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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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“Biology we haven’t discovered yet”

Ever stumble across something — even something you’ve not thought much about — and then suddenly see it everywhere around you?

This strange stumbling-into-obsession has caught me in the last couple of weeks with the concept of consciousness. What the hell? What is it? When do we have it? When do we have too much of it, or not enough? All questions I’ve assiduously avoided for god knows how many years.

It all began with a podcast: Sam Harris interviewing genius primatologist/neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky. The Biology of Good and Evil. The conversation can’t be summarized in a sentence or two — it’s too rich — but the quote of the nearly two-hour interview was Sapolsky declaring:

I believe free will is what we call biology we haven’t discovered yet.

If true, of course, this means that we are all fundamentally unconscious. At least in the sense that we do not realize or cannot see how powerfully we are being driven by biology. Driven perhaps even against our own beliefs, or what we think we believe.

How about that? Makes a fellow feel small, and foolish. And maybe that’s why I’ve noticed a few things as of late.

From Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground [part one, chapter nine]:

Suffering — why this is the sole cause of consciousness. 

And from poet W.S. Di Piero‘s lovely little Table Talk essay in the latest Threepenny Review:

In Hardy’s “The Self-Unseeing,” he visits the remains of his childhood home and recalls where the door was, how the floor felt, how his mother sat “staring into the fire” while her fiddler husband “bowed it higher and higher.” The last two bittersweet lines, “Everything glowed with a gleam/Yet we were looking away” remind him that they couldn’t possibly have been aware of the harmonious moment while living it. We’re always late for consciousness, the neuroscientists say.

Does it follow then that happiness requires a kind of un-consciousness? A life inside our biology?

What would Fyodor say?

dostoevskyday

There’s more, but I haven’t found it yet…

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Thoreau: Craving Reality

The New York Review of Books posts in its entirety a spectacular essay from Robert Pogue Harrison, this time on Thoreau on his centennial birthday, and en or so books and exhibits about The True American.

Thoreau (to my blinkered view) is that exceedingly rare writer/philosopher capable of seeing afresh the most fundamental elements of our lives, such as the ground on which we walk and the air we breathe. For example:

Paradise exists all around us, in America’s “wildness,” the natural environment of the continent. In the contact between his own body and America’s forests, meadows, lakes, rivers, mountains, and animals, Thoreau discovered what he called “hard matter in its home.” That home was the “hard bottom” or “reality” that we crave. “I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound,” he wrote in his journal. “Daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!… Contact! Contact!”

That contact between body and wilderness speaks to me, having spent the last week and half on the PCTsleeping on the ground (and sleeping well). I’ll try to post a picture to give some idea. But let me conclude this post with another compelling — even alarming — quote from Mr. Thoreau,

If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter [scimitar], and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.

If only this were true! But from the world I stand in awe of, with him, here’s a sunset at mile 1600 of the PCT.

Sunset at mile 1600

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The mercurial John Lennon: from 12/7/1980

A nice column from conservative Carl Cannon of the OC Register tells the story of what happened when Annie Liebowitz went to the Dakota to photograph John Lennon for Rolling Stone, back in l980:

On the morning of December 8, 1980, Leibovitz arrived at the Dakota, the apartment building west of Central Park where John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived. Although Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner “never told me what do to” when she went on a photo shoot, Leibovitz has said, this one time he did: “Please get some pictures without her.”

Meaning Yoko. But Liebowitz was thinking of the cover of their record, Double Fantasy, and its kiss.

“This was the 1980s—romance was a little dead,” she recalled later. “And I was so moved by that kiss.”

She suggested a picture of the two of them naked. Yoko balked, and then began to consider the possibility, but in the meantime the mercurial Lennon with Liebowitz had come up with a new idea — him naked and Yoko clothed.

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Liebowitz took a Polaroid of the pose: they all three agreed this was the picture for the story.

Cannon writes:

In just 12 hours, John would be dead, shot outside the Dakota by a deranged fan. Six weeks later, January 22, 1981, Rolling Stone gave grieving music fans this last image. It’s was John Lennon’s gift to us, really. When Annie Leibovitz had arrived that morning, he had made it clear he wanted his wife in the pictures. Pointing at Yoko, he had insisted simply, “I want to be with her.”

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Trump + Mussolini: Trussolini?

Countless commentators, from a Congressman in Utah, to the President of Mexico, editors and Twitter wizards like Marlow Stern to famous comedians like Bill Mahrer to the most admired of our publications have pointed to the frighteningly fascistic tendencies of Donald Trump and specifically his alarming similarity to Benito Mussolini, in looks and in language.

But the intentionality, Trump’s part in this similarity, did not become fully evident to me until his horrific acceptance speech, in which he referred obliquely to the most famous promise of Mussolini, that he would make the trains run on time.

Trump said — although really it was more of a battle cry, in his customary language, broad to the point of meaninglessness.

We will fix TSA at the airport, which is a disaster.

To me this is a “tell” — another indication that he’s consciously playing the Fascist card.

Am I wrong? Over-reacting? Making stuff up?

You may call me alarmist, but I’m not the only one…

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PCT section L: Paradise Lake to Sierra City

Think this might be the shortest and possibly the easiest section on the entire 2663-mile PCT. That’s based on a personal knowledge of two-thirds of the trail in California. That’s all I know, admittedly, with some reading and searching, for instance such as Jeffrey Schaffer’s venerable and helpful set of guides on Wilderness Press.

Still. Turns out the section is but 38 miles long — something a experienced thruhiker can possibly do on a very good day or a day and a half, with fitness and luck. So says Schaffer and I agree (Birdman above was on that kind of schedule, having spent the night at the Sierra Club’s Peter Grubb hut, just five miles from Donner Pass).

Plus, it finishes in Sierra City, an altitude of about 5400 feet, well below the trail at the starting point of the section, at Donner Pass, which is about 7200. And the trail flows up from there to a high ridge of about 8,000 feet, following the crest as much as best as possible across the fields of so-called mules ears flowering out in the bright sunshine. Intoxicating with their beauty.

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Of course a true thruhiker will not deviate from the trail without a fight, but nonetheless a night at Paradise Lake about a mile or a mile and a half down Paradise Valle, proved hard to resist. Would have been great stay — and it’s super popular — except the mosquitoes were pretty fierce.

Why in the world, may I ask, have we no measure whatsoever of the mosquito menace? Drives me crazy. We have indexes for everything else, from solar radiation to flower displays — why not mosquitoes? Something we could do towards solving a problem.

But still Paradise Lake lived up to its moniker — would like to see this lake on a chilly morning before the pests hatch out, maybe in June, with a warm sun but some snow still too. Has such a quiet beauty. .

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That’ll give you some idea of the first day or two methinks — that and a mention of the fact that (at least around July 4th) this area is absolutely thronged with people. It’s still gorgeous, and it’s easy to find privacy, but know that you won’t be “alone alone” as we say today.

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Buzzfeed takes on Trump

The most successful of the so-called “new media” is probably Buzzfeed, but the truth is, they have more to offer than cute cat antics. This week in two separate stories they called out Donald Trump for hypocrisy.

In Florida, in a story called Donald Trump vs Sea Level Rise, reporter Peter Aldous points out that Trump is putting millions and millions of dollars of his property at risk by pretending that global warming isn’t happening.

“Located on 240 feet of pristine beach, Trump Hollywood offers spectacular views of the ocean,” boasts the Trump Organization on its website. Three-bedroom units in this 41-story luxury development are currently on sale for around $3 million apiece.

But by the end of this century, the ocean could be way too close for comfort. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 3 feet of sea level rise could turn the building into an island at the highest tides. Six feet would submerge most of the surrounding neighborhood.

But Donald Trump doesn’t buy any of that. Global warming, he has said, is “a total hoax” and “bullshit.”

And in Las Vegas, in a story called Trump’s Effect on the Latino Vote Has Began, reporter Adrian Carrasquillo finds an effort underway to register Latino voters in Nevada. He writes:

How high the ultimate number of newly naturalized citizens will go is unclear, but there is a precedent for immigration rhetoric driving large numbers of people to naturalize — and likely affecting decisions at the ballot box in a presidential year.

In 1994, former California Gov. Pete Wilson, his restrictionist immigration policies, and his controversial ads about illegal immigration became a high-profile campaign issue in a state home to millions of Hispanic voters.

During his re-election campaign, Wilson championed a ballot measure called Prop 187, which denied undocumented immigrants and their children access to public education and health care. The proposition passed (it was later found unconstitutional by a federal district court), but California’s Latino voter registration went up 50%.

The reporter includes a memorable quote:

“We have a new boogeyman,” said 20-year Nevada veteran Democratic strategist Andres Ramirez, referring to Trump. “We’ve had boogeymen in past years but now we have one at unprecedented levels.”

Go Donald (w/Sarah).

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desert sunsets are the best (well, sometimes)

From the U.S. Department of the Interior, via sharetheexperience, via Instagram:

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People of the PCT: Dirt Stew and Dormouse

About eleven months ago, I ran into a couple of thru-hikers as I approached Kennedy Meadows on the PCT. I was coming off the end of a super-hot section of the Mojave with little or no water, and they were south-bound.

In SoCal, mostly hiking earlier in the year, heading north I hadn’t met many southbounders, hadn’t seen hikers that experienced: these two looked ready for the Sahara. Or anything.

We stopped for a minute and I asked a question or two and Dormouse plopped down on the trail without a second’s hesitation to dig something out of her pack as I learned her name and her husband Dirt Stew’s. They seemed as comfortable in the raw desert wilderness as if it were their living room. I was pretty amazed by these two — sort of an exotic species for me. They made an impression and I asked a question or two.

About a month ago I ran across an excellent story about their journey that Dormouse wrote up for the PCTA Association: much of it sticks in my memory still. For instance, in Oregon for a week or two they passed hordes of northbounders. Dormouse wrote:

To them, we were a rare sighting, but to us, they seemed like an endless parade. There is something funny about the moment when a northbounder and a southbounder cross paths.  Together we have completed an entire thru-hike and yet we do not have a single shared experience of the trail. It makes for both helpful and frustrating conversations. I think hikers have selective memories, and a lot of the information we got from northbound hikers was false.

True. You have to consider the source, and realistically, on the trail you rarely can with any certainty.

Reading this put me on to their blog, which includes good journaling about their trip. Well, turns out my questions and curiousity awoke something in themselves as well, which they wrote up!

We hiked out in full ninja-hiker gear with shirts around our faces in order to protect ourselves from the sun and wind, and ran into a northbound section hiker who said “you guys must be thru-hikers”. “How’d you guess?” we asked. “Well, you look like you’ve walked almost 2000 miles!” He replied. “Can I take your picture?”. “Sure!” We answered. As he left I said to Dirt Stew: “Let’s take a picture of ourselves! It’s the first time someone’s told us we look like we’re thru-hikers who’ve hiked 2000 miles!” We snapped a picture at arm’s length and looked at ourselves on the little screen. We looked a lot like we did only 100 miles in. We were covered from head to toe so as not to get sun burned.

Here’s the picture I took of them:

Dirt Stew + Doormouse

Dirt Stew + Doormouse

 

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Did avoiding fats make our obesity problem worse?

Could the misunderstanding about fat have made the American problem with obesity worse?

That’s the understated implication — or an implication — of the latest version of the medical consensus on fats in the bloodstream, as defined by Frank Hu, head of Harvard’s School of Public Health, in a story by Jane Brody in the NYTimes with a clunky headline.

To quote::

Experts now realize that efforts to correct past dietary sins that made heart disease and stroke runaway killers have caused the pendulum to swing too far in the wrong direction.

“The mistake made in earlier dietary guidelines was an emphasis on low-fat without emphasizing the quality of carbohydrates, creating the impression that all fats are bad and all carbs are good,” Dr. [Frank] Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology [at Harvard’s School of Public Health], said. “It’s really important to distinguish between healthy fats and bad fats, healthy carbs and bad carbs.”

But half-buried in this thoughtful framing of a complex question remains a fundamental truth. Saturated fat — butter, meat, and cheese — is dangerous to your health. .

To quote Hu — who has led huge studies of this issue — again:

He explained that saturated fat, found in fatty animal foods like meats and dairy products, raises blood levels of cholesterol and is not healthy,

What follows is a discussion of alternatives, and the alternatives are worthy and great in fact, but having written a contrarian story about another misunderstanding of medical research into fats a year ago , may I say I feel vindicated in listening to and focusing on the work of researchers such as Hu and David Katz, of Yale and the journal Childhood Obesity, who continue to warn that saturated fat is not your friend.

Butter curl

Butter curl

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No matter how pretty.

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