The Reader Review series was a 2014 experiment in rounding up of some of the most thoughtful or provocative articles and videos I came across online. I’m still deciding whether to continue it in 2015, but either way, this will be the last edition of the year.
Thank you for reading along with me!
Brentin Mock draws a firm and clear connection between air pollution and state violence:
Why do Americans’ perspectives vary so much?
Grist: “Why environmentalists should support the Black Lives Matter protests” (Brentin Mock)
The Grist has a wonderful writer in environmental justice activist Brentin Mock. In his latest column, Mock reflects on his own health, the Eric Garner case, and why environmentalists should recognize their stake in the protests against police brutality and racial inequity. Mock’s point on air quality disparities is one I learned about this March thanks to a Mother Jones article on controversial research that correlated air pollutants with race and class.
What I’m pleased about it is that Brentin isn’t the only writer to draw connections between climate action and racial justice concerns. The climate coalition 350.org published a similar case earlier this year in an article titled “Why the Climate Movement Must Stand with Ferguson.” Peterson Toscano, a performance artist who has been touring the country performing his one-man play on climate action, hope, and human resilience, also highlighted Brentin’s article on his podcast site earlier this week.
By the way, if you’re not yet subscribed to Peterson’s weekly podcast, Climate Stew, you’re missing out on a real treat: vivid characters and some powerful glimpses of our collective future. “Climate Stew,” Peterson says, “takes a serious look at global warming, but won’t scare the snot out of you. I want to give people space to think about the roles we’ll play in the new world that’s coming, how we will come together and what it’ll take to keep this a safe planet for humans, coffee, and pasta, not just for polar bears.”
And how about that #TortureReport? I can’t bear to read it.
I’m pretty close to oversaturated with stories of abuse, state violence whether local or federal, and non-accountability for human harm. I watched the Eric Garner video once, and that was once too many for me.
Yesterday morning it struck me that the common link between public executions, town picnics at lynchings, ISIS beheading videos, the Janae/Ray Rice photographs and recording, and the Garner photographs and video is our willingness to re-witness the moment of violence over and over and over again with no higher value than objectifying fascination.
I don’t want to participate in that. And that’s why although I couldn’t help but hear about the release of the report on US torture via the CIA, I haven’t gone that step further to read the full report for myself.
But I’ll refer you to a few people who have:
- Details: Human Rights Watch compares US actions through the CIA with US pronouncements about other nations. And the Washington Post compares the CIA’s 2007 with its records released this week.
- Policy: Marc Ambinder (The Atlantic) and John Wonderlich (Sunlight Foundation)
- Professional Outrage: Responses from APA-affiliated or formerly affiliated psychologists and the influence of medical doctors (See also Harper’s Magazine from October this year.)
- Consequences: Christiane Amanpour (CNN) reports on the prosecutions possible for CIA agents under international war crimes laws. Reuters reported that the DOJ had no plans to initiate a prosecution.
“The first question I asked when I saw the Abu Ghraib pictures was, ‘My god, where were the doctors when all this was going on? How did the government turn off the protests from the medical system?’ What I discovered instead was that the doctors and psychologists were built into the interrogational abuses. So it wasn’t a matter of turning off their protests, it was a matter of a structured system of complicity.” —Dr. Stephen Miles, Doctors Who Torture
I did notice which band of activists had been more or less silent about local torture via police #BlackLivesMatter but threw itself into full outrage over federal torture via the Agency in #TortureReport. And I found that baffling given the issues and stakes were the same, just expressed at different levels of government.
CREW’s Daniel Schuman asked, “Why isn’t the debate about the damage US torture created, not the concerns about its occurring becoming public?” Good question, Daniel.
Before the report was released, I wrote about the way the United States has instrumentalized human life and bodily integrity, considering state assaults “acceptable trades” in the course of statecraft and order-keeping. The observation only became more salient once activists began posting excerpts and footnotes from the CIA record.
But on Twitter I also raised the question of addressing the federal expression of violence and dismissing its local counterpart. Who benefits, I asked, from our addressing only one level of analysis and our reticence to draw connections across the levels of our system?
My guess is that the system has adapted to cynicism about it at federal level: we easily joke about a sluggish Congress and shrug about bought-and-paid-for legislators. These jokes and shrugs do not motivate deep change. The macro level of the system expects participant distrust and accounts for it.
But local engagement is much more threatening. This is the level at which most of us live our lives; most of us don’t get to work in Congress, the executive, or the judiciary. Most of us live our lives at the level of the supermarket, the cinema, the children’s schools, the city council, and our doctor’s office. When citizens engage governance at these levels, and when activists block activity at these levels, it is much harder to pretend that life is normal and all is well.
My hope is that those who get a taste for impact at the local level will begin to shift their cynicism about whether ordinary people can influence the other levels of our society.
If you want to learn more about analyzing several levels of a complex problem at once, read these examples.
In 1967, systems scientist C. West Churchman popularized the definition of “wicked problems”: problems in social systems where definitions were “ill-formulated,” where issues were nested or consequent to other problems, where information was not well-defined, where decision-makers did not share common values, where piecemeal approaches changed the system and produced unexpected outcomes deemed worse than the initial concern, and where the problem was either difficult or impossible to solve.
If that doesn’t describe recurring social questions like immigration, economic stability, policing strategy, climate change, and asymmetrical war, I don’t know what does.
So take a look at two articles. The first, an editorial from Elsevier’s Landscape and Urban Planning Journal, reviews the literature on wicked problems, notes that we seem to be co-evolving with wickedness or complexity in our environment, and highlights the AAA approach to these kinds of problems: awareness, acceptance, and adaptation. The second, a recent conference paper, is a careful example of multi-level systemic analysis applied to Mexico’s drug trade. The author maps the problem’s precipitating factors and the result looks like a hornet’s nest. That is entirely appropriate!
This is the kind of analysis that people who intend to produce deep change need to do, do early, and do often. There’s no dodging complexity by blocking out three-fourths of the realities involved and oversimplifying the remainder.
If you want deep change, you need deep perspective.
Also read or listen to these links.
- Henry Giroux tracing state violence over the last 60 years. (TruthDig)
- Tony Robbins on the interview tour for his new book on priorities and investing for results – this is a 2-part interview with Tim Ferriss. Read the comments on Amazon before you buy.
- Nafeez Ahmed describing the DOD’s Minerva Research Initiative, which includes “strategic” study of Twitter accounts and social contagion. (London Guardian)
- Chris Bragg about one of the attorneys who used to help disclose corporate influence in government and who now helps companies cover their tracks.
- Forbes reviews Ed Catmull’s book about building Pixar and making peace with mistakes, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. My favorite quote: “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new… If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.”