Sunday, June 10, 2018

Drugs (and Alcohol)

Eight years ago I discussed why I don't drink. Part of that story dealt with a high school friend, Avery, who died between our junior and senior years when he was hit by a drunk driver. A few weeks ago, this past May, another high school friend's death made international headlines when he died in a car crash a few hours after his wedding. They are still, as of posting, awaiting toxicology reports.

So I'm not really going to get into all that.

Now, unlike alcohol, where I've tried sips and tastes of pretty much everything over the years, I have never bothered trying drugs in any quantity. The risks are too high, the rewards too few. As I always tell people - no one tries something for the first time with the intention of becoming an addict.

Instead what prompted this renewal of reflection was reading yet another article about how Michael Pollan took acid and enjoyed it. The timing of Mr. Pollan's praise, and renewed academic discussion, just seems so... off.

Pollan, as every piece mentions, is Mr. Natural (in the Whole Foods sense, as opposed to the 60s and 70s counter-culture usage). Why would the guy who likes plants and grains, who has been exhorting us to live healthier lifestyles, go in for what is usually targeted as the most synthetic and unnatural drug?

The different articles make different claims attempting to answer those and other questions. I don't really care. The bothersome aspect for me remains the timing and context. Our country is in the middle of a deadly epidemic of opioid use. Quick terminology: Opioids are distinct from opiates - the plant-based precursors which had to be derived from Opium poppies (morphine, for example). Oxycodone, a common opioid, is synthetic - it doesn't come from plants any more than the lab-created Fentanyl which is dominating headlines as the new front on the war against opioid addiction. Fentanyl, perhaps not coincidentally, was synthesized in the 1960s, right when LSD was becoming popular (having been synthesized decades earlier).

According to the most recent data, from late 2017, about 64,000 Americans died from overdoses in 2016. One third of those were from Fentanyl and other opioids. (For context, around 88,000 people die annually from alcohol. But we're not talking about that.) 64,000 may not seem like much - it is literally .0001% of the population. It's only 1/5 the number of Americans who contacted HIV/AIDS at the height of that epidemic crisis in 1993. It's less than 3% of Brooklyn.

Is all of this hand-wringing, then, and talk of a national crisis, just getting the spotlight because it effects the Trumpian base? I doubt that's the only reason. The issue is vulnerability - rural vs. urban communities, the elderly, the poor - the usual victims of social ailments. This in turn raises the antennae of the liberals, who see the spread of opioids as harming our most vulnerable. That way it's not just the communities which overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump that care about the issue close to their hearts, but seemingly the nation as a whole.

Meanwhile, predominately liberal states like California and Colorado are going toe-to-toe with Jeff Sessions regarding marijuana legalization, and New York is set to soon follow. Of the states with legalization (California, Colorado, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Washington, Vermont) only one - Alaska - is identified as conservative, and tellingly Alaska's 'leave-me-alone' libertarian-extreme definition of conservative has long been regarded as unique in the national makeup.

So while rural and lower working-class communities from West Virginia to California's farming communities in the north, are dealing with addiction and fatality, the urbane centers are getting back into pot and acid.

If this all sounds familiar, like the 60s is back, I would recommend instead a comparison to the 1980s. The now infamous lies told during the decade regarding the discrepancies between cocaine and crack reflected socio-economic prejudices more than narcotic realities. Wealthy elites, liberals and conservatives, did coke, while poor communities, especially POC, in America's cities were arrested for crack. To be fair, the criminalization of marijuana was due to similar attempts of targeted social engineering, as of course, was LSD.

But the history goes deeper. The same decade that saw the synthesizing of Oxycodone and LSD was ironically the start of America's obsession with body image and health. The pendulum since the 1930s has repeatedly swung back and forth between 'body as temple' and 'body as receptacle' - Eat oranges from sunny Florida / put bacon on everything, achieve a glowing tan or gleaming smile / beautiful at any shape or size, exercise and aerobics trends from jogging to jazzercise / the late 90s/00s obesity epidemic. For around a century, since it first became possible to carefully control our bodies' looks and contents, we have as a nation had both our fad diets and our cheat days.

Drugs have traditionally straddled both sides of this debate: whether they are treats we know are bad for us, or part of our general well-being and health. Neurochemically we know that salt and sugar are addictive like drugs, not as much as, say, tobacco, but still. And sugar probably does more harm to us in the quantities we consume it than the toll marijuana may take on your lungs. But saying that is a guess.

Why Pollan, railer against the evils of high fructose corn syrup, is groovy with micro-hits of acid is beyond me. Oxy and LSD are about the same street price (or so the internet tells me). Is it due to availability? Oswald Stanley got to spend two years in prison for LSD, but he was a grimy hippie who toured with the Dead - Michael Pollan? Heaven forbid. He's allowed to write up a book about how it helped expand his horizons. I wonder if the Feds will come knocking on his door.

Our relationship to drugs as a nation is complex, ever-evolving, and reflective of wide disparities in socioeconomic status and cultural and ideological biases. The timing of Pollan's embrace of synthetic drugs comes right when vulnerable Americans are dying at the hands of synthetic drugs. It is not a new story - but it is a new, and dangerous narrative that the non-addictive drugs (pot, LSD) are for the liberals and elites, and the addictive drugs (opioids) are for the plebes. Liberals should take note that we have long-championed the counter-narrative, that addiction is not a personal failing, but instead a social issue that needs our compassion. With nearly 80,000 Americans living in the hell of the Federal Penitentiary System for drug violations, Mr. Natural's making money off of his story advocating tripping can't help but be seen as arrogant bragging that he is above the law. I wonder how his defense of drug use will go over in a place like Fayette county, West Virginia - or even Humboldt county, California - where opioids have claimed the highest toll. We have enough big issues and culture wars to deal with in 2018 before we bring legalizing LSD back into the mix.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Presidential Medal of... Social Sciences?

So one issue I have with the Presidential Medal of Freedom is that there is a whole field missing, namely: the social sciences.

As someone who majored in this field it's a little sad to contemplate. Surely our field is of some value to America?

That being said, there are a few categories which are and have been represented, namely History, Education, Politics, and Economics are all awarded, and full of famous inductees (David McCullough, John Kenneth Galbraith). So what we need is a grab-bag of the other fields: Anthropology, Geography, Linguistics, Psychology, and Sociology, under the heading of Social Sciences.

To get the ball rolling, here are ten posthumous and ten living candidates. All posthumous candidates would have been alive in 1963 when the award was first given (as is the requisite custon observed by all but one - Juliette Gordon Low - posthumous inductees).

Posthumous Inductees

WEB Du Bois - Sociologist, founder of field
Margaret Meade - Anthropologist, founder of field
Robert K. Merton - Sociologist, "unintended consequences," "role model," "self-fulfilling prophecy"
Betty Friedan - Sociologist, second-wave feminist
Erving Goffman - Sociologist, dramaturgy theory
Abraham Maslow - Psychologist, "hierarchy of needs"
Dian Fossey - Anthropologist, primatologist
Alfred Crosby - Geographer, "Columbian exchange"
Edward Said - Sociologist, "Orientalism"
Carl O. Sauer - Geographer, "cultural landscapes"

Living Inductees

Noam Chomsky - Linguist, modern founder of field
Cass Sunstein - Sociologist, legal and social connections
Jared Diamond - Anthropologist and Geographer, cultural geography
Albert Bandura - Psychologist, social learning theory
Kimberle Williams Crenshaw - Sociologist, "intersectionality"
Patricia Hill Collins - Sociologist, black feminism
Steven Pinker - Psychologist and Linguist, evolutionary psychology
Elizabeth Loftus - Psychologist, memory constructs
Henry Louis Gates Jr. - Sociologist, African American studies and genealogy
Francis Fukuyama - Sociologist, "end of history" and influential neoconservative

On a separate note - Has anyone else noted that Trump hasn't awarded any medals yet, now in his second year of office? How typical. Probably feels no one deserves one besides himself...

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Five Pieces of Media

Here are five pieces of media which were very influential for me.

1. The Movie: The Three Caballeros

This movie is so weird. Of the 1940s Disney package films, this one takes the cake for surrealism. There is no real plot, hardly any character development, just a few shorts in a frame story followed by a reverie of live action and travelogue through Latin America.

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Why is it important?

1) I saw this as a young kid and definitely didn't know movies could be so wildly free-form. It got me interested in experimental film narratives and surrealism.

2) For better or worse, it was an interesting introduction to Latin America, at least...

3) through the lens of the 1940s. The live action was so clearly of another era. I realized it was a glimpse into what must be a forgotten time, and it intrigued me immensely that a small slice was preserved. Documentaries, history, the past - this film planted those seeds to see the world as it once was and is no longer.

4) Mary Blair, the head artist, is awesome, and I consider her films in the Disney canon to be the most artistically valuable (Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty).

2. The Album: Go Soundtrack

The soundtrack to the late-90s film 'Go', about the California rave scene and party culture for young adults (I think. I have not watched this movie in a very long time.)

Why is it important?

1) The first album I bought for myself (because my sister had it).

2) I was really intrigued by America in the late 90s. Everything was so optimistic, slick and digital (especially in the Bay Area). Yet there was this underbelly, a warehouse-aesthetic of secrets, dark shadows in the nightlife of the vibrant, connected city. This album represented that mysterious fringe to me. It encapsulated the feeling of exploration, of horizons, and  experiences utterly alien to my own during a time which, I would reflect on later, was historically unique.

3) Electronic music and pop music. This was my introduction to both - my parents didn't listen to either genre on the radio, Top 40 wasn't part of my childhood. This coincided with the end of middle school, and I was just the right age to go to Tower Records and find CDs I wanted. I still like electronica to this day.

3. The Book: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

A man answers an ad to save the world, which leads to becoming the disciple of a gorilla with deep knowledge about human nature.

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“The premise of the Taker story is 'the world belongs to man'. … The premise of the Leaver story is 'man belongs to the world'.” 

Why is it important?

1) I grew up curious, like the above intrigue into the underground world of 'Go', but more or less not questioning my world. Ishmael, encountered in high school, changed all that. I began to fundamentally question how the world works, what deep patterns may be present, how things could be different. Everything came up for grabs during adolescence, and here was a work that said civilization itself was arbitrary, and more to the point, mad. It came at the perfect age to question why anything we do is 'right' or 'necessary'.

2) For about four years, two in high school and two in college, I was pretty obsessed with Quinn's two volumes, Ishmael and The Story of B. As offshoots of their teachings I got interested in anthropology, sustainability, and population. From these origins I got into Amory Lovins, Michael Pollan, Jared Diamond, and so forth. I made signs and went to parking lots in supermarkets talking to people about overpopulation and food production. I worked on designing solar panels for buildings, went to lectures in San Francisco and the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, volunteered on archaeological digs, and was a self-righteous ass in Anthro 101.

4. The Show: Connections (1978)

A program in which science historian James Burke describes how the story of history is not linear, but tangled, complex, and surprising. He traces the ten most important inventions of the modern world from their unexpected and unrelated origins to the present day, and attempts to look a little ways into the future.

Why is it important?

1) Burke got me interested in history, which is now my profession. More than that, I take time each year to introduce a new generation of students to his ideas. I consider him one of the most prescient thinkers of the 20th century.

2) Connections was first shown to me, a single episode, when I was a kid. I was amazed, but long forgot about it, and didn't finally sit down to watch the whole show until I was in grad school. After years of studying philosophy and history (and anthropology and the rest) it was a really interesting return to what began it all for me, my love of the study of historical narrative and the deep patterns of humanity.

3) It informed my educational model of the need in History class to focus on depth, using intriguing stories and details to hook students into the essential narratives. It got me interested in other synthesizers, like Carl Sagan, who told big stories.

4) I learned some seriously important lessons about human nature and our ability to make predictions or call the shots on what the future has to offer, what role history plays in society and how it can be used as a tool. I ended up giving a series of lectures on this topic in Singapore, for example, about a year after grad school.

5. The Internet: YouTube

A platform for videos online.

Why is it important?

1) Burke ends his final episode saying, in 1978, that there was a communications revolution just around the corner, and that it was going to come out of the computer. How right he was. But this revolution has made things very problematic for historians. A history of print media, for example, gets exponentially more difficult as you cross from the popular heyday of novels in the 1800s to the insane volume of material in the first few decades of the 20th century. A history, today, of the internet seems impossible, beyond covering its earliest development. Post-2000 it would all be too much.

2) YouTube supposedly gets about 100 hours of videos added every minute. It parallels the trends of having grown up with the internet. You were at one point able to catalogue the most popular memes of the early Net. No longer. As more people joined, the community became too big and unwieldy. Viral hits used to get a million or so views, and maybe talked about for weeks - still a relatively short time compared to books, video games, or movies. Now a million views is quaint, and not unusual for basic user-created content.

3) All of this troubles me, as a historian. YouTube is the best example, but we see it increasingly in movies and television as well - there's too much to keep up with. The quantity of broadcast media has, in my lifetime, matched the problematic volume that print media took four centuries to reach.

4) Still, YouTube has created some interesting new formats and video art forms. The somewhat interactive nature of it is typical of our 1990s hopes for the Net: talking with people on the other side of the world in real time. Live chats and live broadcasts, the infamous comments section, and so forth, all adds to the communal feel, while also remaining significantly private.

5) I recall a friend, a couple of years after grad school while teaching in CT, calling me over in a hookah bar to watch a weird video of a guy making what he thought were fox sounds. About a week later the video, which when we watched it had a couple thousand views, had become a viral sensation. Social gatherings back then often involved gathering around the screen to watch YouTube. They were basically viewing parties. Vine could be experienced this way as well. But that was in 2013. Five years later, and nowadays I would never imagine friends gathering around to watch a YouTube video. You still occasionally show videos to friends, but only rarely. It no longer commands the entertainment novelty, and furthermore being part of something viral has lost any previous social cache and relevance.

6) As I moved into my adult career, YouTube became more and more important. I use it in the classroom. Some pioneers have scrambled to stay on top, and as a result the content creators of note have become celebrities who my students idolize. The fact that I went to school with Mike Rugnetta of Idea Channel and Crash Course is a lot of cool points. Watching an episode of Odd1sOut will pay dividends in relating to my students. Vine was really good for this too (RIP). Some creators sank to obscurity (almost tragically the old cast of Sourcefed Nerd is trying to reunite, but their day has long since passed) just as some actors couldn't make the leap from silent films to talkies. These sorts of developments and transitions, while paralleling certain other media, are happening much faster, though.

7) On a personal level YouTube became how I watched Jon Stewart's Daily Show (and then Colbert's Late Show) as well as getting into things like ASMR and watching BBC and other TV shows like QI and Would I Lie to You, John Oliver, etc. It's how I watched stand-up comedy. Some of its unique content has become favorites (Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, etc.) It has, consequentially, taken more and more of my time over the years, originally something to browse occasionally, and now a key part of my week. I read less, watch fewer movies, and listen to less music because of it. Not a good thing, perhaps.

8) Tribalism can be directly related to this over-saturation of media, I think. Everyone has their own self-perpetuating communities, and so we get in our bubbles and rarely emerge. The Net went from let's talk and share ideas, to seeking out our own favorite things, creating patterns of addiction from social media, to watching and following increasing amounts of content that reinforced our interests; like the progression from a radio broadcast in the living room to listening to a mix-tape on your Walkman. It has helped to isolate us more and more.

I grew up as a child with glimpses of an intriguing world, a world of exotic lands and strange places. As I grew up I discovered there were subcultures, fringes, narratives that veered and shied away from the mainstream, potentially intriguing mystery worlds of an already fascinating human experience. In my adolescence, though, and going into adulthood, I stumbled upon a rational order, the sort of Deep Magic the type of which C.S. Lewis would write about. There were patterns, logic and an order to things. The most sacred and fundamental aspects could be explained, categorized, and studied. I underwent my own Enlightenment, of the European mold, questioning everything, discovering answers, and figuring it all out - not just one small area of expertise, but the whole of human experience. Devouring the classics and feverishly counteracting the very lessons they were striving to impart. Into my professional career I balanced these counteractive forces, found others who knew the secrets and saw civilization the way I did. But then it started to unravel at the seams. Content became unwieldy, too much, exponentially unmanageable. The patterns were now computer algorithms, and I had no stomach for math. Overwhelming quantities engulfed the historical narrative. To try to write a history of something like YouTube would be a folly. Media has now become more a part of my life than ever, but it is equally problematic.

It has become impossible to gauge cultural touchstones, such as Birth of a Nation or Forrest Gump, To Kill a Mockingbird or Harry Potter, Sgt. Peppers or Nevermind, The Twilight Zone or The Simpsons. The 90s were the last full decade of that sort of cultural capital. By the mid-aughts it was already starting to get out of control.

And the viral memes and videos added almost nothing to our conversation. There's nothing thought-provoking about cheeseburger cat, the dress, or laurel vs. yanny. Even the basic internet meme shorthand, developed early on in Web 2.0, has come to an end. I drew the Not Sure If meme on a student's paper, which would have been immediately recognized by students a few years ago (even though the confused image of Fry would have already been a years old reference) but now it elicited nothing but confusion and puzzled looks.

It has inadvertently made for a lonelier media landscape. Only a few really big cultural mythos in media have any rallying force - The MCU, Star Wars. Even the biggest YouTube stars, PewDiePie, Smosh, etc. are just celebrities - like Will Smith or Beyonce. They have their followers. They rarely make globally-important history.

My life has come full circle, returning to the discombobulating, disconcerting topsy-turvy world of my Three Caballeros-infected childhood. Little make sense, patterns occasionally seem present, only dissipate and reemerge in strange unexpected forms. There's too much to try to understand, and it would only scratch the surface even if I got a good glimpse.

My media journey has taken me on a journey from confusion, to sure-footed certainty, and back again - an exercise in all-too-human futility.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Michael Anderson, the director of 'Around the World in 80 Days' (ATW8D), as well as 'Logan's Run', died recently. I decided to rewatch my copy of the Academy Award-winning Best Picture of 1956.

I like this movie, and it holds a special place in my heart. It was the first "cinematic" film I saw when I was young that made an impression of scope, grandeur, and cinematography. Here's a clip which I fell in love with as a kid, which you should watch before proceeding:

Train Sequence Through India

So if you find the above link visually pleasing, you may enjoy the film. If not, then... Probably not. Here's a post-viewing reckoning of the film, after having seen it again, considering its pros and cons, and whether it holds up:

Pro: Cinematography

ATW8D is full of beautiful shots. Besides the India section above, there are two other significant sequences. The first, and most famous, is the hot air balloon ride, which shows off Europe, freshly rebuilt and restored after the damage from WWII. It comprises the first leg of the journey. After India, the other train sequence of note is through America, with vast wilderness and untrammeled prairies to ooh and aah over.

If you like sweeping vistas shot in CinemaScope-style, you may well like this movie.

Con: The really weird intro

I had forgotten that the movie opens with an extended introduction by Edward R. Murrow, discussing new rocket technologies, able to circumnavigate the globe in 80 minutes. It's a nice concept, but it doesn't add much, and having Murrow walk us through Melies' abridged 1902 classic Voyage to the Moon, while likely highly enjoyable for audiences in 1956, isn't so swell in 2018. That said, you can easily skip all this on a DVD.


Mix: Rule Britania

If you enjoy British humor, and David Niven walking around as Phileas Fogg being proper to the point of absurdity, you'll like ATW8D's sense of humor. When they arrive in San Francisco they are struck with the foreigner's barbarism. The dry wit and stiff upper lip are fun for anglophiles. It can at times be too much, though.

Pro: Cameos and credits

The movie is a who's who of famous actors and actresses. Sir John Gielgud to Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton to Noel Coward, Joe E. Brown to...

The end credits, by the renowned Saul Bass, of Hitchcock fame, are also a tremendous treat which help you identify all the cameos throughout the film.

Con: Racism and stereotyping

Not surprisingly, as time has gone, like Disney and the rest, the stereotypes and poor choices have only become uglier with age. With regards to cameos, not all are that pleasing, most notably Peter Lorre's depiction of a Japanese man:

All you Scarlet Johansson complainers should check this scene out for yellow-face and pidgin English that is second only to Mickey Rooney's 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'. Yikes.

This is not perhaps the only problematic Asian depiction. Cantinflas wanders through Japan in an extended silent segment which is almost charming enough to off-set the cheap humor of his attempted bull-fight with a Hindu sacred cow in India. But when Fogg and the Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine - again, not great casting) arrive:

I mean... this is probably how Brits would've dressed, which... doesn't excuse... *sigh*

Other scenes are problematic as well. The American section is generally a Western of the 1950s mold, with cowboys v. Indians, although one section does try to show the natives as peaceful, of course by sharing a peace pipe:


How much of this in 1956, and how much is a faithful depiction of Verne's book and what would have been normal for 1872? While I try to be generous, too many gags and jokes are at the expense of other's cultures - this is what makes the Rule Britania humor problematic when I mentioned it earlier.

Oddly, Bill Maher recently addressed this very issue around the time director Anderson died, in his usual style:

Where you fall on this issue is up to you. I think ATW8D has aged... okay. But it was uncomfortable to rewatch certain scenes, detracting from the overall enjoyment of the film.

Mix: Women and servants

There is something jarring about the tyranny of Fogg over his manservant, although, like any good protagonist, he is shown to actually care deeply about Passepartout. Likewise, the movie is trying to poke fun at the upper and lower class divisions (for example the servants of the gentleman's club are making bets alongside the their wealthy clientele).

Or you can mix servants with racial stereotypes for a fun and healthy mix of British Imperialism

So, too, the role of women - MacLaine, besides being cast as an Indian princess, is further first introduced as an Indian princess in distress (she is about to be burned alive in barbaric cruelty). Her relationship with Fogg is very reminiscent of Prof. Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. The weirdest, most heavy-handed, joke is that of the ending of the film, when she arrives at the club, which no woman has ever entered before, and which is taken as a sign of the end of the British Empire. 

It's meant to be funny, to show how progressive 1956 was compared to 1872, but both the master-servant relationships and depictions of women can be a swing and a miss. We've progressed so far, just in 20 years, that even the best attempts of past eras to be progressive can strike us as woefully out-of-touch. (See again that Bill Maher clip.) 

Cantinflas also goes around lusting after the local ladies in many ports of call, and is first introduced on penny-farthing circling back to take a look at a shapely governess, which reminded me of something:

Some things haven't changed all that much, I suppose...

Final verdict: Does it hold up?

That depends more on you, than the film. If you can overlook the stereotyping and you find the British funny, then yeah, you'll probably like it. As said before, if widescreen visuals of foreign locales is your thing, then again you're in for a three-hour treat. Admirers of classic Hollywood and cameos will also get a kick out of spotting all 48 or so famous people. It comes back to that original sequence of the train - simple gags, lush imagery, accompanied by an equally lush film score, and a celebration of Britain with a mix of sincerity and a wink. Part travel film, with long sequences of "action" like a Wild West movie, a bullfight, and trying to outrun the police - it's sprawling, cinematic, and clearly the sort of film the Oscars would go for. I like it enough, but maybe that's just me.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Make America Again

A droll tweet prompted this, here is the image original, and a transcription, for those whom the image fails:

Make America again. Just make it again. Let’s start over completely. We had a good run but it’s time to hit the reset button and start again.

Some thoughts for America 2.0:

  • National anthem is “Gasolina”
  • No founding fathers whatsoever but maybe we give Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson a mountain statue or two
  • Let’s do way, way less genocide this time. I’m thinking definitely like 0% of the genocide form the last time, that seems good
  • Maybe more holidays about dogs

So here’re my thoughts.

First off, unless you discover a new landmass that’s uninhabited, America 2.0 will be built atop the current America, right? The historian in me, the same impulse that hates when ISIS destroyed ancient temples, would want us to keep the remnants, the ruins and monuments, of the past America. Modern Greece exists alongside the Acropolis, modern Mexico City has preserved aspects of Tenochtitlan which preceded it.

As such, let us not go dynamiting Mount Rushmore so as to carve The Rock’s face where Lincoln’s used to be. (In general I question the long-term historical import of The Rock, as beloved as he may be.) And on the note of the Founding Fathers, there would be… founders, right? Whether you like it or not, presumably some people would take greater responsibility in the creation of this new enterprise. They shouldn’t all be white men, many of whom were slave-owners, but you’re still going to have founders, regardless.

For the sake of nationalism and identity, for a country that will be laid atop the geographic spread and demographic spread of the current United States, unifying factors are not a bad idea. Instead of Washington’s Birthday it may be Shonda’s Birthday, but a bit of healthy founder veneration isn’t out of place. Regarding dog holidays, perhaps if we made Earth Day a national holiday as a start? (And what’s wrong with cats? A Pets Day, perhaps.) I’m all for holidays. Here are some other suggestions:

Some sort of Independence Day makes sense, based on whenever we become a new nation.
Arbor Day should totally be Federal.
United Nations Day is a good thing. Human Rights Day too.
May 1st is another good international holiday we could adopt, to replace our Labor Day.
Make Thanksgiving America 1.0 Day. A celebration and reflection of all that was good (pumpkin pie) and bad (genocide) about the first incarnation of our nation. Reflection is good.
I’m also okay with keeping Martin Luther King Day.
Replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, as some states have already done.
Make all major religious holidays Federal. They have to be major, not like feast days for saints, but that way everyone becomes aware of each other’s beliefs and we all get time off. Win-win. So Christmas, Eid al-Fitr, Passover, Visak, Holi – all of it.
Memorial Day and Veterans Day are both still good ideas. Especially since Veterans is, again, international.
New Years is silly, but I’m okay with keeping it too.
Teacher’s Day is a big deal elsewhere, it should be in America 2.0 as well.

Okay, now we’ve got our founders, a bit of mythos but less problematic than before, and some healthy holidays to let people feel pride and celebrate who we are. The next part is weirdly phrased in the original, which is on genocide: “like 0% of the genocide form the last time”. Now, with a little grammatical wizardry, this could be taken to say that some genocide is okay, especially since they state they want “less genocide”. One of America’s issues is a vague Constitution. Come on, people! Let’s not start off with the same problems as America 1.0. The “from last time” clause could be interpreted as allowing genocide, just so long as it doesn’t affect the same populations (indigenous peoples). Instead it should be clear: No genocide of any sort at all. Sheesh.

Lastly, from the original post, I had to look up “Gasolina”, which appears to be a track by Daddy Yankee from 2004. (I fail to see the nationalist value of the track, but increasingly am concerned with the poster’s infatuation with celebrity. America 2.0 would presumably be raised from the ashes of reality star’s failed Presidency – and we don’t want that shit to happen again. A basic threshold of ability and experience required, please.) We would need a new anthem, though. Ideally one we could all sing. If Daddy Yankee wants to write it, fine, but let's make something new.

These are my thoughts on the original post.

Beyond that, here are things I’d like to see, in no particular order, for America 2.0 which, may, upon reflection, be a little more important than carving a statue of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson:

A representative, blended presidential-parliamentary system (along French lines) with two proportional houses makes sense. State boundaries aren’t valuable unless we make it explicit that they are flexible with demographic changes – one of the gravest problems we currently face. Elections need to be publicly funded and our Bill of Rights needs some more explicit language, a la Justice Stevens’ Six Amendments. Make alcohol, weed, and tobacco 21 across the board (unless, like, you’re actively serving in the military, in which case, sure – you can have your cigarettes and booze). On the subject of age, perhaps a nationally-agreed upon age defining adulthood, consent, etc. since 2/3 of the states have an age of consent under 18, and every state currently allows child marriage exemptions, and you know. That’s a huge problem. Perhaps lower the voting/adult/consent age to 17 as a compromise (or keep it 18 like civilized society, but I doubt much of the country would be on board with that. Too many people start having sex as teens. A good compromise should leave everyone feeling bad, after all…) Making whatever consenting adults do legal so long as they’re not harming others. That can include prostitution (sorry Nevada) and an acknowledgement of differing sexualities, gender identities, and legalizing non-monogamous relationships (for survivor benefits, etc.). Ensure education is free or affordable, and providing 21st century alternatives to that college/masters combo. Incentivizing a three-fold path after college: enlisting in the armed forces for two years, two years of Peace Corps, or two years of AmeriCorps. Gets people moving around, interacting, helping out the country and helping others. Change prison culture to rehabilitation (when possible) and get rid of private prisons and private military contractors. Making it really very clear that we can’t get involved in military conflicts without Congressional Approval unless we’ve been hit first and need immediate retaliation – and clearly legally defining war so that things like Vietnam and Korean ‘police actions’ don’t happen again (at least not without Congress’ approval). Other definitions are needed for strong privacy and data laws, the nightly news being commercial-free, and the internet a public utility. Also need to fix our bonkers copyright and patent laws. A cap on CEO, President, and all other corporate salaries – proportional to their own employees. All of the stuff I mentioned a couple of months ago regarding the institutional failures of the Presidency. A Federal living minimum wage. Stricter laws on guns, which I’ve also talked about before. We can let religions keep their tax-free real estate, but on the condition that they stay the heck out of politics. If they get involved, as George Carlin noted, then they can pay their taxes like everybody else. Speaking of which, the pledge of allegiance – if we keep it, it can’t have religious language. Think tanks with defined partisan agendas, also, cannot register as NGOs, but must be publicly funded, or become corporations. Universal healthcare, and more access to health services, especially in schools and rural areas, and doubly especially access to Planned Parenthood and like services. Paid parental leave – basically anything Michael Moore brought up in his recent documentary Where to Invade Next. Getting rid of homelessness (even voluntary – sorry wand’ring gypsy children, you need an address. The census is important, and we need to know who the heck lives here. Also: get a job, long-hair!). We can also fix our infrastructure and make more green solutions to deal with climate change (some painful. New Orleans and Miami…) and rejoin the Paris Climate Accord.

So, you know, just a few things. A couple of small fixes - if we decide to Make America Again.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Penguin Great Ideas

So I finally finished the Penguin Great Ideas list. 100 of the most important works of the world's civilizations...


Issues I have with this list: 1) Some authors get multiple selections, others only one. 2) It is heavily skewed to the West, and pays lip-service to the East, and then only the Far East, nothing from the Islamic world 3) Also heavily English-language (and culturally) biased.

That said: Some of these were great - best essays and works I've ever read. I encountered new authors, tackled works I'd meant to read for a long time, and was introduced to new perspectives. But it was still very problematic, overall.

Here is the official list, which I've gone ahead and annotated. My recommended choices, that is those which I agree are 'Great Ideas' are highlighted.

01. On the Shortness of Life - Seneca Great
02. Meditations - Marcus Aurelius Sure
03. Confessions - Augustine Essential (part of the canon, everyone should read)
04. The Inner Life - Thomas à Kempis - I got nothing from this
05. The Prince - Niccolò Machiavelli Essential
06. On Friendship - Michel de Montaigne Essential. Broadly - the whole Essays
07. A Tale of a Tub - Jonathan Swift - There's much better Swift
08. The Social Contract - Jean-Jacques Rousseau Essential
09. The Christians and the Fall of Rome - Edward Gibbon - Horrendously long and arduous
10. Common Sense - Thomas Paine Great
11. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman - Mary Wollstonecraft Essential
12. On the Pleasure of Hating - William Hazlitt Great
13. The Communist Manifesto - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Essential
14. On the Suffering of the World - Arthur Schopenhauer - No repeats! (lower down)
15. On Art and Life - John Ruskin -  Sure. Two essays, 'The Nature of the Gothic' and 'The Work of Iron'
16. On Natural Selection - Charles Darwin The Origin of Species is Essential
17. Why I Am So Wise - Friedrich Nietzsche - There is better Nietzsche
18. A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf Great, possibly Essential
19. Civilization and Its Discontents - Sigmund Freud - No repeats! (lower down)
20. Why I Write - George Orwell Great
21. The First Ten Books - Confucius Essential
22. The Art of War - Sun Tzu Essential

23. The Symposium - Plato Great - The Apology would've been better
24. Sensation and Sex - Lucretius This is 'On the Nature of Things' and its Essential
25. An Attack on the Enemy of Freedom - Cicero Great
26. The Revelation of St John the Divine and The Book of Job The Two most important books of the Bible, psychologically. Essential
27. Travels in the Land of Kublai Khan - Marco Polo - I mean... basically none of it is true.
28. The City of Ladies - Christine de Pizan Essential
29. How to Achieve True Greatness - Baldesar Castiglione Great
30. Of Empire - Francis Bacon - Nope
31. Of Man - Thomas Hobbes I'm very conflicted by Hobbes. Downgraded to Great
32. Urne-Burial - Sir Thomas Browne Great
33. Miracles and Idolatry - Voltaire Sure
34. On Suicide - David Hume Sure
35. On the Nature of War - Carl von Clausewitz - Ugh. Only if you have a keen interest.
36. Fear and Trembling - Søren Kierkegaard Essential
37. Where I Lived, and What I Lived For - Henry David Thoreau Sure
38. Conspicuous Consumption - Thorstein Veblen - Just not that good
39. The Myth of Sisyphus - Albert Camus Great
40. Eichmann and the Holocaust - Hannah Arendt Essential
41. In Consolation to his Wife - Plutarch Great
42. Some Anatomies of Melancholy - Robert Burton Nope
43. Human Happiness - Blaise Pascal - I don't care for Pascal
44. The Invisible Hand - Adam Smith - The Wealth of Nations is arduous and unpleasant.
45. The Evils of Revolution - Edmund Burke - Burke is tedious and sanctimonious.
46. Nature - Ralph Waldo Emerson Essential
47. The Sickness Unto Death - Søren Kierkegaard - No repeats!
48. The Lamp of Memory - John Ruskin - No repeats!
49. Man Alone with Himself - Friedrich Nietzsche - No repeats! The only repeated author who they managed to give two of his worst works, when there's good stuff out there.
50. A Confession - Leo Tolstoy Sure
51. Useful Work versus Useless Toil - William Morris Great, bordering on Essential
52. The Significance of the Frontier in American History - Frederick Jackson Turner Great
53. Days of Reading - Marcel Proust - Not exactly known for his essays
54. An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe - Leon Trotsky Sure
55. The Future of an Illusion - Sigmund Freud Essential
56. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction - Walter Benjamin Great, bordering Essential
57. Books v. Cigarettes - George Orwell  - No repeats!
58. The Fastidious Assassins - Albert Camus - No repeats!
59. Concerning Violence - Frantz Fanon Sure
60. The Spectacle of the Scaffold - Michel Foucault Great
61. Tao Te Ching - Lao-Tzu Essential
62. Writings from the Zen Masters - Various Great. Sort of a random selection, but I appreciate the idea
63. Utopia - Thomas More Sure
64. On Solitude - Michel de Montaigne - No repeats! Especially from the same book!
65. On Power - William Shakespeare Essential. This is just a selection of his passages.
66. Of the Abuse of Words - John Locke - Only if interested in semiotics.
67. Consolation in the Face of Death - Samuel Johnson - Nope
68. An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment? - Immanuel Kant Great, admittedly better Kant out there, but not for a lay audience
69. The Executioner - Joseph de Maistre Great
70. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater - Thomas de Quincey - Nope.
71. The Horrors and Absurdities of Religion - Arthur Schopenhauer Great
72. The Gettysburg Address - Abraham Lincoln Essential
73. Revolution and War - Karl Marx - No repeats!
74. The Grand Inquisitor - Fyodor Dostoyevsky Essential. Story within the story The Brothers Karamazov
75. On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings - William James Sure
76. An Apology for Idlers - Robert Louis Stevenson Sure
77. Of the Dawn of Freedom - W. E. B. Du Bois Essential
78. Thoughts of Peace in an Air Raid - Virginia Woolf - No repeats!
79. Decline of the English Murder - George Orwell - No repeats! x2
80. Why Look at Animals? - John Berger Great bordering on Essential
81. The Tao of Nature - Chuang Tzu Essential
82. Of Human Freedom - Epictetus - Already got Stoicism well covered with Seneca and Aurelius.
83. On Conspiracies - Niccolò Machiavelli - No repeats!
84. Meditations - René Descartes Essential
85. Dialogue Between Fashion and Death - Giacomo Leopardi Great
86. On Liberty - John Stuart Mill Sure
87. Hosts of Living Forms - Charles Darwin - No repeats! Also, why is Darwin the only scientist on here?
88. Night Walks - Charles Dickens Sure. Not known for his essays, but they're good.
89. Some Extraordinary Popular Delusions - Charles Mackay Essential
90. The State as a Work of Art - Jacob Burckhardt - Nope. The sooner we let Burckhardt die out the better.
91. Silly Novels by Lady Novelists - George Eliot - Not really that great.
92. The Painter of Modern Life - Charles Baudelaire - Nope
93. The 'Wolfman' - Sigmund Freud - No repeats! x2
94. The Jewish State - Theodor Herzl Great
95. Nationalism - Rabindranath Tagore Great
96. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism - Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Sure, but only barely
97. We Will All Go Down Fighting to the End - Winston Churchill Great
98. The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise - Jorge Luis Borges Essential - collection of his short stories
99. Some Thoughts on the Common Toad - George Orwell - No repeats! x3! Seriously, four Orwell selections?!
100. An Image of Africa - Chinua Achebe Great


Out of 85 actual individuals with 'Great Ideas' we throw out another 20 for not being good, leaving us 65 authors whose works could be considered 'Great Ideas', broken down as:

25 'Essential' which are impossible to replace
4 'Great, bordering on Essential'
22 'Great' which are difficult to replace
and 13 'Sure', which are fine but replaceable, including one 'only barely'

As always if the option was a selection of a longer text I read it in full for better context. Thus ends a project begun in 2011 (when I was in Singapore), seven years later (now in Monterey), with the final work completed being the massive tome Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.