The Gordian knot of racism in “The New Jim Crow”

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“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ~ Edmund Burke

In the 2007 film, “What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire,” the narrator brings up a phenomenon of environmental books that I’ve noticed, too. They all have about ten chapters of diagnosis, chronicling what’s wrong—species extinction, rainforest decimation, mountaintop removal, toxic chemicals in mother’s milk, melting polar sea ice, on and on. Then, in the 11th chapter, there’s a prescription of what we can do to reverse it, fix everything and restore our right relationship with the living earth. “It’s not too late” is always the message. That it comes at the end of about 200 pages of gloom and doom reflects a lack of sophistication about the human psyche. If you’ve even gotten that far, you’re not going to be convinced by a single chapter of platitudes about the indomitable human spirit. No, the preceding ten chapters will have convinced you that there is no hope. We are screwed.

I am left with a similar feeling after reading Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow. I have to admire her for using all 261 pages for the diagnosis, not claiming to have answers or a prescription. Instead, she chooses to ask powerful questions, to spark debate and exploration. This is a huge book, not only for its dense narrative and 33 pages of footnotes. It is nothing short of a reassessment of American history: full of revelations, truth telling, and looking beneath the surface of cause and effect. I wish it could be required reading of every U.S. citizen. From the first pages, I saw just how duped, blind and irresponsibly ignorant I have been about the reality of the so-called War on Drugs. Continue reading

Different, therefore the same

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This guest post is by Megan Carlson. You can read a bit about her on the “Denizens” page.

When I was ten years old, a friend’s mom said—to my face—that she felt sorry for me because of how hard my mom worked. She was “worried about how I would turn out.” My mom, a graduate of Johns Hopkins Medical School and entering into a field, at that time, heavily dominated by men, was somehow an unfit role model for her daughter in the southern eyes of women in our community.

My parents, though, carried on in discarding gender roles. My dad had me in the lab with him on Saturdays running “experiments” at the age of six, and my mom decided to keep being a great physician despite the questioning looks and muttered concerns. However, in spite of their great efforts in molding a daughter who was fearless, I still had issues with confidence and self-doubt, something that was invisible to most. Luckily, my professors at Auburn and Clemson saw the weight of my insecurity bearing down on me, and day by day they chipped away at it until I discovered what it felt like to move freely. Continue reading

What’s love got to do with it: whispering into the gale of “transhumanism”

Colors_620wThere are so many TED talks that inspire and amaze me, I forget that the “T” stands for “technology.” I am no luddite, but this conversation has me spooked. Martine Rothblatt founded Sirius XM and generally has a Midas touch with business. As the highest paid CEO in the country, s/he’s also an articulate spokesperson for gender fluidity, having embraced her female identity at age 40 while remaining married to her soulmate for over 30 years. Her story includes a heartstrings-tugging foray into the pharmaceutical industry. Determined to help their daughter survive a fatal diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension, Rothblatt bought a drug patent from Glaxo and set up manufacture herself.

One thing led to another and now s/he and her wife are working with genetic scientists to alter the DNA of pigs, so they can “grow” human lungs for transplant. This is straight out of Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam Trilogy, except Atwood’s animals were “pigoons,” crosses of pigs with baboons. It’s so similar, I do wonder who got the idea from whom. Rothblatt also has a foundation that researches the uploading of human consciousness into computers, and implanting the data into robots that can “learn.” S/he and her wife plan to be cryogenically frozen together. S/he calls herself a “transhumanist.” In the vein of Ray Kurzweil and Singularity, these people are after nothing short of human immortality through technology. Continue reading

On racism, white supremacy and admitting that we need each other

Tree_620wLast, night, I joined in a conversation at my son’s Quaker school about Ta’Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. It was a fairly diverse crowd—ethnically, if not economically. Everyone there was well educated, thoughtful and, with one honest exception, liberal. I was especially thankful for the opportunity to listen to two black intellectuals and a Quaker elder who lived in Detroit during the 1967 riots.

We worked our way through various responses to the book, including praise for Coates’ use of the dream as metaphor, which I wrote about here. I appreciated hearing new (to me) ideas from folks I don’t usually encounter. A black man who teaches high school history pointed out that one of the horrors of slavery was not that white people thought black people weren’t human. It’s that they knew how human they were, and were able to manipulate the relationship to get what they wanted from them—their labor and obedience. Continue reading

Forced hierarchy pushes everyone down

2001_7.24_Havre-de-Grace_620wI am closing in on that age noted by my parents years ago as one entry point into elderhood: when the U.S. President is younger than me. With Obama, I’ve just squeaked by: he is sixteen months older than me. If Hillary or Bernie win this one, I may be okay at least for another four years. That does seem part of either of their appeal—the wisdom and equanimity they must have accumulated during long, eventful lives.

In general, though, we seem to lack positive archetypes for older people, especially women. NPR’s Ina Jaffe has reported about issues facing older Americans for years, and even she doesn’t have a good word to refer to them. Polls are inconclusive: most older people don’t like any of the usual words. But the problem is more than skin deep: Continue reading

Thatching our way to a new story of relationship

Polly house compositeI made these sketches for my longtime collaborator and friend, Polly Bart. After a couple of decades as a green builder, she is building a house for herself using all natural and salvaged materials, including trees harvested from her land, strawbale walls, a green roof, and—possibly best of all—a thatched roof over the main living room’s steeply pitched log structure. Last month, the master thatcher came from Ireland to put up the roof. The photos of it are stunning. (Scroll down this post for a slideshow of six images, or follow this link for more.)

This morning, I awoke from a dream of her roof, thinking about the differences between a roof like this and conventional construction. Modern construction technology favors industrial materials put up in layers, each with its specialized purpose: structure, enclosure, water shedding, waterproofing, insulation, and to bridge and/or seal thermal movement of the different materials. Thatch, by itself, takes care of all of those purposes save the structure. Great skill and long training are required to do it correctly. Continue reading

We are all blind men describing an elephant

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I had an exchange on social media after the Paris climate talks, a back and forth of articles and videos with an acquaintance who challenged the veracity and conclusions of what’s known as “accepted” climate science. I let myself be annoyed by his posts, dismissing them as straw men. (The book and film, “Merchants of Doubt,” shows that many of them are). Among the challenges to climate science, the one I find most absurd is that scientists are after big government grants, so they’ll say anything. It’s just not persuasive when you consider that it’s usually leveled by those who DO have a financial stake—like the Koch brothers and others in the fossil fuel biz.

Then I had to laugh. Here I was defending science, when I’m more inclined to question its assumption of human exceptionalism and elevation of reason to exalted status over intuition. Rupert Sheldrake’s book, Science Set Free, shows that modern science, for all its value and rigor, has gotten so dogmatic as to be almost fundamentalist in its stridency. Anything that doesn’t fit the accepted paradigm of materialism is ignored, dismissed, and labeled “anti-science.” Data that doesn’t fit the expected outcome is shoved into a file drawer and not published. Continue reading

Time to set aside the cult of anguish and embrace the joy of creativity

2013_8.23_Maine view_cropWe always have the choice to choose joy and love over resentment and misery. I’ve had two great reminders of this recently. Michel Martin’s editorial on NPR makes the case for rejoicing rather than lamenting opportunities for activism. And Liz Gilbert, in Big Magic, echoes with her challenge to the cult of anguish that hangs over creativity. Martin asks why so many people who offer themselves up for leadership these days do it with an air of “Why me?” Then she holds up the example of inventors:

“When do you ever hear people say, ‘Why didn’t somebody else invent the airplane, the smart phone, solar panels, the tea infuser, for heaven’s sake, so I didn’t have to?’ We even have commercials featuring the tiny garages and attics where supposedly this inventing took place. We understand that discovery is a joy that can feel like a physical sensation.”

Under the tyranny of the Old Story of Separation, “No pain, no gain” is infused into everything we value most. War metaphors may be the currency of our culture, but I wonder if our allegiance to struggle and competitiveness is thinning what could be a much-needed flood of creativity into more of a trickle. Martin again: Continue reading

Beyond cause and effect

11.24.15_Tree-compositeEconomists and statisticians distinguish between correlation and causality. What if, one day a year, those two were switched? What if they switched once a month, or once a week? Maybe in the minds of the desperate, the distinction is meaningless.

Two Swiss researchers found that when plankton levels in the ocean drop 10%, Somalian pirate activity ticks up a corresponding 10%. With the collapse of the fisheries they’ve relied on for generations, they are driven to find other uses for their boats.

Last year, earthquakes over magnitude 3.0 increased in Oklahoma from an average of less than two per year to 585. Bore holes from fracking chewed their lacy patterns into the earth’s mantle like termites under a house.

Years of drought in a country with poverty and ethnic and religious tensions destabilizes an already stressed situation and tilts the people into civil war, as well as making them easy prey for terrorist organizations. If they’re under authoritarian rule, this is even more likely. Continue reading

Does asking ‘when’ distract us from juicier questions?

Old-New-storyWhen I first started giving talks using the lens of “old story – new story,” I would illustrate my points with examples. Old story is factory farms, mountaintop removal coal mining, clear-cutting forests, Peak Oil, suburban sprawl. New story is organic farming, renewable energy, selective logging, urban agriculture, Net-Zero building, intentional community. I tried to tease out the stories behind them, the contrasting worldviews at the core of these choices. I would say that the world we live in is created by stories of who we are and why we are here.

Several years ago after one of these lectures, a student asked a question that I think about often. Students have a knack for this. At my first teaching job in 1988, a freshman architecture student asked me if the Greeks thought of themselves as “modern.” It was a humbling and exciting moment in which I hoped any knowledge I might be able to impart would not interfere with his ability to ask such juicy questions. This time, the student wanted to know when all this begin, this shift to the modern worldview, the Story of Separation that produces the world we live in today. He asked, When did we start thinking this way? Continue reading