Why I Loved the Women’s March, January 21, 2017

I am surprised and glad I went to the Women’s Marches in Oakland and San Francisco on Saturday, the day after Trump was inaugurated. The Friday night march in San Francisco was also worth going to, though more predictable and less inspiring than the surprisingly gigantic turnouts for the Women’s March, not just here in the Bay Area but across the U.S.

San Francisco at Jones and Market after 2 hours, the dense crowds continued… a friend counted over 220,000 standing not far from where I was, and he missed a bunch.

In general I have grown to dislike the mass demonstration because of its utter predictability, its function as a zone of narcissistic self-congratulation, its exclusionary dynamics that often depend on a high tolerance for having speakers barking their slogans at you, or monitors scolding you for walking too far out of bounds, etc., or in any case an assumption of shared ideas and values where they barely exist. The fact that so many demos are organized by groups that I disdain or actively oppose only adds to the problem.

I’ve seen a few facebook friends going off in various ways about the Women’s Marches. Why didn’t these people protest earlier? Aren’t they all just a bunch of liberals and democrats? Why aren’t they more radical? Why didn’t they show up for all the other issues that smaller numbers of people have tried to mobilize around during the past decade? etc. etc. I’m sure there is plenty of truth to these complaints, but it really misses the point.

How many was this true of? A lot!

For the huge swath of the country that has been resolutely unresponsive to radical critiques of this society, their world has shattered. The idea that we are basically a decent place with good people doing the best we can in a world where the neoliberal consensus has convinced most that there is no alternative to markets and meritocracy and capitalism has been impossible to shake with leftist chanting, anti-racist organizing, gender liberation struggles, etc. We might think the problem is with the folks who accept the anodyne platitudes of normalcy who we think should be more critical, more engaged, more thoughtful, and show more solidarity and compassion. Sure, I can see that. But it doesn’t matter. The left has grown smaller and more marginal over the past decades. Whatever we’ve been doing in whatever corner of the left we are in (gender, racial, labor, etc.) has not been working very well.

The Women’s March did not change all that. But to blame the people who turned out for all the failures of left organizing is just bitter and weird. I was really moved by the energy and earnestness of the tens of thousands of people (90,000+) I saw on the streets of Oakland during the morning and midday sunshine and then even more amazed by the over 200,000 people who doggedly stayed to march for hours from the Civic Center to the Ferry Building in the pouring rain. Sure, I know there’s a long way to go from one day of vocal repudiation and assertion to a developed movement that can impose its hegemony on government and the economy. But given the fear and panic and depression that so many people had fallen into since the election (or earlier), this was a huge morale booster for good people. To take the streets in such numbers is a powerful experience, even if the sign had it right: “I can’t believe we still have to protest this fucking shit!”

uh.. yeah! from Oakland.

I congratulate everyone who turned out, the wonderful creativity that went into the thousands of homemade, heartfelt signs, and I’m glad we opened a space for dialogue and critical thought. Now we can argue about how to fill that space, and to develop those muscles and skills in the time ahead. It’s going to take a mighty effort to wrest control of this society from the kleptocrats and militarists and ideological purity is a useless tool for this project. We all have to get better at talking to people we disagree with, and to accept the usefulness of argument and debate, and to learn to live with not being right, and not getting our way, and not always feeling “safe.”

And now a long gallery of images:

San Francisco

San Francisco


Continue reading Why I Loved the Women’s March, January 21, 2017

Nature is Trying to Kill Me!

These raccoons had their way in our backyard during our annual Posada on December 17... fearless critters!

These raccoons had their way in our backyard during our annual Posada on December 17… fearless critters!

There haven’t been any recent attempts that I’m aware of, but I know it’s true. We had some very rambunctious raccoons rolling around our backyard during the Posada on December 17,and they were utterly unafraid of the dozen humans standing a few steps away. But they made no move to attack.

It’s actually a standing joke among my friends. I write and talk a lot about ecology and transforming urban life to harmonize with natural systems. I’m very concerned about climate change and probably pay more attention to the cascading bad news than most people I know. And yet I hate camping (dishwashing in the woods as far as I’m concerned). People and their pets (especially dogs) drive me crazy—I hate how people anthropomorphize their animals and then treat them like children. I eat meat with enthusiasm, and find proponents of animal rights and/or veganism too often some of the most pedantic, moralistic, and generally unhappy and unpleasant people I’ve met (with some exceptions, happily).

In spite of being an inveterate urbanite who feels safer sitting in a parking lot than next to a babbling brook buzzing with insects and birds, I think about nature and ecology a lot. Lately I’ve been reading a lot too, and I’ll be quoting from five different books during this post. It’s been a bit like taking a quick class in urban ecology, though the books covered here aren’t quite that focused. From the most philosophically minded, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (by Ursula K. Heise, University of Chicago Press: 2016), to the most down-to-city-earth Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, The Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness (by Nathanael Johnson, Rodale Press, New York: 2016), the books here help us take a big step back from the panicky urgency that arose in response to the election of Trump.

I understand that the Trump regime will be a wrecking ball to most of the environmental gains of the past half century. Moreover, developing a nuanced understanding of a healthy relationship between human life and nature will not only not gain traction, but whatever has been gained will likely be reversed now. But going into panic mode and rushing about without a strategy seems like a bad idea to me.

The view of Mt. Diablo from the top of the Sibley Volcano just southeast of the Caldecott Tunnel in the east bay hills.

The view of Mt. Diablo from the top of the Sibley Volcano just southeast of the Caldecott Tunnel in the east bay hills.

Nature having its way with infrastructure!

Nature having its way with infrastructure!

I decided it’s a good time to think deeply about where we are and where we might go. The fraught politics of inequality built on centuries of racism, sexism and general fear and loathing of “others” is not something that doubling down on the smug self-satisfied rhetoric of coastal know-it-alls is going to adequately address. It’s hard to believe that anyone in their right mind could vote for an obvious liar and huckster like Trump. But when you pause for a moment it’s easy to see that Trump is not such a departure really, and that Americans have voted for frauds and charlatans as president almost as often as not. Something primal happens to voters, apparently, and given the chance to support a venal, hateful demagogue who promises the moon an awful lot of people say “give me the moon then,” realism be damned.

I am thankful for the time I had to read these smart books, which in addition to the two mentioned, also include Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (by Frans de Waal, W.W. Norton & Company, New York: 2016), Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction (by Mary Ellen Hannibal, The Experiment LLC, New York: 2016), and Satellites in the High Country (by Jason Mark, Island Press: Washington DC 2015). An earlier book I read kept looping itself back into the conversation these books had in my head, which was Feral by George Monbiot that I briefly mentioned in an earlier post.


satellites_9781610915809book-cover-jpg-citizen-scientist-196x300unseencitycover-667x1024smart-animals_9780393246186_198Monbiot argued in his book that we should restore apex predators into our environment to re-establish a sense of awe, fear, and excitement that we are lacking in modern life (imagine having to consider encountering a bear on the way to the corner store!). His book seeks to break with the dogmas of mainstream environmentalism, and to a great extent that is what is refreshing about all of these books too. Each of the writers in their own way is trying to rethink, reimagine, and propose a new approach to what has become an impossible cul-de-sac of environmental degradation, climate chaos, and rapidly accelerating extinction. All of the writers here have gone beyond the paradigms that beset radical environmental thinking only a generation ago, wherein humans were still largely outside of and the opposite of “nature.” All of them, in various ways, are trying to articulate new approaches to some kind of reconciliation, to finding a way that humans as natural beings can find an appropriate set of philosophical assumptions to shape new behaviors that in turn work with the logic of nature instead of being implacably against it.

Continue reading Nature is Trying to Kill Me!

Dislocations Near and Far

Moto-trikes at sunset after big tropical downpour, Teabo, Yucatan, Mexico.

Moto-trikes at sunset after big tropical downpour, Teabo, Yucatan, Mexico.

Sitting in Mérida, Yucatan, munching on the irresistible marzipan candies that are available everywhere here. Came down for a family wedding, and stayed to join a community delegation to support the Luis Gongora Pat family in their efforts to generate local awareness about the case, and hoping to pressure the Mexican government to, in turn, pressure the U.S. and San Francisco District Attorney to prosecute the police who murdered Luis on Shotwell Street about 4 months ago. On November 1st, we travelled to celebrate the Hanal Pixán festival, feast for the spirits as part of the Day of the Dead days. November 2nd is Day of the Dead, or All Soul’s Day.

The town of Teabo put up an altar in Mérida's central square for the Hanal Pixán celebration

The town of Teabo put up an altar in Mérida’s central square for the Hanal Pixán celebration

Dozens of altars filled the square, many of them with labels in Mayan to help celebrants learn how things are named.

Dozens of altars filled the square, many of them with labels in Mayan to help celebrants learn how things are named.

I should quickly note that I haven’t written much lately and haven’t posted a thing since the end of my summer in Mexico City. Why, my millions of readers want to know? Well, returning to San Francisco turned out to be more jarring than I had previously experienced, or ever would have expected. I felt pretty dislocated from my own life for more than a month before getting back in the flow.

I know perfectly well that the soul of the city has been draining away. It’s like someone pulled the plug a few years ago and now the bathtub is practically empty, the last murky waters circling the drain as we see what made many of us feel so strongly about San Francisco disappear in the last swirls into the void. It was also true that I loved being in Mexico City, a big vibrant city with lots of history and countless places to explore. And finally I was beginning to enjoy some real communication in Spanish after being blocked by my shame at bad speaking for so many years. Returning to SF from Mexico City was a bit of a letdown, given that San Francisco is very small and relatively provincial compared to a true world city, and its history that I know so well pales in comparison to places like Mexico City or other places with centuries behind them. (Not that I don’t still love local history, I do. And I’m fully engaged with Shaping San Francisco to this day and have no plans to stop.)

I also returned to the quadrennial madness that passes for democracy here. It’s a completely shameful spectacle that has so little to do with what we are actually facing, whether locally, statewide, nationally, or internationally. I inevitably find it terribly depressing to see so many of my intelligent friends become unhinged on cue during this process of mass hysteria known as the Presidential election. Spare me the lectures about how awful Trump is. I know. Or how awful Clinton is, I know. Or how the differences between them are SO important. There have certainly been some artfully concocted campaigns to create that impression. And I generally believe there are much greater differences between these two than we’ve seen in past elections, and that a Trump victory would (and to some extent already has) “unleash the beast in White America,” as a KPFA commentator put it a month ago. But I also still think that even though the narcissistic windbag has blown up the GOP with his campaign, there is a tight consensus in the American ruling class about the role of the U.S. military in world affairs, the inviolability of private property and wage-labor, and the basic structure of life that has benefited their class so handsomely. Neither candidate is going to challenge the hegemony of banks, oil, or the war economy. Neither candidate is going to address climate change, dismantle the car-centric physical structure of life, reorganize the plumbing in every house to accommodate gray water and composting, develop urban organic agriculture as an alternative to the endless proliferation of bullshit jobs, or replace the absurdity of GNP and endless growth with a new logic based on a good life for all, a stable state circular economy, and less work! My idea of what is necessary and urgent doesn’t even enter the conversation. And it depresses me deeply to realize that what I’m arguing for is considered so far beyond the pale that it is simply laughed away as improbably unrealistic. I’d say my very scratch-the-surface list above is much closer to a basic realism than any of the capitalist utopians promising a better future based on the broken logic of the ways things are.

Teabo, Yucatan, outskirts. The term "Pueblo Biciclitero" is used derogatorily against small towns in Mexico to indicate their backwardness... but in the Yucatan a huge number of people use bicycles regularly and it is clear evidence of an advanced way of living!

Teabo, Yucatan, outskirts. The term “Pueblo Biciclitero” is used derogatorily against small towns in Mexico to indicate their backwardness… but in the Yucatan a huge number of people use bicycles regularly and it is clear evidence of an advanced way of living!

Anyway, I came to Mexico for a week, and it’s a relief to get away from the incessant yammering and overwhelming tidal wave of bullshit that passes for democratic debate in the United States. If this isn’t evidence of a collapsing society I don’t know what is!

Yesterday I had the honor of accompanying Adriana, along with Tiny of Poor Magazine and her son Tiburcio, to the town of Teabo, about an hour and a half southeast of Mérida, the hometown of Luis Gongora Pat, and his brothers and cousins and their extended families that we’ve come to know in San Francisco. We were greeted by Luis’s daughter Rossana, his niece Viki and his cousin Teresa who brought us to the family home a couple of blocks from the church in the central plaza. There we met the parents, wife, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews and grandkids, a lovely and resilient group in which the women stand tall and are clearly the pillars of family life here, with the men away working in the US and Merida… and Luis killed.

Continue reading Dislocations Near and Far