Lazy Sunday Reads: Poetry, Infrastructure, and the End of the World


Some quick hits to round out the weekend.

If you’re anything like me, Sundays are about lounging on the couch and catching up on my reading while boring playoff football drones in the background. If you’re looking for something to read, here are a couple of my favorite from the week.

Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake was my favorite poetry book in a long time, not that I am versed in even the smallest percentage of contemporary poetry. The centerpiece is a long meditation on the myth of Tithonus, who was granted immortality by Eos, the goddess of Dawn, but failed to get youth in the process. It’s a real-time look at the unfurling dawn, seen by her ancient and possibly gently mad lover, who suspends himself in the dark just to see his love come to life. Oswald gorgeously paints the world awakening, with a level of beauty nearly scientific in its precision and microscopic in its vision. Over at the LA Review of Books, Sumita Chakraborty has a wonderfully-written and well-observed dissection of Falling Awake, whose other poems are nearly as powerful. Her article does a great job of placing  Falling Awake in Oswald’s body of work, and her engagement with the world.

Like most people, I’m only familiar with Rumi through the “interpretations” of Coleman Barks. I’m not capable of saying if Barks is unfairly maligned or not, but I do know that, in seeing an inspirational Rumi calendar at Whole Foods the other day, I blanched at how much he’s been sanctified into a bore by the pop-psychology feel-good mentality of our stupid times. To the New Yorker‘s Razina Ali, that’s partly because Barks and others have essentially stripped Rumi of his Muslim identity, trying to make Sufism less a branch of Islam than of a “Coexist” bumper sticker. By pretending that he was a mystic in spite of his Muslim faith, instead of because of it, not only do we not see the real Rumi, but we strip Islam of its history and variety.

Speaking of bigotry, let’s talk about Trump. In an article about the actual lived experience of authoritarian governments, Tom Pepinksy doesn’t actually mention the President-Elect, but it is unmistakeably about the danger of the times we live in. Pepinsky reminds us that the opposite of democracy is rarely 1984, but a managed system that looks like Malayasia or Russia. Life for the bulk of us will be normal: we’ll be looking for jobs, getting married, going to soccer games, maybe complaining about the government to our friends. It’s a very well-argued piece about how easily what we take for granted can go away simply because it won’t dramatically affect us. Here’s the money quote.

The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang. It is more likely that democracy ends, with a whimper, when the case for supporting it—the case, that is, for everyday democracy—is no longer compelling.

But if there’s one thing most people are happy about with the Trump administration, it is that there will finally be infrastructure spending. When Obama was President, of course, the GOP blocked spending on infrastructure because they believed strongly in fiscal responsibility (and not because they cynically didn’t want to let Obama do something popular, heaven forbid). But now the gates are opened, and everyone is happy, right? Well, Charles Mahron at Strong Cities isn’t. In his view, dumping money will make cities more car-oriented and poorer.

It’s a good argument, to me, for a few reasons. At the most basic level, it is because the feds will pay for a new interchange, but not its eventual repair and maintenance costs. They are also often wasted: after all, as he points out, a town needs better public transportation, more sidewalks, and basic repair more than they need a new off-ramp. But fixing sidewalks don’t have photo-op ready ribbon cuttings. And, he worries, since our politics is very suburban-exurban oriented, all we’ll be getting are these big projects that might create some jobs, but in the medium (and long) term will harm our cities.

He’s right, of course: I think the last election will make it harder to reorient our ideas about transportation. The infrastructure bill could have been geared toward public trans and making smarter, stronger cities. But it will most likely be more auto-oriented and exurban. That is a good representation of what elections mean on a higher, but also more focused micro level. It will impact how most of us live.

To William Perry, former SecDef, the election will impact how we live in a different way: or rather, how we’ll die in a horrible civilization-destroying nuclear fireball. Perry, who knows as much about this as any living person, fears we’re slipping toward potential Armageddon by a terrifying combination of belligerence and complacency. As this excellent Politico article details, Perry has been trying to get people to really pay attention to the dangers we’re facing. This isn’t due to Trump, but he may exacerbate it. Perry doesn’t say that end is imminent, or even plausible, but it is more possible every year. All it takes is one mistake.

What’s most scary is how Perry points out that we don’t truly understand what one nuke going off in a city would do. I don’t mean the pain and horror, but how we would certainly change everything about our civilization. We would have soft authoritarianism at a minimum. At the maximum, we’d have a true jack-booted sort of state. And that’s assuming there isn’t a nuclear exchange which kills us all.

Enjoy the rest of the day!

One thought on “Lazy Sunday Reads: Poetry, Infrastructure, and the End of the World

  1. Pingback: Were you expecting claws? This is what authoritarianism looks like. | Shooting Irrelevance

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