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Amor Mundi: People’s Assemblies

People's Assemblies

Kate Aronoff interviews Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who will likely be the next Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. Lumumba is an advocate of bringing “people’s assemblies” back into government, a new way to rethink the idea of self-government.

We need to re-envision the electoral process. For far too long we’ve approached it backward. We wait on someone to indicate their political ambition, and we accept their promises and their agenda, only to find ourselves disappointed. The reality is that the onus is on us. As a community, we have a responsibility to be the authors of our own agenda, and then draft leadership that represents that agenda. I see electoral politics as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The people’s platform I helped author alongside my father came from years of community organizing. One of the lessons we learned is that not everyone is going to buy in, so you have to start by addressing people’s immediate needs and concerns. Fixing a pothole may not seem like a means to change the world, but we have to connect pothole to pothole and community to community. A community in Jackson can understand why a community in Chicago or in Gary, Ind., suffers from the same conditions when they understand that none of them have control over the process that fixes the pothole. A people’s platform, then, is one rooted in self-determination, rooted in experience and frustration, and one that gets into the weeds of what people deal with every day. It’s ever-evolving and continues to incorporate individuals’ critiques and concerns.

How does the people’s assembly fit in?

The people’s assembly grew out of an idea my father had as a city council person for Ward 2 in Jackson. At that time, the assembly moved between community centers and churches within the ward. When he became mayor, it expanded to citywide. We’ve dealt with issues ranging from school board appointments to racial profiling. What is happening in the city dictates the turnout. Sometimes we have one to two hundred people, sometimes more.

The beauty of the people’s assembly is that, though it’s government related, it is meant as a way to apply outside pressure to those in government. Assemblies are strategically placed throughout the city, so we can give information to the community and get information back from the community about what issues are facing them.

One of my father’s big victories as mayor was to pass a 1 percent sales tax solely to fund infrastructure projects. Ninety percent of the population of Jackson voted in support of that tax, which is amazing to me. I can’t think of another place in recent memory where 90 percent of the population voted to tax themselves. That happened not because of a stroke of luck, but because we got on the radio, and anywhere we could, and said that we didn’t have the resources to pay for fixing the pipes and roads and needed to take some drastic measures. Thousands of people came to the assemblies about the tax. When you give people the right information, they make the right decision.”

The Strict Daddy

Reading George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant” oh so many years ago was a challenge and a revelation. People don’t vote their rational interests. They vote their values, dreams, and hopes. What Lakoff showed is that people, many people, want authority and fear the loss of authority that defines our world. For Lakoff, this deep desire for authority is behind the election and continued popularity of Donald Trump.

“Lakoff’s message is simple, but it is couched in the language of cognitive linguistics and neuroscience. The problem is that political candidates rely on pollsters and PR people, not linguists or neuroscientists. So when Lakoff repeatedly says that “voters don’t vote their self-interest, they vote their values,” progressive politicians continually ignore him. His ideas don’t fit in with their worldview, so they can’t hear him.

But a worldview is exactly what Lakoff is talking about. “Ideas don’t float in the air, they live in your neuro-circuitry,” Lakoff said. Each time ideas in our neural circuits are activated, they get stronger. And over time, complexes of neural circuits create a frame through which we view the world. “The problem is, that frame is unconscious,” Lakoff said. “You aren’t aware of it because you don’t have access to your neural circuits.” So what happens when you hear facts that don’t fit in your worldview is that you can’t process them: you might ignore them, or reject or attack them, or literally not hear them.

This theory explains why even college-educated Trump voters could ignore so many facts about their candidate. And it also explains why progressives have been ignoring Lakoff’s findings for more than two decades. Progressives are still living in the world of Descartes and the Enlightenment, Lakoff said, a neat world governed by the rules of logic. Descartes said, “I think therefore I am,” but Lakoff claims that we are embodied beings and that 98 percent of thought is unconscious….

Lakoff’s core finding revolves around the metaphor of family. He claims there are two core beliefs about the role of families in society, and the belief one holds determines whether one is conservative or liberal. Moderates are people in the middle who are able to hold some ideas from both sides, and being able to understand and persuade them is crucial to winning any election.

Conservatives believe in a what Lakoff calls the “strict father family,” while progressives believe in a “nurturant parent family.” In the strict father family, father knows best and he has the moral authority. The children and spouse have to defer to him, and when they disobey, he has the right to punish them so they will learn to do the right thing.

“The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality, and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate,” Lakoff said. “The hierarchy is God above man; man above nature; the rich above the poor; employers above employees; adults above children; Western culture above other cultures; our country above other countries. The hierarchy also extends to men above women, whites above nonwhites, Christians above non-Christians, straights above gays.” Since this is seen as a “natural” order, it is not to be questioned.

Trump and those crafting the Republican message play straight into this strict father worldview, which is accepted in many parts of the country. Even traditionally Democratic groups such as union members and Hispanics include members who are strict fathers at home or in their private life, Lakoff says. The Republican message plays well with them.”

In her essay “What Is Authority?”, Hannah Arendt argues that liberals see the world as one progressing towards freedom intermittently interrupted by dark periods of authoritarianism and tyranny; conservatives, on the other hand, see the world in a cycle of doom that began with the dwindling of authority, so that freedom, deprived of its limits and boundaries, is destined to be consumed by libertinism. To read Arendt alongside Lakoff shows the power of authority in an age when authority has disappeared. The Hannah Arendt Center’s “Virtual Reading Group” just read and discussed “What Is Authority?” this week.

New Tricks

Junot Diaz interviews Samuel Delaney:

JD: “To switch gears a little: back when you were writing science fiction regularly you were never a hardware person, though some of the hardware you did devise—I’m thinking of the Scorpions in Dhalgren—is simply marvelous. But in “Ash Wednesday” there is an awareness of technology that I’ve not seen in your previous work. What’s going on?”

SD: Technology is a problem. It’s a problem for me. The speed with which it has changed—and is still changing—is dazzling. When I got my first Apple, I signed up for a hundred dollars worth of lessons—and never took them. That remains one of the stupidest things I ever did. If I had, possibly the last third of my career would have been different. In the same way I never learned to touch type with two hands—that’s completely stymied my writing and added the problem, on top of my dyslexia, of clumsy typing as soon as I try to go faster than twenty words a minute. And I’m the guy who built a computer in his sophomore year of high school and got an honorable mention for it in the annual science fair. But I’ve never learned the simplest basics of how to use my computer to do more than type and send simple emails. I can do math on my iPhone but not on my computer, because I have a calculator app. I’m only learning now how to maneuver with the address bar. There are things you can do with the yellow minimize button that I’d never thought about before.

It really does take me three to five times as long to learn anything as it once did. There are things that Dennis, my partner, and Bill, my assistant, find easier to do for me than to let me do. But I have to badger Bill again and again to spend time drilling me on what I need to know—even at seventy-five. The technology I use is often beautiful. But more and more it bewilders me—even the primitive voice technology we have with something like Siri, which at this point could certainly not pass a Turing test, is something I can only use to set a timer to cook my morning oatmeal. When I can’t use it and I need to—which is more and more pretty much everyday—that scares me, and I think scares others my age. My landlord, who is a year my senior, doesn’t even do emails! My bank just announced it’s going to go to voice recognition technology. Is this going to replace passwords or be on top of them? My voice is not the same as it was ten years ago; I know that because I’m very close to it. It’s part of my body—as is my ability to type, which is the interface with so much of our phone and laptop and computer technology.”

The Philosopher's Assistant

Robert Zaretsky, noting that newly minted French President Emmanuel Macron was once the assistant to the French intellectual Paul Ricouer, wonders what of his old boss’s philosophy France’s head of state might take with him:

“For Ricoeur, phronesis, Aristotle’s term for prudential or practical wisdom, is the tool we bring to bear on political or social puzzles in order to piece them together as best we can. There is no single method or blueprint in the application of phronesis, as circumstances will always differ. For this reason, Ricoeur argues, phronesis flows not from a moral code — rules that claim a universal and normative status — but instead from an ethical life. In his trenchant work Oneself as Another (1992), Ricoeur privileges ethics over morality, arguing that ethics is grounded in aiming our actions — at times mistaken and always laden with risks — at “a good life with and for others in just institutions.”

The ethical life, one that allows for our individual and collective flourishing, requires seeing oneself as another. “Fundamentally equivalent,” Ricoeur argues, “are the esteem of the other as oneself and the esteem of oneself as another.” When we take the full measure of phrases like “you, too” and “like me,” we acquire a deeper sense of solicitude, one in which sympathy is not an exterior value we adopt, but an interior sense we shape. The capacity for critical solicitude makes us more alert — more vulnerable, really — to the suffering of others. Critically, as Ricoeur underscores, such suffering is not only physical or psychological, but is also defined by “the reduction, even the destruction, of the capacity for acting, or being-able-to-act” and thus becomes “a violation of self-integrity.”

Not unlike the condition of the Whirlpool workers, who were waiting not just for Macron but also for the day when they would become redundant. Earlier that same day, learning that Macron planned to meet nearby with the factory’s union representatives, his opponent in the presidential race, Marine Le Pen, made a surprise visit to the factory. Leader of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Europe, and extreme-right National Front, Le Pen lambasted the free market policies — embodied, she declared, by Macron — that had led to the factory’s decision to relocate to Poland. This, she vowed, would not happen under her watch. Putting the finishing touch on her public relations coup, Le Pen then took dozens of selfies with the workers, who though they historically vote for the left, were nevertheless thrilled by Le Pen’s seeming solicitude and sympathetic convictions.

Widely seen as a technocrat who made his fortune as an investment manager at Rothschild & Co., as well as the glistening product of the very grande écoles that his mentor Ricoeur never knew, Macron was left with what seemed a public relations disaster. But faced with potential catastrophe, a student of Ricoeur would see an opportunity, even a duty. Following his meeting with the local union leaders, Macron went to the factory, waded into the crowd of workers, and, with megaphone in hand, launched into a sharp and blunt give and take with the workers.”

Where Are the Faculty?

Heather Mac Donald was supposed to speak at UCLA and at Claremont McKenna. At Claremont McKenna, angry protesters forced her to speak in an empty room. At UCLA, Mac Donald spoke, but the talk was disrupted and cut short. Mac Donald asks the right question: “Where are the faculty?

“Where are the faculty? American college students are increasingly resorting to brute force, and sometimes criminal violence, to shut down ideas they don’t like. Yet when such travesties occur, the faculty are, with few exceptions, missing in action, though they have themselves been given the extraordinary privilege of tenure to protect their own liberty of thought and speech. It is time for them to take their heads out of the sand…. I would hope that there are some remaining faculty with enough of a lingering connection to reality who would realize that I and other conservatives are not a literal threat to minority students. To try to prevent me or other dissenting intellectuals from connecting with students is simply an effort to maintain the Left’s monopoly of thought.”

No Country For New Tongues

The novelist Cormac McCarthy wonders where language came from:

“So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course that’s what we are saying. Except that he didn’t say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course they don’t think that it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain that art preceded language it probably didn’t precede it by much. Some influential persons have actually claimed that language could be up to a million years old. They haven’t explained what we have been doing with it all this time. What we do know—pretty much without question—is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.”

The Startup Will See You Now

Gillian Terzis takes a look at one possible future for healthcare:

“The practice of logging our physiological signs and symptoms isn’t novel; its origins are as old as the Roman Stoics. The philosopher Seneca the Younger is said to have kept meticulous logs of his dietary habits and dreams. Self-tracking technologies, once the preserve of the Quantified Self movement, are easily found on the shelves of Walmart. Yet the proliferation of self-tracking is symptomatic of a more insidious sickness: the fixation with the body as an entrepreneurial project. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking an active role in improving your health—cutting back on booze and processed foods will give an overworked liver a hard-earned break. But I wonder how much of self-tracking is concerned with wellbeing. Performing health has become the ultimate humblebrag: being on top of your stats is as important as improving them. More troubling, though, is that good health is often seen as a matter of moral responsibility, which falls squarely on the individual. That Forward’s messaging deliberately resembles a high-tech gym aligns with this vision, where the pursuit of good health is often an expression of one’s tax bracket. Being equipped with the ability to constantly monitor and analyze our health metrics is framed as a productive enterprise. To “Design Your Health,” as Forward’s exhortation demands, is to exert control over your bodily destiny—that is, if you can afford it. For others, health is a literal matter of life and death.

Forward’s business model is a tech-driven, somewhat more affordable version of the concierge medicine movement that began in the nineties when Howard Maron, a former doctor for a professional sports team, launched a medical care program that caters to “fifty select families” who pay a retainer of more than $25,000 a year. The problem with concierge medicine is not so much its aims of personalized, preventative care and lower physician-to-patient ratios, but how it achieves them. It’s difficult to see the practice as promoting anything other than a starkly unequal two-tiered system, which only heightens existing imbalances in access to affordable health care.

In an era of free-market fundamentalism, it’s no surprise that consumer-driven, market-based options have been offered to Americans as a corrective. They’re a logical consequence of framing access to health services not as a universal right, but as a commodity. But any solution that divorces health care from a broader social project is misguided at best, and hardly constitutes the reimagining that Forward states it can lead. By focusing on technological solutions, rather than political ones, the status quo holds—and the future of health care is as exclusionary as ever.”

Posted on 14 May 2017 | 9:30 am

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