Sunday, November 11, 2018

Veteran's Day

A hundred years ago today the Armistice was signed to end the First World War. I think everyone was so appalled at the spectacle of mechanized war that they hoped this would be history's last war. So much for that. Anyway, I hope all the veterans out there enjoy this special day, and that our leaders can take a moment to reflect on the lessons of that war and all the wars since.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Very negative article on the prospects for the US

This is an article in which the author diagnoses a fundamental flaw in the US, namely a lack of common purpose and solidarity between the different people that live here.  This is something I've discussed on various occasions.  As a society, there seems to be a strong thread of punitive and vengeful thinking in our character.  Something bad happens to someone or a group, and our first impulse is often to look for the shortcomings of the victim that might somehow justify their misfortune.  Add to this a visceral racial animus and you've got a society that has a hard time banding together to improve life for all.  I agree with the author's observation that, in affairs big and small, we are often so intent on spiting certain people that we are willing to suffer a drop in our own quality of life in order to do so.  From our focus on incarceration and punishment of the poor and the addicted instead of rehabilitation, to massive efforts to exclude and terrorize immigrants instead of welcoming them, to a penchant for emergency response and military interventions as opposed to long-term support for economic development in other countries, we opt time and again for actions and policies that are more costly and less effective, as long as they hurt as opposed to demonstrating any type of "soft" traits like decency, solidarity, or empathy.

All this said, I don't share the author's totally dire prognosis for the future of the US, at least not based on these (admittedly worrisome) aspects of the national character.  On the one hand, my work transpires almost entirely in the developing world, where I am exposed to lots of societies that share similar flaws of a lack of solidarity and common purpose.  Many countries are home to yawning gaps between rich and poor, as well as pernicious ethnic animosities that prevent the forging of a better life for all.  There, as in the US, the project is to gradually build a sense of decency, of shared values, and of liberal democratic principles like equality, transparent and representative governance, respect for minority viewpoints, protection for the vulnerable, and freedom from oppression.  In short, every country in the world is in a long and arduous quest to ensure human dignity for all.  So for me, the fact that the US still falls short of this ideal isn't cause for despondency.  It just is how it is.  Life is messy.  (Incidentally, I hesitate to brand all institutions in the US as irreparably broken, as the author does.  There are plenty of troubling developments in our systems of public health, education, taxation, etc., but there are also very real movements to make our institutions more fair and more functional).

Lastly, the European societies that the author rightly cites as models we can learn from, countries he describes as being functional and constantly improving, are also involved in this same process of constant, difficult work to make life better for all.  Many of these countries did their growing and improving in the mid-20th century, precisely after a massive conflagration (actually a series of wars starting in the 19th century and before, not just the Second world war) did away with much of the countries' ethnic diversity (not just the Holocaust of the Jews and Romany, but also the postwar redrawing of boundaries and relocation of populations that "repatriated" ethnic Greeks, Germans, Turks, etc., as well as the coopting of subnational identities that turned Tuscans into Italians, Saxons into Germans, Provencals into french, etc.).  In short, most of Europe has been able to forge a common identity and a progressive society only in the absence of ethnic diversity, and now that these countries are becoming newly diverse due to immigration and the arrival of refugees, they are in fact facing existential crises, the rise of intolerant, spiteful thinking, and the whole slew of problems that the author of this article rightly identifies in the US.  So again, creating a better world, societies that ensure human dignity, is not a done deal where some have succeeded and others failed.  It's a constantly evolving story that involves all of us.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Economic equality as principle

This is an interesting article on how the recent widespread interest in economic equality seems to be more instrumental (inequality is bad because it has perverse economic and social effects), as opposed to principled (inequality is bad because it's not right or fair).  I'm not sure I understand all the nuance, but I agree that the distinction is important, and that we collectively need to remember that inequality is wrong, that it goes against our American principles of equality and fairness. 

This focus on the value of equality as a concept, and not just as a means to a stable society or other desireable outcomes, also provides a flip side to an observation I made in my blog about the book The American Soul.  Namely, that the idea of our founding American principles is often used to justify an excess focus on individual freedom, to the detriment of a concern for the collective wellbeing.  But if we remember that equality is also a core value of our great nation, it gives us a useful vocabulary for talking about inequality and why it's important to fight against it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Sobering numbers on the black exodus from Chicago

According to this article, Chicago's black population by 2030 is projected to be 665 thousand, about half of what it was when I was born.  This is a sad situation for a city that has been largely defined by its black citizens.  I want to do everything I can to counteract this trend.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Dirty Computer

So I just wanted to share with everyone this amazing, far-out short film put together by Janelle Monae for her latest álbum, Dirty Computer.  It is basically a montage of videos for songs from the álbum, but with a coherent dystopian narrative going throughout.  It somehow melds 2018 political and racial commentary, with a Blade Runner-esque future, and Monae's trademark 1980s revival musical and aesthetic style.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Filming in Chicago

I have been taking my kid to summer camp in a park in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago for the past few days.  As we walked along 18th street, I noticed a lot of businesses that seemed to have an old sign still up from a prior iteration, but then a newly-printed vinyl sign proclaiming them to be a different business.  For example, a hat store sign was undermined by a vinyl sign proclaiming that the business was in fact a cafe, and was indeed still open. 

Later the same afternoon, I saw lots of people painting new signs in an old-style on the walls.  And there were little notices about businesses still being open during filming.  Finally, the real clue was that there was a "Negro travel agency" with the NAACP's guide for safe roads, businesses, and hotels.  I put two and two together and realized that the old-style signs were part of a movie set, but the current businesses wanted you to know that they were open for business selling cupcakes or tattoos or whatever instead of hats and 1930s fountain drinks.  It hadn't really registered on me before, since there are plenty of businesses in Chicago with signs still up from the 1950s or before, and often these old signs might be left up out of nostalgia even though they no longer describe the current commercial occupant.  People painting walls in Pilsen didn't seem odd either--it is famous for its Mexican-style mural art.  As for all the people working in the street with heavy equipment, I just assumed they were doing summer road resurfacing, another Chicago staple. 

Anyway, I just thought it was funny that this film set, which was very accurately evoking a 1930s commercial strip in the US, didn't register as odd to me.  I guess they chose the location well, if it only needs relatively light, unnoticeable touches to look like a street from the past.

For your information, the show is Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country, which looks like it will be really good.