More Arguments

We should have more arguments. And now isn’t to say, necessarily, that we should argue more (a few minutes on Twitter will nip that notion in the bud). It would simply be refreshing to have a bit more consistency when we do, inevitably, disagree about things.

Remember an argument is separable from a position. You may cling to a position religiously, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. You may defend the indefensible with impassioned anecdote and logical fallacy because you truly do believe it, whatever it is. Your earnestness is commendable, quaint, Lincolnesque. But can we have a day when we simply discuss the facts? And build arguments through reason, without circumspect? Just for a day?

Just for a day can we acknowledge our hypocrisy and pretend to care about truths when they refute our position? Can we skip the stories and the anecdotes and the back-in-my-days and embrace, for the start of a discussion, a set of premises on which we can each then build an argument? And then we could all just have at it? Wouldn’t that be great?

It just feels like there’s a lot of feelings out there, and a kind of proud stubbornness behind a Man And His Convictions. This notion that sticking to your guns in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is somehow admirable. Butch Cassidy stuck to his guns. And Davy Crockett. Gary Cooper, and John Wayne. Real Americans who stood for what was right, like train robbery and the genocide of indigenous peoples.

Just for a day wouldn’t it be nice to ignore (just for a day, remember) what’s “right,” and think instead about what’s correct? Rightness is subjective. It’s a function of our values and we’ve made it pretty clear over the last several elections that our values, nationally, are on a divergent track. Instead we could all just get together one day and embrace a single group of facts. A dataset. A statistic. Hell, a method, or a language of conversation.

Can we agree, just for a day, that if A=B, and B=C, then A=C? Is that too much to ask? And tomorrow we can fill A, B, and C with whatever slanted partisan position we like, but for today can we agree that aside from rightness and beliefs, that a thing called truth exists?

Of course it’s possible that this is not productive. Strict logic is helpful for answering questions like “what is a number?” and “did OJ do it?”, but outside of esoteric thought experiments it seems possible that the truth, in life, is irrelevant. Because values are derived from our experiences, which in turn tend to affirm our values. Experience and opinion have a positive feedback relationship – if we don’t value truth then it’s a short trip to seeing falsehood in fact. And while mathematics is the language of the natural world, we exist apart from that, in a latticework of self-made echo chambers and voluntary umwelt.

Instead we reside, perhaps, in a space where reality, or the notion of truth, has ceased to exist at the insistence of a preponderance of individuals who simply willed it into obsolescence. Where moral relativism was just a beginning, and that we live, now, in a place where things are not true until dis-proven, or false until demonstrated to be correct, but in which multiple contradictory truths exist in parallel, as confirmed by different sets of experiences titrating through different sets of values to generate and confirm contradictory but fervently held beliefs across swaths of otherwise intelligent people. Where two people can be shown one video of, say, a police shooting, and knowing nothing else about the incident see two completely different truths – a murder or an act of self-defense – based on no information beyond what they shared. Where, further, the shooting itself could actually have been both a murder and a justified shooting, all at once, in the parallel realities that make up American life in the 21st century. Where objective truth really is a fiction.

But then again shit what do I know maybe there’s just a bunch of liars out there.

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Road Trip

Americans love to drive. We do it every day, usually for no reason, and even as we increasingly complain about traffic and parking we actively divest from railway and bicycle infrastructure that would alleviate those very problems. For better or worse, to be American is to drive, and few things are more ingrained into the American Spirit than the road trip.

It’s just you and the wide open road. This vast expanse of Interstates and highways leaves the world at your fingertips. You can go to California. You can go to Alaska. You can cruise south and have a look at this border wall for yourself. When you press on the throttle you are a god, beholden to no man, woman or child, no one can stop you. No one except that dickhead driving slow in the left lane.

This is no mere inconvenience. The right-lane-is-for-driving-left-lane-is-for-passing rule is as clear and transparent as the meaning of a red octagon at an intersection. This is not simple, well-meaning ignorance, no, but neither is it an explicitly deliberate effort to undermine the system that allows for our very notion of Americanism. Left lane driving is a symptom, like a runaway financial class and unprecedented income inequality, of the final, gasping throes of a late-stage capitalist state.

 

Interestingly, the natural flow of driving on the right, passing on the left is a naturally socialist concept. We move forward together; and as a need arises for an individual to excel, she may take what she needs from the collectivized left lane. When her pass is completed, she is back in line and moving forward so that others may reap the benefits of our communal foresight. It provides a safe space for passing, and to make room for merging traffic.

It is only when drivers see that that can get marginally ahead by never merging back to the right that the system falls apart and the highway slows for everyone. Like our failing capitalist state, it is when individuals appropriate the means of efficient traffic movement for themselves that things fall apart.

Driving in the left lane represents the same failure to see the whole picture as advocating against single-payer healthcare and collective bargaining. It is selfishness and an inability to see that when we all move forward together, we do it more quickly, more efficiently, than everyman hustling to save a second.

So if you’re well-meaning person who drives in the right except for sometimes when you don’t, I encourage you to give the DSA a look, you might really like what they have to say. And if you’re a left lane driver then I suppose you represent a desperate bourgeoisie, clutching to the remnants of our late capitalist oligarchy and I beg of you simply to consider: where will you hide when the revolution comes?

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Pray for Montana

As I write this, on Monday morning, the air quality in Missoula is bad. Hazardous, actually. The most recent measurement of air pollution registered 451 µg/m3 of fine airborne particulate, the kind that causes respiratory and cardiovascular illness, and led the Department of Environmental Quality to advise that no one really go outside. Right now the air in Missoula, Montana is three times worse than in Beijing and fifteen times worse than Los Angeles, and not slated to improve any time soon.

The cause, of course, is wildfires. In Montana alone there are currently more than 45 active forest fires, and by the time it finally snows, perhaps some time around Valentine’s Day, they will have burned more than a million acres. Thousands of people have been displaced. Homes have been burned, livelihoods ruined. Two firefighters have died.

August is, in the best of cases, unambiguously useless, but this is something special. We see fires every year, and this is an especially bad season. These fires will cause many millions of dollars in damage, and prompted Governor Bullock to request FEMA assistance to assuage the costs of protecting homes and lives*. It’s also prompted calls on social media to “Pray for Montana.” Specifically, there’s a set of the population here who seems to feel like this fire season in Montana somehow compares in scope or scale to the fallout from Hurricane Harvey.

This is ludicrous**.

Montana is having a pretty bad fire season; what happened in Houston is unprecedented. Guys, 51 inches of rain fell in a day. NOAA had to come up with new colors for their Doplar display to show that. Over the course of two months 11,000 square miles of Montana has burned – three times more than that, 28,000 square miles, of Texas flooded in a single weekend, including Houston, which has 6 times more people than this entire state.

Comparing the 450,000 Texans who will seek Federal aid to the thousands of people displaced by Montana fires is like if you lent me $100 and I paid you back $1 and called us square. It’s not even close. “Pray for Montana” is the “#AllLivesMatter” of Federal disaster relief. Sure, pray for Montana if you want, but don’t think for a moment that what we’re experiencing compares to the newfound refugee situation down south.

That doesn’t mean that these events have nothing at all in common. For instance, they both come amidst a new wave of “Hottest Year Ever” awards, and they’re exactly the kind of anomalous weather event that those pesky climate scientists have been warning us for decades will become more common. Both the fires of Montana and Hurricane Harvey are the result of our collective unwillingness to confront the fact that Earth is a dynamic place and that we’re messing it all up.

So yeah, pray for Montana – if that palliates your angst, then great, pray for Montana. But if you want to help with the issues that Montana is facing right now, how about we actually fund the Forest Service?

Members of our Congressional delegation came together a few weeks ago to whinge about environmental groups gumming up forest management with frivolous lawsuits. They blamed Wilderness advocates, they blamed institutions that allow citizens to hold the government accountable. They blamed regulations and oversight.

Conspicuously, they did not blame a warming climate or our newfound culture of celebrated ignorance. They did not blame decades of suppressed climate research. They reverted back to those same trite, cynical platitudes about small government and lax permitting that are as untrue now as they were when they triggered the labor movement.

Montana doesn’t need prayer right now, and neither does Houston. These places affected by climate change need us to act on the advice of experts. Thoughts and prayers will not stint sea level rise. They will not stop the thaw of arctic permafrost. They will not keep our firefighters, homes, and businesses out of harm’s way.

The extreme weather of the last two months were foreseeable and, at some level, preventable. Save your prayers. Fund professionals.

 

*Interestingly enough on July 17 our Republican controlled state legislature slashed $30M from the firefighting budget to help balance the state budget. Bullock’s call for FEMA assitance came on July 27, which kind of makes you understand how Congress initially told us to pound sand. Three cheers for small government amirite?

**This is Ludacris.

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Context

He did it. He really did it. He walked out to the parapet overlooking as many as dozens of supporters, staff, and journalists, waved to the people, and gazed directly into the sun.

You may have heard that there was a rare celestial event yesterday. Hundreds of thousands of stargazers flocked to the swath of American countryside graced by a total eclipse of the sun, bringing with them snarled traffic, various stages of emergency preparedness, and, above all: persistent, dire warnings not to look directly at the fucking sun.

And so when President Trump walked outside and barely hesitated to stare at the thing, the internet response was as swift as it was pointed. And why shouldn’t they be? We’ve been warned about that all day every day for months, and also the photos are objectively hilarious:

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

That is funny. Full stop.

But then like so many things the video tells a slightly different story. Have a look.


Yes, the guy is a goober. Yes, just seeing him stand and move makes my skin crawl. Yes, he glanced up at the eclipse with only those pasty, neglected eyelids squinted against its fire and fury. But stared? No. Certainly he didn’t do anything that any of us haven’t done on any given day.

Don’t get me wrong: this doesn’t mean we can’t ridicule the guy for it. But we need to be careful that we don’t believe it. Because taking snippits of stories (or non-stories) out of context and sensationalizing them is, while satisfying, only harming us.

Seeing what we want to see led us to mis-judge the tenor of the election. It’s led us to underestimate the underpinning class issues in the US that gave rise to Trumpism in the first place. We cannot (accurately) describe our President as a Nazi sympathizer one day and lampoon him like a reality TV celebrity the next.

We, the resistance, fancy ourselves as scientists and critical thinkers. The intelligentsia. We are those who prefer reason and logic to knee-jerk emotional reactions. We value data, and evidence-based policy. Easy, out-of-context jokes palliate very real angst, but they don’t bring us closer to changing the tides in 2018.

Presenting President Trump as a stumbling baffoon is satisfying, and makes us feel better. It’s undeniably hilarious. It may even be true. But it sells short how dangerous he really is. On the same day that he went outside and glanced at the sun, he also held a press conference where he kind of, sort of, described his regressive plans to decrease transparency and accountability from our war in Afghanistan. Less than a week ago he defended Nazis as they carried torches through the streets of our cities.

There may be a time to laugh about this, but now isn’t it. Stay mad. Stay focused. Don’t stare directly at the glowing orb of misdirection.

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