That’s Infotainment!

My most recurring thought on January 6th was that if the insurrectionists had been Black, they’d be dead.  They would have been tear-gassed, beaten, thrown in jail and murdered.  Tanks would still be patrolling the Washington mall.

If anyone is still on the fence about white privilege, uncertain what it is and how pervasive it remains in our society, they needn’t look any further than the pictures of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol and ransacked congressional chambers and offices, their feet propped up on the desk of the Speaker of the House, getting caught in the act by police, and then not getting arrested but instead walking freely out the door.

Imagine if they were Black.  Or Latino.  Or Indigenous.  Do you honestly believe the reaction would have been the same?  If so, then I implore you to step outside your own circle and listen to people you haven’t listened to before.

Of course that speaks to the broader mechanisms at work which led to the riots in the first place.  We have justly accused President Trump as the leader and the primary inciter of the plot to overthrow our democracy; but we must confront the reality that he is only the tip of the iceberg, go deeper and recognize not just the man who incited it, but the system that propped him up in the first place, the system which sustained him and all those like him for years, long before 2016.

That system is the modern infrastructure through which we access our information, comprised mainly of social media outlets and cable news.

With the accelerated rise of each over the last ten years, Americans now essentially occupy different realities.  I have no doubt that the insurrectionists who broke into the Capitol believed they were doing the right thing.  According to the information they are constantly fed through Fox News personalities or any of the various fringe outlets they follow on social media, Donald Trump won the election and their government is therefore being stolen from them by culprits ranging from a broad covert socialist movement to Bill Gates.

Yet the fact that Donald Trump was even able to ascend to power in the first place, mostly by lying and stoking paranoia proves that he must have had a platform, multiple in fact, that gave him the stage.  I recall in 2011 how every cable news network—whether allegedly right or left leaning—was perfectly willing to have him on as a guest, while he spouted out baseless conspiracy theories that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America, that he therefore snuck in and unlawfully became President.

Why did they have him on in the first place?  Was he an expert on…anything?  Had he been conducting any sort of hard reporting on the ground and thus been able to provide some kind of groundbreaking news relevant to the public?  The kind based on actual evidence?  No.

He was entertaining.  A personality who was good for ratings.  Who liked attention and who knew how to wield it, as demonstrated since the 1980s throughout his many public feuds perpetuated by New York tabloids.  When it came to playing the media to boost his profile, Trump was a true maestro, and he would prove to remain so for years into the future.

A liar needs a stage to consolidate power and Trump’s success is owed to the pervasive entertainment culture of our modern news media and to his mastery of it.

In their eagerness to follow him, driven by their need for high ratings, the cable news networks became his all-too-willing accomplices.  In the meantime so did we, all of us who continued to watch these programs and give them our viewership.

We created this monster and now we’ve seen the consequences quite literally breaching the walls of our institutions and our very system of governance.

In answering the inevitable question of what we do from here, it’s worth noting that We the People can still exercise our power by simply making different decisions on how we get our information, on what we will and will not watch, or read.  In making these personal decisions, it’s worth asking ourselves the following questions:

Why do I trust this program/person?





Are they providing evidence to back their claims?





Can I access the evidence myself and if so, am I even willing to investigate the evidence myself?





Have they made a claim in the past, one that was initially disregarded, dismissed or considered outrageous, that turned out to be true?





Is what they’re saying backed up by other reputable sources?





How do I define reputable?





Am I watching this because I want to be informed, or because I want to be entertained and merely feel informed?



Do I like this person’s personality?





Should their personality be relevant?





How would I react if they were merely reporting news and facts without adding their opinion?

Any broader political or legal action, beyond these personal decisions each of us can and should make, naturally raises new questions concerning free speech.

Or does it? Maybe all we need to do is study history, and remember the federal regulation which existed for nearly forty years before it’s revocation in 1987: the Fairness Doctrine.  It required that TV and Radio stations present all sides of an issue for the sake of an informed electorate.  The Reagan administration revoked the policy, believing that such considerations were better left to the will of the free market.

If at face value that seems sensible, consider whether the evolution of our media over the past 30 years tells a different story. In the mid-nineties, conservative talk radio took off with leading personalities (not reporters or journalists) like Rush Limbaugh. Shortly thereafter, perhaps picking up on radio’s cue, two competing cable news networks debuted within the same year–Fox News and MSNBC. Perhaps at first, the coverage on either network seemed straight enough and relatively light on its editorializing. That would change as other personalities like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Chris Matthews proved better for ratings, people less known for their reporting than for how they reported, for their personality and manner.

Today the cable news landscape is dominated by these prototypes, whether it’s a show’s host or the rotating usual suspects of spin doctors they consistently invite to speak, the talking heads telling us how to think and how to feel.

Editorializing is nothing new, nor is it particularly dangerous. What is dangerous is the editorializing being disguised as news, television shows–governed by the rules of entertainment before journalism–being equated to news programs that report facts absent of spin or opinions. Put it this way, if you’re wondering why we don’t have any more Walter Cronkites, David Brinkeys or Tom Brokaws, it’s not because they don’t exist. It’s because their modern equivalents have been overshadowed by the people who bring in more money for the networks.

So while most of us think we’re getting informed, we’re really just getting amped up with more of what we want to hear–not from reporters who report facts, but by people who think like us and present information (or don’t present it) in a way that will keep us in our own ideological bubble.

It frankly astonishes me that people remain perplexed as to why we’re so divided in this country. And while it might be too late to close Pandora’s box or fully reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in a modern media landscape so vast and diverse–at least without provoking mobs of people rallying against what they view as some ominous government censorship–we do need to begin properly distinguishing the news from propaganda.

Laws decree that motion pictures and television shows are given content ratings, that music with any profanity be labeled explicit. It might be time to issue similar regulations for television shows or internet channels posing as news, for personalities quietly reassuring us that we can count on them to provide all the facts we need, so long as they reserve the right to tell us how to feel about them.

Unless we take serious steps in regulating our media and information infrastructure we should expect our country to grow more divided, the mobs more frequent, and We the People to become a greater danger to ourselves.

Apathy Is Old News.

It’s long been fashionable particularly among young people to regard social activism and politics as something to be avoided, something messy and too rigged or corrupt to occupy our time.

We might regard the whole thing as much ado about nothing, a strange overcomplicating of ideas far more simple than politicians and pundits would have us believe, making compromise itself seem more alien than we ever thought possible.

We may yet have resorted to another kind of indifference, a kind that initially seems valid since it at least reflects a basic open-mindedness in considering both points of view.  Nevertheless it hints at an unwillingness or insecurity in standing up for what we truly believe.

In his book On Tyranny, author Timothy Snyder puts it best.

“What is truth?” Sometimes people ask this question because they wish to do nothing. Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference. It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also a citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.





-Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny (2017)

This may remind us of our current political landscape and those in high office who’ve routinely reinforced notions of fake news along with a general hostility toward nuance and complexity and facts.

Politics is indeed complicated and for the most part it always has been, primarily because there are so many of us, each coming from different backgrounds and occupying our own sphere of personal experience.

But just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible. It requires us doing the work in educating ourselves and listening to other perspectives–listening, that is, but still ultimately making a decision.

On that note, in this election we saw a greater turnout than ever before and it’s enough to convince me that the type of apathy I described may be turning into something of the past, to the point that anyone still falling into that “morass of indifference” seems not only impractical but passé to the point of looking silly.

Still, it’s important that our rising passions and renewed enthusiasm don’t lead to recklessness.  In this age of social media it can be particularly tempting to speak out on a cause more for the sake of saying something or simply conforming to sudden popular opinion and less because we truly believe in it or have done a good amount of investigating, critical thinking and listening ourselves.

Such oversight can lead to an increased state of tribalism where each of us places less value in facts and objectivity than we do in our side being right.

We must remember to be vigilant for the breakdown of objectivity both in our society and in ourselves.  Our allegiance belongs to facts and to understanding the truth as completely as possible, not to our own egos.

To that point, what’s particularly troubling is the continued prevalence of cable news in our society, which is without question the main culprit behind the ever-increasing divisions in our country.

These programs, mere talk shows masquerading as news programs, are far less beholden to the rules of journalism than to those of television and ratings; where they’ll report the news for a minute, and then open the floor to pundits and spinsters who occupy the next 20-30 minutes essentially telling us what to think of it.  As if we don’t have that ability ourselves.

“Viewers don’t want to be informed.  Viewers want to feel informed.”

Chet Collier, one of the original founders of Fox News

They’ll call themselves news programs but what they really are is propaganda providing less information than entertainment, reinforcing the things they know their audience wants to hear–indeed a far cry from the quickly fading journalism of the David Brinkley/Walter Cronkite mold anchored in facts and reporting before opinions and personalities.

It’s what we get when journalism becomes less a service than a business–content in which there is ultimately no liberal or conservative bias, but merely a money bias.  A business run by people who know where their audience stands and what it likes, and so naturally they keep playing the information that will keep its attention.

In this way they’re no different than most forms of entertainment.  Of course, the more serious problem is their continued suggestion that they are anything more, that they are something that we can actually trust and take seriously as a source of information, unaware that we are likely doing so less to be informed than to be entertained.

And so we have become the sad enablers of our own creepy addiction.  And our country is suffering for it, as we are more deeply divided now than at any time in modern history.  

Yet, as we the viewers have lifted cable news to this level of esteem, so too can we disenfranchise it by no longer watching it.  We can reinvest our time and allegiances to print journalism, a medium in which ratings are irrelevant and entertainment is not a priority, where outside the editorial section, there is little space for opinions and personality in an environment anchored in facts and words alone.

The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money. Before you deride the "mainstream media," note that it is no longer the mainstream. It is derision that is mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult. So try for yourself to write a proper article, involving work in the real world: traveling, interviewing, maintaining relationships with sources, researching in written records, verifying everything, writing and revising drafts, all on a tight and unforgiving schedule. If you find you like doing this, keep a blog. In the meantime, give credit to those who do all of that for a living. Journalists are not perfect, any more than people in other vocations are perfect. But the work of people who adhere to journalistic ethics is of a different quality than the work of those who do not.





-Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny (2017)

Indeed the time for apathy is over.  I am encouraged to see a greater feeling of activism among the electorate.  But we must ensure that our passions are those we’ve cultivated on our own terms, and not simply because somebody told us what to think and what to feel.  We must actively participate based on our own individual conclusions, not on those fed to us by what we hear on TV or see on social media. 

If our activism is rooted on our individual ability to think critically, then it will prove to be an activism that lasts, and one that creates the healthier and more united country we seek to become.  

Let’s get to work

Saturday, November 7 it rained in LA in the early hours of the morning.  I stepped out later as the sky cleared and the sun was breaking through. This mail van had parked across the street as it does just about everyday.

But that day I felt like taking its picture.  To me it’s a symbol that represents the heroes that go unnoticed, whose names we won’t know, whose jobs are usually tedious and not in the least bit glamorous.  A public institution seldom celebrated, much less romanticized.  But it does work, and like anything worthwhile, it gets better the more we prioritize and invest in it.

More broadly then, it represents those who volunteer to work the polls and register voters, who carefully and laboriously counted every vote this year under extraordinary pressure. 

It represents those who stood in line for hours to cast their ballot and boldly defy the pervasive and relentless notion that their voice didn’t matter.

It does matter.  And we proved it this year.

USPS - Mail Delivery Van - Postal Service- Quinby & Co.
USPS Mail Delivery Van. That morning I felt like taking its picture.

No, perhaps the work is not all that glamorous or glorified.  But that’s not why we do it.  

We do it because it’s necessary, because it amounts to something bigger than any one person.  We do it because it makes our community stronger and more inclusive of everyone no matter what they look like, how/if they pray, who they love or who they are.        

In America, we’ve long valued individualism typically expressed through personal ambition and prosperity; and while it seems a natural impulse, I’ve come to appreciate how and why service to oneself and to our community must go hand-in-hand.  It’s necessary to keep a democracy real.     

I am thankful for our public institutions which honor and embody that.  I am thankful for our schools, our roads, our libraries, our public transportation, our national parks and public lands, our postal service and (hopefully soon, with more work) our healthcare.  

And I am thankful for those who’ve worked hard to keep these institutions strong.  Institutions of the people, for the people, and by the people that will–like democracy itself–only grow the more we invest and participate in it. 

It’s most definitely worth voting for.  I believe it’s worth fighting for and living for. 

America, I see you.  Let’s get to work. 

 

Why We Are Voting Blue in 2020

When we started out in February of this year, we didn’t imagine we’d be making too many direct political or social statements.  We did hope to shed light on the deeper ideas and underlying philosophies that typically steer American politics, such as the size and scope of government or the importance of voter participation, or constructive ways to have a discussion about politics.

The intention was to try and distill the current political landscape from the corrosive, long-established binary model of “Republican and Democrat” or “Red and Blue” into a set of specific issues, complex at times but no less manageable, all of which are more universally relevant than we might realize—whether it’s climate change, racial justice or immigration.

We wanted to make sure the writing never felt like a lecture or came across as preachy in any way.  This was due not to any lack of enthusiasm on our part, but rather what we felt was an understanding of more effective communication, of understanding that nobody likes a lecture unless maybe they already agree with it.

However, this year more than ever before, it seems the virtues of fairness, decency, critical thinking, compassion and listening are on the line.  The deeper underlying principles that govern how we communicate with one another, far deeper than those we hoped to talk about, are themselves at stake.  

This is an election on what we normalize in our collective character and consciousness for generations.     

In the Presidential Election we have one candidate who has demonstrated a fairly consistent philosophy throughout his career while the other demonstrates no real philosophy outside his own brand and the hyper-inflated paranoia he thinks will elevate him politically, beginning almost ten years ago with his crusade to have President Obama prove he is a citizen.

We have one who trusts science and empirical data; while the other says “I don’t think science knows,” in response to what a broad, worldwide coalition of scientific research concludes as a climate crisis caused and further aggravated by human activity.

The reason that listening, critical thinking and empiricism, open discussion and compassion are all at stake is because our current president has proved to be their walking antithesis.  Equally, and quite successfully, he has labeled anyone calling out his vulgarity as too politically correct or sensitive, which has only encouraged a growing culture of not listening, unfounded conspiracies, bigotry, sexism and delusion.  

Examples of his oafish and repulsive behavior include but are certainly not limited to a gross imitation of a reporter with a disability, and saying that John McCain “is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”  

The will to survive and maintain one’s honor in the face of overwhelming despair and torture is indeed heroic; and anyone who has heard the story of John McCain’s five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp must recognize Trump’s statement as not politically incorrect, but simply indecent, heartless and foolish.  Donald Trump never served in the armed forces.  He’s never tasted real danger in his life.  

Other examples include drawing an equal degree of blame between white supremacists–some of whom Trump declared to be “very fine people”–and those who stood up to them in Charlottesville, Virginia; and then most recently, the mocking of those taking COVID-19 seriously as he continues to hold open rallies with no social distancing or requirements for masks while the pandemic has now claimed over 200,000 American lives.

To that point we’ve provided a tweet posted by Donald Trump 23 hours ago as of this writing, drawing a comparison between one of these rallies, and a speaking event for Joe Biden in which people are exercising responsible safety measures and social distancing.  Yes indeed, there is a stark difference.       

Joe Biden has demonstrated a personal and political philosophy founded mainly on compassion, critical thinking and facts.  Donald Trump evidently isn’t deep enough to think about anything other than himself.

Beyond the scope of the Presidency, we are witnessing the mutation of a political party into a warped and twisted cult of personality that seems to honor and endorse whatever Donald Trump tells them.   

In 2013 the Republican-led Supreme Court voted to cut a critical component of the Voting Rights Act which required districts with a history of voter suppression to get federal approval before making any changes to their election laws.  This ultimately led to the closure of more than 1,600 polling places throughout the South, typically in Black communities and communities of color.  House Democrats passed a resolution to restore the Voting Rights Act, but it has yet to be passed in the Senate.  It still sits on the desk of Mitch McConnell, the Republican Majority Leader, as it has for over 200 days.    

In Texas meanwhile, 750 polling places closed following the Court ruling.  Most of these closures took place between the 2014 and 2018 mid-term elections. 

Just weeks ago, the state’s Republican governor issued an order to limit the number of places voters could hand-deliver their mail-in ballots to a single location per county—clearly problematic for the populous Harris and Travis Counties for example, which had previously designated a dozen and four drop-off locations respectively.  

Of course, the Republicans’ latest egregious attempt at holding onto power regardless of popular will reveals itself in the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.  She was confirmed three days ago by the Republican-led U.S. Senate—eight days before our election.  In 2016, a whole 293 days before the election, the Senate, still led by Republicans, refused to hold a hearing for President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.  Their reasoning for delaying the vote four years ago was that it was too close to an election, and that the American people should have a say on the selection of the next Justice.  

Of course, with a dim fraction of that time remaining this year, that reasoning somehow no longer applies in the confirmation of their own nominee.  The double-standard and hypocrisy is loud and clear. 

The Republican Party itself has been morally declining for years, as they have proven to care strikingly little about actual democracy and equal representation than they do about holding onto their power.  They know the majority of eligible voters don’t stand with them.  The people don’t stand with them.  The country doesn’t stand with them.  And consider this additional fact.  In the last 30 years, a Republican candidate for President has won the popular vote just one time.  The Democratic candidate has won six times. 

Yet the Supreme Court now has a 6-3 conservative majority.  Something’s not adding up.  Given one party’s long enough history of suppressing the vote—alleging voter fraud whenever they can, in a country where less than half of eligible voters even vote at all—it should be pretty clear why that is. 

We can debate all day the size and scope of government in our lives, the strengths and pitfalls of capitalism, and a host of other ideas that invite different points of view.  But the modern-day Republican Party and their chosen leader and champion have long outstayed their welcome.  It’s time to vote them out.  

We are voting for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, along with Democrats up and down the ballot; though not just because they are, quite simply, everything the Republicans are not.  We cannot vouch for every candidate individually, but we can say that as a whole, over the past twenty years, they have done far more to expand voting rights and access to affordable health care, they’ve worked far more to cultivate a cleaner and more sustainable environment, and they’ve fought far more for equal justice. 

In this election, more so than ever, there is really no comparison.  

We are voting for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.  We are voting Blue up and down the ballot.  We encourage you to do the same.  

Please vote.  And if you can, vote early and in-person.  

Thank You.   

In-Brief: On Parks and Wildness

Save Our Home, Save Ourselves

I recently applied to a job that asked me to select the best pic of myself in the outdoors. It sounds like it could be an exciting one, a job where I’d be spending time in some of my favorite places, or one place depending on how you look at it. That is, the National Parks or in the broader sense, in nature.

To that point, I’ve come to see them less as individual places and it more as one larger whole.  Our planet.  I like that approach more.    

It’s hard to say which picture could ever be the best, but this is the one I felt like posting–taken almost exactly four years ago.

Ren Michael - South Kaibob Trail - Grand Canyon - Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona - National Park - Quinby & Co.
Ren Michael on the South Kaibob Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

Much has happened since then both in my life and throughout the world, and I’ve been fortunate to have gone on many adventures in the time in between. Hopefully I’m a strong sum of those experiences, as each was its own unique reminder of my connection to both land and people.

I’m not unique in that respect, since I know many who have turned to the outdoors and felt a similar way. Restored, replenished, readjusted to the point that their day-to-day ambitions either suddenly feel silly, or are just given renewed purpose in light of the bigger realization that they are a part of something bigger than themselves and their possessions.

While I can only hope it’s enough to help us recognize the importance of preserving these places—since all of us deserve to experience the land in equal measure—above all, I hope we each begin doing our part in preserving the integrity of our environment, for the health of our planet, our one true home, for our physical health, and ultimately for our sanity.

I look back on recent years and I think about people marching against gun violence, or against corporate greed on Wall Street.  I think about people marching for Black lives and for our government’s full recognition of their humanity. 

And I think about two weeks ago, when everyday I stepped out and saw a smoke-filled sky blotting out the sun due to devastating regional wildfires.  In the back of my mind, the fire’s reach had far exceeded the limits of the west coast where I make my home.  Indeed, the larger symbolism was hard to miss.      

The issues of violence, racial justice, environmental justice and economic inequality are, I believe, inter-related.  The dangers of climate change for example pose the most immediate threat to Black and Brown communities, a disproportionate number of which fall below the poverty line in the United States and throughout the world–a reality most clearly demonstrated in food and water shortages not just in third-world countries, but here at home.  

Tackling the threat of climate change will not automatically close the gap on income inequality or accomplish comprehensive racial justice.  Still you cannot adequately address problems in your house when your house is, quite literally, on fire; and truly, the fight for a healthy planet has the power to bring people of different backgrounds and beliefs together, likely more so than any movement we’ve ever witnessed.  More to the point, it’s the understanding of our interconnectedness that will ultimately save us in virtually every domestic and global conflict we experience; and nowhere is that realization more critical than in the necessary global effort to mitigate climate change by cultivating a cleaner and more sustainable world for all people.  

The act of getting outdoors, spending time in our public lands and in the broader wilderness of the world has the unique power to reinforce the fundamental reality of our interdependence and dependence on the land.  It’s just one of many reasons why it’s so important they stay preserved and protected.    

I often reflect on whether it will just be an ongoing battle for every generation between people committed to preserving our wilderness for the public benefit, and the people who seek to exploit the land for their own profit. 

I hope that it won’t.  Maybe the dual threats of climate change and a global pandemic will convince people of their stake in each other’s health and the health of our planet, and the influence will carry over through generations to come.      

I only know that the need for such a realization has never been so urgent.      

As for our wilderness, and it’s unmatched beauty and healing power, for now there’s little more I can say, other than to simply go, as soon as you can, and experience it for yourself.

Let’s please take care of our home.  I am committed to doing my part and I hope you will join me.  The Sierra Club is one of our nation’s most enduring and influential forces for environmental action and awareness.  I’ve been a member for a couple years now and I urge you to consider joining and lending your support as well. 

Let’s get to work.   

 

*Take Action –> www.sierraclub.org

Friends of the Earth Action https://foeaction.org/

Natural Resources Defense Council https://www.nrdc.org/

National Parks Foundation https://www.nationalparks.org/

Talking About Political Correctness

I used to complain about political correctness, even though I’d never actually met anyone who shamed me or embarrassed me due to my incorrectness. I wonder then whether most of the people who complain about it are just insecure people?  

The growing consensus seems to be that everybody everywhere takes everything so personal all the time, which may yet be true.

For starters, the complaint seems far more warranted, say, with respect to professional comedy where part of what makes a joke funny at all is it’s irreverence, its breach of political correctness. If a comedian were constantly wanting to avoid offending people, that comedian would likely lose inspiration and give up the whole thing. 

Comedy thrives on irreverence. Even so, the best comedians still grasp the basic concept of knowing how to read a room.

When people look at their life and really think about the number of times they’ve been slapped on the wrist by a friend, family member or acquaintance for using the wrong word or making an insensitive remark, is that number actually few and far between, if at all?

The way I see it, political correctness is a fact of life and always has been, no different from any other form of etiquette that will change depending on where you are in the world. The only difference now is that it’s been given a name, and stigmatized in the one sphere of public life where it’s probably essential–politics.   

I wonder then whether people who complain about having their head bitten off for breaching that etiquette, who yearn for some comprehensive, universally agreed upon rubric for what’s ok and what’s not, and who then further expect it to never change, ever again—at least while they’re alive—are simply operating in some other reality; as if anything like that ever existed at all within the long span of human history and the diversity of cultures that make up this planet, let alone the ones that make up this country.   

They’ll mention how it used to be different years ago, how somethings were ok and others were not—as if the ideal sort of history of language and expression is a static one.

People once used words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, words like ‘colored’, just as men once wore stockings and wigs out in public. And yet if you spoke or dressed that way today, you’d look like a jackass. Why? Because things eventually fall out of fashion. And yes, it might be a phenomenon but if we can’t accept it, then we might want to find ourselves another planet.

The complaint ignores the fundamental truth that language changes because people change.  It ignores the fact that larger, free-thinking societies are quite naturally heterogenous.  The bigger they are, the more diverse they will likely become, with each community and sub-community developing their own customs and standards of decorum. Political correctness, then, at the very least seems to represent that basic truth in the matter of how we converse with one another, when each of us comes from a different background and our own sphere of personal experience.  

I’ve noticed that people who travel a lot typically have no problem understanding this, because they’ve spent a good amount of time in communities other than their own. They learned to adapt, and often a part of them even enjoys navigating the complexities of different cultures.

They don’t get upset over the fact that they have to learn a new language, they embrace it as an opportunity. If something changes in the country or community they visit and they have to adapt yet again, they don’t dismiss the people as petty and refuse to budge any further.

They are often driven by an appetite for learning new things, and a wonder before all the intricacies of the world and its many points of view.

They don’t get hung up on the possibility of making a mistake here and there, because they’ve already accepted the high possibility that they will make one sooner or later.

However, that leads to another point of discussion.

Could those who are hip to the changing tides of fashion be more polite about it? Do they have to be such a dick about it? Is being woke, for example, nothing more than a matter of bragging rights, one that ultimately involves shaming all those who are out of the loop?

I’ve never encountered anyone like that, but if and when I do, I don’t think it will surprise me. I used to complain about political correctness because I’d automatically bought into the notion that these types of people were everywhere and running absolutely wild…even though I never met one.

I think it had to do with insecurity. My own fear of making a fool of myself led to a defense mechanism against the enemy I had never actually seen. If these woke people exist–and I do think there are a few out there–then I imagine they are likely motivated by the same fear. Fear of not being hip, fear of looking like an idiot, or just someone out of step with the times. An outsider.

I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with being ignorant. I think the real pity is either burrowing yourself in your ignorance, or over-compensating in the direction of righteousness or enlightenment, all for the sake of never being wrong and being some kind of insider.

Personally I think it’s more fun being a little bit of both, having one foot on the inside and another on the out.

It’s one reason I like to travel.  I like knowing that I can adapt easily enough to changing surroundings, and I know doing that involves a flexibility of perspective, a willingness to listen and an actual openness to being wrong every once in a while.

It’s something I’d forgotten about myself, but I think it’s a good lesson for all of us to remember. It might make life a little more complicated now and then, but with the slightest tweak in perspective, if we can set aside our ego, it might also make life a whole lot more enriching.

In Focus: What is the Green New Deal?

These days we’re hearing more and more about the Green New Deal and rightfully so.  Given the devastating wildfires along the west coast, which only seem to grow in number and intensity each year in proportion to rising global temperatures, we think that a Green New Deal sounds great right about now. 

But what exactly is it?  What does it entail and is it practical?  We did a little research and were able to iron out some nuts and bolts, say, for your added consideration when casting your vote this year.  So let’s take a look.

The Green New Deal is a congressional resolution, essentially the most comprehensive plan for mitigating climate change and reducing income inequality put to paper by our government so far. 

You can read the official document here.

It was drafted last year by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats, and it takes its name from the New Deal of the 1930s, a series of programs and regulations enacted by President Roosevelt as a means to help the United States recover from the Great Depression. 

It emphasizes that climate change and income inequality are inextricably linked, and that the proposals would cultivate a cleaner environment and create new jobs. 

These proposals include a sweeping national mobilization effort that would be implemented over a ten-year period, one that includes sourcing 100 percent of our power demand from renewable energy and zero-emission resources (e.g. wind, water, solar). 

It calls for the overhaul of our transportation system to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as possible–by investing in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing, in affordable and accessible public transit, and in a high-speed rail system.

Additionally, the resolution says it’s the duty of the federal government to provide job training for new workers, particularly those families and communities who currently rely on their jobs in fossil fuels.

 

The Details

But is it feasible?  Can it actually work?  That’s where things seem to get a little tricky.  

Almost 80 percent of America’s power still comes from fossil fuels, a resource that is relatively cheap and plentiful.  Another problem is that the cost of these new initiatives would indeed be expensive, though supporters argue that it’s a cost that would pay for itself in the long run.    

Additionally, as Republicans are equally quick to point out, the Green New Deal would involve a greater government presence in many facets of public life to adequately implement the standards necessary for curbing our greenhouse gas emissions.  In short, it would go against the common instincts and virtues intimately linked with modern American industry, namely less federal regulation and more privatization.  

Now to that point, one might hope that a global pandemic might shift the collective consciousness enough to translate into policy that actually reflects the popular sentiment that we’re all in this together.  After all, when it comes to climate change, that sentiment has never been so true.

The logistical obstacles most often mentioned are the costs and the ten-year timeline.  While the cost of reaching the goals outlined in the resolution would amount in the trillions, the cost of continued inaction would almost certainly amount to trillions more.

While technological experts agree that ten years might be too short a time to achieve the zero-carbon infrastructure outlined, they do agree that 20-25 years is more viable if we get to work now.  

 

Our Take

Something is better than nothing.  While the logistical dilemmas might be valid, specifically whether ten years is too short a time, the simple truth is that we need to try.  

Every time we hear about the threat of climate change–a threat, by the way, that is already here–we naturally begin talking about solutions.  And the solution is basically the same every time, involving each of us making individual sacrifices for a greater more common good.  The Green New Deal is essentially that very realization put to paper and hopefully, ultimately national policy.   

If the fundamental ideas of the Green New Deal seem far-fetched, then it says an awful lot more about us then it does about the ideas themselves.  To throw up our hands and say it’s all a fantasy is to say that we’re incapable of working together to promote the general welfare.

Of course any such notion is nonsense, and a person only needs to look at history to understand why. 

It’s very appropriate that the resolution borrows its name from the New Deal of the Depression.  Then as now, Americans were facing a cataclysmic event that had upended public life for several years, not to mention the looming threat of a second world war.  It begs the question of just how catastrophic things need to get here and now before ordinary people across this land recognize a similar sense of investment in one another.

Despite the logistical issues this new new deal, it’s still the most tangible form of action we have yet realized in addressing climate change through legislation. 

If we cannot succeed in every aspect of it, we might succeed with some if not most of it–and some is most certainly better than none. 

It’s a blueprint, at the very least, a guideline we can follow in the years to come for enacting policy that would provide for a more sustainable environment and equitable society.  Of course that’s no small thing, and we personally put more trust in those who see its value versus those who outrightly dismiss it.

Apocalyptic skies in San Francisco, CA. The lights are still on along the Bay Bridge, which are supposed to turn off after sunrise. Photo by Jessica Christian, San Francisco Chronicle

Penetrating the Aether: Are We Listening?

Has social media made us better communicators?

No! Ok I’m not exactly sure, but I’m inclined to think not since it’s removed face-to-face confrontation, a core component of meaningful conversation, from our everyday lives. That’s not to say we were generally good communicators anyway, even before ten or twelve years ago.

Still, I do think social media has aggravated many of our common weaknesses, such as vulnerability to ego, an unwillingness to be wrong, and not listening.

The same can be said for texting but I’ll get into that, as well as social media, some other time. What’s more interesting to me, and likely more important for the sake of cultivating a more prosperous society, are those weaknesses I just mentioned. Besides let’s face it, social media isn’t going anywhere. It’s prevalence in our daily lives is unlikely to change anytime soon. Nor should it.

No, what I think ought to change more immediately is our handling of it, so that it’s presence in our lives isn’t quite as relevant, or at least so it’s less damaging.

To do that we’re going to have to get a better handling on how we have conversations with each other, independent of the platform we use to do it.

All anyone needs to do these days is go on YouTube, and look at the arguments people have with one another in the comments section following any political post. If just the thought of doing that made you cringe just now, you’re not alone. I feel the same way. “Who are these people?!”

That’s just it. They’re us.

While YouTube in particular can seem like a cesspool for vitriol and hate, we can’t be so quick to righteously distance ourselves from them, because at the core of those forums, I think, lie the same fundamental problems that dog even the most diplomatic among us. Ego.

That my friends, is one pesky son of a bitch.

Now let’s just imagine, for a moment, that ego didn’t exist in the world. What would it look like?

Are you smiling yet? Keep trying.

Alright that’s enough. Maybe you didn’t smile. Maybe you’re not the smiling type, and that’s ok. We still love you.

The point I’m trying to make is that most of us go into our conversations and arguments as though it’s a contest. But that’s just it. It’s not a contest. That’s an illusion perpetuated over the last thirty years, with the rise of cable news and programs that pit one person against another like two swordsman representing their warring tribes.

The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.
-Leonardo Da Vinci

We don’t owe our allegiance to our ideology. We owe it to the truth. Granted, the truth is something more abstract if not multi-dimensional, but it’s universal. Thus, the aim for each participant in a conversation cannot be winning, which naturally pits one against the other. The aim must be to arrive at a common truth, which requires working together.

When that happens, we no longer care about being wrong. We’re no longer terrified at the prospect of losing an argument, and why should we be? Really, we don’t lose at all. If you find that you’ve come around to embracing another person’s point of view, you didn’t lose, you just discovered something that you’d overlooked before. You’re a wiser person for it.

There’s nothing to be bitter about. You’ve simply worked together with someone else at uncovering a broader truth. That’s something to celebrate, not scorn.

Finally, when we lose the unfounded fear of being wrong, a third thing happens. We are more able to listen. We’ve removed ego, fear, insecurity, bias and judgement from our point of view; and so we can more adequately listen to the person in front of us, with respect and a clear devotion to something bigger than ourselves.

This might sound like an oversimplification, but it’s really just a small change, a slight shift in our thinking that can make a monumental difference in our society–let alone in our personal relationships–the more people follow through with it. If we remove our ego from the equation, and step out of our own way, we no longer have one hand tied behind our back in how we communicate with one another.

This, I’m convinced, is the essential core of a healthy country and a truly self-sustaining democracy.

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P.S. for those of you who made it this far, thanks for listening! Here’s a token of our appreciation.

My (Latina) White Privilege

I am Latina.  I am a Woman.  I’m a child of immigrants.  But I am also white facing, meaning I have benefited from white privilege all my life.  While this isn’t news to me, I never really understood the true gravity of such privilege until a few months ago. 

Our Black and Brown communities have been on the receiving end of violence, terror, extreme injustice and racism for hundreds of years.  I have grown up in a system that continues to oppress and quiet BIPOC, along with their respective histories, their achievements, their beauty and most importantly their humanity.

I’ve always considered myself lucky to be a free American.  I was equally lucky to have been raised speaking Spanish at home with family while spending my childhood summers in Colombia, experiencing another culture in a country that is home to vast populations of Black and Indigenous communities. 

I felt like I was part of a diverse and open-minded community.  I still feel that way.  However, the privilege of being white was never addressed, so I was oblivious to how it positively affected my life and, more importantly, how it negatively affected the Black and Brown lives around me. 

While racism runs deep in Colombia–as it does for much of Latin America and the Caribbean–what’s more specifically common is colorism, which is the preferential treatment of those who are lighter-skinned compared to those who are darker, even though both are of the same race.  In Latin communities then, it’s especially common to hear things like, “you’re not Black, you’re [insert country here], or even comments about the type of hair you have, “at least you have good hair,” etc.

As children, we are essentially taught that having lighter skin is more beautiful and that darker skin is less preferred. If you do have darker skin, you are constantly warned, not quite half-jokingly, to stay out of the sun so that you don’t get any darker. 

Even the telenovelas we are so used to watching are filled with light-skinned actors taking up the major roles, while the darker-skinned actors usually portray the ‘help.’ 

And so while I never grew up around any overt displays of racism, I also did not grow up with any understanding of what it meant to be anti-racist, or much less why it is vital.

As detailed above, the society we live in and the system by which this world functions is inherently racist, and built to mainly benefit white people while simultaneously oppressing BIPOC.  As it’s embedded within everything around us, it becomes more natural for us to grow up harboring certain prejudices about people and their skin color without even realizing it.

Salento, Colombia - Quinby & Co.
Andrea Pavlov in the Valle de Cocora; Quindío, Colombia

It’s imperative for us to acknowledge this fact and then get to work on changing it. As Ijeoma Oluo, NYT Best Selling Author of ‘So You Want To Talk About Race’ (@ijeomaoluo) so eloquently puts it:

“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.” 

I have engaged in behavior that I regret, making excuses for family members who “don’t know better” because they’re of an older generation, staying quiet when someone has made an offensive “joke” or has said something ignorant or offensive because “they probably didn’t really mean it.” Colorism was very much a part of being raised Latina.

I now realize the dangers of staying silent and I am committed to actively participating in unlearning the harmful ideologies to which we’ve grown accustomed.  We are talking about racism at home regularly, and addressing our own white privilege. I have addressed these topics with family and we’ve talked about the ways we can be better and change and eliminate colorism from our vocabulary. I have done a “clean up” of my social media feeds, getting rid of accounts that do not serve in uplifting BIPOC and subscribing to new voices I’d never heard before whether they’re in the arts or civic action.  

I recently found Rachel Cargle (@rachel.cargle) who offers a wealth of knowledge and resources for anyone looking to be an ally to BIPOC and specifically Black women, who are the most affected. She founded The Loveland Foundation (@thelovelandfoundation) which provides free therapy for Black women and girls, and she curates a monthly self-paced syllabi at The Great Unlearn (@thegreatunlearn) where she currently has a free 30-day course called #DoTheWork.  I began the course earlier this week, and I’m now on day three.

I really encourage you to do more research, ask questions, learn and unlearn, and when you know better, do better. It is perfectly ok to change your mind when you’ve learned more about a subject. That is how we grow and evolve. These are small steps we must begin taking in order to begin dismantling the systems, institutions and ideologies that continue to negatively affect BIPOC and their communities. 

Black lives matter.  All black lives matter and are beautiful and worthy and deserving. 

We are in this together, friends.  As white people and Latinxs, we must step forward and stand with our Black and Brown family. 

And above all, we must no longer stay quiet.

When is Enough Enough?

There are those who will simply not listen, who will try and talk over you, shout at you, and maybe even say something ugly to you before they’re willing to even consider whether they are wrong.  In all likelihood, it stems from their own insecurities.  I don’t think you have to be a psychoanalyst to see it.

Granted, some voices out there will encourage you to keep fighting the good fight.  If you think you can do that, then by all means go for it.

But if you find that continuing conversations with those people is adding stress and sadness to your life, people who continually put up a block and care more about being right than the egoless pursuit of truth, then is it still a good idea?

What about with family?  At what point should we decide that enough is enough?  And how should we navigate our relationship with these people considering our different points of view?

Of course, there’s no clear answer because how much of it we’re willing to endure is something only each of us can know.  And while I certainly don’t think it’s necessary to part ways over differing points of view, I do wonder whether it’s more practical to part ways with people who are either unwilling or unable to listen, especially when it’s bringing you pain and eating up both time and energy that could be invested elsewhere.

For one thing, if they’re unwilling to listen, then what kind of relationship is it?  And if they go so far as insulting you, then how responsible are you really for continuing any sort of conversation?

Anyway, what I’ve noticed about these people is that they’re typically the kind who can only work things out themselves, in their own time and their own way.  Besides, maybe there’s a lot more going on with them than you realize.  Then again, maybe not.  Maybe they just don’t want to listen.

Either way, the reasons are mostly–if not entirely–out of your control.  So unless you’re a congressman or lawmaker, if you find yourself giving up on trying to talk to them, don’t beat yourself up over it, because it’s better to save your energy for those who have the mind and the courage to hear out a differing point of view.  And there are plenty of those people who exist, by the way.

One of the greater problems in our society is that many of us are convinced otherwise, as we automatically assume that the people with whom we disagree are hopeless and unreasonable.  It’s a myth, in my humble opinion; one that is encouraged by the manner in which so many of us access information–mainly through social media and the big cable news networks.  But that’s another topic for another time.

Anyway, can we maintain a relationship with people while avoiding certain conversations?  Again, I think it depends on the standards we each set for ourselves, on what we essentially want out of the relationship.

No matter what we decide, I think what’s more important is making the decision not to judge them, or spend any more of your time and energy resenting them or being angry.  Mostly because it’s not going to make anything better.  In fact, it’s only going to damage your own well-being.

Ultimately, what another person believes is their business.  Perhaps what’s most important then, is knowing when it’s time to get back to yours, and seeing to it that your voice is heard.

No matter how we decide to do that, it ought to begin with respect.

A respect that translates into listening.