Structural Change

I still have thoughts after last week’s post, and after previous posts related to Critical Race Theory, so the discussion continues. As you may notice, I have commented on the need for a change that is greater than lip service or genuine good will. I have written of the need for inclusivity in education from a paradigm based on international education, rather than our current paradigms which can sometimes be politicized and alienating rather than constructive and informative. Why do we not have structural change yet? I believe there are a few reasons.

-We have an emphasis on language and image. For example, we can instruct kids and students and people about what words to use to address someone or a particular group. Of course, it is crucial to set certain boundaries and rules about respect (such as never using the N-word with Blacks, or the F- epithet with the LGBTQ community). But this emphasis on language often remains superficial. A white woman may love listening to “Chicano and Latino” singers but vote in ways that don’t stop discriminatory gerrymandering. A college freshman may refer to an 18-year-old as a “woman” rather than a “girl” in the classroom but use her as a booty call on a Friday night after a few drinks. It’s very easy for people to tweet and retweet things like “Black Lives Matter” or post a “Stop Asian Hate” image on Instagram, but are they taking action to help lower SES black kids, or informing themselves about Asian geography and immigration? 

            I am not saying language and image are not important; however, I believe that these things have become a rallying cry and superficial solutions to what are structural problems. People can feel like they have accomplished something by using a politically correct vocabulary. The sad result is that there has been a backlash against political correctness, as we have seen from the rise of the right wing in politics as well as the media. There is a sad reason why Trump got elected. And there are many liberals or generally open-minded people who are also tired of having their speech policed. The Atlantic featured an article in 2018 about this, with the clincher that (from polls and data) those in favor of political correctness tend to be “Rich, highly educated – and white… and make more than $100,000 a year.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/large-majorities-dislike-political-correctness/572581/

-America is a country founded on individualism, which can create ignorance. So, is it any wonder that people may like minorities they know personally or elements of minority culture such as food or music, but not understand the greater challenges various minority groups face? We need to be informed about history, domestic and global, to understand our demographics. We also need to be aware of the economic structures of this country, and how they have favored certain groups. The right wants to blame the immigrants (who are supported by the left) for economic problems; what they don’t realize is that both right and the left are being manipulated by the 1% who have all the power and resources. Class stratification is a huge problem in developing countries as well as the United States, where there are a few government regulations or social support to mitigate the problems. It’s not only our personal individualism that is destroying us as a country, but also the economic individualism.

-A lack of knowledge of history. We scarcely know our own history, let alone the history of other countries who were also powerful and global empires. The late historian Chalmers Johnson mentioned in a lecture I attended that the United States was going the way of the Roman Empire, which fell nearly 2000 years ago. Rome controlled so much of the world, and yet we do not heed any warning signs or choose to learn what brought the downfall of the mighty. We should not repeat past mistakes that were made.

-A lack of knowledge of science and the application of science to public policy. In America, science has largely been ignored or politicized. The number of politicians who truly understand science, the scientific method and rationality, or preventative medicine are few and far between. In popular culture, stereotypes abound about the “nerdiness” of scientists and those who work in STEM fields. There is inadequate explanation by the medical establishment about procedures, wellness, preventative care, and the limits of what medicine can treat. Granted, this has improved in the past few decades. However, not enough attention has been paid to underserved communities and communities that have been manipulated in the name of science and “experiments.” And therefore, we have paid a price, as we have seen during this pandemic, with many communities being suspicious of the Covid vaccine, or not even getting access to it easily, resulting in sickness and death. The individualistic mentality has also led to a questioning of the medical establishment (which is not necessarily a bad thing when done carefully), and so we have anti-vaxxers and quack medicine movements. 

            Medicine has been treated as something very individual. The extreme privatization of our healthcare system is immoral, disgusting, and criminal. Public health has not existed as a visible entity until recently, because we do not think about community and health as a collective issue. Hillary Clinton was bullied for trying to institute universal healthcare; Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”) has met with many challenges as well as opposition from the public and politicians.

-Transportation. Outside of a few urban areas, public transit is poor. This is a country built on the automobile, and even many urban areas require a car. Owning a car also involves maintenance, paying for gasoline, and insurance, all of which can be very expensive depending on where one lives. For many people, this is a huge expense and leaves people in debt. For others, they are dependent on public transportation, at this adds hours of commutes to their days. Families pay a price for this. In addition, there are millions of people who live in extreme climates where it is severely cold or wet, so walking, cycling, or taking public transportation is not always an option. In these cases, eco-friendly vehicles are a key solution, but the economies of scale and availability and technology are not yet affordable for the majority, and so we continue to use polluting vehicles. 

These are just some signs that those in power need to rethink the underpinnings of our society. What are the key institutions that support us? How have we been misinterpreting the Constitution and principles set by our founding fathers to a degree that there is absolutely no collective well-being or consciousness as a society? Why have the obsessions with individual rights going to such extremes that they jeopardize basic well-being for everybody (think: school shootings)? Let’s hope that the recent Black Lives Matter protests, incidents of violence, elections, and pandemic will get people thinking and most importantly, effecting structural change.

The “Bad Art Friend” Controversy: My Two Cents

I am not qualified- or knowledgeable enough to truly comment on the recent “Bad Art Friend” controversy written about in the New York Times involving Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. (Sonya Larson was in the same MFA program I was in, Warren Wilson, and one semester we even had the same advisor. We had also corresponded about a panel discussion at an alumni conference on questions of representation and non-white writers.) But I can comment on the issues that are raised, such as about using materials for details from another’s life.

Writers are observers; we are always taking in the events and circumstances around us, however consciously or unconsciously. This is inevitable. I believe also that writers should be able to write about characters from backgrounds different from their own. This needs to be done respectfully and complexly, of course. But fiction is fiction because it is not autobiographical. For many of us, our characters are composites with elements of people we have encountered as well as figments of our imagination. 

However, there are always the issues of a) direct quotation, a.k.a. plagiarism, of what somebody else has written are said and b) good boundaries and taste. The former is easier to criticize and go after; the latter is something much harder to teach and for many people to learn. In this era of social media, people very frequently have bad boundaries and there has been a decline in empathy and emotional intelligence that has been quantitatively measured by social science researchers over the decades.

Here is one good solution–imagination. A writer who is grounded in craft and who understands how to write dialogue can come up with good fiction that draws on one’s experiences and knowledge filtered through technique. I liken it to method acting, where an actor or actress brings their emotional memory to the character they are playing. You might use the feelings from a bad breakup to play Ophelia or frustrations with your man to play Maggie in “A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” but you are ultimately always playing Ophelia or Maggie, not yourself. If writers think about the audiences they are writing to, and not just about expressing their own feelings, this might make them more conscientious and aware of how their work will be perceived. Telling a good story is a skill that is underrated in literary fiction, in my opinion.

One of the common phenomena in writing workshops is the prevalence of autofiction and writing about oneself. This is one easy way to circumvent the issue of writing about others. It reminds me of a saying that goes something like, “The good thing about egoists is that they never gossip about others!”

Social media is something I find frightening and disturbing. People use it as a means to publicly humiliate others. There are numerous examples I could cite, such as one student haranguing another student for having posted questions three times on their graduate program’s Facebook website, telling them to ask the director of the program instead.

Writing programs can often have cliques, different factions, and (sorry to say) emotionally unstable people who will gossip behind people’s back and do hurtful things. There are problems with both racism/racial insensitivity and people playing the race card unnecessarily and inappropriately. Many writers are extremely thin-skinned, and some can be jealous. Being a writer is an isolating thing, so when writers get together, they want to feel connected to others, and sometimes this ends up in creating in-groups and therefore ostracism. There is the common stressor of schoolwork and an advisor’s expectations. Out in the real world, this translates into deadlines, editorial decisions, and dealing with notorious characters.

All of this can make a writer feel like one should lock oneself in a room and write, not deal with others at all. Some writers choose to do this, and it is easy to see why.

At its core, the joy of being a writer is about being able to translate what one hears, thinks, sees, imagines in one’s head into words. It is a solitary process, but it does not have to be lonely. Not everything is a Dorland versus Larson. Supportive writers will bolster you, give you constructive criticism about your craft, encourage you when your energy is flagging, and congratulate you when you have published something or have completed a work. It can take little effort to find these people, but they are out there. 

Do We Need Silicon Valley Anymore?

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful place between a blue bay and a big, cold magnificent ocean. There were lots of trees and mountains, and before the white man converted or killed them off, lots of Native Americans. Over time, this beautiful place was settled, and a robber baron who made his fortune in railroads built a university with striking Italian-Spanish architecture in honor of his only son who died as a teenager. The climate was such that brilliant innovative scientists were able to build and create various technologies, such as silicon chips, which were used inside amazing new devices. There were two guys who built a company in a garage, and then a company that hyphenated their last names together. Then later, two guys named Steve radically created a computer that would become a household name, called after a common fruit. One of the Steves even took it further, and, along with a team of brilliant innovative scientists, created devices that people could use to listen to music wherever they wanted, telephones that allowed people to do more than talk, and invented screens that would respond to you at the mere touch of a finger. There were programs on these computers that allowed you to search for any information in the world without having to set foot in the library. And there were still more people who invented, designed, created, and innovated all kinds of tools that human beings used to change their lives. It made the place between the blue bay and the big, cold magnificent ocean attractive to all kinds of interesting people from all over the world.

And then what happened?

I would argue that Silicon Valley’s social capital or utility can be represented by a diminishing returns curve. With the heyday of hardware and even beginning stages of software, Silicon Valley was at the peak of the curve. But now, are there are more social problems and negative impacts on society than benefits?

The San Francisco area has always been prone to earthquakes, as well as a “gold rush” get rich quick mentality. The area is also, on a positive note, one of the most open-minded places in the world. It has been a haven for people of all shapes and sizes and beliefs. No matter who you are, you can be yourself there. If you have new ideas and are forward thinking, you are especially welcome: this is quite novel, when you think about how stodgy and traditional other parts of the country – and the world — can be. Nature is everywhere, from magnificent redwoods to open hills to water on all sides. And when so much of United States suffers from extreme climates, a place with year-round temperate weather is a welcome haven. Of course such an area would be in demand!

But over the past two decades, there has been a shift from hardware and physical goods produced to software and non-tangible technologies, such as websites and apps. Social media is the name of the game. As an anthropologist by undergraduate training, I can comment that the impact of this shift in technology seems to be not extremely socially useful. Yes, governments and businesses use Facebook. Yes, Twitter was instrumental in the Arab Spring. Social media can potentially unite people, enabling a grandparent in India to see their grandchild on FaceTime, or a long-lost friend to be found after half a century. We all want more ease in our lives, and apps can certainly do that. But we must ask ourselves, what is the social value of this software or social media? How much of it is truly life- saving or life-changing? Is Instagram really there to change our lives? Do we really need an app to tell us where to eat, what to wear, which way to swipe if someone is “hot,” where to get the best price on that frivolous knick-knack we want but don’t need? What is the purpose of “social media” anyhow, when really we should be spending time communicating with each other directly?

Consider the following. The sharp rise in the IT industry has driven up the cost of real estate, driving out residents who have lived in their homes for decades, or working poor or immigrants from their apartments (by the evil Trion Properties private equity firm), as was reported recently in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/21/silicon-valley-eviction-facebook-trion-properties
Gentrification has made San Francisco unaffordable, and rent control seems to be a thing of the past. San Francisco has almost become the most expensive city in the U.S. (just closely behind New York).

Diversity is also lessening, both ethnically and economically, as only the elite professionals (often white and middle- or upper-middle class, from Ivy League schools or at least well-educated) can afford to buy or even rent property. With such an imbalance in careers, those who work in other fields, such as education and the arts, whose services are crucial to society (such as the children of these IT people) flee the area. There is also a gender imbalance, leading San Jose to be dubbed “Man Jose” due to the high proportion of men there. But this goes beyond mere physical gender: this is an imbalance of masculine energy and traits, and that which is uniquely or traditionally feminine (be it careers or personality qualities) is diminished. The high rollers in Silicon Valley are not social workers or ballet dancers, and women who want to succeed need to play like a man. Recall Marissa Mayer’s telecommuting ban at Yahoo. This is no surprise when a female CEO is very cold and masculine (I have it on inside authority).

There is also the lesser-important issue of how the tech industry has effected language change. Text English is its own dialect, and auto correct has all but eliminated the need for young people to learn proper grammar and spelling. Do people know how to use your vs. you’re? Everything is reduced to an abbreviation, a single syllable, a precious, clever spelling change (lift with a y for a ride service). Have any of these techno-geeks studied philology? Linguistics? Their sense of history seems to be in years, not even decades and certainly not centuries or millennia. And let’s not even get into how children’s cognitive development is going to be affected a decade later.

What we have here is a population of people that is social and morally underdeveloped with too much money, no history, no ethics or taste. They lack the sense of psychosocial development that comes with learning slowly and with understanding society and culture and history, how to handle money, and how to deal with people. How laughable was Mark Zuckerberg’s 2015 declaration on his Facebook page that: “My challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every other week — with an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.” Apparently, his Harvard education had been wasted until then. If this is the type of citizens top universities are churning out – shortsighted, tech-focused, money-grubbing students – maybe it’s time for them to reevaluate. One retired Stanford professor told me “Silicon Valley is like a cancer on Stanford.” Or conversely, Stanford has become the handmaiden of Silicon Valley.

There is nothing wrong with technology and innovation. We are all on the social media grid, so to speak, all use our smartphones and rely on our computers. The problem comes if there is an imbalance, and if the traditional elements of education are cut, and when people become greedy and exploit, however unknowingly, others. Oddly, there was huge support for Bernie Sanders when he was seeking the nomination for Democratic Candidate for President. This is all good and well, but these people need to be personally fighting for justice for the underprivileged in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, not allowing rents to be raised exorbitantly and traditions to be destroyed. In other words, they need to be equally concerned with creating social capital and solving social problems. Unfortunately, there is no app for that.