Friday, July 27, 2018

The Great Plastic Straw Distraction

Wow, talk about a straw man argument!

I’ve seen little move faster than the Great Plastic Straw Meltdown of 2018, except perhaps the backlash against it. Plastic straws are toxic, non-biodegradable, and contribute to clogging our oceans with continent-sized islands of trash; but the disabled, stroke survivors, and the elderly need straws to swallow liquids. Whose goals are served by each side? Why are they so strident? And are they both missing the biggest question?

The outrage around plastic straws assumes you, personally, eschewing your disposable sissy stick with fast food, can halt the planet’s mounting collapse. Really? Seven billion people, many of them creating trash every day, and you expect me to believe one simple habit change can fix the problem? Of course not. Because the problem isn’t one throwaway product, it’s a massive throwaway culture. My straw habits barely make a dent.

To even reach the restaurant where my disposable straw becomes an issue, I must drive my carbon-burning car across roads paved in carbon-emitting concrete. I must travel from one air-conditioned environment to another, often idling at red lights and other traffic controls. God knows how far my beverage was shipped before my straw came anywhere near it; colas require ingredients imported from Africa in diesel-burning container ships.

Our economy is premised on an assumption of limitless inexpensive goods, services, and energy. We expect food to be fast and cheap, cars to be as attractive as they are speedy, and houses to have autumn-like comfort even in bitter winters and scalding summers. We burn lights all night, heat water we never use, and live unbelievable distances from our jobs. And we discard unbelievable quantities of domestic refuse.

click to enlarge
As a construction worker, I have firsthand insights into the ways our economy generates waste. Depending on the job size, we throw away more garbage daily than my house generates in a year. Off-size scrap, slightly damaged product, trimmings from site installation, and workers’ personal trash, all go straight into the dumpster. Though some materials, particularly unmixed metals, get recycled, they’re the definite minority.

Some of this waste is manifestly harmful. The United States Gypsum Corporation, America’s largest drywall manufacturer, warns builders to return unused scraps of product to them for recycling, because if that stuff gets landfilled, it can acidify groundwater. Yet I’ve witnessed how this almost never happens. Drywall leftovers go straight into the dumpster, because saving and returning it is costly and time-consuming, and cost efficiency triumphs over all.

I prevent some of this waste by grabbing packing pallets that would otherwise get landfilled, and rebuilding them into rustic furniture as a hobby. I’m proud of how my skills at furniture-building have progressed in recent months. But as an individual, I can only redirect limited amounts of product from the dumpster. I’ve watched perfectly good structural wood get landfilled because I couldn’t possibly take, store, and use any more.

hus my problem with the “individual responsibility” model inherent in the plastic straw debate. My individual decision to not take a swizzle stick cannot possibly make enough difference, amid all the waste generated by our system, in the trash going into our landfills, waterways, and oceans. No matter how solemn my intentions, I can’t do enough to really change the trajectory of an economic structure that demands cheap, disposable stuff.

Whether you use or refuse plastic straws is a distraction, plain and simple. Though I haven’t tracked the controversy to its source, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover industry front groups have pushed this low-grade moral panic on America’s buying public to make them feel personally responsible, deflecting attention from the system that profits whenever we throw stuff away. Rampton and Stauber write extensively about how this distraction motivation works.

I don’t want to disparage the impulse to do right in our consumption habits. But the “ethical consumption” model pushed in the anti-straw argument essentially standardizes the idea that the market environment simply exists, and isn’t created by laws, practices, and traditions. It exonerates manufacturers who create massive waste in generating our cheap stuff. And it offloads responsibility for ethical choices onto individuals who, by definition, cannot do enough.

By all means, if it’s within your power, refuse the plastic straw. Something is better than nothing. But don’t think, because you’ve skipped the straw, you’ve done your part. Use that as a launching point to transform, not just yourself, but your relationship with a system dependent on massive human indifference. And don’t get distracted by those who want you to think you’ve done enough.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Über and the Flaws of Economic Purity

So it’s true I avoided using Über for as long as humanly possible. But it was also true that my truck was seven miles away, across an unfamiliar town, up and down fairly hilly terrain, in ninety-degree heat. Funny how solidarity with the working class and all that other undergraduate Marxism goes out the window when faced with odds like that. So I downloaded the Über app and hailed a ride, because the alternative felt too horrible.

I’ve mustered dozens of reasons why I avoid Über: I already have a vehicle, or I distrust drivers who aren’t licensed and bonded for liability, or their presence in my medium-sized community is too small, or I’ve read horror stories of Über drivers abusing their power over defenseless passengers, especially women. Blah blah blah. Truth is, I researched their business model, and I dislike it. It centralizes control, diffuses overhead onto drivers, and structurally prevents organized labor action.

Reading into Über’s business structure, I’ve seen how they control driver access to customers, and vice versa, through a digital algorithm located God-knows-where, controlled by God-knows-whom, and drivers can accept or reject the terms. Unlike locally owned cab services, who know their dispatcher and the other drivers, Über workers are anonymous, even to each other. Workers who never meet one another can never organize for better wages: according to one report, Über pays poverty wages.

This epitomizes the problem underlying American, and increasingly international, capitalism: we’ve found ways to work around market forces and drive wages down for people who actually create value. The person who drives people from place to place, who returns me to my truck so I don’t have to walk ninety minutes, and can use that time for something productive, gets paid less than the person cooking my burger. I don’t value his labor.

Libertarian economics considers this perfectly normal. A product or service is worth exactly as much as people willingly pay for it. If we’re unwilling to pay more for this driver’s service, that sets the market floor; and if that floor stays too small to pay the drivers’ bills, well, they voluntarily affiliated with Über, they can voluntarily disaffiliate themselves. That’s how markets work.

I object to this reasoning because it treats markets like a universal constant, much like how Isaac Newton treated gravity. That just isn’t true. As economist Hernando de Soto writes, market forces derive from a system of laws, regulations, and traditions so intricate, we often cannot see them. This invisibility works to the advantage of those who profit from that system, because they can pretend they’re beneficiaries of the Invisible Hand, and not winners picked by the state and by fellow plutocrats.

Thus the system always keeps costs low and prices high. Labor, materials, and time have values which can be controlled. The lower we can push these values, while keeping floating prices high, the more uncontrolled profits we can muster. If the Martin Shkreli catastrophe taught us anything, it’s that capitalists citing “the market” demand profit margins that would make Colombian drug barons blush. Fiddling expenses like labor throw impediments in the path of such runaway disparity.

Okay, we know all that. We know it. And yet I still called an Über.

Because I know economics devalues work. I know market forces reward the already well-rewarded, while those who actually create value get punished. Yet it was still hotter than hell, and my truck was a ninety-minute walk away. And if I stood on principle and accepted my personal disadvantage so the rich couldn’t profit of some poor fella’s labor, it wouldn’t make that guy’s need for money go away. Somebody else would still disadvantage him.

So yeah, in a moment of physical discomfort and economic malaise, I paid somebody poorly to do difficult work for me. I joined a system of exploitation I’d eagerly rail against in a bar somewhere (while a waitress making minimum wage replenished my drinks). Because while market forces are artificial, one natural fact remains: one person’s momentary need is another person’s opportunity.

Sitting in another person’s car, listening to his Spotify feed and watching an unfamiliar city roll by, I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on my choices. I know what I believe, but you can’t eat beliefs. Moral purity is a fleeting illusion in this world. And, dammit, very hot days make sticking to your guns impractical. Deep down, economics is a human enterprise. And like humans everywhere, I am a flawed and beautiful beast.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Rebecca Roanhorse's Bloody Homeland Blues

Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning: the Sixth World

Maggie Hoskie lives in a trailer on the margins of the  Diné (Navajo) homeland, nursing her hurts while awaiting… something. A former apprentice of her people’s most respected monster hunter, she lives at the dawning of the Sixth World, when gods and monsters of Diné myth return in force, so yeah, there’s plenty of monsters to hunt. She just doesn't feel ready. But duty calls, she steps forth, and she faces something all her training never prepared her for.

Native American myths occur frequently in urban fantasy, but usually as a side plot, driving themes of anti-modernism. Indians live in a supernatural time warp, unaffected by technology or, y’know, changing social mores. New Mexico author Rebecca Roanhorse takes a different tack: rather than the past, her characters occupy the near future, a dystopian hellscape familiar from recent novels and movies. Yet it also feels unfamiliar, because mose white readers don’t know Diné tradition.

Jolted from her maundering, Maggie confronts a monster that doesn’t resemble the past. It looks human. So she consults her people’s greatest medicine man. He saddles her with his grandson and apprentice, Kai, a handsome, urbane gentleman as alienated from Diné mainstream as herself. She doesn't want the partnership. But the monsters come from somewhere, and are clearly man-made, so she needs the help. So he holds her nose and proceeds.

Though this is her first novel, Rebecca Roanhorse is already an award-winning writer for her short works. That experience shows. She creates a fully realized alternate reality, which she describes to readers without that shopworn trope, the Respected Sage Explaining Reality To Everyone. Roanhorse eases us into the Sixth World, providing as much information as readers need, when we need it. it feels like we step into a story already happening, rather than getting the introductory data dump.

Rebecca Roanhorse
Dinétah, the Navajo homeland, didn’t rise against its subjugation so much as survive while the United States fell. When the Big Water happened, washing away North America’s major population centers, white government was unprepared, and billions drowned. Dinétah stepped into the vacuum, defended its people, and became a nation. Except then, the monsters came. The Diné found themselves thrust into a world of mythology, magic, and divine chess. Maggie is just another pawn.

Maggie doesn’t want to fight monsters anymore. But something has to pay the bills. So she commences a quest that takes her from Dinétah’s biggest city (which uncannily resembles Mos Eisley), to the fringes of her homeland, including regions she’s never seen before. Her journey has a Philip K. Dick-like quality of passage through dreamland, where ordinary rules of physics and society are suspended. Anything can happen, and often does. And Maggie bears awestruck witness.

Roanhorse does something I really appreciate. Before page thirty, she backs her heroine into a corner, where Maggie must do something desperate: she kills a child. Sounds bad when I say it, right? It’s even worse when it happens. Too many writers follow the advice to establish their characters’ heroism by doing something selfless, like saving a puppy, in early chapters. Roanhorse demonstrates her protagonist’s lack of heroic qualifications. Maggie doesn’t have virtues, only guilt.

This guilt motivates Maggie’s continuing journey, though. She clearly hopes to expiate her guilt through accomplishment, and possibly regain the attention of her former mentor, the immortal Neizghání. Maggie remains vague what that attention means. She isn’t the little girl who once waited patiently on her mentor’s teachings anymore, after all. Yet somehow, she remains fearful about the commitments that adulthood would entail. Like her people, she occupies a liminal space between freedom and colonialism.

Maggie attempts to discard Westernized standards of Good vs. Evil, and live her people’s traditional morality, but she can’t. She admits her language remains inflected with the vestiges of Treaties and other compromises with power. That makes Kai’s intrusion into her world especially confounding. He’s a medicine man, versed in his people’s tradition, but he’s also Westernized in his values. He represents admixture that Maggie, and the Diné generally, try to purge. They just can’t.

This combination of ancestry and modernism, of oral tradition and technological progress, characterizes the immersive reality Roanhorse has created. Her characters live the conflicts, and they invite us to join them. By the end, little is resolved; even the monsters prove less important than the human influences that let them into our world. Yet even without some pat resolution, we feel like we’ve undertaken a hard journey. Roanhorse’s characters brought us somewhere. But where, exactly?

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Batman Movie We Need Right Now

Our first glimpse of Victorian Batman

Two shadows have fallen over Victorian Gotham. One, a human-sized bat, has most criminals running, scared of its theatrical violence and bleakley absolute moral code. The other is Jack the Ripper, doing what Rippers historically just do, terrorizing those the state least cares to predict, especially poor, destitute women. Street justice and moralistic judgement personified. These forces will inevitably come into conflict; they must. Our only question is, which will ultimately represent Gotham’s beleaguered soul?

The 2018 movie Gotham By Gaslight copies the premise, but not the story, of Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s 1989 comic of the same title. Resetting Batman in America's Gilded Age, the time that most resembled the economic inequality which birthed Batman, lets artists play around with bat mythology, keeping the core story intact, but stretching it to encompass larger themes. This movie is about Batman, but like good art everywhere, it’s also about us.

Batman launches his crime-busting enterprise by bringing the pain to a Fagin-like ringleader. So yeah, he initially aspires to simply fight street crime. But within moments, pained cries redirect him to a gruesome, precisely targeted murder. Batman quickly crosses paths with a female vigilante who shares his morbid interest in this crime. But the equally mysterious Selena Kyle has no patience for Batman’s theatrics. Women are dying, women like her, and someone needs to act.

Zach Snyder’s DC movies have faced much-justified criticism, including mine: their lack of heroic optimism, characterized by opponents as “cynicism,” seems to violate what superheroes do. This tone made sense in movies like Watchmen and 300, which dealt with desperate people in hopeless circumstances. But superheroes essentially require belief that something better than the present could potentially exist. Steampunk Batman apparently knows the difference between gritty realism and amoral nihilism, which Snyder’s antiheroes have forgotten.

Steampunk Batman and Selena Kyle square off, after intruding on one another's investigations

Animation director Sam Liu presents a deeply principled Batman, aligned with municipal charities, steering street orphans to a local activist convent, picking fights with law enforcement when they’ve forgotten the meaning of justice. Remarkably, Liu also shows Batman getting his ass kicked: both Selena Kyle and the Ripper are equally prepared for a fistfight. Worse, as we increasingly realize, the Ripper’s ethical motivations run as deep as Batman’s, making both men’s violence equally, brutally incorruptable.

Batman’s appeal has long centered on the fact that he doesn’t have to care. Rich and opulent, he could relax in the luxuries his money could afford, as many did in the 1930s, when the character debuted. This alternate universe makes clear this still applies: in a Gotham so impoverished that men turn to theft, and women to prostitution, just to eat, the city’s wealthy look forward to a richly appointed and cosmopolitan World’s Fair.

Yes, Bruce Wayne need not care. He need not let anybody into his inner circle. But he does: besides employing street urchins and permitting conspiracy theorists to spout their crackpot theories in his ear, Wayne’s closest ally is a nun, Sister Leslie, who has nurtured countless Gotham foundlings. When poor, desperate women are murdered in alleyways, Wayne takes their deaths personally. Unlike Snyder’s gratuitously brutal Batman, this Batman cares, even though he doesn’t have to.

Because Batman cares, he inspires others to care too. Near the beginning, as stated, Batman rescues three urchins from their Fagin-like ringleader. These urchins are named Dickie, Jason, and Timmy—a deliberate reference for comics aficionadoes. When Batman rescues them, they’re desperate, scared thieves, and they quickly return to that life, because it’s what they know. But it doesn’t take long before they’re participating in Batman’s crusade, even when common street wisdom says to run.

Bruce Wayne gets handed an important clue by Dr. Hugo Strange

This doesn’t come without contradictions. Supporting characters lavishly praise the World’s Fair (and Bruce Wayne’s financial support) in early scenes, that veteran fans realize, by the end, it will burn. The only question is how. The thing Wayne’s money has created, Batman’s pulp justice must destroy. In the end, one of Batman’s young Robins says: “It was all phony anyway. We'll make somethin' new, somethin' better.” And we, the audience, think: yeah, we probably will.

Comic-book mythology generally has one underlying ethic: a pure heart, backed with well-placed violence, can restore justice, eventually. That’s what Steampunk Batman does, too, bringing the beat-down in honor of those abandoned by society and economics. He identifies an enemy and pummels him into submission, restoring hope to Gotham's hopeless.Yet he does more, too. By caring when he doesn’t have to, and fighting when he could lose, he gives us permission to believe again.