Forces for good

Hit and Miss #242

Hi there,

I’m perched on the ladder of a tree fort in my parents’ back yard, here in Waterloo, soaking up some sunshine, fresh air, and unseasonably warm April temperatures. The birdsong is happy and so am I.

Being a public servant, I tend to believe that the state can be a force for good in people’s lives, visibly and invisibly. This belief is coupled with an awareness—a sometimes painful one—that the state can also be a force of, well, not-good—whether acting in harmful ways or not acting in the face of harm.

This intro is, as with so many times over the last two years, a reflection on the state response to COVID.

Governments have shifted, in their toolbox of what governments do, away from regulation, subsidies, service provision, and rights (arguably, even, away from information), to education, in its weakest form (namely, warning and exhortation—but after two years, we’ve become pretty habituated to it).

What governments say and do tends to inform social behaviour. So, as governments have shifted, there isn’t the same social-political framework in which to take decisions—we’re floating a bit more on our own, and “responsibility” for our decisions feels ever more on us, while social norms continue to fluctuate.

This has made for some difficult—really difficult—decision-making in the last few weeks. At times, this feels repetitive and familiar, and I wonder when, how, if things shift next. I’ve no good sense to share, other than comfort and consolation in whatever decisions you do take.

On an (un?)related topic, I deeply enjoyed Nicanor Gordon’s essay on apocalyptic thinking and portrayal: “Your Apocalypse is Bad and Wrong and I would Know.” (via Mita Williams’s ever excellent University of Winds newsletter)

It’s a short piece, well worth your time. Gordon challenges the type of apocalyptic future portrayed by Western creators—one in which people turn cruelly on one another, fighting violently to survive in a merciless quest for what scarce resources remain. Gordon reviews what counts as civilization, progress, regression, and more, from a Western lens, and points out that the depravity of Western apocalypse stems often from attempts to violently reimpose familiar institutions, despite the reality that “Cruelty does not manifest in the absence of Western institutions, but often because of them.”

This piece felt particularly timely for me, as I’ve read a number of apocalyptic works over the last few years, and recently spent a caffeine-fuelled late night pondering scenes from these books, disaster and its aftermath. This piece highlighted for me that the end of the world need only be the end of this world—that a better one might spring forward in its place, centring human values other than cruelty and competition.

But could this better post-apocalyptic future play out in the West, with its people conditioned to think of violence as central to political and social reality? I don’t know. I really don’t.

I spent a few days of this vacation doing some digital spring cleaning, reordering where and how I read. I signed out of Twitter, archived everything in my catch-all inbox, and shifted all my newsletters to Feedbin. The plan is to double down on RSS / controlled Twitter / newsletters for my digital reading—all via Feedbin and NetNewsWire, with bookmarking in Pinboard.

I’m also considering downshifting my newspaper subscription for the summer-y months, only getting it once or twice a week, to shift my reading from the churn of the daily news (which is inevitably more depressing than motivating) to longer, slower works. (Inspired, in part, by Melissa Gira Grant’s advice to turn to history to start and end each day, which I first shared a few years ago.)

As T pointed out, this could also be a time and space to read beyond non-fiction: to spend more time with poetry, for example. In honour of that, let’s close with a poem from Mary Oliver, “Mysteries, Yes”:

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.

How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.

How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

All the best for the week ahead, my friends. May you find yourself in such good company.