Evidently some of us want to talk about the history of American urban development policy and its complicated and shameful history as a means of controlling and limiting (and draining money from) black people. We want to talk about it even in a thread that was intended to be about something else.
As it happens, the magisterial essay of the decade on precisely this subject was published earlier this year: The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. So let’s talk about it. Conscious, as you will be once you’ve read the essay, that this isn’t a subject on which there are any simple answers, or on which the simple answers are anything like enough. And of course you will read the essay, because hard truths are hard but they’re also true, and you do in fact care about what’s true.
The Guardian is one of the greatest newspapers in the English language, but every so often they publish something that leaves me wondering if all their editors were off in a separate room huffing nitrous oxide and setting fire to the furniture. (Yes, hello, Bruce Baugh.) One such piece is today’s “The meaning of the climate march’s defining photo” by Jonathan Jones.
The “defining photo” in question is an image of this weekend’s (entirely admirable) climate-change protest march, seen from a few stories up looking north on Sixth Avenue. Visible in the near-foreground is the “RADIO CITY” sign at Rockefeller Center. In the background, looking (due to foreshortening) much closer than it actually is, can be seen a chunk of Central Park. From the staggering contrast posed by (1) skyscrapers and (2) trees, Jones conjures up gallons of the Higher Blither:
As climate change protesters filled New York City’s Avenue of the Americas on Sunday, the red lettering of Radio City Music Hall’s vertical sign added its baffled chorus, a muttering bystander perplexed by these people and the crisis about which they speak and sing.Yes, the 1930s, when nobody worried about climate catastrophes. Very knowledgeable, Jonathan Jones.
Change? What change? Who’s talking about change? This auditorium built in 1932, with its hydraulic stage that can raise a nativity scene miraculously from nowhere for its Christmas show (I know, I took the backstage tour once), is a survivor from an age long before anyone worried about the climate.
All the architecture of the part of Manhattan seen in this photograph—just west of the Rockefeller Center on an avenue crowded with skyscrapers like great silver bricks, regular and strong as the land that made them—dates from America’s golden age of self-confidence, when Manhattan was the city of the Empire State, when—crises of capitalism aside—corporate wealth would just keep growing and the world getting more modern. Manhattan is capital of the modern, as the modern was defined from roughly 1920 to 1970. Yet its reassuringly old-fashioned vision of the new is thrown into startling relief by this photograph of a demonstration against uncontrolled industry, against the irresponsible use of resources, agains modernity as New York has defined it so iconically.Talking about 1930s architecture as dating from “America’s golden age of self-confidence”, with the qualification “crises of capitalism aside”, is kind of like blithely referring to the first half of the 20th century as “a period of unprecedented world peace” while sneaking in the handwaving phrase “two apocalyptic world wars aside”. But Jones has got a METAPHOR between his teeth, and by god he’s not going to let facts derail him from wringing every last drop of juice from it.
At the top of the avenue, beyond the crowd, floats the green canopy of Central Park. Laid out before the skyscrapers, this is more than an urban lung. It is a time machine, for among its layers of civilized leisure, artful landscaping, fields and playgrounds, this park preserves massive outcrops of rock unchanged since Manhattan was a wilderness. Those rocks are more timely now than Radio City’s faded glamour.Just as a side note, Jonathan Jones is extremely confused about where jazz happened in New York City. Hint: Lots of places, few of them “downtown”.
History does not move forward. That is one lesson of the climate crisis. There is no inevitable forward rush of progress, as capitalists and communists both believed when the Avenue of the Americas was paraded by men in metallic-grey suits to the far-off strains of jazz from downtown.
The trees in the park are more in tune with the reality the marchers are drawing attention to. They were specific in their facts, those people down there. This was the hottest summer on record. The world is headed for a 4.5C temperature rise. This is a new New York, being born out of the old. Can the city that once proudly symbolized carbon consumption and energy excess—from the Chrysler Building to the Pan-Am Building—become a center of resistance to the destructive forces chewing up the world’s future?This is complete nonsense. New York City is only a symbol of “carbon consumption and energy excess” in the fevered, metaphor-driven, thought-free world of Jonathan Jones. If the average American had the carbon footprint of the average New Yorker, we’d be in vastly better shape.
(This is leaving aside the fact that Jonathan Jones is displaying a level of insight into New York City and how it works that’s roughly comparable to Americans who think that London is full of characters from Mary Poppins.)
Or perhaps that is too optimistic. For much as the architecture that frames this picture is a blast from the past, a nostalgic memory of booms gone by, it also expresses something deeply attractive, to many people, about the modern dream. Logically, to save the planet, we need to be running for those trees. We need to reject the big brash concrete and steel dreams of the modern metropolis and cultivate simple, more rustic aspirations.“Logically.” Yeah, about that “logic” thing. In fact, logically, unless your “save the planet” dreams include the deaths of billions of people (which might well happen), the last thing we need to do is reject “the metropolis” in favor of “rustic aspirations.” What purveyors of the Jonathan Jones variety of handwringing pastoralism don’t get, and are very invested in not getting, is that the big, crowded, dirty, dense metropolis, the kind where people can actually live happily without owning a car, is in fact hugely better for the planet than the way most First Worlders live.
I’m sure that in his dim, sentimental “trees good, skyscrapers bad” way, Jonathan Jones means well. But if our children and our children’s children really do wind up in a world of apocalyptic climate change, “incompatible with human civilization”, then cliche-ridden, thought-free nonsense like what Jonathan Jones is selling will be a part—a small part, admittedly, but a part—of what gets us there.
And so will those Guardian editors off in the other room inhaling laughing gas. Not a single one of you knew a thing about the history of jazz in New York? Must try harder. Much harder.
One of the customs of this community that I am particularly fond of is the practice of witnessing: the acknowledgment of the experiences (and reactions) of our fellow community members, even when there’s no advice to be given.
Witnessing avoids the weird mixed message of a Facebook “like” or a Twitter “favorite” for a description of things that are neither likeable nor our favorite experiences. But for anyone who has been gaslit, who has had their memories denied and their emotions steamrollered, the affirmation that that happened and I feel this way about it are valid comments, worthy of other peoples’ attention, is huge.
I was thinking about this the other day, just after dropping my daughter off at school.
There was another mother just pulling up on a bicycle as the bell rang. She lifted her daughter, who looked to be about six, off of the bike seat. The girl stood there, a little spaced, and her mother urged her to start walking toward class while she locked the bike. The child didn’t move and her mother’s voice developed an edge and some volume. “Go on! Start walking! Go on!”
And suddenly I noticed that all of the adults in range had subtly, unconsciously aligned their bodies to the conflict. Those whose heads were free were looking, but even the one bent over tying her son’s shoes showed, by the set of her shoulders, that she was listening.
The mother noticed too, maybe. Her next comment was not a command, but a self-description. “I am just so mad at you right now,” she said, less sharply and less loudly. They walked off together, the mother talking herself down from that place of anger, the crowd still attentive.
Now, the mothers in that schoolyard are tough: gossipy, razor-edged enforcers of the norm, always watching, always judging. They scare me. But there’s not one of them that wouldn’t step in if they saw a child being hurt, and they de-escalated that situation by the very force of their attention. They said this is not OK without a single word, and that mother heard them.
We in DF can’t do that. We can’t go back and be the quelling force of sympathetic community in one another’s childhood. Time machines, after all, aren’t legitimate elements of the solution space.
But if the internet isn’t a time machine, it is, in its own way, a teleporter. We, or the memory of us and the promise of our future attention, are here for each other at need. Like virtual guardian angels, we sit on each other’s shoulders, encouraging, recording, and believing. And the mark of our presence is the word: witnessing.
This is part of the sequence of Dysfunctional Families discussions. We have a few special rules, specific to the needs and nature of the conversations we have here.
Previous posts (note that comments are closed on them to keep the conversation in one place):
It’s fascinating reading. The authors use four sites that allow up- and downvotes on individual comments to analyze what effect being voted on has on commenters. There’s a lot of neat stuff in there about how they measured comment quality (to account for its role in the feedback that users receive), how they matched commenting populations, and how they determined what metric of voting pattern best captured the impact of different types of votes.
The conclusions are also interesting:
We find that negative feedback leads to significant changes in the author’s behavior, which are much more salient than the effects of positive feedback. These effects are detrimental to the community: authors of negatively evaluated content are encouraged to post more, and their future posts are also of lower quality. Moreover, these punished authors are more likely to later evaluate their fellow users negatively, percolating these undesired effects through the community
This came up in the context of Reddit and the photographs of celebrities, but it resonates with #GamerGate, the crap Anna Sarkeesian’s been getting, and the general stream of MRA nastiness that seems to be all over the internet these days. Because it’s not just relevant to how individual subreddits can turn into wretched hives of violent misogyny (or racism, or other deep wells of loathing for and contempt of one’s fellow humans). It’s also relevant to the internet as a whole.
More than one pundit has talked about how The Era of the Blog is Dead, not just because Twitter and Tumblr are faster and snappier, but because the model of conversation is changing. Comment-and-response cycles happen between blogs as well as within them. In many ways, it’s as useful to regard the entire internet as a set of shifting meta-communities, where the regulars from listservs, blogs and fora take the role that was traditionally occupied by individual commenters on a single site.
In that model, there are places online that are the equivalent of the private thoughts of an individual. More than once, I’ve watched groups of people gather on particular LiveJournals, blogs, and chatrooms to spin up their energy and hone their arguments, then go back to the “main” venues to continue the discussion. These side-channels act as adjuncts to the visible conversation, where people not actively participating can research claims, suggest arguments, and feed support and affirmation to those who are.
This is not, in itself, a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just how conversations work on the internet at the moment. I’ve participated in it, both unconsciously and knowingly, trying to move the “group mind” in the directions that I find best and most ethical.
But when you apply the study conclusions to the internet as a whole, you get exactly what we’re seeing now: communities like Reddit and 4chan are criticized (negative feedback), and begin to see themselves as persecuted. Their worst sides gain strength. The volume of negative output increases, and the gleeful nastiness drives out thoughtful, balanced conversation, even within the communities themselves.
I know of no rough beast whose hour has come at last to solve this. Not feeding the trolls—whether individual or collective—isn’t always practical, and the model that keeps communities like this sane (strong, human moderation) can’t work across multiple sites with no unified owner. Perhaps there is no solution, and all we can do is defend what we have for as long as we can. I do not know.
Fanhistorians fifty years in the future, reading this, should realize that we don’t all hate Bruce Pelz.*In 1985, I wrote a letter addressed partly to that 1962 APEX mailing, and partly to the unknown future. I later incorporated it into my article Over Rough Terrain, which was reprinted in Making Book.
In 2012, Mark Plummer wrote an article for Strange Horizons about my letter, “Over Rough Terrain,” and what had been going on in Apex. He understood exactly what I’d been trying to say. Right on schedule, he stood revealed as the fanhistorian that Apex had invoked fifty years earlier, and a recipient of my note from 1985.
Well played, Mark Plummer.
I had forgotten until I looked it up the other day that Making Light’s first open thread, posted in January 2003, was an emergency measure. My service provider, Panix, was getting hit with a massive DDOS attack. I could barely post or comment, but I couldn’t see why that meant the conversation couldn’t continue. It could, and did, and has.
Welcome to Open thread 200.
Casting on into the future:
Consider taking a look at the energetic and resourceful ArchiveTeam.org, which is working to save the internet’s history from the internet’s bad habits:
HISTORY IS OUR FUTUREThese are the guys who mounted an emergency effort to scrape GeoCities — a huge chunk of the early history of the Web — before Yahoo shut it down. One of their current projects is “preemptively archiving” FanFiction.net.
And we’ve been trashing our history
Archive Team is a loose collective of rogue archivists, programmers, writers and loudmouths dedicated to saving our digital heritage. Since 2009 this variant force of nature has caught wind of shutdowns, shutoffs, mergers, and plain old deletions - and done our best to save the history before it’s lost forever. Along the way, we’ve gotten attention, resistance, press and discussion, but most importantly, we’ve gotten the message out: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY.
This website is intended to be an offloading point and information depot for a number of archiving projects, all related to saving websites or data that is in danger of being lost. Besides serving as a hub for team-based pulling down and mirroring of data, this site will provide advice on managing your own data and rescuing it from the brink of destruction.
Check it out.
Schrödinger’s asshole: A person who says something offensive, then waits to see the reaction it gets before deciding whether to claim it was a joke.
Thank you, Alex Sutherland, for teaching me such a useful term.