Thursday, August 25, 2016

Peace agreement with FARC

Peace has finally been signed between the Colombian government and the FARC!  Today is the first day in my wife's and children's lives that their country's government is not in active civil war with the FARC.  It's big news, and we're all very happy.  The path forward is still a long one--the government is still in the process of signing peace with the ELN, Colombia's other major guerrilla group.  And civilians and ex-combatants from all sides will need to learn how to live with one another, and deal with perceived injustices in terms of how they or their former enemies are treated.  There will be a national referendum to approve the government's agreement.  I hope people don't let the warmongers convince them to annul the peace.

For complete coverage, you can read news from El Espectador at this link.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The liberating power of books

This is a sweet little reflection from Charles Blow of the New York Times about the importance of books in his family and his childhood.  I especially like this quote from James Baldwin that he includes:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

I surely grew up in a setting and circumstances very different from Charles Blow or James Baldwin, but I can certainly relate to feeling like your life, your situation is totally aberrant from the norm promoted by pop culture.  But as you read and think and learn, you find connections, not only with others like you, but also with people, ideas, writers, stories that are very different from you on the surface, but that bear some fundamental commonality with your experience.  That for me is a great summary of the magic of reading.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Third World Green Daddy 64: Nostalgia for my dad

Some years ago I wrote about various ways that I was becoming like my father.  As I continue my slow journey into the depths of adulthood, I've dug up a lot of my dad's old things.  Reading books that haven't been touched in decades, and that were last touched by his hands, makes me feel closer to my departed father, and specifically to a younger version of him that I didn't get to know as well, since I was just a little oblivious baby back then. 

Along these lines I'm finishing a book with a 1983 copyright called How to take great trips with your kids.  I don't know if my dad ever even read this one, or if he simply bought it because it looked cool, and never had time to get to it.  In any case, he and I took a lot of good trips together, but I think things went so well less thanks to the advice of the book and more due to my dad's having a good sense of what could be interesting for me, as well as my own being a pretty taciturn kid, capable of sitting long stretches just looking out the car window at the countryside going by.  That said, I am enjoying reading the book.  It has a lot of advice that is really just common sense, but that I am always surprised to see few people following.  Things like planning a trip together as a family and always thinking of whether kids will be entertained or bored by proposed activities, scaling daily driving time to match what the kids can handle instead of what the adults can, putting the kids in charge of little things like packing the books and toys they want to bring along.  I feel validated to read in the book a lot of tricks that Caro and I have figured out by experimenting and trial and error.  And it's fun to see certain dated references, like lots of discussion of travel agents and traveler checks, and even a plug for this new invention called the box juice.  It appears that this book is now out of print, which makes sense, since a lot of cumbersome things travelers used to have to take care of themselves (looking up hotels, calling ahead to reserve and confirm, etc.) are now greatly aided by the Internet, so traveling doesn't require as much forethought.  Still though, I think it would behoove many of us to reach such a book, just to help us think things through despite the technology that allows us to be at times thoughtless in our planning.

Another bringer of joy that I forgot to mention in my long piece about our recent surge of materialism is the record of the Three Penny Opera's original first US run, with Lotte Lenya and an actress that was later on Golden Girls or something.  This was father's favorite play, Brecht's Three Penny Opera.  My folks took me to a production of it in a pretty rough part of Wicker Park, Chicago when I was maybe 8 or 10, and my dad often referenced the work, in addition to honoring its dark cynical teachings with much of his day-to-day thinking and commentary.  When I set up my sound system as an adolescent this was one of my favorite records, and indeed it was the major driver of my setting up the sound system again 15 years later when we moved to DC.  I still listen to this record maybe once a month, especially the 2nd act finale where the singers assert that "even saintly folk may act like sinners, unless they've had their customary dinners".  Such lines have stayed with me throughout life, inspiring not just my choice of profession, but also (I like to think) imbuing me with more sympathy and understanding even of people that others roundly condemn as immoral or criminal.

Lastly, I've just dug up a book called The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, written in 1987 by Paul Kennedy.  The book was written at the height of Reagan-era frets about the waning place of the US on the world stage, as Germany and Japan enjoyed seemingly unstoppable economic growth and China showed hints of a future drive to rapid industrialization and newfound dominance.  My dad would have been reading this book just as he was being laid off from a prestigious law job, his own personal taste of the explosive, precarious wealth of the 80s and the upcoming doldrums of the early 90s.  Most interesting of all is that my dad's copy has a business card from the Japanese consul to Chicago stuck in it as a bookmark.  There is handwriting on the card, with the name of this book and one other about the Japanese industrial machine, and the back of the card is written in Japanese characters.  I can only wonder what the back-story is, what might have taken my dad to the Japanese consulate at that moment, and who exactly gave him these book recommendations, and why.  It's like something out of a spy novel. 

Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading the book, which traces the relative power positions of different countries in terms of military and economic might, from the 1500s to the late 20th century.  I especially want to see what the author's predictions are for the early 21st century that we're now living through. 

These books and records and other memories of my dad make me feel, if momentarily, like I'm reliving the 1980s, reliving both my dad's entry into respectable adulthood and my own remembered bits of childhood.  So even as I'm stumbling through this somewhat joyless age of Trump and civilian murders, global warming and refugee crises, I enjoy the luxury of my low-tech virtual reality goggles, whereby I can overlay the past on myself and my kids, pretend that I'm Gene Vaughan feeling his way through the late Cold War politics and postindustrial decay of 1980s Chicago, trying to teach my kid that there is still wonder and truth and nobleness in the world, despite all evidence to the contrary.  And we've got to not just seek out the noble and beautiful things, but also to make them ourselves and share them and participate in the suffering and the liberation of others.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Adam Smith on inequality

Here is an analysis of Adam Smith's take on inequality.  Basically Smith worried that extreme inequality created a situation in which the wealthy and their concerns were so much more visible than the poor and their priorities, that society as a whole would identify with and value the rich more than they would feel solidarity with the poor.  I feel that this is an accurate description of the situation in the US and in many developing countries.  The wealthy and their concerns are so dominant in public discourse, and their lifestyles so heralded by the media, that all the rest of us, even the poor themselves, focus much of our concern on things that are really priorities for the rich.  We are all so busy aspiring to be part of the oppressive class that we don't look around and try to make life decent for our peers around us.  An extreme case in point is how people get so worked up about the importance of abolishing the estate tax, even though the estate tax benefits over 95% of society and only takes away from the ultra-rich.  But look around and you'll see this and countless other examples of the non-wealthy advocating for policies, attitudes, and other social arrangements that only benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.

I feel that a huge part of our relentless economic growth today in the US and elsewhere is driven by an equally relentless drive not to be comfortable or satisfied, but precisely to put ourselves above others, and to prevent others from rising above us.  See for example the constant packaging of things as exclusive, the desire to go to exclusive schools, clubs, neighborhoods, etc.  See too how the upwardly mobile seek endlessly to move physically far away from others whose economic status or skin color relegates them to a less prestigious position in society.

Furthermore, and despite the author's claim that Smith's concern about this sympathy aspect of inequality is very different from modern-day critiques of inequality, I feel that the modern-day concerns he cites are intimately linked with the issue of how inequality affects our sympathies.  The author says, "When people worry about inequality today, they generally worry that it inhibits economic growth, prevents social mobility, impairs democracy, or runs afoul of some standard of fairness."  But I feel that the perpetuation of inequality today, and many impacts like impairment of democracy and fairness, are precisely due to how inequality screws up our sense of sympathy.  If we didn't so identify with the concerns of the rich, we would never allow inequality to continue in its current extreme form, and we wouldn't allow the rich to effectively enjoy a double standard in our democratic and legal systems.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Chance the rapper

I am on my own this summer as my family visits Colombia.  Among other things, I've been thinking a lot about my youth and about Chicago.  This past week I've sort of revisited the rap music that I grew up with, and reflected ruefully that the ultra-violent, claustrophobic world described by Tupac on Me Against the World still seems to describe the present-day situation in large parts of Chicago.

Anyway, listening to Tupac got me thinking about newer artists that I've known existed but never checked out, busy as I was with living an adult life and raising a family.  Since I am currently on a sort of hiatus from my normal adult life and childrearing, I took the opportunity to check out Chance the Rapper's album Acid Rap.  Chance is a big deal.  He is a hot young Chicago rapper, and has gained as much fame for his unorthodox marketing style as for his clever, postmodern lyrics.  You see, Chance releases mix tapes for free, and I guess he makes his money through tours and things.  In so doing, he has turned the recording industry on its head, avoiding any binding commitments to labels and even services like Apple and Amazon.

I was really pleasantly surprised with Acid Rap (you can download it here; I hope I'm not circumventing Chance's control of the music by linking to this site, but Chance himself no longer offers the album on his own website).  Chance is a fast-tempo rapper, with great instrumentation and lyrics by turns silly, hyper-self-conscious, and socially aware.  I don't know enough about rap and trends to explain why, but it definitely has a "Chicago sound" to me, I think from the mix of complex themes, rapid-fire delivery, and lack of pretense.  So I definitely recommend it.

Chance has a new mixtape out called Coloring Book.  I can't say I like the one song I've heard from his new album, called No Problem, an Autotuned, southern-style collaboration with Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz where Chance doesn't really rap at all.  But I guess he deserves to goof around with a song or two (and bask in his success) after the steady stream of well-thought verses on Acid Rap.  Also, No Problem does have an interesting take on battle rap, since it's basically Chance challenging the record companies that he's managed to totally bypass in his rise to success.  I imagine Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz, two old dudes by now, must admire that Chance at less than 25 years of age has managed to do something they never did by redefining success totally free of any record label.  In this sense, he's the not the youngster bolstered by stars, but rather the wise sage in the video, simply giving a guest spot to two lesser beings.