Saturday, December 29, 2007


I think last year I wrote here about the sadness I, and presumably other people, were feeling at the thought of our landscape -- esthetically, economically, culturally -- under threat from global warming. What is Italy without its vineyards and olive groves?

Now a great writer at Wired magazine has given this feeling of sadness a name: solastalgia. Appropriately in my view, he likens the feeling to what indigenous people felt as they were taken from their traditional homelands.

Dislocation can be mental as well as geographical. The Inca, Aztecs and Mayans suffered through it even though they never migrated elsewhere; in a relatively small but deeply felt way, my mother and her cohort of pre World World II Triestines, raised on Austrian wine, pastry and waltzes, and German culture, lost a part of their personhood when that all disappeared with the armistice; and older generations here in Oregon probably aren't sure of where they are when former cow fields turn into strip malls.

But what we are facing with climate change is a fundamental loss of bearings that is worldwide and simultaneous. Five hundred years later, the Incas' descendants in Peru and Bolivia still sing plaintive, haunting songs about their history of cultural upheaval and impoverishment. As writer Clive Thompson postulates, we will suffer an enormous toll on our mental health alone from the loss of our sense of place.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Ars Americana

When we moved to Portland Oregon in 1994, I feared cultural isolation. I had reason to, since the city was still not the indie, creative epicenter it has become. And it has a way to go before it matches my former home towns of New York, Paris, Rome and Washington, D.C. for world class exhibitions and performances. But thanks to the Internet and lots of travel there are few times I feel deprived of culture.

There are moments, however, when I wonder where the new ideas are now coming from, and whether our exposure to them is being limited. It is important that it not be, now that technological, scientific and creative breakthroughs are happening in China, India and elsewhere.

How will we know the state of our ideas? Will we be aware if the window onto the world shrinking? Who has the power to make it so or to prevent it from happening?

Culture is formed by so many things, including politics. And values. For a long time America drew artists and thinkers here not only because its culture was infectious in its freedom and tolerance, but because artists knew to be successful they had to contribute their own ideas to it.

Which is why I shuddered when I read these words from one of the latter 20th century's greatest performance artists, Mikhail Baryshnikov (who I had the privilege of seeing dance many times):

"I travel so much in Europe; there is so much interesting theater that has never been in New York."..."The political fallout from the unpopularity of America's war in Iraq and other policies could be responsible...Maybe it also spills into art...they don't care even what Americans think anymore..."

Is this how darkness falls? Artists just don't show up?

Baryshnikov defected from behind the Iron Curtain, escaping a world of narrow possibilities, to live, work and experiment culturally in the U.S. and the West. And he's still doing it...but if he's worried about dim horizons then I'm worried.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Disintegration thoughts

I've been thinking about disintegration lately. In a world united by the sharing culture of the Internet, where "friends" share all kinds of information through Twitter, Facebook and MP3, our broader global society is not holding it together.

It is hard not to be aware of this, considering the fracturing beyond recognition of nations such as Chad, Sudan, Iraq, Kenya, Pakistan and even Belgium. "Boring" old Belgium is more interesting than ever, now that the thin veneer of statehood holding its Walloons and Flamands together is disintegrating. The fact that it is interesting now doesn't mean it is in better shape than before; just that it is demanding attention as a manifestation of an idea whose time may have come: the breakup of nations into smaller societies of common values.

The disintegration of some of these states was probably inevitable. They were never nation states with sturdy institutions to begin with, just federations of tribes with innate irreconcilable differences that never desired inclusiveness.

But is the idea taking hold that being once joined doesn't mean never splitting apart? Does it indicate that the whole within which small states thrive does not have to be a nation, but could be a federation of autonomous states? Belgium may go away, but tiny Flanders and Wallonia could still be part of Europe and the European Union.

You have to wonder if a nation the size and cohesiveness of the U.S. but with today's polarized electorate, could also fall sway to deep divisions. Already the push and pull between federal and state power is occurring over divisive feelings that relate to beliefs, the limits of freedom and the option of controlling one's own destiny. Will a progressive, creative Cascadia emerge, linking Northern California to British Columbia? Will a fundamentalist Christian Core become an inland nation? Is it conceivable that the U.S. may someday need to consider making room for a Hispanic autonomous zone in the Southwest, much as as Spain's Catalonia, France's Basque southwest, Canada's Quebec and Italy's alpine Tirol regions?

When listening to public discourse, I hear lots of indications of rifts, but few of unity. What happens when people can easily name more things that divide than unite us?

There is probably more than one underlying reason for disintegration of states, some more relevant than others depending on the geography. Perhaps globalization is breeding a familiarity that arouses contempt. More likely, globalization threatens cultural identity, and in dividing peoples into winners and losers elicits opposition. Globalization and technology makes people painfully aware of who is winning. Losers could include not only those who have lost jobs, but those who are poisoned by toxic environments or starved of staple crops by climate change.

It might all come down to scarcities -- water, food, power, security, wealth. These might open the way for bigger wedges like religion, nationalism, and hostilities from other societies.

Jared Diamond believes the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s was spurred by resource scarcities resulting from population pressure.

Once disintegration starts, how does it end? Lebanon was once a peaceful, multi-cultural, prosperous country. Will it ever be again or will its parts ever be whole and able to live alongside each other?

China recognizes avoiding disintegration is critical to the country's success. Whether or not they will find a solution is another matter. By distributing the benefits of globalization to rural areas, China's leaders could ensure that a culture of optimism that unites the country.

And that's where Belgium comes in again: these antagonistic societies, if they find a way to live with each other, might create a model of fractious states coexisting.

For now, it seems the U.S. will remain united because of pervasive post-9/11 culture of fear replacing the national, unifying pride in individual freedom. As Jared Diamond suggests, societies have choices to make. The 2008 election could be a values vote for sure.

Olives, avocados and water

About a year or so ago, I wondered here about the impact of climate change on small farms. I still think it would be valuable to hear stories from farmers about what changes they are seeing and, as a result, what they anticipate could be the consequences. If nothing else, it might helps us be realistic about our future food supply and prepare. These farmers are the experts, after all. Today's New York Times carries a few op-eds on this subject for those willing to dispense with holiday cheer.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Violence on the border

As Arizona gets ready for a new law to go into effect that penalizes employers of illegal (Hispanic) immigrants, California is the launchpad for illegal attacks into Mexico. I'd say that takes vigilante justice a tad too far.

Now, the Mexicans cross illegally, yes they do. But to work for us. And mostly, they work their asses off. Our illegal attacks occur only to HURT them, and to show them we hate them, in case they didn't know. Maybe the Commander in Chief ought to send in the National Guard...oh, wait, wrong century.

I just keep asking myself: What have we Americans become? Certainly we're less "christian" than ever, despite what savethemiddleclass has to say in this comment to the ABC story:

"If the present trend of illegal alien growth continues, the US will be a third-world country by the year 2040. I do not believe it is ethical to leave our children and grandchildren a third-world country when we have the power to stop it. We do not have to "house" everyone's mother, father, brother, and sister in this country. How many are you providing housing to in your home (something to consider). Third, who appointed you as the judge of people's motivations (ie, racist)? I am a Christian and my guidebook (the Bible) states that no one except God has the right to judge anyone's motivation."

Note to savethemiddleclass: if we become a third world country it will be because of an unscientific approach to problems of climate change, foreign oil dependency, education, health, innovation and social conflict, all problems not being taken seriously while people take pot shots at economic refugees.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Immigration now

Despite all its economic, social and cultural shortcomings, one of the really big things the U.S. has had going for it was its openness. This situation didn't exist entirely out of altruism, as immigrant labor was essential for our economic growth, but it had the side effect of enriching us culturally as well and imbuing our national values with something extraordinary and almost unique -- a lack of fear of others.

To listen to the GOP candidates during their debate before Latinos is to realize that this openness and our formerly innate optimism are at risk.

Where is this anti-immigrant fervor coming from? It's certainly not very
Immigration to the U.S. is actually in decline, as the world's poor looks to Europe, Canada, Asia and emerging countries like Brazil for less jingoism and more opportunity. And economically, anti-immigration measures are demonstrably counterproductive.

Is it to deflect attention from this?

"The lesson to be learned from the election is that voter distrust of their leaders, fueled by corruption and inaction concerning critical problems, is a key issue heading into the 2008 election. While immigration is an important issue, it is not the bogeyman that Republicans hoped it would be." The Reform Institute, Nov. 27, 2007

The one GOP candidate to boycott tonight's debate, Tom Tancredo, had this comment:
“It is the law that to become a naturalized citizen of this country you must have knowledge and understanding of English, including a basic ability to read, write, and speak the language. So what may I ask are our presidential candidates doing participating in a Spanish speaking debate? " and " “Bilingualism is a great asset for any individual, but it has perilous consequences for a nation," Tancredo said. "As such, a Spanish debate has no place in a presidential campaign." Scandinavians, who perhaps not coincidentally enjoy prosperity we can only envy, speak five or so languages and might disagree with Tancredo's beliefs.

Remember when Spain spent a few hundred years kicking out Jews and Arabs, groups that had brought architecture, engineering, math, music and other learning to Iberia? As a result, Spain quickly became "the sick man of Europe". Running out of ideas for how to accommodate a growing population of idle lesser sons, they took that sickness, in the form of the Inquisition and other oppressive institutions, to the New World. One could say Latin America has yet to recover 600 years later.