There are several things I’d like to talk about this week. First, let’s acknowledge the inevitable turn to autumn. It happened fast this year. We’d been glorying day after day in sunshine and balmy T-shirt weather, when — boom — a lid closed on the eye of summer and in a blink a wet fall emerged. I lit my first fire of the season this weekend while listening to rain on the skylights.
I guess I’ve been preparing for this turn of events: I’ve started reading whole books again (one never has time in the summer), so I have a couple suggestions for you. Both of these are drawn not from shiny new bestseller lists but from the archive of classics.
Winter reading suggestions
The first is the slim but powerful autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass. This book is relevant, again, given the current conversation about reparations for Black Americans. The details of slave culture are, of course, shockingly brutal. Douglass is such a fine writer that you feel as if you’ve actually been dropped into the horrors of a slave’s life mid-1800s.
Douglass’ “Master” had 400-plus slaves working on a series of farms in Maryland. It’s not hard to understand how the nation’s economy — primarily cotton production in the South — was built on this system of unpaid labor. Douglass’s descriptions and deep psychological understanding of how slavery emotionally twisted both slave and master are remarkable. Some books are worth picking up again. This is one of them.
Along these same lines, the Washington Post recently highlighted the research of Joshua Rothman, University of Alabama history professor, and his unveiling of two of the most “ruthless domestic slave traders” — Isaac Franklin and John Armfield of Virginia. Between the 1820s and 1830s, these men “reigned as the undisputed tycoons of the domestic slave trade” transporting, (raping and selling) over 10,000 slaves up and down the east coast of the U.S. “The duo amassed a fortune worth several billion in today’s dollars and retired as two of the nation’s wealthiest men.” (More about these slave traders here: https://tinyurl.com/yxcessro).
As we mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Americans in Jamestown, perhaps it’s time to honestly confront our brutal history.
The second is another older book that provides insight into our current immigration conversations: Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The Devil’s Highway, A True Story.” Urrea is a Mexican American novelist, essayist, and Pulitzer Prize winner. This narrative is not for the faint of heart. Following his exhaustive research, Urrea details the trek of a group of Mexican Nationals who’ve paid to be brought to the U.S. — on a desert route between Tucson and Ajo, Arizona — to improve their lot and support their families. Urrea describes the mafia-like system of personalities from the fellow who “hooks” his “walkers” to the big cheeses who arrange transport details and grease the skids along the way. But the main story, once Urrea delivers the background and lingo, is of the “coyote” called Mendez who misleads 26 unprepared men and boys into the desert. In the end the Border Patrol collects 12 bodies and rescues 14 survivors.
If you want real-life detail on why anyone would take this risk and what it’s like attempting a Mexico/US border crossing, this is your read.
And since we’re talking about politics, let’s not forget the amazingly articulate and passionate 16-year-old Greta Thunberg who’s in the US after traversing the Atlantic Ocean on a solar powered racing sailboat, the Malizia II. Greta disembarked at the Manhattan Marina at the end of August and was met by a crowd of supporters and high school students holding homemade signs and chanting “Sea levels are rising and so are we!” and “There is no Planet B!”
In case you’ve missed it, the weather is changing (!) and the problems of climate change will be left to the youth of the world unless we adults and our so-called leaders make some dramatic changes, soon. Climate scientists have said we may have 11 years before an extremely dangerous, probably lethal, turning point is reached. There are already cities in desert climes where life as we know it will not be possible much longer. (Read about the Pakistani city of Jacobabad: https://time.com/longform/jacobabad-extreme-heat/)
Greta spoke with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now (listen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dgi30Wy_V74) about how her grief about the changing climate and the sixth extinction led to her protest on the steps of the Swedish Parliament. Her presence there — ignored for weeks — finally sparked the growing movement of young people who’ve coalesced around her. She’s been protesting for climate action every Friday, wherever she is.
Greta also spoke to Trevor Noah (listen here: https://tinyurl.com/yxns7jtr). (It is truly a sign of the times that our late night comedy hosts are leading the way on rational political discourse.) Greta is smart, humble, dedicated, and unafraid. If our world can create young people like Greta, perhaps all is not lost.
And since I’m on a dimming-of-the-light disquisition, let me also add the incredibly right-on and well-researched thinking of Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School luminary, who has named our current era of business “Surveillance Capitalism.” What she means is that the Facebooks and Googles of the world are gathering digital information — without our permission — about who we are, what we like, what we buy, and where we live and using it to make money by selling it to other businesses and advertisers.
We have all slipped, I might even say slimed, our way into this new world of capitalism with barely a whisper of protest. In fact, we have voluntarily entered this dark digital world offering up our faces, our buying information, our likes and dislikes, data about ourselves and our families in exchange for mostly time-wasting apps and games.
As Zuboff says, “Human experience was the new virgin wood, the thing that could be claimed and monetized online in the real world by devices, sensors, cameras, and all of the digital infrastructure which now is so ubiquitous and cheap.” She says these tech companies, which survive by gleaning our information, are a “one way mirror” — they are watching us but are designed for user ignorance.
This business model wasn’t an evil scheme; it just evolved as platforms like Facebook and Amazon continued to adapt their business models and figure out how to make money in this new age. Big Brother or “Big Other,” as Zuboff calls the force of technology, “doesn’t care about us at all, whether we’re happy or sad, alt-right or alt-left. Tech has a radical indifference. All it cares about is whoever you are and whatever you do that it can get the data.”
As stated by one book reviewer, “Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ shines a searing light on how this latest revolution is transforming our economy, politics, society, and lives."
OK, here endeth the Doom and Gloom Report for autumn 2019.