The delicate dance of a writer

This is the delicate dance you have to dance as a writer: at the core of it, you’re toying with people’s emotions. You have to walk a line between respectful and irreverent, between suspenseful and just plain cruel. For a writer, it’s almost impossible to hold characters sacred and get anything done. They might get put through the ringer, get killed off, endure terrible tragedy, or get written out entirely. You might undo that all later. (If you’re a comics writer, someone else is going to if you don’t.)

It’s a hazardous, stressful line to walk, and every one of us will plunge right off it at some point. We’ll make a choice we won’t know is ill-advised or careless until someone points it out, whether it’s a watchful editor or a wrathful fan.

–Dan Swensen, Sacred Characters and Necessary Desecrations

Ah, science. Do you never fail to disappoint?

So what’s the bottom line?  Could it be another society sending a signal our way?  Of course, that’s possible.  However, there are many other plausible explanations for this claimed transmission – including terrestrial interference.  Without a confirmation of this signal, we can only say that it’s “interesting.”

–Seth Shostak, A SETI Signal?

If you’re a nerd who’s even vaguely interested in such things, the breathless coverage in various media outlets of the radio signal discovered by Russian astronomers will surely give you heart palpitations. There is a real chance that it’s a broadcast from an intelligent species billions of light years away. (Squee!) There’s even the possibility that the nature of the signal might suggest a civilization that is (or was, I guess, at the time of broadcast) more technologically advanced than ours. (Skuh-weeeeee!) Leave it to the astronomer community to dash our hopes with a healthy dose of rational skepticism. As Shostak explains, the likelihood of this signal being definitively alien in origin (that is, deliberately sent out by another sentient species) is, if I may say, astronomically small.

The big deal, as I understand it, is that if—IF—the radio signal is definitively determined to be artificial, then that means the alien civilization that sent it either a.) has the power to broadcast it everywhere in the universe or b.) has targeted us specifically. If (a) is true, the extraterrestrials’ tech level is to humanity’s as a space shuttle is to a hansom cab; if (b) is true, then they’re looking right at us.

Given the possibilities, it’s not a net negative if that radio signal turns out to be a false positive–and Shostak’s scientific puncturing of the hype balloon may be more reassuring than disappointing.

Racializing eco-catastrophe

Through it all Zimring convincingly argues that the mainstream American imagination contains two great anxieties: an accelerating knowledge that the systems that give us things like Hondas, iPhones, and burgers are environmentally disastrous; and a frantically repressed sense that this catastrophe falls hardest on people of color.

–Ryan Boyd, “Book Review: Clean and White by Carl A. Zimring”

“Gawker delenda est.”

But observers seem eager to push the wrong message about that brokenness. The scary part of the story isn’t that the occasional vengeful billionaire might break the system and overwhelm even a well-funded target with money.  Such people exist, but getting sued by them is like getting hit by lightning. No, for most of us the scary part of the story is that our legal system is generally receptive to people abusing it to suppress speech. Money helps do that, but it’s not necessary to do it. A hand-to-mouth lunatic with a dishonest contingency lawyer can ruin you and suppress your speech nearly as easily as a billionaire. Will you prevail against a malicious and frivolous defamation suit? Perhaps sooner if you’re lucky enough to be in a state with a good anti-SLAPP statute. Or perhaps years later. Will you be one of the lucky handful who get pro bono help? Or will you be like almost everyone else, who has to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect your right to speak, or else abandon your right to speak because you can’t afford to defend it?

–Ken White, Gawker, Money, Speech, and Justice

“Let’s just say when I started using… I was your height.”

You need to know that Sam plays a gnome bard ineptly attepting to score what may or may not be an illicit substance (he doesn’t know) to really appreciate this, but the total cast crackup is worth commemorating in its own right.

Via The Helvetica Is Crisp As Fuck.

Environmental imaginations: providential, utilitarian, ecologial

The important category in After Nature is one Purdy borrows from Lawrence Buell: “environmental imagination.” The environmental imagination is the “everyday metaphysics” (7), all the beliefs and essential metaphors with which any people perceive, account for, and in turn, shape their natural environment. Historically, Purdy argues, Americans have moved through three modes of imagining their environment. First was the “providential.” The New World was a chaotic waste which God intended its Old World immigrants to shape into a garden. This way of thinking predominated through the end of the nineteenth century, when industrialism and a growing population presented social and environmental problems of vastly greater scale. An emerging “utilitarian imagination” largely replaced the providential. According to the utilitarian perspective, natural resources could be managed by the procedures of rational science. This was part of Progressives’ re-thinking of the American project, “a technocratic approach to social and economic life that turned political questions into scientific ones” (179).

After World War II, and especially beginning in the 1960s, the “ecological imagination” began to take hold, aided by the rise of the holistic science of ecology, the recognition of an interconnected web of life, and a persistent discontentedness with the failures of modernity, which included the plain facts of environmental deterioration. This third mode proved a watershed. The early seventies saw a brief consensus during which laws were passed to clean up the air and water. Despite some successes, however, bad news about the environment continued to mount. The so-called culture wars that followed can be explained as a conflict between “constituencies of the new ecological laws and those that remained invested in earlier American approaches to the natural world” (213). This is a way to organize thinking about the last forty years of American history that recognizes the importance of an environmental turn. Although Purdy is not so explicit, a reader can readily identify in those “constituencies” still devoted to the providential and utilitarian modes of imagination the Christian fundamentalist and neo-liberal branches of the American right.

–Robert Greene II,  A Case for the Artifice of Politics: Jedediah Purdy’s After Nature

Pioneering public schools?

It was the Puritans of Massachusetts who first pioneered public schools, and who decided to use property-tax receipts to pay for them. The Massachusetts Act of 1642 required that parents see to it that their children knew how to read and write; when that law was roundly ignored, the colony passed the Massachusetts School Law of 1647, which required every town with 50 households or more hire someone to teach the children to read and write. This public education was made possible by a property-tax law passed the previous year, according to a paper, “The Local Property Tax for Public Schools: Some Historical Perspectives,” by Billy D. Walker, a Texas educator and historian. Determined to carry out their vision for common school, the Puritans instituted a property tax on an annual basis—previously, it had only been used to raise money when needed. The tax charged specific people based on “visible” property including their homes as well as their sheep, cows, and pigs. Connecticut followed in 1650 with a law requiring towns to teach local children, and used the same type of financing.

–Alana Semuels, Good School, Rich School; Bad School, Poor School

Estranged counterpublics

For when we read the great Christian intellectuals of even the recent past we notice how rarely they distance themselves from ordinary believers, even though they could not have helped knowing that many of those people were ignorant or ungenerous or both. They seem to have accepted affiliation with such unpleasant people as a price one had to pay for Christian belonging; Robinson, by contrast, seems to take pains to assure her liberal and secular readers that she is one of them. (From the same essay: “I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example.”)

Something similar might be said of Robinson’s recent conversation, also published in The New York Review of Books, with Obama, to whom she returns the name of friend. It may be poor form to use a conversation with a friend in order to speak truth to power, but I for one would have appreciated a dose of Cornel West–like poor form. After all, the claim that “contemporary America is full of fear” might also be applied to the person who promised but failed to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. I think Robinson may well be the finest living American novelist, and at her best a brilliant essayist, but whatever her religious beliefs, her culture seems to be fully that of the liberal secular world — and it may matter, in this regard, that her professional career has been at a public university. While surely she must know some living Christian subculture from the inside, she does not seem to be interested in representing its virtues, or its mixture of virtues and vices, to an unbelieving world, or to speak on its behalf, or to speak to it in any general way.

–Alan Jacobs, The Watchmen