On the Ground Again: Enchanted in Lyon

In recent weeks, I have had the experience of being in some very large chunks of the “built environment.” The airports in Houston and Mexico City are just huge, if not spread out as far as the terminals at Denver. Even looking out the bay windows in an attorney’s Mexico City airport1downtown 16th-floor conference room at the snow-capped Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque was stunning. It wasn’t just the view, it was the character of the monumental architecture that provided it. These structures are meant to impress.

Livable Cities

What makes a city work? Well, people of course. But so much more. It is about how they live and work and interact, and how they maintain the qualities of the more mundane elements of the built environment they inhabit. Cities, towns, and villages are all complex adaptive systems with all sorts of nodes and links between them, which function in so many ways to keep them alive. The average lifespan of corporations is ten years. Cities live so very much longer for too many reasons to list here. In short, they are alive.

Some Cities, like New York, succeed in spite of themselves. It helps to be the financial center of the universe if you want to be known for super highrise office buildings. But where is New York’s charm, its human qualities? In its neighborhoods, of course. Don’t look for charm in Trump Tower’ all you will find are pretensions of wealth. Extreme disparities in wealth and poverty can exist within an otherwise great city.

011_Haarlem,_Netherlands_-_Kleine_HoutstraatHaarlem is a small city near the much larger Amsterdam, in progressive Holland where public spaces are revered, used, and preserved. Haarlem has all the benefits and less of the crowding of its larger neighbor 15 minutes away by rail, bus, or car.

City as Celebration

Edinburgh is my favorite city in Scotland, but I was only there during its world-famous month-long summer Edinburgh Festival, which made crowding fun. The Festival is accompanied by “The Fringe,” the world’s largest arts festival, scattered among the streets throughout the city. It seemed every language could be heard on the cobblestone walk-street near Edinburgh Castle. And the Edinburgh Book Festival, held that same month, is exciting for any reader. Well, again, it’s a world-famous lovely city. Its charm is well aged.

But what is it about Lyon? Despite all the iconic sights and sounds of Paris, I much prefer Lyon as a city to simply be in and enjoy. Of course, it has lots of museums, a major university, medieval walk streets and neighborhood cafés, etc. Much of Lyon remains at human scale.

Lyon walk streetIn the beautiful green rolling hills of springtime central France, I enjoyed watching the two rivers running through Lyon. Rivers offer special opportunities for urban living. As with the canals in Haarlem and Amsterdam, which are lined with houseboats and barges, they are venues for walking along park-like banks with lots of trees and the occasional monument.

Lyon has integrated the medieval and the modern in its architecture. A tram runs up to the cathedral on an adjacent hilltop where you can look over the entire city, noting the changes in texture from center to periphery. On a clear day, you can see the Alps.

Unlike in the U.S., the French don’t constantly destroy the old to affirm the new. In central Lyon, the ancient buildings, mostly hand built of stone, are “modernized” in their facilities while retaining the beauty and charm of their ancient origins. And it is all at a human scale. The city is walkable, which allows discovery of that small otherwise unknown shop, café or bistro, or that statue on the square where elders converse and children play.

Valuing the Valuable

Instead of donating them to the Metropolitan Museum as promised, Donald Trump simply threw away the art deco sculpture and ironwork from a historic building he tore down to replace with one of his megalomaniacal towers. The French helped us gain our national independence from our British colonial masters (who also appreciate the old). We still have much to learn from the Europeans about, well, just living.

Our cities – and our politics as well – could use some of their sensibility now. Santa Fe has retained some of the aesthetic of its Pueblo Indian and Spanish Territorial styles in its historic district and classic plaza, giving it much of the character lost to so many American cities. We have so much to do to make American cities livable (not pseudo-“great again”), and so little cultural will.

Republicans Love Hate Trump

Do you remember the 2016 Republican presidential primaries? Expressions of disgust and derision for upstart outsider Trump among the party establishment and clamoring candidates were widespread. My, how times have changed. Initial faux principled “anything but Trump” stances dissembled into fake adulation and obsequious pandering by congressional Republicans to an increasingly erratic fake president.

Henchman after henchman fell to indictments by the special prosecutor. Convictions and cooperation agreements correlated with outside evidence of Trump agents’ multiple contacts and financial dealings with Russian oligarchs, and intelligence agents, and international money-laundering banks (especially Deutsche Bank). U.S. intelligence agencies had warned of Russian attempts to penetrate U.S. election databases; Russian bots and trolls deployed to Facebook and Twitter. Putin’s evil is so much more sophisticated than Trump’s narcissistic bravado that it became a national embarrassment.

Republican politicians refused to allow evidence or testimony to enter intelligence or judiciary hearings. They just repeated the “no Russian collusion” mantra, even as grand juries handed down indictments of Russian agents and their American contacts associated with Trump. ‘Pay politically to play financially’ reigned supreme as rewards for cooperating with corruption piled up and those facing reelection avoided political punishment by the nastiest elements of the Trumpist white nationalist base.

Personal Reasons for Public Irrationality

mitch-mcconnellWell, of course, there are reasons why these politicians put away any principles or preferences they previously proclaimed, including basic Republican values and policy principles, such as fiscal responsibility. Just look at the rewards and punishments involved. Huge tax windfalls for wealthy senators, representatives, and their corporate sponsors rewarded submission to the petulant whims of the sociopathic narcissist. Trump’s tax bill gave away hundreds of billions to the biggest corporations and the wealthiest Americans. Mitch McConnell’s pockets got their share.

The threat of being “primaried” by aggressive PAC-funded attacks by the Trumpist base in upcoming campaigns certainly got the attention of Republican senators and representatives up for reelection in 2020. They might have considered a principled stand against executive usurpation of the constitutional authority of Congress over government spending, but not under that kind of threat. Many found the false assertion of a “national emergency” as cover for commandeering funds designated for military projects both repugnant and blatantly unconstitutional. Yet, they buried their principles to secure their personal political position.

A few voted in support of the bill to overturn the proclaimed “national emergency,” mostly out of fear that the precedent could result in a future Democratic president pulling the same stunt to achieve some progressive purpose, such as funding the hated Green New Deal. That is not the art of the deal; it is extortion. It is not that such tactics are rare in Washington politics. Nor is it simply a matter of traditional “gridlock” in the national legislature.

Pathology of Policy

When a narcissistic sociopath “makes policy,” you can be sure that the origin and intent have to do with self-aggrandizement, not the public interest. I have not fact-checked the story that Trump’s obsession with “the wall” began when campaign aides suggested it as a way to make him remember to mention the “threat” of immigration. But it fits the profile. The meme took off and he happily continues to exploit it.

Generating fear of the other is a classic tactic of would-be dictators and tyrants. So is endless repetition of the “big lie.” The flow of illegal immigrants across the southern border has steadily decreased for a long time. Most drug smuggling occurs at the biggest ports of entry. Would-be terrorists from the Middle East have boarded airliners in Europe or elsewhere with false documents, headed for major American cities.

So, what’s with the wall? Its basic function is to generate fear and hatred to distract from the damage done to the nation by kleptocratic corruption at the very top – a classic tactic of tyrants.

Intermediation Blues

As commonly used in finance, “intermediation” refers to banks and other financial institutions borrowing from savers/investors and lending to companies that need funds for investment in operations and new projects. I will look at the idea more broadly here.

Intermediation occurs in countless ways in our industrial-consumer society. Most of the time, we do not even notice the indirectness of our mostly transactional lives. When did you last buy a product directly from the person who made it?

About the only way you can make a direct purchase from the producer of food is to buy those organic carrots or tomatoes from your local farmers market. What percentage of your food purchases are those? Most likely, very small. In most other cases, a direct transaction with no intermediation is impossible.

Dependency and Distance

The more distance between you and the other (if there is a singular other involved), the more dependent you are on a process beyond your reach. When did you last negotiate what characteristics your iPhone would have? To do that you would have to contact the maker, but like so many other products, smartphones result from thousands of makers producing countless components for assembly somewhere you have never heard of.

A team of people whose criteria result from complex sets of information from engineering and marketing studies designs the product. The design criteria and information intermediate between the revenue goals of the giant corporation controlling the process and estimates of how large a market their advertisers can influence to buy the product. Who decides what use-value an object may have for the end user? And who, exactly, is the end user? That is not always clear either.

Intermediation of Communication

When inventions like the telephone and telegraph became available for use by consumers and businesses, many praised their power to facilitate long-distance communication. Messages were sent directly from one party to another by telegraph; people talked directly to one another on the phone. The mail service provided delivery of direct written communications from one party to another. Today, people use their smartphones and computers to engage with social media or to send texts or email more than to communicate directly to anyone. Their calls to businesses are intermediated by complex, often dysfunctional telephone menu trees leading to recorded messages, not to humans.

Social media may be the most obvious technology of intermediated communication. How many Facebook friends do you have? How many have you actually met, face to face? People have “meetings” over Skype because it intermediates in a way that simulates face-to-face conversations. But face it, you are actually looking at an electronic image approximating the person you are talking with. The same process is involved when your geographically dispersed committee or board of directors meets via Zoom. You are replicating the experience of direct human communication.

Dangerous and Deadly Intermediation

People rightly complain that the use of drones such as the MQ99 Reaper in warfare feels in ways unseemly. A drone operator commands the aircraft from afar. He drops its bombs somewhere in Pakistan or Yemen by viewing images on a screen and receiving “intelligence” reports in his air-conditioned office near Las Vegas. He has no direct way of knowing whether the targeted group of people in a village or on a road consists of a terrorist group or a wedding party. Intelligence reports are often sketchy or based on false data. Combat drone operators experience PTSD at equivalent rates as troops on the ground.

Lion 737 Max_8

Lion Air ~ the First of two suspiious crashes.

Why was I not surprised when in a very short period two Boeing 737 Max-8 airliners crashed shortly after takeoff, one in Indonesia and the other in Ethiopia? Numerous pilots had complained of a tendency of the new autopilot software to force the aircraft into an abrupt nose down or nose up attitude. If any human technology epitomizes intermediation, it is the autopilot.

Software designed to control aircraft flight is extremely complex. Airborne situations are also extremely complex and diverse. I do not know what exactly went wrong and killed all those passengers and crew. But I do know that in automated control systems, the more complex the system, the more statistically susceptible to catastrophic collapse it is.

When I got my new small airplane in 2008, equipped with a basic autopilot, I was amazed at its ability to fly the aircraft in light to moderate turbulence better than I could. Its electronic responses were faster than my own in responding to change. But on a couple of occasions, the aircraft began to oscillate to the point where I had to hit the autopilot master switch and take manual control. Those 737 Max pilots didn’t have a chance since the defective software had been designed to override “pilot error” and drove the aircraft into the ground.

Disintermediation Rising

Intermediation has its advantages in complex systems, as long as it works. But there are limits to its benefits and there are dangers in its over-use. It appears that in several ways we have already reached the limits of utility and risk.

In the coming decades, deteriorating economic and ecological conditions will force industrial-consumer economies to contract for their societies to avoid suffering the most extreme consequences of climate chaos and the other converging catastrophic crises. Disintermediation must be part of the process of mitigating these crises.

We must examine many processes as to whether to disintermediate them. Many of the solutions to the converging crises at the end of the industrial-consumer era will involve returning to direct human interaction to accomplish tasks for which intermediation poses too many costs.

Dead End

Age seems to bring on associations with drugs the doctors say we need. Most are not addictive, though many don’t do much good and often have unwanted “side effects.” Sometimes the “side effects” are front and center! One of the discomforts of being a Jubilado (retiree, if you don’t know the word, en español) is the experience of the death of others in one’s own age group.

Few of us plan much for our death or that of others. When I hear that a member of my generation who is younger than me has passed away, it is especially disconcerting. Of course, we all must go eventually, but for myself, I’d rather it be later. When, later? Who knows? Just later.

Unplanned Death

But it is a matter of an entirely different order when we hear of a death of someone much younger, whom we have known since his birth. At our age, we find ourselves on the way to another medical appointment with uncanny frequency. On one such occasion at 8:30 AM,  about three years ago, while slogging through South Bay traffic to a UCLA imaging facility in Santa Monica, I got a call from a very close long-time friend, who abruptly told me her son had just died of a drug overdose. He was 30 years old; I was around when he was born.

“What?” I could not process what I heard. I had planned to visit her late the next day. “You can come over any time tomorrow; I’m not going to the gym.” With that veiled plea for me to come over sooner, she could not talk anymore right then. In all the years I had known her, since the early 1970s, she had never been at a loss for words. In that stop-and-go traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, so was I. I spent the rest of the week with her, working through all the many details of dealing with a death too soon.

Internet-Facebook-addictionYou just never know. I will not go into the details of a very vibrant young man’s death from an overdose of a mix of new designer drugs, or his girlfriend’s that followed. But from what I hear, a wave of such young deaths has swept the East Coast, then the West, in recent years. “Progress through chemistry” keeps the overseas illicit manufacturers ahead of the drug laws. So does the Internet, where rogue drugs produced somewhere in Asia without quality controls and at unknown strengths are purchased through distributors in other countries. Ironic. We seek solutions to all our problems through new technology and we create more problems with newer technologies, including the Internet.

Addictions and Illusions

Portugal abandoned its “war on drugs” years ago. Drug use has significantly declined there. When addiction does occur, authorities treat it as the “behavioral health” problem that it is; the patient is often freed of addiction or learns how to live with it. Portugal-660x420Unfortunately, we in the U.S. live in a punitive society where “treatment” is something that is done to the patient; it is not so much done by the patient. It often fails, just like the mass incarceration that pretends to be the “rehabilitation” of those caught by law enforcement self-medicating with illegal drugs.

In our U.S. culture of profit over everything – into which the drug business fits so well – we treat our environment just like we treat children, and adults for that matter, who may have problems. We may treat symptoms, but rarely their causes, wondering why the problem persists. We punish indiscriminately. We find enemies everywhere, or we create them. Pablo Escobar and “Chapo” were products of the U.S. War on Drugs.

Contradictions of Denial

Terrorists arise in resistance to the invasions and occupations of our fossil-fueled global empire – a collective addiction. Death and destruction are products of our alienation from the living Earth we inhabit. That is why we can’t get a grip on the climate crisis we created by our alienated culture of extractive capital and wasteful consumerism. And, of course, we deny it all and project blame onto the enemies we have created. Addiction is the goal of marketing, which leads to diverse forms of illness or death. We need a new “culture war.” The culture of life must win over the culture of death. The alternative is a dead end.

The Democratic Party Dilemma: Is it Real?

As Republicans try to drive a wedge between “centrist” and progressive Democrats, the Democrats might not need any help to achieve failure. They are well on the way to falling flat in front of the unique challenges they face in a bizarre couple of years running up to the 2020 presidential election.

Party Palliatives

DNC operatives and their favorites, the candidates who spout conventionally “liberal” slogans yet act like Reagan Republicans still control the Democratic Party. They take large corporate donations and “dark money” that tie them to the neoliberal economic thrust that takes us closer to full-blown climate chaos each day. Well, actually, the crisis is here and it is now.

In the run-up to the 2016 debacle, I remember seeing a survey posted online by Senator Keith Ellison asking Democrats to respond with their three top priorities for the Democratic Party Platform. The list provided did not include any mention of climate action, the overwhelmingly denied and ignored yet most critical issue of our time. Here is the list:

  • Raising the minimum wage
  • Civil rights
  • Making college more affordable
  • Protecting women’s health care choices
  • Immigration reform
  • Protecting and expanding Social Security
  • Overturning Citizens United
  • Reducing economic inequality
  • Wall Street accountability and consumer protection
  • Common-sense gun reform
  • Affordable housing
  • Criminal justice reform
  • Other

Okay, these are all issues that call for political action to achieve a livable society – in the abstract. Each is general enough that a politician could proclaim allegiance to taking action on it without actually having to do anything. The climate silence was deafening. The current listing of issues in the 2016 Party Platform on the party website does mention “Combat Climate Change,” briefly in the middle of the list. Once Bernie from contention, the greatest existential threat to humanity ever, Hillary mostly ignored it through the campaign. However, fear of a Trumpist future caused the 2018 midterm elections to blow a fresh new breeze into the U.S. House of Representatives.

Here Come the New Progressives

AOCAlexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) rapidly emerged as the face of the new progressive Democrats elected to the House in the midterms. Her unexpected trouncing of an old-line centrist incumbent in the primary quickly became the icon of new progressive thinking among the new representatives, who are mostly women of color.

A good measure of their impact and importance for possibly bringing the Democratic Party into the twenty-first century is the outrage and disdain expressed by Republicans at AOC’s very presence. Her highly articulate and charming outspoken expression of progressive values and her specific legislative proposals took the media’s attention away from the old party hacks.

The new progressives have already proposed a Green New Deal and helped shape HR-1, the bill that would take back control of politics from Big Money and give it to the people through electoral reform and other measures to protect democracy from the corporate state. Mitch McConnell predictably called it a “power grab,” yes, they replied, a power grab for the people.

The Struggle is On

The Corporate Democrats are not about to give up. They have already joined Republicans Ilhan Omar_400x400in attacking Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) for her calling out knee-jerk American political support for Israeli oppression and war crimes against the Palestinians. Omar had tried to distinguish between anti-semitism – of which anyone who criticizes Israel’s policies is accused – and reasoned and principled foreign policy by the U.S. But the women of color who expressed their solidarity at the State of the Union address by wearing white in honor of the original suffragettes, are strong and they are not about sit down and shut up as subservient freshmen representatives.

The Green New Deal may be only a policy preference piece, pointing in the direction of the extreme decarbonizing actions required to avert the most extreme threats to human survival inherent in the accelerating climate chaos we have already begun to experience. In one of the most honest assessments of the extreme crisis we now experience, David Wallace-Wells article in the New York Times is aptly titled, “Time to Panic: The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us.” It seems that the only politicians to get it and openly discuss it are the new progressive representatives.

The American people are wising up. They see the catastrophic climate changes already accelerating around the world. They can no longer imagine the U.S. as a sanctuary for the industrial-consumer “lifestyle” in a world of growing chaos. The Democrats would do very well to acknowledge the extreme existential threat we face and make it the centerpiece of their platform. But the new progressives must take control of the party if it is to represent the interests of the American people.

Self-Importance Is the New Normal

Obsessive self-importance may be the new normal, and it is not pretty. We have all seen over-inflated egos expressed, from the poorest streets of our cities and dying towns to the elevated offices of CEOs and the White House itself. Likely as not, we have all tried to demonstrate our own self-importance.

Trump.Rally.Rage

Trump Rally Rage

Why is something that should be an aberration, so common? Well, the answer is complicated but clear. Expression of self-importance as psychological compensation for the lack of power and respect in our lives is not new. Yet, today it seems at a peak as it is seen in the new racism, xenophobia, domestic violence, politics, and just about every part of our lives. Security is scarce and anxiety is high. Anger is cathartic.

Self-Worth Shortage

We all need to feel worthy. If secure in our relations with family and community, we do feel our self-worth in our natural relations with others. When we are not sure of where we stand with our peers or “significant others,” be they family, coworkers, or powerful people we hardly know, the likely result is status anxiety. Well, status anxiety runs rampant in modern industrial-consumer societies, as does economic anxiety since so few jobs pay a living wage or are secure anymore.

Anxiety is an expression of fear, the fear of what is to come, how it may affect me, and the fact that I have little or no control over the outcome. Since people can do so little about the sources of modern anxiety, they often compensate psychologically by expressing self-assurance. As often as not, self-assurance comes off as some demonstration of how “I am important, much more important than you.”

Expressions of self-importance are everywhere. People often use the automobile as a tool we can control to show our self-importance. Unfortunately, as with shopping, the benefits do not last. And the risks may be physical, not just economic. Typically, “road rage” asserts power in reaction to someone else’s lack of deference to the offended one, if not just incompetent driving. To the self-important driver, “it’s my road; you must show deference to me.”

RoadRage.in.NJSome years ago, I made a lane change on a busy street, to get to the left-turn lane. The driver behind me was not at all close; that is, I did not cut him off. Immediately, he roared around me to the right, cut in front of me, and slammed on his brakes. This guy was clearly making a statement of self-important rage. I tried to see if he had a gun, as I acted as passive as I could, dropping back as he sped up having demonstrated his vehicular power. Fortunately, I saw none.

Just Because I’m Me

People do not need to work up a case of road rage to express their self-importance in a car. The mere presence of another driver is enough. When I taught social research methodology at Cal State University, I often gave an initial assignment to go out in the world and observe some social behavior, write up descriptions and analyze what happened. I got some boring reports and a few very insightful ones. At least some students discovered that it is not such a simple matter.

One semester, a young woman who had not stood out in another class, chose to observe behavior in the campus parking lot. Shauna focused on the interaction between drivers when one is leaving a parking place while others search for one.

Shauna timed dozens of people leaving their parking places, from unlocking their door to pulling out. When another driver was waiting to take that place, departing drivers consistently took more time to leave than drivers with nobody waiting to take their parking place. They adjusted their mirror, arranged their books or backpacks, put on lipstick, checked their cell phone, or anything that would slightly delay their departure. They seemed to be saying, “This is my parking place and I’ll give it up when I am good and ready.” They were not reacting to some behavior of the waiting driver. They were asserting a bit of self-importance in a world where personal control is a scarce commodity.

A core feature of industrial-consumer economies is the social fragmentation that leaves individuals isolated, alienated, and with little personal power in their lives. They must somehow fit into the institutional matrix to survive; that offers almost no personal basis for self-worth. The alienated expression of a false sense of self-importance is a poor substitute for the healthy social relations that breed self-worth.