An Eclectic List of Holiday Reading
Here’s a reading list I put together for a couple of friends, for when it’s dark and cold and boring:
- An old man with a good head on his shoulders tells us how to fix Congress in First Step Post-Election – Open Up the Closed, Secretive Congress by Ralph Nader (CounterPunch).
- Meagan Day interviews Kristin Ghodsee about her book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism. They talk about life under socialist regimes (DDR lässt grüssen) made men and women both more comfortable and try harder to be good people (i.e. trophy wives couldn’t just be bought) in No Scrubs by Kristin Ghodsee (Jacobin)
- The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing us that plastics are garbage: The plastic backlash: what’s behind our sudden rage – and will it make a difference? by Stephen Buranyi (The Guardian)
- Speaking of tricks. Ricky Jay, the sleight-of-hand artist/genius, has died. Here’s a lovely biographical piece from the New Yorker (1993): Secrets of the Magus by Mark Singer (New Yorker). It’s worth it for the nicely related anecdotes about Jay’s feats.
- And, finally, there’s a long and sobering article on the loss of about 80% of our insect biomass over the last 40 years, The Insect Apocalypse Is Here by Brooke Jarvis (New York Times Magazine). Dontworryaboutitwerefine.
Some more extended citations and notes from that article (all emphases are added):
“Right now, Bulgaria and Romania have the highest percentage of women working in tech in the EU. The reason is that there were policies in place that allowed women to enter fields that in the West have remained dominated by men. There was a concerted effort on the part of state socialist governments, going all the way back to the thirties in the Soviet Union and the fifties in Eastern Europe, to integrate women into formerly more masculine parts of the economy — law, medicine, academia, banking. Women were even trained in the military, as pilots and snipers and parachuters.”
“Male employment was often better remunerated. But, on the other hand, wages don’t matter as much when the state is providing a huge array of social services. The state guaranteed jobs, housing, health care, education, and things like daycare and extended paid maternity leaves. Women were not compensated as well as men, but they still had a greater degree of economic independence from men than they do today.”
“The theory became a reality after 1917 in the Soviet Union, with the support of Lenin and especially of Alexandra Kollontai, who was the commissar of social welfare. Kollontai tried to put into place the socialization of child care in the creation of children’s homes. She wanted to create public canteens where people could eat. She wanted to create public laundries. She also wanted to create mending cooperatives, because back then mending was a huge task that women had to do at home and she thought it would be more efficient if done collectively, reducing the burden on individual women. This was all attempted in the early twenties. The problem is that the Soviet state wasn’t wealthy enough and it collapsed. All of these laws were reversed by 1936 because Stalin said essentially, “We have to take our resources and file them into the industrial economy, and it’s much more affordable for us to get these women doing this work at home for free.” But importantly, those same policies that Kollontai tried to implement in the twenties made a resurgence in Eastern Europe after 1945.”
“And it turns out that when men have to be “interesting” in order to attract women, they are. They actually end up being better men. It’s not that difficult a concept. I don’t know why people are so shocked by this.”
“There were brilliant socialist feminists in the seventies, people like Silvia Federici and others, who were making the case that large structural changes would reorganize relationships between men and women. What happened is that, as Nancy Fraser has written about, feminism was largely co-opted by neoliberal capitalism. So we ended up getting a kind of Sheryl Sandberg-style “lean in” feminism, which is all about individual success and creating conditions for a handful of women to be as filthy rich as a handful of men are.”
“For a host of reasons, care work for the elderly or the ill or certainly for children often falls into the lap of women. Given that this work has to be done, societies have a choice: they can reduce the burden of care work on women by transferring it from the individual to society, or they can completely devalue it and shove it into the private sphere where women do it for free. [as Stalin did]”
“We shouldn’t ignore the purges and the gulags and the state violence, but we have to be clear that it wasn’t like that all the time.”
Just like we shouldn’t ignore the horrific and varied violence of state capitalism.
“Because I’m an ethnographer who’s been doing field work in Eastern Europe for twenty years, I know many people who will tell you that life was much more nuanced and complex, and not as overwhelmingly negative as Westerners imagine. Certainly not everybody was marching around in Mao suits with shaved heads, or starving in the streets and begging for a pair of jeans.”
Ah, the myths we learn to avoid seeing greener grass.↩
↩“Yet far more than Malini’s contemporaries, the famous conjurers Herrmann, Kellar, Thurston, and Houdini, Malini was the embodiment of what a magician should be—not a performer who requires a fully equipped stage, elaborate apparatus, elephants, or handcuffs to accomplish his mysteries, but one who can stand a few inches from you and with a borrowed coin, a lemon, a knife, a tumbler, or a pack of cards convince you he performs miracles.””
Some more extended citations and notes from that article (all emphases are added):
“A 1995 study, by Peter H. Kahn and Batya Friedman, of the way some children in Houston experienced pollution summed up our blindness this way: “With each generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as the norm.” In decades of photos of fishermen holding up their catch in the Florida Keys, the marine biologist Loren McClenachan found a perfect illustration of this phenomenon, which is often called “shifting baseline syndrome.” The fish got smaller and smaller, to the point where the prize catches were dwarfed by fish that in years past were piled up and ignored. But the smiles on the fishermen’s faces stayed the same size. The world never feels fallen, because we grow accustomed to the fall.”
“There was a reason for the wariness. Society members dislike seeing themselves described, over and over in news stories, as “amateurs.” It’s a framing that reflects, they believe, a too-narrow understanding of what it means to be an expert or even a scientist — what it means to be a student of the natural world.”
“But extinction is not the only tragedy through which we’re living. What about the species that still exist, but as a shadow of what they once were? In “The Once and Future World,” the journalist J.B. MacKinnon cites records from recent centuries that hint at what has only just been lost: “In the North Atlantic, a school of cod stalls a tall ship in midocean; off Sydney, Australia, a ship’s captain sails from noon until sunset through pods of sperm whales as far as the eye can see. … Pacific pioneers complain to the authorities that splashing salmon threaten to swamp their canoes.” There were reports of lions in the south of France, walruses at the mouth of the Thames, flocks of birds that took three days to fly overhead, as many as 100 blue whales in the Southern Ocean for every one that’s there now. “These are not sights from some ancient age of fire and ice,” MacKinnon writes. “We are talking about things seen by human eyes, recalled in human memory.””
“It is estimated that, since 1970, Earth’s various populations of wild land animals have lost, on average, 60 percent of their members. Zeroing in on the category we most relate to, mammals, scientists believe that for every six wild creatures that once ate and burrowed and raised young, only one remains. What we have instead is ourselves. A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that if you look at the world’s mammals by weight, 96 percent of that biomass is humans and livestock; just 4 percent is wild animals.”
“Thomas believes that this naturalist tradition is also why Europe is acting much faster than other places — for example, the United States — to address the decline of insects: Interest leads to tracking, which leads to awareness, which leads to concern, which leads to action.”
Or, that the “profit motive” comes between concern and action.↩