The poor are just people without enough money. But a ‘culture of poverty’ gives the affluent a reason to blame them for it
Barbara Enrenreich, Guardian Comment Network, 15 Mar 2012
It’s been exactly 50 years since Americans, or at least the non-poor among them, “discovered” poverty, thanks to Michael Harrington’s engaging book The Other America. If this discovery now seems a little overstated, like Columbus’s “discovery” of America, it was because the poor, according to Harrington, were so “hidden” and “invisible” that it took a crusading leftwing journalist to ferret them out.
Harrington’s book jolted a nation that then prided itself on its classlessness and even fretted about the spirit-sapping effects of “too much affluence”. He estimated that one quarter of the population lived in poverty – inner-city blacks, Appalachian whites, farm workers, and elderly Americans among them. We could no longer boast, as President Nixon had done in his “kitchen debate” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow just three years earlier, about the splendors of American capitalism.
At the same time that it delivered its gut punch, The Other America also offered a view of poverty that seemed designed to comfort the already comfortable. The poor were different from the rest of us, it argued, radically different, and not just in the sense that they were deprived, disadvantaged, poorly housed, or poorly fed. They felt different, too, thought differently, and pursued lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance. As Harrington wrote:
“There is … a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a worldview of the poor. To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society.”
Harrington did such a good job of making the poor seem “other” that when I read his book in 1963, I did not recognize my own forbears and extended family in it. All right, some of them did lead disorderly lives by middle-class standards, involving drinking, brawling, and out-of-wedlock babies. But they were also hardworking and, in some cases, fiercely ambitious – qualities that Harrington seemed to reserve for the economically privileged. Continue reading
Should the “Doomsday Clock” be moved ahead because of threats from biotechnology?
Shortly after the end of World War II, Albert Einstein, referring to the new global danger of nuclear weapons, uttered his now famous warning: “Everything has changed, save the way we think.” Accordingly, he and Robert Oppenheimer established the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to help warn the public about the dangers of nuclear war.
Perhaps the most visible face of the bulletin—for which I am currently co-chair of the board of sponsors—is the “Doomsday Clock.” Created in 1947, the clock graphically reflects how close humanity might be to human-induced apocalypse, in terms of the “number of minutes to midnight”—at which time, presumably, time itself will no longer matter.
In total, the clock has been adjusted 20 times, moving as close to two minutes to midnight in 1953, after the United States and Soviet Union each first tested thermonuclear devices, and as far as 17 minutes to midnight in 1991, after the United States and Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Currently, it is set at five minutes to midnight.
Nuclear weapons continue to be the most urgent global threat to humanity: Recent developments in Iran, the continued tension between Pakistan and India, and the United States’ consideration of developing a new generation of nuclear weapons are all cause for great concern. But in the 60-odd years since the creation of the Doomsday Clock, the world has changed, in no small part to technological and scientific advance, making it even more dangerous. Unfortunately, there is no great evidence that our way of thinking about global catastrophes has evolved for the 21st century. That’s why the bulletin decided, in 2007, to factor other threats to humanity into the Doomsday Clock.
Since then, we have run three “Doomsday Symposia,” during which key scientists and policymakers assess ongoing global threats to humanity in three areas: nuclear proliferation and nuclear weapons, climate change, and biotechnology and bioterrorism. The last issue has raised a lot of heat in the media in recent years, and the specter of new lethal viruses that might wipe out populations suggested to us that there might be compelling new reasons to move the clock forward again.
Indeed, as biotechnology has undergone in the past 35 years the same explosive growth that physics technology underwent in the previous period, the emerging possibility of biologically induced weapons has increased. We now have the ability to artificially recreate genetic sequences, including viruses. DNA “hacking” has become a pastime at institutions such as MIT, among the same kind of people who used to be so enamored with computer hacking. Finally, the holy grail of genetic manipulation now involves the frontiers of synthetic biology, wherein researchers are attempting not merely to build up genetic sequences base-pair by base-pair, but also to explore the possibility of building novel life forms from scratch.
These developments are thrilling for scientists and technologists who love to take things apart and put them back together. But there remains the terrifying prospect that smart pranksters, DIYers, a laboratory, or more sinister groups could, either by accident or intentionally, accidentally create a new supervirus with the potential to wipe out all other life on Earth. (Hence the furious debate that has surrounded experiments into artificially developing forms of the avian flu virus H5N1 that is transmittable between mammals.) Indeed, just this week, a host of external watchdog organizations have called this week for a moratorium on synthetic biology.
We should encourage the vigilance and rigorous discussion that has accompanied these developments. Happily, however, the bulletin’s experts, including Harvard biologistMatthew Meselson and human genome pioneer and synthetic biologist Craig Venter, suggest the above scenarios are in the near term unlikely at best, pure fiction at worst.
In the first place, the synthetic-biology industry is well-aware of the dangers of unmonitored genetic hacking and is responding on its own. Appeased by the group’s self-policing thus far, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issuesdetermined in 2010 that “there is no reason to endorse additional federal regulations or a moratorium on work in this field at this time.”
In the second place, while manufacturing dangerous biological compounds may be possible, weaponizing them is not so easy. While it might be possible to inflict significant terror locally, dispersing biological agents over broad regions to create global crises is far more challenging.
Next, there is the difficulty of reproducing appropriate technology. The field is as much an art as a science, and it is difficult to reliably reproduce results in a field where the financial benefits are likely to be so great that proprietary technology is not readily shared.
We can all (at least those of us who, unlike some of the dominant presidential candidates, accept the reality of both evolution and an old earth) take solace in the robustness of life itself, evolved over 4.5 billion years in the presence of remarkably ingenious viruses, which have also competed for survival. It is unlikely that a new organism, without the benefit of all of this “learned experience,” could outmaneuver all the mechanisms that life has developed to outwit constant biological invaders.
All of this suggested to those of us who have the unenviable task of regularly revisiting the possibility of Doomsday in order to help humanity adjust its thinking appropriately, that the current revolution in biotechnology is, for the moment, more likely to benefit humankind than destroy it.
According to Marine Le Pen, feisty head of the National Front, the Toulouse killings are evidence that France has “dangerously underestimated the threat of Islamic fundamentalism”.
Is that fair?
As a criticism, it cannot be dismissed out-of-hand just because she is on the far right. Seven people have been murdered in horrific circumstances, and the killer found his justification in Islam.
While the identity of the killer was unknown, the preferred theory of the chattering classes was quite clearly that he should be a neo-Nazi. Some even blamed President Sarkozy for inflaming anti-minority passions and creating the conditions where the attacks were possible.
Such insinuations seem utterly tasteless today, and will quite possibly set off a backlash against those who made them. Continue reading
Dwight Garner, Time
THE case against electronic books has been made, and elegantly, by many people, including Nicholson Baker in The New Yorker a few years ago. Mr. Baker called Amazon’s Kindle, in a memorable put-down, “the Bowflex of bookishness: something expensive that, when you commit to it, forces you to do more of whatever it is you think you should be doing more of.”
The best case I’ve seen for electronic books, however, arrived just last month, on the Web site of The New York Review of Books. The novelist Tim Parks proposed that e-books offered “a more austere, direct engagement” with words. What’s more, no dictator can burn one. His persuasive bottom line: “This is a medium for grown-ups.”
I’ve been trying to become more of a grown-up, in terms of my commitment to reading across what media geeks call “platforms” (a word that’s much sexier when applied to heels), from smartphones to e-readers to tablets to laptops.
It’s a battle I may lose. I still prefer to consume sentences the old-fashioned and nongreen way, on the pulped carcasses of trees that have had their throats slit. I can imagine my tweener kids, in a few years, beginning to picket me for my murderous habits: “No (tree) blood for (narrative) oil.”
It’s time to start thinking, however, about the best literary uses for these devices. Are some reading materials better suited to one platform than another? Does Philip Larkin feel at home on an iPad, and Lorrie Moore on a Kindle? Can I make a Kay Ryan poem my ringtone? Will any gizmo make “The Fountainhead” palatable?
Books used to pile up by my bedside; sometimes it now seems that gadgets do, the standby power of their LED lights staring at me like unfed dogs. Let’s talk about these machines, and their literary uses, in order of size, from small to large. Continue reading