Somewhere along the line, I became a habitual reader of James Howard Kunstler’s blog, Clusterfuck Nation. I even sporadically read and, god help me, participate in the comments section. Since my area of common interest and agreement with Kunstler largely begins and ends with his views on urbanism and the bad effects of the automobile, I continually surprise myself every time I check in, since he largely moved on to other subjects quite some time ago (basically, since Duncan Crary stopped helping out with his podcast). Nonetheless, I persist.

Another reason I surprise myself is that I’m already on record as identifying the prevailing mood at CFN as mandatory nihilism. Why, you might ask, would someone come back again and again to imbibe that product? Yet this attitude is not only characteristic of the political right but growing rapidly, as the YouTuber Three Arrows observed last week. From him, I learned that the Germans have anticipated me by coining the word Zweckpessimismus, meaning intentional or studied pessimism. Kunstler’s world view, and that of the bulk of his readership it seems (at least the ones motivated to comment on his blog), now lies pinned under glass. Maybe he ought to consider rebranding.

Anyway, I don’t post to this blog nearly often enough, but I’ve also resisted using it in the way I’ve been tempted: as a handy backscratcher whenever I get the itch to rebut or criticize Kunstler’s latest. I’m finally bowing to the inevitable. Maybe it’ll motivate me to do some more useful writing on other topics.

Today’s Kunstler missive addresses an issue of the moment: the increasingly panicked response of the Democratic Party establishment to the obvious strength, and increasingly likely success, of Bernie Sanders’ campaign to be their nominee for president. As for Sanders’ policy priorities, Kunstler predictably dismisses them as promises of free* stuff that can never be delivered on for various reasons, but especially because of limits to economic growth.

On the latter score, Kunstler has facts and reason on his side, because the end of the fossil fuel era and the need for energy transition are no longer science fiction. They’re upon us, as is the ecological crisis we’ve been completely well aware of since no later than the publication of Silent Spring. Capitalist realist that he is, Kunstler takes the austerity position — that there is no alternative to silent acceptance of reduced expectations — absolutely for granted. Our friendly social critic — who has expended no small amount of breath and ink describing the economy as a series of swindles — will have no truck with the idea of redressing those swindles among individuals, or the consequences they have imposed on the wider society. It goes without saying that redistribution of wealth and resources, whereby average people may retain a modicum of dignity and health, is both bad and wrong, not to mention doomed to failure. We’ve seen plutonomy become plutocracy, which became oligarchy; and this will become fascism (he calls it unspecified ‘trouble’), which will end in a new post-industrial, post-consumerist agrarian feudalism. This is Kunstler’s vision, and he lacks patience to debate even any mitigations wherever I’ve seen him have the opportunity. At best, he dismisses any alternative as an attempt to sustain the unsustainable.

Kunstler styles himself as a social critic, yet he rejects social goods, unless they’re attractive buildings or ‘nourishing’ architecture of a kind that — this is telling phraseology — informs people of who they are and what their place is in the scheme of things. As might also be expected of a capitalist-realist of the Zero Hedge variety, Kunstler continues to rail against the great demon inflation. This, mind you, comes after a 40-year period in which inflation has been crushed so effectively that even the great financial crisis of 2007-08 could not budge the needle (google the economist Mark Blyth alongside “creditor’s paradise” if you want to follow that thread).

In a similar vein, Kunstler is a true devotee of money mysticism and the cult of gold. There is nothing more useful to plutocrats and oligarchs than mystification about money. The question of what money is is dead simple: it’s virtual value. That’s it — nothing less, nothing more. The value of money is based on the expectation that a token of some sort can eventually be redeemed for something tangible such as food, clothing or shelter. (Or medical care.) The engine that keeps money in circulation, thereby assuring that there will always be demand for the tokens, is taxation and the ability of the state to coerce payment in its accepted currency. To a plutocrat, it is critically necessary that the operation of money be excluded from the realm of politics. The hyperinflation scare is only the shrillest and least subtle way that people, especially politicians, are discouraged from even beginning to treat money’s role in society as a tool — one that can be used for multiple purposes, including the purpose of improving the lives of everyday people. That, and righting the savage imbalance of power between the wealthy and everyone else that was achieved largely by sweeping the operations of money under the rug in the first place.

One of Kunstler’s favourite slogans is ‘the virtual is not a substitute for the real’. This is apt enough when talking about the way social media acts as a virtual substitute for companionship, or passive consumption of media provides a substitute for real engagement and a real stake in how the society is run. But I’ve never seen Kunstler come to grips with the implications of his own slogan for his views about money, i.e. the virtualization of value. Nor does he take seriously the possibilities that people see in democratic socialism, or any other kind of politics that refuses to accept the endless accumulation of wealth by the few as fatalistically as he does. It’s not that Kunstler is quiet about oligarchy; it’s just that he assumes, indeed insists upon, impotence on any level but the personal (edit: and the local). Hoard gold and get ready for the trouble that’s coming, he says, over and over endlessly. In the end, that’s all his social criticism is good for.

When it comes to the question of “how America will pay for all the free* stuff Bernie proffers”, the answer is glaringly clear: by devoting real resources to the task. I say again, real resources — things of unarguable value such as hours of work, tonnes of building materials, and joules of energy — not merely virtual (i.e. throwing money around, whether it’s denominated in gold, fiat dollars, or promises from your fairy godmother, until it inflates beyond all meaning). Money, demystified and put to work for the purpose on a realistic basis, can and should be part of allocating those resources and achieving those goals. Reorienting public priorities toward these ends, instead of enabling and then defending endless wealth accumulation and oligarchy, is the task — and that means challenging power, including and especially money power, as it is and where it sits. The fact that we are hitting real resource constraints and that exponential growth is ending makes this more critical, not less. It was bad enough that an opulent minority was able to capture the economic surplus while it was still growing; for them to continue doing so when growth stops, or even rolls back, is intolerable. The payoff will be that when the shit hits the fan, we may actually come out the other side retaining some of the material gains of the Industrial Revolution for the good of everyone, instead of collapsing by default back into medieval inequality, only this time on a vastly impoverished planet.

* NB: Eliding the words ‘Free at the point of use‘ is the standard lie and misrepresentation that Kunstler happily cooperates with. Have you ever heard some fool ranting, say, that lighting at night is not ‘free’ and never can be? Certainly not, and if they did so as vociferously as people rail against single-payer medicine, you’d escort them to a rubber room. Yet streetlamps and lighthouses exist — because the need for them was identified, we made provisions for them using what resources were at hand, everyone got on with their lives, and nobody siphoned off vast, unearned, dynastic fortunes in the process.

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The act to make Ontario less fair for workers and more poisonous for everyone

Here’s what the Act to Restore Ontario’s Competitiveness has in it for people who work for a living. (Source: this link. Hat tip to Angie Slingerland.)
1. Allowing employers to ‘average’ time worked across a four-week span. I work with numbers. There is no reason to do this, *except* to deny workers overtime pay. None. It’s called regression to the mean.
2. Not requiring employers to get a signed agreement from workers if they request >48 hours of work per week. This ‘red tape’ creates a record that can be checked up on. Bye-bye record = bye-bye accountability.
3. No longer requiring employers to display posters informing workers of their rights on the job. The Minister of Labour says, “People get information from electronic sources now, more so. They still have to be provided by the employers.” Or they could just, you know, put it out where employees will see it, in a place where they know employees will be — namely, the workplace.
4. Rules requiring industries to keep track of toxic chemicals they use are being eliminated. Because everyone wants more poison around, and no one benefits from knowing about it. Right? It’s more competitive!
Things like this are a test by the Conservatives to see what they can get away with. There’ll be more, and more aggressive, moves later on.
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TTC comedy of errors

I’ve been doing a lot of biking this summer. I promised myself at least three hours a week and mostly I’ve held to it, but this week I got lazy. So today I figured I had some catching up to do, and I got ambitious. To make a long story short, I ended up at Yorkdale. Tired and sweaty, but I figured I was fine, I’d just take the subway back.

Only, the University-Spadina trains were taken out of service, due to a medical emergency: after one stop, two trains in a row kicked everyone off. Not knowing how long I would be waiting on the increasingly crowded platform, or how many stops south I would have to go before I could find another train, I got back on my bike and hauled myself from Lawrence West to Lawrence Station. Whoops, I forgot that the usual weekend closures are back on. So, it’s more sweat, but down to St. Clair I go. Nope, huge lineup of people transferring from the replacement buses. So, onward to Bloor, which I could have done originally without the detour. Sigh.

When I get to to my stop, I figured at least the buses have bike racks and I can ride the rest of the way. (It never occurred to me to use the replacement buses on Yonge because those are always packed, and I didn’t want to add to that the complication of my bike, racks or no.) The bus loop at Royal York station has been closed for construction for over a year (escalators too — fun!). They say it’ll be open again by this winter, but in the meantime everyone has to walk down Royal York and across Bloor to the street stop. Think I made it? No, there goes my bus seconds ahead of me, even though I was a bad pedestrian and didn’t totally obey the signal. Now my handy smartphone app tells me the next one will arrive in 15 minutes or some other insulting length of time (mind you, this route is part of the ‘ten-minute network’, supposedly guaranteeing that’s the longest possible wait).

Well, I made it home at last, even tireder and more sweaty. And I mean, I’ve lasted this long without a car, while knowing I’m still better off without a monthly payment, to say nothing of the side costs. But any more of this excellent, world-class transit and I’m liable to give myself a heart attack.


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Tha Police

(A little behind the curve of the day-to-day. The following was prompted by an online conversation.)

Police officers deal daily with the worst humanity has to offer. They guard me while I sleep. I have benefited all my life from the good work of police men and women. There’s nothing the world needs more than honest, brave police officers.

Likewise, there’s nothing the world needs less than corrupt and/or cowardly ones. That’s because the stakes are very high — the highest, in fact, because alone among all professions, law enforcement is entrusted with the discretion to use force and violence as part of their jobs; up to, and including, deadly force.

I understand the police want respect for what they do. But respect is earned. No one should be dictating the terms by which others accord them respect. If you look the world round, you basically see two different kinds of police. One kind protects the public — this kind is associated with freedom. The other kind protects itself against the public. That kind are cowards. And policing as it’s practiced in the United States of America is the second kind. In the USA, police are trained to be cowards.

Remember this?

Daniel Shaver was seen with a pellet gun on a hotel balcony in Mesa, Arizona, and someone phoned it in to the police. The responding police officers did what they were trained to do: i.e., they subjected him to a lethal game of the hokey-pokey. When he didn’t put his right foot in as instructed, they shot the intoxicated, unarmed and completely harmless man dead with an AR-15.

Contrast that with this, just a couple of weeks ago:

The police officer who responded to the Toronto van attack had far greater reason to fear for his safety than the officer who shot Daniel Shaver — unlike at the hotel, there was a chain of bodies littering the ground. The van attacker (alleged to be one Alek Minassian) further directly provoked the officer by gesturing as if reaching for a gun and pretending to aim at the officer. The officer kept his cool, and secured Alek Minassian alive. He didn’t fire shots that might have endangered bystanders. If Minassian had had accomplices, he was kept alive to give information about them. And fundamentally, this officer’s training and actions reflected a respect for the value of human life.

The death of Daniel Shaver is evidence of a police force trained to protect itself at the expense of the public: cowardice. The apprehension of Alek Minassian represents a police force trained to accept risks in order to protect the public: bravery.

Prove me wrong.

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The 29-year-old hero from Waffle House shooting: ‘I saw the opportunity and I took it’

A 29-year-old man credited with saving numerous lives Sunday morning after he disarmed a man who opened fire on an Antioch Waffle House said he was just trying to stay alive.

James Shaw Jr., 29, said after feeling cornered he saw an opportunity to tackle the man shooting into an Antioch Waffle House. He said he doesn’t feel like a hero.

Police spokesman Don Aaron told reporters Sunday morning that the Waffle House hero rushed the suspected shooter, disarmed him and threw the AR-15 rifle he was carrying over the counter.

“I don’t really know, when everyone said that (of being a hero), it feels selfish,” Shaw Jr. “I was just trying to get myself out. I saw the opportunity and pretty much took it.”

Make sure to click through for the full story.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” so they say. Usually, a statement that definitive is expected to come with some kind of evidence. Failing that, it should at least come in for re-examination when something in the real world contradicts it as clearly as this incident does.

You’d think, but I’ll lay money you’d be wrong. The claim about stopping bad guys with guns can’t be disproved any more than it can be proved, because it isn’t about facts — it’s a profession of faith, and what’s more, faith in a notably blind and pitiless god that hungers for what we hold most dear.

Congratulations and best wishes to Mr. Shaw, and peace to the victims in Antioch, TN and their bereaved friends and loved ones. Take care of yourselves and each other, everyone.

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The current occupant of the Oval Office certainly is having an effect on the discourse, isn’t he? Seriously, who ever thought the Word of the Day in the USA would be “shithole”, courtesy of the President of the United States?

I for one take no position on whether the countries he referred to are, in fact, cloacas and latrines. But no matter how false and artificial it so often seems, diplomatic language has never been seen as optional for POTUS before now. That’s because there are consequences when the leader of a society makes such characterizations — consequences that aren’t good for anybody.

Here’s an anecdote: Smith meets Jones on the street. Says Smith to Jones: “Why, Jones! How are you, you worthless prick? And that filthy whore you married, how is she doing? The squalling brats, are they well? My goodness, it has been some while since I last visited the miserable hovel you piss and shit in. What are the odds of us meeting on a day like this?”

Now here are a few questions: Will Jones punch Smith in the face? Will Smith deserve it? Maybe Smith intended his remarks as badinage, or at any rate, maybe he claims to do so. Does that matter? What if Smith has a history of violence and hostile behaviour? Does it even make a difference whether what Smith says about Jones and his family is true or not?

Multiply these complexities, ambiguities and power relations by: the value of advantageous trade relations; the need for cooperation from your neighbours on things like border security; and the existence in this world of such things as nuclear weapons. You can see why Donald Trump maybe should think before he uses the hole in his face.

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The #TakeAKnee movement is only superficially about race, class, or the effrontery of well-remunerated football players. The reason why it provokes such passions is because it’s really about religion. Namely, the American civil religion: its rituals, its iconography, and especially who is or isn’t allowed to influence them.

The basic mistake that affirmative atheists of the Richard Dawkins / Sam Harris variety make is that they think the driver of religion is its intellectual content. Let the Catholic church make claims about the body and blood of Christ and “No, no,” they’ll say, “you’re doing it wrong. Remember Copernicus, remember Galileo, that so-called blood is still chemically indistinguishable from wine, etc.”. But religion isn’t about what it says; it’s a mechanism for forming and maintaining identity. No two religions make exactly the same claims about humanity, God or gods, or the nature of existence; but they are as one in providing their adherents a way to understand who they are. On the one hand, think of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland bitterly divided from one another, no matter that they don’t look any different. On the other, think of Malcolm X returning from Mecca with a new understanding after meeting blond, blue-eyed fellow Muslims for the first time.

The American civil religion is no different. The USA has its own Last Supper, its own communion of saints and martyrs, its version of the Rapture, and its master narrative to which it requires that all others be subordinate. But the long-simmering conflict over the American identity is now surging toward a boiling point, as control of the narrative slips ever further from those who have long held it. (And to hold something is to deny it to others; that’s the definition of property.)

More than fifty years after the March on Washington, there are still those who feel the need to rise up and demand that the nation “live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'” In response, there are those who say: “No, no, you’re doing it wrong. Asians learned to fit in; you need to learn to fit in too. Fix the way you talk. Act respectable.” And, unspoken but clear: “Stop making me feel threatened by you and your demands.”

It’s not going to stop. African Americans, and other minorities as well, are part of America and have been from the beginning. They and their experience are part of the substance of the nation — just as they are, not as scolds and remonstrants would have them be. What they want is for that fact to be recognized.

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