Yesterday and today I’ve been working on a story about Occupy Wall Street, which began nine years ago Thursday. It’s a tangled story, and I was too exhausted yesterday to think through whether Part I stood on its own. I’ll come back to Occupy.
Tonight, just as I was settling in for a Little Salon / D.C. Design Week event on Zoom, a news alert about Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared popped up on my phone. And then another. And another. This was not one of her many health scares that have popped up as news alerts over the past few years. Her age is present in the alert, I see the opening phrases of an obituary that was put in the can long ago:
dies at 87
was a legal pioneer for gender equality
the demure firebrand
second woman to serve on the supreme court
she was 87
We all hoped she could hang on another 124 days until the inauguration. I can’t bear to turn on the news and see how the political machines is spinning into motion. Can’t bear to see Trump tweet about it, to see Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attempt to justify ramming a replacement through before the election, contrary to the blockade he put placed against Obama’s nominee in 2016 because that was an election year. Antonin Scalia died six months earlier in the year. Why would McConnell suddenly do something honorable and reasonable now?
A few blocks from my apartment on 14th Street, a shop and event space called The Outrage sprung up after the 2017 women’s march. Its windows have featured an unending variation of Ginsburg merchandise alongside other feminist slogans: Ginsburg t-shirts, water bottles, hoodies. Every gift shop and bookstore I’ve been in over the past few years has featured some of the same. Ginsburg action figures, greeting cards, scarves and hats.
Is it crass to focus on merchandise sales before her legal opinions? Her trailblazing career? Merch is how we express affection — for musicians, brands, attitudes. Friends who never wear text or logos on their bodies will proudly wear “Notorious RBG” t-shirts. The army that has been buying that avalanche of merch is formidable. They will vote in November. They will be energized to win this one for RBG.
But already — an hour or so after starting this post — news alerts are coming through that confirm my assumptions about McConnell. If Trump gets another nominee on the Supreme Court, his influence will cast an even longer shadow on history than it sure to already. Would Biden expand the court to eleven? For that matter, why haven’t Trump and McConnell packed the court already given how court obsessed, and unconcerned they’ve been with the traditions that have historically keep their power in check. Not to give them any ideas.
There are too many issues at stake in the Supreme Court. Issues concerning Trump’s personal, corporate, and Presidential abuses of power. Issues that might decide the election. Issues that might enshrine Trump’s corruption as a permanent regime.
I imagine there are already stacks of flowers on the Supreme Court steps. I imagine I’ll wake up to photos of growing memorials to her around the country, to moving remembrances and stories of her life. But the only fitting memorial will be to fight for justice in November.
Yesterday I filed my quarterly taxes. It’s not my favorite part of working for myself, but taxes are part of living in common cause with 705,000 Washingtonians and 328 million Americans. Everybody chips in a penny or two, and we get things like bus service and food safety standards and national parks.
As I wrote that last sentence, I struggled to find uncontroversial things to string together (uncontroversial to the hypothetical undecided voter who I imagine persuading through a 100-part election anxiety memoir). I wanted to say that we get clean air and water, workplace safety, reliable mail delivery, reliable data about threats to public health, tireless career public servants dedicated to serving their knowledge area regardless of who is the White House. But somehow these have become controversial. Even the three I mentioned are not universally loved. “Food safety standards” might be. But try proposing a new one and see if it isn’t tagged as a “burdensome regulation” by the opposition, by whoever is currently producing the conjectured unsafe food.
As September 15 approached, I was thinking about all the things our taxes aren’t paying for right now. In the past few weeks I’ve opened Facebook again and again to see teachers and parents sharing GoFundMe pages to raise funds for school supplies in this strange time of uncertain in-school and remote learning plans. I’ve seen too many people sharing GoFundMe pages for medical expenses that a citizen of any other developed country wouldn’t have to worry about. And fundraising pages for funerals and scholarship funds in memory of those we might not have lost if the response to Coronavirus had been timely and well coordinated.
I’m also seeing fundraising pages for musicians and bartenders and bar-backs. Supplemental pandemic unemployment insurance ran out long ago for those who had service industry jobs. Full-time musicians are largely in the same boat as me — independent workers ineligible for traditional unemployment aid. Many musicians who counted on live tours as their main income this year are instead playing for meager tips online instead. Republicans in the Senate haven’t been able to come up with an extension to continue covering those out of work due to the pandemic.
These should be paid for with our taxes. Survival, education, staying in your home shouldn’t be contingent on how effective you are at social media fundraising. These are human rights.
Here are a few GoFundMe pages popping up in my social feeds today. Support if you are able. But vote in November to move our country to a more equitable one where we aren’t relying on GoFundMe for our basic needs.
In all, Hauer projects that 13 million Americans will be forced to move away from submerged coastlines. Add to that the people contending with wildfires and other risks, and the number of Americans who might move — though difficult to predict precisely — could easily be tens of millions larger. Even 13 million climate migrants, though, would rank as the largest migration in North American history. The Great Migration — of six million Black Americans out of the South from 1916 to 1970 — transformed almost everything we know about America, from the fate of its labor movement to the shape of its cities to the sound of its music. What would it look like when twice that many people moved? What might change?
Agriculture and livability in the south and southwest suffer the most in these maps. The prairies of the north and of Canada become far more livable. It’s hard to look at these forecasts and not think in terms of the centuries-long tensions between the north and south: free labor vs. slave labor, coördinated national government vs. states rights, regulation vs. anything goes, climate consensus vs. climate denialism. History repeats itself. Or not. The existing regional divisions in economics and politics are legacies of slavery and the resistance to reconstruction. There’s no repetition, just a long chain of repercussions. Climate change is different. Ideology can’t change it. But stories in the New York Times won’t change the culture of the powers in the south resisting action on climate change, either. Real-world consequences will.
The story goes in to the effects on property insurance, the numbers likely to move to southern cities and northern states, and the expansion of poverty among those who remain in the rural south. The full piece is worth reading.
My speculative fiction from a few years ago described a welcoming D.C. of 2215 that accommodated — and was built on the culture and strengths of — climate refugees from near and far. This report backs that prediction (the migration part; the reporting says nothing of how welcoming cities will be). I also hinted at a world of coöperation in those stories by avoiding all mention of nations and borders and including 22nd century immigrant families as characters. It might be hard to imagine welcoming international refugees when both Bangladesh and Florida are underwater, and the politics of immigration have become so toxic. Fiction plays by different rules (borders are hard to enforce when teleportation is cheap and widely available), but four years later I believe even more that addressing the global climate emergency will bring about more coöperation in the long run, not less. But it starts with having someone in charge who sees the rest of the world as human and in this together with us.
A three-foot rise in sea level would submerge almost 20 percent of the entire country and displace more than 30 million people. Some scientists project a five-to-six foot rise by 2100, which would displace perhaps 50 million people. As perspective, the ongoing tragedy in Syria has caused the exodus of approximately three million people.
Today marks the halfway point of this project. 50 days now until Election Day. But today I’m thinking about another halfway point, one a century in the future.
Over the weekend, I helped my friend Monica Jahan Bose celebrate the arrival of her new book, Renew with a small, socially distanced celebration in her alley and driveway. I was honored that she asked me to work on the layout of the book, and it was great to have the final product in hand after nearly a year of discussion and work. The book is 108 pages of photos, poems and essays from her performance art and community dialogues addressing the climate crisis.
Bose’ family is from Bangladesh, one of the most populous and low-lying places on the globe. A slow-motion crisis has been unfolding there as the sea rises to swallow coastal villages and flooding encroaches on dense urban areas. And so, she brings the invisible voices of Bangladeshis to western capitals, making the consequences of carbon-guzzling known.
I met Monica in 2015 or so, and we first collaborated when I asked her to record one of Future Cartographic’s stories about D.C. in the year 2215 for an audio installation. Someday I’ll put together a clearer timeline of those speculative fictions here on this site, but here’s a summary: by 2215 we have our act together and are living in a utopian city because we started to get our act together in 2015.
But even in that rosy fiction, I couldn’t ignore the inevitabilities of the coming century. A halfway point in 2115 was a bleak one, peak climate change and a bleak period in the memories of grandparents in those the stories. Grandparents who would today by newborn grandchildren.
The culture of D.C. in those stories — and of communities around the world — is and will be shaped by climate refugees. Not just from Bangladesh, but from Florida, Louisiana and populous tidewater region of Virginia. And rising waters aren’t the only danger. The west coast is on fire, and Californians are debating their comfort level with the harsh smoke-filled air summer after summer.
Unfortunately, we did not get our act together in 2015. The bad-for-100, recover-for-100 barely plausible utopia of 2215 is behind schedule. The halfway point is bleaker now than it was five years ago. The waters continue to rise.
One of the most memorable concerts I made it to in the year (or two) before everything shut down was seeing British singer-songwriter Kate Stables’ band This Is The Kit at DC9, a small stage just a few doors down from my place. I knew nothing of them before a friend recommended the show on Facebook. Of course, DC9 can’t host shows now, and Kate and her band can’t cross the Atlantic to support their new album. But at least there is a new album.
I heard the first single weeks ago on The Current, streaming radio from my home state of Minnesota. This Is What You Did has much of the character and cryptic poetry I love of their earlier albums. I’m looking forward to hearing the rest.
On Sundays, I’ve been posting one simple thing to do to help end Trump. So, why all this love for a British singer-songwriter today? I heard _This Is What You Did _again today and could not help associating it with the final lines of Kamala Harris’ speech at the Democratic convention:
…our children and our grandchildren will look in our eyes and they’re going to ask us, “Where were you when the stakes were so high?” They will ask us, “What was it like?” And we will tell them. We will tell them not just how we felt. We will tell them what we did.
— Kamala Harris
“This is what you did,” is what I imagine saying to a Trump voter as I stand next to them and point at the ruins all around us. The beauty of Stables’ lyrics is that “what you did” could as easily be making a mess of a relationship as making a mess of the planet. And the same goes for the question posed in the chorus. “Why are you still here?” could be asked of a cheating lover or the President.
But I also hear, “this is what you did” in the voice of the grandchild of the future from Harris’ speech. At some point, they will know what we did in 2020, whether we tell them or not.
I believe we will end Trump in November and be able to “tell them what we did” in the hopeful sense Harris’ meant. But the flip side of Harris speech, the pessimistic implication we are meant to be motivated to avoid, is that if we don’t end Trump in 50 days time, we will be standing next to that grandchild at some point. We’ll be looking out on the ruins all around us as they say, “this is what you did.”
Today’s Sunday action: Get out a pen and paper and make a plan for what you’ll do between now and election day: how you’ll vote, what you’ll do to help end Trump, what you’ll do that you’ll be proud to tell grandchildren. Check out the previous Sundays for ideas. Studies show you are far more likely to follow through with something if you make a plan, if you write it down, and if you tell someone else about your plan. So do all three. You can tell me if you don’t have someone else to tell (firstname.lastname@example.org). Maybe write it in the form of a letter to your grandchild. Tell them what you did.
On Thursday, I wrote about my Facebook/Instagram bubble. I weighed the value of glimpsing friends’ lives against the cost to our privacy; the cost of turning ourselves into eye candy to keep each other hooked, for advertisers’ benefit more than each other’s joy. Yesterday I turned my thoughts to Twitter. It became a long post, and the election countdown clicked past 53 days in to 52 days before I’d come to a stopping point, so consider this a two-for-one post.
My relationship with Twitter is more fraught. It stresses me out; it has for years. I’m afraid this post will sound like an old man shouting at the kids on the lawn, but I always regret opening up the Twitter app or clicking through to see a tweet linked from elsewhere. The original post might be fine, but the design of Twitter encourages scrolling down, engaging with replies and discussion. This is where it goes off the rails. Within a few seconds, I see a half-truth, a provocation, a cynic, a racist, a bot, or a clickbait profiteer. I spend the next ten minutes looking up the fact to fill in the half-truth, mentally drafting a thoughtful reply to the provocation, consider sending a long post on the harms of perfectionism to the cynic, block and flag the racist and the bot and the profiteer. This is not how I want to spend my time. And so, I close Twitter and walk away.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I treated Twitter as a fun curiosity. In its early days I used it to follow friends, post strange experiments in poetry to the tiny number of followers I had, and used the platform network with film and art bloggers.
Then there came a time when I took Twitter seriously because it was my job — or at least other people mistook it for my job. I moved to D.C. to design a website and graphics for the campaign of a high-profile Democrat I had never heard of (Democrats were — and mostly are — the good guys; I needed a job). They gave me an up-close glimpse of Twitter’s then-emerging role in politics: speeding up public discourse between activist-bloggers and between activists, campaigns, and digital-savvy journalists. Twitter then was a curious add-on to campaign outreach in 2007, and so it was overseen by its fiercest advocates: the team of youngish (white) tech geeks who built the website. Some of us (not me) had been brought on for our relationships with the growing network of activist-bloggers who had captured the attention of that odd niche constituency of very online people who kept showing up at campaign events (an audience we now simply call “engaged voters”).
Around this time, I realized that a few of the opinions I expressed in reviews of obscure documentaries and art were outside the official positions of Democrats and organized labor. Too radical, too accepting, or sometimes too much of an acknowledgment of a troublesome commentator or perspective. In 2009, when Barack Obama formed the first presidential administration of the social media era, potential hires were asked to hand over access to their social media accounts for scrutiny as a condition of employment. This was becoming a common practice in corporate America as well. There is little chance anything I wrote would have caused a stir for any of my employers, but I had no time to keep up the blog, let alone audit every sentence I’d written before I started working in politics. And so, I deleted my personal blog and started posting more carefully when I used social media.
Twitter by then had become a companion to every campaign (political or otherwise). Almost every journalist began quoting tweets and gathering sources on Twitter. Marketing and branding and media and communications people were figuring out a Twitter strategy for selling everything: candidates, Coke, coal, community theater tickets.
It might sound like I stopped using social media in 2009, but in fact that year probably marked the height of my usage (see screenshot). I transitioned from doing design work to a managerial role advising several national and local campaigns. Part of my job was to help raise the profile of our team’s work. And so, my personal feed became a mix of posts from our campaigns alongside the work of artists, filmmakers, and writers I was exploring in rare moments of downtime. And I had some success pointing policy wonks toward art, and artists toward policy. Or at least, I was enjoying cultivating an audience from those two worlds. More and more though, consuming Twitter was replacing my social life. I hadn’t found an art scene in D.C.’s yet, had little time for anything other than eating and drinking with coworkers. If I was out, I was checking Twitter at the table. On the rare occasion that I made it to some new experience — a literary reading or a concert — I was live-tweeting it instead of enjoying it.
At some point I began to feel tense when I hit the “tweet” button. I realized that every careful, sincere and thoughtful tweet on an issue in the news was generating ten or more cynical and reactionary replies. Early versions of the more virulent half-truths, provocations, racists, bots, and clickbait profiteers I see today. Many of these were anonymous. Some found my tweets by hashtag, through curated lists of topical Twitter users, or via mentions from more prolific coworkers and writers whose work I’d mentioned. My tweets about art and strange fragments of culture were exempt from this trolling; they would get a few “favorites” or retweets and fade away.
I turned towards elevating other voices since I felt I didn’t have the time or freedom to write in my own voice. It took me a few years, but I eventually realized that the culture of Silicon Valley, and the culture of tech-based advocacy/politics was replicating the unjust values of the offline world it was seeking to replace. The influential and powerful voices were white and male, including the geeks I started out working with in D.C. I would eventually hire a more inclusive team when I had the power to do so, but I realized it was just as important to use my social media voice to address this needed culture shift. I made a game of saying what I wanted to say on Twitter using nontraditional voices. If I had the impulse to post anything, I’d try to find a person of color or woman who had already posted it, and retweet them. Often with a bit of searching, I could stumble upon someone who’d said it earlier and better than the author I’d found. and I’d learn something in the process, make a new connection, change the culture in one small way.
But this was also a time when fans of conservative radio and Fox News were taking to Twitter. There would be obvious spikes in activity on our campaign accounts, and our personal accounts any time Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh mentioned issues we were advocating for. Some of the frothing-at-the-mouth outrage over these airwaves was directed at us by name as the author of a blog post or tweet, or as a campaign staffer quoted in an article. It became necessary to develop a protocol for forwarding threats of violence to our campaign’s lawyers, to Twitter (before their block/report system existed in any meaningful way), or to law enforcement.
In this environment, Twitter became a toxic workplace, a site of trauma. No fun. When I left paid political work behind in 2013, I set up an app that deleted Tweets older than a year. For a time, I used Twitter to talk about new work and art projects, but I gradually drifted away. Soon a year of no tweets meant the app had deleted my entire timeline without my noticing. I found new offline friendships to replace the scrolling timeline. The rise of Trump on the strength of his tweets seemed like a natural evolution of the hate speech I associated with the platform.
It hasn’t occurred to me to look for the people I’ve been talking to the most during the pandemic on Twitter: my (now Zoom-based) writers group; fellow travelers; friends from art fellowships and neighborhood circles. Somehow I still have near 3,000 followers. You can join them in anticipating my return to Twitter: @erikmoe and @futurecarto.
It’s not accurate to say that I don’t use social media at all. I just haven’t been posting to social media. I login in to both Facebook and Facebook’s Instagram two or three times every day.
What keeps me coming back? Both apps learn what I respond to and show me more of it each time I log in. I’m not proud of this addiction. I don’t enjoy giving away information about my likes and habits, and don’t want to be targeted for ads based on that info. But in lieu of hanging out with friends all over the city and country and world, and in lieu of direct, personal communication, it is a small morsel of connection.
I have two friends who invariably have fresh stories and posts every time I open Facebook or Instagram. These are two friends I’ve talked to in real life during the pandemic. One, who lives in the D.C. suburbs, I recently got together with in person for a socially distanced outing. The other is in another time zone, but we’ve talked by phone a few times during the pandemic. I know much more about their lives than they know about mine. I learn more about their animals, plants, kids, socially distanced hangouts, food, wine, distance learning, meetings, biking, walking, adventures and social/political passions every week than they have learned about mine in the life of our friendships. But I know both friends do not post about certain aspects of their lives: hard times they are going through, relationship issues, professional frustrations. The frequent updates give me the brief illusion that we’ve caught up, that we’ve spent time together today. A quick “like” or “heart” sends them a blip of a message: I’m thinking of you; I see you. But it is no substitute for picking up the phone, for meeting up.
After I catch up on these two friends’ posts, the app shows me some similar but less prolific friends’ lives. The same dynamics apply, though their narrative thread is looser. I have to fill in more of the blanks. These friends are no less dear to me than my most prolific friends. I apply a few “likes” or “hearts” and move on. Almost all of these prolific and semi-prolific posters are single women. I assume this is part of Facebook’s formula for maximizing the number of ads I see. I feel gross about these friends’ lives being used in this way, as if they were the women in a beer ad keeping attention on the screen through a break in a football game. Is this what everyone sees? Or just me. I have no way of comparing my Facebook experience, friend network, or psychological profile to anyone else’s.
Next, the feed shows me posts from a few non-friend “content creators” I frequently “like.” Some of their posts and recommendations have made it in to this series, including Rebecca Solnit and Heather Cox Richardson. I “like” some of their new content. I “like” long articles, having read only the headline and the posters’ comment. I feel guilty, knowing that I’ve just accelerated these articles reach without judging the nuances of their facts and the original author’s intentions.
I find a link I want to read in its entirety. The Facebook app opens it in a dumbed-down browser panel unsuitable reading more than a paragraph or two. If I leave Facebook, it will be difficult to find the original poster’s conversation about the article, and I’m sure to be distracted by other things the next time I open Facebook, anyway. I find the hidden “…” button and choose the “open in Safari” option. This might be the end of my social media time for several hours. Or I might leave that story open in Safari and return to the Facebook app for more.
That “more” in my feed might be absurd and hilarious posts from the dystopian “Bots of New York,” a disturbing AI-generated attempt to replicate photographer Brandon Stanton’s popular “Humans of New York” series. Or it might be art critic Jerry Saltz’s Instagram feed, a mix of art he stumbles upon, political commentary, erotic art jokes, and glimpses of his coffee- and takeout-fueled life with his wife, New York Times critic Roberta Smith. I often feel that I know more about Jerry’s day than I do about my next-door neighbor’s. Though she too is a frequent social media sharer, I often know more about the meal she’s just cooked through Instagram than I do through the enticing smells that waft through our open windows. An ad for a meat delivery box follows her post.
My phone interrupts me. I’ve asked it to limit my time on social media to 15 minutes a day. But I’m not done. I blow through the stop sign by clicking the “remind me in 15 minutes” button and continue.
Facebook’s “groups” tab has a red notification bubble. I glance at these to make the red bubble disappear. Silly memes and comment threads about urbanism, trains, baseball and podcasts. Distractions. Many of these groups have so many members that they hardly seem private. A long-dormant private group of alumni from a fellowship I once had pops up. An opportunity for a new grant. The details are hard to read and navigate in the Facebook browser. After twenty frustrating minutes on two devices and three web browsers, I determine that I’m not eligible for the grant. I put my phone down.
I’ve not been sharing these posts widely. When I began the series of 100, I wasn’t sure what it would become, if I’d keep the promise of posting each day, or if I’d be happy with the results. And I wasn’t sure who it was for. I knew I wouldn’t be writing in the easy Buzzfeed style that plays well on social media. I also doubted these would be sharp literary genius, given the tight deadlines (and all the doubts almost every writer has about their sharp literary genius).
But I also didn’t want to be overly influenced by an early response to a fragment of the whole. I knew some of my stories would mention friends and colleagues. Would their memories match mine? Would they think it inappropriate to write about our relationships? About the work?
We are terrified that we will hurt family members, that we will be abandoned or rejected. That we’ll be sued or thrown into writer’s jail for saying all of these mean things… If we don’t write it for ourselves first, we may not give ourselves the permission necessary to make it truly live. Something magical tends to happen when we let go of the result… We develop a newfound compassion for ourselves and the characters in our story. We forgive. We are transformed through the experience. But first we must be willing to write our truth.
I spent week two of this series contemplating truth. I was then contemplating how to write about the election; the importance of speaking truth in confronting a President so willing to lie; the triviality of restating truths when all my likely readers are already opposed to Trump. But in that contemplation of truth, I was also confronting anxiety about my obligations to people I might write about, people from jobs and relationships from years or decades ago. A more conventional memoir — with a longer incubation than daily deadlines allow — might treat these stories more thoughtfully. But my more conventional memoir might never be finished, let alone published.
Every line we succeed in publishing today — no matter how uncertain the future to which we entrust it — is a victory wrenched from the powers of darkness.
Benjamin’s line — from one of his last letters — predicts the Trump-era tagline of the Washington Post and reflects my motivation for writing as my contribution to ending Trump. Experience tells me doing nothing leads to regrets and what-ifs. Work inside politics left me with a cynical view of the players and tactics considered most effective, and the personal compromises they require. Writing is the tool I have invested the most in since leaving paid political work seven years ago (I’ve now spent more time away than the six years I spent as an insider).
But now I have forty-five posts completed. Fifty-five to go. Nearing the halfway point. Friends I’ve bumped in to and talked to — some who are mentioned directly or obliquely — have given encouragement. I’m considering how this kind of writing might continue after we reach day zero, how to sustain publishing regularly in the long term. Reaching a larger audience is the logical next step. Telling more people about these posts than those I’ve run in to at socially distanced picnics and on phone calls with friends might be warranted. I might have to get back on to social media.
In three days, there will have been 49 of these posts. We’ll be at the halfway point. The featured image art from each post will fill out a nice 7×7 square, perfect for Instagram.
Before we reach that mark, I’ll have to flesh out my conflicted opinions about social media here. If I’m going to rejoin the social media party, it seems impolite to begin with a rant against the hosts of the party and by implication, an indictment of my friends who use it most actively, the ones I’ll be asking to help build and sustain an audience here.