Once again, I’ve fallen behind, so this will be a double post for two months.
I know I’m a long way from alone in being worried about the current state of American politics. I could, unfortunately, being referring to many different things under that heading, but at the moment I mainly mean the intensity of polarization and growing distrust among American voters. The explanations for this are complex and in dispute, but certainly one aspect of the problem is the way that people on each side talk and think about people on the other— not as real, complicated human beings, but as flat caricatures with no traits their opponents can’t condemn and no sound or intelligible reasons for their beliefs.
One very troubling effect (or cause? both?) of this is that both of the major political parties have stopped trying to appeal to or persuade large chunks of the population. Both sides simply ignore 45% or so of voters, whom they treat as “belonging” to the other party, while they focus on get-out-the-vote efforts for another, similarly-sized chuck whose support they take for granted. The real contest in every election is then for the votes of the remaining sliver in the middle. This dynamic is bad for a number of reasons; one is that, if they don’t think you’re ever going to change your mind, then neither party will really do anything substantive to benefit you, or even really try to figure out why you think as you do.
What Democrats Don’t Understand About Rural America, by Chloe Maxim and Canyon Woodward, describes how a progressive Democrat (Maxim) won a state legislative seat in conservative rural Maine. The explanation isn’t complicated: she and her campaign went out and talked to people— including people whom the party organization had largely written off— and persuaded them that Maxim and her party would actually serve their interests better. That’s exactly what candidates are supposed to do, so there shouldn’t be anything surprising here, but the conventional wisdom in campaigns today is that talking to voters whose demographics place them in the other camp is a waste of precious resources.
As Maxim and Woodward (her campaign manager) point out, this is a national problem:
This is a story about not just rural Maine. It’s about a nationwide pattern of neglect that goes back years. After the 2010 midterms, when the Democrats lost 63 House seats, Nancy Pelosi, then the House minority leader, disbanded the House Democratic Rural Working Group. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada later eliminated the Senate’s rural outreach group. By 2016, according to Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich, the Clinton campaign had only a single staff person doing rural outreach from its headquarters, in Brooklyn; the staffer was assigned to the role just weeks before the election. And in 2018 the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, told MSNBC, “You can’t door-knock in rural America.”
This is despite the fact that the interests of those voters are, at least on some issues, better served by Democratic polices. In general, delivering government services like electricity, water, or education is more expensive in rural areas (everywhere, not just in the United States); rural life relies on government subsidies (unless you want to go off the grid and live without electricity, police, phones, etc.). A party that rejects government subsidies in general is going to hurt rural people, not help them. But Democratic leaders have more or less decided not to try to make this case to anybody. The result, not surprisingly, is that the Democrats have almost entirely lost rural voters.
While these defeats ought to prompt real soul-searching within the party, some political scientists and many mainstream Democrats have taken them as proof not that their own strategies must change, but rather that rural Republicans are too ignorant to vote in their own best interest. It’s a counterproductive, condescending story that serves only to drive the wedge between Democrats and rural communities deeper yet.
And, speaking of condescension: Democratic Elites Don’t Understand the Class Culture Gap, by Joan C. Williams, is about some of the people that Democratic candidates and campaigns don’t bother with. There’s been a debate among liberals about whether Donald Trumps populist appeal was based on class or race— as if those two things can be separated. Williams does a good job of showing how they’re connected.
Working-class whites know they’ve been screwed, and the far right is telling them it’s because they’re white. Progressives should be connecting with working-class anger and explaining that non-elites have gotten screwed not because they’re white but because they’re working-class. You can’t do this without a language of social class.
Perhaps thematically related is “Why Did We Stop Believing That People Can Change?”, by Rebecca Solnit, which is partly focused on prisons and the fact that, in practice if not in principle, we have abandoned the idea that anybody is ever “rehabilitated” in prison, and so increasingly assume that the only way you can prevent someone who has committed a crime from committing another one is to put them in jail for longer. But, she says,
This belief in the fixity rather than the fluidity of human nature or maybe in guilt without redemption shows up everywhere — not just in the formal legal system that decides questions of innocence, guilt and responsibility but also in the social sphere, in which we render verdicts replete with both unexamined assumptions about human nature and prejudices for and against particular kinds of people and acts.
As she points out, this simply flies in the face of our own experience— all of our own experience. Nobody is the same when they are thirty as they were when they were fifteen (at least, they really shouldn’t be), and nobody is the same at fifty as at thirty. To treat people as though this is not true is not only ungenerous and unforgiving, it is simply irrational.
David George Haskell writes about the loss of sonic diversity that occurs as humans transform, and damage, our environment. The sounds made by particular species are the result of thousands or millions of years of evolutionary pressure, and each is uniquely suited to a particular context; for instance, “The songs of forest species are adapted to transmission through dense foliage and are often slower and less complex than those of species that live in open country.”
This also means that a loss of sonic diversity (or really any aspect of biodiversity generally) is also a kind of erasing or truncating of the historical record. By looking at the ways that different species gave evolved, we can make inferences about their past environments. Of course, those inferences are never going to be perfect, but having less information to work with is making that problem worse rather than better. And it isn’t only our own knowledge that gets lost; in many species, vocalizations are at least partly learned.
In a few mammals and birds, social learning of sounds spurred cultural evolution and the development of highly localized dialects and vocal fashions. In some species, among the white-crowned sparrows of the Bay Area on the California coast, for example, these dialects are fine-grained, changing on the scale of kilometers, a reflection of the short dispersal distances of the young. But in sparrow species whose young disperse farther, the dialects mark out large portions of the North American continent.
The loss of sonic diversity means that the young of some of these animals no longer have a chance to learn how to make their species’ sounds; it is, really, a loss of cultural heritage.
The regent honeyeater, for example, is now so rare in New South Wales that the cross-generational sonic connections that sustain the bird’s song have been frayed. Many of these honeyeaters encounter so few singing elders of their own species that they have no chance to learn their species’ song. Instead, they sing attenuated songs or borrow distorted snippets from other species.
This also made me think of this presentation by artist Brian House, in which (among many other things) he talks about how rats in cities have raised the pitch of their vocalizations, because so many human-made sounds (trucks and cars, HVAC systems, etc.) make low-frequency sounds, so high-pitched ones are easier for other rats to hear. This has gone so far that now most of the sounds rats make are too high for human ears to perceive at all. We have forced these animals to elude our senses.
Of course, many animals can’t adapt so readily to human-made changes in their environment. In another recent piece, Haskell focuses on the effects of noise pollution on marine animals. This is most obviously a problem for animals like whales, who use sound to navigate and to hunt, but Haskell portrays noise less as a distinct issue and more as one aspect of a more general problem, suggesting that we should think of it as basically similar to other forms of pollution.
Today, ocean waters are a tumult of engine noise, sonar and seismic blasts. Sediments from human activities on land cloud the water. Industrial chemicals befuddle the sense of smell of aquatic animals. We are severing the sensory links that gave the world its animal diversity. Whales cannot hear the echolocating pulses that locate their prey, breeding fish cannot find one another amid the noise and turbidity, and the social connections among crustaceans are weakened as their chemical messages and sonic thrums are lost in a haze of human pollution.
And, as usual when we’re talking about the environment, these problems compound each other. At the same time that it gets harder for whales to locate salmon, there are also fewer salmon around for them to locate. “Chinook salmon numbers in this region [waters around Vancouver] have declined by 60% since the 1980s, and possibly more than 90% since the early 20th century.” And, shipping traffic in the area— especially very large ships, which generate a disproportionate share of noise— is increasing because Canada is producing and exporting more oil. So, our use of fossil fuels, in addition to the many problems it creates directly, is also indirectly adding to the noise pollution that harms so many ocean creatures. It does so much more directly, as well, as locating and extracting oil and gas from underwater deposits is also extremely noisy:
Prospectors blast sound into the ocean, seeking oil and gas buried under ocean sediments. Ships drag arrays of air guns that shoot bubbles of pressurised air into the water, a replacement for the dynamite that was formerly tossed overboard for the same purpose. As the bubbles expand and collapse, they punch sound waves into the water. These waves spread in all directions. Those that go down penetrate the sea floor, then bounce back when they hit reflective surfaces. By measuring these reflections from the ship, geologists can build a 3D image of the varied layers of mud, sand, rock and oil tens or even hundreds of miles under the seabed. Like a whale guided by the reflective ping of a chinook salmon, oil and gas companies use sound to find their quarry. But unlike the click of a whale, these seismic surveys can be heard up to 2,500 miles away.
There is, however, a hopeful point about all of this: as Haskell points out, while chemical pollution can last for decades, sound does not linger. We could, in principle, elimitnate noise pollution entirely, and instantly. Of course, we will not do this, because we are so thoroughly dependent on shipping, oil extraction, etc. But there are many very feasible steps that can be taken to reduce it, dramatically, and such steps would have an immediate effect on the sonic environment of the oceans. The problem is serious, but far less intractable than many other facets of our environmental crisis.
And then there is the loss caused by our inattention. When we cease to listen, the richness of human sensory experience, a necessary foundation for right action, is eroded.
Both of these articles are drawn from Haskell’s recent book, Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction.
I could look forever at these pictures by Søren Solkær of huge flocks (called murmurations) of starlings, all moving with what appears to be perfect coordination. No one knows precisely why or how they do this; I know I’m anthopomorphizing, but I’d like to think it’s just because they want to make something beautiful.
This new album by William Basinski and Janek Schaefer is lovely.