Saturday, February 24, 2018

Too Much to Say About Guns

I'm glad to see the Parkland, Florida, students having an effect on the intractable gun debate in this country.

Their success exists in a context where other recent youth-led movements (that [coincidentally] were led by people of color) have been forgotten. And in the midst of absurd calls to arm teachers, when we already know that too many school staff and in-school police treat black students like criminals. Which will go even better if the staff have guns, right? Imagine what that looks like in a stand-your-ground state.

Meanwhile, cartoonist Matt Bors at thenib.com takes on another aspect of the recent shooting:


Remember Tamir Rice? He was 12, with a toy gun, in an open-carry state.

Check out this thread by Bree Newsome (the woman who took down the stars-and-bars from the South Carolina state house flag pole) on the historical roots of all this.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Naming and Describing the "Alt-Libs"

I’ve been thinking off and on about a certain set of people, generally white men, though not all, who I agree with on some things but find wrong a bunch of other important issues. I’ve mentioned before my dislike of Jonathan Haidt’s stance on microaggressions, for instance. Steven Pinker falls into this category as well. Right now a lot of people I respect are talking about the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson in the same way.

Today I saw a very long Twitter thread by Michael Oman Reagan, an anthropology Ph.D. candidate in Newfoundland, about this topic. I've lightly edited it for clarity and removed links to supporting articles (see his full series of tweets for more).

What do we call them? They’re Anti-Trump but often islamophobic, not U.S. right-wing per se, but religiously capitalist, anti-social justice, not all New Atheists, but some... They self-describe as Classical Liberals, Cultural Libertarians, etc. For now I'm going with the alt-libs.

While there are plenty of explicitly right-wing groupies following people like Jordan Peterson, it's true that most aren't alt-right. The majority are a more insidious alt-lib population who say they dislike the alt-right but talk pejoratively about "SJWs" [social justice warriors, a pejorative term used by both the Right and what this writer calls alt-libs].

Alt-libs make appeals to mythologies of Liberalism, the enlightenment, science, and reason to decry "postmodern cultural marxism" in the name of truth. They're not the alt-right, they're more slippery. Instead of the average 1950s bigot, they're the average ’50s bigoted academic. Alt-libs promote what they see as centrism, but it's right-wing regressive, reactionary ideology. They oppose any mode of dealing with history, colonization, appropriation, etc. They reject multiple voices. There is one truth, and the path to it is white men in laboratories. Alt-libs justify misogyny, racism, war, capitalism, etc. with appeals to myths about early humans. They think eternal life is around the corner. They don't like white supremacy, but they practice a kind of ethno-cultural supremacy through their myths about "western civilization."

What are alt-libs reading and listening to and following? Peterson, Pinker, [Richard] Dawkins, [Camille] Paglia. They like the idea that they're drawing on a grand tradition of academic research and knowledge but simultaneously position themselves as opposed to the new "academic orthodoxy." Alt-libs think "truth" is threatened by discussions of racism, sexism, islamophobia, transphobia etc. They think movements for justice like feminism prevent them from revealing how things "really are" using "objective data" if only they were allowed to confirm their prejudices.

Despite the fact that they decry today's university, alt-lib ideology is marked by nostalgia for a "simpler time" when academics could work unquestioned by the people impacted by that work. They want to return to a time of untroubled expertise, unaccountable, unethical research.

Eurocentrism is the foundation of alt-lib scholarship and their notion of "civilization" and "progress." They want "free speech" to mean the freedom to claim the world is better off because Europeans colonized it without anyone bringing history to bear in critiquing that myth. The alt-lib ideology doesn't want to hear about genocide, slavery, and the ongoing violences of colonialism around the world, they want everyone to say "thank you, Europe for science." They don't want to learn the often obscured, global, non-European histories of knowledge.

The alt-lib sees themselves as living in a dangerous time. Not because of figures like Trump, or structural oppression that has always been there, but because of concern for the welfare of marginalized people's lived experiences. They see that concern as toxic, deadly to truth. The alt-lib shares the spectre of the "safe space" with the alt-right, and loves to decry "sensitivity" to language. The alt-lib sense of danger also emerges from their own sensitivity to language, their own desire for a safe regressive space, their nostalgia for the status quo.

The alt-lib is outraged by idea of language change — like right-wing culture wars of the past, they long for a stabilized, prescribed, and standardized English of the 1950s. [ed. note: this is not true in any simple sense of Steven Pinker.] But that image of language is also a myth, ahistorical and constructed like their histories of knowledge.

On the one hand everything is biology, evolution, nature. And so culture, for the alt-libs, emerges pre-ordained out of a greater-than-human universe of truths and facts. Fixity of categories inspires religious devotion, that these categories were created by humans is denied. Humanity is positioned as both entirely a product of forces explained by science, and yet something that must be overcome to understand nature. The path to salvation for the alt-lib appears as an objectivity machine, gathering pure data, unadulterated by messy, unnatural culture.

This contradictory positioning provides a template for every alt-lib appeal to objectivity. They say they want to "remove bias" from things while at same time refusing to acknowledge any of the data demonstrating a multiplicity of biases built into the structure of all fields.

...some alt-libs will even talk about intersectionality and feminism, but underneath it's the same bigotry in the form of flowery fascism. They call themselves liberals, classical liberals, or cultural liberals, but make no mistake: This re-branding of alt-right bigotry works to differentiate themselves from the torch-carrying white supremacists in the news. They're gravitating toward academics who can cloak the hate in appeals to science and reason. It isn't new, but it's particularly dangerous now.

If anything, the focus on behaviour instead of content has taught the alt-right a valuable lesson from American history: racism, misogyny, and other bigotry is perfectly acceptable to wealthy white Americans as long as it's done politely and respectfully. This is a deadly turn.

There's a strange trend shared by the alt-right and alt-lib to adopt the language of the people they brand as enemies, and then use it cynically to attack them. But the more they do this the more they actually seem to be using that language seriously but without understanding. Example: I just saw someone who identifies as a "progressive left-libertarian" and "Green Party member" accusing people of having a "post-structuralist hyper-relative view of truth" for critiquing GamerGate while arguing for polyvocality in narratives about LGBTQIA community. Example: Alt-lib and right-wing ideologues invented a category of left-wing enemies called "postmodern Neo-Marxists" and claim they are "secretly conspiring to destroy the world by promoting social justice." Which is one of the most postmodern things I've ever seen.

A key aspect of regressive rage driving the alt-lib movement: It's no longer possible to be who they want to be, or think how they want to think because the myths on which those identities and theories were built have been revealed as products of society, even in their own circles. Alt-libs know they can never return to their mythical idealized era when histories of knowledge and power were only written by people like them. The very foundation of their mourning for that time is premised on an acknowledgement that the rest of the world has moved on.

Even neoconservatives and neoliberals acknowledge, through usually meaningless performances of faux respect, many aspects of the previously oppressed histories of humanity and the planet. The alt-lib and alt-right movements reject even that insincere posture of acknowledgement.

In this way, the alt-lib and alt-right movements both seek a return to pre-Boasian ideas of culture. To a hierarchy of identities, cultures, societies, and civilizations that was popular in British and U.S. anthropology of the 1800s. That's how regressive they are.

While the alt-libs and alt-right want to return to the social organization of the 1950s in the U.S. and Canada, they argue for this organization based on 150-year-old ideas that were long ago debunked and rejected by a majority of the fields that study humanity. The alt-libs are effectively the climate change deniers of the sciences of humanity and human history, a small minority of quacks who insist that human cultural and social change and difference should be explained just like Euro-American researchers did in Victorian times.

However, because the alt-libs and alt-right argue for such outdated ideas about human society and behaviour, they can't help but be products themselves of more recent culture, and as a result they often use ideas that undermine the very arguments they make.

Many alt-lib heroes and prominent figures have records of being sexual harassers and abusers. In academia we all know how often they escape accountability, and how fame and networks help them do it. How many other alt-lib stars are harassers who just haven't been exposed yet? There'sJordan Peterson (who admits that he has been accused "three times during (his) career of sexual impropriety" and Lawrence Krauss [who was recently named as a serial harasser.] Dawkins has defended sexual harassers. Pinker defend has defended sexual harassers. Christopher Hitchens defended sexual harassers.

In addition, and perhaps even more important, much of the alt-lib produced scholarship is devoted to implicitly claiming scientific support for the structural oppression and misogyny that leads to sexual harassment. Especially in the area of "Evolutionary Psychology."

For example, Geoffrey Miller on Damore's "Google Memo" writes: "Its key claims about sex differences are especially well-supported by large volumes of research across species, cultures, and history." Miller continues, with what might be the most precise summations of the alt-lib philosophy of society ever written, and one of the greatest errors in their thinking: "Equality or diversity. You can’t have both."

Equality vs. Diversity, Men vs. Women, Black vs. White, these binaries shape alt-lib thinking because of specific intellectual histories, myths, hierarchies, and explanations that alt-libs draw their ideas from, which are often the same ones that much of the alt-right use. You can see this underlying structure of binaries popping up everywhere across the alt-lib and alt-right horizon, like the jagged edges of a bio/psych-structuralist iceberg peeking above the waves in a churning sea of regressive brine.

As a rallying cry, nothing could better serve alt-libs ideological aims than "there are only two genders!" — it's an ideal summation of their assertion of binaries as deriving from natural laws of the universe, and their myth of the dominance of those laws over society/culture/id. From "there are only two genders" you can extrapolate almost every other position they hold: essential genetic/biological differences between distinct races, essential genetic/biological differences in abilities/roles of men/women, truth/untruth, science/arts, right/wrong, etc.

Some people find alt-lib scholarship so appealing precisely because it validates their existing bigotry as "natural" or "a product of evolution" or as anything other than a material history of oppression reproduced through their refusal to address it.

So, what makes this kind of public (sometimes) academic discourse such a threat to the future that it's worth even worrying about? And why should scientists, STEM folks, social scientists, et al. be looking at what they're doing and refuting it? Here are a few issues. Alt-libs claim that they are the *only* people doing science correctly. For them everyone else is biased, everyone else has bad methods, everyone else is caught up in the "postmodern neo-Marxist" nexus of untruth that is ruining what used to be good about academia.

As part of this belief alt-libs are actively engaged, right now, in ongoing campaigns to actually destroy all social science and humanities departments in universities. Peterson: “a huge chunk of the humanities and the social sciences have turned into an indoctrination cult.” Why are they so angry that they're lashing out at their colleagues in the university and trying to destroy entire departments? Because research is moving beyond the kind of bigotry-reinforcing work they do. For the first time, people are finally saying no.

This is another reason STEM, social science, and humanities researchers should be concerned about the alt-lib movement. It wants to set research back decades, erasing all of the work done since then that happens to undermine alt-lib work.

Many alt-lib claims feel intuitive to the people listening. But they're not based on something essential, natural, or determined about humanity. They're based on bias which has become normalized as "common sense" which is a product of history, society, and culture.

This is what makes the alt-lib agenda such a threat to the future: It often aims to re-codify as truth a whole collection of ideas that we already worked through and determined were not based on evidence, but on the fact that science is a human activity, a human process.
I know it's a lot, and I don't even like this name Reagan has come up with, but I want to save his words for later because they contain a lot of analysis I may want to refer to later. So into the filing cabinet it goes.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Indecent Ad (Not What It Sounds Like)

A friend told me about a play, called Indecent, that's opening at the Guthrie. It sounded like something I would want to see, and today's story about it in the Star Tribune reinforced that impression.

And then I saw this ad for it:


And knew I had to see it. What a simple way to intrigue the audience and stand out on a newspaper page. Well done!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Long Game

Today's Star Tribune carried a commentary called Meanwhile, in foreign affairs: why Russia meddled. It's a good companion to my post from a few days ago, The oil behind the man behind the curtain.

The writer, Jim Lenfestey, is a former editorial writer for the Strib, with a liberal perspective (not quite what I would consider progressive, based on his past writings). He covers some of the same ground as my Twitter sources, recounting how Russia wants to sell its oil despite climate change. His key point is that Russia began to move on the U.S. election in 2014, just after sanctions were imposed in response to the Crimea invasion.

Who would Russia want as president, if removing the sanctions is their main goal? Well gosh, surely not Hillary Clinton. Sowing discord in general was also a major goal, I would guess, but Lenfestey doesn't talk about that.

What he does say, which I've never thought of before, is that Russia doesn't just want to sell its oil to make money, despite climate change. It wants to sell its oil to further climate change, because it sees itself as a winner in a warmed Earth. And on a simplistic level, given some of the projections, they're right:


(I wrote about that map a few days ago.)

Look at all that nice green, arable land across Russia! Plus they get navigable northern ports and control of more open water. As Lenfestey puts it,

Oil-rich Russia sees itself a winner as the climate changes and thousands of miles of northern coastline melt. To it, stopping the sanctions and the transition to noncarbon sources of energy is a double win.
Enemy isn't a strong enough word for Vladimir Putin.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Way Out of No Way

I've known the Sweet Honey in the Rock song "Oughta Be a Woman," with lyrics from a poem by June Jordan, since I was 22. I don't know that I ever read the words on the liner notes of the album because they always seemed perfectly clear in their beautiful voices:

Oughta Be a Woman
June Jordan, 1936 - 2002

Washing the floors to send you to college
Staying at home so you can feel safe
What do you think is the soul of her knowledge
What do you think that makes her feel safe

Biting her lips and lowering her eyes
To make sure there’s food on the table
What do you think would be her surprise
If the world was as willing as she’s able

Hugging herself in an old kitchen chair
She listens to your hurt and your rage
What do you think she knows of despair
What is the aching of age

The fathers, the children, the brothers
Turn to her and everybody white turns to her
What about her turning around
Alone in the everyday light

There oughta be a woman can break
Down, sit down, break down, sit down
Like everybody else call it quits on Mondays
Blues on Tuesdays, sleep until Sunday
Down, sit down, break down, sit down

A way outa no way is flesh outa flesh
Courage that cries out at night
A way outa no way is flesh outa flesh
Bravery kept outa sight
A way outa no way is too much to ask
Too much of a task for any one woman
(Listen to the song on YouTube.) 

It's an ode to black women, and black mothers especially. It has always been resonant, but hearing it yesterday, the lines "Biting her lips and lowering her eyes/To make sure there's food on the table" called my attention more than usual, thinking of recent attention to sexual harassment and assault among women workers.

And then at the end, I realized I had been misunderstanding that final refrain for 36 years. "A way out of no way." Somehow, white woman that I am, I had always heard that as "Away out of no way" and just thought it was poetic language, but no: it's about making a way out of no way, a common phrase in African-American life, descriptive of black people's necessary way of being.

White people, we know nothing about black people, even when we have put some effort into reading and listening.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Oil Behind the Man Behind the Curtain

Meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus said on Twitter today,

There is no way to explain the rise of Trump or his administration's malignant connection to Russia without looking at the oil industry's desire to keep making profits at the expense of planetary well-being. Climate politics — and institutionalized climate denial — is perhaps the primary reason the world is at it is now. These people are so selfish and greedy for fossil fuel money that they put every single one of us — for dozens of generations into the future — in peril.
Holthaus tweeted that in the context of a recent Rex Tillerson interview about his ties with Vladimir Putin. Around the same time, someone else I follow (not sure who) retweeted a May 2017 thread by Alex Gilbert, an energy and climate policy analyst. Gilbert had this to say:
The political news the last two weeks was crazy and overwhelming. But finally a picture is emerging. It’s not pretty.

To start, its helpful to understand that what's happening in the U.S. is a result of international high politics. Some context: In the mid-2000s, growing global oil demand and stagnant supply led to oil prices spiking severely. Between 2007 and 2014, with oil prices usually above $100/barrel, oil exporters became over reliant on oil surpluses. In 2013, Russia exported more than $350 billion in oil and natural gas, more than 2/3 of total exports.

Meanwhile, the shale revolution began. From 2008-2015, U.S. oil and natural gas production exploded, increasing about 50%. Critically, the U.S. pushed fracking and liquid natural gas exports as a solution to Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil imports.

In 2014, an inflection point arose for oil: U.S. oversupply was evident and oil exporters were too dependent to cut production. In six months, oil futures dropped from >$110/barrel to barely $40/barrel. OPEC and Russian profits evaporated. While the effects were felt in all major petrostates, they were most acute in Russia due to exceptionally unfortunate timing.

In 2004, then Ukrainian Prime Minister Yanukovych had an election overturned due to fraud. Shortly after he turned to Paul Manafort. Over the next ten years Manafort helped rebuild Yanukovych’s pro-Russian party. Elected President in 2010 with support from ethnically Russian east Ukraine, Yanukovych led a corrupt regime. 2012 Parliamentary elections are now suspected of having significant electoral fraud (bribes to election officials have been identified). Current evidence now indicates Manafort directly benefited financially from that corruption

In late 2013, after years of negotiation and despite promises, Yanukovich decided not to join the European Union. Instead, he wanted to increase economic and security ties with Russia. Street protests erupted in Kiev (ethnically Ukrainian).
From there, I imagine Gilbert went on to describe the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the geopolitical dilemma that presented, but Twitter has cut off my access to this nine-month-old series of tweets.

But you get the idea of how this is all related to oil prices, and oil as an economic basis. And gives one idea of the kind of turmoil that we’ll see if we (when we) turn from an oil-based energy model to something that can sustain human civilization, as we must.

It ain't gonna be pretty.



Sunday, February 18, 2018

A New Antibiotic on the Way?

Among all the worries of our current era, there's one that's so far only a low-grade nag for me: the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I don't let myself worry about it too much, but I know it's out there and I don't fully appreciate how bad it will be if resistance becomes common.

So here's one little bit of hopeful news: In soil-dwelling bacteria, scientists find a new drug to fight drug-resistant superbugs.

Malacidin (great name, by the way) breaks down the cell walls of MRSA and cleared the infection within a day in animal trials. If malacidin works out, it will be the first new class of antibiotics since 1987. And probably the first to prevent development of resistance.

How it was identified is also interesting: scientists knew that calcium dependence was a weakness in bacteria, so they were looking for ways to disrupt calcium. They fine-tuned their search to the DNA signature of calcium dependence, making it quicker to find in the soils they sampled.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Enough

From today's letters and commentaries in the Star Tribune. First, two letters.

Have hunters had enough?

OK, hunters — I mean real hunters. Sportsmen. Not wannabe, gun-toting NRA members who are confused about the use of nonwartime firearms. Not uneducated people who don’t understand that the NRA’s start was for firearm safety. Or that the Second Amendment was to protect ourselves against government militia. Not about protecting those who want to kill their brothers and sisters. It’s time to stand up. It’s time to give up protecting the right of a 19-year-old deranged punk to procure an AR-15 assault rifle with abundant ammunition to kill more children.

I’m sick. Sick and tired of your belligerent NRA rhetoric to protect something a real hunter doesn’t need and doesn’t use. To you, the NRA, using my name and passing out the worst sporting magazine in America, American Hunter. Give it up. You want to ruin our heritage of outdoor sports? Stay stupid. Don’t give an inch to resolve a plague that kills children. You aren’t a hunter. You’re a dinosaur. The NRA is bringing us hunters down to protect deranged gun freaks.

Quit using my name as your shield. Save our rights to use firearms to hunt and shoot a round of trap.

David Larson, Plymouth, a volunteer firearm safety instructor, gun club member, deer camp huntsmaster and grandfather.
Other than Larson thinking the Second Amendment was about protecting against the government (rather than suppressing revolts by enslaved people), everything he says is right on.

The second letter is also from a hunter:
Most citizens are very upset about the mass shootings in our country. I am 76 and a lifelong Minnesota hunter. I use a semiautomatic deer rifle and semiautomatic shotgun. “Semiautomatic” means that it fires once every time the trigger is pulled. My deer rifle clip holds four cartridges and one in the chamber, for a total of five. The rifle does not hold more cartridges because the manufacturer (Remington) has determined that there is no practical need for more than that for most deer hunting. My shotgun also holds five shells, but Minnesota law for duck hunting requires that I put in a “plug” that allows only three shells in order to limit the killing of ducks. If I get caught hunting ducks without the plug, I get fined or worse.

My point is that if we limit the number of cartridges either for practical purposes in hunting or to protect ducks, surely we can limit the number of cartridges in a clip in semiautomatic weapons. I propose that we have a federal law prohibiting the private possession or sale of large-capacity clips. This is what mainly distinguishes an “assault weapon” from a semiautomatic hunting rifle. This law would not render a semiautomatic assault weapon useless to the owner. He merely would have to buy a smaller clip and destroy or turn in the larger clip, perhaps with a remuneration from the government. This would slightly impact some hobbyists and target shooters, but that seems a small price to pay to help protect our citizens from mass shootings. This obviously would not stop all killings, but it would require the shooter to reload, giving people more time to escape or overcome the shooter.

David Fulkerson, Chanhassen
Finally, I stopped to mourn over one particular fact given in a commentary by Twin Cities physician Chris Johnson:
there were fewer than 4,000 AR-15-type weapons registered in [all of Canada]. In 2013, the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimated that there were between 5 million and 9 million such weapons in circulation in the U.S.
Even 4,000 of these weapons seems like more than necessary. Five to nine million... I just can't grasp that.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

What a Dollar Buys

Digging through a drawer, I came across this dollar bill:


I don't remember when I got it, so it must have been a while ago, but it's as pertinent today as every, unfortunately.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Restroom Dialogue

Most restaurants restrooms are somewhat generic. If you're lucky, they're clean and functional. They're not a place you go for art or even decor, really. The operators of the businesses are trusting their customers to not steal or trash the place, and that tends to keep the removable objects to a minimum.

With that as context, here's something I recently saw on the wall inside one of the restrooms in a small restaurant/coffeeshop in Saint Paul:


It's a board, about four feet in width. Note the handwriting five lines from the top on the upper right side. Here's a close-up of that part:


Finally, there are two other, identical signs attached on the left and right sides of the board that look like this:


(A computer-generated sign that reads: Dear Righteous Vandal, I am all for freedom and everyone having an opinion. However, I pay thousands of dollars per month for this space, not you. Inserting your opinion by permanent marker on my property and in my space is is not only cowardly (hiding in a public bathroom) but illegal. So you virtuous vandal and "child of your mom," I am sure she would be just as disappointed in you and baffled by your selfish choice as I am. Seeing as you enjoy writing, you can make the check out to [name] for the $170 piece of art you ruined. I will wait.)

Needless to say, I was a bit surprised when I saw this. I actually saw the orange zigzag frame first, then read the "dear righteous vandal" text, and then finally noticed the handwriting on the larger text.

I had never noticed the four-foot board before, and I personally would not consider a bunch of Times Roman text set at a fairly hard-to-read width and printed on a board as artwork, per se. But, no, I would not — at least at my current age — consider writing on a sign like this in a restroom, even if I disagreed with the sentiment. (Well, maybe if it was fascist or something, but I like to think I wouldn't be in that restroom to start with.)

At the same time, this interaction between a proprietor and a customer makes for a unique bit of art all on its own, an installation about the nature of private property and free expression.

It made for a thoughtful visit to the restroom.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Four Degrees, Six Meters

Two climate change thoughts for today.

From Inside Climate News: the last time Earth was as warm as it is now was about 125,000 years ago. Sea level was 6 meters higher then than it is today. The story focuses on the acceleration of sea-level rise. And that's at our current level of warming.

Which makes this map of what a 4°C-warmer world will look like — originally published in New Scientist in 2009 — newly relevant:


Clicking the image will let you see it larger, but if it's still not large enough there, check it out on kottke.org.

I notice that Minnesota is on the desert fringe. All of China and almost all of the U.S., India, South America, and Africa are basically uninhabitable. And people are growing food in part of Antarctica. Imagine the migration of billions of people (and probably mass deaths) that would happen in this scenario.

Why is anything else we humans are dealing with important?

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Lament

Here's something we can agree on:


If there was ever a post that fits into my Life in the Age of the Interweb category, this is it.