Category Archives: Random Blogging

Why Cities Matter

The weather finally–finally!–got warm and pleasant, and I was able to walk around my downtown neighborhood. It was a welcome break from what my husband and I have come to call “house arrest,” and it gave me the opportunity to see who had planted flowers, whose house had been painted, and who else was out walking–with or without a dog.

I’ve written before about how, in the forty years we’ve lived downtown, the center of the city has dramatically changed. Dilapidated structures have been restored, new construction is everywhere, bars and restaurants are too numerous to count. I’m a very urban person, and I have rejoiced in it all.

Now, I fear what the pandemic will do to cities–including mine.

Will fear of density cause people to opt for the suburbs or exurbs? Now that many businesses have seen the virtues of a remote workforce, the cost and hassle of commuting may diminish, making outward migration more appealing. On the other hand, an article from the Conversation reports that density is not the negative we tend to think it is.

Yet while dense major cities are more likely entry points for disease, history shows suburbs and rural areas fare worse during airborne pandemics – and after.

According to the Princeton evolutionary biologist Andrew Dobson, when there are fewer potential hosts – that is, people – the deadliest strains of a pathogen have better chances of being passed on.

This “selection pressure” theory explains partly why rural villages were hardest hit during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Per capita, more people died of Spanish flu in Alaska than anywhere else in the country.

Lower-density areas may also suffer more during pandemics because they have fewer, smaller and less well-equipped hospitals. And because they are not as economically resilient as large cities, post-crisis economic recovery takes longer.

Given the degree to which facts have become meaningless in today’s America, I doubt many people will base their decisions on these findings. As a recent New York Times column began 

To the extent that cities can be said to possess “a brand,” history suggests that pandemics, from the Black Death to smallpox, have not been very good for it. The coronavirus is no exception: According to one recent poll, nearly 40 percent of adults living in cities have begun to consider moving to less populated areas because of the outbreak. In New York, where I live, roughly 5 percent of the population — or about 420,000 people — have already left.

The urge to flee urban “caldrons of contagion” is a very old one, dating at least to the 14th century. Its resurgence now has been described as “temporary,” but so was the war in Afghanistan. Will the coronavirus really set off a mass exit from cities, and, if so, what will they look like on the other side of the pandemic?

The author echoed the findings published by the Conversation, pointing out that a number of “hyperdense” cities in East Asia contained their outbreaks, and that even in New York, Manhattan, the densest borough, has the lowest rates of infection, while Staten Island, which is the most spread-out, has some of the highest. Density isn’t the problem–it’s household overcrowding, poverty, racialized economic segregation and the nature of one’s participation in the work force.

The real threat is that the pandemic will eviscerate all the things that make cities attractive. If it wipes out the restaurants, bars, museums and theaters that make urban living so richly rewarding–and if rents stay sky high–all bets are off.

That said, the column ended on a positive note; the coronavirus “could herald an urban rebirth instead of an urban decline…. After all, the very idea of abandoning cities is a luxury reserved only for those who have the resources to pick up and move.”

Cities matter because they are incubators of creativity. When diverse people come together to work and play, they generate new ideas, new ways of doing things. They see new connections. They are nurtured by living in neighborhoods where they are close enough to know each other, where the sidewalks go somewhere, and where people are acutely aware of their interdependence.

In the wake of this pandemic, America’s cities may experience a few years of stasis or population decline. But history tells us that cities are too attractive and too necessary to abandon or neglect for long.

Job number 2 will be to ensure that cities emerge healthier, more equitable and even more vibrant than they were before Covid-19. Job number 1, of course, is to save America from  Trump, his administration and his base.

 

The End Won’t Be Televised…Or Reported

In January, the New Yorker ran an article focusing on one of the (many) issues that keep me awake at night–the disappearance of local news media.The title was: “What Happens When the News is Gone?”

I’ve shared the statistics before, and they’re grim–and getting grimmer. Last Tuesday, Axios  reported 155 layoffs at Vice, 80 at Quartz, 90 at the Economist, and 100 at Condé Nast , with furloughs at others. And that’s just at national publications, which continue to be comparatively healthy.

Cities and towns, however, continue to bleed the sources of information that are absolutely essential to local self-governance and the sense of community. The linked article begins with an anecdote that is all too telling: at a public meeting in the small town of Pollocksville, North Carolina, the subject was a proposed flood-damage ordinance. The mayor asked if anyone in the audience would like to comment on it.

Alice Strayhorn, a hairdresser in her late sixties who has lived in Pollocksville most of her adult life, raised her hand. “This flood-damage-prevention order,” she said. “How are we supposed to know about that? You can’t make a comment on something you don’t know about.”

Pollocksville’s newspaper was one of the estimated 25% of newspapers America has lost in the past few years, so the mayor had posted a notice in the New Bern Sun Journal, based in a neighboring county. Few people in Pollocksville read it. Surrounding counties with newspapers that do continue to publish–there are three around Pollocksville–are what the article called “ghost papers,” owned by the Gannett Company. Gannett (which also publishes what is left of the Indianapolis Star) controls more than two hundred publications nationwide.

The remainder of the New Yorker article focused upon the consequences of that news desert in Pollocksville, and the various attitudes about that lack of journalism expressed by the locals. (The mayor wasn’t exactly a fan of what we call “investigative journalism,” and tended to dismiss his constituents’ complaints about the difficulty of finding out what local government was doing.)

It would be difficult to overstate the effects of the last quarter-century’s dramatic changes to the way Americans get their information. The ability to occupy “filter bubbles” in which we consume only news that feeds our pre-existing prejudices–and the corresponding lack of trust in outlets reporting things we don’t want to know or believe–is only the most obvious of those consequences. The current media environment increases political polarization, exacerbates class and regional conflicts, and makes negotiation and compromise–essential for workable governance–incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

Those consequences are broadly recognized.

Less well understood is the way that the absence of common sources of information have fractured local communities and eroded the ability of city and town governments to function properly.

The problem isn’t the lack of information, exactly–it’s the fragmented nature of the sources of that information. Bubbles aren’t just an online phenomenon.

In Indianapolis, people who want to know what’s happening in education go to Chalkbeat; people who live downtown access the Urban Times; African-Americans subscribe to the Recorder; businesspeople and professionals read the Indianapolis Business Journal. There are several other specialized sources–papers for various neighborhoods and ethnic groups, websites devoted to the arts, etc. A great deal of information is available–to interested parties willing and able to seek it out.

The effect of this fragmentation– on politics, on government’s ability to communicate effectively with constituents, to any sense of community– is anything but positive.

As I have brooded about this, I’ve come up with an analogy: imagine that you live in a city with roughly equal numbers of citizens speaking fifty different languages, where each language group communicates primarily, if not exclusively, with others in that group, and where a third of the population doesn’t speak at all.

How do you communicate across those barriers? How do you connect to the others with whom you share an urban space?

Even in its heyday, The Indianapolis Star was hardly a symbol of great journalism; if we’re honest, we have to admit it was never a particularly good newspaper. It was, however, far, far better than it is under Gannett (it actually had reporters)–and the mere fact that it provided a common source of information to a significant proportion of the population was incredibly important–more important than most of us understood.

We once occupied a common information environment. Now, we don’t.

We were, as Mayor Bill Hudnut used to say, “citizens of no mean city.” Now, we just occupy adjacent real estate.

 

Data, Privacy And Propaganda

Every so often, I become convinced that we are entering a not-so-brave new world dominated by the wunderkind who are able to manipulate the internet and social media.

I’m old enough to remember–vividly!–when the internet was hailed as the great gift to democracy. Finally, people could express themselves free of the gatekeepers–the reporters, editors and other obstacles to unfettered communication. Instead, as one Brookings Institution scholar has noted, the business model of the internet—collecting and manipulating personal information to sell targeted services—has become a  tool for attacking democracy. Worse, as we learned in 2016, Russia and other foreign adversaries have proven especially talented in exploiting this capability.

Of course, the assaults on American electoral integrity don’t all come from other countries. In January–before media reporting became all Covid-19 all the time–the Independent Media Institute interviewed the producer of a film warning about the (mis)use of the Internet and social media by Republican operatives intent upon re-electing Trump.

The producer was Josh Fox, an Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker; his last documentary was “Gasland,” which has been credited with jump-starting the global anti-fracking movement. His new project, commissioned by HBO, is “The Truth Has Changed,” described in the article as “a live theater-based project that sounds the alarm on the right-wing disinformation campaign working to secure President Trump’s reelection.”

The Fox interview began with a fairly chilling description of the multiple  sophisticated ways in which fossil fuel companies had tried to discredit him and “Gasland.”

They created hate emails specifically designed for my personality. There were tweets threats; there were death threats on Twitter. They highlighted my life in the theater, my hairline, the fact that my family’s Jewish; they found out that I had quit smoking several years ago, but they found a picture of me with a cigarette in my hand online from the past, and they ran that as a pro-fracking TV ad in Ohio saying, “This environmentalist is a smoker.” They followed me around the country for years. They booked shadow tours of our films. They tapped into ethnic and regional stereotyping. And then they tried to paint me as some kind of rich, intellectual, New York City liberal, which is not the case. They flung all of these stereotypes at me. They gathered all this information about me—my background, my ethnicity, my age, my race, where I live, where I went to school, how much money I made, what I had done in my previous life before the films.

One of the people heavily involved in the campaign to discredit Fox was Steve Bannon. It didn’t take long for Fox to recognize that the techniques Bannon had used against him were being deployed against Hillary Clinton and the entire American electorate in 2016.

In developing “The Truth Has Changed,” I made two startling realizations. One was that the people who ran those campaigns against me had a very strong hand in influencing the 2016 election: Steve Bannon, who was running Breitbart when all these attacks were happening against me, took over the Trump campaign and his team profiled the electorate in the exact same way.

 Fox explained how the  techniques that allow advertisers to selectively segment audiences are used to influence voters. Political operatives have access to the personal data of tens of millions of people, and they use that information to create highly personalized ads that appeal to different personality types–and play to different prejudices.

The same folks are currently rallying white supremacists all across the world and are making a bid to get Trump reelected in 2020. Their digital campaign created 5.9 million different ad variations in 2016, versus just 66,000 ads created by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It was so key to Trump’s victory that Trump’s digital campaign manager Brad Parscale is now his campaign manager.

Fox says that we have entered the “age of misinformation,” and the subsequent explosion of conspiracy theories about the  Coronavirus would seem to support that thesis. Perhaps his most chilling observation, however, was this:

If you put out a racist ad and only racists can see it, it causes absolutely no controversy, but it’s deeply effective in rallying people.

This is why privacy matters.

In our not-so-brave new world, if We the People don’t own and control our own data, it will be used by the corrupt and power-hungry in massive disinformation campaigns–campaigns of which we are totally  unaware–with truly terrifying consequences.

 

My Endorsement

This post is mostly for readers who live in Indiana’s 5th District–or anyone who has friends and/or families who vote in Indiana’s Fifth. The primary election, which was postponed until June 2d, is approaching. (If you haven’t done so, be sure to apply for your absentee ballot by May 21st!)

As Hoosiers know, the district’s incumbent Representative is Susan Brooks, who (wisely) decided not to run again. To say that Brooks has been a huge disappointment to those of us who thought we knew her and expected her to be at least reasonably moderate would be an understatement. (To be a Republican these days is evidently to be a devoted Trump sycophant…)

Christina Hale is one of five Democrats running for the Fifth District seat, and in my admittedly biased opinion, she should be the slam-dunk choice. (There are fourteen candidates in the GOP primary, and– with the exception of Mark Small, who is valiantly trying to save the party from itself– they all seem to be emphasizing how Trumpy they will be if elected.)

I met Christina when she served in the Indiana legislature, where she was a highly effective advocate for women and girls  and small businesses, among other things. (Of the five Democrats running, Christina is the only one with legislative experience.) She’s a Latina  who put herself through school while she was a single mom, and she brings that same determination and capacity for hard work to her campaigns and legislative work.

When Christina ran for the Indiana State House in 2012, she defeated a 20 year Republican incumbent–flipping the seat from red to blue– and when she got to Indiana’s Republican-dominated statehouse, she got things done: during her legislative career, she had over 60 bills passed with bipartisan support.

I got to see more of Christina when she was John Gregg’s running mate in 2016, and I was further impressed with her campaign skills and her ability to communicate what is very clearly her passion for good government.

Can she win in the fall? Yes.

So far in this campaign, and despite the weirdness of running for office during a pandemic, Christina has outraised all of the other candidates– Democrats and Republicans–in every single quarter.  The reason that matters is because no matter which Republican emerges from that primary, you can be sure that person will be very well funded. But it also matters because those donations reflect donors’ excitement for Christina’s candidacy, and their belief that she can win.

I’m not the only person enthusiastic about Christina; so far, she’s been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, Latino Victory Fund, and a number of unions, including United Steelworkers, Sheet Metal Workers, IBEW, AFSCME and, most recently, the Serve America PAC.

You needn’t take my word for any of this. You can read about Christina at the campaign website.

I’m writing about Christina’s campaign because I can’t help her by voting for her–I live in Indiana’s 7th Congressional District, where I have a Congressperson with whom I am supremely happy, Andre Carson. (Andre is effective, intelligent, and responsive, and in our blue city, he is highly likely to be re-elected. He doesn’t need my help.)

The 5th District used to be solidly red, but it includes a significant number of educated professionals and solid, middle-class voters who have given evidence of re-thinking their allegiance to the GOP under Trump. In 2018, for the first time in forever, three Democrats were elected to municipal offices, and the incumbent Democratic Senator– who lost statewide– carried the district.

If the 5th District is ready to turn light blue–and I think it is–a candidate of Christina’s caliber and demonstrable bipartisan skills has the best shot of keeping it that color.

Anyway, that’s my two cents worth. But no matter who, VOTE. And VOTE BLUE.

It’s Jim Lucas’ Party Now

Indiana has a Republican state representative named Jim Lucas. Lucas has a history of quite overt racism (among other things, he’s posted a noose to a story about a black man accused of rape), and a few days ago posted to Facebook a truly disgusting picture of black babies, in diapers and with exaggerated features,  dancing and singing “we gon’ to get free money.” It was a meme straight out of the 1950s South–and so patently offensive that a few Republican officeholders (for the first time) offered tepid condemnations.

If Lucas was an aberration, that would be one thing. But he seems to be genuinely representative of his party and district. Our daughter says that when she needs to break out of her own Facebook “bubble,” she checks out Lucas’ Facebook page and is always appalled at what he and his constituents evidently feel is appropriate to post there.

Lucas is right at home in today’s GOP. As we see the 2020 Presidential race shaping up, it is impossible to ignore the evidence: the party of Lincoln has become the party of white supremacy.

Trump quite clearly intends to run on his “Obamagate” conspiracy theory, hoping that it will both distract from his disastrous bungling of the pandemic and once again solidify his racist base.

Let’s look at the signs.

When the FBI confiscated Richard Burr’s phone, pundits left and right saw it as the beginning of a justifiable effort to punish what was widely seen as Burr’s insider trading. They ignored the fact that there was no similar raid on Senators Loeffler or Feinstein, despite the fact that both had also made suspicious trades. Burr, however, had done  something far worse; he had presided over the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election–and had been instrumental in the issuance of preliminary reports confirming that interference.

Thanks to Barr’s Justice Department raid, Burr has now stepped aside, and his replacement will be selected by Mitch McConnell. It is widely anticipated that the final volume of the Intelligence Committee report will be “amended.”

Meanwhile, lapdog Lindsey Graham is conducting a separate Senate “investigation” of Trump’s “Obamagate” fabrications.

It’s true that Trump is unable to articulate exactly what he is accusing the Obama folks of doing, other than investigating Intelligence reports that found Russia had interfered with the election. It’s also true that there is absolutely no evidence that the investigation was in any way improper. Of course, the fact that Hillary Clinton had been cleared of any intentional wrongdoing–or any breach of security–didn’t stop “but her emails.”

And Obama’s black. Allegations confirmed!

Trump began his campaign with birtherism. He called Mexicans “murderers and rapists” at his announcement. He’s been endorsed by David Duke and Neo-Nazis. Ergo, you can expect “Obamagate” to be embraced by what is left of the Republican Party–the party of Jim Lucas.

Think I’m exaggerating? Think “nice” Republicans are distancing themselves from the racist messaging?

As the Indiana primary approaches, we’ve been “treated” to political spots from local candidates for the GOP nomination in the 5th district. (Some 14 candidates are vying for the GOP’s nomination in that district–it’s an open seat.) The candidate spots I’ve seen range from stupid to offensive. None are as overtly racist as Lucas; instead, they all include an explicit pledge of devotion to Trump–the current “dog whistle” for Trumpian bigotries. The absolute worst is one by a sanctimonious woman named Victoria Spartz, whose ad says she was born in the Soviet Union so she understands how awful socialism is (!), and touts her endorsements by both Right to Life and the NRA. Irony is dead.

The Republican Party I served for 35 years is also dead. The many good people I worked with have conceded defeat and abandoned the field, leaving the Cult of Trump to the Jim Lucases, William Barrs, Mitch McConnells and their clones.

In November, we’ll see whether Trump’s “Johnny One Note” campaign strategy–White Nationalism focused on his still-seething racist resentment of Obama–still works.