Friday, September 04, 2015

Weekend Reading: The World Breaks My Heart Edition

I actually had a wonderful day today. Petunia starts kindergarten on Tuesday, and she and I had a "special day" today, just like I'd done with her sister three years ago. We had so much fun.

I managed to put the rest of the world out of my mind for the day, which was necessary because large parts of the rest of the world- including some parts right here in the US- are heartbreaking right now.

It is shameful that it took a photo of a drowned three year old to wake us all up to the human suffering that is the "refugee crisis," but I guess it is not surprising. There is so much pain and suffering in the world, and the people in favor of higher walls, stricter policies, and the like are so sure of themselves and so strident, and those of us who would like to do more to help the less fortunate people in the world usually don't have such cut and dried policies to offer... so it is easier to just tune the entire thing out.

Until you see a photo like that, and are reminded that you would probably do the same thing those families are doing, if war came to your part of the world. You would try to get your family to safety, or at least I know I would. Staying and fighting seems less of an option when you have children you cannot protect from the bombs, or from conscription.

So now we're all trying to figure out what to do, and how to do it. And none of our countries have done all that well so far. It shouldn't have taken children dying to show us that, but then, it usually does. We also should have known what would happen when the countries with the land routes started putting up walls. Desperate people will still be desperate, and they will go the more dangerous way. And some of them will die. We already knew this. 

We like to think that we're not like the people trying to come to our wealthy countries, and this is not noble but neither is it evil- it is too scary and it hurts too much to really admit how precarious life is. But then we see a photo like the one of that little boy, and we can no longer pretend that we're all that different.

And that is why I think the photo is changing the conversation so much. 

Anyway, this is supposed to be a links post, so I'll link to my Tungsten Hippo post about a really thought provoking short ebook on borders. I don't necessarily agree with all of the author's conclusions- humans are certainly not the only territorial animals, for instance, so although our borders are a bit arbitrary, the fact that we make them is probably not as easy to dismiss as the author might like- but I think his arguments are really worth thinking about. He is arguing primarily from a place of morality, not practicality, and on that point I do agree. Our current system is pretty hard to defend from a moral standpoint, even if you only look at economic migration. When you also look at the plight of refugees, it is downright bankrupt.  

Speaking of morally bankrupt: the US "social safety net"or lack thereof feels pretty morally bankrupt to me, too. 

Read that story along with this thoughtful piece about the future of work from Tim O'Reilly. (Yes, geeky types, that Tim O'Reilly, the one responsible for all the tech books with funny animals on them that are on your bookshelves.)

The problem I have with the direction we seem to be heading is that we're just pushing more and more risk onto individuals. Retirement? You don't need a pension! Get a 401(k). Benefits? Just demand a premium for working as a contractor, and fund them yourself! Safety net? Save and make your own!

Go back and re-read that Vox piece on people living in the US on $2 per day if you don't see the problem with this transfer of risk from the collective to the individual. It usually works out OK for people like me, who have the skills that can demand a premium, and can make enough money for self-funded benefits and safety nets to be at least within the realm of possibility. At least it works out OK if enough of our luck holds. But it sure as hell doesn't work for the really poor people in this country. 

What will it take for us to recognize how similar we are to them? We seem immune to their suffering. 

Speaking of which, John Scalzi published an interesting piece looking at his "Being Poor" essay 10 years after he wrote it. I hadn't realized it was prompted by the lack of empathy people had towards so many of the people trapped in New Orleans after the storm. If something like Katrina happened now, would we have any more empathy? I doubt it. Once again, we like to think we're somehow different, that we'd never be caught in that situation. Once again, we're lying to ourselves if we think that.

So I guess the problem I have with the age of "continuous partial employment" that we seem to be entering is that it largely seems to be architected by and promoted by relatively privileged people who don't really understand how different their reality is from the reality of the people described in that Vox piece... and at the same time fail to grasp how vulnerable all of us are to the unpleasant surprises of life. The ethos about work coming out of Silicon Valley right now is tolerable- maybe even good- when everything is going as planned. But if your health falters, if you need to take care of an aging parent, if your kids don't do well with the "usual" arrangements... things start to suck pretty quick.

So, wow. That was a bit of a downer of a links post.

If you want to try to help the refugees, PRI has a list of some organizations to consider. Or maybe tell your politicians that you want your country to take more people in. 

If you want to help the poor people here, look for your local charities. If I hear of a good place to donate to help in the Mississippi delta, I'll let you know.

And because I think we need something to cheer us up after all of that, I give you President Obama dancing in Alaska:

And a few other links:

This is a really thoughtful and empathetic post about the problem with rape jokes. Read it even if you think you don't want to read another thing about the problem with rape jokes. 

I don't really have anything funny to end this post with, but for parents of seven year olds, this will probably sound familiar:

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