Tarantino’s “Paranoid”

About halfway through The Hateful Eight, bounty hunter John Ruth is starting to worry that the people at Minnie’s Haberdashery aren’t who they say they are, or at least “one of them fellas (meaning Bob or Joe or Oswaldo or Chris) is not what he says he is.” John Ruth and Major Marquis Warren (and for that matter everyone at Minnie’s) will soon learn the hard way that these suspicions are well founded; but at this point in the story, John Ruth might just be imagining things, so Major Warren asks:

Are you sure you’re not just being paranoid?

The rest of the dialogue in this scene was lost on me, because I was taken out of the film and left wondering how or why Tarantino (and, for that matter, all the people who read the screenplay for Hateful Eight) had let this glaring anachronism stand.

The first known use of “paranoid,” according to Merriam Webster, is 1904, probably in connection with the introduction of paranoia as a clinical variety of dementia praecox by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin; the screenplay sets the action of The Hateful Eight “six or eight or twelve years after the Civil War,” roughly in the 1870s. The term paranoia was around before Kraepelin, having been first introduced into English in 1857, but it didn’t come into use among English-language medical writers until the 1890s, and even then, the word in this more pristine form would not have been available except to medical specialists.

Major Warren’s casual and colloquial use of “paranoid” might have been possible as early as the 1950s, when psychoanalytic parlance became more widespread. I suspect the actual provenance of the Major’s “being paranoid” lies somewhere in the haze of late 60s and early 70s drug culture, a full century after the action of The Hateful Eight. Or maybe even later than that: “Almost Cut My Hair,” recorded in 1970, opts for “increases my paranoia” — casting paranoia as a constant affliction of varying intensity — as opposed to the Major’s use of the present continuous “being paranoid,” which suggests only a momentary lapse.

Not that Tarantino is trying, at all, to be strict about these things. His story might be set in the nineteenth century but his characters belong to the twenty first, and this is hardly the only anachronism in the language of the screenplay. (To take just one instance, O.B. proposes that he and Chris set out a line to the outhouse, because no matter how bad the blizzard gets, the people gathered at Minnie’s will have to “take a squat from time to time.”) To characterize these as slips or oversights — like the anachronisms I wrote about in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis — would be to miss the ways in which Tarantino is playing self-consciously with anachronism throughout The Hateful Eight, from the opening Sergio Leone Close Up of the snow-covered crucifix to the mix of Ennio Morricone with Roy Orbison. We’re invited at nearly every turn to appreciate this directorial self-consciousness and to revel in this film’s constant references to other films, other stories and other times.

What strikes me about “being paranoid,” however, is how telling it is. The Hateful Eight presents a world in which everything (proper names, stories, letters, a song, coffee, the stew, the table, the floor, a peppermint stick, the gang in Red Rock, history itself) is contrivance. The most brutal, bloody violence is conventional and contrived, and artifice will either kill you or put you at risk of death. Even the act of dying can be wildly theatrical (like the deaths of John Smithers, John Ruth and Daisy Domergue) or one final act of deception, and there is no way out of deceit and contrivance except death. So it’s only fitting that Chris and Major Warren die together at the end of the film sharing and appreciating the finer points of Major Warren’s forgery. This is a world in which everyone is always plotting and everything is a plot. You’d be crazy not to be paranoid.

Serious Conversations, 9

A blog post by Eric Schwitzgebel and Jonathan Ellis brings me back to my preoccupation with serious conversations. The post looks at the question whether moral and philosophical reasoning is ever anything more than post-hoc rationalization, and asks whether in the long run that matters.

After considering some of the benefits that philosophical or scientific communities (or any community of inquirers or people having a conversation about what to do) might derive from letting a thousand rationalizations bloom, Schwitzgebel and Ellis write:

there’s much to be said in favor of a non-rationalizing approach to dialogue, in which one aims to frankly and honestly expose one’s real reasons. If you and I are peers, the fact that something moves me is prima facie evidence that it should move you too. In telling you what really moves me to favor P, I am inviting you into my epistemic perspective. You might learn something by charitably considering my point of view. Rationalization disrupts this cooperative enterprise. If I offer you rationalizations instead of revealing the genuine psychological grounds of my belief, I render false the first premise in your inference from “my interlocutor believes P because of reason R, so I should seriously consider whether I too ought to believe P for reason R”.

If we can’t “charitably” enter into the point of view of a second person, and are stuck with their rationalizations, we might end up like the psychopaths and zombies described by Pettit and Smith in their 1996 paper on the conversational stance (which I discussed in a previous post).

In that case, those who are unmoved by evidence and evaluations, or refuse to change their desires and actions in light of them, “are not seriously involved in the business of practical evaluation.”

In this case, we have moved from Pettit and Smith’s world of evidence and evaluations in light of norms to “psychological grounds,” and the larger point about serious involvement has taken on some new colors as well.

Still, “rationalizations disrupt [the] cooperative enterprise” of conversation, because they prevent us from taking up the second-person stance, which is the only place from which we can “seriously consider” P on the grounds an interlocutor might offer.

A Sap and an Open Ticket

Last week, my friend David sent me an excerpt of a 1778 letter from Alexander Hamilton to George Clinton that closes with some thoughts on “a certain faction” that had reared its head and now has gone back into hiding.

You and I had some conversation, when I had the pleasure of seeing you last, with respect to the existence of a certain faction. Since I saw you, I have discovered such convincing traits of the monster, that I cannot doubt its reality in the most extensive sense. I dare say you have seen and heard enough to settle the matter in your own mind. I believe it unmasked its batteries too soon, and begins to hide its head; but, as I imagine it will only change the storm to a sap, all the true and sensible friends to their country, and of course to a certain great man, ought to be upon the watch, to counterplot the secret machinations of his enemies.

I struggled with the oblique writing here and had track down the meaning of “sap” as well. It’s a military term for a covered trench. An eighteenth-century encyclopedia entry included among the OED illustrations lists several kinds of sap, from the single parapet sap to the “flying” sap, which is outfitted with gabions. In the siege of a fortification, sappers excavate a trench toward the wall, allowing infantry to advance without being cut down by artillery fire from above. So the “sap” came to stand for an insidious or devious method of attack, as opposed to the “storm” or direct assault. Having prematurely shown its batteries and revealed its position, the faction will now resort to devious means and secret machinations.

It has not been so easy to solve another little mystery that presented itself just two days later, when I was reading the autobiography of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, which first appeared in 1902. In his account of the McKinley assassination. Gibbs explains that he is going to focus

on a peculiar phase of the catastrophe, that for the truth of history and in the interest of justice should not be so rudely and covertly buried ‘neath the immature “beatings of time.”

The quotation marks are Gibbs’; the source of the quotation is an open question.

I may be wrong in assuming that Gibbs is actually quoting some other writer, and not just using — I would say misusing — the quotation marks to offset his own figurative turn of phrase. I had a passing thought it might be Wordsworth; but that was just a passing thought and a bad guess. Whitman? Think Leaves of Grass: “The indications and tally of all time…” in “The Song of the Answerer,” or, again:

…from the sea of Time, collecting vasting all, I bring,
A windrow-drift of weeds and shells.

Great stuff, but so far as I can tell Walt Whitman is just another bad guess. Charles later that same day offered the “wild guess” that it might be William James, but I haven’t been able to unearth the phrase in James’ vast work. Besides, I suspect that if Gibbs is indeed quoting another author, it’s probably a poet, one his audience would recognize, and it’s probably a work of poetry along the lines of Sonnet 55 (“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes,” etc.), a meditation on the passing of all things. So Gibbs’ ticket is still open, and I welcome suggestions, thoughts and wild guesses that might help close it.

An Impossible Translation

A short scene, just 45 seconds in length, from Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 Journey to Italy, about an “impossible” translation, in an Italian English-language film that’s preoccupied with the question whether people can ever understand each other. I’m especially captivated by where this scene ends up, not with people estranged from each other because translation is impossible, but with the shipwrecked Duca di Lipoli looking into Ingrid Bergman’s eyes and seeing stars in the night — a bon mot that makes her laugh. Keep in mind, too, this note from Gianni Rondolino’s biography of Rossellini : this scene, like most scenes in this film, is largely improvised, with actors left to find their way together.

Enzo Serafin, who was the film’s director of photography,recalls that Journey to Italy was truly filmed without a script, instead following the indications written on Rossellini’s note sheets, with the daily help of Vitaliano Brancati who was in charge of the dialogues. It was Bergman who acted as go between for Rossellini and [George] Sanders [who plays Bergman’s husband], mainly inventing things and improvising in turn, because Roberto didn’t give her any direction.

Katherine Joyce: What an unusual home you have — and so comfortable.
Count: That sounds to me like one of those compliments that hide the usual reproach: ‘dolce far niente’.
Katherine: Sorry, I don’t understand.
Count: How do you say in English, ‘dolce far niente’?
Prince: It is impossible to say it in English. Perhaps I could translate it, ‘how sweet it is to do nothing.’
Katherine: Oh, I understand.
Countess: They say that all Neapolitans are loafers. Now I’d like to ask you, would you say that a shipwrecked man is a loafer? In a certain sense we’re all shipwrecked. You have to fight so hard just to keep afloat.
Katherine: Well it looks like a very pleasant shipwreck to me.
Duca di Lipoli: Especially when I look into your eyes: they’re like stars in the night.
Katherine: (laughter).

Save the Wild UP December Gala Keynote Address

This is the text I prepared for my remarks at the Save The Wild UP December Gala. My talk deals with the ethics of Lake Superior mining, connecting it with climate change, the loss of the wild and the dawn of the Anthropocene. It’s also a reflection on human ingenuity and human responsibility. The half-hour keynote makes for a long blog post, but I hope readers will find something here worth sharing and discussing.  

1

When you invited me to speak tonight, I tried almost immediately to come up with names of people who might be better suited to the task. In this crowd, I ought to be listening and trying to catch up.

I’m an outsider, and a latecomer to boot. Some of you were here when Kennecott and Rio Tinto first staked their claim to the Yellow Dog Plains. I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of the new mining activity in this area and all around Lake Superior until about 2012. That was right after Ken Ross and I had finished making 1913 Massacre, our documentary about the Italian Hall disaster.

I was so caught up in the story our film tells that I was under the impression that copper mining — sulfide mining — was a thing of the past in the Upper Peninsula.

Very near the end of 1913 Massacre, there’s an interview with an Army veteran who’s sitting at the counter of the Evergreen Diner, drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette. He says that after the copper mines closed in 1968, attempts to re-open them failed because people were “bitching about the environment and all that shit and the water and the runoff.” The camera, meanwhile, is exploring the industrial damage left behind by the mining operation.

This is the one moment in the film where we had to bleep out some bad language before Minnesota Public Television would air 1913 Massacre on Labor Day in 2013. The only time anyone in our film curses is when the subject turns to protecting the water and the environment.

That these two things — a destroyed, toxic landscape and a hostility toward people who care about the environment — exist side by side; that people can watch a mining company leave a place in ruins, poison its waters, damage it to the point that it’s now a Superfund site, with high levels of stomach cancer and fish that can’t be eaten, and direct their anger and curses at people trying to prevent it from happening again: our film presents all that as part of what we’ve come to call “mining’s toxic legacy.”

The Army veteran went on to say — this part didn’t make it into the film — that people who bitch about the environment are “people from out of town.” He wasn’t complaining about environmental regulation or about big government; he was complaining instead about out-of-towners, strangers who make it tough for regular guys to make a living.

Strangers can be people from faraway, or just people from whom you feel estranged: people who don’t share your ways or speak your language; and it would be possible to talk at some length about the way the mining operations in the Keweenaw estranged people from each other and from the place they live.

Everywhere it goes, it seems, mining divides and displaces people. It’s never just about extracting ore from the ground. Mining is development and the power to direct it.

When strangers come to town or when people feel estranged, we need translators, guides and mediators. This is one reason why it’s so important to have a local, grassroots organization dedicated to the shared interests people have in the nature and culture of the Upper Peninsula.

You might look like the underdog right now. But I think you’ll agree that there’s a pressing need for a more responsible, inclusive and respectful conversation about development in this place. Save the Wild UP is in a great position to lead it.

2

Back home in Brooklyn, I have a fig tree. I planted it last spring. I just finished wrapping it for the winter. I love the work the fig tree involves — the care it involves — because it connects me to the memory of my grandfather and the fig tree he kept. My tree connects me to my family tree (my roots), to history, and in my imagination the tree belongs as much to history as it does to nature. The life of my tree depends almost entirely on my care. I sometimes wonder if there is anything wild about it.

There is a wild fig. The ancient Greeks even had a special word for it: φήληξ. They seem to have derived its name from another word (φῆλος) meaning “deceitful,” because the wild fig seemed ripe when it was not really so. The ancient world knew that wildness is tricky. It can deceive and elude us, or challenge our powers of discernment.

Nature, we claim, is our dominion, as if it (naturally, somehow) belonged to history, the world of human activity. Our economy organizes nature to produce natural resources. But the wild represents a living world apart from history and another order of value altogether.

We can’t assimilate the wild into an engineered and technical environment: it will cease to be wild the instant we try. The wild begins where engineering and ingenuity stop, at the limits of human authority and command. So “wild” is sometimes used to mean beyond the reach of authority, out of control.

But what’s wild is not alien. Sometimes the wild calls out to us, usually to ward us off. The wild is almost always in flight from us, leaving tracks and traces for us to read. It always responds to us, as wild rice and stoneflies respond to the slightest change in water quality, offering guidance if we are attentive and humble enough to take it.

The wild marks the limits of our powers, our ingenuity and ambition, and before it we ought to go gently.

We have not.

The headlines tell us that our carbon-intensive civilization, which brought us so many material advantages, is now hastening its own demise. We are entering an entirely new era of human life on earth. Some scientists and philosophers talk about the end of the Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene — the dawn of a new geological epoch of our making.

The story beneath the headlines is a record of loss. A map of the terrestrial biosphere shows that today only a quarter remains “wild” — that is, “without human settlements or substantial land use” — and even less is in a semi-natural state. Data from the Mauna Loa Observatory tell us that this year was the last time “anyone now alive on planet Earth will ever see” CO2 concentrations lower than 400 parts per million. Those levels started rising in the 1700s with the industrial revolution, spiked dramatically in the postwar period and have climbed steadily higher. Since 1970, the populations of vertebrate animals have dropped by 52 percent. The same report by the World Wildlife Fund tells us that freshwater animal species have declined by 76 percent since 1970.

That precipitous drop in freshwater species should set off alarm bells, especially here, on the shores of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. Since the 1970s, Lake Superior surface-water temperatures have risen and ice cover has dramatically reduced. Walleye can now live in more areas of the lake than ever before. There’s an earlier onset of summer stratification. By mid-century, according to the National Wildlife Federation, Lake Superior may be mostly ice-free in a typical winter.

Now I know it’s the holiday season and these aren’t exactly tidings of comfort and joy, but they are tidings all the same. And what they announce is this: we are responsible. We’re responsible for all this destruction of the wild — of the whole web of life — and for the changes sweeping over us. Denial will not let us off the hook.

Responsibility is not just about being held accountable for the damage you’ve done; it’s also about taking steps to limit damage, repair the broken world, reclaim it and make things better. We have that responsibility to ourselves and to future generations.

“Loss belongs to history,” writes the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, “while politics and life are about what is still to be done.” But, he’s careful to remind us, loss still has a strong claim on the way we live now and on our future plans. The loss of the wild gives us a new responsibility that should inform our politics and our lives at every turn, direct the investments we make and the activities we sanction, and give rise to new conversations about what to do.

Saving the wild is now bound up, inextricably, with saving the human world — for ourselves and for future generations. We can appreciate in a new way Thoreau’s famous statement: “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”

3

Knowing all this, why don’t we act? Why haven’t we acted?

One answer to this question has to do with the word “we,” and our underdeveloped capacity for coordinated, collective action.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, suggested another good answer in a speech he gave back in September to a group of insurance industry executives. Not exactly a bunch of tree huggers, but actuaries, people interested in accounting for risks and costs.

Carney talked about the future in terms of horizons, near versus long term. When we focus only on the near term, we don’t account for the true cost of our activities. That’s why for Carney, climate change is a “tragedy of the horizon,” or the tragic consequence of our inability to see and plan and take steps beyond the near term. Since “the catastrophic effects of climate change will be felt beyond our immediate horizons” — beyond the business cycle and the quarterly earnings reports, beyond the political cycle and the current election — we have deferred the cost of fixing the problem to future generations.

We’ve organized things — markets, politics, institutions — so that near-term interests win out over longer-term well-being and more sustainable arrangements.

Nowadays, if you look out at the Lake Superior horizon, you might see all the way to China. An unsustainable scheme of Chinese urbanization and economic growth fueled much of the new mining activity around the lake, and especially the exploration and exploitation of copper-rich deposits. Over the last decade or so, copper was used not just to build and wire new Chinese cities, many of which today stand empty; it was used mainly for collateral on loans. As much as 80 percent of the copper China imported was used to back loans. Today, as China unravels and the price of copper plunges, commodities investors are expressing remorse. Nickel’s down, too. The rush for Lake Superior minerals now seems to have been reckless — part of a larger market failure, with unforeseen risks and costs current and future generations are likely to incur.

Or look at the Polymet project in Minnesota. It’s an exaggerated case of not accounting for the long-term costs of mining. Currently, the Polymet Environmental Impact Statement says that water treatment will go on “indefinitely” at a cost of 3-6 million dollars a year. There is no way, so far as I know, to multiply 3 or 6 million dollars by a factor of indefinitely; and even the company’s most concrete prediction is 500 years of water treatment. Just to put that in perspective, the state of Minnesota has only been around since 1858: 157 years.

How is it possible that a proposal like this can be taken seriously? They promise jobs, a fix to a near-term problem; but there’s something else at work here as well: technology or, rather, misplaced faith in technology and human ingenuity. We make technology a proxy for human responsibility.

But technological advances that create efficiencies or solve problems for mining companies can carry hidden social and environmental costs: for example, a study done after the Mount Polley spill last year concludes that “new technologies, deployed in the absence of robust regulation” have fostered a “disturbing trend of more severe tailings failures.” Recent events in Brazil underline the point.

Great machinery, even full automation, will never amount to responsible stewardship. New technologies can have unintended consequences, distancing us from each other and from our responsibilities. Things corrode, repairs are made or not, entities dissolve, contracts are broken, obligations are forgotten, empires decline and fall, even within definite time horizons.

The industrial development that mining brings distorts horizons in another way. One theme of Tom Power’s research on the economics of the Lake Superior region and on what he calls wilderness economics is that “protecting the quality of the living environment…lays the base for future, diversified economic development.” Over-reliance on mining — and mining that damages or threatens the living environment — hinders economic diversification and makes the economy less resilient. It also requires us to discount the value of water and land it puts at risk, a value that is only going to increase over the long term, as freshwater becomes ever more scarce and as carbon capture afforded by peatlands and forests becomes more critical.

To allow that calculation for the nonce is not to concede that the market value of these wild places is their true value. The living world, creation and generation, is more than a bundle of ecosystem services, a tap and a sink for human activity. That way of thinking won’t save the wild; it is bound to open the door to the very forces that have already destroyed so much of it.

4

Let’s not lose sight of the larger point: if you take the long view, looking forward into the future and out across the horizon, protecting the land and water in this region actually looks like a more attractive investment than extracting all the ore from the ground.

That makes the capture of government by mining and extractive industry — from Marquette County to the state and federal levels — all the more troubling and deplorable. It directs investment and development down these risky and unsustainable paths, where short-term interests of multinational corporate actors are paramount and enjoy the full protection of law. The coercive power of the state, which ought to place constraints on corporate actors, is used mainly to benefit them. When things go south, society ends up bearing the cost.

This grassroots effort challenges that whole topsy-turvy arrangement. We have to continue to challenge it, at every opportunity, in every forum, recognizing that the results we’re looking for probably aren’t going to come on a quarterly basis or anytime soon. We have to lengthen our horizons.

At the same time, we have to re-open the conversation about how we are going to organize ourselves in this place, so that what remains of the wild UP can flourish and the people living here can thrive.

It’s imperative, too, that Save the Wild UP stay connected with other groups around the lake facing similar challenges. To take just one example: Kathleen’s recent Op Ed in the Star Tribune about Governor Dayton’s visit to the Eagle Mine. That made a difference to people in Minnesota: it was widely shared and talked about. People connected with it.

I have to believe that there’s power even in these little connections — and in conversation, cooperation and community. There is power where we come together, when we are no longer strangers and no longer estranged from each other. There would be power in an international congress where people from all around Lake Superior gathered to talk about responsible development. This isn’t the power the mining companies and the state can wield; it’s another kind of power, coordinated, collective, non-coercive, one we as a society have not done enough to realize.

We’re going to need that power to meet this current set of challenges.

Now you may have noticed that I keep using the word “we,” and I’m conscious that by including myself here I might be overstepping and intruding. But maybe that’s why I keep coming back to the UP: deep down, I know this is not a faraway or a strange place but a familiar place, where I have a stake in things — where we all have a stake.

The “wild UP” that we are organized to save is not just wilderness, waterfalls, wolves and warblers. It is the stage of humanity’s tragic predicament. It marks a boundary that we cross at our great peril. It can be a vital source of economic and social renewal.

Ultimately, saving the wild UP is about realizing the power and political authority we all have, everyone in this room, people across the UP and around the lake, to govern ourselves and make decisions about the future we want. What do we see on the horizon? What do we want for our children, grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and so on down the line? What do future generations require of us? What do we owe them?

That’s a conversation we need to keep having. And that’s why this organization deserves all the support we can give it, because Save the Wild UP connects us and shows us that we can be both powerful and responsible at the same time.

Thanks for listening so patiently, and thanks again for inviting me to the Gala.

delivered 5 December 2015

Two Upcoming Events In Marquette, Michigan

SWUP2015Gala

On Saturday, December 5th, I’ll be at Save the Wild UP’s December Gala, where I’ve been invited to give the keynote.

Save the Wild UP is a great local grassroots organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating the nature and the culture of the Upper Peninsula. The people at Save the Wild UP (most of them are volunteers) do the work of educators, naturalists, social scientists, industry watchdogs and field guides all throughout the year, and I hear they throw a great party, too.

If you can’t make it to Steinhaus Market on the 5th, and even if you live far from Marquette or have never been to the Upper Peninsula, check out Save the Wild UP’s website, learn about the critical work they’re doing, and consider making an end-of-year, tax-deductible contribution to support their work.

I’ll post the text of my remarks here after I talk.

On Monday, December 7th, the Peter White Library in Marquette will be screening 1913 Massacre,, the feature length documentary film I made with Ken Ross about the Italian Hall disaster and the Woody Guthrie song it inspired. Part of the library’s DocuMonday series, the screening is free and open to the public. The film starts at 7PM and runs 70 minutes, and I’ll stick around afterwards to take questions, talk and say hi.

Hope to see you there.

12-7DocuMonday

Dialogue at the Rock

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources aerial photo of Flambeau Mine, after reclamation.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources aerial photo of Flambeau Mine, after reclamation.


Bill Rose, Professor Emeritus at Michigan Technological University, hopes the big rock brought over to the university from Eagle Mine — three and a half tons of nickel-copper sulfide, suffused with platinum and rare elements — will be a site for respectful gatherings. Rose says he wants to get beyond divisive and fruitless “bickering” over mining, and hopes for “constructive dialogue about mining, its opportunities and threats.” That’s a conversation many people in the Upper Peninsula have been trying, and mostly failing, to have for more than a decade.

Building dialogue about mining is notoriously difficult, even in the friendliest jurisdictions. Part of the trouble — but only part of the trouble — is that companies come to the table having invested enormous amounts of capital (and usually in a panic to service their debt and start delivering for shareholders). They are focused on the short term and the near horizon. It’s not surprising they often refuse to listen, listen badly, or try to co-opt the dialogue from the outset; and that puts people on guard. Public participation usually gets kettled to “public comment” periods overseen by a government agency or sham community forums (like the ones Rio Tinto tried to stage in the Marquette area back around 2012 and 2013). Before too long, ordinary people realize decisions about the place they live are being made elsewhere, without them.

Professor Rose says he wants “the public to participate,” but it’s unclear from his remarks (as reported) exactly he means by that, or how far beyond gawking at the big rock and marveling at new mining technology he and his colleagues want public participation to extend. Where does his invitation lead? The dialogue about mining seems to be already set within a familiar public relations narrative that is rushing toward conclusions.

This narrative features the idea that sulfide mining can now cover its tracks through reclamation and water treatment, leaving no lasting effects. So Dean Wayne Pennington (who was on hand to announce the revival of a mining engineering as a degree program at MTU) expressed confidence that new mining methods will “ensure that no legacy situations are left for future generations.” In this context, “legacy” is code for water pollution. Examples of sulfide mining’s toxic legacy are not hard to find. Some examples of “no legacy” mining would have helped Pennington’s case.

The stock example from Eagle Mine public relations — which has also been used in promoting the Polymet project in Minnesota — is the Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Flambeau is a Rio Tinto/Kennecott project advertised as a sulfide mining reclamation success story, despite repeated litigation over less than satisfactory water quality results. The mining company won in the courts, but Flambeau remains controversial.

For his part, Rose likened “mining with environmental responsibility” to dentistry. That is not supposed to make you squirm in your chair; it’s meant to reassure people that new technology will be sufficient to address environmental concerns about sulfide mining. It also goes further, portraying mining as therapeutic — an extraction necessary to relieve pain and maintain health. Before the conversation even gets underway, we are being asked to accept technology as a proxy for responsibility and to see mining as a way of caring for the earth.

This is the story created around the big rock at Michigan Tech: the greening of mining and the benevolent power of technology. Mining is being naturalized here — made part of or partner to nature; nature, the earth itself is being remade and reclaimed by new mining technology. This theme emerged again with a new twist at the dedication ceremony, when Michigan Geological Survey Director John Yellich stood beside the big boulder to push for a new geological survey.

Yellich started out praising the “infrastructure” of the UP: “we have electrical, we have internet access and we have roads better than what [they] were.” But in a confusing turn, he moved quickly — in the same breath — from talking about mining-friendly infrastructure to talking about “people coming in and enjoying what we have here in the UP.” Yellich was obviously trying to find a way to finish his statement for the TV cameras, and end on a positive note; so he played the Peninsulam Amœnam card, and talked about mining in language ordinarily reserved for tourism.

For a brief moment, we were asked to imagine that haul roads (a continuing source of controversy and litigation around the Eagle Mine project) were scenic lakeside byways for Sunday drivers or winding paths through a quiet wood, and that UP tourism would benefit directly from further mining development.

It appears this new dialogue about mining is already off to a confusing, false start.

Answering ‘The Ask’ with a ‘Huh?’

I’ve written a number of posts about “the ask” and why we should insist that ask is a verb, but I haven’t said much about the provenance of the ungainly nominative “ask” or taken its origins into account.

“The ask” is not the revival or survival of an archaic or medieval form, as one writer in the New York Times suggested. Far from it: it’s a piece of stock trader’s jargon that crept from the trading floor into bureaucratic conversation. On Wall Street, “the ask” is shorthand for the minimum price a seller sets for a security. The difference between the ask and the bid, or what a buyer is willing to pay, is known as the spread; and the spread is one pretty reliable measure of market liquidity. 

Presumably, when someone uses the term “the ask” or “my ask” to direct work or coordinate action, he expects (or pretends to expect) the second person, his interlocutor, to counter with a bid, as if conversations produced a workable measure of practical liquidity — or a measure of what’s practically possible — in the difference between what one person wants to do and what another wants or is willing to do, or what each thinks ought to be done.

We can sketch a model: the ask would invite the bid and the bid would meet that invitation with an offer. And we can develop this rudimentary model of conversation a little more by exploring the etymology of the word “bid” — itself the substantive form of a verb with roots in Old Teutonic, where *beudan means to stretch out, reach out, offer or present; and by extension beodan or boden in Old English and bede in Middle English come to mean to announce, proclaim or command. So here, again, an ask-bid model might confer some power on the bidder, or help create the appearance of parity, a sharing of command between petitioner and respondent, asker and bidder. What we are going to do is what we together command, or what will fall within the spread, span or scope of our shared command.

That doesn’t seem so bad, on the face of it: at the very least it sounds as if people on both sides can give and get in return. “The ask” holds out the promise of some share in power, or at least more flexibility than command-obedience would seem to allow. That might help account for its widespread use in the first decade or so of the twenty-first century. Ideas about organizational hierarchy are changing, and people have begun to pay outward homage, at least, to the idea that command and control is not necessarily the most effective way to run an organization. In bureaucratic settings, the imperative of command is taking on interrogative affects: the ask makes an order sound more like a request, softening the power one person actually wields over others.

The model has lots of shortcomings: for one, it reduces human relationships to market transactions — and that’s a serious and thorny problem, one I hope to say more about in a future post. But the main trouble with the ask-bid model is simply that it tells us very little about how conversation actually works. Conversations are never so neatly regimented and sequenced as this bureaucratic model makes them out to be, and as I wrote in another post, much of which we might regard as background noise or “beside the point” in a conversation is just as important, if not more important, than the putative point. There’s never just “an ask”; all parties to the conversation are continuously asking and offering, requesting clarification or confirmation, making representations of the other, shifting attention to and from the matter of joint interest, situating, interrupting and re-connecting with each other.

Generally, we’re making it up as we go along, together, and all of that joint effort counts much more than we ordinarily acknowledge. We don’t merely counter asks with bids or requests with offers; we also work together to organize, represent and sustain the conversation as a social act.

A paper published last week by Mark Dingemanse and others at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics stresses this theme. In ordinary conversation, the authors observe, interlocutors ask for clarification and correction about once every 1.4 minutes. This “other-initiated repair” is a central feature of all human conversation; and the cues one uses to initiate repair demonstrate care for the interlocutor and for the “social unit” of the conversation.

There are three main ways interlocutors initiate repair. Interjections like “huh?” are “open requests” for clarification. Asking speakers to repeat what they said (“who”?) are “restricted requests.” Repeating back what the speaker said (“he hit a homerun?”) are described as “restricted offers.” All three are regularly used with the same frequency no matter what language we happen to be speaking and despite differences in grammar and syntax. (For the paper’s authors, this lends support to the hypothesis that there are universals at work in all human language; but rather than get hung up on that point, I prefer simply to appreciate their observation that interlocutors are working constantly together, making repairs on the fly.)

Abbot and Costello's 'Who's on First?' routine is a brilliant send up of other-initiated repair.

So instead of a simple ask-bid or request-offer model, we need a much looser and less linear model in which all parties to a conversation are constantly running requests and offers and making interjections in no particular order or sequence, and so frequently and effortlessly that we don’t even notice we are making them. Requests, offers and interjections might even go unanswered; but they are no less effective for all that. These are cooperative cues and gestures, markers of the conversation as a social act.

(This is, by the way, why,so-called “conversational” interfaces built for digital assistants like Siri are still nowhere near conversational. What the manufacturers of these devices really mean is that you can address your digital assistant — give an order or make a request — in ordinary language, and it will follow. But even if the assistant is designed to say “I did not understand your request, please repeat it” or something along those lines, it’s not producing anything like the steady stream of other-initiated repairs involved actual conversation, where interlocutors are reading each other’s minds and correcting misreadings as they go.)

Conversation recreates and demonstrates joint commitment. That’s what’s really missing from the ask-bid model: human relationship. Asker and bidder, seller and buyer, don’t have a shared project beyond the exchange they are negotiating; their contact with each other can end once the transaction is made, and one or both can just walk away if they don’t agree on price. After all, both the asker and the bidder seek advantage over the other, rather than mutual gain or shared advantage that is the spur, aim and outcome of serious conversation. After the deal is done or abandoned, the bidder is free to pursue his ends and the seller is, too, even if they will be working at cross purposes.

On the other hand, people who are in a conversation about what to do have already committed to doing something together. They’ve committed to acting together, to social action and to a social subject: a “we.” We keep our commitment by repairing as we go. We act together even when we have irreconcilable differences about the way things are or what to do.

Varoufakis on Bankruptocracy

At an anti-austerity event at the Emmanuel Centre in London yesterday evening, former Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis offered a few remarks on the period in which we are now living. Here is my transcript of the part of his talk describing the zombie state of “bankruptocracy” that arose after “capitalism died” in 2008.

When the bank of England prints billions and billions and billions to buy these paper assets — which are mortgages, which are private debts of the banks, which are public debts and so on and so forth —  what happens is two things.

Firstly, house prices increase, in the parts of the country where wealth is concentrated, the wealthy people spend more, their income increases, so there is this sensation among the ruling class that they’ve stabilized the economy because their bottom line has been stabilized.

At the very same time, you have a situation where companies have access to cheap money, courtesy of QE. The tragedy however is, what do they do with this money? Now they’re not dumb. They know that the rest of you cannot afford their goods and services, so they’re not going to invest in productive activity, in order to produce more of them. So what do they do?

They borrow the money that the QE program is producing, giving it to the banks; the banks pass it on to the corporations; and what do the corporates do? They buy back their own shares. They borrow money to buy back their own shares because that way, they push the share price up, and guess what the bonuses of the CEOs are connected to? The share price. So they have more income, and all this money creation, liquidity creation, does not find itself not only in the pockets of working men and women; but it doesn’t even find itself into productive investment into capital.

So we have a capitalism without capital. We have a capitalism with financial capital.

We don’t live in capitalism.

In 1991 socialism collapsed; and the socialist camp and the left worldwide suffered a major defeat, both a political and a moral defeat. And we’re culpable for that, but that’s another story.

In 2008, capitalism died. I describe the new system we live in as “bankruptocracy”: the rule by bankrupt banks that have the political power to effect a transfer — a constant tsunami of money coming from the financial sector and from working people into the bankrupt banks, which remain bankrupt even though they are profitable, because the black holes created during the years of Ponzi growth prior to 2008 remain.

You can watch the whole speech here, on Varoufakis’ site.

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 4

Fourth In A Series

A still from a Tom Casperson campaign spot, in which Casperson (left) says the UP is “truly someplace special…now facing truly special challenges,” among them, “standing against the EPA and the unreasonable overreach of other agencies.”

Demagoguery

Michigan State Senator Tom Casperson is the most visible political figure associated with the MCRC v. EPA lawsuit, the agent if not the author of its political project. We don’t know exactly what or how much he did to encourage members of the Marquette County Road Commission to take the EPA to court, what assurances were given and what expectations were put in place, as at least some of those meetings appear to have been conducted on the down low (and in violation of the Open Meetings Act). But the Escanaba Republican has never been shy about his support for CR 595 or his hostility toward the EPA.

Brian Cabell is stating what seems obvious when he links Casperson’s support for CR 595 to his business associations with timber and trucking in the Upper Peninsula, and it’s reasonable to believe that timber interests are among the donors to Stand U.P., the 501c4 dark money association funding the Road Commission’s lawsuit against the EPA. Before entering public life, Casperson succeeded his father as owner and operator of Casperson & Son Trucking, a log-trucking business started by his grandfather and based in Escanaba, Michigan. Associations like the Michigan Forest Products Council, the Great Lakes Timber Professionals and the Michigan Association of Timbermen support and celebrate the Senator’s achievements.

But those relatively direct and straightforward business associations are probably not the only ones in play here, and in supporting CR 595 and encouraging the CR 595 lawsuit, Casperson appears to be doing more than a little favor for himself and his friends back home in the timber and trucking industries. While a 2013 tally of Casperson’s supporters shows — not surprisingly for a Republican politician in the UP — that Michigan mining, timber and fossil-fuel PACs have been among his biggest backers, I suspect the MCRC lawsuit will serve an even deeper and more shadowy entanglement of alliances and alignments.

In parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series, I’ve described the formation of a political authority, or power bloc, that now pretends to direct economic development in the UP and decide what’s in the region’s best interests. That project is closely bound up with Casperson’s own political ambitions, and those ambitions are hardly limited to advocating for this haul road. Tom Casperson covets a seat above his current station, a role on the national stage; or at least he once coveted that bigger role, and politicians don’t often reconcile themselves to less power than they think they deserve. In 2008, Casperson ran against Bart Stupak to represent Michigan’s first district in the U.S. Congress. He made a pretty good showing, with nearly 33% of the vote against the incumbent’s 65%. With Stupak’s successor Dan Benishek announcing in March that in 2016 he’s running for a fourth term (after pledging to serve only three terms), Casperson will have to cool his heels until 2018. In the meantime, however Senator Casperson has a constructive role to play.

Casperson gained a certain notoriety in 2013 when he expressed doubts during a radio interview about whether President Obama was born in the United States, but he never found his footing as a birther, at least not in public. He’s spent most of his political career fighting the EPA and the regulation of industry in Michigan. That’s apparently where his heart is. Back in 2008, when he ran against Stupak, Casperson represented oil drilling as “lining up with my core beliefs.” At the time, he also claimed that the National Environmental Protection Act (passed in 1970) has regulators “walking around looking for amoebae on the ground so that they can find something to block timber sales,” and whined that environmentalism was “bringing the country to its knees.”

In 2011, Senator Casperson introduced a resolution (SR-10) “to impose a moratorium on greenhouse gas, air quality, and other regulatory actions by the Environmental Protection Agency” and require the EPA to account for the cumulative economic effect of “all regulatory activity” on climate change, air quality, water use, and coal ash. He recently joined Dan Benishek in opposing the Obama administration’s modifications of the Clean Water Act as “regulatory overreach” — echoing the point urged by other conservative opponents of the rule, who lined up obediently behind mining, fossil-fuel and energy producers, big agriculture and fertilizer companies like Koch.

Blaming the “war on coal” — the phrase itself is borrowed from the lexicon of climate change denial — for the closing of Marquette’s Presque Isle coal plant, Casperson warns that “there is no bigger threat to affordable, reliable electrical service to our districts than the EPA.” He grandstands about the EPA at every opportunity: “At some point,” he said back in March, “somebody’s got to take a stand here or they will take our way of life away from us. Clearly, they don’t like mining, clearly they don’t like timbering and quite frankly it appears they don’t really care much for us using the great outdoors unless they give us their permission and I think that’s unacceptable.”  

For Tom Casperson, any and every environmental regulation poses an existential threat. Against this ever present danger, he is out to protect what he frequently calls the UP “way of life” and force a David and Goliath standoff with the federal government. “The burdensome regulations proposed by the EPA,” he said when introducing a bill calling for a halt to the regulation of wood-burning stoves, “are an overreach of government and need to be stopped to protect our way of life.” “If we don’t pay attention,” he warned in a recent interview, “we’re going to get run over here.” On that occasion, he wasn’t talking about the danger of ore trucks barreling through downtown Marquette; he was rising to the defense of barbecue grills.

The barbecue resolution Casperson introduced this year with State Senator Phil Pavlov (and which passed the Michigan legislature unanimously) is an unabashed exercise in demagoguery. “Barbecues are an American tradition enjoyed by families from all walks of life across the country,” it begins, “whether tailgating for a football game, hosting a backyard get-together, or just grilling a summer meal, barbecues are a quintessentially American experience and an opportunity to eat and socialize with family and friends.” What prompted this noble defense of American tradition and the quintessentially American experience of barbecue? Of football, get togethers, and families from all walks of life across the country? Nothing much.  

In an EPA-sponsored competition, students at the University of California, Riverside were awarded a grant of $15,000 for proposing “to perform research and develop preventative technology that will reduce fine particulate emissions from residential barbecues.” That’s all there was to it. But those prize-winning students and their particulate emission preventing technology posed enough danger for Casperson — along with Missouri State Senator Eric Schmitt, Richard Hudson of North Carolina, Allen West and others of their ilk — to start hyperventilating about Obama and the EPA “coming after” our backyard barbecues. It looks like a loosely coordinated effort, with all the shills singing from the same sheet.

It’s a common tactic used to stir up popular sentiment against the regulation of polluters: when big pesticide users don’t like a new rule clarifying which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act, the demagogues tell small farmers that even a little ditch on their property will be counted among the “Waters of the US”; when regulators take aim at the fossil-fuel industry, the demagogues make dark predictions about the end of s’mores and campfires.

This is, by the way, the second time the Michigan legislature has fallen for this particular barbecue canard; the last time was back in 1997, when the Michigan House unanimously approved a resolution protecting barbecue grills against over-reaching federal bureaucrats. Casperson’s resolution was a reboot. Back in the 90s, and again in 2014 when Texas Senator Pete Olson demanded the Clean Air Act had to be amended if Texas-style barbecue were to be saved, the phony patriotism around Americans and their barbecue grills was a flag-waving effort to thwart the EPA’s proposal of stricter ozone limits. This time? Maybe rallying the troops around their barbecues helped to galvanize anti-EPA sentiment in the fight against the new Clean Water Act rule, or capitalize on the Pyrrhic victory the Supreme Court handed to industry in Michigan v. EPA.

A watchdog blog notes that Casperson’s “legislative record directly reflects the money trail,” but the equally important point — the one that I want to emphasize here — is that Tom Casperson’s efforts in the Michigan legislature appear to be connected and aligned with other legislative and extra-legislative efforts to ease environmental regulation and advance extractive projects and industrial development. The MCRC complaint presents a sterling opportunity for Casperson to strengthen these connections and forge new alliances. He would be a fool to pass it up.

Clark Hill, the attorneys who prepared and filed the complaint, already support Dan Benishek through their federal PAC; so Casperson may be able to jockey for a position in line behind him. But the law firm also gave more to Michigan Democrats than Republicans, and their real power and political influence does not depend on the nominal contributions they make to various political campaigns. Those are just goodwill gestures. Their political law practice, on the other hand, is a true nexus of political power, and at the head of it sits none other than Charles R. Spies. In 2012, Spies was Chief Financial Officer and Counsel for Restore our Future, the largest super PAC in history, formed to elect the unelectable Mitt Romney. Nowadays, Spies is supporting Jeb Bush, with a new Super PAC called Right to Rise.

These are the big leagues — much bigger than Casperson could ever dream of playing in. But the national success of Right to Rise will depend on thousands of coordinated local and regional efforts. If the MCRC lawsuit continues to go forward, it could easily have a place in that scheme, while raising Casperson’s profile and burnishing his conservative credentials. For its part, Stand U.P. can continue to raise all the money the MCRC needs for its lawsuit and whatever other political projects Tom Casperson and his cronies may be planning, and never have to disclose the sources of those funds. Its 501c4 “public welfare” status affords that protection.