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“Critical Infrastructure”

Four years ago, I was arrested in an act of civil disobedience. Along with two of my friends, I was blocking the entrance to a fracking site in Denton. That site should not have been active, because a few months prior to our protest the residents of Denton voted to ban fracking within our city limits. It was our community’s decision to protect our air, water, and neighborhoods. Yet the Texas Legislature overturned our democratically-enacted ban. So, when the trucks and drilling rigs came rolling back into town, my friends and I tried to stop them.

handshakeWe knew what we were doing was illegal according to the new state law. But that law is unjust – it deprives communities of their ability to protect residents from a uniquely invasive industry. We were handcuffed after about an hour of protesting. We were then sent to jail on misdemeanor charges of trespassing.

The Texas Legislature is now considering a pair of bills (HB 3557 and SB 1993) known as the “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.” They would reclassify our protest as a second degree felony – the same level of offense as attempted murder or indecency with a child. The penalty would be 2 to 20 years in prison with a $10,000 fine. You may not like protestors, but are you prepared to live under a regime that is this hostile to free speech and assembly?

Justice is often represented by scales for a reason – it is a matter of striking the right balance. Those who conduct civil disobedience understand they are weighing their freedom in the balance. But a democratic society needs to also weigh things carefully. The difference between a democracy and a tyranny is not just what is considered criminal but to what extent it is criminalized. These bills cross a dangerous line.

They are not native to Texas. Rather, the proposed bills are the spawn of the American Legislative Exchange Council. In this case, ALEC has been getting state governments to pass “critical infrastructure” bills. Their stated intent is to prevent damage to “critical infrastructure facilities,” which include oil and gas sites, chemical plants, confined animal feeding operations, and more.

Yet we already have laws against damaging these facilities. Indeed, we have laws against damaging any kind of private or public property. Why this special list of ‘critical’ facilities, and why doesn’t it include, say, schools or hospitals? In a word: money. In three words: money and power. The bills list nineteen “critical infrastructure facilities,” and half of them are oil and gas related. In short, these are the facilities run by the big corporations that fund the campaigns that get state representatives elected.

And those guys are afraid. Critical infrastructure bills were created in a panic in the wake of several high-profile protests against oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure. The bills are designed to send a chilling message and to squelch fundamental expressions of democratic citizenship. In one version, the bills define ‘interference’ with critical infrastructure facilities so broadly as to criminalize even off-site activities. Advocating for pollution control devices, for example, could become a felony. So could attempts to block a pipeline cutting through your own land. We are talking about the right to petition our government and the right to defend our property. The slope is slippery and the stakes are high.

Prior to our protest, my friends and I received training from several individuals and organizations. Responsible and non-violent protests require a great deal of thought and planning. The people who help with this are often working at non-profit organizations that barely scrape by. They are some of the unsung heroes of democratic polities – they channel righteous anger into social justice movements. If these bills become law, then they become criminals. They will be fined $1 million. This would kill the organizations that help people and communities defend themselves when besieged by “critical infrastructure.”

We need to keep in mind a broader set of critical infrastructures, including our democratic rights and norms. Let’s also remember the critical infrastructure provided by healthy ecosystems and a livable climate. Please urge your representatives to oppose HB 3557 and SB 1993.

*Here is the latest information I have on how to oppose these bills*

HB 3557 was passed by the House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence and now goes to the Calendars Committee, which does not hold hearings on bill. The Calendars Committee members who will next be voting on this HB 3557 are:

Rep. Joseph Moody 78 D Calendars El Paso 512-463-0728
Rep. John Wray 10 R Calendars Waxahachie 512-463-0516
Rep. Oscar Longoria 35 D Calendars Rio Grande Valley (Mission) 512-463-0645
Rep. John Frullo 84 R Calendars Lubbock 512-463-0676
Rep. Tom Oliverson 130 R Calendars Cypress 512-463-0661
Rep. Craig Goldman 97 R Calendars Ft. Worth 512-463-0608
Rep. Will Metcalf 16 R Calendars Conroe 512-463-0726
Rep. Eddie Rodriguez 51 D Calendars Austin 512-463-0674
Rep. Joe Deshotel 22 D Calendars Beaumont 512-463-0662
Rep. Four Price 87 R Calendars Amarillo 512-463-0470
Rep. Toni Rose 110 D Calendars Dallas 512-463-0664

 

SB 1993 was heard in the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development (SNRED) Committee on Wednesday March 27 and could be voted on at any time. The committee members that will be voting on SB 1993 are:

               
Sen. Brian Birdwell 22 R SNRED Granbury to Waco 512-463-0122
Sen. Pat Fallon 30 R SNRED Collin, Denton north to OK border, west to Wichita Falls & Palo Pinto 512-463-0130
Sen. Peter Flores 19 R SNRED S. Bexar to Brewster 512-463-0119
Sen. Kelly Hancock 9 R SNRED Northern Tarrant & W. Dallas Co. 512-463-0109
Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa 20 D SNRED Nueces to Hidalgo Co. 512-463-0120
Sen. Bryan Hughes 1 R SNRED NE Texas – Panola to Lamar 512-463-0101
Sen. Borris Miles 13 D SNRED Ft. Bend & SW Harris Co. 512-463-0113
Sen. Angela Paxton 8 R SNRED SW Collin Co 512-463-0108
Sen. Beverly Powell 10 S SNRED Southern Tarrant Co. 512-463-0110
Sen. José Rodríguez 29 D SNRED El Paso & Far West TX 512-463-0129
Sen. Judith Zaffirini 21 D SNRED Laredo to SE Travis Co. 512-463-0121

Key messages:

1. Don’t over-criminalize the actions of people who are exercising their rights in order to protect their family, property and community.

2. There are already laws on the books to address criminal actions. These bills go too far and could have grave consequences and terrible unintended consequences.

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Maturity and the Green New Deal

See if you can spot the problem with this survey question: “Some members of Congress are proposing a ‘Green New Deal’ for the U.S. They say that a Green New Deal will produce jobs and strengthen America’s economy by accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy…How much do you support or oppose this idea?”

When a team of researchers from Yale and George Mason Universities asked this question, they got overwhelmingly positive responses. And it was bipartisan: 92% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans (57% of conservative Republicans) supported the GND. This was a poll conducted back in December when few people had yet to hear of the GND. Needless to say, it seemed like a ray of hope that an idea this big could capture widespread support in a polarized age.

green-new-deal-aoc-02-gty-jc-190207_hpMain_16x9_992

But there’s that problem. Did you spot it? It’s the first word: ‘some.’ Some members of Congress, you say? Well…which ones? Oh, those ones?! Let me change my answer!

Here we are two months later. The GND has gone viral and Democratic Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, widely known as AOC, has introduced a Resolution to the House of Representatives “recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.” AOC has become the Republicans new favorite target, their symbol of leftist extremism that threatens to tip the U.S. into a socialist dystopia. It should come as no surprise that the GND is now being fed into the partisan buzz-saw.

The GND is mocked on Fox News as the product of “an idiot” and ridiculed by multiple conservative commentators. To be fair, the team that conducted the poll in December knew this might happen. They linked to a 2003 study titled “Party over Policy” by a Yale psychologist. That paper chronicled the “dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs” and concluded: “Even under conditions of effortful processing, attitudes toward a social policy depended almost exclusively upon the stated position of one’s political party.” This is mental sloth: allowing partisan categories to decide for us which ideas are good and which are bad.

But it’s also politics. In her masterful Policy Paradox and Political Reason, Deborah Stone argues that “Political reasoning is reasoning by metaphor and analogy. It is trying to get others to see a situation as one thing rather than another.” Republicans want us to see the GND as socialism, as Big Government taking over our lives. In so doing, they want to push it to the lunatic fringe. We need to see it rather as maturity – as the moment we try to match our responsibilities to the scope of our powers.

The GND-as-socialism framing is powerful precisely because it is simple – it soothes the itch for mental short-cuts. And it will only grow in influence over the coming months. If the U.S. is ever going to have a chance of taking meaningful climate action, this framing has to be broken. To break it, we have to understand the source of its strength. It is rooted in an appeal to the family, that bedrock proto-political human condition.

Kimberley Strassel at The Wall Street Journal writes that “The Green New Deal encapsulates everything Americans fear from government, all in one bonkers resolution.” She argues that the GND is a recipe for the government to control “the most fundamental aspects of private life.” How about visiting family for Christmas? Airplanes “don’t run on anything but fossil fuel. No jet fuel, no trips to see granny.” And that meat on the family table will be banned. She concludes that the goal of the GND is to eradicate “every family Christmas” and every “strip of bacon.”

This is the deep mythic core being marshalled to oppose the GND. Note the dissociation required to isolate the private sphere from the social sphere. In reality, the private family life of air travel and bacon breakfasts causes the very public problems the GND seeks to address. Shopping for those low prices at Walmart feeds into the globalization that drives wage stagnation and the evisceration of rural communities. And consumption in nearly every variety contributes to climate change when fossil fuels dominate the energy mix.

Family life is increasingly entangled with global flows of materials, energy, and waste. There is less and less private about the private sphere. Recognizing and wrestling with this reality is not ‘socialism.’ It’s maturity. And that’s the framing we need: GND-as-responsibility.

It’s not just that the U.S. is disproportionately responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. More basically, we have a responsibility to see behind all the commodities assembled in our family life. Look underneath the bacon and see the factory farm. See the heat waves in the wake of the airplane. Our private lives are complicit with wider harms and violence. Coming to terms with all the things that make your life possible is the hallmark of maturity. It’s when the child realizes the dishes don’t wash themselves or the clothes don’t fold themselves. We need to start taking responsibility for the way we have been living.

Strassel and the other commentators are a long ways away from the early conservative voices in America. They sound more like spoiled brats who don’t want to chip in to pick up the mess they helped to make.

The GND Resolution references the original New Deal as well as the massive national mobilization to defeat fascism. Yet the GND doesn’t call for anything like the sacrifices that occurred during World War II. Rather, it basically calls for technological fixes. You won’t have to give up bacon, because we’ll come up with artificial meat that tastes the same. Before she does more complaining, Strassel might want to review the rations that Americans endured during World War II: tires, sugar, coffee, gasoline, and, yes, meat. Even penicillin.

Their selfless endurance through hardship earned them the well-deserved title of “the greatest generation.” They expanded their sense of family and kinship to embrace a cause and ideals that transcend a life of comfort and convenience. How come that was patriotism back then but now it’s socialism?

Consent, Burlesque, and Queer Morality

A review of “The Best Little Shop of Whorrers in Texas” – spoiler alert –

Sidney, who works at the Vape Hole Lounge on the courthouse square in Denton, has they/them/their pronouns. When they are misgendered by the moralizing and bigoted Furry Oldwitch, the crowd yells its disapproval. Furry wants to “Make Denton Great Again” by shutting down Miss Tawdry’s Rubber Chicken burlesque joint on the other side of the square. Boo! The only thing standing in his way are his own sexual hypocrisies, portrayed in riotous flare in a strip tease that culminates in swirling, glittery Buccees pasties. The crowd howls in delight as the Rubber Chicken is saved and Sidney falls into the arms of Miss Tawdry.

This is Denton politics as portrayed by the Salty Lady Burlesque in their musical, “The Best Little Shop of Whorrors in Texas.” It is a glamorous celebration of queer bodies and cultures told through mash-up songwriting that is consistently smart, funny, and provocative. The singing and acting are first rate. The energy produced and the love unloosed is all just about too much for the intimate space of the Black Box Theater. It is, in other words, Denton at its best – creative and bawdy, simultaneously deviant and upright.

whorrers

There, in the dark, we laughed without fear. The big therapeutic laughs that only art can provide. We were free to jeer the villains and cheer the heroes. But we could also feel the vulnerability of the space. The door to the street – that line between art and politics – is thin. There are places where boots kick in such doors, round up the artists, and persecute the abnormal and the sinful.

While the artists of the Salty Lady Burlesque were writing their musical, the Trump administration was writing a memo. If that memo becomes law, then gender will be defined as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth. The government will erase the identities of millions of Americans, including my son, stripping them of recognition and protection. All of that diversity on the courthouse square – on stage and in real life – will be shoved into just two boxes. One former member of the Education Department said that this move “quite simply negates the humanity of people.” Miss Tawdry, played by Honey Sin Claire, sang with enough strength to drown out the sound of the boots marching. But can that last?

The musical portrays two systems of morality. Of course, from Furry’s perspective there is only his morality – his standards of decency stand between civilization and sin. He must use the formal powers of government as a bulwark against the informal, nihilistic powers of culture. There is one right way to be human – thus the insidious language in the Trump administration about gender being determined ‘objectively.’ Thus, the finger wagging of Pastor Mann in the pages of the Denton Record Chronicle.

But our protagonists, though they sing and dance oh so ‘crudely,’ have their own standards of decency. For example: thou shalt respect a person’s affirmed gender identity. They means they. But that’s just an instance of the underlying ethos, which is about respecting people for who they are and who they choose to be. It is the morality of true colors. When we cheer at the strip tease in a burlesque show, we are in a dynamic of empowerment where someone is showing us who they are and we are letting them know they are valuable and beautiful regardless of any stereotype of what bodies should look like.

The question is whether this morality can be squeezed without remainder into that great totem: consent. Consent is the ruling ideal of the burlesque show, where we are told not to touch the actors. Consent, the banner of the #metoo age, is rooted in the foundational concept of autonomy, which means self-legislating. Human beings are ends and can never be treated as mere means or cogs to be fit into some social scheme. It’s my body, my life, my choice.

Some of the proceeds from the burlesque tickets went to organizations that seek to decriminalize consensual sex work. After all, what could be wrong with two (or more) consenting adults having sex on terms they all find agreeable?

This is where consent, for as vital as it is, shows its limitations. Because consent has a way of devolving into transactional terms and getting dragged down into the language and logic of capitalism. You set the price and if I agree we have a deal. This seems fine enough for commodities, but is that a good way to talk about bodies and sex? I pictured those bodies that we celebrated on the stage arranged in store front windows for the offering. I didn’t want those bodies to be reduced to consumables…yes, even if the ‘owners’ of those bodies wanted to treat them that way.

I suppose this is where I will sound like those ‘conservatives’ sneered at in the musical. But I don’t see selling your “sex services” as a fitting conception of what sexuality is all about. It deforms sex to treat it as a market transaction. And it deforms the person who invites the alienating logic of wage labor into their own bodies. To be alienated is to be phony or inauthentic, which seems like all that sex under those conditions could be.

Some things are not for sale. Most cultures call these things ‘sacred.’ I wonder about a burlesque – and a feminism – that might find a way to complement a morality of consent with a sense of the body and sexuality as sacred. I don’t mean the pretentious pieties of Furry and his ilk. I am talking about a queer morality that doesn’t lose all sense of the profundities of sex and gender in its laudable push to expand our sense of what those terms can signify.

 

Climate Change and Philosophy Change

Everyone is talking about the New York Times feature on climate change by Nathaniel Rich. In “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” Rich details the history of climate science and politics between 1979 and 1989. He argues that there was a window of opportunity where bold action could have taken place given bipartisan support for climate policy and even a receptive fossil fuel lobby. Ultimately, though, action didn’t happen.

Why? Rich blames human nature: “human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.” In other words, it doesn’t matter which social organization they adopt, humans are selfish and short-sighted and, thus, bound to trample over ecological limits.

NGS Picture Id:1777543While acknowledging his good history, critics have accused Rich of doing bad philosophy. It is not human nature that is to blame, Naomi Klein writes, it’s capitalism. The 1980s was the worst possible time to fashion serious climate policy or any other collective act of solidarity, because that was the zenith of neoliberal ideology. Deregulation, privatization, and free trade became the dominant global recipe. China opened up to the world, further ushering in globalization, neo-colonialism, and thoughtless consumerism. Profit making dominated all else, smashing labor unions and, most importantly, ushering in a cultural imagination with no room for collective action, because ‘we’ humans are consumers not citizens. The invisible hand will fix everything.

Other critics have come to similar conclusions, substituting certain kinds of humans and social organizations for Rich’s royal “we” of human nature. Kate Oronoff argues along with Klein that the problem is basically American-style corporate capitalism. The same goes for Alyssa Battistoni in Jacobin: the 1980s were crucial because democratic control was subordinated to elite economic power and an ideology of endless growth. Other critics have also labeled Rich’s central thesis as “naïve” and “absurd” for similar reasons.

What these critics fail to mention is that environmental philosophers were having this exact debate during the 1980s. Founded at about the time that Rich’s story begins, the field of environmental philosophy took as one of its central tasks the diagnosis of our environmental crisis. Why were we despoiling the planet? Environmental philosophers understood that we needed a fundamental understanding of the problem, a theory, if we were to arrive at the proper solution.

One popular early theory was Deep Ecology. Like Rich, the deep ecologists tended to see the problem rooted in human nature. Humanity has fallen out of balance with the natural order of things. If humanity is like a cancer on the planet, an original sin, then what we need are severe restrictions. This took its purest form in the eco-brutalism of Dave Foreman and others who advocated a Malthusian lifeboat ethics, where watching poor people starve was actually the ethical thing to do – it meant fewer people and “people” are the problem, after all.

And just as Klein criticizes Rich, Murray Bookchin criticized the deep ecologists. In his 1987 take-down, “Social Ecology vs. Deep Ecology,” Bookchin lays out the same theory now being popularized thirty years later by Klein and others. The problem is not some “human nature,” but the capitalist social structure. The solution is the one worked out by anarchists starting with Peter Kropotkin and refined through the 1960s: “decentralization, a nonhierarchical society, democracy, small-scale communities, local autonomy, mutual aid, communalism, and tolerance…” In other words, humans are not the problem, but humans who are organized around hierarchy, bureaucracy, privilege, oligarchy, global flows of capital, impersonal relations, and ideologies of endless growth and desire. In short, capitalism is the problem.

So, in that crucial decade of the 1980s, not only was neoliberal ideology becoming dominant. Philosophers had already identified it as the problem. Now, if society would have only listened! But that didn’t happen for two reasons. First, the most powerful aspect of neoliberal ideology is its systemic thoughtlessness. If the invisible hand automatically solves problems, then there is no need for philosophy or theory – there is no need to first think about what is going on and then re-think the way we behave. Philosophy was cast as irrelevant and superfluous – economics is all we need.

Second, philosophers never came to a moral consensus among themselves. The social ecologists had allies in the ecofeminists and others. But there were still the deep ecologists on one side and the free-market environmental thinkers on the other side. Add to this mix those inspired by Heidegger who think the ultimate cause of our environmental problems is the modern scientific worldview and its technological way of setting up the world as a stock of resources. And we could add those who see the roots of our ecological crisis in the Judeo-Christian worldview and the divine command to subdue nature.

Environmental philosophy, in other words, has long remained riven by deeply divergent theoretical accounts of the problem. Had they arrived at some consensus view, things might be different. By way of analogy, bioethicists during the 1980s largely agreed on a moral framing of biomedical problems. And this consensus helped to grant them the social power to shape public policies. Bioethicists came to sit on Presidential advisory committees and the call lists of reporters. Environmental ethicists, by contrast, languished in the background hashing out incommensurable accounts of our times even as the world burned.

Imagine if a great Environmental Ethics Consensus had emerged in the 1980s. Imagine that every college student back then got the same message loud and clear: the ultimate cause of climate change and our other environmental problems is capitalism. We must seek structural changes to economic systems and fundamentally new ways of thinking about ourselves. Those kids demand in their economics and business classes that their teachers take account of this reality, updating their neoclassical and neoliberal models of human society. Now imagine all those college kids go on to shape public policies and business practices in the 1990s and 2000s.

Would that have made the crucial difference? If so, maybe the ultimate root of our ecological crisis is the failure of philosophers to agree with one another. Maybe what we needed was an ideology powerful enough to push back against neoliberalism. Philosophers had the conceptual ingredients for this, but failed to deliver the goods. In other words, philosophers suffered from their own brand of neoliberalism where they conceived of their work as radically independent, libertarian thought-experiments unconnected to collective action. They were knowledge producers and consumers rather than citizens.

So, we’re Not Doomed?

Finding Hope in the Decline of Coal

There may be as many as two billion habitable or earth-like ‘exoplanets’ in our galaxy. It would seem that the odds of encountering intelligent alien life are high. Yet we have yet to make first contact. That raises Enrico Fermi’s question: “Where is everybody?” One answer known as “the great filter” is that civilizations self-destruct once they reach a certain level of technological development. I can imagine God, eating popcorn, watching all these tragedies unfold – each in its unique way – as time and again supposedly smart creatures wink out of existence. Maybe this isn’t tragedy. Maybe it is all designed by a divine, morbid sense of humor.

When Donald Trump was elected to lead planet earth’s most powerful and wealthy nation, I could imagine God sitting up and paying attention. Here it comes – another one bites the dust! In their 2014 book, The Collapse of Western Civilization, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway don’t exactly predict Trump. But they do sketch a doomsday scenario where political leaders deny the urgency of climate change long enough to tip planetary physics into an unsustainable spiral of heat waves, droughts, famine, pestilence, sea-level rise, and general Armageddon. Trump’s policy of America first “energy dominance,” which is a love song to fossil fuels, is a perfect script for their story. Just when atmospheric carbon reaches dangerous levels, cue the administration that pulls the planet’s top polluter out of international climate treaties, claiming this is all a hoax. Now there’s a cosmic tragi-comedy worth watching!

But maybe something is wrong with the script. Despite a booming economy, US carbon dioxide emissions actually dropped during Trump’s first year in office. This suggests that we are achieving the holy grail of eco-modernism or green capitalism: decoupling greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth. Granted, the decrease in emissions is not nearly enough to cover the “emissions gap” between current trajectories and the widely shared goal of capping warming at 2 degrees Celsius. Yet if solar and wind prices keep plummeting and grid-scale battery technologies keep improving, then the gap will significantly shrink.

Coal, long America’s leading source of climate pollution, is dying a quick death despite Trump’s best efforts to prop it up. His most desperate ploy involved a big-government market intervention to subsidize coal. This was not only zany, but also hypocritical coming from the political party that is supposed to oppose subsidies and let free markets pick winners and losers. The plan was rejected.

More than half of the US coal fleet in 2010 is now either retired or slated for retirement. This includes retirements of massive coal plants in Texas, which is widely regarded as the place with an energy system closest to a free market ideal. Wind power is now the clear winner in Texas, despite the fact that its state legislature is ideologically opposed to renewables. Even if the Trump administration succeeds in dismantling Obama’s Clean Power Plan, we would still stay on target to meet its power plant emissions’ goals ten years early, because uneconomic coal plants are being shuttered. This means that even if the administration greases the wheels for coal leasing on federal lands, they are unlikely to get any customers. And despite a bump in 2017, coal exports are unlikely to grow, given that no new export facilities are planned.

The demise of coal was partially driven by cities and states as well as political efforts like the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. But the biggest driver is capitalism, the most ruthless honey badger of them all. There was no political war against coal prior to Trump, which means politics can’t save coal. It’s not ideology; it’s the economy, stupid. There is a lesson here about the limited power of politics, even in the form of the US President, in the face of high-tech, global capitalism. I am sympathetic to those who decry capitalism on ecological grounds, but I am also starting to appreciate the power of free markets to eradicate antiquated technologies. I guess I’ll take some creative destruction if the other choice is a nostalgic return to the good old days of coal.

The decarbonization of the electricity sector in the US means that, for the first time since 1979, power plants are no longer the primary source of carbon dioxide emissions. Here is how capitalism might just save civilization. First, we get cheap, clean electricity. Then, we run everything on cheap, clean electricity. Right now, the transportation sector is the biggest carbon polluter in the US, and it is only 0.1% electrified. Getting all cars, trucks, and airplanes to somehow run on renewable electricity seems like a pipe dream.

But the story of solar and wind power should instruct us to loosen up our imaginative capacities. In 2017 renewables accounted for 94.7% of the net new volume of US electricity generation. Just fifteen year ago, renewables were at about 1%. What’s happening today in electricity generation – despite a President fighting to buck the trend – would have been pretty hard to believe just a short while ago. So, should we really doubt that transportation – a sector already set to be rocked by automation – might just be poised for a similar green revolution? Perhaps our civilization isn’t lost yet.

NGS Picture Id:1777543

The Untimely Lesson of Coco

(warning: spoilers follow)

The new Disney film Coco looks at a timeless dilemma in an untimely way. The dilemma is that between individual and community, between the free self and the claims of family and tradition. By having a living boy dwell among the dead in the spirit world, the film shows the full depths of our contradictory human experience. Our birth sets us on a biography that no one else can share or inhabit from the inside. Our death folds us back into the same cloth. We are at once unique and selfsame. We are, en masse, alone.

Each culture has its own response to this push and pull. The modern west is founded, naturally, on the celebration of the individual. Tradition is seen as irrational, family as arbitrary and stifling, and the community as burdensome. Coco, however, is set in a premodern villa. We know this, because, work life and home life have not yet been thoroughly divorced. There is scant electricity and industry and business have not displaced the master-apprentice economy of handcraft. The square, the market, and the church are the living heart of the town. There is a widely shared and substantive morality, one rooted in shared religious celebration, especially Dia de los Muertos.

In the world of Coco, community, family, and tradition indeed lay heavily on the young. The boy, Miguel Rivera, is born into a rigidly structured arrangement with an identity already fated for him. The Riveras are shoemakers. They have been so now for five generations. The movie takes place on the Day of the Dead, where the living must concentrate on the pictures of the deceased arranged on the altar. The living must visit the graveyard and leave offerings there. The main song of the film is titled “Remember Me,” and it is the task of the living to remember, to hold the past in the present, to become a vessel for the ancestors. It is, to say the least, suffocating for Miguel who desperately wants to follow the bent of his own spirit to strike out and play guitar.

coco

This much, of course, resonates with our modern mythology – the explorers, the pioneers, the self-made men. It is also classic Disney fare, and that portrayal of stifling and hidebound societal norms still painted a fairly accurate picture of the world Walt Disney knew. Main Street, USA, which although quaint and reassuring also left kids dreaming of some escape.

But this is no longer our world, and that is why Coco is untimely. Our children, who sit there gawking at the computer-generated phantasmagoria, are entirely free floating. Forget Main Street, how about Walmart Heights. According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of primary school-aged children will end up working in jobs that do not yet exist. An Oxford study estimated that 47% of current jobs are at risk of elimination by automation. Another report argued that roughly one third of American workers will have to switch jobs in the coming decade due to artificial intelligence.

Whereas Miguel’s future looked all too much like the past, our future has no resemblance whatsoever with what came before. We are approaching the singularity, the point beyond which we cannot see, because what lies ahead is so unfathomably different than what came before. Miguel was overcrowded with remembrance; we have no possible use for it. The week before seeing Coco, I took my kids to the new Star Wars film. It offers such a nostalgic vision of the future – one where skillful human engagement still plays center stage. Master pilots, shrewd generals, disciplined Jedi. Our future is not so human, not so virtuous or skilled. We hardly fly planes anymore. I doubt my kids will ever drive a car. Robots are taking over the operating room. Wall-E is a much more plausible rendition of our future – humans reduced to flabby appendages of the machine.

We live in liquid modernity, where life is fragmented, episodic, and discontinuous, and all relationships are fleeting and contingent. Miguel’s struggle is with the heavy hand of the past. My children’s struggle is with a nihilistic future. Miguel had to find a way to lift the anchor. My kids are adrift with no anchor aboard.

This is why that slogan, Make America Great Again, touched a chord. It is ironic, perhaps, that Trump supporters might find a film set in Mexico scratching such a deep existential itch. It’s that ‘again,’ the act of remembrance, the orienting genius of the past, that catches our attention. Maybe tradition, community, family, church – those enduring, given, and unchosen dimensions of a human life – form a necessary matrix for the equally necessary expression of personal will and choice. That, at any rate, is the moral of Coco. Family and individual can both give just a little and find a way to harmonize. Miguel sees the vicious and vacuous underbelly of individualism (even or especially a version bedecked with fame and fortune). And his family sees the cruelty behind their narrow definition of human possibilities. In the end, Miguel plays music as the others make shoes. It all fits together like, well, arts and crafts.

But whether such a harmony is possible in our modern, or postmodern, times is far more ambivalent. Miguel’s grandmother smashes his homemade guitar, mistaking it for a mortal enemy to her way of life. What the film doesn’t portray are the actual threats, which in her case would be global corporate capitalism, industrial automation, and trade deals – in short ‘development’ or ‘modernization.’ The guitar is an easy mark – what can she smash when something as nebulous as ‘la technique’ sticks its finger in her world and stirs it all up? As for Miguel, what will he do when Napster comes along, and then Amazon and the entire monopolized culture industry? In short, the film is set a century or two too soon to offer us much guidance.

Monsters and Honey Badgers

The quaintness of Frankenstein in an age that doesn’t give a shit

 

2017 was the year of creator’s regret, with several tech industry leaders anguishing over the unintended consequences of their creations. Elon Musk warned that we are “summoning the demon” with artificial intelligence. Other Silicon Valley insiders – Sean Parker, Tristan Harris, Justin Rosenstein, and Loren Brichter – lamented the impacts of social media on our lives and democracy. Former vice president of user growth at Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya confessed, “I feel tremendous guilt” for his part in “eroding the core foundation” of basic human decency. In biotech, Jennifer Doudna published a book about the gene editing technology known as CRISPR in which she relates a nightmare where Hitler asks her about this new discovery.

As it happens, 2018 is the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the locus classicus for tech-hubris leading to ruin. Much will be said this coming year about how Frankenstein applies to our times. Although the parallels are obvious, the nineteenth century monster is actually a limited archetype for understanding our twenty-first century techno troubles. It does a good job highlighting the problem of technological thoughtlessness, but it doesn’t get at the deeper problem of carelessness. For that, I propose a new archetype: the honey badger. Shelley’s novel is soaked in the morality of romanticism with all its passion and earnestness. We, however, sup listlessly from the teat of mass culture, downing soda in our sweatpants at Walmart thumbing through a newsfeed for our drips of dopamine.

Victor Frankenstein was no hero, to be sure. But he’s not necessarily a villain either. He didn’t intend harm, and once he realized what he had done he felt remorse and, in true romantic form, he devoted his life to the dogged pursuit of his monster. Of course, once the genie is out of the bottle it may be too late to do anything about it. Technologies, like Frankenstein’s monster, take on lives of their own. But at least Victor tried. At least he had a heart. So too with some of our contemporary Frankensteins: at least they care.

Not so with the honey badger, the cobra-chomping, chaos-generating animal that just doesn’t give a shit. Stephen Bannon, Donald Trump’s former right-hand-man, embraced the honey badger as a campaign strategy. He got inspired after watching angry young men get lost in World of Warcraft, where they could pretend to be much tougher than they actually are and, disinhibited by the internet, they could say foul things they would never say face-to-face. Donald Trump, the don of fake wrestling, has since governed as the honey badger in chief, transgressing every kind of norm imaginable: social, democratic, moral, and intellectual.

True, you could spin the honey badger in a positive light: self-confident, determined, and fearless. You could even seem him as a revival of the romantic urge for authenticity. In a society stifled with bureaucracy, Bannon sold Trump as a dose of reality, as someone who cuts through the political correctness to tell it like it is. But no he doesn’t. He insults, swindles, lies, simplifies, and demeans. This isn’t about boldly pursuing some ideal in the face of hardship – as Frankenstein did first in creating his monster and then in trying to destroy it. That would be a form of giving a shit. Not giving a shit is about unscrupulous selfishness.

Being Frankenstein is about making something without thinking about the consequences. Being a honey badger (like being an internet troll or a spoiled brat) is about taking whatever you want, consequences be damned. It’s grabbing crotches and bragging about it. In some sense, the original political honey badgers, Bannon’s distant inspiration, were the sophists. Democratic citizenship requires being able to reason and speak well. The sophists taught this art. So far so good. But when you marry these skills to relativism and inculcate them in people of low moral character, trouble starts brewing. People calculate things to suit their own advantage, even if it is harmful to the polis. During the campaign, Trump said that gaming the system to avoid paying taxes, “makes me smart.” Yes, clever like Thrasymachus and the wily, beehive-smashing honey badger.

Martin Heidegger once quipped, “The most thought-provoking thing about our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” In one sense, that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is, after all, the knowledge society. We invest billions of dollars in research and we are constantly thinking up new gadgets. Bannon engineered Trump’s improbable victory through a masterful use of analytics and the processing of enormous amounts of data. But that is all instrumental thinking about the means. We don’t think much about ends and purposes, about being and living well, or about the common weal and greater good.

Victor pursued his ambition “with an ardour that far exceeded moderation,” but when he finished, “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” That’s because despite all his instrumental thinking he wasn’t really thinking – not about why he was pursuing this knowledge or about its wider ramifications. Nowadays, the National Science Foundation would ask him to first complete a broader impacts statement justifying his research. Of course, this too has become a form of pseudo-thinking as ‘broader impacts’ becomes slang for economic growth.

The mention of funding agencies suggests two ways in which Shelley’s monster, like her morality, is an anachronism. First, it was the product of early nineteenth century vocational and small-scale natural philosophy. Science is now Big – involving legions of actors – which muddies the question of responsibility. Thinking is not just instrumental, but hive; it’s specialized and distributed across networks. No one is really in control and there is no pinch point (like Frankenstein’s lab) where we could just turn off a potentially dangerous development.

Second, Shelley’s monster is too much of an outsider. In one sense it is a detestable hybrid composed of a mix-match of parts. But in another sense it is all too pure. Frankenstein’s monster lives on the edges of the social world. It was never really enrolled, recruited, or folded into things. Our technological monsters, by contrast, are woven into the fabric of human life. Frankenstein’s monster was never commercialized or used. Our technologies, though, are making somebody profit and they even go beyond that: they become needs.

The internet and fossil fuels simultaneously sustain and imperil us. Now those are abominable hybrids! And they don’t sustain or imperil all of us equally – it is a congeries of winners and losers. Indeed, whereas Frankenstein himself suffered the most from the bad behavior of his creation, our modern creators from entrepreneurs to corporations to entire wealthy nations are usually the ones who suffer least from negative consequences.

Stephen Jay Gould argued that the moral of Frankenstein is not that Victor shouldn’t have made the monster, but that he failed in his duty “to teach his own charge and to educate others in acceptance.” Certainly modern day creators should take this lesson to heart. But my point is that any moral focused on Victor is antiquated. There is no Victor anymore – no single individual responsible for both creating and instructing his progeny. We can talk about Musk and the other big names all we want, but really they are just about as powerless as anybody else. Our monsters are a collective action problem, which introduces the deeper issue: no one cares.

Imagine if Victor never gave another thought to his monster once it was created. Thought only comes with motivation – the object of thought has to matter to you. But our monstrous technologies mitigate against this mattering. We fill up the car but don’t see the refinery, we buy the cellophane-wrapped meat but don’t see the slaughterhouse, and we work in the office but don’t see the steel mines that built it, coal mines that run it, or garbage dumps that follow it. As Heidegger would say, the world is obscured or covered-up. We might know abstractly that to sustain our lifestyle we must plunder the planet. But it is not present-at-hand; it is not a matter of concern. Thus, we go on living our decadent lives as if, well, we don’t give a shit.

Or imagine if Victor visited the murder scenes left behind by his monster only to point out the circumstantial nature of the case. Is there actual video footage of the killings? Even if there was, who can trust video nowadays in the age of digitally-resurrected movie stars? Then imagine him smugly shrugging the whole thing off as a hoax or as fake news. That’s not how the novel went, but that’s our reality. Gould said that the makers of monsters must educate others to accept them, but that’s precisely what the tobacco and fossil fuel industries do. And now that Scott Pruitt is in charge of the EPA we are learning how to accept all sorts of misunderstood chemicals, not to mention misunderstood climate skeptics.

For all the spine-tingling qualities of her novel, Shelley didn’t plumb the dark depths of power-hungry moral depravity. And she assumed a reality principle that we can no longer take for granted. Frankenstein’s monster was out of control, to be sure, but at least that was plain to see. But now? Who knows and, really, who cares?

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