:

Afghan government corruption, and the U.S. role enabling and reinforcing it…. Pakistan…. Hamid Karzai… Self-Delusion.


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Ending on a Positive Note

Reading (and Listening) Material – August 11, 2021

Short List

A lot of technological criticism today is about weighing whether a technology is good or bad, or judging its various uses. But there’s an older tradition of criticism that asks a more fundamental and nuanced question: How do these technologies change the people who use them, both for good and for bad? And what do the people who use them — all of us, in other words — actually want? Do we even know?

L.M. Sacasas explores these questions in his great newsletter, “The Convivial Society.”… Sacasas recently published a list of 41 questions we should ask of the technologies and tools that shape our lives. What I loved about these questions is how they invite us to think not just about technologies, but about ourselves, and how we act and what we want and what, in the end, we truly value. So I asked him on the show to talk through some of them, and to see what light they shed on the lives we live.

Related reading:  Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

In this episode, Matt and Sam are joined by political theorist and conservative intellectual Samuel Goldman—a very sensible and polite “enemy”—to discuss his brilliant new book, After Nationalism. Topics include: Goldman’s punk-rocker past; the influence of Leo Strauss on his thinking; historical attempts to provide Americans with a coherent, enduring symbol of national identity; why these symbols have failed; what all this means for debates about teaching U.S. history; and what alternatives to nationalism its critics can offer.

For the record, I have favorable views of Sitman, Adler-Bell and Goldman.  We disagree some on the path forward, but I think Goldman’s diagnosis is largely correct.

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Reading Material – August 1, 2021

Short List

Prior to the rise of car culture, we could expect to regularly interact with friends, neighbors, and strangers as we made our way through cities developed with walkability and multimodal transportation in mind. Especially since World War II, we still encounter those folks…but many of those encounters are “mediated by the automobile windshield.” Not only did car culture change how we build cities, it changed how (and how often) we encounter other people: “When we encounter someone [as a driver],” writes Jacobsen, “we don’t encounter another human being with whom we might connect. We as a driver meeting another driver encounter a competitor—a competitor for lane space and parking spaces.”

The more acceptable it is to denounce people because of their speech, the more likely it is that it will eventually happen to you.

Haider’s argument is far more nuanced than that, so much so that I couldn’t pick a paragraph-long excerpt that made sense out of context.

Shortly after January 6, I exchanged a few emails with Robert Paxton, author of The Anatomy of Fascism, asking him his opinion about what happened. A long time skeptic of the idea that Trump was a fascist phenomenon, the events of January 6 appeared to have changed his mind. In particular, he made the comparison—made by others in subsequent days—between the January 6 riots and the attempt by far-right leagues and military veterans to storm the Chamber of Deputies in Paris on February 6 1934.

This comparison appealed to me immediately, because I’ve thought for a long time the French Third Republic was a more interesting and productive place to look for parallels to the present than the Weimar Republic or post-World War I Italy.

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Reading (and Listening) Material – July 22, 2021

Short List

Drained-pool politics — if “they” can also have it, then no one can — helps explain why America still doesn’t have a truly universal health care system, a child care system, a decent social safety net. McGhee, the former president of the think tank Demos, offers a devastating tour of American public policy, and she shows how drained-pool politics have led to less for everyone, not just their intended targets.

California is facing limits, and the wrenching process of learning to live within them will test its leaders and redefine the state. The staggering reality of 2020 has demanded a reckoning: to ignore the urgency will condemn Californians to decades of pain, a burden that will fall most heavily on those least equipped to cope.

What we have come up with is a 40-minute panoramic take on Jan. 6, the most complete visual depiction of the Capitol riot to date. In putting it together, we gained critical insights into the character and motivation of rioters by experiencing the events of the day often through their own words and video recordings. We found evidence of members of extremist groups inciting others to riot and assault police officers. And we learned how Donald J. Trump’s own words resonated with the mob in real time as they staged the attack.

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Reading Material – July 3, 2021

Short List

By 2040, the San Joaquin Valley is projected to lose at least 535,000 acres of agricultural production. That’s more than a tenth of the area farmed.

And if the drought perseveres and no new water can be found, nearly double that amount of land is projected to go idle, with potentially dire consequences for the nation’s food supply. California’s $50 billion agricultural sector supplies two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts and more than a third of America’s vegetables

Klein:  Of late, I’ve been obsessing over a single question: What if political systems, in the United States and internationally, fail to curb climate change?… That is not to say there is no reason for optimism or hope… And so we convened this panel of climate experts with different backgrounds — technological, literary, political, academic — to try to reconcile the reality of our political progress with the scale of the emergency.

Today, utilities earn income based not on how well they serve residents, but on how expensive it is to run their companies. As expenses for maintaining the grid go up, utilities regularly ask the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) for approval to increase customer rates to help cover costs. Regulators usually approve these requests…  Since 2018, Eversource has received an additional $95 million in revenue from cost increases to Massachusetts residents – without any requirement that the utility give them any additional benefits in return.

My favorite class to teach has been Classics of International Relations. It is a great book course, and its underlying premise has been that one needs to read the entire text of a classic to properly appreciate it… I have taught this course for close to a quarter-century, and it has evolved in those years. My first syllabus started with Thucydides, ended with Thomas Schelling, and only had dead white men in between. That did not seem particularly extraordinary in the late ’90s. In the ensuing decades, however, students began to ask about the possibility of non-Western classics. Also, maybe some things written by women?

The students had a valid point, and so I adapted… This diversification of my syllabus neither waters down standards nor stultifies class discussions. My students have found plenty to debate about Ibn Khaldûn and Tickner as well as Thucydides, Kant, Lenin and Carl Schmitt. One of the goals of the course is to make my students intellectually (but not personally) uncomfortable. These selections do an excellent job of that.

Covenant nationalism comes from the self-consciousness of the Northeastern Calvinists: “Emerging from New England, it ultimately sought to constitute all of America as an offshoot of the Puritan experience…”… What I find so interesting about the Hannah-Jones essay, and why I think it was so upsetting to many, was its implicit participation and reversal of this Covenant tradition of American nationalism…. I think the issue for so many people is that [Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay] cleaves so closely the sources of American political imagination but just inverts them.

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Reading Material – June 18, 2021

Top of the List

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has rightly recognized the rise of authoritarianism as a major threat to democracy. The primary conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, however, is taking place not between countries but within them—including in the United States. And if democracy is going to win out, it will do so not on a traditional battlefield but by demonstrating that democracy can actually deliver a better quality of life for people than authoritarianism can.

What is meant by mutualism and cooperativism, and why should they be understood as standing distinct from the usual capitalist routines of our economy? The simplest answer is that any organization of economic activity that has woven egalitarian and communitarian practices into their daily operations—whether in terms of ownership, production, decision-making, pricing, wage scales, distribution, or anything else—is, to one degree or another, pursuing a path which gives place to something other than profit-maximization and consumer-individuation, and thus is departing from the ideal capitalist form. That doesn’t mean that profit and consumption never matter to communes or co-ops or credit unions or anything else crowd-sourced; the human desires and pressures that give rise to markets can’t ever, and shouldn’t ever, be ignored… “Private property is an aberration, though under the conditions of fallen human society…a necessary arrangement.”

It’s surreal to see your models become real life.

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Collected reading from the past few months – May 23, 2021

If the cultural landscape becomes too different from the actual landscape, then we will make practical errors that will be destructive to the actual landscape or of ourselves, or both.

-Wendell Berry, “Two Minds”

Top few:

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Catching up on reading – March 27, 2021

Some noteworthy pieces from the past couple months:

Every sector of modern life drips with the language of innovation. Technological progress, disruptive innovation, and economic growth remain unquestioned, continually parroted by entrepreneurs, city planners, educators, and countless others. In The Innovation Delusion, Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell challenge the entire innovation narrative and make a strong case that the mundane reality of maintenance is actually what sustains economies, schools, homes, and communities in the long run.

Modernity imperils another set of virtues… I suppose I’d call them the yeoman virtues. I have in mind the qualities we associate with life in the early American republic—the positive qualities, of course, not the qualities that enabled slavery and genocide. In 1820, 80 percent of the American population was self-employed. Protestant Christianity, local self-government, and agrarian and artisanal producerism fostered a culture of self-control, self-reliance, integrity, diligence, and neighborliness—the American ethos that Tocqueville praised and that Lincoln argued was incompatible with large-scale slave-owning. Today that ethos survives only in political speeches and Hollywood movies. In a society based on precarious employment and feverish consumption, on debt, financial trickery, endless manipulation, and incessant distraction, such a sensibility seems archaic.

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