Tag Archives: writing

On Making Yourself Useful, Or Not

The Effective Altruists have persuaded Rhys Southan that his screenplay-writing is of no social value and ethically idiotic. They may be right, but he’s going to keep doing it anyway.

Good for him, I suppose. Keep trying, expect failure and look for unexpected outcomes. Take some time to think about why you want to write a screenplay or make a film or pursue a project. (This post by Jay Webb is a good place to start.) But don’t bother with people who tell you to make yourself useful.

Southan is bothered by them, I gather, because he seems to be confused about what art is and the work that artists do — a theme I touched on the other day in a post about the misappropriation of a sentence from Aquinas’ Summa, and a couple of weeks ago in my post on the word “sullen,” where I discussed Ingmar Bergman’s disciplined solitude.

He seems to understand his screenplay-writing and for that matter all art as “self-expression”; and then he asks that art improve society. On the one hand, he reduces art to vanity — not a disciplined encounter with humanity of the kind Bergman describes, but an elaborate selfie. On the other, he subordinates art to half-baked social engineering schemes and encourages didacticism or morally uplifting platitudes of the sort Alain de Botton has foisted on to the collection at the Rijksmuseum.

To ask whether art is useful is to ask the wrong question of it — or at least to invite a Thomistic quibble that restricts the meaning of the term and helps move the conversation away from confused Romantic ideas: as an operative virtue, art is useful to the artist. “The craftsman needs art, not that he may live well, but that he may produce a good work of art, and have it in good keeping.”

What’s more, to live merely by calculations of utility of the kind the Effective Altruists urge is not to lead much of a life at all: you may set out to do others some good but you probably won’t have a very good life. May I enjoy a fresh fig or a cigar, split town and head for the coast, putter around in my garden, consider an idea, make love or make a friend without submitting to a utility calculation?

Of course I can and should and will, and this isn’t just a matter of opting for pleasure over other considerations of utility.

A person who becomes my friend, or professes to love me, based on calculations of utility would have to be a sociopath or a monster of some kind. A person who tells me how I might make myself useful — appealing to moral criticism in order to advance a social improvement scheme — would be equally suspect.

To question the altruism of Effective Altruism may ultimately be an altruistic thing to do.

On Being Cross-Posted

A couple of years ago, I was contacted by someone working on a Darfur campaign about a blog post I’d written called “Can JP Morgan Handle its Human Rights Risk?” She wanted to run my post on the campaign site. The London Whale had just surfaced, and I took my lead from an editorial in the Wall Street Journal asking whether any one executive, even a great executive like Jamie Dimon, “can properly oversee such a large financial institution.” My post questioned the bank’s claim that it is capable of managing human rights risks in its complex portfolio of investments — which was the justification it had offered shareholders for rejecting a “genocide-free” investing proposal.

I’ve received a couple of other requests along those lines since I started blogging. Just yesterday, another organization asked if they could cross-post some of the things I’ve written about the Lake Superior mining boom.

Apparently, in my case, flattery will get you somewhere: I usually agree, as long as I am given credit, the post is reproduced in full, without alteration, and includes a link to this blog. It helps get my work in front of more people, usually people who are already invested in the issues I’m writing about. Besides, I could use whatever extra traffic it happens to generate – it’s not like I’m posting cat pictures or updates on cheerlebrities here — and I welcome whatever new connections and other intangible goods or just good vibes that may come out of it.

I’ve been thinking a little more this morning about these associations — how my writing has led to them and where they might lead my writing; whether this cross-posting might somehow or someday compromise me (for now, I’ve concluded, it doesn’t); and how it differs from, on the one hand, other forms of sharing (emailing links, tweeting, plus-ing or posting on the intellectual wasteland of Facebook, re-blogging, etc.) and, on the other, publication – whatever that means anymore.

I know that I would expect any publication, online or offline, to pay me for running something I’d written; but I’ve made exceptions there, too, so it really doesn’t come down to money, and I am not sure the ongoing debate about “writing for free” really applies here. Besides, most of the organizations doing the asking are run on a shoestring, and I’d be more likely to give them my money than to take theirs.

So maybe the writing is a kind of gift or donation, even if the IRS does not allow the deduction.

The Times Correction of Jim Harrison’s “My Upper Peninsula” Falls Short In Three Ways

The Travel section of the November 29th edition of the New York Times featured an article by Jim Harrison about traveling Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called “My Upper Peninsula.” It turns out Harrison’s Upper Peninsula is a place more fondly remembered than accurately observed, and the Times has had to make a number of corrections to his piece.

Probably the most egregious error in the original piece comes just a few paragraphs in, where Harrison explains to prospective travelers to the UP that “you can drink the water directly from Lake Superior,” as he himself used to do on his “long beach walks.” The water of Lake Superior is clean, he wrote in that first version, because “there is little or no industry, and all of the mines are closed.”

I was probably not the only person to send a letter to the editors reminding them that some UP mines are still open and that the Times itself had published a report, in May of 2012, on the new mining boom in the Upper Peninsula. My letter went on to say that the new sulfide mining (the mining of nickel and copper) along with new gold and uranium mining projects in the UP — and all around Lake Superior — pose a very serious risk to the big freshwater lake.

Just one project, the Polymet mine near Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, will require water pollution treatment for a minimum of 500 years.

Last week, the Times published this correction:

Correction: December 4, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the state of mining in the Upper Peninsula; there are indeed some mines operating in the area — it is not true that all the mines are closed.

The passage about long beach walks now reads:

While camping I would study maps to try to figure out where I was other than within a cloud of mosquitoes and black flies, that irritating species that depends on clean water, of which there is a great deal in the U.P. There is little or no industry; therefore you could drink the water directly from Lake Superior — at least I always did on my long beach walks.

This new version tries to skirt the issue by consigning it to the past. Where Harrison originally wrote “you can drink,” now we are told “you could drink” the water. There is still “a great deal” of clean water in the UP, but this version takes refuge in “at least I always did,” to qualify the drinking. It could all have been a mistake.

But this correction doesn’t do the trick, for at least three reasons.

First, it doesn’t even come close to capturing what’s really going on these days. We still have no no reference to the Times original report on the boom. “It is not true that all the mines are closed” is a far cry from “many new mines are opening, and there is a mining and leasing boom” – which is a lot closer to the what the Times reported in 2012 and a lot closer to the facts: just look at the map of Lake Superior Mines, Mineral Exploration and Mineral Leasing published by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. The problem here is only compounded by a couple of sentences near the end of the Harrison piece, which the editors let stand: “It’s not easy to cheerlead for the Upper Peninsula now after the extractive logging and mining. That bleakness is now mostly overgrown by forests except for a few slag piles.” Overgrown? Simply put, the bleakness that Harrison buries in the past is coming back to the UP.

Second – and this is a curious oversight for the Travel section – the new mining is going to endanger, or at least dramatically change, UP tourism, which is in large part about unimpeded access to wilderness areas and especially the freshwater wilderness of Lake Superior. Though tourism has been a growing sector of the UP economy, on its own it’s hardly enough to sustain the region (or any region for that matter). Mining proponents are usually quick to point this out. Most are very careful to say that they “don’t go around tearing down the tourism industry,” as one UP labor leader put it to me. Some are openly scornful of the contribution tourism makes to the regional economy. All acknowledge, as Harrison himself acknowledges, a tension between extractive industry and tourism; and doesn’t that tension belong at the center of any article about traveling to the UP?

Third, the corrected paragraph now makes very little sense. The editors have chosen to omit Harrison’s earlier statements about the disappearance of mining and recognize, in their correction, “some mines operating” in the Upper Peninsula. The paragraph about long beach walks simply states that “there is little or no industry” in the UP. I am not sure what this is supposed to mean: I guess “some” is supposed to be the equivalent of “little” or “none,” or mining doesn’t count as an industry. Be that as it may, the larger omission here has to do with the industrialization the new mining has already brought – the drilling, clear cutting, haul roads, and mine construction already underway are just the start — and how that will add to mounting industrial pressures on the lake: for example, the plan put forward by Enbridge to build a network of oil pipelines carrying diluted bitumen across the Great Lakes region, and to transport crude oil by barge across Lake Superior.

I realize, of course, that none of these observations are likely to find a place in the Travel section. Readers go there to encounter a world where nature is picturesque, and history and culture are placed on quaint and colorful exhibition. Advertisers count on it. The Travel section presents an exotic world, in the most literal sense, a world outside ordinary lived experience, fully exteriorized, a fantasy of escape. I suppose readers should look elsewhere in the paper of record to correct that impression, and to see the world as it really is.

Collecting My Thoughts, Collecting Myself

I’m starting to think of this blog as INSEAD professor Gianpiero Petriglieri has taught me to think of Twitter: as “a public notebook” — a place to collect, reflect and share. I’ve kept notebooks for years, but they’ve always been closely-kept, private affairs. Those notebooks can be scattered and go off in all sorts of directions, but I realize that the public aspect of this notebook carries some obligation to put the pieces together every once in a while, or at least to reflect on where things appear to be heading.

This morning’s post about Sister Mary Lou Wirtz and non-coercive leadership brought some new clarity and gave me a chance to gather my thoughts.

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I’ve been looking at models of non-coercive power, dialogue as an alternative to coercive power, asking as an alternative to command-obedience. It’s a big topic, which I try to describe with the rubric The Power of Asking, and it branches out in many different directions.

I’ve written about the use and abuse of the word “ask” and the practice of asking, as well as some literary and historical examples that illustrate the subject. On a related front, I’ve looked at human rights frameworks, including the Ruggie Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights and the concept of “free, prior and informed consent” enshrined in the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and tried to appreciate how questions of autonomy, respect and consensus-building figure into them. In posts on the role of business in society and on issues in corporate governance, I’ve explored some alternatives to organizational models of command and control (which institutionalize coercive power or command-obedience, usually in the name of “efficiency” and often to the detriment of creativity, learning and innovation); and I’ve tried to outline some of the rules of “engagement” that could inform a framework for shareholder dialogues to make companies more responsive and responsible.

There are other models to consider as well — call them conceptual models. My reading list would have to include Illich on conviviality, Arendt’s discussion of “initiative” in The Human Condition (no, the whole book, from start to finish, but especially the section on Action) as well as, I suppose, Habermas’s reflections on non-coercive dialogue, and some of the work on ethics that came out of Bernard Williams’s seminal paper on “Internal and External Reasons.” And then there are anthropological texts like Clastres Society Against the State, Richard White’s The Middle Ground and James C. Scott’s book on Zomia, which ground some of these philosophical considerations in social realities. These are touchstones for me, readings that have shaped and continue to shape my thinking about non-coercive power and help me ask questions about language, power and the possibility of dialogue. They’ve also helped me to think about what happens to all these questions when one attempts to move from theory to practice; more often than not, as I’ve tried to make clear, things fall apart, good intentions go bad, and people resort to coercion, displays of power, issuing commands, demanding obedience and asserting authority.

With this framework in mind, I am currently developing two projects. The first is a writing project that I’m calling The Power of Asking, which will develop the theme of non-coercive power and try to articulate something like a model of non-coercive leadership. The second is a documentary film tentatively titled Prosperity, which is set against the backdrop of the mining boom around Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; there, issues of free, prior and informed consent as well as critical issues of corporate responsibility and environmental ethics are at stake (along with the future of Lake Superior itself).

As I continue to write on the theme of asking and develop and raise funds for my new documentary project, I will probably break out each of these projects into subpages. (And by the way, if you know anyone who is super-talented when it comes to WordPress and can help me make this whole effort a little less pedestrian-looking, please send me a message — @lvgaldieri — on Twitter). In the meantime, rest assured there is method in my madness here, even if I myself often don’t realize it.