Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Morning Read

My morning reading includes far too many articles about Trump.  He appoints cabinet members and advisors from the monied segment of American economic society (not unique, of course).  His conversation is riddled with exaggerations, and he lacks a sense of accountability for past statements or actions.  His speech emboldens those who view government as an arrogant, useless element, an impediment to their ability to succeed.  His chosen method of primary communication --  Twitter, with its reliance on short abbreviated text -- only highlights his inability to handle complex issues and his lack of concrete policy beliefs aside from his own self-interest.

I go screaming to the sports pages to find solace in baseball news.  There, the articles are about multi-year, multi-million-dollar contracts being given to men who may pitch in 60 innings during the coming season…..Umm.

Just can’t avoid news that has ‘accumulated wealth’ at its core.

From “Social Media’s Globe-Shaking Power” by Farhad Manjoo, NYTimes, November 16, 2016

Why is this all happening now? Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University who has studied the effects of social networks, suggested a few reasons.
One is the ubiquity of Facebook, which has reached a truly epic scale. Last month the company reported that about 1.8 billion people now log on to the service every month. Because social networks feed off the various permutations of interactions among people, they become strikingly more powerful as they grow. With about a quarter of the world’s population now on Facebook, the possibilities are staggering.

“When the technology gets boring, that’s when the crazy social effects get interesting,” Mr. Shirky said.

One of those social effects is what Mr. Shirky calls the “shifting of the Overton Window,” a term coined by the researcher Joseph P. Overton to describe the range of subjects that the mainstream media deems publicly acceptable to discuss.

From about the early 1980s until the very recent past, it was usually considered unwise for politicians to court views deemed by most of society to be out of the mainstream, things like overt calls to racial bias (there were exceptions, of course, like the Willie Horton ad). But the internet shifted that window.

“White ethnonationalism was kept at bay because of pluralistic ignorance,” Mr. Shirky said. “Every person who was sitting in their basement yelling at the TV about immigrants or was willing to say white Christians were more American than other kinds of Americans — they didn’t know how many others shared their views.”

Thanks to the internet, now each person with once-maligned views can see that he’s not alone. And when these people find one another, they can do things — create memes, publications and entire online worlds that bolster their worldview, and then break into the mainstream. The groups also become ready targets for political figures like Mr. Trump, who recognize their energy and enthusiasm and tap into it for real-world victories.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Michael Sandel is a professor of Government at Harvard, and has written extensively about the relationships between ethics, government, economics and justice.  His latest book is What Money Can't Buy:  The Moral Limits of Markets.  His primary assertion is that America no longer operates in a market economy, where capitalistic methods are just the driving force of the economic strata of our lives; but that we now live in a market society, where markets are the primary means for achieving the public good -- and government does not hold the key to prosperity and freedom.  He has many examples of economic principles being inappropriately applied to other elements of the social fabric, such as health, education, and even government itself.

This belief in market triumphalism is playing out in spades these days.  A large segment of the American populace views government as a hindrance to 'the American dream', that ephemeral notion that everyone has an equal opportunity to rise in economic status, and those that cannot succeed just do not have the personal initiative to do so.  Such thinking believes that government only gets in the way and needs to be scaled back -- the 'us and them' that defines 'us' as the people and 'them' as government, as if government were not an element of the social fabric.

Sandel highlights the potential failings of this structure.  Best thing is just to read the book, but I quote some of the summary below.

In addition to debating the meaning of this or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live.....Beyond the damage it does to particular goods, commercialism erodes commonality.  The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another.  We see this when we go to a baseball game and gaze up at the skyboxes, or down from them, as the case may be.  The disappearance of the class-mixing experience once found at the ballpark represents a loss not only for those looking up but also for those looking down.

Something similar has been happening throughout our society.  At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives.  We live and work and ship and play in different places.  Our children go to different schools.  You might call it the skyboxification of American life.  It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life.  What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life.  For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.
                                Michael Sandel, What Money Can't Buy

Sunday, March 17, 2013


‘All this time I was leading another life
and it is clear now which was the shadow and which
was the substance…’
                         Gerald Stern, ‘Crosshatching’

I have memories that make me cringe.  They run the gamut from acts to statements, from truly harmful to simply stupid. Some get dug up from childhood, some may have occurred in the past few days.

Throwing dirt in a brother’s face.  Hateful things said to a loved one. Flunking a test because I didn’t study.  Failing to show up to meet someone when I said I would be there.  Dumb things I did as an exchange student.  Procrastinating on a task to the point where someone else has to pick it up.

These memories pop up at the oddest times, and for no particular reason.  My brain must be lazy and it wants to throw ugly reminders over the wall.  Or they show up in nightmares, with people and places and timeframes mixed up, out of order, or thrown in with the latest movie themes just for the dramatics.

These are long shadows that trail us on our path, glued forever to our soles – and souls. 

But they don’t have to stay attached.  Certainly, we carry our blemishes, bruises and mistakes with us.  They become part of who we are as characters, as personalities, as people.  We learn from them, we try not to replicate them.

And we try to overwhelm them with the positive aspects of a life worth living.

Stern’s poem steers away from the negative theory of such shadows:

‘…though I particularly hate the word
shadow to describe it since a shadow
itself is a substance and shadows are lovely and stretch
across my lawn at six in the evening and they
take different forms—when it comes to painting—and one
is a mass in the foreground, one is a shake of likeness,
simply defined, a true state of color’

Rather than the black hole of bad memories, I prefer this latter description of shadows and their use.  Stretched across the lawn in the rising sun.  The statue of a likeness in a true state of color.  An image simply defined.

Friend Jane likes to take shadow pictures.  She places a group of people with the sun to their backs and takes a photo of the shape created by the shadow on the ground.  In a photograph, the shadow becomes a piece of whimsy, a straightforward representation of our shape in the sun, reflected in the grass. 

That’s a better image than the blackness of bad memories.