On the Flint “River”

I’m sure by now you’ve read the reports about the contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Apparently the Flint River is so corrosive if not treated that it actually eroded iron and lead from the pipes leading to homes, which is how the water became not just filthy but toxic. Most will point to the state government in Michigan as the main antagonists here, since they knowingly put residents at serious risk, and lied about it several times, simply to scrimp on the budget. (The effects of lead poisoning, as is noted in the linked article, are long-term and irreversible.) And yes, this example does serve, along with countless others, as a testament to undemocratic institutions that routinely poison their own subjects (er, voting public) for even small profits. This practice is as old as Rome itself. But probably lost in this critique is the alarming fact that we have to treat rivers with chemicals, just so the chemicals in them don’t do more harm to other chemicals we have used in our entire infrastructure. The Flint River, now left to its own devices, can corrode lead pipes. What does it do to the soil, or to the fish? Can we even call it a “river” anymore?


Reading Nietzsche: Anti-Education

Here’s a review in The Guardian of a newly published series of Nietzsche lectures called Anti-Education. The lectures themselves and the resulting analysis are surely useful, but in the brief biography the author uses to set up the piece, there is perhaps the most concise summary of the anti-education about Nietzsche himself I’ve ever read:

Until his death in 1900 Nietzsche remained a mute invalid under the guardianship of his sister Elisabeth, a repulsive individual with whom he quarrelled bitterly when she married an antisemitic high school teacher, Bernhard Förster, and accompanied him to found an “Aryan” colony, Nueva Germania, in Paraguay. Following the failure of the fly-blown settlement and the suicide of her husband, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche continued promoting racist ideas by seizing control of her helpless brother’s writings, establishing a Nietzsche Archive and methodically deleting passages in which he lambasted the “race swindle”. For this service she was duly rewarded. On the basis of a highly selective biography and a heavily redacted compilation of Nietzsche’s writings that she published under the title The Will to Power, she was several times nominated by admiring German academics for the Nobel prize in literature. When she died in 1935, Hitler attended her funeral.

It would be fantastic if, some day, people would stop mentioning The Will to Power in the same breath as Nietzsche altogether, but I’m of course pessimistic about such an outcome. That he never wrote the work—and that it’s antithetical to his project—never seems to stop people from citing it, and then proclaiming to understand what he meant, having never read it or any other of Nietzsche’s writings. “You have to take power by any means necessary,” is usually the philosophy, if we can call it that, that most assume from the title and related connotations.

Anyway, on to the lectures. Here’s another concise summary:

There is more than a little truth in Nietzsche’s indictment. But to reach this nugget, you will have to wade through pages of Romantic gibberish about the aristocracy of the spirit and the privileges of genius, which foreshadow the absurd figure of the Übermensch that he concocted in his later work as a redeemer for modern times. But when he observed that education was increasingly being shaped by external forces, Nietzsche was on to something important. A shift of the sort that was under way in 19th-century Germany began in the UK with the regime of monitoring and assessing research that was imposed in the late 1980s. Until that time universities had been autonomous institutions. Now they have to justify themselves as somehow increasing national output – a requirement that denies that intellectual life has value as an end in itself and assumes everything of importance can be measured.

The only exception I’ll take with this analysis is that ubermensch—literally over-man—was perhaps not invoked as some sort of messiah figure, but was instead intended to be internalized by each and every one of us—or at least those with the courage to be open and vulnerable; we all have the capacity to rise above (overcome, better said) the temptation to simply follow orders, to muddle through a banal existence in a cold, indifferent universe, to take whatever meaning is handed to us by demagogues and “poison-mixers” (what he called people who preached of other, heavenly worlds). That’s perhaps just my reading of his use of the term, but I say that having a hard time believing that someone who makes their own meaning, usually through the destruction of conventional wisdom, would just sit around waiting for anybody. But moving on…

The author of the article ties in more recent trends in academia, notably the protests about making campuses “safe spaces” and the like, as if to say Nietzsche would disapprove vehemently, given that he would frown on any attempt to put a lid on free expression, anywhere. I’m not so sure this is true; he might applaud students’ efforts to not simply take the history that has been handed to them. And if they’re attempting to destroy old values in the place of new ones—which inherently calls all values into question—then he might support such a cause—or at least not publicly denounce it. I hesitate to add my own comment to the campus debates, mostly because I’m not on campus anymore, and the interest of the corporate media to sensationalize and polarize every, little, event—or statement, or tweet—makes discerning the facts of any case almost impossible. Furthermore, since schools are, at heart, socialization machines for the dominant culture at best (or is it worst? since otherwise they’re simply warehouses, but at least there’s a chance of a fruit or vegetable somewhere), then I tend to disagree with almost all of their policies anyway.

Another Good Blog, About Birds

Here is a great birding blog: This Machine Watches Birds. I discovered it while doing an online search for evidence of hawks living in the old control tower at Mueller (there is a post on the aforementioned blog about owls doing the same, back in September of 2013). The best part about this blog, aside from the great photographs of local birds, obviously, is that the author uses the F-word—and he uses it a lot. It’s refreshing, really, to see someone using vulgarity—the parlance of the people—while participating in a hobby usually reserved for bourgeois “thrill”-seekers. There’s a whole section dedicated solely to “birds taking dumps,” for instance. Bravo.

I admire the photographs on this blog a great deal, and will use them as inspiration to get better at my own photography in this new year of 2016. I’ve had a hard time getting a good picture of a Monk parakeet, for instance—but now that’s my new mission. Also, there are approximately 6,000 blue jays living in my yard, and once it gets slightly nicer out I plan to start watching them more closely. They wake me up every morning, just before the tower gongs (somehow they know), and from this little observation I have deduced that if you hear a shrill annoying call coming from some indiscernible tree-location, and you don’t know what bird it is, guess blue jay.

Whales make noises? Who knew?

Here’s a short video (with brief description) about scientists attempting to use audio technology to help ships avoid collisions with whales. It appears a very worthwhile project—even if it can save one whale—but of course underlying both the need and purpose for the project is the assumption that shipping must go on as normal—or, put another way, that no solution can include any change to our lifestyles (i.e. to production) whatsoever. Once scientists learned that amplified sound from ships annoyed/disrupted/ultimately killed marine mammals, they set to work on how to solve the problem of technology by adding and compounding with more technology (which requires more ships, ironically), instead of asking whether we need to be shipping so much crap across the now almost-dead oceans in the first place. Or maybe they did ask such a question, and were ignored or punished by the military-corporate elite that controls both intercontinental trade and, no surprise here, scientific research funding.

You have to sue the members of this elite to get them even to admit that, say, setting off explosives in the ocean kills whales, let alone to do anything about it. Even then, as in the case of the federal suit brought against the Navy in September of last year (as per the previous link), you get something like: “It doesn’t mean the Navy has to cut the amount of training they have to do,” says Zak Smith, an attorney at the Santa Monica, California, office of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the environmental groups involved in the cases and the settlement. “They just won’t do it in some biologically significant areas.” Oh, whew.

Also, in the beginning of the video it is suggested that people once thought that the oceans were mostly quiet. Can that be true? How could people realistically expect that animals in the sea would be silent? To forget (or willingly ignore) that animals communicate is but one symptom of the hubris that will thankfully die—along with our species—prematurely.