Category Archives: American culture

Stop Saying “Cancel Culture”

cancel-culture

I’m getting a little tired of this “cancel culture” nonsense.

The term originated with the #MeToo movement, which targeted the likes of Bill Cosby and Louis CK, men whose history of misogynistic behavior led people to (justly) withdraw their support for the offenders’ careers. But while the term is newish, the tactics it describes aren’t. Canceling is another word for boycotting, which has been around forever. Read more

George Floyd and the Soul of The Mission

I’m a big fan of Dan Ryan’s. He sees the streets and he loves the people he finds there. And in him they obviously recognize something they can trust.

As a result he’s able to capture a frankness, an honesty, a whimsy that I think the rest of us miss entirely. Maybe we can’t see it, or maybe we’re afraid to.

Dan recently took his camera to the George Floyd Matters rally in San Francisco’s Mission District and came away with a visual record of a tough community that has seen plenty, and has now seen enough. But not so much they’ll forsake their values.

Give it a look.

George Floyd Matters rally

NASCAR’s Nuts Are in a Vice

NASCAR this week announced they’re banning the Confederate battle jack from all properties and events. Ray Ciccarelli, who was in witness protection on the truck circuit, immediately announced he was quitting in protest. The drama continued this morning as Jimmie Johnson, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch said they were severing their relationships with a helmet designer who decided to double down on heritage racism. Read more

Here’s Why These Protests Are Different

George-Floyd-Houston-protests

I’ve heard people the past few days saying these protests feel different to them. Like, maybe this time we’ll get results? Like George Floyd’s murder was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Like this is the tipping point and justice will no longer be denied?

I’m long past betting that protesters can stay in for the long haul. America is a soft culture, pampered and affluent, with no history whatsoever of sacrifice. (Talking about the white folks here – Black America gets it, but real change is going to require allies willing to go the distance with them.) Bread? Circuses? We’re good. Traditionally we’ll raise hell a few days then give up. We treat civil disobedience like we might a music festival. Coachella. Bonnaroo. Cops-Murdered-a-Black-Guy-Palooza.

Nor is there any hope at all the establishment will change its mind in the absence of dire coercion.

But the protests outlasted the weekend and it’s absolutely not business as usual. So yes: maybe this time is different. Probably not, but maybe. If it is, here’s the why.

Cops killing black people for no reason isn’t new. Protests against such killing isn’t new. The rage keeps growing, but why would this case be the one? The video of Derek Chauvin calmly murdering George Floyd is certainly harrowing, and no doubt that’s a part of it (just like the Ray Rice video put the NFL in a spot where it could no longer hem and haw its way around its domestic violence problem). We saw what we saw.

I think the bigger reason is Coronavirus.

Consider:

  • For starters, America has a serious case of cabin fever. Quarantining – can’t see friends, can’t go out, and it isn’t just about being spoiled. The isolation has ramped up mental health problems in tangible ways, we’re learning. Isolation is perfect for roiling up frustration.
  • Yes, the anger has been building for some time, but now add to the fire the effect of seeing white privilege not only on parade as Karen and Chad demand haircuts, but also the surreal scenes of armed militias storming a state house. And getting away with it. And seeing these “very fine people” whipped into a lather by the President. It’s all been memed and documented and the juxtapositions are mortifying. This is all happening when we’re trapped inside and have fewer things to take our minds off it.
  • Past protests – even #Occupy – have all petered out. It takes energy to sustain the rage. Also, lots of protesters have to go to work. But thanks to COVID-19, lots of us are out of work. Dwindling cash. No prospects for it getting better anytime soon, if ever. So anxiety is high, and all of a sudden millions of people with severe, existential grievances don’t necessarily have any particular place they need to be tomorrow morning. In other words, the bread supply is in jeopardy.
  • With all the sports shut down there are fewer circuses, too. This is probably a much smaller issue, but functioning societies have release valves for the pressure that inherently builds up over the routine stresses of day-to-day life. And right now the powers that be could do with some playoffs.
  • The COVID crisis is occurring in a context where normal is dead, the rules are changing (and we don’t know what they are), and there’s more fear than hope about the coming “new normal,” which is certainly going to be a lot more new than normal. In other words, there’s less to lose in the now and absolutely no promise for the future.
  • There’s always been a general linkage between progressive issues, and as the heat rises the connections coalesce. It’s about George Floyd, it’s about the police, it’s about income inequality and neo-Feudal economics and poverty, it’s about climate, it’s about healthcare, it’s now about all of it.

George Floyd iceberg

This is what I think is happening on the people’s side. Some of the same kinds of dynamics may well be at work with the police – it’s a stressful time for everyone, one way or another. If so, what we have in the streets is a keg of dynamite with a gasoline-soaked fuse.

If, on top of it all, we start seeing record high temperatures (and a nasty COVID second wave)… Well, may the gods help us all.

I Don’t Want to “Heal America’s Divisions”

American Exceptionalism

My friend Mario Nicolais, who writes for the excellent Colorado Sun, this morning recommended an Atlantic article to his Facebook friends: “Jonathan Haidt Is Trying to Heal America’s Divisions.” It’s a worthy read and I hope Mario will take it up in a forthcoming Sun column.

I’m trying to frame my own response to Haidt’s hopefulness and I’m having trouble. I think you reach a point where hope is harder and harder to come by. Try your best, do your best, but the forces tightening around you leave little promise for anything but conflict.

I try to hang on to hope, but I pay less attention to possibilities than I do probabilities.

I’m exhausted by people who believe our “divisions” are the problem. That’s like believing the problem is all the blood on the floor. No, the problem is the sucking chest wound the blood is coming from. Divisions are the effect, not the cause.

The problem is the assortment of pathologies defining the coalition on our political “right.” Racism. Misogyny. Willful, enthusiastic ignorance. Greed and obscene economic inequity. Jingoism. Narrow, spiteful “faith” and religious bullying. The psychosexual fetishization of guns and violence as a first-resort response to anything and everything. Homophobia. Braying dishonesty. The refusal to accept or empathize with those who are demographically other.

The problem is our neglect and abuse of those unable to fend for themselves and our general willingness to tolerate incalculable misery. The problem is hypocrisy on a scale we’ve never even imagined, let alone seen in the wild.

The Democrats are appalling in their own right, but the GOP has become the Party of the Seven Deadly Sins. They’re the malevolent repudiation of every word Jesus is believed to have spoken.

Conservatives sometimes say “Liberals” are “trying to destroy their way of life.” They’re right. The things they believe, the ideologies and ignorance they cling to, these are anti-human and anti-social. They’re the values upon which you build a primitive tribe, not a modern society. Those beliefs are an anchor around the neck of our shared future and they must be eradicated.

This is where we are. This is where I am:

I’m not going to “reach out.”

I don’t want to “come together.”

I have no interest in “finding common ground” where there is none.

I don’t want to “understand the perspectives” of those who care only for their own. I know those perspectives and understand them plenty already.

I’m sure as hell not interested in “compromise.” I don’t compromise with fascists, feudalists, or terrorists.

No. I don’t want to “heal our divisions.” I want to destroy the ignorance, ideologies, and institutions that cause and sustain those divisions.

I stand for equality of opportunity. I stand for empathy. I stand for justice and a code of law that doesn’t care about the color of your skin or the size of your daddy’s wallet. I believe in universal education and I believe in the “greatest country on Earth” no one should want for healthcare, shelter, or food.

I believe there is zero correlation between a person’s essential value and his or her material wealth.

None of this – not one syllable – is negotiable.

For COVID-19, America is Home

As any number of Facebook posts and memes have pointed out in recent weeks, we don’t wear masks to protect ourselves, we wear them to protect others. Our homemade cloth masks don’t do a great job of keeping the virus out, but they’re fairly effective at keeping it in.

In other words, minimizing the spread of Coronavirus depends on concern for others.

But America was founded on the idea that somehow individualism adds up to utopia for everyone. The best society happens when I get mine. The root of this ideology is economic, but it has, over several centuries, become generalized to all spheres of life. We have recently seen the results in pictures from malls, restaurants, and, remarkably, state capitols.

Being forced to wear a mask violates my freedom. Rules requiring me to distance from other citizens violate my freedom. Closing restaurants and bars violates my freedom.

We have apparently reached the point in our social evolution where I have the freedom to kill you. If the government does anything to prevent me from killing you, that’s communism.

Individualism is no longer an ideology of freedom (if it ever really was). It’s an existential pathology.

my car my choice drunk driving is a rightI’ve written before about the French statesman Alexis de Toqueville, whose tour of the US in the early 19th century gave us Democracy in America, still regarded by many as the most insightful look at our national character ever written. For me, the center of his thesis rested on the phrase “self-interest rightly understood.”

Their socially and civically viable vision of self-interest was working well in 1835, when Alexis d’Toqueville wrote “How the Americans Combat Individualism by the Principle of Interest Rightly Understood.” The idea and word “individualism” were newly minted and Tocqueville marveled that “an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts [Americans] to assist each other, and…willingly to sacrifice…[for] the welfare of the state.”

This variety of self-interest knows it needs a thriving community and doesn’t seek to gain at the expense of it. Weakening what you depend on, slowly weakens your more enlightened self-interest (it’s a win-now-lose-later strategy). Similar logic animates Pericles’ funeral oration: “It does not matter whether a man prospers as an individual: If his country is destroyed, he is lost along with it.” Even Ayn Rand, the high priestess of selfishness, distinguished between what she called rational and irrational forms.

What would de Tocqueville have made of the display in Lansing a couple of weeks ago?

Granted, much has changed. The America of 1831 (when he arrived) was comparatively homogenous – which is another way of saying the slaves hadn’t been freed and, as such, the particular forms of racism that have driven both social evolution and public policy since Gettysburg (and especially since the Civil Rights Act) didn’t yet exist. People are more likely to take care of theirs, and it’s always a mistake to romanticize their concern for yours.

In short, America c.2020 is perhaps the ideal host for Coronavirus. Its ability to spread is dramatically hindered where the population actively works to protect others. A society that has fetishized and institutionalized feral-dog-Darwinism, on the other hand, is the best incubator imaginable.

COVID-19 wasn’t born in America, but rest assured, America is its home.

The Five Best Things on Facebook

The Vault of the Atomic Space Age

Facebook is a discordant marketplace-of-ideas battle royale unlike anything in human history. Most of it is inane (or worse) dreck. But some of it is brilliant – enlightening, uplifting, empathetic. If we could get rid of the 99.99% that isn’t we’d have a foundation for a better world.

But we can’t. So for now we’ll have to make do with my picks for the best things therein.

Brandon Stanton

Humans of New York

Brandon Stanton is a photographer and storyteller supreme. Or rather, he’s supremely talented at getting people to share their stories. He walks around NYC (and these days he jaunts about the world on occasion, too), takes pictures of those he sees, and lets them talk about their lives. Sometimes it’s harrowing, sometimes it’s informative, sometimes it’s whimsical and funny, but it’s always authentic and 100% free of judgment.

George Takei

George Takei

Actor, writer, and now First Citizen of the Internet. Stanton avoids judgment, but Takei brings an up-front agenda to the table in his campaign to promote fairness, equality, hope, dignity, and basic human decency. You may not agree with all he has to say – he wouldn’t ask you to – but if you engage with him in good faith you’ll come away a better, more thoughtful person.

The Man Must Burn

The Vault of the Atomic Space Age
The Man Must Burn

I present these together because their yin and yang exploration of the Modern Era is, I think, an essential study of a critically important moment in our history.

If I might abstract a bit, The Vault of the Atomic Space Age is dedicated to a presentation of 20th Century Modernism more or less on its own terms. The About brief describes it as “Art, fashion, design, technology, mid-century style, architecture, etc from the Atomic Space Age,” and while that’s true as far as it goes it undersells the sophistication with which the curator presents the vision of a society ascendant, winner of the World Wars and a bit heady on its new status as world leader. Its fetishization of the nuclear sublime and the grandiosity with which it sees its destiny is critical for us today because of the story told by the gap between the vision and what we now know of the reality 70 years on.

There’s a temptation to say the artifacts are presented objectively and unironically, but what we know makes that impossible.

If Vault indulges the techophilia of a supremely self-confident (and self-involved) culture, The Man Must Burn takes a grittier view. Denver’s own Matt Boggs shares his love affair with the 20th century’s dark side, collecting and archiving a staggering array of artifacts from the 1900s (seriously, I have no idea how he finds some of this stuff), focusing on the Mid-Century Modern era – everything from art to celebrity photos to comic books to space and war photography to cars to the sparkling retro-futurism of the 1950s and ’60s. As I look at the page now we have 1940s warplanes, Elvis, a link to a History.com article on the Spanish Flu-incited spiritualism craze and then some. Describing its breadth and depth is nearly impossible, but its visual impact, its persistent raid on the collective psyche of our rage to military, economic, and cultural empire, is everything the Internet ought to be.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Loosely affiliated with NASA, APOD is just what the name says. Each day we’re presented with a photo (usually breathtaking) of some corner of the cosmos, along with a well-crafted narrative telling us what we’re seeing. It’s hard to come away without being awed and informed.

We probably all have our favorites, and we like them our own reasons. These are mine, and I’d enjoy hearing about yours in the comments.

How Are We Making History Today?

Cat White sewing coronavirus masks

Cat White sews coronavirus masks from her home in Cleveland. Photograph: John Bacon.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the defining moment of our generation. The last global crisis of this magnitude was World War II, and with any luck we won’t see anything this dire again for decades. That’s probably wishful thinking, for a variety of reasons (climate, for instance), but we can hope.

We’re living in History – with a capital H.As in, this event is one that will appear in History books for years, decades, perhaps centuries to come. The Black Plague. The Spanish Flu. Coronavirus. With luck we have advanced to the point medically where COVID will claim fewer lives, although late-stage consumer capitalism, coupled with dramatic overpopulation and poverty, has perhaps created a perfect storm of entitled affluenza in the developed world (mainly the US) and lethal squalor elsewhere. It’s early days still, and most of the narrative is yet to be written.

Here’s the thing we should be thinking about, though. Histories tell stories. Stories of bodies stacked in the streets. Of beaches soaked with blood. Of empires brought low by hubris and new empires arising from the ashes.

They also tell small stories, stories of sacrifice and goodwill. Stories of people and communities uniting in the face of existential threats.

Right now some of my friends are rounding up scrap fabric and unused craft remnants, breaking out their sewing machines and making masks for their friends, for emergency workers, for medical professionals. These masks aren’t medical grade, but in a nation that was tragically slow to catch on not-quite-perfect is better than nothing.

Brithish-Bulldog-closed-COVID

In Denver, the British Bulldog is down but hopefully not out.

Here’s another one. My Chelsea FC supporters club, the Rocky Mountain Blues, has been passing the hat for the bartenders and kitchen workers at the British Bulldog, the pub where we stand on matchday. The Dog is more than a soccer bar. Many of us might as well be family and we cherish those who take care of us, even though Samantha supports Liverpool and Drew is a Gooner.

The total so far is over $1500. 10 times that amount wouldn’t be nearly enough, we know, especially in an economy long on me and short on us. But it’s something, especially if we lock arms and multiply it by millions.

Collectively Western society is festering at its core. But at the level of the individual, at the level of the civic group, at the level of the informal gathering of empathetic souls we’re as good as we ever were. Better, even.

The History books will repeat this story. But first we have to write it.

Let’s get to it.

Kristen Wheeler sewing masks

Disabled Army vet Kristen Wheeler is still serving. Photograph: Sarah Wheeler.

What Is the “New Normal,” Anyway?

normal

It’s inevitable that we all want to get back to normal. But when we do, it won’t be “back.” It’s going to be a very different normal.

But… We keep hearing this phrase: “the new normal.” I suspect the people who use it the most are the ones who really get it the least. Their “new normal” wisdom seems to be mostly desperate clutching after new ways to … keep doing the same old things.

The world awaiting us on the other side isn’t about means, it’s about ends. It isn’t about how we do it so much as it is what we do. Sure, fundamentally it will always be about family and community and actualization and achievement, but when you hear that phrase ask yourself a simple question: is the speaker promoting a path to the future or the past?

Our shallow consumer capitalism, our affluenza, our greed, our feral pursuit of me instead of we – these didn’t create coronavirus. But they created the crisis.

The “new normal” has to be about building a resilient society and political economy that prepares for, deters and adapts to the seeds of crisis.

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