Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Neither political party talks about taking care of infrastructure: do we need to learn to live together and take care of each other just because catastrophes are ultimately unavoidable?

Let me return to my metaphor: Is the isolated queen pawn in the Tarrasch Defense of the Queen’s Gambit a weakness, bringing down a whole army or country, or a strength – an innovative, rugged individual who minds his own business first? Chess masters still seem to see it as a liability.

It’s a good thing to have your own world together as an individual.  It’s better for you if you can accomplish things publicly on your own. Writers, musicians and composers, chess players, and the like all know that.  If you have your own act together, you don’t have to become jealous or overly “needy” when approaching a relationship.  (I really like the idea of freedom from jealousy; it’s a real luxury not many people can afford.)
So far, that all fits libertarian-to-conservative thinking (with a little bit of Ayn Rand thrown in).  But no person accomplishes anything until his output benefits other people.  An individual identity has meaning only in its relation to others. 

People often need to be left alone to innovate.  They often need to take particular care with their own technical infrastructure. That can include protecting personal computers and wireless equipment, musical instruments, libraries or collections, backups of work (magnetic, optical, and in the cloud).  There is no perfect way to guarantee that total loss of work could not happen.  Cloud backups could be hacked (and this has happened – see my Internet Safety blog Aug. 17, 2012), magnetic flash backups could be destroyed by electromagnetic or magnetic pulse, and all physical backups, even if some are stored offsite in a bank vault, could be at risk in a Tuscaloosa or Joplin-scale tornado. Sudden evacuations might preclude an auteur’s ability to take his work with him. And sometimes government condemns residences before individuals have time to collect their work.  
It is true that it makes sense to be careful, if possible, where you live.  It’s better to live on higher ground, in drier climates, but still in urban areas with modern utility infrastructure.  If you happen to live in an exposed coastal area, you need to make arrangement to relocate inland whenever necessary with backup rental space.  But not everyone has the luxury of doing this, and we all depend on people willing to take more risks for us.  (And about living in earthquake-vulnerable areas?  That question is deceptive. A similar question can come up with wildfires  And it seems that most people don't have the resources to remove dangerous trees near their homes.)

There was a lot of talk this week about the unprecedented nature of the hybrid storm Sandy (hurricane and noreaster), and the scale of personal devastation that can result.  This morning, there are reports of unimagined damage to ConEd’s power grid for parts of Manhattan – and people living in urban areas with underground utilities usually expect to be immune from storms.  But it could be worse.  We could have a solar geomagnetic storm (so called “solar flares” and associated coronal mass ejections) – still a natural disaster – and face severe power and technology disruptions in large areas for months.  And since 9/11, we’ve learned about apocalyptic scenarios determined terrorists could cause – from nuclear detonations to radiation dispersal and electromagnetic pulse which – contrary to what is usually written – does not necessarily  require nuclear materials and can happen in a more local but still wide-area manner.

In such cases, individuals often lose their own footholds on the world and thrown into acknowledging their interdependence with others. They may lose their own place in the world and be forced to support others in very personal ways that they would have found repugnant.  They may have to join causes that they find intellectually incomplete.  They have to surrender their own pride.

In truth, anyone can become homeless and poor; catastrophe can become the great equalizer (although we had a barracks joke at Fort Eustis in 1969 when I was in the Army, that “the razor blade “ is the great equalizer, as is a “Big Muskie”).   Anyone can take his turn with being the "less fortunate" and find his luck runs out.  There are people  (terrorists and Maoist revolutionaries) who know this and feel provoked or “inspired” by thus very dangerous notion.  The NBC series “Revolution” seems based on this idea.  Technology enables unprecedented individual freedom, and in the grand scheme of things it can seem precarious. 

That raises a good policy question:  why aren’t “we” (as a common good, way above even “the family”) more careful about our infrastructure.  Yes, it’s “we” – there is no “they”.  Our extreme capitalism seems to focus so much on short term profits and earnings for utilities that we really don’t harden our power grids and other aspects of our infrastructure the way we could.  (I’m partly guilty: one of the reasons I’m relatively well off – until “equalized” – in retirement is the large oil, gas, and utilities holdings my father had built up – and I had followed suit, investing in them all my working life.  Energy profits – high oil prices – have paid for all our eldercare!)  To the extent that I am a shareholder in some of these companies now , I want to say, I’m more concern that we take care of our infrastructure and protect it from catastrophe than I am from a few more dollars on share price.  Since neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama talk about this – and since the debate moderators didn’t bring it up – I guess it’s up to me to scream about it.  That’s one of the points of my blogs.  Good example of a policy question:  yes, we need  XL Keystone  new pipelines (GOP side).  But we need also  to invest in hardening what we already have too (Obama side).   And we need to continue reducing carbon emissions (Obama side).  Neither party has got it all right.

Sunday (Oct. 28), a local pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA gave a sermon on “radical hospitality” which was also part of the children’s sermon – motivated by the fears of the impact of the  coming superstorm.  Part of the message was that hardships come to everyone despite our best efforts, and we need to be prepared to live in close contact with one another even when we wouldn’t choose to. (Dr. Daniel Solove, George Washington University law professor, had made a similar point in his book “Understanding Privacy”, review on Books blog Nov. 5, 2008). In fact, the fear and paranoia that can grip people before a storm is the idea that the aftermath could bring “me” low, and force me into very personal interactions with people whom I would not have valued in the past and would have passed by in benign ignorance.  It could undermine all my (or “our”) “ideas” about worthiness, personal responsibility, individuality, equality – all the things we say we believe in with a modern democratic society.  But as we’ve noticed recently, part of a democratic society may well include the willingness from everyone to lift others up. 

Oh, and yes, if we took better care of our “commons”, we might not face this at all.

There’s a duality to the way we experience “being yourself” as both an individual and as “belonging” to a group. An individual can, with enough resources and freedom, explore , investigate and publish the objective and nuanced “truth” about common issues.  But it’s only through some sort of social structure – some of which must operate outside the economic marketplace – that things can really be done.  To some extent, people have to do what is “right” and this involves having specific relationships with others and specific responsibilities for others who depend on “you”.  (What matters then is what is "right" for "my family" and perhaps neighbors, not what is right everywhere on Cloud Atlas.) Maybe pastor Rick Warren has a point when he says “it’s not (always) about you”, or even your own knowledge of the “truth”.  Morality – and “personal responsibility” is indeed a layered, two-way concept.  Sometimes right and wrong are not provable with intellectual resources alone, and relate only to how real people have to live together.  That may be why many people want to find answers to moral questions dictated in scripture.  The two-way street concept of “right and wrong” does characterize most of the teachings in the New Testament.

First picture:  Trinity Brass plays Giovanni Gabrielli canon as postlude. 

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