140: Spelunking in caves of irrationality

Ways to help in Beirut, and some light in dark corners.

The Thing

Just short of a year ago, I happened to be in Lebanon as the uprising began to take hold. You could feel a palpable shift in the quality of the air as the people taking to the streets seemed to be allowing themselves, carefully, to let hope back in. On the streets, in lounge rooms, at cafes, at burning barricades, I met people both young and old struggling to keep their long-held and fire-forged skepticism in check as they began to try out the feel of the word “revolution” in their mouths. Nobody, not even the soldiers, seemed interested in trying to prop up the far-too-frayed, many-roped knot of self-interests that called itself a government. Of course I wasn’t asking anybody from Hezbollah, where no doubt the sentiment would have been different. The people in the lounge rooms had opinions on that too.

I left sooner than I’d intended, fearing the airport might close. It’s always the privilege of the outsider to leave, and to hold on to the feeling as it was at that moment. For the people of Lebanon, it didn’t last. It was ground down at first by the things that normally grind down a revolution. But slowly they persisted. They insisted that a patient and forthright approach would eventually bring real change. But then, as for all of us, there was a pandemic. As Rima Rantisi writes at LitHub, the remaining hope for what could have been a bloodless revolution was extinguished there and then:

In Beirut, we have been in mourning. Every day since the October 17 Revolution was swept off the streets due to the pandemic, we have been burying pieces of our city. We say goodbye to our money, our currency having all but died, and our livelihoods and pleasures with it. We say goodbye to friends and family who cannot manage living here anymore. We say goodbye to our institutions who cater to the bottom dollar. We are all buckling under the pressure of hyperinflation, corruption, the loss of hope. Each time a business shuts down or a friend gets on a plane or someone is let go from their job, we get that deep sickening feeling of loss—another part of the city, another part of us is leaving because it will never get better. But we also think: It cannot get worse. We cannot sink lower than the dismantling of everything we have built.

Then, as she writes, the port of Beirut blew up. The epic journey those 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate took to their ultimate end, as traced by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, is as clear a portrait as you’ll find of “the baffling nowhere-world of offshore trade, where secretive companies and pliant governments allow questionable actors to work in the shadows.” But for the people of Beirut, and Lebanon more broadly, there are more immediate concerns than trade. As Rantisi puts it: “We would never live in the city we knew in the same way again. Who would rebuild? Who wouldn’t? Who could ever forget?”

I asked a friend in Beirut who Buckslip readers could send support to, given how little faith one should have in anything that goes via that government. How could we best help the people who need it? She pointed me to the Al Makan social hub, who are taking PayPal donations and applying them directly where they are needed. Consider her vouching our vouching, and send any help you can.

Our activities have been on a needs-basis in the affected areas. The projects we have completed so far include:
• Visiting families in the directly affected areas with totally demolished homes and we are helping them evacuate by providing rent money, clothes, food and any other needs
• For families that have homes that are architecturally safe to stay in, we are making repairs to their windows and doors
• We are making care packages of sanitary products, baby packages (diapers, milk, etc)
• We are helping low-income families that don’t live right in the blast area but have damage to their homes by providing repairs to their damaged windows and doors
• We are helping families who lost a family member, or have wounded family members with funds for funeral and medical expenses
• As we visit more families and see further needs we will do whatever is in our capacity to help
Support our grassroots efforts through PayPal at Jude.chehab@gmail.com

I’m writing this in quarantine in Newfoundland, thinking about Beirut, with the Atlantic at my back and spruce at my front. I’m sitting in the house my great grandfather built, in a village that I remember once, at this time of year, smelling mostly of fish drying in the sun. There’s no fish anymore — now it smells only of saltwater and conifer, with a faint undertone of the petrol fumes of ATVs. The wildlife seem happier. The cats less so. Though I suppose there’s more bird life for them to bother.

On the radio here, there’s anger about the fate of a ridiculously big tuna. In California, as Leah Stokes writes in The Atlantic, ancient redwoods are being consumed by fire, and finding the faith to plant new trees means believing they too won’t be burned away before they mature. “My friend posted a picture of herself wearing an N95 mask with an exhalation valve, and a surgical mask on top: the first to protect herself against the smoke, the second to protect others from the virus. I don’t want to live in a world where we have to decide which mask to wear for which disaster, but this is the world we are making.” Friends are evacuating their homes in Louisiana. There’s been a coup in Mali. And still the pandemic rages.  

Reading this sober attempt in Nature to synthesize the speculation of epidemiologists around the world, "How the pandemic might play out in 2021 and beyond”, about the only answer that really emerges from it is “we have no idea, but we don’t see anything good.” Which you already know. “We’re going to need to change the culture of how we interact with other people,” says one of the scientists. I’ve been burning the last of my mobile data (not burned up by NBA playoffs due to wildcat strikes over yet more shooting) on videos of Chadwick Boseman showing his infinitely giving and good soul, and wishing I had recordings of all those times years ago when I had long, beautiful off-mic chats in a radio studio with a touring Justin Townes Earle, also infinitely giving and good in those brief moments. Fuck. But tomorrow after my quarantine is over, I’ll thank my aunt for dropping off a foil container of roast moose, and I’ll drive through the tail end of that hurricane to see my father, which I did not know if I ever would again.

So how’s your month been? Sorry these keep taking so long.

– Patrick

Things

At Current Affairs, Nathan J Robinson writes on the chilling effect of paywalls on the dissemination of reliable news, particularly when the hyperbolic and the straight-up false is delivered for free: “It’s concerning that the Hoover Institute will freely give you Richard Epstein’s infamous article downplaying the threat of coronavirus, but Isaac Chotiner’s interview demolishing Epstein requires a monthly subscription, meaning that the lie is more accessible than its refutation.”

Keep that in mind as you use one of your 3 free monthly reads of the MIT Tech Review for their analysis of the dirtbag QAnon genie being too far out of its bottle for fact checking to contain (it’s already being packaged just right for the ‘gram). And then journey down the YouTube rabbithole with one of that rabbithole’s most thoughtful guides, the great Nicholson Baker, as the CJR asks him to follow the algorithm to its end. Baker, being baker, faces down the wild, uncontrollable darkness bravely, but finds ecstatic joy down there somewhere nonetheless: “If you want to spelunk in slippery cave systems of irrationality, YouTube will definitely take you there… But if you want to feel how great it is to be alive in this scrambled and feverish moment in history, if you want to know that you’re part of something huge and unstoppable and planetary and singular and unpredictable, something that can fill you with joy and make you want to toss pieces of paper in the air, YouTube will do that for you, too.”

At The Baffler, Nick Estes pushes back against the “Guns, Germs & Steel” belief that unfamiliar European pathogens were responsible for the genocides enacted during the colonization of the Americas, rather than purposeful extermination and violence. Estes draws a thread from this towards current desires, particularly in the US, but not only, to tie coronavirus deaths in non-white communities to underlying comorbidities, rather than government inaction. Like many Baffler essays, this one tries to say too much, to say almost everything even, and you might lose patience by the time it goes past George Floyd and launches into actual space, but eventually it lands back on a note of hope, with the poet John Trudell’s vision of the Halluci Nation, the tribe they cannot see, manifest all across the continent, even now.

The standoff between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over the damming of the Nile has spawned a lot of great reporting in recent years, but it’s ramping up again this month as rains begin to fill the dam’s reservoir and the US makes noise about cutting aid. We found this analysis from the Center for Climate & Security useful for situating what the whole dispute might mean in terms of the many conflicts over water, from previously water secure nations, we can expect in the years ahead, as the climate crisis “will further bolster the ranks of desperate, resource-hungry cotton mouths — and by extension the ranks of the fearful water-rich.”

At Crosscut, Hannah Weinberger interviews Christopher Schell and Karen Dyson, the authors of a new paper in Science on the effects of systemic racism on the biodiversity of urban ecosystems. It’s fun to read scientists this passionate.

So, as a carnivore lover, I think about, for instance, a coyote: What does a coyote want when it’s in a city? How on earth did it get into the city in the first place? What if the animal is at a Superfund site with soil that still needs to be remediated because it has heavy metals that we know have sublethal consequences for that animal? And then that’s when you start to go down the rabbit hole of like, wow, there are heavy metals in some places, but not in other places. And, isn’t it so interesting that some of these places that don’t have the heavy metals, they instead have these big trees, and these large lots?

A fascinating ride of a piece from William Brennan in the NYT Mag, about a father-son pair of British outsider orthodontists who have gained a following amongst incels. It’s not really a story about straight teeth so much as about orthodoxies (oh brother, I could have made a more elegant pun there, couldn’t I? It was right there.), about the subjectivity of beauty and ugliness, and what happens when the ride of the rogue outsider ends up in the blender of YouTube virality. It’s a tough job to profile, with empathy, a pair of obvious quacks, who basically confess as much with their own words in the story, while still also showing that the core beliefs of the professionals in their discipline are just as inherently questionable. Full disclosure from now-contentedly-crooked-teethed Patrick: that pointless year of braces at 15 still has him fist-shakingly angry.

Sam Hart, Toby Shorin, and Laura Lotti with a fun, nutso, hyper-optimistic and warmth-filled research paper on “Squad Wealth”, which throws a lot of theory and half-tongue-in-cheek graphs at you to make the argument that the best things on today’s internet, and by extension today’s life, are made by good gangs of people doing cool shit together. We agree. Pair with Caitlin Deway at OneZero on the pandemic-induced retraction of the gig economy, and the improvised turn to the OnlyFans-etc hustle economy in its place.

Speaking of the Hustle Economy (ug). Serious question, readers — were any of you ever the sort that listened to Gary Vaynerchuk? Could you let us know what you saw? Or were you, like us, told that you should by people in various work contexts, and you couldn’t figure out what you weren’t seeing? Or are we just, plainly and sensibly allergic to that flavour of hustle? Anyway, all of this is to say that we wanted this Marker piece by Sarah Kessler, “GaryVee Is Still Preaching the Hustle Gospel in the Middle of a Pandemic” to be a stronger takedown than it is, or at least get to an insight deeper than people needing gurus in times of stress or vulnerability. But mostly, we appreciate the effort, even if we feel like we need a few more showers after reading it and learning that he had a book called “Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook”. Crush it!

Remember years back when the OK Cupid guy put out a book trying to explain all of human behaviour by rambling interminably over a few theories based on the underlying data of that site? Our efforts to make it through that to find something useful came to mind as we read this Data & Society piece by Angela Xiao Wu that pushes back against the use of big platform data as a tool of understanding in the social sciences. She puts into words what we we weren’t smart enough to then: “platform data are platforms’ records of their own behavioral experimentation. Trying to know ourselves through platform data tends to yield partial and contorted accounts of human behavior that conceal platform interventions.” Instead, she argues, research should begin with an important question about data that we almost never ask: what purpose does the measurement initially serve?

At Politico, the excellent Sarah Souli looks into a question we’d been loosely discussing amongst ourselves as a wild, implausible next step for America after all…. this: Does America Need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? And could such a thing ever even be possible?

Just an extraordinary thing: Jenzia Burgos’s Black Music History Library, a clearing house of archival materials, citations, films, podcasts, reporting, and other research. It’s essentially just a well presented list of references, but oh how deep you can go, as it digs deeply and rapturously into the role of Black culture in both traditional and popular music, from the 18th century to the contemporary corruption of “Boogaloo”.

A composer who doesn’t yet seem to appear in that library is the great lost minimalist Julius Eastman, who we’ve no doubt proselytized in here on several occasions in the past. We might suggest the addition of this great short primer from Shy Thompson at Bandcamp, on the occasion of the digital issue of a rare recording his extraordinary 1974 work “Femenine”. To hear it, as it is to hear most any of Eastman’s compositions, is to be changed by it. Much writing on Eastman focuses on the tragedy of his death and what came before. Thompson, here, does him the service of focussing on the staggering, fierce power of his personality and of the creations he left behind. There’s another Bandcamp Friday coming up this Friday, where the one remaining not-evil digital music service passes on all royalties to labels/artists directly. If you’re new to Eastman, might we humbly suggest this as an option worth dropping a few Euro on.

It’s easy to talk about Eastman’s quirks and his flamboyant personality when discussing his work, but perhaps what is most extraordinary about Eastman is also what is ordinary about him. It’s not extraordinary to be Black, to be gay, to want to create, or to want to be seen and understood; we should take caution to fold Eastman into the establishment of the avant-garde too quickly, lest we forget the ways he fought to rock the boat—the ways he had to rock the boat, by necessity. Eastman deserves to be part of the conversation when discussing the legacy of minimalism; not because he stood alongside those considered great, but because he stood alone—determined to be heard, but on his own terms.