Thursday, October 27, 2011

Think Different

Sometimes I wonder why my thinking and writing always rambles so, and often tries to connect things that probably don't belong together. It's probably a symptom of undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder an my extremely undisciplined character. I like blogs because they don't matter very much. I can't feel too bad about rambling on and on here when with a click of the mouse or tap of a finger the post can disappear for the reader.

While I am writing this post and the previous post because some friends were talking about ideas and because I was invited in on the conversation online, the fact of the matter is I doubt my friends will read any of this.

The discussion focuses on a particular neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and so what they're interested in are specific responses. Meanwhile my thinking veers off to bigger picture concerns. And in my last post I mentioned other friends who don't live in the same neighborhood this conversation is about. Everyone involved in these distinct conversations knows one another, but I'm obscuring their names as posting on the blog is public.

René Dubos is an author of the popular Baby Boomer maxim:
Think globally, act locally.
Part of the reason for going off onto the subject of Occupy! is to think globally. From what I've been told the discussion about a neighborhood me is really about trying to respond to the very hard economic circumstances that are especially acute among young adults living there. Because nobody involved in these discussions is flush with money the attention turns to alternative economic schemes. Globally, at least so far as Occupy! is global, one of the messages of the movement is the current economic arrangements aren't working out so good.

Here are two links that probably don't belong together, and which are far afield from the neighborhood discussion, but about Occupy Wall Street: First Matt Taibbi Wall Street Isn't Winning – It's Cheating. And second Slavoj Žižek Nobody has to be vile. Taibbi nails the popular sentiment in the piece. Loads and loads of people are feed up with the cheating. Žižek's piece where he talks about "liberal communists" rubs more people the wrong way, even those down with the Occupy! movements.

Žižek reproduces Olivier Malnuit 's he liberal communist’s ten commandments. The slogan of Occupy! is "We are the 99%." "Liberal communists" are probably in the ranks of the 1% yet still enjoy broad support. Žižek singles out George Soros and Bill Gates as perfect exemplars of liberal communist. It would be easy to find many who'll praise their good works. Žižek will have none of that approbation. I'm not terribly consistent so am inclined to support good works, and less inclined to single Soros and Gates out as enemies. But I appreciate his caution about their views.

In my last post I suggested that bubbling up in conversations with my friends is a realization that we've not so much facing problems to be solved as faced with a predicament we somehow need to respond to.

I'm bemused in conversations that responses to me would seem to imply that my interlocutors think me a Marxist. I'm far too lazy to be a Marxist, or even an acknowledged leftist. My friends probably know that and are just arguing from a kind of template. Noam Chomsky is a leftist many Americans love to hate, of course many other Americans love him. Love him or hate him it's difficult not to pause with his observation:
Systemic risk in the financial system can be remedied by the taxpayer, but no one will come to the rescue if the environment is destroyed. That it must be destroyed is close to an institutional imperative. Business leaders who are conducting propaganda campaigns to convince the population that anthropogenic global warming is a liberal hoax understand full well how grave is the threat, but they must maximize short-term profit and market share. If they don’t, someone else will.
We're heading into an off-year election in early November. I hard watch TV or listen to the radio, but I feel beseiged by elections ads by Clean Coal urging citizens to resit "Obama's EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)." The ads want to protect antiquated electric power plants from necessary upgrades as well as to keep the depletion of Marcellus Shale gas fracking operations unfettered.

Take a musical interlude and watch John Prine perform Paradise if you care too.

I'm not really sure, but I suspect that my reaction to these ads is not so different from many. I know I'm complicit in exactly conundrum business leaders face: "If I don't someone else will." I'm sure anthropogenic global warming is no hoax and the consequences of it boggle my mind.

The trouble with Bill Gates and George Soros isn't them so much as their hubris that solutions to big problems are right around the corner. I'm also filled with righteous indignation about the cheating by financial titans, but I'm much less convinced by the prevalent consensus Taibbi suggests that everything would be alright without all the cheating.

Thinking about a particular neighborhood it's patently obvious that the solutions to big global problems are going to be found. Instead local responses can make things a little better rather than less. But thinking globally is necessary to figure out what sorts of responses are desirable and possible. And local actions can be and ought to be actively engaged with others acting locally in their own communities.

As usual I veered off with a bunch of useless words. Starting out, before setting anything down, I thought to juxtapose two links. One to a wiki page by Phil Jones on NetoCracy. Thinking about theories of networks is a sort of global thinking that's important and relevant. But I rather quickly find my thinking going around in circles about the subject, so it's not surprising not to get around to it this time. The other link is to the Ghana Think Tank. That one seems worth a few words.

The Ghana Think Tank may be a bit artsy, but it's not a joke. One reason I encourage my friends to try to make friends with Africans online and to pay attention to news happening in Africa is that I think there are ways people in the West can be of service to them. But the other side of collaborations is that African people are coming up with all sorts of innovative responses to living in these interesting times and there's so much to learn and copy from them. The Ghana Think Tank isn't limited to Ghana but rather is a world-wide network of think tanks.

It probably busts a hole in my harping about the distinction between problems and predicaments, but the way the Ghana Think Tank solicits Western problems for the think tanks to address is quite genius.

The participants that I know of engaged in the discussion about neighborhood responses are Boomers and GenXers. But central to the discussion is the condition of the GenY folks in the neighborhood. I notice that in responding to a question about accessibly and reading that the Think Tank of Incarcerated Boys weighed in. The conversation my friends are having would certainly be enhanced by finding out what the GenY neighbors think. Of course one way to go about it is to ask them. The Ghana Think Tank provides a model for soliciting concerns of a particular group--in this case affluent Westerners. But perhaps the better fit is to take the model of networks of think tanks as an example for collaboration. I'm not sure how to go about convincing groups to start think tanks. The conversation between my friends seems a spontaneous formation of a think tank--not that they know it yet.

I Know of a perfect spot to set up something like the Ghana Think Tank's custom trailer. I would suggest a duct taped hexayurt. I don't think it would be too difficult to connect with hexayurt enthusiasts to get one made. It would be nice to have as a way to engage with other neighborhood think tanks around the city. I'm sure there are discussions going on in every neighborhood, probably nobody's calling themselves a thinktank yet. But I suspect there's a good pattern involved in naming these discussion groups as such.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Community Thinking

I really haven't gotten the hang of Google+ Mostly the way I've been using it so far is to send links to individual people, an attempt to share links in a fairly innocuousness way. So there's hardly anything in my public stream. However the other day I reblogged a link from Howard Rheingold to spacebank. It was Howard Rheingold's tag that caught my attention:
Don't hate banks, become the bank.
A friend responded saying that he'd been talking with friends about his neighborhood community and the link was barking up the same tree.

He gave me just enough encouragement for me to try to put together a few thoughts and a few links. Of course I'm so spacey that's easier said than done!

I was having dinner with another group of friends the other day and the subject of Occupy Wall Street came up. I was very surprised how negative my three friends were. One of them was down on it because she thought it was turning off--scaring--somewhat liberal professionals like her brother. As chance would have it, I had an opportunity to spend some time with her brother planting spring bulbs in his mother's garden yesterday. I was curious about what he thought and got him talking about it. One of the reasons I was so interested to hear his views is there's about ten years difference between us. I'm firmly in the Baby Boomer generation, and he's in Gen X. While Occupy! is a multi-generation movement, Gen Y seems to be getting most of the credit or blame for it. The names for generations are a bit fishy, indeed the whole construct of generations seems suspect, but painting with a broad brush there's something to it.

My fellow Baby-Boomer discomfort over Occupy Wall Street seems more her own than what her brother thinks, although there's discomfort all around. In any case the issues of Social Security and Medicare are beginning to have great salience for us Boomers. Most of the plans to "reform" Social Security and Medicare are premised on a generational divide and conquer pretext: Boomers will get theirs and screw the rest. But most Boomers aren't so far removed from Gen X to think we don't care about them. And having lived through so many years, it's hard to escape that Gen X has been dealt a bad hand. Generation X Doesn’t Want to Hear It is an eloquent lament and has a epic comment thread. So if Boomers and Gen X can find common cause, the best hope for divide and conquer is to gang up on Gen Y. Alas, this seems all too prevalent and gets my knickers in a twist. Perhaps the more obvious coalition is between Gen X and Gen Y against us Boomers, and that's frightening.

I scared myself in my conversation with friends because I swore like a drunken sailor. One of the messages of Occupy! is that the economic system which only benefits the 1% isn't working out so well for the rest of the 99%. That seems glaringly obvious to me, and the tenor of the conversation seemed to be along the lines that protesting isn't going to do a damn thing. So I found myself saying the F-word or variations about every other word in polite company. I know that's no way to win hearts and minds! I managed not to say much at all to my friend's brother and listened. Strange that he found me convincing in our conversation about Occupy Wall Street!

Early in September I had been ranting to one of the other friends at dinner about the Keystone xl Pipeline protests. What had me wigged out that evening was the largest civil disobedience action in front of the White House since the Vietnam War protests had garnered practically no press. My friend hadn't heard about it and quipped that she was terribly out of touch with the news. But I've know my friend since college and knew that she buys both the New York Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and reads them every day. That seemed a winning point to make about the discouraging the absence of coverage. My friend also had not heard about the Alberta Tar Sands. I told her that if she did nothing else to do a Google Image search for Alberta Tar Sands.

Anyhow at the more recent dinner, between my profanity strewn ranting, my friend pointed out that she had done some research about oil sands. Another friend interjected that nothing is gonna make a big difference in our lifetimes. But in the context of other stuff we had been talking about at dinner, especially concerning some children he's close to, I think this line of argument seemed weak even to him.

Vinay Gupta got some pushback for his post Templars of Earth but there was something of the message of the Templars of Earth oath which came up in our dinner conversation when my friend mentioned the tar sands. Here's the oath:
I understand and accept fully that the human race is harming the natural world by driving species to extinction, releasing long-lived pollutants, changing the climate and poisoning nature.

I understand and accept fully that the human race makes many suffer horribly and die in war, famine, injustice, poverty and oppression, and that we are not choosing to provide a good life for all of humanity.

I understand and fully accept that my own efforts appear unequal to the task of changing these facts.

I swear by the bones of the earth, the roots of the mountains to always treat those who understand and accept fully these Three Truths with dignity and respect, myself included.
Out of habit, I'm tempted to add the coda: We're fucked. The problem with that is profanity is disrespectful. I've got to mind my words better.

John Micheal Greer makes a very useful distinction between Problems and Predicaments. It seems what happened in our dinner conversation with all the contentiousness about Occupy! was thinking in terms of problems, but once the subject of oil sands was broached we made a turn towards predicaments. Now most of my friends are proudly not slackers like me. They don't like to think about predicaments. They go to work to solve problems and do the best they can. It seems to feel as if that should be enough. A common taunt directed at the Occupiers is: Get a Job! Still, sometimes most of us grok there's a gap; Here's Greer:
The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses. Those responses may succeed, they may fail, or they may fall somewhere in between, but none of them “solves” the predicament, in the sense that none of them makes it go away.

My friend talking with his friends about their community are probably talking in some sort of hybrid mode between problems and predicaments. They all know it's a problem that so many young people not only can't find work, but have little chance to. It's a problem that so many dwellings in the neighborhood are abandoned and decrepit. There's even a sense there's a solution along the lines of putting the unemployed to work on the dilapidated structures. Alas, the devil is in the details. And it's when we begin tumbling around in those damned details that solutions begin to seem remote and alternative responses more promising. Indeed as community members the heart of the discussion isn't so much how to solve problems, but how to respond constructively in these dire circumstances we're facing.

Among the damned details--ha and I said I'd watch my mouth--is money. Besides the point, the Flying Lizard's rendition of Money is compelling. Yeah, money is such a strange topic. Bazungu Bucks was a lame attempt to create a special purpose alternative currency. While the experiment didn't work in any way, shape or form, it did pique my interests about alternative currencies. I do think that alternative currencies can be appropriate in many situations. As strange as alternative currencies may seem, good old money is seeming strange these days too.

Julian Assange says Wikileaks is starved for cash. Here's a link to a New York Times article about that. The article of course is subject to the Times's wimpy paywall. You can't give money to Wikileaks without having the banks do it for you and the banks refuse. Back with the legislative arguments about banking reform, Dick Durbin in a fit of candor said: Frankly, the banks own the place. Meaning the government is hamstrung to regulate them, but it rather holds for the Wikileaks financial woes too. People want to give Wikileaks money, but the banks tell them they may not. It's a bit obscure, and perhaps far afield, but Louisiana has made it essentially illegal to sell secondhand items in the state using cash. The law requires sellers accept payment only through banks. Old assumptions about legal tender are falling by the way. Increasingly in order to pay for some good or service or to give money away, we're being told that first we must ask a bank: "Mother may I?" Like they own the place!

Well, the sorts of responses my friends are imagining for their community are the sorts of things one can be reasonably sure that banks will say "No!" to. That negative answer stops thinking in terms of solving problems dead, but has the advantage of opening up a range of responses if instead we're trying to respond to a predicament.

I have more to say but I've blathered on too long as it is, so I'll put it to rest now and will write some more tomorrow or next.