Wednesday, January 19, 2022

#19 / Opportunity Cost


Farhad Manjoo is a New York Times columnist. On January 13, 2022, his column in The Times was titled as follows, online: "We Must Stop Showering The Military With Money." 
I saw Manjoo's column on January 16th, reprinted in the San Jose Mercury. The title there, in the hard-copy edition, read this way: "PENTAGON OVERSPENDING - U.S. has far too many challenges to spend so much on the military." 
Manjoo's column featured a discussion of what he called a $1 trillion dollar boondoggle/warplane, pictured above, the Lockheed Martin F-35.

There is an economic principle not explicitly mentioned in Manjoo's column, but the whole column is all about that principle. It is called, "Opportunity Cost."

What Is Opportunity Cost? 
Opportunity costs represent the potential benefits an individual, investor, or business misses out on when choosing one alternative over another. Because opportunity costs are, by definition, unseen, they can be easily overlooked. Understanding the potential missed opportunities when a business or individual chooses one investment over another allows for better decision-making.
Manjoo's point is that the people of the United States are "missing out" on many, many benefits by spending so much money on the military. As you may remember, if you have been following the news out of Congress, Congress has been unwilling to invest money in various kinds of social benefits (they cost too much says Mr. Manchin) while actually increasing the military budget, beyond what the President initially proposed.

I would like to suggest two other ways of looking at the issues raised by Manjoo's column. Let's consider the following phrase:

This well-known statement suggests that any person who wants to be taken seriously, as she or he discusses what's most important in life, needs to be able to demonstrate that the person's allocation of her or his scarce economic resources is an accurate reflection of her or his stated policy priorities. 
In politics, we utilize this phrase to evaluate whether political actions reflect a politician's hypocrisy and/or lack of political courage (let's not forget to mention Kyrsten Sinema right here).

Then, just to finish up my report on thoughts spurred by Manjoo's column, let's consider reversing the "put your money where your mouth is" phrase. Significant insights can sometimes be obtained by reversing a descriptive statement, to see if something new has been revealed. So, let's think about this phrasing: 

Put Your Mouth Where Your Money Is

I think, in fact, that it is a significant truth that we all tend to justify our own actions, and in the political context, since the United States of America spends such a huge percentage of its annual income on past, present, and future military actions, we tend to say (and believe) that these expenditures reflect valid and extremely important public purposes. 

But is that actually true, or is it an example of the "put your mouth where your money is" phenomenon?

I am thinking that Farhad Manjoo is right, and that "showering the military with money" is not as high a priority as we seem to think, when we look at how we allocate our resources. 
Here's what I say: 

Let's Consider The "Opportunity Cost!"

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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

#18/ A Farmer Discusses The Nature Of Property

This Quarter, I am teaching "Property And The Law" at the University of California, Santa Cruz. It is early in the Quarter, so the class is focusing on various "theoretical" issues. Basically, during the first several weeks, the class is exploring the question, "What is Property?" Later on, we will be discussing more specific questions, like who gets what when a married couple is divorced.
In terms of theory, the class has already discussed property as a "human creation," and property as "the law of democracy." Today, the class will focus on the following topic: "Property As Conquest (Or Theft)." 
The Class Syllabus contains a "Land Acknowledgment," making clear that the property on which the University has been constructed is the "unceded territory" of the native tribes which were displaced by European invaders. The idea that our "property rights" may be built upon past conquest and theft is only partly "theoretical." Here is the "Land Acknowledgement" that the University asks instructors to put into each course syllabus:

Land Acknowledgment
The land on which UCSC has been constructed, and on which we gather, is the unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi Tribe. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, comprised of the descendants of indigenous people taken to missions Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista during Spanish colonization of the Central Coast, is today working hard to restore traditional stewardship practices on these lands and heal from historical trauma. 
Given the official acknowledgment just reproduced, it is clear that the University has more or less conceded that our contemporary "property rights" in real estate are based on "conquest and theft." That is the essence of today's lesson, and students who attend today's class will get an opportunity to consider whether or not past practices might still have some applicability, today. That is the question posed by the following reading: 

A Farmer Discusses The Nature Of Property

A farmer goes out early one morning and finds a homeless man asleep in his barn. The farmer wakes the man up and tells him he's trespassing and to get off his property.

The homeless man says, “What makes this your property?”

The farmer says, “I inherited it from my father.”

The homeless man says, “How'd your father get it?”

The farmer says, “He inherited it from his father.”

The homeless man says, “Well, how'd your grandfather get it?”

The farmer says, “He inherited it from his father.”

The homeless man says, “Well, how'd your great grandfather get it?”

The farmer says, “He fought the Indians for it.”

“All right, then,” says the homeless man. “I'll fight you for it now.”

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Monday, January 17, 2022

#17 / An MLK Replay (Love Your Enemies)


Today being our Martin Luther King national holiday (you can click that link for President Biden's Proclamation), I figured I should reference Dr. King in some way. He is, as I have mentioned before, definitely one of my "Five Guys" (Jesus, Gandhi, and Bob Dylan are also part of the company, along with my Dad).

As I thought about it, it seemed to me that one of my earlier blog postings, "Love Your Enemies," actually speaks pretty well to the moment, and to the day. As far as I am concerned, there really isn't a whole lot more to say.

Click that "Love Your Enemies" link for a replay!
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Sunday, January 16, 2022

#16 / Dealing With Disenchantment


The article from which the above image was taken is titled, "How to pray to a dead God." I think it's worth reading. The article, by Ed Simon, appeared shortly before Christmas in Aeon, an online magazine. Simon's article is accompanied by the following statement:
The modern world is disenchanted. God remains dead. But our need for transcendence lives on. How should we fulfill it?
That's a good question, right? Might we not, though, have to interrogate the premises, in order to answer that question? If we actually do have a "need" for transcendence, and if "God remains dead," is there any way to get out of that box without reexamining the "God is dead" formula - or without deciding that we may not need transcendence, after all?
Of course, finding a way out of that box, a way that we might fulfill that stipulated need for transcendence without any reliance on "God," is the exact assignment to which Simon applies himself in his article. You can click the link in the first line of this blog posting to read the whole thing yourself, to see how well Simon does, and to see how he constructs his argument. The last paragraph of Simon's article will give you an idea of where he ends up: 

Eleven centuries before [Matthew] Arnold heard the roar of faith’s tide [receding] and Nietzsche declared that God was dead, the Hindu sage Adi Shankara recounted a parable in his commentary to the Brahma Sutras, a text that was [then] already a millennium old. Shankara writes that the great teacher Bhadva was asked by a student what Brahma – the ground of all Being – actually was. According to Shankara, Bhadva was silent. Thinking that perhaps he had not been heard, the student asked again, but still Bhadva was quiet. Again, the student repeated his question – ‘What is God?’ – and, again, Bhadva would not answer. Finally, exasperated, the young man demanded to know why Bhadva would not respond to the question. ‘I am teaching you,’ Bhadva replied.
I have always liked the way Iris DeMent responds to the question. Her guidance, the way I interpret it, is not unlike the response of the Hindu sage cited by Simon. DeMent. though, does use words (and music, of course) to arrive at that same destination. If you are not familiar with DeMent's "Let The Mystery Be," give that link a click!

I have my own answer to Simon's question about how we fulfill our need for transcendence in a time when God is dead, and I think my way of thinking about and responding to the question is consistent with what both DeMent and Bhadva give as their responses. I'd like to think that my response is a little more "affirmative," though. 
I don't want to try to put any words into God's mouth - which is what "religion" has consistently tried to do, since the very beginning, and what I think has ultimately led to that ebbing of the tide of faith that Matthew Arnold noted in "Dover Beach." In fact, God the Creator is either real, and present, or not, and what humans think, and what humans have to say on the subject, has no impact whatsoever on the truth - on the reality of our human situation. If the tide of human opinion has run out - and faith has ebbed that God the Creator exists - the fact that a large majority, including philosophers and scientists, do not believe that God is either real or present does not, actually, provide us with any certain result. If we care about the truth, human opinion can't possibly settle the matter - and that "human opinion" includes all the science in the world. The fact that our formulations and explanations are only that - explanations and not any final and certain knowledge of whether God is the Creator of the universe, or not - is why the question Simon addresses keeps coming on around. 
As Bhadva indicates, by his silence, we would best understand the ultimate realities of our existence by dispensing with words, and instead of trying to "say" what God is all about, and what God is not, we should just "let the mystery be."

As for whether we actually "need" transcendence, that, too, can never be "proven." All the science in the world will never be able finally to demonstrate that there either is some transcendent dimension of our lives, or that the contrary is the case. It may be that nothing exists but elegantly arranged atoms and molecules, spun by chance - and that this is what we observe in the starry, starry nights we are sometimes so privileged to experience. It may be that it is only those atoms and molecules that produce, somehow, that inexpressible something, in the eyes of our loved ones, that goes beyond what any words could ever conjure up or speak (though the poets have tried, sometimes, and sometimes with something like success).

I believe, based on my experience, in God the Creator, and in God's presence in my life, and in the life of the world. I do not presume to say that I am right, and I would never want to pretend that I, or anyone else, can demonstrate the reality of God. I particularly object to the idea that anyone claiming to know God has any right, based on that claim, to tell all the rest of us what we must do. As I say, I think claims like that are what led to that ebbing tide that Matthew Arnold wrote his poem about.
To my mind, Bob Dylan has put the case succinctly - and correctly - as he cuts through the Gordian Knot of our human speculations and conjectures about God and the transcendent. He does so in the following, very simple phrase from his song, "Precious Angel."
Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground
This is, I think, Bob Dylan's response to Simon's question, and it is mine as well. 

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Saturday, January 15, 2022

#15 / The True Purpose Of College


On the very day I started preparing to teach my Winter Quarter course at the University of California, Santa Cruz (LGST 159 - Property And The Law), the December 20, 2021, edition of The New Yorker showed up in my mailbox, with an article by Louis Menand. The illustration above accompanied Menand's article, which is titled (in the hard-copy edition of the magazine), "Too Good For This World." The article discusses so-called "Great Books" courses. Associated with the image I have reproduced is the following statement: 
Critics argue that academic careerists have derailed the true purpose of college - the pursuit of self-knowledge.
That statement caught my attention, and I immediately set aside my work on my draft Syllabus and Class Schedule, in order to read Menand's article. "Property and the Law" is a course that is intended to impart very specific information about property law, but I happen to agree that my real agenda, as an instructor, ought to be to stimulate students to know themselves better - and to know their power to change the world, in particular. The specifics of existing property law are of a somewhat secondary importance.
Regular readers of these blog postings will probably remember that I often say that "my favorite category is possibility," and that we are not only "observers," but "actors." Strictly speaking, talking about things like this in a course on property law may seem to be a bit off topic - but that is true only if observable "facts," and not "understanding," is at the heart of what students should be thinking about and learning.

The nature of "property" is one of the very first things I teach in my property law class (the course is now in full swing, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1:30 p.m.). I tell students that the nature of property is not something to be "observed," but to be "created." In fact, what we commonly think of as "property" is most usually real estate or tangible objects (a dead fox and a home run baseball are items of property featured in an early class session). These, however, are not really what "property" is, at all. "Property" is a set of rights and rules, established by law, and since we make the laws, observing existing property relationships - and learning about those - is not the only thing we need to do, when we start thinking about property law. 
Accordingly, I start students off with what I like to call my "favorite equation," expressed as follows: 

Politics > Law > Government

To understand this "equation," start on the right. How we govern ourselves (including with respect to how we deal with issues related to real estate and other kinds of property) depends on the laws that set up the rules. That is what those "Law" and "Government" elements in that "equation" signify. Note though, that the laws that set up the rules that govern our lives together are the product of a "political" process, in which we can, in fact, choose what those laws should say. The inherent power that citizens have, to change the laws of property, is what ultimately defines what "property" is. 

A student who truly "gets" the implication of this understanding of property - and of government in general - has achieved a particularly valuable piece of self-knowledge. That student knows, in other words, that the student is not required simply to accept the rules and realities immediately presented. The student can - at least potentially - change those rules and realities.
I wasn't taught much in college about my personal power to change political, and economic, and social reality (although I did take an Honors Seminar in "Utopia," which helped provide that perspective). While I definitely want the students that I am teaching to know the existing rules relating to property - there are quizzes on that - I also want to make sure that my students in the Legal Studies Program at UCSC know that what property "is" will ultimately be what we, using the democratic powers of self-government, decide that it ought to be!

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Friday, January 14, 2022

#14 / Carbon Trading


After the Glasgow climate change meeting ended, The Wall Street Journal ran a front page article that proclaimed, "COP26 Opens Path to International Carbon Trading." That headline makes it sound like this is a real step ahead, and that carbon trading is a very good thing.
Actually, it's not a good thing - not if you accept the premise that reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be priority number one for everyone. "Carbon Trading" is a way to make money more important than emissions reductions. California, regrettably, has pioneered the field. 

Here is how carbon trading works: First, a governmental body documents current emissions from everyone. Next, the government sets an emissions reduction requirement for everyone. Next, industries that don't want to meet their required emissions reduction target can buy emission "credits" that allow them to continue to emit greenhouse gasses beyond the mandated reductions. Of course, the industries have to pay for the credits. They pay a designated governmental authority, which operates an "exchange," and the governmental exchange invests the money collected from those who choose to pay for credits by investing it with those who are willing and able actually to reduce emissions.
Emitters willing and able to reduce emissions beyond the amount they would otherwise be required to achieve are paid off, through the governmental exchange, by those industries that decide that they would rather purchase credits than actually reduce emissions themselves. The idea is that this system allows required emission reductions to be achieved in the most economically efficient way possible. An oil refinery, for instance, might have to pay a lot of money to meet an emissions reduction mandate. Why not let a hog farm reduce its emissions, instead, because the hog farm can reduce emissions more cheaply than the refinery? In other words, why bother to regulate the industries that are emitting the greenhouse gases that are putting human civilization at risk when "the market" can achieve the same result?
Here's the problem (just in case you haven't figured it out for yourself). We are in a global climate crisis. It is imperative that we reduce emissions to the maximum amount technically possible at the earliest possible time. If it is technically possible for the hog farm to reduce emissions, the hog farm should be compelled to make as many emission reductions as it can. If it is technically possible for the oil refinery to reduce emissions, the oil refinery should be compelled to do that - again, to the maximum amount that it can. "Trading" away your emission reduction responsibilities does not achieve the goal of making the maximum emissions reductions possible at the earliest possible time. 

That Wall Street Journal headline - "COP26 Opens Path to International Carbon Trading" - probably does sound good to many readers of The Wall Street Journal, those who measure value in terms of money. For those who place a higher priority on protecting the planet from the climate change catastrophe that our human activities is causing, this outcome of the Glasgow summit is not good news at all.
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Thursday, January 13, 2022

#13 / All Of The Above

The purpose of this blog posting is not, really, to discuss how best to construct multiple choice lists. However, just as an aside (even though the "aside" is coming at the very start of my discussion), consider the image above. IF one were constructing a multiple choice list, it should be obvious that one should never place "All of the above," as a choice, underneath "None of the above." You get that, right? Frankly, it took me a moment! Click this link for a discussion on this very point.
It is surprising, isn't it, how easy it is to make a significant mistake, if we fail to take time really to think through our choices?  

At any rate, I decided to call today's blog posting "All Of The Above" to highlight a little discussion about politics - and America - sent to me by a VERY conservative friend. This friend puts out daily blog postings of his own, and they are quite different from mine. Sometimes, I find them very distressing, particularly when my friend's blog postings touch on the postulated greatness of our immediate past president. 

On Sunday, December 12, 2021, my friend's blog posting largely consisted of the article which I have fully reproduced below. The article, by Robert Katz, is entitled "American Greatness." Katz' article is worth reading, I think, and I appreciate the fact that its message might be endorsed by both me and by my conservative friend. I have made comments of my own at the end of the Katz article.

American Greatness

By Robert Katz

Was Thomas Jefferson a great man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and co-founded the University of Virginia, or a slaveholder who benefited from the most degrading of human relationships? Was the Louisiana Purchase a masterstroke that doubled American territory and gave opportunity to countless Americans, or was it a great blow to the sovereignty and viability of the Indian nations of the Midwest? Was America* the great country that liberated Europe from fascism, or was it a nation that conspired to overthrow democratically elected governments in Latin America and elsewhere?

If your answers to these questions were “All of the Above,” give yourself an A.

What kind of country are we? There is a longing by many for simple answers. America is a racist country or America is definitely not a racist country. But America, like Walt Whitman’s description of his Self, is large and contains multitudes. No one adjective or sentence can capture its essence.

For millions, immigrants from countries in which despots and feudal barons ruled, countries such as Russia and Romania where my Jewish grandparents came from, America was a land of great possibilities, notwithstanding its shortcomings. It was a place where there was some kind of rule of law, democratic self-rule however imperfect, and an economic system that, while not free of prejudice or exploitation, would allow them and their children to rise in the world.

For millions of others, America was a land where their forefathers were brought over in chains, or they were indigenous people uprooted from their land and subject to actual and cultural genocide, or they were Chinese or Japanese immigrants subject to all manner of exclusion and vilification.

These are some of the many American realities. They are all true. They give rise to a confusion that has fueled the debate about how US history should be taught. Slogans get thrown around, wokeness is exhibited and condemned, phrases like “critical race theory” are bandied about uncritically. The political right claims that the left is attempting to indoctrinate students to socialistic multiculturalism. And it’s true that some antiracist teachings, particularly in the realm of diversity training, can engage in fatuous generalizations. In a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review, “Can We Talk about Critical Race Theory?” Jay Caspian Kang gives an example of teachers being trained that white culture fosters “independence and individual achievement,” while “color groups” rely more on “interdependence and group success.” Such racial stereotyping deserves the condemnation it’s gotten.

But if some on the left are guilty of this foolishness, partisans of the right have engaged in something yet more sinister: using the teaching of race and racism as a cultural wedge to divide the electorate for their own political advantage. Many in the Republican party, while accusing the left of propagandizing the young, promote a view of America’s racial history based on denial and deemphasis. They see teaching America’s historical crimes and follies as an attack on America itself. To win white votes they assert that teaching structural racism as an American reality is an attack on white people.

The strongest case for American greatness is that at times we have faced our failure to live up to our ideals and have attempted to rectify that failure. Think of the trade union movement that fought to give dignity and prosperity to working people who previously were at the mercy of their employers; the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s that, through civil disobedience and political activism, made strides in raising Black people up from third class citizenship; the progressive political movements that now see Mexican Americans represented at all levels of government and the appointment of the first American Indian Secretary of the Interior. None of these advances could have been possible without facing the grave injustices of the past. The last thing we need is right-wing indoctrination that tells us teaching uncomfortable truths about American history is un-American.

How about if we suspend the propaganda of both the right and the left in teaching American history? How about if we agree to teach the unvarnished facts, the good, the bad, and the ambiguous? Then let’s encourage students to embrace methods of reasoning, of sifting through evidence, of distinguishing the reliable from the dubious and deceptive so that they can come to their own conclusions about what kind of country America is. Raising a generation of independent-minded citizens in the art of critical thinking might just move America in the direction of becoming the great nation it always has aspired to be.

*I mainly use the less geographically and politically correct but more colloquial term “America” for the USA. As songwriters from Irving Berlin to Neil Diamond know, it scans better (emphasis added).

Robert Katz served as a staff attorney and supervising attorney at the California Supreme Court from 1993-2018. Before that he was in private practice representing public agencies, and worked as a newspaper reporter covering local government in Santa Cruz County.
Frequent readers of this "We Live In A Political World" blog (I encourage subscriptions) may be able to figure out why I think Katz is making some good points in what he has written about "American Greatness." 
First, Katz' article reflects what I have called the "Blind Man And The Elephant" understanding of reality. Multiple viewpoints of the same subject matter demonstrate that each individual viewpoint is "right," but that each is also "wrong," whenever a claim is made that a particular and singular explanation of a reality can produce a total understanding of the subject. 
In addition, the Katz article exemplifies an understanding what I call the "is" fallacy - which is the idea that when we say that something "is" we often act as though we are describing a truth that is "essential," that is both permanent and unchangeable. In fact, that isn't true. Reality does not confront us as a "done deal." Our "is" statements are only valid as a current measurement, not as a statement about some sort of inevitable truth. 
Finally, Katz' commentary, taken as a reflection on "history," points out that our history does not determine what "is," or what "will be," and that our action in the present is what actually counts.
If you noticed all of those things, "give yourself an "A."
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Wednesday, January 12, 2022

#12 / "Black Box" For The Planet


The New York Times reported, on December 11, 2021, that a steel vault, about the size of a school bus, will soon be placed in a remote part of Australia. The steel vault, called "Earth's Black Box," will "record the Earth's warming weather patterns." It will also "listen to what we say and do," creating an "archive that could be critical to piecing together the missteps ... should humanity be destroyed by climate change."  
The Times' article was headlined, "A 'Black Box' for an Earth In Danger of Climate Crash." An artist's rendering of how the project might look is pictured above. The "Black Box" is scheduled to be constructed in Tasmania, an Australian island state off the south coast.

Comparing the current status of our planet to an airplane that might crash seems appropriate. Anyone paying attention knows that a "Climate Crash," as The Times calls it, is a distinct possibility. Some call it an inevitability
Collecting information that might be useful for anyone who survives the Climate Crash (presuming that such a crash actually does occur, and further presuming that someone survives it) is probably a worthwhile project, though I personally would prefer more attention paid to "prevention," with "documentation" being a less urgent priority. 

The "Black Box" project was apparently conceived not by climate scientists, which is what you might think, but by an Australian advertising agency. Jim Curtis, the executive creative director of the agency said (a sentiment shared by virtually everybody), “I really hope that it’s not too late.”

Mr. Curtis also said something I find a lot more problematic. According to Curtis, the box will be designed “to hold our leaders to account.” That seems to be the main point. The "Black Box" will mine the internet for evidence of what the "leaders" are doing, and if everything comes crashing down, their failure to avoid the tragedy will be fully revealed.
Here is my problem with Curtis' statement. Our current situation is typified by all of us thinking that someone else should solve our "Climate Crash" problem. It is a problem that we all know exists, but we have talked ourselves into the idea that it is such a big problem that ordinary people really can't deal with it. We think some governmental agency, or some scientific consortium, or some set of farsighted corporate and foundation executives - some set of "leaders" - ought to extricate us from our perilous position. Meanwhile, we continue to live what we have come to think of as our "normal life." 
I would like to propound the opposite hypothesis. Looking to (and blaming) our "leaders" is the wrong way to save the planet. WE are implicated. The problem is not the "leaders." It's "us." Therefore, if we avert the predictable "Climate Crash," it won't be because our "leaders" finally got it right. It will be because we decided, in a cascading chain of people doing something new themselves, that we will take the helm and steer the ship of our civilization into a new, and completely different, direction. 

Unlikely? Maybe, but I think that this is the way that genuine change will actually come. It's not going to come from the "leaders," and we won't really be able to blame the "leaders" if our civilization comes crashing down. As Michael Jackson told us, it's that "Man in the Mirror" whom we ought to be holding accountable.

Bob Dylan has a great song about individual responsibility. It's called, "Up To Me." Click that first link to listen to the song. Click the second link to read the lyrics. To translate the same thought into "political" language, let's remember this absolutely accurate description of how genuine political change is always accomplished:

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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

#11 / Birds Aren't Real

Apparently, there is a large and "viral" online movement that operates under the slogan, "Birds Aren't Real." This online phenomenon, of course, does end up interacting with the "real" world itself. It has interacted, for instance, with the real world of billboard signs, as you can see from the photo above. Real money had to change hands in connection with that billboard. It costs quite a bit to populate a billboard with whatever text a purchaser might want. 
It is wonderfully ironic, I think, that what definitely appear to be "real" birds have chosen the above billboard to take a breather, and to teach anyone looking at the billboard that you need to be skeptical about anything you might read on a billboard (or read anywhere else, for that matter). Take the billboard below as another illustration of the principle:
I didn't actually start out this blog posting with the intention of making fun of the pretensions of our former president, and the idea that voting for him would help "make America great again." That just kind of came to me, since I got to talking about billboards. I started out this "Birds Aren't Real" blog posting because of an article I read in the December 9, 2021, edition of The New York Times. Everything The Times was talking about in that article was new to me, and pretty astounding. The Times' article is titled, "Birds Aren’t Real, or Are They? Inside a Gen Z Conspiracy Theory." 
As I learned from the article, the "Birds Aren't Real" movement was invented in 2017 by Peter McIndoe, then twenty years old. Here is how Audubon describes the origin of the movement in a November 16, 2018, article in its "Birds In The News" section:

The CIA assassinated John F. Kennedy after he refused to kill and replace billions of birds with drones. The U.S. government is sequestering a team of Boeing engineers in Area 51 for a secret military mission. Our tax dollars have been funneled into building the “Turkey X500,” a robot used to hunt large birds. 
Combine all these conspiracies and you get Birds Aren’t Real, a nearly two-year-old movement that claims the CIA took out 12 billion feathered fugitives because directors within the organization were “annoyed that birds had been dropping fecal matter on their car windows.” The targets were eradicated between 1959 and 1971 with specially altered B-52 bombers stocked with poison. They were then supplanted with avian-like robots that could be used to surveil Americans. 
Sounds extreme but also somewhat fitting, given the landscape of today's social discourse. By surfacing murky bits of history and the ubiquity of Aves, Birds Aren’t Real feeds into this era of post-truth politics. The campaign relies on internet-fueled guerilla marketing to spread its message, manifesting through real-world posters and Photoshopped propaganda tagged with the “Birds Aren’t Real” slogan. For much of its devoted fanbase, Birds Aren’t Real is a respite from America’s political divide—a joke so preposterous both conservatives and liberals can laugh at it. But for a few followers, this movement is no more unbelievable than QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy theory turned marketing ploy that holds that someone with high-level government clearance is planting coded tips in the news. Therein lies the genius of Birds Aren’t Real: It’s a digital breadcrumb trail that leads to a website that leads to a shop full of ready-to-buy merchandise. 
McIndoe is twenty-three years old now, and The Times' article provides more information on how the "Birds Aren't Real" movement got started, and what is sustaining the "Birds Aren't Real" movement today:

In January 2017, Mr. McIndoe traveled to Memphis to visit friends. Donald J. Trump had just been sworn in as president, and there was a women’s march downtown. Pro-Trump counterprotesters were also there. When Mr. McIndoe saw them ... he ripped a poster off a wall, flipped it over and wrote three random words: “Birds Aren’t Real.”
“It was a spontaneous joke, but it was a reflection of the absurdity everyone was feeling,” he said...
Mr. McIndoe decided to lean into Birds Aren’t Real. “I started embodying the character and building out the world this character belonged to,” he said. He and Connor Gaydos, a friend, wrote a false history of the movement, concocted elaborate theories and produced fake documents and evidence to support his wild claims.
“It basically became an experiment in misinformation,” Mr. McIndoe said. “We were able to construct an entirely fictional world that was reported on as fact by local media and questioned by members of the public.”
In 2018, Mr. McIndoe dropped out of college and moved to Memphis. To build Birds Aren’t Real further, he created a flyer that shot to the top of Reddit. He hired an actor to portray a former C.I.A. agent who confessed to working on bird drone surveillance; the video has more than 20 million views on TikTok. He also hired actors to represent adult bird truthers in videos that spread all over Instagram. 
That same year, Mr. McIndoe began selling Birds Aren’t Real merchandise. The money, totaling several thousand dollars a month, helps Mr. McIndoe and Mr. Gaydos cover their living expenses. 
“All the money from our merch lineup goes into making sure me and Connor can do this full time,” Mr. McIndoe said. “We also put the money into the billboards, flying out members of the Bird Brigade to rallies. None of the proceeds go to anything harmful.” 
In September, shortly after a restrictive new abortion law went into effect in Texas, Birds Aren’t Real members showed up at a protest held by anti-abortion activists at the University of Cincinnati. Supporters of the new law “had signs with very graphic imagery and were very aggressive in condemning people,” Mr. McIndoe said. “It led to arguments.” 
But the Bird Brigade began chanting, “Birds aren’t real.” Their shouts soon overpowered the anti-abortion activists, who left. 
Mr. McIndoe now has big plans for 2022. Breaking character is necessary to help Birds Aren’t Real leap to the next level and forswear actual conspiracy theorists, he said. He added that he hoped to collaborate with major content creators and independent media like Channel 5 News, which is aimed at helping people make sense of America’s current state and the internet. 
“I have a lot of excitement for what the future of this could be as an actual force for good,” he said. “Yes, we have been intentionally spreading misinformation for the past four years, but it’s with a purpose. It’s about holding up a mirror to America in the internet age.”
Now that McIndoe has helped generate a whole universe of "misinformation," centered on the supposed non-existence of birds - all with good intentions, of course - he thinks it's time to "break character." 
Maybe "break the spell" would be a better way to describe his intentions. At least the way I get it, McIndoe thinks it's time to reacquaint Americans with the perils of "post truth politics," however satisfying it may seem for us to indulge ourselves in outlandish assertions. If I am reading his intentions correctly, McIndoe thinks it might be possible to get more people to reject the idea that just because someone says something, loud and long - just because they put it on a billboard, or tell you in a podcast, or because you see it on Fox News, or MSNBC - that doesn't mean it's actually true. Truth and reality, not what panders to our prejudices and passions, ought to be our objective. 
If we could just get to that place, which seems like a good place to get to, then when somebody loudly proclaims something idiotic, like "Birds Aren't Real," we would all be prepared to stand right up, and to shout right back: 
Oh, Yes They Are!
Image Credits:
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(2) - 


Monday, January 10, 2022

#10 / MLK And President Biden Are Backing Me Up

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post that claimed that "in our world, we can make both our dreams, and our nightmares, come true, and there is no 'inevitability' either way."
Having posted that assertion (actually an assertion that is familiar to anyone who reads this blog on any regular basis), I was delighted to see a short little piece in The New Yorker, also datelined January 9, 2022, that backed me up. 
Jelani Cobb's article was titled, "Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s History Lessons." The article reported on a speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. on March 25, 1965, at the conclusion of what Cobb correctly called "the brutally consequential march from Selma to Montgomery." King's speech was titled, “Our God Is Marching On!” It was not, Cobb said, among King's best-known speeches, but was one of his "most revelatory," and one of his most optimistic, drawing on events in American history to evoke the possibilities of positive change. As Cobb tells us about the speech, King "spoke to a crowd of twenty-five thousand people on the grounds of the Alabama state capitol, in view of the office window of the segregationist governor George Wallace, and argued that, in the decade since the bus boycotts in that city, a new movement had emerged and an older order was starting to fall away."
Cobb associated King's "history lessons" with the speech given by President Biden in Statuary Hall, in the United States Capitol building, on January 6th of this year. Look for how the President ends that speech, as Cobb quotes him, making clear that Martin Luther King Jr. had exactly the same view: 

This holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., sees a nation embroiled in conflicts that would have looked numbingly familiar to him. As school curricula and online discourse threaten to narrow our understanding of both past and future, it’s more important than ever to take stock of our history and its consequences, as King did in his speech more than half a century ago. In Montgomery, the civil-rights leader spoke of the intransigent optimism that had led activists to fight for change, in the face of skepticism about what could actually be achieved. President Biden struck a similar note in his Statuary Hall speech. For those who believe in democracy, he said, “anything is possible—anything.” This is true, as the events of both March 25, 1965, and January 6, 2021, established. Anything is possible right now, and that is as much cause for hope as it is for grave concern (emphasis added).
"Anything" is possible. Our history will reflect what we choose to do - now, in this present moment - and we will make either our dreams, or our nightmares come true, depending on the choices that we make, and the actions that we take.
That is, of course, a cause for grave concern. 

And for great hope, too. 
Image Credit:

Sunday, January 9, 2022

#9 / Social Science Or Social Studies?


Heinrich Blücher, pictured, was a German poet and philosopher. He was also the second husband of Hannah Arendt.  Blücher taught, for a number of years, at Bard College, in upstate New York, which is now the home of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

I am an ongoing participant in the "Hannah Arendt Virtual Reading Group," sponsored by Bard and led by Roger Berkowitz, the Founder and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center. If you think you might like to get involved with the VRG, which I certainly encourage, you can learn a little bit about the Virtual Reading Group by watching the short video, linked below.

The Virtual Reading Group meets almost every Friday, by way of a Zoom conference call, and because I do regularly participate, I sometimes hear a few bits and pieces about Blücher. Something I heard about Blücher on Friday, January 7, 2022, made an impression on me. 
Apparently, during his time teaching at Bard, Blücher succeeded in convincing the college that it should not create or maintain a division of "Social Sciences," an academic appellation common at universities around the country, including at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I teach. "Science" is the realm of inevitability and "proof." It is, essentially, the study of what I most often call the "World of Nature," and the scientific research done within the natural sciences is intended to uncover the "laws" that govern that world, and that define the way that world must operate. 
As I like to tell my students, usually on the first day of class, "you can't disobey the law of gravity." 
The "laws" that operate in the human world - the "political world" that we create ourselves - are not like the law of gravity, and are not like any of the laws that govern the World of Nature. I tell my students that, too! Laws in the natural world describe exactly how things must happen. Human laws, quite differently, can be (and often are) disobeyed. In the political world, in which we most immediately reside, "everything is possible." Our laws are not "descriptive" but "prescriptive." They tell us not what must happen, but what we have said we want to happen. 
In our world, we can make both our dreams, and our nightmares, come true, and there is no "inevitability" either way. 

Understanding these basic realities, which are themes that one can draw from the writings of Hannah Arendt, Blücher's appeal to the administrators and faculty members at Bard takes on a great significance. If we believe that the study of all things "social," our politics, our economy, psychology, and sociology, are studies that should be "scientific," then the assertion being made, whether recognized or not, is that human affairs should be thought of not as different from what happens in the World of Nature, but should be thought of in the same way. In fact, an assertion that there is something called "social science," is an assertion that, ultimately, human beings and what they do are subject to "laws" that determine what they must do. 

There are no such "laws" in the human world, which is defined by freedom, not determined by some rule that compels a certain result. 

At Bard, thanks to Blücher, what are elsewhere called the "social sciences" are called "social studies." It sounds kind of like a high school class, but Blücher's insight is profound. 

We can study what we have done, what we usually do, what we are doing right now. But there is no "science" that can predict what we will do tomorrow, or in the very next instant.

Human beings - and that means all of us - have the inestimable gift of freedom, which means that we can do, now, or in the future, something never known or even imagined before. 

Kudos to Heinrich Blücher, and to Hannah Arendt. They are buried together in the cemetery at Bard. 

Their ideas are still very much alive!

Image Credits:
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(2) - Gary A. Patton, personal photograph

Saturday, January 8, 2022

#8 / Reading The Times


On Friday, January 7, 2022, The New York Times' editorial pages featured a main editorial statement by opinion writer Michelle Goldberg. Goldberg's column bore what I thought was a rather dire headline: "Are We Facing a Second Civil War?" Having asked the question, Goldberg's conclusion was that speculations about an incipient civil war, particularly as discussed in a book by Canadian novelist Stephen Marche, The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future, need to be taken extremely seriously:

Most of Marche’s narratives seem more imaginable than a future in which Jan. 6 turns out to be the peak of right-wing insurrection, and America ends up basically OK. “It’s so easy to pretend it’s all going to work out,” he [Marche] writes. I don’t find it easy.
Times' columnist David Brooks had a column printed on the same page as Goldberg's column. Brooks' title was: "Democrats Are Bad at Defending Democracy." Brooks' column raised concerns that were related to what Goldberg said in her column, pointing out that the Democrats have not been focused on the real attack on voting rights and democracy. As Brooks sees it, Democrats have been preoccupied by events at the national level, when the problems, and the solutions, depend on reinvigorating democracy at the state and local level.

On the page facing Goldberg's editorial statement, Sohrab Ahmari, a contributing editor of The American Conservative, opined that "Trumpism Wasn't Radical Enough." His analysis was that "Trumpism" was a populist reaction to a corrupt and undemocratic national government, and that Trump's presidency had done nothing, really, actually to cure the problems. Implied in Ahmari's analysis was the thought that this failure, during the Trump years, might indeed play into some of the scenarios outlined in Marche's book, and that were given credit by Goldberg.

The Times' front page, on Friday, had three articles relating to events at the United States Capitol a year earlier, on January 6, 2021, which events, of course, have been seen, by some, as an "insurrection," or as an attempt at a "coup." Some have characterized what happened on January 6th, last year, as a "dress rehearsal" for a real insurrection, with that real insurrection (and civil war) still to come.
So, are we heading for "civil war," or not? That is the question raised by The Times in its January 7, 2022, edition - in both news articles and on its editorial pages. Overall, I'd have to say, The New York Times gives the impression that the paper agrees with Goldberg's analysis that some scenario that involves a species of civil war is "more imaginable" than the possibility that what happened on January 6th last year was "the peak of right-wing insurrection."*
It is my belief that people basically do what is expected of them. In her column, Goldberg cited to Fintan O'Toole, who wrote about Marche's book in The Atlantic. O'Toole warned that "prophecies of civil war can be self-fulfilling." I definitely think that O'Toole is right about that, which then makes it pretty important, unless one happens to think that a civil war would be an excellent idea, to find some alternative "prophecy" that we might get people to believe in. 
I, personally, like the idea of a "prophecy" that calls for the empowerment of democratic self-government at the local and state level. In my opinion, Ahmari's analysis - coming from the "Trump" side of the political spectrum - is actually correct in saying that Trump's political success has come because Trump has been able to associate himself with a genuine and true complaint about our national government, and our current situation:

Like its antecedents, Trumpism appealed to many of its supporters as a response to perceived structural, class-based injustices. Like its antecedents, it said it would seek to shift the balance of social forces in favor of the left-behinds and underdogs. And like its antecedents, it finally couldn’t break free of the myths that are part and parcel of the American economic order and that help legitimate it.
The “American carnage” Donald Trump railed against in his 2017 Inaugural Address was the product of specific policies and a specific mode of economic governance. The symptoms of the “carnage”: stagnant real wages; pervasive health and job insecurity; the disappearance into thin air of America’s industrial base; ruthless labor, tax and regulatory arbitrage by corporations, in the form of offshoring and open borders; the corollary decline in union power in the private economy; the ravages of fentanyl; and, at the level of cultural and ideological production, the rise of Big Tech, with its power to discipline not just what workers do and earn but also what they can say and think.
To reverse the carnage would have required reform and a sturdy willingness to govern. On those counts, the Trumpians came up short, beholden as they were to American populism’s irrepressible libertarian spirit. 

I'm not much for civil war. I'm not much for killing people (in fact, I am 100% against that). 

"Revolutions" are another matter. The answer to the outrages specified by Ahmari is not a civil war. It is a revolutionary transformation of our government, building from the bottom up, and rejecting what the "elites" want to defend - and I am including specifically the "elites" running the Democratic Party.

Ahmari's complaints about "American carnage" doesn't sound very much different from the complaints voiced  by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. I'd start from there.
Image Credit: 
* The New York Times is not the only publication sounding the "Civil War" alarm. Click here for The New Yorker's take on the issue. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

#7 / Be Aware


When I hunted down a cartoon I saw in the comics section of the newspaper on Sunday, December 5, 2021, and pushed the "Share" button I found online, I was greeted with the following message from Dan Piraro. The message was intended for the recipient of the link that appeared in a pre-written email, ready to be dispatched. The email said: "Check out this great comic I found on Comics Kingdom!"
My sentiments, exactly! Consider this blog posting an invitation to visit Comics Kingdom, and to check out this Bizarro comic in particular. The link that was in the pre-written email I have mentioned is the link you'll find in the last line of the first paragraph of this blog posting: SHARE!

I generally love all the Bizarro comics, but this one particularly touched me. Don't you agree with me that we often put up a "BEWARE" sign, hoping to insulate ourselves from others, thinking that suspicion and mistrust is the best way to prepare ourselves for the human encounters we will have with those whom we don't know? Isn't it true that our first instinct is often to protect ourselves from whatever unknown dangers may lurk in dealing with people whom we don't know, and whom we think might bite us? 

I know I have that tendency. "BEWARE" of the person (whom you don't know). That's an easy default position. That keeps us safe - or so we tend to think.

Well, as Dan Piraro suggests in this comic, it may be that our safety will be most compromised not by attacks from those whom we don't know, but by our failure to "BE AWARE" of the potentialities of others, and to "Be Aware" of parts of the world with which we are unfamiliar. 

Thank you, Dan Piraro! A good lesson from the Sunday comics: 

Image Credit: