Enough to Go Around

 

“Non nobis, Domine, non nobis,
sed nomini tua da gloriam.”

“Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us,
but unto thy name give glory.”
— Psalm 115, from the King James Version of the Bible.

As Thanksgiving approaches and family gatherings appear to be limited for the holiday on account of COVID-19, it’s easy to lose sight of the greater problems weighing down many unfortunate people this year, such as hunger and homelessness. People of sufficient means can afford to fret over not seeing friends and relatives in person, or over temporary shortages of goods and services inconveniencing them, but they at least have a warm, secure place to live, and enough food and other necessities to go around. Should they become sick, they have access to quality medical attention.


Just enough for you - about food portions (IA CAT31303930)
The cover of a pamphlet from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reminding Americans of the need in a country with plentiful food to be mindful of not eating too much.

What about the people without all those good things to be thankful for this year? The economic disruption of COVID-19 has pushed millions of people into desperate straits this year, most of them workers in the service sector who could least afford to miss a paycheck. While professionals could work from home using a computer and an internet connection, that option has not been available to most service workers, for whom the choice has been to work and thereby expose themselves to the coronavirus or stay home as long as they had a home to stay in and money to buy food. Some have been able to sustain themselves on financial assistance, others have not.

As bad as prolonged isolation can be, poverty is worse. As inconvenient as it can be to have money and not always have goods available in stores to buy, or restaurants to visit for some time out of the house, it is worse to work in those stores and restaurants for low wages and be exposed eight hours or more a day to coronavirus, and yet have to endure the abuse of entitled, spoiled, petulant customers, or to not have a job at all. For all that, there are still ways to say “thanks” this holiday season, and to help someone else along the way.


Rhiannon Giddens performs “Wayfaring Stranger”, with accompaniment on accordion by Phil Cunningham.

Food banks are experiencing greater demand now than at any time in recent memory. The same goes for soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other charities helping the recently displaced as well as the chronically underemployed. There are safe ways to volunteer, but if that doesn’t seem possible, then help out by making a donation. Hospital staffs around the country are overworked, and they could use the assistance even of people without medical training. Farmers are reporting reduced demand for turkeys over 20 pounds because fewer large groups will be gathering for holiday dinners in their homes. The hungry who can’t afford to buy those larger turkeys could surely benefit by having them bought for them. Help carry the burden of this pandemic by picking up the fallen, and say grace in thanks to whatever faith sees you through another day.


Patrick Doyle composed this version of the traditional Catholic hymn “Non Nobis, Domine” for the 1989 film Henry V, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. Mr. Doyle appears as the soldier singing at the beginning of the scene, which depicts the aftermath of the 1415 Battle of Agincourt in the Hundred Years’ War.

— Ed.

 

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Sing a New Song

White-crownedSparrow-24JAN2017
A white-crowned sparrow in Sacramento, California, in January 2017. Photo by ADJ82.

Researchers studying white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) in the San Francisco area this past spring during California’s coronavirus shutdown found that the males had changed their song, presumably because it was easier for them to make themselves heard on account of the drop in human-caused noise. The birds no longer had to trill high and loud to pierce through the cacophony. The researchers noted that the calmer, quieter environment allowed the males to use a wider range of sounds in their calls, increasing their chances of mating success since the females find the wider range, with more low frequency notes, more appealing. The white-crowned sparrows in the Bay Area benefited from the reduction in human activity, and there have been similar stories from around the world this past year of animals enjoying a world less in conflict with people.


A video from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology of a male white-crowned sparrow singing.


Eaux Claires is a social activist group in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, that also hosts an annual music festival. This video of the singer, Feist, covering the Yusuf/Cat Stevens song “Trouble”, was filmed on November 1, 2020, as part of the group’s efforts to encourage people – particularly young people – to vote in the November 3rd election.

The political events of the past week in the United States herald a calmer, quieter environment to come, one in which everyone can be heard, not just those who tweet the loudest in ALL CAPS on social media, sowing hatred and tumult. Through the majority of their votes, Americans elected to step back from the brink of authoritarianism. While a disturbing number of their fellow citizens voted their support for climate destruction, white supremacy, and a sneering contempt for the rights of women and minorities, thankfully a greater number turned out to vote in favor of progress down the road of reason and empathy, not continuing on a death march. Those voters, many of them young people voting for the first time, have given all of us another chance to sing a new song.


“Oh Very Young”, a 1974 song by Yusuf/Cat Stevens. The haunting backup vocal was performed by Suzanne Lynch.


Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens performs “Oh Very Young” in December 2008.

— Izzy

Song of the white-crowned sparrow as recorded by Jonathan Jongsma for the Xeno-canto Foundation in April 2012 in the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve, California.

 

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The Breakdown of Consensus

 

The lack of capacity for critical thinking among some of the American electorate is nothing new. The French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville famously noted it in the late 1830s in the two volumes of his book, Democracy in America. Almost 130 years later, the American historian Richard Hofstadter remarked upon it in two of his works from the early 1960s, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, and The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Both of Hofstadter’s works still apply today in complementary fashion as the 2020 election nears and Clueless Leader and his cult followers on the far right drop in greater and greater numbers off the edge of reality into the realm of psychotic fever dreams.

Fake News Image
Mike Caulfield’s “Four Moves and a Habit” method for the detection of Fake News online. Infographic created by Shonnmharen.

The great difference between now and the early 1960s, when Hofstadter wrote about the propensity of some people for ignoring facts that didn’t fit their world view, is that those people now have access to the internet and to social media, where they can spread their diseased notions like a contagion. Rumors that once took days or weeks to spread, and in the process may have fizzled out when confronted by facts, now spread in minutes and hours in a continuous onslaught that drowns outs facts. For those too intellectually lazy to engage in critical thinking, there has never been a better time for finding spurious rumors to prop up their dangerously bonkers ideas.

Most of the rumor mongering conspiracy theorists with dangerously bonkers ideas are now, and have always been, on the far right of the American political spectrum. It’s an ongoing feature of American life that the ruling class demonizes the far left because they rightly suspect the far left would overturn the cushy lifestyle of the ruling class if they could, and to help them turn the focus of hatred and suspicion upon the far left the ruling class has always had willing allies, or rather dupes, among the far right. Useful idiots.



These are the kind of people who adhere to QAnon conspiracy theories about the evil character of Democrats and Antifa partly out of credulity since they want to believe the stories, and partly because it titillates them that most reasonable adults, and particularly liberals, are outraged and appalled by the stories. For a third of the American electorate, an incapacity for critical thinking is displayed as a badge of honor, not of shame.

Too many right wing delusionists are willing, even eager, to use violence when they don’t get their way. In this they are aided and abetted by the ruling class, who use them as a cudgel against the far left and anyone else who questions the established capitalist order. Terrorism in this country has almost always come from the far right, not the far left, and for nearly four years now the current president has winked and nodded at right wing terrorists in this country. He has filled a powder keg with dangerous fantasies and then recently lit the fuse with his call out to right wing terrorists ahead of the election.

A sketch from a January 1979 episode of Second City Television, starring Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, and Dave Thomas. In 2016, 52% of white women voted for the Republican presidential candidate, someone who would be incapable of understanding this SCTV sketch as satire.

For Richard Hofstadter in his examination of American history there have been breakdowns in what may be considered the consensus of political views reconciling economic and cultural differences (though he himself chafed at being lumped with the post World War II era “consensus” historians), but only one failure of consensus, and that led to the Civil War. Perhaps hope can be found in the realization that the truly dangerous right wing terrorists in this country are fewer in number than they would have everyone else believe. If the current president somehow gains four more years in power, however, that glimmer of hope may go dark because more violent reactionaries will become ever more emboldened, growing their numbers to become a visceral threat, sinister and close.
— Vita

 

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Equal Application of the Law

 

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”
Matthew 6:5, from the New International Version of the Bible.

When state and local governments include churches, mosques, and synagogues in their lockdown orders due to coronavirus, it might at first glance seem to be an infringement on religious freedom, but such is not the case. It would be an infringement if government singled out particular institutions which were in almost every way like other institutions except for their religious character. In this public health emergency, however, the only concern government officials have with religious institutions is the one characteristic they share with some other institutions, which is how they typically gather together large groups of people, a characteristic more conducive to spreading coronavirus than to tamping it down.


Congregating for the purpose of religious worship is no more under attack in these coronavirus lockdown orders than assembly for the political purpose of voting. This hasn’t stopped some religious leaders from loudly claiming they and their congregants are being persecuted by government in general and by the Democratic Party in particular. It hasn’t taken long for the coronavirus to become politically as polarized as everything else in our society. The virus itself has not expressed a political preference and, like past viruses, attacks everyone equally.

No one is denying religious freedom to churchgoers, only the freedom to go to church in large numbers at one time. Congregating has always been an important element of religious ritual for many people in many religions, but a public health emergency supersedes the wish of some to carry on as always at the expense and to the detriment of the many. People can still pray, and in most places they can still gather to pray in groups of less than ten or thereabouts.


Réplique du tombeau du Christ à Pâques 2017 dans l'église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis
Replica of Jesus Christ’s tomb at Easter 2017 in the church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, in Paris, France. Photo by Tangopaso.

Some pastors don’t see it that way. They are pastors of Southern Baptist churches, by and large. They are led in their right wing political views and gullible belief in hoaxes concocted by their devilish foes in the center and left of American politics by people like Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. For these people, churchgoing is perhaps even more a social bond than it is a religious experience. They go to see and be seen.

Church is also a place where they reaffirm to each other their political bond, which is conservative at least, and right wing more often with each passing year. Taking away their church gatherings of dozens or hundreds of people in close proximity to each other is seen by them as prying apart the social and political bonds which are more important to them than the religious bonds affirmed in regular churchgoing. Their pastors can grandstand about supposed government and leftist persecution of their religious institutions, but their real worry is loosening the social and political bonds cemented regularly in seeing and being seen by their fellow congregants.
— Vita

 

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Like Talking to a Brick Wall

 


The First Continental Congress of the American Colonies sent a petition to King George III on October 25, 1774, requesting he redress their grievances against the British Parliament related to the Coercive Acts passed in response to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. The king ignored the petition, and consequently the colonists’ march toward revolution picked up momentum over the next year, resulting in the beginning of hostilities in the spring of 1775. Petitions were the primary recourse of the American Colonists in dealing with their British rulers across the Atlantic Ocean since they had no official representation in Parliament, hence the slogan “No taxation without representation.”

The nation’s founders regarded the right to petition the government as so essential to a free society that they included it in the First Amendment, adopted in 1791. They made the right explicit despite the reality that citizens of the United States, unlike colonists under the British Empire, had official representation in the government. James Madison, who was largely responsible for drafting the Bill of Rights, understood that while the people had representation in government, their representatives may not be responsive to the wishes of all the people, and that therefore the people required another, independent outlet “for a redress of grievances.”



The unresponsiveness of government representatives to the people has rarely appeared as evident as it does now, when it seems representatives are responsive mostly to the wishes of corporate contributors to their election campaigns. Polls do not necessarily give lawmakers an accurate idea of how some of their constituents are feeling about issues because responding to pollsters is a passive response to a pollster’s sometimes tailored questions. Poll sample sizes are also often ludicrously small on account of the expense and difficulty of polling. Pollsters claim they conduct their surveys based on well-researched principles in order to achieve accurate representation from small sample sizes, but there are plenty of examples to cite in demonstrating that taking polls is as much art as it is science, and not at all infallible. For one example, look at how inaccurate the polling was in several key Rust Belt states in the weeks before the November 2016 presidential election.


Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, Leader of the Women's Suffragette movement, is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914. Q81486
Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Woman’s Suffragette movement in England, arrested outside Buckingham Palace in London while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914. Photo from the British Imperial War Museum.


Signing a petition is an active measure taken by citizens numbering in the thousands or millions, as opposed to a select few hundreds or thousands responding passively to a pollster. Citizens mostly seek out petitions on their own initiative, or are made aware of them by friends or family, or by reading the news. The relative ease of signing a petition online, compared to signing one circulated door to door, does not discount that people are participating in the political process instead of waiting for someone to ask their opinion. The distinction is not a small one. Yes, physical participation in a protest weighs far more than signing an online petition in getting the attention of government leaders and the society at large, but an online petition nonetheless demonstrates that the people signing it are paying attention. Numbers have always given weight to petitions, and in the internet age it is possible for millions of people to make their wishes known to their representatives within days of a petition’s first appearance.

The petitions currently circulating urging United States House of Representatives legislators to impeach the occupant of the Oval Office are an excellent demonstration of the need of the people for an outlet to make their wishes known to their government. To anyone paying attention honestly to developments originating from the White House since January 2017, it has long been obvious that impeachment and conviction of the current president would be necessary sooner or later to uphold the rule of law. The nation’s legislators, however, always conscious of political calculations and of the interests of their big money donors, have been dragging their feet to avoid having to put themselves on the line in upholding the oath they took to preserve and defend the Constitution.

Captain Queeg, the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny, was obviously unstable, but nonetheless discharging him from his command was quite difficult because the captain of a vessel at sea is by necessity an autocrat whose authority is fully backed by a nation’s institutions. For all that, Captain Queeg was not a corrupt grifter with contempt for democratic institutions and a sneering disregard for the norms of civil discourse, and in comparison to the offenses of the current president, Queeg’s official transgressions were minor.

In other words, members of Congress have a constitutional duty to impeach this president for high crimes and misdemeanors he has engaged in too obviously for them to ignore any longer. Whether he will be convicted in the Republican-controlled Senate is anyone’s guess at this point. It probably depends on whether political calculations indicate to at least a few key Republican senators that the time has come at last to throw the president over the side, at which point many of the rest will scramble to get on board.

If millions of American people had waited politely for a pollster to ask them if impeachment was necessary, instead of taking matters into their own hands and petitioning their representatives, Congress might still be dithering, possibly all the way up to Election Day 2020. The current president may not get convicted in the Senate and removed from office before then, but it’s important that public hearings in Congress shine a light long enough and brightly enough on the corrupt and unethical practices of his administration that even the most disengaged voters will have to listen. A brick wall, no matter who constructed it, can keep people from hearing their government at work as well as keep government leaders from hearing the people, but now that representatives have finally listened to people engaged enough to petition them, it’s important that the rest of the populace listen honestly to the arguments for impeachment, and honest engagement requires more than checking an often lopsided Facebook news feed, a far sloppier way of exercising one’s civic duty than signing an online petition.
— Vita

 

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Let’s Be Clear

 


There is only one rule of grammar, and that is “Be Clear”. All the rest of what people think are hard and fast rules of grammar are really only guidelines in the service of the supreme rule, “Be Clear”. Placing a comma or period outside of quotation marks may violate the guideline for American usage (though not necessarily British usage), but if doing so serves logic, and therefore clarity, then there’s nothing wrong with the practice. If you’re writing a diary purely for your own eyes, then by all means write however you please. If you’re writing to be understood by other human beings, however, then it’s simple courtesy to convey your message to them clearly.


Humpty Dumpty
“I said it very loud and clear: I went and shouted in his ear.” Humpty Dumpty recites from his poem in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Illustration by John Tenniel.

 


Stop confusing “complement” with “compliment”, “affect” with “effect”, and “their” with “they’re”. There are many other examples of writers being lazy about the meanings of the words they use. Ignorance is not an excuse, not when a print dictionary can be had for a few dollars, and an online dictionary is usually free. A complimentary breakfast is free; a complementary breakfast is something else entirely, if it exists at all. Readers are affected by the effects of a writer’s word choices. They’re struggling to make sense of a lazy writer’s meanderings, and their poor understanding is all the fault of the lazy writer.



From the 1972 “Password” episode of the television series The Odd Couple, starring Tony Randall as Felix Ungar and Jack Klugman as Oscar Madison, with Betty White, Allen Ludden, and Abbey Greshler. Part of effective communication is keeping your listeners or readers in mind.

 


Dangle participles at your own peril, and don’t expect all readers to divine your meaning despite the muddled sentences you present to them. Some readers will find some of your dangling participles humorous because of the incongruous images they evoke. Convulsed with laughter, your writing will not be taken seriously by your readers. Your readers will also get a few laughs, along with your writing. Like other grammar guidelines, the one about not dangling participles is best understood as a logic problem, as a challenge to making meaning clear. There’s no magic involved. Look at what you have written. Read it aloud if that helps. Does it make sense? After doing your best to serve your readers by being clear, then if you wish you can add details and stylistic flourishes. Remember B.C. (Be Clear) before A.D. ( Add Details), and everything will be OK.
— Ed.

 

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Between Friends

 


Where were you when the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944? Were you only a glimmering in your parents’ brains?

 


Where were you when the Battle of Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968? Were you nursing the bone spurs in your heels that would eventually earn you a medical deferment from the draft? Or were you awaiting a pilot’s commission in the Texas Air National Guard?


Refugee child drawing
A drawing made by a refugee child, formerly resident in Pristina, Kosovo, depicting his horrific experiences in the Kosovo War in 1999. The drawing was taped to a wall in the Brazda refugee center in Macedonia. Photo from the U.S. Department of State and NATO.


Where were you when the United States and its allies launched the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, beginning an unnecessary war that would spiral the entire region into chaos? Were you looking under furniture for weapons of mass destruction, something you would joke about later?

Where were you when the world learned in April 2004 that American soldiers had been torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison? Were you throwing a few “bad apples” under the bus, rather than acknowledging a culture of cruelty encouraged from the top down in the chain of command? Or were you busy making the first year of your daytime television talk show a success? Or were you occupied with creating an illusion of yourself as a successful and hard-nosed, but fair, businessman on the first year of your television reality show that was more fiction than reality?

Dire Straits performs “The Man’s Too Strong” in concert at Wembley Arena in London, England in June 1985 during their Brothers in Arms tour.

Where were you in 2008 after conservatives had used the wedge issue of gay marriage four years earlier to whip up the ire of homophobic reactionaries and send them to the polls in just enough numbers to make it possible for the Republican candidate to steal another presidential election? Were you getting married? What does your friend, the Republican presidential candidate, have to say about that now? Is he against gay marriage only when it suits political expediency?

Where were you in August 2016 when the Turks made their first incursion into the Kurdish zone of Syria, where the Kurds had been America’s ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS)? Were you listening to what the Russians had to say about your Democratic opponent in the presidential election, a practice you appear to have made into a habit since then as you extort other countries to get them to investigate your political rivals?

And where were all three of you when the brains were being passed out? It’s nice for people to have friends, but some friends are not worth having, such as a narcissistic sociopath or a war criminal, both of whom have proven time and again they look out only for themselves, and maybe their cronies as well. And in the sense of cronyism, a crony is not a true friend. And a friend may be a “sweet man” in private, but that shouldn’t shut out all the harm he’s caused in the world. Millions of Iraqis and Kurds may reflect on the old saying that “with friends like these, who needs enemies?”



— Vita



David Gilmour, best known as the lead guitarist for Pink Floyd, performs the Pink Floyd song “Coming Back to Life” with a new band backing him in a concert at Pompeii, Italy in July 2016.

 

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The Family Dinner

 

Political centrists such as Bill Maher, the television talk show host, firmly believe that in order for Democrats to defeat the current president in the 2020 election they must choose a centrist candidate. In a recent debate on his show with documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, Mr. Maher, among his other claims promoting his view, stated that President Barack Obama ran as a centrist in his 2008 campaign and that is why he won. Mr. Moore disputed this, stating that Mr. Obama ran as a progressive populist and had the courage to list his middle name “Hussein” on the ballot. The two bet the cost of a trip to Hawaii on the resolution of their dispute.

Norman Rockwell Mural (Marion County, Oregon scenic images) (marDA0166)
A mural replica in Silverton, Oregon, of Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want painting, one of a series he did in 1943 illustrating the Four Freedoms articulated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Photo from the Oregon State Archives. While Mr. Rockwell was depicting an ideal promulgated by a liberal Democratic president, his choice of models and their placement in a hierarchy at the family dinner table fits in well with the current conservative mythos of how Americans should look and comport themselves.

 

It’s not clear who was right about the middle name issue and therefore who won the bet, but in any event it hardly matters since the important point is that Mr. Obama ran his campaign from the left of center and then governed from the center. In national defense matters, such as expanding his predecessor’s drone attacks around the world and vindictively pursuing whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, Mr. Obama was to the right of center. His stance toward governing should have been clear early on from his appointments of Wall Street insiders like Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers to oversee the economy.

Barack Obama was never a fire-breathing liberal and never claimed to be one, though he did allow a lot of wishful thinking from liberal Democrats who wanted to believe he was more liberal then he was. They projected their wishes and hopes onto him, and being a politician he naturally turned that to his advantage. That wishful thinking can be glimpsed in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Obama in 2009 after he had done hardly anything to merit the award other than not being President George W. Bush. Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee do not vote in American elections, of course, but like liberal American voters weary of the belligerence and disregard for human rights of the George W. Bush administration, they were eager to project their hopes onto Mr. Obama.

Bill Maher has similarly profited from the projections of many liberals, who seem to think a person who is for the legalization of marijuana and against the policies and tenure of the current president cannot possibly be as reactionary as he really is in many ways. He is reactionary in his statements about Muslims and about gender politics and about how he believes political correctness is more corrosive to our democratic republic than the rapaciousness of capitalist exploitation. Most of all he is reactionary in his repeated assertions that no one to the left of himself among the Democrats can defeat the current president in 2020 because he believes most Americans are firmly in his, Bill Maher’s, camp on most everything that matters.



From Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall, a diversity of viewpoints and attitudes, some more subdued than others.

 

Mr. Maher is wrong about the politics of most Americans, as he is wrong about his other more distastefully retrograde beliefs. Michael Moore pointed out in their debate how Mr. Maher’s assessment of where most Americans reside on the political scale was wrong, and that they are more liberal within the Democratic Party than the Party establishment cares to acknowledge. None of Bill Maher’s views would matter if it weren’t for how they are often cited by conservative media and politicians as supporting their agenda and given extra weight by them because they are supposedly expressed by a liberal. It suits their cause to have a “house liberal” of sorts.

The fiction of Mr. Maher’s liberalism is propped up also by uncritical viewers on the left who give his pontifications on Democratic politics more respect than they deserve. Reactionary centrists such as Mr. Maher are uncomfortable with the infighting that always prevails among Democrats, and they see it as giving aid and comfort to the other side while weakening their own. People like Bill Maher may as well decry the spots on a leopard. Dissension is in the nature of liberal Democratic Party politics; it’s what differentiates them from the other side, too many members of which fall obediently into line like good little authoritarians.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald in a December 2016 appearance on The Jimmy Dore Show. Warning: one naughty word.

Bill Maher is like the brother-in-law at a large family dinner where all the members are squabbling in a free wheeling manner, and he sits there with a slight smirk, believing he’s smarter than he really is and eager to toss out a snarky remark to show he’s superior to what’s going on around him at the table. He and people like him, with an authoritarian streak in their character despite the liberality of some of their views, cannot understand how argument and dissension strengthen, not weaken, Democratic Party politics, and ultimately democracy itself. Falling in line without questioning is for autocrats and their followers. The ancient Athenians were not without their fair share of faults, but today most people recognize their society, noisy and argumentative as the scenes at their family dinner tables might have been, as more worth honoring and emulating than the authoritarian society of the Spartans, who fell in line and did as they were told by their “betters”.
— Ed.

 

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You Don’t Have to Do This

 

Shop for a new smartphone and the choice of operating system appears limited to Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. The choice of wireless carrier network for the new smartphone is limited to five or six companies, and while there are more than a dozen smaller carriers, they all lease their networks from the larger carriers. Mergers of technology companies and globalization of supply chains have made it difficult for consumers to entertain enough options to simultaneously suit their desires for reasonable prices, efficient service, and in the best case scenario, ethical marketplace behavior.

 

To be a large player in the technology industry, as in many other industries, it seems engaging in horrible practices is simply a necessary cost of doing business. It’s as if economies of scale and ethical behavior are mutually exclusive. Apple iPhones are manufactured under terrible labor conditions in China, and the cobalt required for manufacture of those iPhones is mined using child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Google, Facebook, and Twitter all sell their users’ information to advertisers while double-dipping by generating enormous ad revenues from the wide use of their services. That’s the cost of “free” to the users. As an online retailer, Amazon’s reputation for egregious labor practices is as bad or worse than that of its major brick and mortar competitor, Walmart.

Ilhan Omar speaking at worker protest against Amazon (45406484475)
U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaking in December 2018 to about 200 workers protesting conditions at an Amazon workplace in Shakopee, Minnesota. Photo by Fibonacci Blue. Protests by workers in this country against unfair labor practices by giant companies like Amazon would get a slingshot-like boost if lawmakers would repeal the anti-union legislation passed in the last 50 years at the behest of corporations.

That is by no means a comprehensive list of all the technology companies with reputations for treating customers, workers, suppliers, or the environment badly. Just as Americans are becoming more concerned with what is in their food and how it’s produced, they can devote some time and attention to how their technology products are produced and how companies are using the personal information they hand over in the course of using their services. It may seem like there are few to no alternatives to some technology products and services, but there are alternatives, and it may require effort put into research to find out about them, and then some sacrifices as it turns out they don’t offer absolutely everything consumers are used to getting from Microsoft’s Windows operating system, for instance, or Facebook’s one-stop social media and news sharing platform.

Some people simply won’t care, of course, and will remain interested only in what’s easiest and most convenient for them. This is not for them. Others who are concerned about voting with their dollars, however, should know there are ways to find alternatives to signing on with the big technology companies, and that informing themselves doesn’t have to suck up an inordinate amount of their time and energy. Currently there is almost no labeling on technology products and services such as there is on food for sale in supermarkets, informing consumers of organic and non-GMO options, and of nutritional content. There should be similarly easily apparent labels for technology, listing ratings from an impartial source, if such is possible, on a company’s treatment of workers, suppliers, and the environment. The companies are now required by law to enumerate the ways they use customer information, but that is for the most part buried in fine print legalese that few consumers bother to read.

In episode #1938, “Theresa Syndrome”, from the radio show Car Talk, the portion of the show relevant to this post starts at the 10:45 mark with a call from Brian in Harrisonville, Kentucky. Questions of ethics come up every day in everyone’s lives, and in this case as in many others, arguments of efficiency that mask motives of self-interest are all too common.

Until the technology industry catches up with at least the halting steps the food industry has taken to inform consumers about what they are buying and what kind of ethical or unethical behavior they in turn support with their purchases, it will remain up to individual consumers to inform themselves. Globalization has made it easy to hide the ugly details of technology manufacturing halfway around the world. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s not as if things were far better 100 years ago, though, because at that time for most Americans a sweatshop on New York City’s Lower East Side was as much on the other side of the world as a sweatshop in Bangladesh is today. Speed of travel and communications have changed the seeming size of the world, but sadly not the willingness of businesses and governments to exploit the less fortunate, and of the more fortunate to turn a blind eye.
— Techly

Editor’s note: Bonus points to readers who note advertising on this site for the products of one of the companies criticized in this post. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to exist in the modern world without some compromises, and like everybody else, writers have to eat. With a little effort and attentiveness, people do what they can to make the world a better place, but no one is without faults, and as Joe E. Brown said at the end of the movie Some Like It Hot, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

 

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The Conspiracy Line

 

By the 1960s, of the hundreds of streetcar lines that had once been a primary mode of transportation in cities and suburbs across the United States in the first half of the 20th century, only a small fraction still operated, and usually only in city centers. Competition from automobiles and buses was one cause for declining ridership of streetcars, and supposedly the costs of installing and maintaining lines was higher than costs associated with infrastructure for cars and buses. The history of what happened in the major mid-century makeover of American urban mass transit is muddled, and one explanation for it that keeps popping up has to do with the machinations of the automobile manufacturers, chiefly General Motors (GM).

 

The idea springs from how GM bought out streetcar lines around the country, and then dismantled the lines, junked the streetcars, and signed city governments to contracts for purchase and ongoing use of the buses GM manufactured. GM also sold cars to urban and suburban commuters who found themselves with fewer alternatives than they had before the 1920s, when the streetcar lines were still thriving. That’s a neat story, and it certainly fits in with the behavior we have come to expect of large corporations and the executives who run them, but in this case it turns out to be a little too neat and only partially true.

Purchase Street, New Bedford, Mass (68412)
A postcard circa 1930-1945 depicts Purchase Street in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Photo from the Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection.

Market forces generated by consumer preferences played the greatest part in the decline of ridership on streetcar lines starting in the 1920s and accelerating through the next quarter century. The streetcar lines were privately owned and the companies bore the costs of maintaining the tracks they operated on and other infrastructure costs, even though they used the same publicly maintained roads as buses and cars. The streetcar lines were more and more at a competitive disadvantage as public money benefited those other modes of transportation and as consumers came to prefer the relative freedom of driving their own cars or taking buses that weren’t restricted to tracks.

Comforting as it might be to blame the automobile and gasoline industries for ripping up streetcar tracks around the nation, depriving commuters of a useful commuting option, the truth in this case is that the public shoulders the greater responsibility. Individual consumers operating in their own self-interest took advantage of cheap gasoline and publicly financed road building, such as the interstate highway system started in the 1950s, to buy at least one car for every household. In most cities, taxpayers balked at public ownership of the streetcar lines, a move which would have saved many of the lines from the corporate scavenging that ultimately killed them off. In other words, GM and other auto and gas corporate interests didn’t precipitate the demise of the streetcar lines, but neither did they mourn their loss, and ultimately, of course, GM and the others profited greatly from the makeover of the American transportation system.

By the time of the 1959 release of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the streets of Manhattan were dominated by vehicular traffic, and mass transit options for New Yorkers were limited to subways and buses. Bernard Herrmann composed the music for the film, and Saul Bass designed the titles. The director makes his cameo appearance at the end of the title sequence.

More than a half century after streetcars were all but wiped off the map in America, they are coming back in spots like Brooklyn, driven by the desire of some people to get around town without the hassles of car ownership, the pollution of cars and buses, the blight of enormous parking lots, and the swallowing up of green spaces for more roads to alleviate the congestion on existing roads, only to have the new roads fill up as well. Streetcars powered by electricity generate pollution at a remove, to be sure, but as more power plants use renewable energy sources, that problem should lessen. Meanwhile, building out more mass transit infrastructure should take off the road some of the oversized vehicles too many Americans appear to love, and which the automobile makers and the fossil fuel industry love turning out for them since they are highly profitable. It has taken a century for Americans to learn anew the value of mass transit options like streetcars, and perhaps soon, before we reach the end of the line, gridlock on the roads will clear, and so will the air everywhere.
— Vita

 

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