Middlemarch and Civil Society. Chapters 23-42

Occasionally, in literature, good men appear. I am thinking of Martin Cunningham, in Ulysses, who always had something kind to say on behalf of Leopold Bloom. And here in Middlemarch I encountered another one.

The good Caleb Garth, whose kind nature was exploited by the n’er-do-well spendthrift and gambler Fred Vincy, who impoverished his family and expunged their savings–Garth is offered his old job back, as the manager of the farmland for the local gentry, and he has this to say:

“…it’s a fine thing to come to a man when he’s seen into the nature of business; to have a chance of getting a bit of the country into good fettle, as they say, and putting men into the right way with their farming, and getting a bit of good contriving and solid building done that those who are living and those who come after will be the better for. I’d sooner have it than a fortune. I hold it the most honorable work that is. … it’s a great gift of God, Susan. “

“That It is, Caleb,” said his wife, with answering fervor. “And it will be a blessing to your children to have had a father who did such work: the father whose good work remains though his name may be forgotten.”

It is because criminals are occupying the highest offices in the nation, because the gangrene of corruption has spread to the furthest corners of America, because we are so endlessly subjected to the most repugnant appalling and reprehensible behavior–that this stood out so much for me: the modest but deep satisfaction that comes from honest work, giving much and leaving things better than they were found. 

Middlemarch is the story of a town, a community, a civil society, and its various personalities, their struggles with each other and themselves, and their eventual fates. Their responses to cultural change, the introduction of new technologies and scientific discoveries. The perspectives of both maids and Lords. And one of the terrible things I realized as I read this book is that, in America, we no longer seem to be living in a civil society. We’re being told that we don’t have it, and can’t.

In a civil society, there’s a sense of trust, fellowship, and solidarity. Even with deep disagreement, and political conflict–which are unfolding in Middlemarch in these chapters–all townspeople and members of the civil society, from the snobbiest Baron, to the filthiest farmhand, grant dignity, humanity and self worth to one another.  Discussion, irritation and exasperation results from differing points of view–but not hatred, contempt, violence or dismissal. The book shows arguments between opposed parties that are not inflammatory. Respect prevails. Any position counter to that of another, any dispute, any selfishness is superseded by that person’s membership in this community, town and society.

Which is still mostly the case in the United States, and in spite of our differences, we mostly agree. So why don’t we bring public conversations back around to the temper and mood of conversations the people are having in Middlemarch? Where has our civil society gone? How do we get to a Middlemarch of our own?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nice White Parents and Point Omega

Nice White Parents. I listened to the first three episodes of this new podcast about how a Brooklyn school serving mostly black and brown students was harmed by the arrival of the titular Nice White Parents, who flexed their privilege, proceeded to fundraise $50,000 (compared to a prior raise by the PTA of $2,000) and whose kids provided some truly squirmworthy comments. About how school integration may not be so desirable after all, how schools keep failing to support nonwhite kids, and how entrenched inequalities persist, and might be eradicated. This will be a five part series, and has already met with some dissension and controversy, but I am curious to hear the next episodes and see where it goes. Whether or not you agree with the portrayal of the issues or the conclusions, it’s a fascinating listen.

Point Omega. When reading Don DeLillo novels, I often feel as if I have entered a cold, white, vast, fluorescent-lit space, like a data center, interstellar terminal, or morgue. Point Omega was no different. Beautifully structured though it was, a brief 5 chapters, it was set in both the desert and the mind–unforgiving, spare places beyond time’s horizon. We were promised a glimpse of a bighorn ram, which never materialized, and though there were sunsets and occasional glimpses of earthly loveliness, human connection was absent and human relations were reduced to voyeurism, stalking, staring, predation and self-absorption. Who is and who is not a DeLillo Fan? I try, repeatedly, but am not.

Vocabulary loss and the narrowing of understanding

My blog posts get a “D” for readability as graded by this web site, because my sentences are too long and the vocabulary I use is too advanced. Turns out I am writing at a college level, and that is, according to this article, a cause for alarm. According to the site, I’m limiting my readership.

I ran my blog posts through this analysis after ending up on an article about how the most successful writers–by successful they mean getting on a best-seller list–write for an audience reading at an elementary or middle school level. The author claims that Cormac McCarthy–Cormac McCarthy!–writes at an 8th grade level. If you’ve read McCarthy–a great favorite of mine–you’ll know that he demands a lot from his readers. He writes long, complex sentences, employing odd structures, repetitions, sentence fragments, and a strange, almost Biblical language. He uses a rarefied vocabulary, pushing words to the limits of their sense. I don’t think I’d’ve had an easy time reading him in 8th grade. I didn’t believe this result, so I grabbed this passage from Blood Meridian I had laying around and ran it through the same test.

“He watched the fire and if he saw portents there it was much the same to him. He would live to look upon the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease. He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are ever given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.”

Have you ever heard the word “endarkenment” before? Me neither. Looks invented. Far from being at an 8th grade level, the Flesch Kincaid Grade Level analysis put Blood Meridian–at least this passage–at grade level 14.6, requiring around 2.5 years of college to be easily understood. Here are the scores:

 

I felt vindicated. Would you rather write like the article was suggesting? In order to “succeed” should we dumb down our blog posts? We should not.

I had been raised with the idea that having an extensive vocabulary meant expanding your understanding of yourself, other people and the world, an idea similar to this exhortation from Joseph Brodsky’s commencement address at the University of Michigan in 1988, which I read in his collection of essays, On Grief and Reason:

“Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one’s psyche; the mode of one’s expression, however, often remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That doesn’t go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn’t turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis — and, on and off, with books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with a magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap, but even the most expensive among them (those equipped with a magnifying glass) cost far less than a single visit to a psychiatrist. If you are going to visit one nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.”

Exhibit B, from economist, libertarian and autodidact Henry Hazlitt, in Thinking as a Science (via Jyri Engestrom):

“A man with a scant vocabulary will almost certainly be a weak thinker. The richer and more copious one’s vocabulary and the greater one’s awareness of fine distinctions and subtle nuances of meaning, the more fertile and precise is likely to be one’s thinking. Knowledge of things and knowledge of the words for them grows together. If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing.”

The desperate state of public discourse today is partly due to the lack of words, the poverty of expression, the limited vocabulary that keeps us from understanding and communicating with one another.

 

Racial Injustice & the Bill of Rights

In this time of  Black Lives Matter, and after the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, I wanted to go back and find this post I wrote in 2012 about how the Constitution and the Bill of Rights contribute to the discrimination and abuse of black men and women, so entrenched in America history, with no signs of abating.

I had been reading about the work of the late William J. Stuntz, a law professor at Harvard, who dedicated his life to studying the roots of racial discrimination in America’s criminal justice system. He was a conservative. Upon his death an obituary in the Nation said: “Widely acknowledged as the leading criminal procedure scholar of his era, Stuntz defied easy labeling. He was a conservative and an evangelical Christian whose preoccupation with race and mercy allied him with liberals, and whose insights were contrarian and often quite radical.” His solutions to the inequities of the criminal justice system had two parts: making trials local, and basing justice on principles rather than procedure. 

The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (Stunt’s book) asks what went wrong and how it can be put to rights. Stuntz covers much ground and floats many reforms, but his answer is two-pronged. The first part of it is structural: “local democracy” must be restored to the criminal justice system by reducing plea bargaining and holding more jury trials—and the jurors must live in the same communities as the victims and the accused.

The second part of Stuntz’s answer is technical: he argues that we must turn away from the law of criminal procedure—broadly speaking, the guarantees of the Bill of Rights like the right to counsel and the freedom from unlawful search and seizure—and toward the substantive law of equal protection, which the Supreme Court left for dead during Reconstruction. The former proposal is an arresting insight that seems broadly correct and broadly unobjectionable (except to prosecutors). The latter is as provocative as anything you will read from a serious legal commentator, and raises many problems. Both proposals will be probed and tested by scholars for years.”

Stuntz looked for the underlying reasons why we arrived at this impasse in America, how we are still, in 2011 when he wrote his book, seeing the unending injustice towards black people, finding it, ultimately, in the Constitution, and particularly in the Bill of Rights. I was hard struck by how right he was in what was wrong. The problem, as he sees it, is that the Bill of Rights is about process and procedure, rather than principles. Compare, he says, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen with our Bill of Rights—Bills 4-8 establish our judicial system, and are how we end up with more black men in prison than were slaves in 1850, and more than six million people under “correctional supervision”. It’s appalling.

Adam Gopnik writes

The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice…You can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong.


I’d always been uneasy with the over-valorization of the Constitution, and felt there was something off about the Bill of Rights, and certainly have always felt that the justice system rarely dispenses justice, but more often perpetuates the prejudices and privileges already existing in society rather than overcoming them–but I didn’t have the least idea why it was so bad. This is why.

Also from Stuntz: The Pathological Politics of Criminal Law

Community-run testing for COVID-19

Here’s a brief summary of how we set up COVID-19 testing for the community  in our  town of about 1,500 people, with a partnership with UCSF. Why Bolinas? UCSF was interested in testing here because it is rural, and fairly isolated. It is not as wealthy as surrounding communities in the Bay Area. Households in Bolinas, CA have a median annual income of $56,250, below a U.S. median of $61,937. The next community UCSF is testing is The Mission, a dense urban neighborhood in San Francisco, with a median annual income of $92,000–but where the Latinx community has a median annual income of $24,000. This latter study is funded by UCSF grants.

But the real reason this happened is this is a community that takes care of its people. When coronavirus struck, a group got together to make sure vulnerable neighbors had food, and now serve regular meals. Community members distribute masks they have made, there is an emergency fund another resident started for local businesses and people out of work.  The disaster relief group made sure everyone had their contact info and a phone tree was set up to check on seniors living alone. If you have money, you give money. If you can make sandwiches, you make sandwiches. If you have organizational skills, you organize. Or you paint signs, direct traffic, make a web site, bring people food, pick up the phone. Someone’s the heart, someone’s the hands, someone’s the head, the pinky, the ears, the nostril–for snorting disdainfully–someone’s even the spleen.

It took about a month of planning to set this up. People keep asking about getting the tests, but the tests aren’t the problem—we actually had too many to choose from, and we’re going to run several tests on the samples we’ll collect. We realized nobody has access to tests because nobody was assembling all the other pieces.

These are all solvable problems, with a bit of work, creativity and collaboration. Let’s not kid ourselves–a lot of work. While diagnostics companies were shipping test kits and labs were ramping up capacity, no one was building an end to end solution for communities. We made it up as we went along. But none of this would have been possible without UCSF Infectious Diseases who is administering the tests.

Here are the missing links:

  • Popup testing sites (we sourced wedding tents)
  • Medical professionals to staff it (we found phlebotomists by searching online. Who knew?)
  • PPE (we went to a dozen small stores in Marin getting protective suits from hardware stores, gloves from restaurant suppliers, masks from friends who sourced them from China)
  • Tech that made it possible to recruit an entire city by SMS in a few days (a volunteer team of AirBnB engineers built the platform in 2 weeks)
  • Planning a physical setup for pushing through hundreds of people per day with minimal risk. We designed a 4-lane drive through “freeway” as in the photo above
  • Partnerships with local community organizations. In our case the Bolinas Fire Protection District, Mesa Park, Bolinas Community Land Trust, and the Coastal Health Alliance
  • Local volunteers to help in the planning process, getting the word out to the community, including some harder to reach communities. Volunteers are also doing traffic control.
  • Volunteer coordinator to manage all the people wanting to help!
  • Translators to spread the word in other local languages
  • Donors whose generosity makes it happen. We partnered with a non-profit (BCLT) to take donations.
  • It costs approx. $200 per person, all in. With economies of scale, and a site that is easier to manage it would likely go down significantly.

Today went well, but we still have over 1,000 people to do. Jyri says, “Hoping it will scale in a distributed way. Kind of like the internet used to be?” and Cyrus: “Hopefully this project serves as a model for other communities and as a wake-up call to organizations (cities, counties, states, federal govt, etc…) that _should_ be able to do all of this at scale with much greater efficiency than some ragtag group of volunteers supported by community donations, yet, up to now, haven’t.”

We will publish the blueprint as soon as we have it ready!

This is largely cobbled together from FB comments from Jyri and Cyrus. 

 

San Francisco Politics, PG&E

  • In the always colorful world of San Francisco politics, I learned  that our new DA, Chesa Boudin worked for Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, whose Wikipedia entry notes that:

    Under Chavez, Venezuela experienced democratic backsliding, as he suppressed the press, manipulated electoral laws, and arrested and exiled government critics. His use of enabling acts and his government’s use of propaganda were controversial. Chávez’s presidency saw significant increases in the country’s murder rate and continued corruption within the police force and government.

    Right? And his parents are both in prison–they were members of the Weather Underground, and were involved in the Brinks robbery which resulted in the death of two police officers. Boudin started visiting them in prison as a toddler, and so has seen the criminal justice system from the inside.

  • Camp Fire 2018

  • The story I have been following with the most interest lately, as it impacts all of us in California, is the PG&E story. Public utilities should not be for-profit endeavors, and bankrupt PG&E has been trying to evade responsibility for the fires it started in 2017 and 2018 (and undoubtedly this year’s fires as well.) Not only that it has been shutting off power, allegedly to prevent forest fires, a strategy from 100 years ago. A modern power company would not do this. A properly updated and maintained system would not require shutoffs. The 2018 Camp Fire was started by a 100 year old transmission tower, and this year’s Kincade Fire was probably started by a 43-year-old transmission tower. PG&E has dangerously old systems, and has been ordered to stop paying dividends.   I would like to see a system which did not require power lines from power plants running through forests to rural areas, and a new power grid of wind and solar–a distributed, decentralized system. I don’t know much about the power grid and how it works, but this seems obvious. The technology exists. 
  • Sam Liccardi, Mayor of San Jose, is getting a lot of public support for a proposal to take PG&E back, forming a co-op instead. Yes. PG&E should not be running our power any more.
  • Glad to see that San Francisco’s supervisors have reached an agreement for $100 million to go towards Mental Health reform. Which is long overdue. And of course it always shocks me to see how government differs from my general experience of “getting things done”, i.e. nothing specific will be enacted as a consequence of this agreement, but an 11 member committee will be formed to make recommendations. So it’s an agreement to make an agreement to address mental health. It’s a start. The main point of this article, though, seems to be that they didn’t go to the voters to decide. Up with representative democracy! There is waaay too much “going to the voters” in California. This is why we have elected leaders! So I can find a candidate with whom my values align, and I don’t have to decide if we need to invest in roads, or schools or hospitals or this proposal or that proposal. Thank you elected officials.

“This is where people can learn to rely on each other”

An interview with Jyri about Kahvila Siili, the café we run in the summer in our neighborhood in Helsinki came out this week. “Kahvila Siili” means “hedgehog café”–there are a lot of hedgehogs in the neighborhood, though we didn’t see any, as we usually do, at the end of the summer this summer–some people say they are being driven out by the increased heat from climate change.

“Our fortune, in the next decades, will be intricately connected to our community structure,” he says on sunny afternoon in the front garden of the café. “A place like this is not just about vegan food or recycling waste but allowing people to rely on each other as we face the challenges of climate change.”

Spoken like the entrepreneur, investor and sociologist he is. Here are our neighbors coming out for the opening party at the beginning of the summer:

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Planting a Trillion Trees

It’s been another summer of record-breaking heat here in Europe and the climate crisis comes closer and closer in our lived experience.

It’s been estimated that need a trillion new trees planted to slow the climate crisis. Ethiopia let many of their civil servants off for a day and planted an estimated 350 million trees, according to their government. Here is the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, planting a tree in Addis Ababa:

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There was also, simultaneously, an attempt to beat the previous Guiness World Record, set by India, who planted 50 million trees in one day. A map of the various regions and how many trees were planted in each:

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How to Prevent Domestic Violence

More than 3x as many women have died from domestic violence than soldiers have died in combat. And the most dangerous place for women is their own homes. In a new book, No Visible Bruises, myths of domestic violence are debunked, as well as the myth of its intractability. Because it’s known how to prevent domestic violence, and domestic killings:

Prosecute cases without the victim’s help, as we do murder trials. Treat restraining orders like D.U.I.s and keep them on file, even after they have expired. Train clergy members and doctors to recognize and respond to domestic violence. Promote battering intervention programs. Choking nearly always precedes a homicide attempt; teach police to recognize the signs, and instruct doctors to assess women for traumatic brain injury. And, of course, there is the near-unanimous recommendation from law enforcement and domestic violence advocates: “You want to get rid of homicide?” a retired forensic nurse asks. “Get rid of guns.”

The Din & Boom

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Waking up in Venice is unlike waking up in any other place. The day begins quietly. Only a stray shout here and there may break the calm, or the sound of a shutter being raised, or the wing-beat of the pigeons. How often, I thought to myself, had I lain thus in a hotel room, in Vienna or Frankfurt or Brussels, with my hands clasped under my head, listening not to the stillness, as in Venice, but to the roar of the traffic, with a mounting sense of panic. That, then, I thought on such occasions, is the new ocean. Ceaselessly, in great surges, the waves roll in over the length and breadth of our cities, rising higher and higher, breaking in a kind of frenzy when the roar reaches its peak and then discharging across the stones and the asphalt even as the next onrush is being release from where it was held by traffic lights. For some time now I have been convinced that it is out of this dine that the life is being born which will come after us and will spell our gradual destruction, just as we have been gradually destroying what was there long before us.

–W.S. Sebald, Vertigo

The Din is an apt word for the onslaught of sound assaulting us in our urban life, and The Din one of the topics we mentioned in the last episode on my podcast, Should This Exist? on Boom Supersonic. The sound of the supersonic plane is in the name itself: the sonic boom the plane makes as it crosses the sound barrier, which I’ve never heard myself, but is a tremendous, earth-shuddering sound, and one of the many reasons supersonic flight did not thrive in its last incarnation.

I once walked in late to a lecture that was in progress, I didn’t know the name of the lecturer, I believe it was Peter Warshall. and he was talking about how the sounds of our world–the industrial sounds, airport noise, cars, traffic–were killing the animal life around us, by silencing animal communication. Birds couldn’t hear their babies tweeting, bullfrogs living in swamps near highways couldn’t hear each other’s mating calls.  How well we sleep in the country, far from the noise and stress of urban life. I was just in Japan, where we noticed how harmonious and gentle the street sounds were–the sounds guiding blind people through crosswalks, or the bell announcing an arriving train–compared to the alarming, jarring noises of the alarms in the United States and Europe. We’re not paying enough attention to sound.

Another interesting conversation that didn’t make it to the podcast–each episode would be an hours-long if we kept everything in!–was that the soul moves at the speed of a camel. Though I don’t remember where I learned this, I intuitively feel it to be true. The reason we have jetlag as we’re flying from, say, San Francisco to New York is that when we arrive we’re only there in body–our soul is trundling slowly through Utah, and doesn’t arrive until more than a week later, the time it would take to fully recover from jet lag.

We talked about flight, and dreams of flying, and how is the symbology of dreams flying is a metaphor for release, for freedom, for shrugging of whatever binds you and transcending it. We talked of Daedalus, the original inventor and entrepreneur of ancient mythology, who of course fashioned the wings for Icarus, his son, who flew too close to the sun and came crashing downwards, to Daedalus’s great sorrow. This can be a metaphor for what happens to many entrepreneurs, who see what they created lead to things they never intended.

And yet another interesting conversation we had was about being greeted at airports. When our planes landed, back when I was a kid, my entire Filipino family–and Filipino families are big!–were waiting for us at the gate when we arrived. Every grandma, cousin, baby, uncle. When someone came, especially from far away, it was a major event. There was exclaiming and hugging. We hauled out our balikbayan boxes. Sisters proffered flowers. Even now, I  see large Indian families, or Mexican families, or sometime even Filipino families standing at gates in a flurry of greeting, but I see them less and less. There are more business travelers, travel is more frequent, less special, and why go to the airport when Uber and Lyft are so easy and convenient? Being greeted at the airport is a terrible loss, my friend Anarghya and I agreed. You arrive and your soul may still be laboring, swimming camel-like across the Pacific. You arrive soulless and solitary without people who love you to embrace you at the end of your journey. There is no longer a tradition of human welcoming, just posters of beaming mayors welcoming you to their city, or a friendly Uber driving asking how your trip went. There is no longer a tradition of arrival, as a demarcation, or event.