Small gods and patriotic neoliberal decay

Walking composition

“There is too much tendency to making separate and independent bundles of both the physical and the moral facts of the universe. Whereas, all and everything is naturally related and interconnected.” —Ada Lovelace, mathematician and designer of the first known computer program

I’m still catching up on my magazine backlog and recently enjoyed in particular “The Bear God Revisited,” an essay by Emily Sekine in the Spring 2020 issue of Orion. Sekine wrote of her journey learning about disaster preparation (for tsunamis in particular) in Japanese communities. For a backdrop, she used author Kawakami Hiromi’s 2011 rewrite of a short story in which a woman goes for a walk with a bear. In the new version, the story reflects the recent reality of nuclear contamination—rice fields are turned over in an effort at decontamination; the bear god still catches a fish but has to wash it with bottled water. (While Sekine’s essay isn’t online, both versions of Kawakami’s story are, translated into English and published with Granta.) Kawakami’s fictional bear god, wrote Sekine, “is a sort of everyday god.”

“Note that Kawakami does not claim that people used to believe in these gods; rather, she asserts that the gods used to exist.”

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Text from my mother regarding the difficulties making vaccine appointments in her county: “Yesterday all appointment slots were gone in five minutes and the suggestion was, ‘Don’t you have children or someone who is good at this?’”

I don’t know how to further express the frustration and anger that comes from knowing I’m surrounded by people who call themselves patriotic and will rage-wave massive American flags at any questioning of the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget, and then perform the same pseudo-patriotic rage-waving to reject any suggestion that at least some portion of our tax dollars would be better spent on a caring and robust public health system. Why wave the flag around if you don’t actually believe in having a functional country?

“I don’t remember having quite this much trouble getting an appointment in the USSR,” my mother said, laughingly referring to our conversation last week about how few people in this country understand how deeply broken and dysfunctional it is (or who believe it’s broken and dysfunctional but for fantastical reasons rather than real ones). She’d already lived in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and dealt with its bored and inefficient bureaucracy. Getting a vaccine for a virus causing a global pandemic in a supposedly first-world country in 2021 shouldn’t rely on rumors, money, or having tech-savvy, English-speaking young relatives who can try to game the system for you; comparisons to the Soviet-era necessities of finagling connections and pooling together time and resources to get anything from sausages to ballet tickets to a doctor’s appointment come quickly to mind.

I called her county’s dedicated vaccine line and talked to a very friendly and helpful person who said the website might have information the middle of next week. Maybe. But keep checking. And check the news. “It’s kind of like getting concert tickets,” the person said. I laughed. “It’s a little more serious than that but I get where you’re coming from.” In my head I wasn’t laughing. Hundreds of thousands of people have died. It’s nothing like getting concert tickets. FFS.

An hour later I saw this Anne Applebaum article in The Atlantic: “You all might be living in 21st-century America, but those of us who reside in this new version of Moscow, circa 1975, have to scoff at quasi-optimism. Beat COVID-19? With a bunch of dysfunctional Safeway websites? With dozens of different institutions, each one requiring different forms and a different registration? Signs that we live in a dying superpower are all around us.”

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Philosopher Stephen Jenkinson has referred to the coronavirus as a god, a “small god,” like those left by the wayside two thousand years ago in the wreckage of Rome’s conquests. Not thinking consciously of it, I found myself over the last few months texting phrases like “Covid willing, we’ll be able to have dinner/go hiking together/hug each other sometime in the fall/next year/whenever people stop flaunting their ignorance and distrust of science.”

In a retrospective on the bear god story rewrite and a related discussion of uranium 235, Kawakami wrote, “If the god of uranium really exists, then what must he be thinking? Were this a fairy tale of old, what would happen when humans broke the laws of nature to turn gods into minions?”

Covid willing. Maybe it is a small god. How many others are out there waiting to trip us up?

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Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • If I lean toward any economic theory, it’s probably that of Georgism, which follows the notion of late-1800s economist Henry George that land should never be privately owned. Failing the overthrow of land ownership, George advocated for what’s called a “land value tax,” which separates the values of land from the value of improvements on it and plows tax from the land itself back to the community rather than the property owner. It’s a system that’s been successfully implemented in the past (most notably in Pittsburgh, where’s it was credited with having kept housing prices affordable for decades), and is complemented by the acknowledgment that when a community invests in improvement, nearby property owners shouldn’t be the sole beneficiaries of an increase in value. Along those lines, Sydney, Australia, is trying to implement a land value tax that would kick in when infrastructure improvements lead to increased property values, but it’s finding it more difficult than it should be (capitalism!).

  • Just a bunch of random but weirdly riveting observations from Sapiens about the slowdown of growth in tooth enamel found in 300 teeth spanning a 2,000-year history.

  • I wish this essay on Psyche had more advice for how to deal with a seemingly global epistemological crisis, but it was interesting to think about author Kenneth Boyd’s prescription for nourishing one’s own epistemic well-being: “There are three components of epistemic wellbeing: access to truths; access to trustworthy sources of information; and opportunities to participate in productive dialogue.”

  • An “alternate history” from MIT Press Reader on what would have happened if the Luddites had won and managed to develop a productive and healthy rather than extractive and profit-driven relationship with technology. This piece is a fun excerpt from a book of “economic science fiction” and purports to be an encyclopedia entry from the year 2500. “Principles over Property” became their motto and Lord Byron was their poet laureate. (Weird echoes of the actual organizational structure of Soviet communism in this imagined world shaped by Sustainomics, though.)

  • This episode of Origin Stories (the podcast from the Leakey Foundation—I can’t link to the specific episode, but the most recent is near the top of the page) has a great conversation with Rebecca Wragg Sykes about her new book on Neanderthals titled Kindred. The details about hearth fires in particular had thought-provoking insight into how much of a story a hearth fire leaves behind. Neanderthals evidently had very advanced control of fire and even burned coal.