A Father’s Prayer

When you were five, we’d get out your little step ladder in front of the bathroom mirror. We’d paint our faces in shaving cream, and you and I would shave together. You would study me to know just the right way to do it. Tilt your chin, go slow, wipe the slate clean.

You wore your “puma hat” for a full year because you hated that long hair. And it was always Diego, never Dora. Cowboy boots, Buzz Lightyear, and Spiderman. We’d pretend your closet was an elevator or a rocket ship taking us to the moon. Kung Fu Panda got you into taekwondo. You had a black belt before you turned ten.

You held the door for strangers who said, “What a fine young gentleman you are raising!” They were right. I was wrong. Being so incredibly dense, the Thanksgiving when you were six and your sister was two, I raised a glass to give thanks “for my girls.” Mom corrected me: “Give thanks for your kids.” She was always smarter than me. I was still only starting to comprehend.

The next Thanksgiving, finally with your short hair, our dear family friend asked how to address you, saying there are three choices: your first name, your middle name, or your nick name. You said, “Actually, there is a fourth choice. My initials.” Those initials, I think, saved your life. They were a bridge, not for you, but for me to walk over to the real you. There is a fourth choice, another option for getting names to match Being. You taught me that. I was looking without seeing, the way someone doesn’t notice the elephant in the room only because they never expected it to be there. Expectations, like comparisons, are such horrible things.

What’s in a pronoun? A word, a world. Existence is in the smallest words. You. Me. I. Us. He. Him. His truth. Your truth. Our truth. After changing your name at the courthouse, we got tacos and ice cream. So much had changed, and so little. All this mystery. And all this shared history, and yet some folks think they know! They don’t know.

When you were nine, we spent six months camping in the American West. The Ponderosa under the turning moon. Volcanic hoodoos at Chiricahua and the kivas of Chaco. Your sister stuck her hand on a prickly pear cactus and accidentally broke your beloved hiking stick that you brought all the way from Big Bend. It had lived as a reed on the Rio Grande. You had reinforced it with duct tape at nights in the camper. We held a funeral for it at Joshua Tree. A few days later, we saw dolphins on the boat to the Channel Islands. I remember the sea mist in your wondering eyes. A Saguaro your age would be two inches tall. All things change. They change in their own way at their own pace. “God is change,” wrote Octavia Butler. Amen.  


The American Virus Shit Storm

From fracking to transgender rights, I keep bumping into questions of political jurisdiction. Cities, states, the federal government…Who shall rule? It’s a foundational question in political philosophy. America has embraced a federalist approach with power distributed in a variety of ways across jurisdictions. Though often confusing and contentious, this system has many virtues. But it is a recipe for disaster when it comes to the coordinated action required to respond effectively to a pandemic.

Earlier, I wrote about how the coronavirus might rip America apart at the seams. That was four days ago when we had 46,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19. Now we are at 117,000 cases, more than any country in the world. The tension between “flattening the curve” and “getting back to work” is growing, and it is starting to manifest along these contested lines of power and jurisdiction.

As Ezra Klein argues, this is a dangerously wrong way to frame things. The choice we face is not between human life and economic growth – saving lives is saving the economy. Senator Lindsey Graham put it well: “there is no functioning economy unless we control the virus.” Or as Bill Gates put it, we can’t restart the economy and just “ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner.”

And yet Trump is hell bent to fall on this sword of a false dilemma, insisting that we are going to open up the economy soon. He sent a letter to Governors outlining a (one page) plan to ease social distancing guidelines that would entail the use of testing to categorize counties as high, medium, or low risk. Never mind that testing is still being strictly rationed in many places.

On Thursday, he said in a phone interview, “I think we can open up sections, quadrants, and then just keep them going until the whole country’s opened up, but we have to open because people want to get back to work… that’s the way we are engineered.” He then included my home state of Texas as an example where there are places “that aren’t impacted by this.”

Yet everywhere is already impacted. If numbers are low in some places, that’s largely an artifact of inadequate testing. Opening up those areas – or any ‘quadrant’ or ‘section’ – will be a recipe for disaster. It flies in the face of advice from economists and public health experts alike.

And yet, here we go. We are about to witness mass confusion as Trump and the federal government issue their guidelines for easing social distancing even as many states, counties, and municipalities insist on sticking to shelter-in-place rules. The first skirmishes are already flaring up.

A Glimpse of What’s Coming

On March 24, Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi issued an Executive Order that implemented some social distancing rules, but also gave an extremely wide definition of “essential business.” The rules, in short, were far less strict than some local regulations in the state. Naturally, the Governor invoked his power to preempt local rules, claiming that his Executive Order cancels “any order, rule, regulation or action by any governing body, agency or political subdivision of the state that imposes any additional freedom of movement or social distancing limitations on Essential Business or Operation…”

In north Texas, Collin County Judge Chris Hill issued an order for everyone to stay home except for essential activities; yet he went on to define all businesses all jobs and all workers as essential. This prompted a rebuke from Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who called on everyone in the region to “heed the scientific advice… Every day we wait costs lives.” In response, Hill asked Jenkins to “reconsider his position.”

A resident of McKinney Texas, which is in Collin County, is suing the city. He claims that McKinney’s shelter-in-place order contradicts Judge Hill’s order for the county. McKinney mayor George Fuller said, “I put an order in place that I believe with all my heart is the smart and right thing to do. And now I have a single resident not elected trying to speak for the community that did not put him in office to speak for them.” The resident shot back: “It is arbitrary for the mayor who is and isn’t important to go to work. Don’t basically fire people with an edict from on high which causes them to basically lose their income and their house.”

Things are even messier than this, of course, because many cities overlap county borders. We are primed for a shit show of lawsuits, contradictory orders, and a jurisdictional nightmare. The Russians could hardly wish for more chaos, and we’ll bring it upon ourselves as our leadership vacuum fills with deadly confusion.

The Upshot

Who is empowered to decide? What counts as an ‘arbitrary’ definition of an ‘essential’ activity or business? These are the loose threads in the American federalist system that will be pulled on to unravel whatever collective garment we were weaving to protect us from the virus through social distancing. Trump will be the gleeful ringleader of the ensuing circus. He can’t strictly use the power of the federal government to override state, county, and local shelter-in-place rules. But he can use his bully pulpit, twitter account, and other informal powers to pull on those threads. And he will.

A successful social distancing response to a pandemic requires strict vigilance and extended, cooperative sacrifice and commitment. The American political system is simply not wired for this.

If that McKinney resident thinks that the Mayor’s decision was arbitrary, just wait. We are about to see the Trump administration unveil a host of arbitrary criteria and guidelines about which ‘quadrants’ (?!) are low risk and which are high risk. Given that our failure to test has left us in the dark about the true extent of infections, these rules (which will be rushed for Easter) will be far from evidence-based. Yet they will serve as ammunition for leaders and individual citizens who want to get back to work and sue whatever entity is keeping them from their paycheck.

Trump’s “get back to work” crowd is a ‘faction’ as defined in the Federalist Papers: “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

The founding fathers devised a pretty good plan for controlling such factions so that their “improper or wicked project” does not “pervade the whole body of the Union.” The trouble with this, though, is that this faction only has to get a toehold somewhere in the Union. From there, the virus will do the pervading.

Will the Virus End America?

The coronavirus pandemic has upended the world. It’s hard to keep track of the enormous changes and make sense of the bigger picture. Massive uncertainties make it nearly impossible to see around the corner. Yet we must keep trying to peek into the future. As I do so now in the United States, I see something ominous: The tension between public health and economics is going to escalate into a war.

The sides will split, roughly, along partisan divides, fueled by alternate media filters and entrenched epistemic tribes. Different realities with different experts and leaders will march into battle in a war with deadly consequences. Federal, state, and local governments will be giving deeply mixed messages and directives. Businesses will be caught in the middle trying to navigate the urge to get back to work with those graphs showing the coming death toll if we succumb to that urge. The result will be fractious, even violent, civil strife overlaid atop economic freefall and a waking nightmare at hospitals. This political unrest will hit us just as police forces and the military will be weakened and stretched by the virus. In other words, this pandemic might bring not just a painful economic contraction and horrific casualties, but the demise of our nation.

The Making of a Tragedy

This story might unfold in any nation, to be sure, given that the virus poses so many difficult decisions and stretches the capacity of so many systems. Yet in a way this is a future that is uniquely ripe for America given its current leadership, its decades-long ideological attack on government, collective amnesia about past pandemics, and growing disdain for science and expertise.

Once it got into the human bloodstream, the virus was going to inevitably bring tragic consequences. Lives cut short, businesses upended, and jobs lost. Some level of damage was unavoidable. Yet what we have learned from countries on the leading edge of the pandemic is that damage can be minimized if swift and decisive action is taken. China chose a shutdown for large portions of the country. Notably, these actions were implemented when confirmed cases of Covid-19 totaled just 500. Their strategy is certainly not without its costs, but it has almost entirely eliminated new domestic infections. Of course, it is likely that as it ramps its economy back up, more outbreaks will occur. Still, though, starting to ramp up in March is remarkable and future outbreaks will hopefully be more manageable.  

Singapore is widely hailed as the best example. Their approach was also swift and decisive, but different. Rather than big shutdowns, they went the route of aggressive testing, tracing, and isolating. They had the infrastructure and plans in place to undertake this approach, because they learned tough lessons from the SARS outbreak in 2003. They also have a different socio-political culture featuring more surveillance and fewer civil liberties than in the US.

Rather than swift, decisive action, the Trump Administration frittered away precious days, weeks, and now months. Unfathomably, testing is still limited and must be rationed carefully. There has been no federal-level mandate to implement a national shut down as we have seen in a growing number of countries. Instead, the early message was that we had this under control. That shifted, finally, to a recommendations for social distancing. And now, spooked by market collapse, Trump is already shifting again away from even those exceedingly weak guidelines.

In the vacuum of federal leadership, states, counties, municipalities, and businesses have scrambled to put in place a patchwork of restrictions. Yet without nation-wide uniformity, the effectiveness of such measures is severely weakened. New Yorkers are infecting Floridians and vice versa. Governors are competing for each other in spaces where FEMA should be coordinating. Meanwhile, the Commander-in-Chief has yet to mobilize the military despite desperate pleas from his hometown of New York City.

The cat is out of the bag. Domestic spread may be slowed by our existing sieve of localized control measures, but not nearly enough. As I write this, there are over 46,000 confirmed cases in the US (and remember how limited our testing is). Recall that China implemented its lockdown at 500 cases. Try to keep in mind those images of military vehicles in a long row carting away dead bodies from overwhelmed Italian hospitals. Yet rather than clamping down harder on the virus, we are about to let up.

The upshot is that we have severely damaged the economy, but not slowed the virus. This, then, is a different kind of tragedy – one of our own doing. The Trump administration has put us in a situation where we now confront both staggering public health consequences and unbelievable economic misery. It did not have to be this way, but now it is too late. We are watching the gruesome logic of exponential viral spread even as the gears of our economy come grinding to a halt. Trump has brought us the worst of both worlds.

The Pivot

This is an enormous blunder caused by a failure to act swiftly and decisively. What we are seeing now from The Trump administration and Republican leaders like Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick is a strategic pivot. Patrick is now arguing that senior citizens have a patriotic duty to die so that their grandchildren have a functioning economy. That this kind of totalitarian-speak comes out of “freedom-loving” Texas and not China is a sign of our upside-down times.

Trump is now pivoting (waffling) as is evident with his tweet about “not letting the cure be worse than the disease.” Vice President Pence keeps counting down their 15-day clock, but given the complete inadequacy of their policies, this clock is meaningless. Worse than that, it becomes an excuse to declare some sort of victory just because an arbitrary deadline has passed. It’s like declaring a patient cured despite their worsening condition just because you administered 15 days-worth of aspirin.  

Yet this is what Trump is now getting ready to do. At some arbitrary moment in the near future, he is going to push for America to get back to work. This will happen even as New York City struggles to find enough respirators. It will happen even as public health experts, armed with frightening models, call for sheltering in place. Even the experts pushing for more targeted approaches premised on greater testing and isolating vulnerable populations recognize that we need at least a two-week shutdown at this point before we a new paradigm of test, trace, and isolate can be effective.

Public health experts have been telling us that our objective is to flatten the curve to reduce and slow the spread of the virus. This can also buy time for the healthcare system to absorb patient load and ramp up capacity. We have all seen the graphs showing alarming spikes far exceeding hospital capacities. These spikes mean that people will die who would otherwise be saved. People of all ages. Doctors, nurses, police officers, grocery store clerks, and delivery drivers.

The federal government and many state governments are about to tell us to embrace those spikes. Give up the fight to flatten the curve and get back to work. Having allowed the virus to spread (still largely untested) and those spikes to grow higher, these leaders bear moral responsibility for the resulting carnage. Of course, they won’t acknowledge that – they’ll take credit for restoring jobs but they won’t take the blame when those workers end up at an over-crowded hospital.

If the stock market is going up in anticipation of an economic re-boot, that will only be a brief blip. People are going to go back to work. People are going to then get sick. People are going to not get healthcare. People are going to die who would have been alive had they been ordered to stay home and ride this out. The market will crash again. Had we all been given the order to stay home or had we started massive testing weeks ago, we might now be seeing light rather than deepening darkness.

How it Might Play Out

Here we are now. It’s “Flatten the curve” vs. “Get back to work.” Again, had we acted quickly and boldly weeks ago, this would still likely be a point of tension, but the stakes would be dampened. Instead, due to dithering, and denial, this tension for our country has only grown. It is building up steam and pressure as both the virus death toll and unemployment continue to mount with no end in sight. A fight is brewing, egged on by the unbearable anxieties caused by the virus and joblessness alike.

Soon, we will be “seeing double” as Thomas Hobbes famously wrote about the conditions of civil war. The Trump administration and some state governments will be telling us to go back to work. Meanwhile, public health experts (many functioning within government agencies) and other state governments will be telling us to hunker down. Add to this a cacophony of further mixed messages from city and county governments and employers. Think of it: employers might be fighting with employees about whether to go to work or not – each armed with their own official directives.

Of course, to some degree we are already in this situation of mixed messages. But over the past few weeks, the Trump administration has at least paid lip service to their experts and to social distancing guidelines. They have tolerated the more extreme measures taken by a dozen states and many local governments. But that truce will end. Trump will go to war against governors and mayors, who will in turn be fighting with each other.

Perhaps just as scary, Trump will turn his dictatorial will against his own public health experts. This, of course, is not surprising. It is what he does. But this time the consequences will be far more deadly and damaging. Dr. Fauci, who has put up a noble fight for facts up to this point, will be silenced. The CDC will be instructed to issue new guidelines about how to get back to work safely. These guidelines will contradict their own urgent calls for enhanced social distancing. Some in the CDC will resign. Others will learn doublespeak and comply. The guidelines will be issued, giving those who want it the sense of assurance that they are doing the safe thing by getting back to work. They will be listening to the science, never mind it is just politics by another name at that point.

From there, it gets harder to see. It’s just too dark.

Equality Ordinance for Denton

So, you like the idea of an equality ordinance for Denton.  But you don’t quite know how to talk about it. Well, here are some ideas.

#1. Dude, everyone deserves equality before the law. That’s so American!

#2. It is legal in Texas for a boss to fire someone, a landlord to evict someone, or a business to refuse service to someone just because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. That is so un-American! (see #1)

#3. A 2015 survey found that 45% of transgender workers in Texas report not being hired for a job because of their gender identity or expression. Further, 26% report losing a job, and 22% report being denied a promotion because of their gender identity or expression. (WTF – again, see #1)

#4. Despite what you read in the comments section of the DRC, this doesn’t give anyone “special rights” or “special treatment.” If an equality ordinance guaranteed that trans people get an extra cup-cake at work, then I could see this argument. But it doesn’t. Do you know why? Because it’s about EQUAL rights not special privileges. If you fit our culture’s hetero-sexual, cis-gender norms, then guess what – YOU have privilege, bro!

#5. But what about bathrooms!? Fear not, this has nothing to do with bathrooms. (The Dallas equality ordinance, for example, never mentions the word.) Repeat: no potty logic involved here. Just, you know, people being treated fairly in employment, housing, and public services.eod

#6. Take a deep breath – we won’t be sued. Five cities in Texas have a similar ordinance. Some have been around for over ten years. No one has been sued. Dude, PLANO has an equality ordinance. (Denton, is this mic on?)

#7. If someone is not buying the whole American values argument, tell them that this is good for business. That’s also just so American! Discrimination, it turns out, isn’t just wrong, it’s bad for business.

#8. But religion – doesn’t this violate religious freedoms?! No, religious organizations are already protected by federal laws that allow them to make employment decisions on the basis of religion. These rights are reflected in other Texas equality ordinances through exemption clauses. Denton will do the same.

#9. I bet you know someone who is gay, trans, or doesn’t fit gender stereotypes. Ask yourself if you think they deserve the same rights as you. If your answer is yes, then know all you need to know. Speak up. Show up. Wave a flag with red, white, blue, and all the other colors.


“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.

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.


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.


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.


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.