Outside the Asylum

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Engineering Culture
Pt. 2

The only security we have is our neighbors’ approval. An archist can break a law and hope to get away unpunished, but you can’t `break’ a custom; it’s the framework of your life with other people.
--Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed

Brutal changes have been made in American culture over the past forty years. I say this with no implication that American culture was free of brutality before that date. But nearly every change that has been made since 1980 has been an ugly one, as if someone made a list of everything valued by humanists and targeted each for demolition, regardless of the consequences to the culture at large. Kindness, community, civic responsibility; debate, analysis, honest research; intellectual freedom, investigative journalism, human rights; untrammeled creativity, innovation, and invention; education, arts, letters, and even the kinds of science that don’t translate immediately into machines that can be sold at a profit: all have been diminished or distorted, defunded or made the target of a hostile takeover. (For a glance at how one can accomplish a hostile takeover of a cultural event or concept, look at the excellent article "The Perils of Liberal Philanthropy," by Karen Ferguson. You can find it here: https://jacobinmag.com/2018/11/black-lives-matter-ford-foundation-black-... ) The natural world and human civilization alike have been abused, in a manner befitting a death cult. And, arguably, late-stage capitalism is a death cult. At least, the knowledge that the pursuit of maximal profit is currently killing people, and will end up killing most of the human race, seems to suggest to the powerful no reason to alter their course.

They say you can’t kill an idea, and they are (mostly) right. So if you want to shift your culture away from certain ideas and toward others, the best you can do is to take the idea out of currency. It’s like altering the algorithm of a search engine; when people’s minds search their culture for ways to interpret their experience, you want the idea you’re trying to destroy NOT to come up as one of the top ten search results. How do you do this? Far too simply for my taste. Control the media, and you’re a long way toward controlling people’s expectations, and if you control their expectations, you are likely to control their perceptions. You can even get people to believe total nonsense against all evidence to the contrary. As George Lakoff once said, frames trump facts; people’s fundamental assumptions will blot out from their sight facts that do not fit. (I am not as certain as Dr. Lakoff that this is the only way the human brain can work, or respond to the incongruous, but I'm willing to accept that this is usually the way the human brain works:)

If, in addition to controlling the media you also control public education, you will be most of the way toward your goal. Critical thinking can have a prophylactic effect on perception management, and you don’t want that ability at large amongst the populace.

America, in 1980, was an easy target for the brutal propagandists who wanted to change it (“We will move America so far to the right it will be unrecognizable,” said the Nixon staffer on the way to jail.) We were, and are, over-reliant on our mass media and our celebrities (including politicians) for our concepts of what our culture and people are like. This made the right-wing media consolidation of the eighties and nineties horribly powerful. Why were we so reliant on television, movies, and radio to tell us who we were? Because our communities, and our ability to make community, were in a state of progressive, systemic decline. They were being assaulted by a reconceived, and profoundly predatory, American economy, and in subsequent decades, the situation only got worse.

The economic environment required, and expected, frequent relocation in pursuit of work. A simultaneous de-industrialization demolished the economic infrastructure of the country, destroyed small towns and even small cities, often making it necessary to leave in search of work. Small farms and small banks were targeted, put under economic pressure, and often became part of large corporate entities which were emphatically not local (most large corporations act like they are local to nowhere). Most importantly of all, the basic social contract around work was altered; the wage scale was shifted downward again and again; promotions were de-coupled from real raises in pay; positions were reconceived as “contract positions,” meaning that benefits such as health insurance and vacation time became tenuous at best. This is all well documented, but what people often don’t notice, because it’s beneath mention, is the effect these things had, not just on people’s ability to own homes and get medical care, but on their ability to form lasting relationships and communities. If everybody’s at work (or commuting) most of the time, and nobody knows when they might have to move because of or in search of work, it’s going to be exceedingly difficult to make community.

Creating a world in which people can rarely afford to take time off from work—where, indeed, they might lose their job if they did take time off—exacerbates this problem. Whether you’re planning a music festival, a climate change rally, or a visit to old friends, you will need time: time to travel, time to spend in community, time to spend with friends. The American economy was restructured to deny ordinary people that time.

Into the vacuum where our communities used to be stepped the mass media, in particular the broadcast media. They were the ones to tell us what America was and what Americans believed. Social science still existed, and not all of it was corrupt; it’s possible, even now, to find a study that was done honestly and derive some conclusions about America from it. But the mass media is the one who tells its viewers what these studies mean. It’s a rare person who investigates further, looking into the data itself, analyzing the structure of the study, because it’s a rare person who has the time and energy to do so. It’s also a rare person who received the kind of education which would make them think of doing it.


All Other Priorities Rescinded

This large-scale attack on communities was able to proceed without much opposition largely due to America’s tendency to valorize profit, “work,” and the business world, and despise all that is not practical, material, and easily measurable. Emotions are categorized as weakness, intellectual pursuits not oriented toward profits are categorized as waste. Work done for its own sake is, at best, foolish; at worst, it might mean you’re a decadent aristocrat with “privilege.” Therefore, if I “work” on learning how to play guitar for ten years, that’s not real “work” (neither is cleaning my house or taking care of my child). Speaking of children, all relationships outside the nuclear family are entirely dispensable, and we know in our hearts that if our economy dictates it, the nuclear family too will too be put on the chopping block. All priorities other than those dictated by the profit machine can be rescinded at any time.

We could all join with Yaphet Kotto's character in Alien when he says: The goddamned company. What about our lives, you son of a bitch?

The arts, humanities, and culture itself are treated like decorations—pretty, but inessential. Culture is the framework of our lives with others, so viewing it as decorative rather than essential or functional is a destructive attitude in itself; but that view also enabled attacks on the culture to proceed unnoticed, or embraced in a spirit of resignation. From the “practical” point of view I’m describing, it would be nice to have a culture in which we could spend time with each other, give our children an excellent education, and have time to reflect on the current condition of our country and our world, in the same way that it would be nice to have beautiful weather for a picnic. If, instead, you have a downpour which ruins the picnic, people do not organize against it; they sigh, and go on with their lives—or, more accurately, go on without large portions of their lives.

Many years ago, Mark Slouka wrote an excellent essay on the problem of an economy, and a concomitant culture, that denies us time. In "Quitting the Paint Factory," he said:

Look about: The business of busi­ness is everywhere and inescapable; the song of the buyers and the sellers never stops; the term “workaholic” has been folded up and put away. We have no time for our friends or our families, no time to think or to make a meal. We’re moving product, while the soul drowns like a cat in a well....A resuscitated orthodoxy, so pervasive as to be nearly invisible, rules the land. Like any religion worth its salt, it shapes our world in its image, de­monizing if necessary, absorbing when possible. Thus has the great sovereign territory of what Nabokov called “unreal estate,” the continent of invisible possessions from time to talent to contentment, been either infantilized, ren­dered unclean, or translated into the grammar of dollars and cents. Thus has the great wilderness of the inner life been compressed into a median strip by the demands of the “real world,” which of course is anything but.
--Slouka, "Quitting the Paint Factory"
http://www.molvray.com/ebooks/Quitting_the_Paint_Factory_Mark_Slouka.html

These two factors—the predatory economy perfected in the 80s and 90s, and the prejudice toward profit that encouraged us to accept these changes as inevitable, made us particularly vulnerable to media manipulation, propaganda, and cultural engineering of all kinds. Changes in media narratives of all kinds, from the news to Netflix, hit us harder because we lack enfleshed referents and experiences to provide alternative data and interpretations.

Ah, but here’s the rub: Idleness is not just a psychological necessity, req­uisite to the construction of a complete human being; it constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press. How does it do this? By allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giving the inner life (in whose precincts we are most ourselves) its due. Which is precisely what makes idle­ness dangerous. All manner of things can grow out of that fallow soil.
Slouka, "Quitting the Paint Factory"

And thus, the predatory economy also becomes, intrinsically, a tool of political authoritarianism.

I promise I will get to concrete examples next.
How are you all this morning?

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lotlizard's picture

just go ahead and turn our caring about George Floyd etc. into a wave of nationwide unrest, while at the same time strengthening almost everyone’s tendency to forget and NOT care about the revelations and fate of Bradley / Snowden / Assange, or the Nuremberg-level crimes of the bipartisan Forever War coalition, or … or … etc.

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@lotlizard

talking about Tamir Rice. I wonder how many people know who he is?

It is truly horrendous how the supposed "left" of our times is completely denuded of its history. Eric Garner was murdered only six years ago, yet people act like George Floyd's murder is a complete surprise, and this horrible murderous racist state just fell on our heads a few weeks ago (perhaps from Mars). If it has any connection to the past, it's to Nov. 2016 and Jan 2017, and nothing else.

I'm certain there are plenty of black people in the rank and file of the movement who know damned well that's not the case. But that's not how the mass media is using it, nor how the politicians are. And apparently, nobody's supposed to point that out, or they're insensitive to the fact that it's wrong for black people to be murdered.

As Donna Edwards' chief of staff once told me, "If you dance with the devil, the devil don't change."

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Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

You also grew up in Florida, right? Do you remember when those cops killed Arthur McDuffie?

I was almost 10 when the all-white jury acquitted the cops, and that whole atrocity had taken place about 10 minutes from my front yard. I was shook bad by it and was never the same afterwards -- up until that time I'd been taught and I'd believed this kind of evil was "in the past", but the McDuffie murder was how I learned that this kind of evil is never really "in the past". Evil fuckin lives forever, it just once in a while changes its name and the color of its shirt as it slithers into a new era.

It's interesting to me, in the sort-of disassociated way that trauma sometimes imposes on reflection, to look back and see how early on even little kids took ideological sides based on prioritizing justice over order, or order over justice.

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Reverend Jane Ignatowski @Reverend Jane Ignatowski

I was living in the Tampa/St.Pete area, and as odd as it may seem, Miami felt like another world to us. Not, in our case, because of "all those Spanish speakers down there" (my family itself was full of Spanish speakers), but--well, I don't really know why. Maybe because it seemed so urban? Or because it was so very far away from everything else? People from outside FL have no idea how long it takes to drive to Miami from much of the rest of the state.

So I didn't know about it, even at the time. I'm not surprised, of course. Sad

EDIT: Thinking about it some more, even given our lack of connection/attention to Miami, I find it weird that I didn't know about it. I was only eleven; maybe people kept it from me?

Thank you for keeping his name alive. Spreading the word. I think it's a good idea to remember what we can.

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Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

Even living in it. Growing up there during the 70s and 80s I watched it go from elder housing/quiet resort destination to off-the-chain violent nuthouse pretty fast. From our pov, your childhood home was just a hop, skip and a speeding ticket to a nice getaway weekend full of theme parks and orange groves, heh.

The McDuffie trial was actually moved to Tampa ostensibly to get an untainted jury but, you know, Florida. The case was really prominent where I was from, obviously, and it was how a lot of little kids in our area found out the cops and the Klan still had overlap.

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Reverend Jane Ignatowski

but if that crap is going to happen, I guess it's a good thing to know it. And it sure sounds like you learned the right lessons from it.

Of course, the really great lesson would be how to make it stop. It would be great if there were a way to make it stop other than, well, the extinction of the human race.

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10 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

I think it's not just a generational issue or a cultural problem, but a herd-level hurdle we must overcome if we are to ever call ourselves a truly intelligent species.

I was over-exposed to adult issues as a child, and like most things, there are upsides and downsides to it, lol.

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Lily O Lady's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

treated like criminals as he lay dying. I’m not from Ohio and so have no connection to the area. It was just such a terrible thing. Each death adds a burden on my heart.

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"The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

Lookout's picture

@Lily O Lady

https://www.britannica.com/event/shooting-of-Trayvon-Martin

I always wondered why Trayvon's lawyer didn't turn the table and argue "stand your ground" for Trayvon. Here was an armed adult stalking a teen. How is it Trayvon wasn't trying to provide for his own safety?

But the list is endless isn't it?

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

@Lookout a protest for Trayvon. I used that very language on my sign "where was Trayvon's right to stand his ground?" and I could not help but notice that inside a restaurant we were walking by someone actually took note of that and nodded, kind of like they'd never had that thought before, ya know? Not that I think I made some huge difference that day, none of us did but we did it anyway, but I remember that look of surprise out of that restaurant patron who was not walking in protest. We thought about going to the protests for Michael Brown but did let our fear of how the cops would react to it stop us from going, my nephew had moved so it would have been two older white women, neither of whom could run if we had to.

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Only a fool lets someone else tell him who his enemy is. Assata Shakur

Lookout's picture

@lizzyh7

On and on it seems to go.

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@lotlizard

into a human being we can put our arms around, while a new villain is premiered.

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Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

Another morning in our glorious empire, but also another morning in my beloved real world.

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Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Dawn's Meta's picture

an engineered culture or the engineering culture?

This is particularly important to me as I spent the best career portion of my life as an engineer. This may not be too coherent, as I am recollecting thoughts and impressions from awhile ago and so many pathways led me forward.

As a frame of reference I came out of imo the best public schooling had to offer in high school and bits and pieces of higher ed. I never graduated. But liberal arts all the way, with super biology (taught by a nun), physics and chemistry in HS for two years; geology; NW Coastal Indian cultural Anthropology. All the rest were typical but well taught, enthusiastic teachers in literature, social sciences, art, music and more.

First real jobs were in a large community college where I was a cord board operator while going to school. Best job ever. Then went to admin in a medical school. After that private high tech.

Finally took my high tech to a post WWII brick and mortar firm, which was scared of things they couldn't see like bits, bytes and protocols. This was the engineering eye opener, and said a lot about what you write about here.

The traveling workers were in 13 or 14 specialties from Architecture through all the engineering disciplines. I added the last technical discipline after Instrumentation and Control and Industrial Engineering. We became 3000 strong. We deployed worldwide. My first year was spent on the internal group keeping track of where our people were, how long they were there, how we were doing budgetarily, and were the clients happy.

It was called the 'meat shop'. I was the only girl which actually made it fun. I never dressed in the silly AT&T blue or brown suit with the fake bow tie. Dressed super stylishly which caused reactions and jokes, and adaptations.

We actually discussed personnel cubes (drop one in water, stir, and voila a worker).

This was eye opening in the numbers of people working away from home and their own communities was huge: thousands upon thousands, mostly men. I actually was asked to check on some of my guys who had been in the field too long as in a year without coming home. I would have to order them home. I worked with the coordinating group for a year since I was non-degreed and definitely no engineering background. They needed what I knew, and I was able to fire on all cylinders. Lots of juice, which I thrived on.

The best part of the engineering culture (see there?) was that nothing, not even a brief letter went out to clients, vendors or anyone, without a second pair of eyes, mark ups in red or green. Engineering specifications and drawings could have five to ten lines of review plus some for committees of multi disciplined engineers, designers, and drafters. I got over 'owning' my work. I also felt other professions especially medicine in the retail environment should have the same practices. The idea that others review and mark up or question everyone else's work took time to adjust to. I felt then and do now, that an approach of collegiality, consensus, cooperation was surely a better way to work in almost any profession.

But I gradually understood the dark side of the large engineering firms: highly mobile workers; world-wide postings for unlimited time; paid for time worked only if in a billable situation; otherwise a capped income no matter how many hours; detached individuals working in customer locations, or on new build (green field) sites, with no real support. Hundreds of thousands of people working this way and it was as they expected it to be (I'm assuming from engineer schools).

When a firm had less work, people were shed quickly. If they were known, they would go work in another firm (shop). If not, maybe some time at home for awhile.

We had satellite operations in other countries, for example Ireland. I returned from working in lovely New Mexico to find our home base humming with energy: sixty Irish engineers, designers were in our offices. They lit the place up.

I could see that local school districts had no imput from these workers; they couldn't run for office or go to church; families were run by mom mostly; but when they were working, the money was good.

There is a lot more, but finally, I learned that sooner or later we would be working on some of the dirtiest projects on the planet: some of our electrical engineers had been in the nuclear industry; our industry created highly polluted effluents. We had designs for cleaning it up and not discharging into the environment, but often the local governments were competing for the 'jobs' and would not add the cost of cleaning up and for example recharging the Ogallala aquifer. The customers would take the water out, use it for industrial product and discharge it into desert rivers. We were often disappointed they wouldn't use our suggested reinjection wells.

Some of our clients made deals with local municipalities for tax breaks. One would be to support local cultural events. Well if they had a bad financial quarter or two, they might just pick up stakes and go home (to another country) leaving a highly dependent local government high and dry for both the cultural event support and the tax breaks given.

It is an Alice in Wonderland world out there, and so many owe their livelihoods to the work. Once I saw the numbers of people working in engineering either for contract firms like ours or inside corporations like high tech firms, and more, where would these thousands go?? If not where they were?

Thanks for the framing you are putting on this series. It is really good and a much needed conversation. Lots to tackle and difficult to pare down. You are doing a great job with this.

Thank you.

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A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. Allegedly Greek, but more possibly fairly modern quote.

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lotlizard's picture

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Sri_Lanka_Easter_bombings

Wrong sort of victims and wrong sort of perps for the This Season’s Narrative, I guess.

Plus: the ongoing depressing saga of Oberlin College v. Gibson’s Bakery. In June, Oberlin filed an appeal, keeping the pot boiling.
https://oberlinreview.org/tag/gibsons-bakery/

The family-owned bakery is lucky it hasn’t been torched by protestors yet while local pols, police, and media stand by, turning an indulgent eye…

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@lotlizard

Foreigners don't count unless we need their suffering to justify some invasion by our Special Forces.

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Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

orlbucfan's picture

are well, dry, and staying cool. Smile
Rec'd!!

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Some yahoos make me want to change species!

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@orlbucfan

I'm actually really glad about the rain.

Simultaneously hoping the Saharan dust cloud will continue to hold off the storm season. Haven't been looking forward to the prospect of Covid-19+hurricanes.

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6 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

orlbucfan's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal down here, and they are intense (climate change). We've still got August and September to endure. The season ends in November. Sad

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Some yahoos make me want to change species!

enhydra lutris's picture

replaced any and all values with work and/or money. Should you look up work you get a choice of dictionaries that run on for many screens of variations and nuances but, unless you specifically ask, never this one W = F x D, work is force times distance, not a cult nor a lifestyle nor really anything that need be all consuming, yet as you noted, the US tends to valorize (and sanctify) “work” and "business".

It is still early for me, This:

Work done for its own sake is, at best, foolish; at worst, it might mean you’re a decadent aristocrat with “privilege.” Therefore, if I “work” on learning how to play guitar for ten years, that’s not real “work” (neither is cleaning my house or taking care of my child).

conjured up This:

be well and have a good one.

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

magiamma's picture

Social media has replaced mass media somewhat for younger people. They are in general very much hooked into consumerism and are hooked into the corporate profit machine and keep it going. Children are trained to start consuming at a very young age. This not only distracts them from building relationships but also deters them from examining it. This seems to be changing with the protests. It’s like a mass awakening.

Thanks for your continued exploration of our culture.

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lotlizard's picture

@magiamma  
the thing that concerns her most right now regarding the development of her younger daughter— now also 15 — is indeed the consumerism. An unhealthy desire for overpriced (Western corporate) name brand clothes and accessories, prime example Nike. Selfies and status symbols rather than character, achievement, talent, and values?

Naturally, the working-class parents are proud their daughter is doing well in Gymnasium. (A Gymnasium is a German college-prep-level high school. In Saxony state it starts with 5th grade and ends in a 13-year high school diploma called Abitur. Non-college-prep high school ends after 10th grade and you’re then expected to go on to learn a trade.)

The daughter could turn out to be the first one in the family to go to university. But there are definitely class barriers and hurdles to overcome.

It’s not just the homework assignments the parents can’t help with because the material is beyond what their own education covered. It’s finding “PTA” type participation discouraging, because at parents’ night they get the feeling that other parents — better situated socially and economically, with roots in the professional-managerial class spanning generations — look down on and turn up their noses at them.

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lotlizard's picture

https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/ni-haulier-rona...

Without immediate uproar, vandalism, and rioting, the impact, meaning, and memory of terrible incidents get lost as they take years to work their way through investigation and the courts.

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You said above:

But nearly every change that has been made since 1980 has been an ugly one, as if someone made a list of everything valued by humanists and targeted each for demolition, regardless of the consequences to the culture at large. Kindness, community, civic responsibility; debate, analysis, honest research; intellectual freedom, investigative journalism, human rights; untrammeled creativity, innovation, and invention; education, arts, letters, and even the kinds of science that don’t translate immediately into machines that can be sold at a profit: all have been diminished or distorted, defunded or made the target of a hostile takeover.

It reminds me of the "greed is good" alliteration of the Reagan years. And the "voodoo economics" that was plain to even GHWBush, first running against Reagan and then shutting up and supporting that shit as his VP and subsequent POTUS role. Gecko might have said it too, but Wall Street and Reagan made it policy. I believe Robert Parry wrote a nice summary of the outcome of those years (that we are still living through).

I always appreciate your essays. Be well.

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