Archives for category: Read This

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At the time Ralph Nader’s and John Abbots’s The Menace of Atomic Energy was published, in 1977, there were only about sixty or so operating nuclear plants in the US; soaring energy prices were fueling a rekindled ethic of conservation throughout America (in two years, there would even be solar panels on the roof of the White House); people actually lived in Pripyat, Ukraine.

Since then, the world has experienced at least two epic nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima and Chernobyl and perhaps the most unstable weather environment since the advent of agriculture. And yet, the number of power and non-power (research-oriented) nuclear reactors in the United States stands at 140 and they span the country – from fault line to flood zone.

Americans are surrounded by atomic energy. Since 1945, it’s formed our culture, influenced our politics and burdened our bodies. For instance, that we call the President of the United States the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, transforming, de facto, a civilian into someone with marshal power can, as Garry Wills has convincingly argued, be attributed to the legacy of Leo Szilard’s chain reaction.

Because nuclear power is such a complex, energy-intensive affair, it requires the centralization of resources and command, two things not very compatible with a highly diverse democratic country of 400 million opinionated people. Moreover, because of this inherent conflict between efficiency and freedom, the history of nuclear power has been mired in secrecy from the very beginning, such that issues important to the free individual have often gotten steamrolled in silence. As Nader and Abbots wrote:

Furthermore, what the courts on other occasions have called an ‘inherently hazardous instrumentality’ affects a wide array of human rights beyond the technical issues, and this is pre-eminently the case with atomic power. How vulnerable is our society to nuclear theft and sabotage, nuclear wastes, atomic proliferation and the secret, garrison-state mentality associated with the diffusion of technologies that present such awesome risks?

The nuclear establishment is not comfortable with these consumer perspectives whether they are encountered in courts, before administrative proceedings, legislative hearings or in public debates […] More than probably any previous civilian industry, the atomic industry was imposed upon the American people through a sequence of actions by government, reactor manufacturers and utility monopolies […]

A society which insists on a technology that is so vulnerable is a society which invites a destructive few to have great sway over the peaceful many.

Quite simply, when it comes to confronting perhaps our gravest threat, the average consumer-citizen is at the mercy of a maligned priesthood. This is precisely why, when reading headlines like this one at the Huffington Post

Fire And Flood Stoke Fears At U.S. Nuclear Facilities, But Officials Say Radioactive Materials Are Safe,

I can’t help but think of Winston Smith, in Orwell’s 1984, approaching his place of work and spotting the three slogans of the Party on the building’s enormous white facade:





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Charles Blow, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times has written a rather intriguing column (and one among perhaps hundreds published in someone’s newspaper or blog or magazine each week) on America’s increasing impoverishment. It’s greatest asset, in my opinion: a salvaged James Baldwin quote:

Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.

Baldwin is apart of a slowly expanding cemetery of dead prophets whose relevance and clarity is revealed in inverse proportion to our national decline.

She [the girl above, Kiki Ostrenga] is an extreme case of an enormous uncontrolled experiment that is playing out across the world. Young people’s brains are developing while they are immersed in fast, multitasking technology. No one quite knows what effect this is having.

The culture of childhood is being compressed. Those things that young people once knew at 18, they now know at 10 or 12. No one quite knows the effect of that either.

– David Brooks, “The Saga of Sister Kiki,” The New York Times 

I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I wasn’t poor, I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy. I was deprived. (Oh not deprived but rather underprivileged.) Then they told me that underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a dime. But I have a great vocabulary.

– Jules Feiffer

Roger Cohen’s New York Times Op-Ed piece on Greece’s fiscal fiasco, published yesterday, is worthy reading if only for introducing me to a new, perhaps era-defining, term. While I’ll admit that the word doesn’t have quite the effluence or verbal flourish or catchall potential or ease of pronunciation of other words deployed in various class-wars of the past to describe the people getting fucked (see proletariat, for instance), it does have a certain ring to it, the specific qualification of which I’m not entirely certain:

I’ve never seen Europe in such dire straits. Greece is full of the aganaktismenoi, or the outraged, who resent the sharp cuts and sales of state industries made necessary because there is no drachma to devalue in order to regain competitiveness.

Like protesters in Spain, they feel the poor and unemployed are paying for the errors of politicians, the evasions of the rich, and the whole globalized system that rewards the tech-savvy initiated while punishing those left behind.

Of course, categorizing is always problematic. History seems replete with one side (the fuckers) inventing names to describe the other (the fucked), and vice versa (from bon sauvage to robber baron; from welfare queen to yuppie); but I don’t frequently come across words or terms that go past the merely nominative and attempt to describe what the nominal group is actually feeling. This would require some empathy on the part of those creating the name. With that said, I wonder which side came up with “outraged” – the fuckers, the fucked, or (here’s a party I didn’t consider) the cognoscenti.

Every once in a while I emerge out of the YouTube vortex with a few gems to ponder on and reconsider. The above clip is one of them. In it, the Washington D.C. television host Ralph Waldo ‘Petey’ Greene brilliantly deconstructs a very prominent American racial taboo – watch this and then, as supplements, read Stanley Crouch’s The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity and (if you really want to go off on the deep end) the second chapter of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology.

The late funnyman Petey Greene’s genius is that he was a funny man. To say he was merely talented wouldn’t do him justice. To call him a comic or even a comedian would be reductionist. Greene was honest and the highest compliment you can pay an honest man is to tell him how you really feel. Either be yourself or Greene, stone-cold Falstaffian fool that he was, would tease that self-in-hiding to the surface. Politics, protocol and etiquette be damned.

Today, perhaps since the 2007 release of the movie based on his life, Talk To Me, Greene may be remembered largely as the man whose live ‘breakdown’ on Johnny Carson preceded Dave Chapelle’s infamous $50 million change of heart and subsequent move to Africa and stands firmly in the tradition of brilliant, humorous black funnymen who were, alas, all too sensitive to humanity, their own and ours, to allow an audience ignorant of the joke’s complex core to co-opt their humor – to dull its subversiveness and diamond-sharp, universal truth by lavishing it with cheap laughter and even cheaper, albeit Wal-Mart-sized, rewards.

A son cannot judge his father, – least of all such a father who, like you, has never dampened my liberty in anything.

For those who want a respite from the ‘getting and spending’ this Father’s Day and wouldn’t mind a take on fatherhood – particularly the relationship between father and son – that goes a little deeper than the celebratory, Hallmark variety, I’d recommend reading at least a few chapters of this Ivan Turgenev classic: a modern, realistic meditation on Wordsworth’s freighted truism: ‘The child is father of the man.’

Today…’every child is either learning-disabled, gifted, or both – there’s no curve left, no average.’

Our children are not our masterpieces.

– Wendy Mogel, clinical psychologist and parenting expert quoted in Lori Gottlieb’s Atlantic cover story, “How To Land Your Kid In Therapy,” about the cult of youth self-esteem

Ortiz: Thomas Anderson/Newscom; Bonner: Danny Bollinger/Getty Images; Parros: Jeff Gross/Getty Images; Valdes: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images; Janikowski: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Roger Lowenstein’s review of Charley Rosen’s Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees in Bloomberg Businessweek, provides some great insight, by way of an idiosyncratic look at baseball, into our culture’s illogical addiction to specialization and the general human tendency to become guided by misperceptions simply because they’re measurable:

The aphorism “You manage what you measure” can explain a great deal of the world’s foolish behavior. The corporate chief executive who tries to kowtow to Wall Street rather than attend to business is, after all, simply enhancing his company’s stock price—which is what we measure.

The most savory part of the piece, however, is Lowenstein’s unorthodox claim that the closing pitcher may be much less important than we think. Indeed, that the very notion of preserving a great pitcher until the closing innings of the game is almost tantamount to the Lakers saving Kobe for the second half.

To fully understand the illogic of designating the closer exclusively for ninth-inning work – and other so-called specialists for the seventh and eighth innings – one must remember that runs are equally valuable no matter the inning in which they are scored. This extreme specialization is motivated less by strategy than by managerial insecurity. A game lost in the eighth inning provokes the question of who was pitching and why the manager didn’t yank him. A game lost in the fourth is simply a loss.

So, by extension, the more than $130 million Mariano Rivera’s earned during his, albeit exceptional, career as a closer is illogical as well (Rivera’s role is so specialized he’s only called out of the bullpen in the ninth inning and only if the game’s close – a fact that jacked the nominal value of each out he pitched last year up to $83,000). One has to ask, taking Lowenstein’s cue, ‘Is an out that comes in the ninth inning worth that much more than one that comes in the first?’ Of course, not everything involving dollar signs is amenable to reason. But Rivera’s outrageous salary does serve  to demonstrate at least one truth -nowadays, contrary to the conventional wisdom, it obviously pays to be boxed-in.

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

John Kenneth Gailbraith once wrote, “Few people at the beginning of the nineteenth century needed an adman to tell them what they wanted.” There’s a lot to disdain about marketing, in general, and modern marketing, in particular. And when people talk glowingly about a new knowledge economy or about the rise of a creative class, what they’re actually glossing over is the reality of a consumption-based economy that’s propped-up on the manufacture of perpetual desire for gimmicky goods. This being said, I still like what Byron Lewis, the chairman and CEO of the UniWorld Group, the oldest minority-owned ad agency in the country, has to say to The New York Times about valuing creativity over pedigree when making personnel decisions:

It’s about innovation and change. There’s no formula, but that’s what we’ve created, and there is respect for individual people and where they come from. In another sense — I’m not as interested in M.B.A.’s as I might have been. I respect people for what they bring. I’m looking for people who have common sense, common decency. But I’m primarily looking for people who have uncommon sense because that’s where genius comes from.

“Once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, we have begun to change our civilization,” wrote John Maynard Keynes. The implications of such change are not merely monumental – they’re revolutionary, because it would require a complete break from our current way of thinking about the world and our roles within it. It would mean no less than the presently unthinkable notion (among the governmental and economic elite, for starters) that the best action we humans can take to save ourselves from some kind of uber-apocalypse in a few hundred years, at the latest, would be almost the equivalent of burning money. We’d have to cede our current notions of prosperity, of growth, of progress, to a new paradigm in which money (and its various indicators: GDP, stock prices, credit ratings, etc.) does not play the central role.

The most radical (and, alas, most sensible) paradigm for this new conception of living I’ve come upon is Derrick Jensen’s and Aric McBay’s criteria for sustainability, laid out in What We Leave Behind, their exceedingly, crazily honest book about human stuff, the waste that it turns into, and its life-altering impact on all form of life and the environment that sustains it:

For an action to be sustainable you must be able to perform it indefinitely. This means that the action must either help or at the very least not materially harm the landbase. If an action materially harms the landbase, it cannot be performed indefinitely: any line sloping downward eventually reaches zero.

It doesn’t get more fundamental and intellectually honest than that. But few decision-makers are directly confronted with such a basic, elementary line of thought.

Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, published in 2007, is radical enough to understand and indirectly acknowledge Jensen’s and McBay’s definition, but conservative enough that it doesn’t scare away most decision-makers by the end of the first chapter.

Although this isn’t a formal review, I’ll say this: Deep Economy is good and insightful throughout and you should read it if you haven’t already. But the book is particularly valuable for what McKibben says by channeling others. One of the most lucid passages in the book (and the reason I felt compelled to write this post), comes by way of Daniel Taylor, the then-head of Future Generations (I hear he’s stepping down), a small nonprofit focused on sustainable development projects in Tibet and Afghanistan, among other places throughout the world:

His mantra, based on a series of principles he calls Seed-Scale, goes like this: Forget big plans. Development is not a product, not a target, not some happy future state – it doesn’t consist of a set of ‘millennium goals’ to be ticked off as they’re reached. Instead, it’s a process, measured not in budgets but in energy. ‘Change doesn’t happen because of how we invest our money,’ says Taylor. ‘Change happens because of how we invest our human energy, and it always has since we came down from the trees. Everyone’s got a margin of discretionary energy – ten percent, twenty percent – that isn’t used up making our way in the world. That’s the energy available for social change. If you can get a whole community to start focusing their energy together, building on success just as a business builds products, then you get social change.’

Forget big plans. That’s what caught my attention. That very phrase is so antithetical to our modern notions of success that it sounds almost self-defeating (remember President Obama’s State of the Union mantra: We do big things?) Everything we’ve been taught – everything we teach ourselves – concerning our collective, globalized notion of the Good cuts against it. It turns out, however, that such forgetfulness may be our only escape out of a world that’s hastening to blow itself up into one that’s content with, and enriched by, the extraordinary life nature bequeathed us. Our very survival as a species depends on it.