What are we?

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from May 1, 1992

D’où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ?

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from July 20, 1993


When I was younger, I dreamt I could fly.
Last night, I dreamt I was low on gas.

Indelible Marks

Christian Livermore, “on poverty’s indelible marks”:

If people acknowledge that there are also poor whites, they will have to acknowledge that it is not a ‘black’ problem. It is a problem with how we reward work, the kind of work we reward most generously, and how we conceive of society’s responsibility for its poor and not just to them—in other words, people are poor because society makes them that way and keeps them that way, because it is more important to most of America to pay millions of dollars to bankers than it is to pay a decent salary to teachers and sanitation workers and store clerks, and because they need to keep people poor enough to accept work they may not want to do. If people admitted all these things, then they might have to do something about it.

The term poor white trash serves the same purpose—to dismiss, to deny, to denigrate. If you’re poor, it’s because of something you did. If people acknowledge that there are poor whites, they must acknowledge that they themselves could also be poor at any moment—if they think about it, perhaps they already are. This threatens the narrative of American exceptionalism, that anybody can get rich in America if they work hard enough. That is not true. It has never been true. But people fervently believe it; some so that they can view their own success as a sign of virtue and the result of their own hard work, others so that they can imagine their struggles as temporary, a bump in the road to their own eventual American Dream.

This is, my god, so well put. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to not only memorize, but internalize what Livermore is saying above.

Human autonomy

Margaret Talbot, writing at the New Yorker:

None of that changes the fundamental principle of human autonomy: people have to be able to make their own decisions in matters that profoundly and intimately affect their own bodies and the course of their lives. Regret and ambivalence, the ways that one decision necessarily precludes others, are inextricable facts of life, and they are also fluid and personal. Guessing the extent to which individuals may feel such emotions, hypothetically, in the future, is not a basis for legislative bans and restrictions.

If you took this paragraph and published it even twenty years ago, everyone would nod along and say “well, of course.”

But publishing it now? In the midst of (if you follow the reasoning in the Dobbs dissent) a torching of decades of legal progress for human rights? Well, suddenly it takes on new meaning, doesn’t it?

Civilization is Dependency

Anne Helen Petersen writes about civilization:

But the idea that I should only pay for things that benefit me directly is anathema to me. Every single thing on that list benefits me in some way, because it benefits the community around me. Kids’ education matters not because they’re my kids, but because education matters, in general. I might not need rescue services in the woods out in the corner of the county, but some day, maybe I would.

Which reminds me of this Steve Jobs note:

I love and admire my species, living and dead, and am totally dependent on them for life and well being.


So there’s a meme that goes around regularly and it’s introduced in terms of “food for thought”. It goes something like this: “One day, your mom will pick you up, put you back down, and then never pick you up again.” I’ve seen it a bunch of times by now, and every time, it rips through me. Kind of like how I felt for the entire duration of the movie “Inside Out” (which, to this day, I can not yet watch once more), but in meme-form. I think this trips the same part of my brain that wrote a farewell post to my dorm room or to our first house.

I have a hard time with endings.


The Lesson to Unlearn:

Suppose you’re taking a class on medieval history and the final exam is coming up. The final exam is supposed to be a test of your knowledge of medieval history, right? So if you have a couple days between now and the exam, surely the best way to spend the time, if you want to do well on the exam, is to read the best books you can find about medieval history. Then you’ll know a lot about it, and do well on the exam.

No, no, no, experienced students are saying to themselves. If you merely read good books on medieval history, most of the stuff you learned wouldn’t be on the test. It’s not good books you want to read, but the lecture notes and assigned reading in this class. And even most of that you can ignore, because you only have to worry about the sort of thing that could turn up as a test question. You’re looking for sharply-defined chunks of information. If one of the assigned readings has an interesting digression on some subtle point, you can safely ignore that, because it’s not the sort of thing that could be turned into a test question. But if the professor tells you that there were three underlying causes of the Schism of 1378, or three main consequences of the Black Death, you’d better know them. And whether they were in fact the causes or consequences is beside the point. For the purposes of this class they are.

I wish I could go back in time. I would tell myself to submit to this reality and actually get smart about tests and grades and working the system. I wasted a lot of time.

Getting a good grade in a class on x is so different from learning a lot about x that you have to choose one or the other, and you can’t blame students if they choose grades. Everyone judges them by their grades — graduate programs, employers, scholarships, even their own parents.

Warped Old Men

Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker:

How did caring about a drowned or desiccated future come to be a partisan issue? Perhaps the simplest answer is money. A report put out two years ago by the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis noted, “In the 2000s, several bipartisan climate bills were circulating in the Senate.” Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United decision, ruled that corporations and wealthy donors could, effectively, pour unlimited amounts of cash into electioneering. Fossil-fuel companies quickly figured out how to funnel money through front groups, which used it to reward the industry’s friends and to punish its enemies. After Citizens United, according to the report, “bipartisan activity on comprehensive climate legislation collapsed.”

I’ve certainly been reading and thinking about the Court a lot lately, but this one surprised me. Perhaps the hyperpartisanship we suffer under wasn’t stumbled into, as so many pieces about algorithms and media silos suggest, but rather made by some warped old men warping the law.

And, indeed, when you think about it: our tragic addiction to stupid guns can trace its roots back to different warped old men mere decades ago, warping the law.

And, indeed, when you think about it: our societal refusal to protect women, to criminalize pregnancy on a path to god-knows-where has been similarly paved by warped old men warping the law.

Climate Action

Andrew Marantz, at The New Yorker, The Young Congressional Staffers Going Rogue to Demand Climate Action:

Republicans are expected to win majorities in at least one house of Congress in November, meaning that Democrats will have sweated through a rare trifecta with little to show for it. “At a certain point, it’s, like, O.K., we tried being patient, we tried to be good little soldiers, and it got us nowhere,” Levin said. “Imagine going home and facing your relatives: ‘Oh, cool, you work on climate policy? Well, where the fuck is it?’ ”

I’ve been, uh, not reading news for a good five months now, but you know… if the bad news keeps getting worse, I’m going to start again.


Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker, shows women in America their future, and it isn’t good:

Connecticut, a progressive state on the matter of abortion, recently passed a law that prevents local agencies from coöperating with out-of-state abortion prosecutions and protects the medical records of out-of-state clients. Other progressive states will follow suit. If prohibition states can’t sue out-of-state doctors, and, if abortion pills sent by mail remain largely undetectable, the only people left to target will be abortion advocates and those trying to get abortions.

Abortion makes the Supreme Court feel oogy, so to hell with good law. Tolentino continues:

If a fetus is a person, then a legal framework can be invented to require someone who has one living inside her to do everything in her power to protect it, including—as happened to Savita Halappanavar, in Ireland, which operated under a fetal-personhood doctrine until 2018, and to Izabela Sajbor, in Poland, where all abortion is effectively illegal—to die. No other such obligation exists anywhere in our society, which grants cops the freedom to stand by as children are murdered behind an unlocked door. In Poland, pregnant women with cancer have been routinely denied chemotherapy because of clinicians’ fears of harming the fetus.

Fetal-personhood laws have passed in Georgia and Alabama, and they are no longer likely to be found unconstitutional. Such laws justify a full-scale criminalization of pregnancy, whereby women can be arrested, detained, and otherwise placed under state intervention for taking actions perceived to be potentially harmful to a fetus. This approach has been steadily tested, on low-income minorities in particular, for the past four decades. National Advocates for Pregnant Women—the organization that has provided legal defense for most of the cases mentioned in this article—has documented almost eighteen hundred cases, from 1973 to 2020, of prosecutions or forced interventions related to pregnancy; this is likely a substantial undercount. Even in states such as California, where the law explicitly prohibits charging women with murder after a pregnancy loss, conservative prosecutors are doing so anyway.

And now, with that criminalization, we are rocketing toward an Attwoodian future:

Pregnancy is more than thirty times more dangerous than abortion. One study estimates that a nationwide ban would lead to a twenty-one-per-cent rise in pregnancy-related deaths. Some of the women who will die from abortion bans are pregnant right now. Their deaths will come not from back-alley procedures but from a silent denial of care: interventions delayed, desires disregarded. They will die of infections, of preëclampsia, of hemorrhage, as they are forced to submit their bodies to pregnancies that they never wanted to carry, and it will not be hard for the anti-abortion movement to accept these deaths as a tragic, even noble, consequence of womanhood itself.

It is particularly important to read the last three paragraphs of this piece.