Archive for 2017 December

December 8th in Ojai, CA 2017

Picture from a photographer, Stuart Palley, who in the last couple of years has found a calling in documenting wildfire and the crews that fight it.

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The Thomas Fire has been an overwhelming event, plus it ate my office (and musician friend Taylor‘s studio and barn). Did publish a story about the start of the fire in our area in the Santa Barbara Independent, which deserves mention, as does a really excellent Wikipedia compendium about the blaze.

So much to report and say and write! To start here’s a view of the fire looking north into the black.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates: Not an optimist. Not on Twitter

The writer, journalist, and thinker Ta-Nehisi Coates has been embroiled in controversy for years now. Seemingly his every move attracts controversy, (for reasons mysterious to small-town hick yours truly). Near as I can tell Coates has not been doing anything another prominent and successful writer wouldn’t like to do, such as moving to Paris for a year with his family in 2009, or writing and publishing the great The Case for Reparations in The Atlantic, or for winning the National Book Award, or for attracting a vast following on Twitter, or for purchasing a brownstone in Brooklyn, or for today abruptly pulling the plug on that media.

Wikipedia:

On December 17, 2017, the philosopher and activist Cornel West published an editorial in The Guardian with the title: “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle”.[33] The premise of the article was that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy” and, in West’s view, represents “narrow racial tribalism and myopic political neo-liberalism” by wrongly casting former PresidentBarack Obama as a successor to such figures as Malcolm X as an African-American hero.[33] West believes that Obama (which on a previous occasion he had called a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface“)[34] should never be compared to activists, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., who in their fight against white supremacy spoke out against systemic biases in predatory capitalism and war; according to West, this is because Obama, while he is of the same racial class, is part of the system that the activists should fight against.[33]

The same day, West shared the article on Twitter, attracting tweets in response from many others, including hundreds of supporters of Coates.[35][36] The next day, West’s tweet was retweeted by the alt-rightwhite supremacistRichard Spencer, who indicated tacit agreement with West’s criticism of Coates.[35][37] Shortly afterwards, Coates, who had enjoyed a following of over 1.25 million other Twitter users, deactivated his Twitter account.[35][38][39]

As Jonathan Chait remarked from bitter personal experience, “neoliberal” has become the Left’s favorite insult, and seems to mean more or less not living up to the legacy of FDR in the Great Depression. In an essay about this insult, Chait includes a pretty great joke from Lyndon Johnson, who although lionized among liberals today for the Great Society and civil rights legislation, in his time was considered a sell-out by the Left:

“What’s the difference between a cannibal and a liberal?” Johnson joked during his presidency. “A cannibal doesn’t eat his friends.”

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But Coates, as that look indicates, isn’t here to joke around, he’s got something important to say, and frankly, part of what he’s saying is that the news isn’t good. That’s part of his message. To make that point (in an interview lost to memory) he spoke admiringly of Elizabeth (Betsyu) Kolbert, the indefatiguable chronicler of climate change and The Sixth Extinction.

That’s why I was so appalled when Krista Tippett, the usually thoughtful spirit animating the On Being podcast, insisted on asking Coates “the optimism question,”: even after specifically promising him she wouldn’t. It’s kind of incredible and it’s right in the transcript.

Ms. Tippett: And I told you before we walked out here that I’m not gonna ask you to be optimistic.

Mr. Coates: OK, but now you are?

Ms. Tippett: No, I’m not, because I see that everywhere you go, you’re telling this truth, and then white people want you to say, “OK, so where can we find our hope?” And I was watching you on Colbert recently — somebody saw that? He really wanted you to give hope.

Here’s what I find when you write: “Our story is a tragedy. I know it sounds odd, but that belief does not depress me. It focuses me.”

Amazingly, that eloquent defense is not enough. It’s as if Tippett is driven to insist on that most American of demands from a public performance: a happy ending.

Ms. Tippett: You don’t have hope. Or you don’t want to use that word, because that word —

Mr. Coates: No, no, no.

Ms. Tippett: But you are — there’s a focus. There’s an energy…

Mr. Coates: You know what it is? I don’t actually think I’m that singular in this. I don’t know — and I don’t know if there are journalists here, but you have to understand: That’s my training. I was trained as a journalist. Journalists go out and look for things that are wrong in the world, and then they write them. And it is not the case that your editor says, “OK, that’s a cool story, but there’s no hope at the end.”

[laughter]

That’s not a thing editors say to journalists, which is what I am. And so it’s not so much that I even object to hope. It’s just that the thing I do, that’s not a criteria for. You know what I mean?

She actually still doesn’t understand, but finally corners him on one corner of American life which does “give him hope” and inspiration.

Ms. Tippett: Where I find you to be closest to what I think other people are wanting from you, when they want you to be hopeful, is when you write and speak about Malcolm X.

Mr. Coates: Yeah, he gave me hope. He did, he did.

Ms. Tippett: You talk about — he presented, more than anybody else, the possibility of what you call “collective self-creation.”

Mr. Coates: Right. Well, you know what? I would listen to his lectures, and I just felt free. It’s not “hope” like — I think what people want is, “Tell us that we’re going to get past this.”

Ms. Tippett: That it’s going to be OK.

Mr. Coates: “Tell us it’s going to be OK.” So that’s one thing, right?

But there’s a different kind of hope. There are people in the world who accept that their life ends in death, and that’s bad, but that’s what’s gonna happen. And then within that, they find joys and hopes in between: “Oh, I have the ability…”

So for Malcolm — to me, it was: I can speak about the world in a way that is reflective of my life and my community. I can do that. I don’t have to calibrate my speech. I don’t have to calibrate how I look. I don’t have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way. I have that right.

And so that was big for me, as a writer. When I started writing, there was a school of writing that says: Given that the audience is obviously — when you reach to any size, is not gonna be majority-black — that you have to hold people’s hands. You have to explain to them. And the Malcolm influence on me said: No, you don’t. Write as you hear it. Write as you hear it.

And in fact, I don’t even think that’s a particular black thing, because if you’re black in this world, and you are gonna become educated on the — what is considered mainstream art in this world, mainstream traditions — nobody slows down for you. Nobody is gonna hold your hand [laughs] and explain The Brady Bunch to you. Nobody’s gonna do that. Catch up.

Yes. “I don’t have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way.” Or talk, or write. Facing unpleasant facts, as Orwell said, is a job too — a job for a writer.

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The biggest problem in California: Housing

State Senator Hannah Beth-Jackson came to Ojai recently, and visited with the Ojai Valley Green Coalition, where I volunteer, and met with the board of directors. We discussed many topics but ended up on the issue that has been dividing the state: housing — affordable housing — and the lack thereof. The New York Times this weekend had an excellent explainer (with anecdotes from Berkeley) on the issue. Here’s the nut:

The affordable-housing crunch is a nationwide problem, but California is the superlative. The state’s median home price, at just over $500,000, is more than twice the national level and up about 60 percent from five years ago, according to Zillow. It affects the poor, the rich and everyone in between.

In San Diego, one of the worst hepatitis outbreaks in decades has killed 20 people and was centered on the city’s growing homeless population. Across the state, middle-income workers are being pushed further to the fringes and in some cases enduring three-hour commutes.

Then there is Patterson + Sheridan, a national intellectual property law firm that has its headquarters in Houston and recently bought a private jet to ferry its Texas lawyers to Bay Area clients. The jet was cheaper than paying local lawyers, who expect to make enough to offset the Bay Area’s inflated housing costs. “The young people that we want to hire out there have high expectations that are hard to meet,” said Bruce Patterson, a partner at the firm. “Rent is so high they can’t even afford a car.”

From the windows of a San Francisco skyscraper, the Bay Area looks as if it’s having a housing boom. There are cranes around downtown and rising glass and steel condominiums. In the San Francisco metropolitan area, housing megaprojects — buildings with 50 or more units — account for a quarter of the new housing supply, up from roughly half that level in the previous two decades, according to census data compiled by BuildZoom, a San Francisco company that helps homeowners find contractors.

The problem is that smaller and generally more affordable quarters like duplexes and small apartment buildings, where young families get their start, are being built at a slower rate. Such projects hold vast potential to provide lots of housing — and reduce sprawl — by adding density to the rings of neighborhoods that sit close to job centers but remain dominated by larger lots and single-family homes.

Neighborhoods in which single-family homes make up 90 percent of the housing stock account for a little over half the land mass in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, according to Issi Romem, BuildZoom’s chief economist. There are similar or higher percentages in virtually every American city, making these neighborhoods an obvious place to tackle the affordable-housing problem.

“Single-family neighborhoods are where the opportunity is, but building there is taboo,” Mr. Romem said. As long as single-family-homeowners are loath to add more housing on their blocks, he said, the economic logic will always be undone by local politics.

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Steve Lopez had a typically excellent, human column on the topic this weekend for the LA Times:

Like other transplants I spoke to in Nevada, Herndandez didn’t want to leave California. It’s home. It’s where she went to school and where her parents still live in the house she grew up in. But unless you choose a career that will pay you a small fortune to manage costs driven higher by a stubborn shortage of new housing, California is not a dream, it’s a mirage.

Moving to get a better job or move up the workplace chain is nothing new. But what’s going on here seems different — people leaving not for better jobs or pay, but because housing elsewhere is so much cheaper they can live the middle-class life that eludes them in California.

After college, Hernandez worked as a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C., and then went to Chicago for a few years. But the West drew her back. Not California, but Nevada, where she worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in Las Vegas and then joined the staff of a state legislator in the state capital.

“I started looking at the bigger picture in Carson City, where I was able to pay the rent, have a car and a comfortable life and put some money into a 401(k),” Hernandez said. “Would I be able to do that in California? Probably not.”

It’s a generational conflict, essentially, and it’s painful for me to contemplate how poorly once again my generation has prepared for those to come, including the creative young people of the golden state.

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