From the monthly archives:

August 2022

Breadtube

by Miriam Ronzoni on August 19, 2022

I discovered “Breadtube” relatively recently (I know, pathetic…) and I am completely hooked. Breadtube is a Youtube genre consisting in publishing long, complex video essays of left-leaning content, often aimed at debunking right-wing conspiracies or conservative arguments. The term is used to refer both to the genre itself and to the loose group of content creators in this genre. [click to continue…]

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Is there a democratic path to civilizational survival?

by Chris Bertram on August 16, 2022

A few weeks ago, faced with yet another disappointingly cautious announcement from the leadership of Britain’s Labour party, I quipped on twitter that it seemed impossible to get elected in the UK without promising not to do any of the things that are necessary to fix the country and, perhaps, the world. It is indeed hard not to be gripped by pessimism about the capacity of democratic politics to solve the problems we face, especially if solving them imposes any sort of cost or inconvenience on the more prosperous among the electorates of the wealthiest countries on earth. Yet we face a series of interlocking crises, several of which even threaten our survival as a species and perhaps life of earth itself. When I set about enumerating those crises, I have a sneaking fear that I may have forgotten one or two of them, but this looks like a reasonable list:

  1. Climate change and the risk that global temperatures will rise so much that it will be difficult to sustain life anywhere near the equator and so that life in coastal areas will be overwhelmed by sea-level rise.
  2. Nuclear warfare and the risk that an exchange that starts off conventionally escalates quickly to the use of tactical and then strategic nuclear weapons, with nuclear winter a likely consequences. The obvious immediate danger is over Ukraine, but it is quite possible that a confrontation between the US and China could spin out of control quickly. While nuclear weapons look like the most likely military threat to human survival, there are, let us not forget, other weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological agents, that could also kill lots of us.

  3. Pandemics and disease, and risk that a new strain of flu or a new coronavirus ends up killing very large numbers of people very fast, leading to civilizational collapse.

  4. Fascism, and the danger that liberal and democratic institutions are destroyed and that in their place nationalistic oligarchies use increasing violence against one another and against minorities within their borders.

  5. Crises of insufficiency and inequality, as crops fail and many people have insufficient means to meet their basic needs.

(To these we can add that in many countries, after decades of underinvestment in basic infrastructure and health-care systems desperately need public spending that only increased growth and tax revenues can provide.)
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Sunday photoblogging: Genoa washing

by Chris Bertram on August 14, 2022

Genoa: washing

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Book note: Sally Hayden, My Fourth Time We Drowned

by Chris Bertram on August 13, 2022

A few years ago at Crooked Timber, I posted a review of Oscar Martinez’s book The Beast, about the migration route to the United States from Central America through Mexico. It was a horrifying catalogue of coercion, physical injuries, murders and rapes and one friend who read it on my recommendation told me he regretted having done so, because it was so disturbing. If anything a more horrible story is told in My Fourth Time We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route, by the Irish journalist Sally Hayden. It is a book that exposes the deadly migration route across the Sahara to Libya, the Libyan detention camps run by militias, and then the attempts to cross the Mediterranean that are often foiled by the EU-funded Libyan “coastguard”, that often lead to mass drownings and only sometimes to an arrival in Italy or Malta.

There are many nationalities trying to cross to Europe, but many of them, and a particular focus of Hayden’s narrative, are Eritreans. Eritrea is the most repressive state in Africa and by some measures more repressive than North Korea. The Eritreans who are trying to flee this police state are trying to escape a life of indefinite conscription, often punctuated by violence and by sexual abuse. European states, in an echo of their actions in trying to prevent Jews from fleeing Germany in the 1930s, act so as to make it as difficult for people to escape as possible. In doing so, they empower and enrich both the people smugglers who treat these escapees as exploitable assets and the various militias who run detention camps within Libya.

As they make their way across the desert, where many are abandoned and die, migrants fall into the hands of smugglers to whom they may already have paid a fee. They are held and their relatives receive pictures of them demanding more money for their onward transit, pictures of sons and daughter being tortured that resemble for all the world those pictures of Abu Ghraib. The smugglers who hold them in these coralls, not only torture for money and recreation, they also rape large numbers of the women held there.
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All or nothing

by John Quiggin on August 11, 2022

I was going to do some more work on this post, but it’s being overtaken by events, so here it is

Among the many things to be depressed about at the moment, the impending end of US democracy is near the top of my list. The recent Republican primaries brought that one step closer. It’s now clear that unless they are stopped Republican officials in most states are ready to overturn any election result they do not like.

A necessary though not sufficient condition stop the Republicans is retaining Democratic control of the US Congress at the midterm elections in November with a margin sufficient to end a filibuster in the Senate, and pass voting rights legislation preventing state officials from overturning elections or returning bogus electors in a presidential election.

There are two broad strategies being urged on the Democrats. The first pushed by commentators including David Shor and Ruy Teixera is to win back the ‘white working class’, that is, white voters with low education, particularly in rural areas. Some but not all ‘white working class’ voters are wage workers with low income and wealth . However a large portion are relatively well off retirees. The central idea for Shor and Teixera is to soft pedal cultural issues and focus on promising economic benefits from moderately progressive, but not radical economic policies.

Whatever the merits of this approach in general, it’s a recipe for failure this time around. The incumbent party usually loses ground in midterm elections unless the economy is doing spectacularly well. That’s not the perception are the average voter, concerned more about inflation and shortages than about unemployment. A pitch to centrist voters might limit democratic losses but is highly unlikely to secure the victory that is needed.

The alternative is to make the election a referendum on the Republican Party, including Trump, the insurrection, the Supreme Court, and Christian nationalism. The starting results of the abortion referendum in Kansas suggest that if the election can be framed in these terms, the Democrats had a strong chance of winning and of forming a coalition that can win again in 2024. A big success would also split the Republicans, potentially emboldening business conservatives to break with the current Trumpist majority.

Mobilising single-issue pro-choice voters is part of the strategy. But, as far as possible, the aim should be to present the attack on abortion rights as part of a comprehensive package of opposition to freedom and democracy. One part of that is rejecting any suggestion of moving on beyond the insurrection. Trump and everyone involved should be prosecuted, making it impossible for the rightwing media to bury the issue as they have done. Christian nationalism should be used in the same way as the right used spurious ideas like ‘neo-Marxism’ and ‘critical race theory’ to attack liberals and centrist Dems alike.

I’ll be interested in thoughts on this, but not in any commentary to the effect that Democrats and Republicans are the same. Anyone who wants to express this view is welcome to take it here. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ernst_Thaelmann_Berlin.JPEG

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On mental fitness vs mental health

by Miriam Ronzoni on August 10, 2022

I really enjoyed John’s suggestion that the idea of mental health (=absence of mental illness) might not be as helpful as the idea of mental fitness (=something that requires sustained effort, and is hardly ever fully reached). I wonder, though, whether it might be a double edged sword.

The idea that attending to our mental well being is hard work is certainly something that deserves centre stage – both to get rid of the dangerous idea that it can be dealt with via a quick fix (be it a pill or a self-contained package of therapy sessions); and to acknowledge that, for those who struggle with it, it is something that requires ongoing and complicated labour. It most often involves false starts, dead ends, set backs, ups and and downs, and long phases where a lot of effort only produces incremental results.

On the other hand, though, the idea of mental well being as a state of fitness that requires sustained effort also suggests – much like the analogy with physical fitness which John himself makes – the idea of something which is in our hands if only we put in the work. In other words, it might put more emphasis on individual, atomised responsibility. Don’t be lazy: chuck the junk food; go for a run; do what you need to reach mental fitness.

This logic of individual blame and personal responsibility is the last thing that people who struggle with their mental well being need; yet, the idea of mental fitness rather than health is a powerful one. Is there a way of embracing it without sliding into this logic? Which kind of moves would that involve? What would we need to pay attention to? Interested in reading any thoughts on this.

 

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When we ask the question what we should do about climate change, the answer to that question depends a lot on who the “we” in that sentence is. There have been many answers to the questions what governments should do, or more in general “what should be done” without specifying who the agent of change is, as in, for example, the list of action points provided by Project Drawdown. We might have responsibilities related to climate change that we have specifically in our roles as elected politicians and office holders, as professionals, as entrepreneurs, as investors, and so forth.

But what can citizens, in their capacity of citizens rather than any professional role, do? What can human beings, simply by the fact that they are human beings and thus sharing this planet with other living creatures, do about climate change and ecological degradation?

When searching for an answer to that question, I’ve been wondering whether we could help ourselves by making a compact version of what our action plan to deal with climate change could be. Something that is easy to remember; something that is put in langauge that is not just for insiders or specialists; something that could contribute to a wide range of efforts to get things in motion; something that could serve as a structure, starting point or aide in conversations; and something that can help us very concretely in deciding where to start or what to do next.

Because no matter what the already inevitable consequences of climate change are (such as more frequent extreme weather events, droughts, floodings, wildfires etc.), we can always aim to limit the even more harmful consequences that will come with additional increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, we have to prepare for what will come (even under the best-case scenarios). And in unfolding those strategies, it would help to be united as people in our capacity as citizens and inhabitants of this world, and also to feel united and empowered.

Here’s my proposal for a citizens’ climate action plan in 10 bullet points (so easy to remember!). I will only say a few words about each of these bullet points, not aiming at being comprehensive. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Laugharne

by Chris Bertram on August 7, 2022

The town where Dylan Thomas lived and is buried (and where he possibly imagined as the setting for Under Milk Wood).

Laugharne: rain approaching

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The Upcoming Elections in Italy

by Miriam Ronzoni on August 4, 2022

Orbán: "Non mescoliamoci con altre razze". Così l'alleato di Salvini e Meloni evoca la Teoria della grande sostituzione - la Repubblica

DISCLAIMER: I am on holiday so will not be able to moderate comments assiduously. Apologies in advance for that.

On September 25th, Italians will vote at yet another snap election. This is the first ever Italian national election following a Summer electoral campaign – Italians are quite homogeneous and consistent in taking their holidays in August, a month over which politics usually retreats to the back stage. This Summer, instead, beach parties, open-air clubs and sagre (village fêtes, often taking place during the tourist season) will be the stage of campaigning and canvassing. [click to continue…]

Mental health and mental fitness

by John Quiggin on August 2, 2022

Until now, I’ve always thought about mental health as the absence of mental illness, much as I have typically thought about the absence of physical illness. In both cases, health is the default state or unmarked category.

But as I have gone through the Covid pandemic, and become more pessimistic about the state of the world, I have reached the view that a better analogy is with physical fitness. That is, something that requires sustained effort to achieve and maintain, and is rarely fully achieved.

In particular while I have previously thought about depression as a mental illness, it’s difficult now to distinguish it from ordinary sadness. My congenital optimism now seems more like delusion. Maintaining mental balance is now hard work.

Not surprisingly, I’m not the first to come up with this idea. Searching for “mental fitness” produces lots of hits, mostly fairly recent. The majority are boosterish, introducing and promoting the idea, rather than acknowledging the difficulties associated with it. Nevertheless, I’m hoping to get some useful suggestions. I’d be interested in readers thoughts.

PS: illustrating one of the difficulties of maintaining physical fitness, I came off my bike the other day and broke my wrist. So I’m attempting to blog by dictation. It’s a challenging mental exercise

Paying lipservice, ticking boxes, and doing what it takes

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 1, 2022

Over the last years, I’ve observed in a number of cases of policy making something that looked like “paying lipservice”, but upon closer analysis turns out to be something else. In order to effectively understand, evaluate and criticise the actions of those responsible for policies and leadership actions, it might be helpful to make a distinction between three modes in which policy-makers and leaders in groups might operate: paying lipservice, ticking boxes, and doing what it takes.

The policies/leadership actions I will describe could be in an organisation, in a local or national government, or any other instance in which someone is engaged in making decisions that affect a group. It might even be something that we can observe in some smaller or less formalised groups in which some people have authority/leadership responsibilities, such as parents in families.

How do “paying lipservice”, “ticking boxes”, and “doing what it takes” differ, and why could distinguishing between them matter? [click to continue…]