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kottke.org posts about USA

Squaring the Reality of What We See

Gareth Fearn writing for the London Review of Books about the student protests on US campuses: Liberalism without Accountability.

This is a toxic combination: universities reliant on investment portfolios in a system where mega-profits are made by companies that threaten and destroy human life, influenced by an increasingly radicalised class of billionaires, teaching students whose degrees won’t earn them enough to pay off their loans, managed by supine administrators threatened by (or willingly collaborating with) a reactionary right, who have decided that young people’s minds are being turned against capitalism not by their own lived experience of austerity and racialised police violence but by ‘woke Marxist professors’. This situation has now met with a live-streamed genocide which is supported, and brazenly lied about, by political leaders and commentators who claim to stand for truth and justice. Students, like much of the public, cannot square the reality of what they see with the world as constructed by politicians and the media.

Under such circumstances, pitching tents, raising placards and demanding divestment are really quite mild-mannered responses. That they have been met, in many US universities, with militarised policing reflects the fragility of liberalism โ€” in the face of the growing hegemony of the conservative right as well as its own inability to offer a future even to Ivy League college students, let alone the less privileged.


The Flashlight Gun Is Peak WTF America

An officer “accidentally” fired his weapon during an NYPD raid on a student-occupied building at Columbia University on Tuesday. Apparently, he mistook his gun for a flashlight. You may be wondering: how could this happen? Well, like this. From a 2014 article in the Denver Post:

an illustration of a gun with a flashlight mounted on it, showing a second trigger for the light right under the first trigger

Ronny Flanagan took pride in his record as a police officer in Plano, Texas. He had an incident-free career. He took safety training regularly. He was known at the range as a very good shot.

Yet he killed a man when he was simply trying to press a flashlight switch mounted beneath the trigger on his pistol.

In a deposition, Flanagan expressed his remorse and made a prediction.

“I don’t want anyone to ever sit in a chair I’m in right now,” he said. “Think about the officers that aren’t as well trained, officers that don’t take it as seriously, and you put them in a pressure situation, another accident will happen. Not if, but will.”

Jeeeeesus Christ this is the most American shit ever. First of all: guns, guns, guns!! We love ‘em! Don’t forget the complete militarization of the police (they’ve got tanks!), which happens in tinpot countries where leaders fear the citizenry. Those gun flashlights were initially developed for the Navy SEALs and now city cops wield them around students.

And then. And then! There’s the completely genius idea of PUTTING A SECOND TRIGGER ON A GUN โ€” I wish I had letters more uppercase than uppercase for this next part โ€” RIGHT BELOW THE FIRST TRIGGER!!!!!!! 1
You know, the one that propels a projectile out of the weapon at deadly speeds!?

You’re familiar with those doors where the handle makes it seem like a pull but you actually have to push it? They’re called Norman doors, the canonical example of bad design. These flashlight guns are like Norman doors that kill people. W T Actual Fuck. (via @ygalanter.bsky.social)

  1. I know I’m gonna get email about this so I’ll stop you right there Johnny Gmail: I am sure “not all guns” ๐Ÿฅด with flashlights are designed like this. I am positive that putting yet another switch on a firearm that’s designed to be used when the gun is pointed at something or someone is a Bad Idea. And anyway, this whole thing about being an “accident” is BS anyway…there is nothing accidental about where that officer was with the gear that he had, doing what he was doing. It is all perfectly predictable that guns are fired by militarized police in Gun Land USA.

Are the Kids Alright When They Grow Up?

This is a teenager is an interactive data visualization by Alvin Chang about a group of American teenagers that have been tracked in a longitudinal study since 1997 (they are around 40 years old now). The video version of the visualization is embedded above.

A year from now, in 1998, a researcher named Vincent Felitti will publish a paper that drastically changes the way we think about these kids โ€” and their childhood.

The research will show that these childhood stressors and traumas โ€” called Adverse Childhood Experiences โ€” have a lifelong effect on our health, relationships, happiness, financial security, and pretty much everything else that we value. It will kickstart decades of research that shows that our childhood experiences shape our adulthood far more than we ever thought.

This is a good companion to a recent post, End-Stage Poverty Is Killing People in Safety Net-Free America.

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End-Stage Poverty Is Killing People in Safety Net-Free America

Many Patients Don’t Survive End-Stage Poverty by Dr. Lindsay Ryan is a great/upsetting piece about how the poverty many Americans are subjected to in America is killing them. Many people die here in the world’s richest country not because they are sick but because they are poor and our systems of government, justice, business, and health care don’t do enough to help them (or, more cynically and perhaps truthfully, actively work against helping them).

This is one of those pieces where I want to quote every single paragraph, but I’ll start with this one (bold mine):

Safety-net hospitals and clinics care for a population heavily skewed toward the poor, recent immigrants and people of color. The budgets of these places are forever tight. And anyone who works in them could tell you that illness in our patients isn’t just a biological phenomenon. It’s the manifestation of social inequality in people’s bodies.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this phrase since I read it: “Illness in our patients isn’t just a biological phenomenon. It’s the manifestation of social inequality in people’s bodies.”

Medical textbooks usually don’t discuss fixing your patient’s housing. They seldom include making sure your patient has enough food and some way to get to a clinic. But textbooks miss what my med students don’t: that people die for lack of these basics.

People struggle to keep wounds clean. Their medications get stolen. They sicken from poor diet, undervaccination and repeated psychological trauma. Forced to focus on short-term survival and often lacking cellphones, they miss appointments for everything from Pap smears to chemotherapy. They fall ill in myriad ways โ€” and fall through the cracks in just as many.

You should read the whole thing yourself (NY Times gift link). Her argument about the need to expand/shift the definition of what healthcare is (e.g. housing is healthcare) reminds me of this more progressive idea of freedom.

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McDonald’s Locations vs. Golf Courses

When I linked to a recent NY Times article about rewilding golf courses, I pulled out this startling fact: “The United States has more golf courses than McDonald’s locations.” Nathan Yau of FlowingData found that that is indeed true but wondered where all of the golf courses were actually located. (A: typically not in cities where the McDonald’s are concentrated).

a map of the distribution of golf courses and McDonald's in the US

This makes more sense now. You can have a golf course in an area where there aren’t that many people, because people will travel to play golf. Few people are going to travel specifically for McDonald’s.

If we compare the two, you see the McDonald’s city concentrations, and golf fills the in-between spaces.

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All of U.S. History Has Taken Place in One Plutonian Year

Back in 2015, as the New Horizons probe was approaching Pluto, NASA posted an illustration of the dwarf planet’s orbital timeline:

an orbital timeline of Pluto's orbit around the Sun

A short piece on Vox then noted:

The entire history of the United States has unfolded in the time it’s taken Pluto to orbit the Sun once.

And that’s still true! But just barely. Pluto takes 247.94 Earth years to orbit the Sun. According to my calculations, the Plutonian year that started on July 4, 1776 will end this year on June 12, 2024 (give or take a few hours).

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Black History in Two Minutes (or so)

This video series written and narrated by Henry Louis Gates Jr. presents short 2-4 minute lessons about how Black people shaped American history. Here are a few videos to get you started:

There are almost 100 videos in all โ€” what a treasure trove. I found this via The Kid Should See This, which has a great collection of entertaining and educational videos related to Black History Month.

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Do You Say “Tennis Shoes”, “Gym Shoes”, or “Sneakers”?

This is a map of how people in different geographic regions of the US refer to athletic footwear, courtesy of Josh Katz, author of Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk and co-creator of that NY Times dialect quiz that went viral 10 years ago.

a map of the USA indicating which terms people use for athletic shoes

Growing up in northern Wisconsin, we said “tennis shoes” or “tennies” most of the time (even though very little actual tennis was being played) and “gym shoes” less often. I hadn’t really heard of “sneakers” as a kid and never used it. (Shoes for sneaking? Huh?) My kids were born in NYC and they give me shit every time I tell them to put their tennies on. ๐Ÿคทโ€โ™‚๏ธ

What do you call athletic shoes? Tennies? Sneakers? Kicks? Trainers? Gym shoes? Some other weird thing? (via @dens)

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The United States of Guns

Like many of you, I read the news of a single person killing at least 18 people in Lewiston, Maine yesterday, which comes on the heels of many, many other mass shootings over the past four years. While these are outrageous and horrifying events, they aren’t surprising or shocking in any way in a country where more than 33,000 people die from gun violence each year.

America is a stuck in a Groundhog Day loop of gun violence. We’ll keep waking up, stuck in the same reality of oppression, carnage, and ruined lives until we can figure out how to effect meaningful change. I’ve collected some articles here about America’s dysfunctional relationship with guns, most of which I’ve shared before. Change is possible โ€” there are good reasons to control the ownership of guns and control has a high likelihood of success โ€” but how will our country find the political will to make it happen?

An armed society is not a free society:

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name โ€” that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly โ€” not make any sudden, unexpected moves โ€” and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

We’re sacrificing America’s children to “our great god Gun”:

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains โ€” “besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily โ€” sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Roger Ebert on the media’s coverage of mass shootings:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Jill Lepore on the United States of Guns:

There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane’s parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather’s barn.

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.

A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths:

The only guns that Japanese citizens can legally buy and use are shotguns and air rifles, and it’s not easy to do. The process is detailed in David Kopel’s landmark study on Japanese gun control, published in the 1993 Asia Pacific Law Review, still cited as current. (Kopel, no left-wing loony, is a member of the National Rifle Association and once wrote in National Review that looser gun control laws could have stopped Adolf Hitler.)

To get a gun in Japan, first, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once per month. You also must take and pass a shooting range class. Then, head over to a hospital for a mental test and drug test (Japan is unusual in that potential gun owners must affirmatively prove their mental fitness), which you’ll file with the police. Finally, pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups, and you will be the proud new owner of your shotgun or air rifle. Just don’t forget to provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun in your home, as well as the ammo, both of which must be locked and stored separately. And remember to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.

Australia’s gun laws stopped mass shootings and reduced homicides, study finds:

From 1979 to 1996, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths was rising at 2.1% per year. Since then, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths has been declining by 1.4%, with the researchers concluding there was no evidence of murderers moving to other methods, and that the same was true for suicide.

The average decline in total firearm deaths accelerated significantly, from a 3% decline annually before the reforms to a 5% decline afterwards, the study found.

In the 18 years to 1996, Australia experienced 13 fatal mass shootings in which 104 victims were killed and at least another 52 were wounded. There have been no fatal mass shootings since that time, with the study defining a mass shooting as having at least five victims.

From The Onion, ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens:

At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

But America is not Australia or Japan. Dan Hodges said on Twitter a few years ago:

In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.

This can’t be the last word on guns in America. We have to do better than this for our children and everyone else whose lives are torn apart by guns. But right now, we are failing them miserably, and Hodges’ words ring with the awful truth that all those lives and our diminished freedom & equality are somehow worth it to the United States as a society.


Is Rural America Even a Thing?

the models for American Gothic standing next to the Grant Wood painting

For the New Yorker, Daniel Immerwahr reviews a new book, Steven Conn’s The Lies of the Land: Seeing Rural America for What It Is โ€” and Isn’t (Bookshop.org), which makes the case that what we typically think of as rural America or “real America” is a mirage.

A piercing, unsentimental new book, “The Lies of the Land” (Chicago), by the historian Steven Conn, takes the long view. Wistful talk of “real America” aside, Conn, who teaches at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, argues that the rural United States is, in fact, highly artificial. Its inhabitants are as much creatures of state power and industrial capitalism as their city-dwelling counterparts. But we rarely acknowledge this, Conn writes, because many of us โ€” urban and rural, on the left and the right โ€” “don’t quite want it to be true.”

For one thing, the predominant rural population in what is now the United States was coercively removed and eliminated by the federal government:

Settlers styled themselves as pioneers who had won their land with their bare hands. This is how it went in “Little House on the Prairie,” with the frontier family racing ahead of the law to seize Indian property. (“Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve” would have been a more accurate title, the literary scholar Frances W. Kaye has archly suggested.) Yet in the end land ownership came, directly or indirectly, from the state. The Homestead Act of 1862, along with its successors, gridded up and gave away an area the size of Pakistan. And although homesteading sounds like a relic from the sepia-toned past, its most active period came, the historian Sara Gregg has pointed out, in the twentieth century. The final homesteader got his land in 1988.

1988! The very next paragraph:

One irony is that โ€” after Indigenous towns โ€” it’s the havens of the East Coast ‘elite, such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, which have the deepest roots. Most bastions of “real America” are, by contrast, relatively new. Wasilla, Alaska, where Sarah Palin served as mayor, really is a small town in a farming area. But most of its farms were created by a New Deal campaign to relocate struggling farmers from the Upper Midwest. (Hence Palin’s “you betcha” accent, similar to the Minnesota ones in the film “Fargo.”) Palin’s proud patch of “real America,” in other words, was courtesy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This is one of those pieces I could quote every other paragraph so I’m gonna stop there.


America Is at a Familiar Crossroads

the book cover for Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson

This is a great overview and review by Teri Kanefield of Heather Cox Richardson’s new book, Democracy Awakening.

She opens with: “America is at a crossroads.”

But crossroads aren’t new. We’ve been at them before.

She shows how this moment is part of an ongoing struggle between a small group of white people who think that America was founded on principles of white supremacy and should remain that way, and the rest of us.

Throughout US history, the white supremacists have seized power and implemented minority rule: secession, Jim Crow & anti-immigration laws. Then the majority pushes back: the Civil War & Reconstruction, The New Deal.

The current GOP is a backlash against Brown v Board of Education (the Supreme Court case that declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional.)

Richardson traces in detail how that backlash happened, and how today’s backlash echoes the language and attitudes of the Confederacy.

She shows Nixon and others tied taxes to “redistributing wealth” to “undeserving” people as a way to get lower income racists aboard an economic agenda that hurt them.

I really have to make time to read this book!


America Is Quickly Becoming More Nonreligious

The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research recently conducted a poll asking Americans about their religious beliefs and found that about 30% of American adults are non-religious (which they refer to as “the nones”, presumably after the book by Ryan Burge).

The decades-long rise of the nones โ€” a diverse, hard-to-summarize group โ€” is one of the most talked about phenomena in U.S. religion. They are reshaping America’s religious landscape as we know it.

In U.S. religion today, “the most important story without a shadow of a doubt is the unbelievable rise in the share of Americans who are nonreligious,” said Ryan Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University and author of “The Nones,” a book on the phenomenon.

The nones account for a large portion of Americans, as shown by the 30% of U.S. adults who claim no religious affiliation in a survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Other major surveys say the nones have been steadily increasing for as long as three decades.

So who are they?

They’re the atheists, the agnostics, the “nothing in particular.” They’re the “spiritual but not religious,” and those who are neither or both. They span class, gender, age, race and ethnicity.

While the nones’ vast diversity splinters them into myriad subgroups, most of them have this in common:

They. Really. Don’t. Like. Organized. Religion.

But a dislike of organized religion among the nonreligious doesn’t necessarily translate into atheism or agnosticism: 43% of “the nones” say they believe in God.


The Origins of the Socialist Slur

The Atlantic has an adapted excerpt from Heather Cox Richardson’s new book, Democracy Awakening: The Origins of the Socialist Slur. It begins:

For years after World War II, the “liberal consensus” โ€” the New Deal idea that the federal government had a role to play in regulating business, providing a basic social safety net, and promoting infrastructure โ€” was a true consensus. It was so widely popular that in 1950, the critic Lionel Trilling wrote of the United States that “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.”

But the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional tied the federal government to ensuring not just economic equality, but also civil rights. Opponents of the liberal consensus argued that the newly active federal government was misusing tax dollars taken from hardworking white men to promote civil rights for “undeserving” Black people. The troops President Dwight Eisenhower sent to Little Rock Central High School in 1957, for example, didn’t come cheap. The government’s defense of civil rights redistributed wealth, they said, and so was virtually socialism.


Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson

the book cover for Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson, author of the excellent Letters from an American newsletter, has a new book out today about the health of American democracy: Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America. From Virginia Heffernan’s review of the book in the Washington Post:

She has an intriguing origin point for today’s afflictions: the New Deal. The first third of the book, which hurtles toward Donald Trump’s election, is as bingeable as anything on Netflix. “Democracy Awakening” starts in the 1930s, when Americans who’d been wiped out in the 1929 stock market crash were not about to let the rich demolish the economy again. New Deal programs designed to benefit ordinary people and prevent future crises were so popular that by 1960 candidates of both parties were advised to simply “nail together” coalitions and promise them federal funding. From 1946 to 1964, the liberal consensus โ€” with its commitments to equality, the separation of church and state, and the freedoms of speech, press and religion โ€” held sway.

But Republican businessmen, who had caused the crash, despised the consensus. Richardson’s account of how right-wingers appropriated the word “socialism” from the unrelated international movement is astute. When invoked to malign all government investment, “socialism” served to recruit segregationist Democrats, who could be convinced that the word meant Black people would take their money, and Western Democrats, who resented government protections on land and water. This new Republican Party created an ideology that coalesced around White Christianity and free markets.

Heffernan calls this first part of Richardson’s book “the most lucid just-so story for Trump’s rise I’ve ever heard”. I’m in the midst of two other books right now (The Vaster Wilds & The Mountain in the Sea) but I might have to make room for a third.


The 2023 Fall Foliage Prediction Map

a map of the United States that shows where the leaves are going to start changing colors and when

Well, it is that time of year again when the leaves in the northern hemisphere change colors. As usual, SmokyMountains.com has published their best guess as to when the leaves will be changing in various parts of the country. At the end of September and beginning of October here in Vermont, it’ll start looking like this.


All of the 8,291 License Plates in America

a mosaic of hundreds of sample US license plates

Have you noticed there are a lot of different license plates you can choose for your car these days? So did Jon Keegan; he scraped the DMV websites of all 50 states and DC and came up with over 8,200 different plate combinations you might see out on the road.

By my count, there are currently 8,291 different vehicle license plates offered by the 50 states and the District of Columbia. States now offer a vast menu of personalized plate options for a dizzying array of organizations, professions, sports teams, causes and other groups.

My count was conducted over June and July 2023, so this should be considered a snapshot, as I’m sure some plates have changed already.

Fun fact: finishers of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race are eligible to get a special “Iditarod Finisher” plate for their car.

Less fun fact, per Keegan:

Yes, license plates are still made by cheap prison labor in most states. 80% of all license plates issued in the U.S. today were made by state prisoners, with only 12 states opting out of the practice. According to a 2022 ACLU report on prison labor in the U.S., many states offer no pay at all to prisoners, while the average hourly wage across the country was between 13 and 52 cents per hour.

Here in Vermont, the use of prison labor for manufacturing things like license plates resulted in the image of a pig hidden in a cow’s spots appearing on an official crest emblazoned on state police cars back in 2012.


Who Gets to Enter the Arena and Who Gets to Leave

the Colosseum in Rome

Ryan Broderick on this year’s Burning Man shitshow as a metaphor for the climate crisis, America’s fraying social fabric, or our crumbling national infrastructure (pick two all three):

If you want to see what the next 25 years are going to be like, Burning Man is it. Millionaires and managers ignoring huge structural problems until it starts to impact their libertarian freak fests and then escaping to somewhere safe when they get the chance. Well, until there aren’t any safe places to escape to, I guess…


Focus on the Stakes, Not the Odds

Now that the 2024 election campaigns have ramped up in earnest (absurdly & obscenely more than a year before the actual election), a good thing to keep in mind is NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen’s guidance for how journalists should cover the election:1

“Not the odds, but the stakes.”

That’s my shorthand for the organizing principle we most need from journalists covering the 2024 election. Not who has what chances of winning, but the consequences for our democracy. Not the odds, but the stakes.

Rosen first articulated this principle more than a decade ago and ever since reading about it a few years ago, I’ve all but stopped reading and linking to political horse race coverage. Who scored more “points” in the latest debate? Which candidate seems the most Presidential? Will his mugshot bolster his campaign? Come on, this isn’t the goddamned Oscars red carpet. Tell us what the candidates’ plans are and how they will affect how Americans live their lives. What experience do they have in governance? Or if not governance, in leadership? What do they believe, what actions have they taken in the past and what consequences have those actions had on actual people? What motivates them…power, money, fame, service? Many many people will not give a shit about any of this, but if we want to retain a functioning democracy with a press that’s not primarily about entertainment, voters need to know what they are getting into.

  1. And I would argue, how they should cover many other important issues. So much of “tech” news reads like horse race coverage instead of focusing what kind of world would result if Company A or Technology B were to succeed. Journalists and outlets that cover the stakes get my attention.


Trump’s Prosecutions Are About Repairing Our Social Norms

From Dell Cameron and Andrew Couts in Wired, Trump’s Prosecution Is America’s Last Hope:

The Trump administration’s ever-broadening palette of ethics violations caused Americans to realize, perhaps for the first time on a national scale, that truly there are few if any laws against some of the most basic forms of corruption; that, instead, conventions and norms โ€” an honor system, essentially โ€” is all that stand between presidents and the gross abuse of their power.

This is a good, short piece, riffing off of the 2018 book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die. The Republicans, Trump, the Supreme Court, billionaires, corporations, and corporate shareholders are using America’s legal system to substantially weaken our democracy. It’s not a new thing for the powerful to place themselves above the law, but the pace and openness with which it’s happening right now is alarming.


The Alaskan 4th of July Car Launch

On July 4, 2023, a couple thousand people gathered in Alaska to watch old junker cars get launched off of a 300-foot cliff and just get obliterated on impact. (The launching starts at the 8-minute mark.) It’s entertaining to watch in a Jackass sort of way, but the whole thing is a metaphor for a particular facet of America: loud, dumb, fun, and wasteful.


“Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule”

Great, long piece from Ronan Farrow for the New Yorker on Elon Musk’s considerable influence over the US government. This doesn’t seem good:

There is little precedent for a civilian’s becoming the arbiter of a war between nations in such a granular way, or for the degree of dependency that the U.S. now has on Musk in a variety of fields, from the future of energy and transportation to the exploration of space. SpaceX is currently the sole means by which nasa transports crew from U.S. soil into space, a situation that will persist for at least another year. The government’s plan to move the auto industry toward electric cars requires increasing access to charging stations along America’s highways. But this rests on the actions of another Musk enterprise, Tesla. The automaker has seeded so much of the country with its proprietary charging stations that the Biden Administration relaxed an early push for a universal charging standard disliked by Musk. His stations are eligible for billions of dollars in subsidies, so long as Tesla makes them compatible with the other charging standard.

In the past twenty years, against a backdrop of crumbling infrastructure and declining trust in institutions, Musk has sought out business opportunities in crucial areas where, after decades of privatization, the state has receded. The government is now reliant on him, but struggles to respond to his risk-taking, brinkmanship, and caprice. Current and former officials from NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration told me that Musk’s influence had become inescapable in their work, and several of them said that they now treat him like a sort of unelected official. One Pentagon spokesman said that he was keeping Musk apprised of my inquiries about his role in Ukraine and would grant an interview with an official about the matter only with Musk’s permission. “We’ll talk to you if Elon wants us to,” he told me.


Meteorologist Is Naming Heatwaves After Big Polluting Oil Companies

map of extreme temperatures in Portland, Oregon up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit

Right now, the Portland, OR area is suffering through a heat wave, with high temperatures some 20-25ยฐF above normal. Earlier this year, meteorologist Guy Walton began naming North American heatwaves after oil companies:

Obviously, I’m naming heatwaves to highlight this worsening climate problem and perhaps save lives by getting the public to focus on this weather threat. This year I’m naming major heatwaves after oil companies to shame them in the process and to identify culprits that are exacerbating these deadly systems.

Portland’s hot spell, the fourth heatwave of the summer, is named Heatwave Citgo…having been preceded by Heatwave Amoco, Heatwave BP, and Heatwave Chevron. Next up on the list:

5. Conoco (Phillips)
6. Dana
7. Exxon
8. Frontera
9. Gazprom
10. Hess
11. Koch

And several more as needed. Here’s Walton’s criteria for choosing what constitutes a nameable heatwave (mirroring the scale for hurricanes):

CAT 3: A major level heatwave severe enough such that a few fatalities are reported. A city in a CAT 3 heat wave would be under a heat emergency for a few days. Many heat records would be either tied or broken.

A CAT3 or higher heatwave would be considered to be a major heatwave and would get a fossil fuel corporation name.

The highest category of heatwave is CAT5:

CAT 5. Catastrophic heat wave. Many all-time temperature records would be shattered with thousands of deaths reported. Remember the European heat wave of 2003 in which there were well in excess of 10,000 fatalities? This event would certainly fit my CAT 5 category.

The media should actually start using these more widely. (via @dens)


“Climate Change Is Death by a Thousand Cuts”

Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M, says that the most likely way people will be impacted by the climate crisis won’t be with some big disaster but with a bunch of small changes that add up to something unmanageable.

Let me give you an example of a tiny impact that I just heard about. My wife told me about a new group of members at her gym: active 70-ish-year-olds who used to go on walks around their neighborhood. Due to the unbearable heat in Texas, though, they joined a gym and now walk indoors on treadmills. This story embodies several aspects of climate impacts that everyone should understand.

First, this is an example of non-linear climate impacts. Although temperatures have been rising gradually over the last century, it was only recently that they crossed a critical threshold that made outdoor walks literally unbearable for these people.

Second, this is what adaptation to climate change looks like. Contrary to how it is typically portrayed by climate dismissives, adaptation is not free. These people are paying $50 per month for the gym membership that is an inferior replacement for something they used to get for free: an environment cool enough to walk in.

So these people are worse off financially and not getting as good of an experience as they used to. And they’re the lucky ones โ€” they have the opportunity and resources to do this.

There’s also the non-monetary costs of adaptation. When it’s too hot to go outside during the day, you are a prisoner of air conditioning instead of going outside and getting fresh air and exercise. We’ve lost something valuable but difficult to quantify.

Some great points here. Reading it made me think of the gun problem here in the US. The focus is often on the immediate damage that guns do (mass shootings, suicides) but there are hundreds of other ways, large and small, in which guns make Americans’ lives worse. For many people, the number of guns in this country and the hard-line views held by those who own them add up to a general vibe of feeling unsafe and under threat. For me, it definitely seems like “we’ve lost something valuable but difficult to quantify” by allowing so many guns to exist in our communities.


Car Bloat: “Huge Cars Are Terrible for Society”

Compare Carsized

David Zipper, who researches and writes about mobility and transportation, recently did a big thread on Mastodon (and Bluesky) about car bloat: the way in which cars and trucks have gotten much bigger and heavier in the US over the past few decades and how it’s bad for society. The whole thread is worth a read…here are a couple of Zipper’s points:

Tall vehicles have bigger blind spots and are more likely to strike a person’s torso or head. Heavier vehicles exert more force crashing into a person, bicycle, or smaller car. They also have longer braking distances.

Heavier cars exert more pressure on tires, eroding them faster. Tire particles are absorbed into water, where they damage ecosystems. They also float through the air, harming human health when ingested.

For further reading, Zipper links to a number of pieces he’s written in recent months: The Blatant Greenwashing of SUVs, EVs Are Sending Toxic Tire Particles Into the Water, Soil, and Air, Carry That Weight, and The Car Safety Feature That Kills the Other Guy. Zipper’s solution to these problems is government action: for example, taxing vehicles by weight, testing vehicles for pedestrian and cyclist safety, or requiring drivers have commercial driver’s licenses for larger vehicles.

The image above is from Carsized and compares a 2018 Dodge Ram to a 2005 VW Jetta.


Five Crises Republicans Made Up to Distract & Harm Americans

In a June piece for The Guardian and the video above from just a few days ago, Robert Reich outlines five crises โ€” including wokeness, the trans panic, and critical race theory โ€” that Republicans have manufactured in order to deflect from their true agenda.

Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin’s “day one” executive order banned the teaching of critical race theory. DeSantis and Greg Abbott, the Texas governor, have also banned it from schools.

Here again, though, there’s no evidence of a public threat. CRT simply teaches America’s history of racism, which students need to understand to be informed citizens.

Banning it is a scare tactic to appeal to a largely white, culturally conservative voter base.

However, I would argue that Reich needed to go a bit further. While the crises are inventions, their consequences go beyond mere distraction and into the territory of active harm, particularly of queer and trans people, Black people, and people of color. That’s why I modified the title from his original.


Why US Malls Are Dying (And European Malls Aren’t)

From Adam Kovacs’ YouTube channel Adam Something comes this brisk 10-minute video essay on why European malls are doing better than their American progenitors. I thought his third point, about poor urban planning, was particularly interesting: malls tend to fail in America because they are not integrated into the fabric of towns and cities (because very little is integrated into the fabric of cities and towns in many places these days).

Malls, hell, all commerce has to be an organic part of towns and cities. People should be able to get to them by means other than a car, and conveniently. Such integrated commercial spaces are far more resilient. If your commercial spaces aren’t resilient โ€” if you just plop a big box outside the town โ€” don’t be surprised when it goes bust in a few years. And then it’s bulldozed for the next thing to be put up for it to go bust the same way and then get bulldozed and then the next thing and the next and the next so on and so forth.


Donald Trump Indicted for Conspiring to Defraud the United States

Yesterday, a Washington DC grand jury indicted Donald Trump for “for conspiring to defraud the United States, conspiring to disenfranchise voters, and conspiring and attempting to obstruct an official proceeding”, aka trying to steal the 2020 presidential election. Heather Cox Richardson lays it out in plain English:

The Trump team used lies about the election to justify organizing fraudulent slates of electors in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Allegedly with the help of Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, they attempted to have the legitimate electors that accurately reflected the voters’ choice of Biden replaced with fraudulent ones that claimed Trump had won in their states, first by convincing state legislators they had the power to make the switch, and then by convincing Vice President Mike Pence he could choose the Trump electors.

When Pence would not fraudulently alter the election results, Trump whipped up the crowd he had gathered in Washington, D.C., against Pence and then, according to the indictment, “attempted to exploit the violence and chaos at the Capitol” to overturn the election results. “As violence ensued,” the indictment reads, Trump and his co-conspirators “explained the disruption by redoubling efforts to levy false claims of election fraud and convince Members of Congress to further delay the certification based on those claims.” On the evening of January 6, 2021, the indictment alleges, Trump and Co-Conspirator 1 called seven senators and one representative and asked them to delay the certification of Biden’s election.

Here also is the full 45-page indictment, annotated by the NY Times (gift link). The gist of the indictment is, yes, the attempts that we all saw Trump making in broad daylight to stay in power despite his clear election loss were real, serious, and harmful.

One important aspect of the indictment that neither of them picked up on was pointed out by Adam Serwer on Bluesky:

The indictment makes clear that Donald Trump and his accomplices planned to seize power by force and then maintain that power through the mass murder of American citizens by their own military.

That sounds pretty serious โ€” here’s what the indictment says:

On the afternoon of January 3, Co-Conspirator 4 spoke with a Deputy White House Counsel. The previous month, the Deputy White House Counsel had informed the Defendant that “there is no world, there is no option in which you do not leave the White House [o]n January 20th.” Now, the same Deputy White House Counsel tried to dissuade Co-Conspirator 4 from assuming the role of Acting Attorney General. The Deputy White House Counsel reiterated to Co-Conspirator 4 that there had not been outcome-determinative fraud in the election and that if the Defendant remained in office nonetheless, there would be “riots in every major city in the United States.” Co-Conspirator 4 responded, “Well, [Deputy White House Counsel], that’s why there’s an Insurrection Act.”

And this:

Also on January 4, when Co-Conspirator 2 acknowledged to the Defendant’s Senior Advisor that no court would support his proposal, the Senior Advisor told Co-Conspirator 2, “[Y]ou’re going to cause riots in the streets.” Co-Conspirator 2 responded that there had previously been points in the nation’s history where violence was necessary to protect the republic. After that conversation, the Senior Advisor notified the Defendant that Co-Conspirator 2 had conceded that his plan was not going to work.

HuffPost explains who Co-Conspirator 4 is (top Trump DOJ official Jeffrey Clark) and what the Insurrection Act is all about. Co-Conspirator 2 is John Eastman, one of Trump’s lawyers.

Trump and his team were going to unlawfully (and immorally, I would argue) seize power and quell protests with military force by claiming there was a rebellion against the government or that public safety was at stake. Whether the military would have gone along with it (if Pence had chosen to play his part) is unknown, but it’s pretty incredible how close we came to the United States very quickly devolving into a dictatorship. This fucking traitor must be held accountable for his crimes and must not ever be allowed anywhere near any public office in the United States ever again.

Update: Updated the post to add a second passage from the indictment about the use of state violence to quell protest.


Robert Reich’s UC Berkeley Class on Wealth & Poverty

For the past 13 years, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has taught a class called Wealth & Poverty at UC Berkeley. He retired from teaching this year and has uploaded his lectures from the course to YouTube.

Welcome to my final UC Berkeley course on Wealth and Poverty. Drawing on my 40+ years in politics, including my time as secretary of labor, I offer a deeper look at why inequalities of income and wealth have widened significantly since the late 1970s in the United States, and why this poses dangerous risks to our society.

This course also offers insights into the political and public-policy debates that have arisen in light of this inequality, as well as possible means of reversing it.

Here’s the first lecture, What’s Happened to Income & Wealth:

Reich has also published an abbreviated syllabus for each of the classes; links can be found in his course introduction (here’s class #1).


The Prescience of Octavia Butler

I just finished reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (so good!) and while doing a little customary post-read research on it, I discovered that Butler wrote a sequel in 1998 called Parable of the Talents and, uh… (from Wikipedia):

The novel is set against the backdrop of a dystopian United States that has come under the grip of a Christian fundamentalist denomination called “Christian America” led by President Andrew Steele Jarret. Seeking to restore American power and prestige, and using the slogan “Make America Great Again”, Jarret embarks on a crusade to cleanse America of non-Christian faiths. Slavery has resurfaced with advanced “shock collars” being used to control slaves. Virtual reality headsets known as “Dreamasks” are also popular since they enable wearers to escape their harsh reality.

Well, our present reality certainly checks a remarkable number of those boxes, including an absolute bullseye on “Make America Great Again”.