Monday, August 18, 2014

Let's Review the Michael Brown Case

Let's review some basics from the Michael Brown case:

If a police office kills an unarmed person for jaywalking, that is murder. 

If a police officer kills an unarmed person for shoplifting five bucks' worth of cigars, that is murder. 

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who had smoked marijuana sometime that week, that is murder.

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who turns out to have wanted to be a rapper, that is murder.

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who has given the police officer some lip, that is murder.

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who is running away from him, that is murder. 

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who tried and failed to get the officer's gun before running away, that is murder.

I think you might detect a pattern here. The point is that killing someone who is not a clear (as in obvious) and present (meaning immediate) danger to someone else's life and safety is murder.

No one has suggested anything close to that kind of situation. The Ferguson Police Chief, who will clearly do everything and anything in his power to make excuses for his officer, has not been able to say that the shooter was in danger of his life. And there is no other excuse.

Can I imagine circumstances in which a police officer might use deadly force? You bet I can. But I don't even need to. I was raised by a police officer from a police family. I grew up around lots of police officers. And I do know a police officer who has killed someone in the line of duty (or rather, who was among the officers who killed someone in the line of duty; I don't think any of them want to know who fired the fatal bullet.) Why did they do it? Because a suspect was shooting at them and trying to kill them.

That is what what we're talking about. That is justification for using your weapon. None of this other stuff is even on the same planet as a real reason.

Almost every day we hear some fresh "revelation" about the young man killed by the police in Ferguson. Every day that revelation is offered up as if it changes the question of whether his murder was justified. And every day that revelation is utterly ridiculous. It says nothing about the real questions. It does say a lot about the moral compass of the person bringing it up.

If you're discussing an unarmed and completely defenseless man being shot to death and you bring up five dollars worth of stolen cigars, what you are saying is that you are too morally depraved, your moral judgment too impaired, to understand the value of human life. 

If you bring up marijuana residue or rap music, same thing. You have announced your idiocy and depravity for all to hear. And you have insulted your listeners by presuming that they too were moral idiots.

(Remember the Eighties, when you kept hearing stories about how young black gang members were so morally bankrupt that they would shoot someone to death for a pair of sneakers? Shooting someone for a hundred-dollar pair of shoes would mean your moral compass was broken. But what would shooting someone over five dollars of merchandise mean?)

Mike Brown was endowed by his creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All three were taken away from him on the street, with no process of any kind, by a paid officer of the law. 

Michael Brown had a right to due process. He had a right to his life. There are no other questions. Whether or not you would have liked Mike Brown is not the issue. Whether or not you approved of Mike Brown is not the issue. Mike Brown's right to his life was not conditional on your approval, or mine, or any government authority's. He could only forfeit that right by endangering another life, and even then only while he posed an active danger. But Mike Brown was no danger to any living soul when he was killed. He had nothing in his hands but his own life. That was given to him by God. It was not for anyone else to take.

If you ask yourself whether or not Mike Brown deserved life, you are a lost soul. No one has set you to judge who should live and die. No one will and no one should. Mike Brown was a citizen like you, a human being like you. His rights are not subject to your little moods. If you will not defend his right to live, then you are no longer a citizen. I leave the question of your humanity to another judge.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams and Making Live Comedy Live

Robin Williams was funny, lightning fast, and a gifted improviser, but what really set him apart as a comic was that he let his audiences share the experience of what doing standup comedy feels like. He didn't do that explicitly. It probably can't be done explicitly. But he did it, maybe better than anyone else ever has. It was the core of his gift, because a great comedian is not merely funny. A great comedian creates a relationship with the audience, and the relationship Williams created with his live audiences was something fundamental and profound.

Performing standup is a frightening and disorienting thing, even for pros. Standups talk about their art form as analogous to boxing, saying that if you don't stay in training you can't -- don't dare -- get into the ring.  A live performance is always in danger of spinning out of control. You can lose the audience in a split second. Any comedian who's performed enough to learn even the basics of the craft has had the experience of bombing out in front of a live audience -- dying, as comics always put it -- dozens and dozens of times. An extremely original comedian has died even more often. That is a miserable experience. And even experienced pros, even stars, still sometimes have a performance come totally unglued. They have all learned to keep that from happening by maintaining firm control of the performance at all times.

Comics learn, gradually and painstakingly, to conceal their fear and anxiety from the audience. And it is right that they should. Watching a comedian fail on stage is depressing and embarrassing, without any hope of insight or catharsis. Comedians do their best to shield themselves from that public humiliation. They learn to project confidence to the crowd and to keep their failures of confidence hidden. The audience should never catch any scent of flop sweat, no whiff of the performers' insecurities or fears of humiliation. The art form, like every art form, works best when it is grounded in emotional truth, but creating comedy requires concealing the emotional truth of how creating comedy feels.

Williams was absolutely in control of the room. Audiences ate out of his hand. Watching him was nothing like watching an open-mike novice falling apart. But watching him live, when he first emerged on the standup scene in the late 1970s, was also a bewildering and disorienting experience. The speed at which he changed direction, leaping from one bit to another and then back, was then something totally new and unexpected. People were often under the impression that his entire act, every single word, was improvised. (Of course, it wasn't.) It can be hard to remember, thirty-five and nearly forty years after Williams emerged, how radically new he seemed. But he did. It was like he was free associating at lightning speed.

Robin Williams wasn't the first comic to improvise on stage. He wasn't the first to do strange or emotionally raw material on stage. To be honest, his success was never about the material per se; there were much better joke-writers in his generation. And he was definitely not the only 1970s comic disguising his act's formal structure; that had been going on for decades. But what Williams's performances did was turn the basic relationship of live stand-up inside out. His disorienting speed and rapid changes of direction created an exhilarating and slightly scary experience for the crowd. They became the ones who had to live with their fears and accept that the room was out of their control. But they also got to feel the energy of that, too, the nervous excitement that performers channel into their stage act. Watching Robin Williams in person was basically sharing his performance-night adrenaline high.

One thing this did was free Williams to admit his own anxieties, the worry driving the comedy, without relinquishing control. If you listen carefully to his classic Live at the Met album, the phrase you will hear him say most is "Oh, no!" He says it dozens of times in that set, as a segue, as a punctuation mark, as a space-holder to cover an audience laugh. But what he is saying, over and over, is still, "Oh, no!" (The second most common phrase is "Don't you see?") During Williams's first appearance on The Tonight Show (then an important rite of passage for any comedian), he openly talked himself through his anxieties between doing bits. ("Okay ... you're on television ... he [Johnny Carson] means you no harm.") The streak of anxiety in Williams's comedy was never a secret. He was sharing it with us all along.

But the more important thing was that Williams's approach allowed him to build a deep emotional bond with the audience. Live comedy is about a relationship between the comic and the crowd, because the crowd is a crucial element of the performance. A standup act is not the same if it is done for only one person. A tiny audience mutes the comedian's effectiveness. But as the crowd grows larger, so does its power, and the more audience members there are the more they can set each other on to laugh. Standup is a fundamentally social art form. When a comedian has successfully worked a crowd, it creates a powerful feedback loop, with the audience's laughter feeding the comedian energy and confidence, which she or he uses to make the audience laugh harder, until the laughter becomes irresistibly contagious. The comedian has a microphone, but the audience is the amplifier.

Great comedians bond with the audience on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. Williams created an exceptionally deep bond with his audiences, because he shared with them a core truth, the scary excitement of performing live comedy, that other comics had to deny. Williams could not talk about that directly either, but he communicated it to his audience by making them feel the same things he did. That was what made him electrifying on stage. His entire act was about the experience of performing. He was the livest of all live comedians.

And what Williams's act implicitly said was, This is a little frightening, but it's fun. And here we are doing it! He created an act that felt unpredictable and kept the audience off balance, but also created the sense that if they didn't know where any of this was going they were still all in it together. That is a powerful and intimate bond. Williams's live act, in his younger days, felt utterly chaotic, but audiences gave themselves permission to enjoy it, because Williams made the chaos feel safe. He was the benign lunatic. He could do anything on stage, because he had earned the audience's absolute trust.

In his early days, Williams used to close his shows with a quote from the great cult comedian Lord Buckley, who had used it to close his own act:

People are the true flowers of life, and it has been a most magnificent pleasure to have temporarily walked in your garden.

I wish I had the chance to tell Robin Williams the same thing tonight. Thank you, Mr. Williams, and rest in peace.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Other Two Sides in Israel and Palestine

It is not only hard to write about the bloodshed in Israel and Palestine without taking sides. It is impossible for most people to read about the violence in Israel and Palestine without taking sides. So the debate bogs down into questions of justification and self-defense and proportionality: that is, into the utterly useless question of whether Israel or Hamas is more in the wrong. It may well be that one side or the other is more justified, or more culpable. But since the answering that question will not prevent even a single death, the question is meaningless. Taking the Israeli side or the Palestinian side does not matter, the real merits of those causes notwithstanding, because the conflict that matters is not between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Neither side can actually win that conflict, and everything those two sides are doing right now puts resolution further out of reach. The two sides that actually matter are not the Israelis and the Palestinians but the peacemakers and the warmakers. That struggle can be won, but not by the side that's currently winning.

Instead of thinking of two ethnic peoples, we can think of the Israel/Palestine conflict as a contest between the negotiators and the escalators. There are negotiators and escalators in both camps. The negotiators want to end the violence and reach a peaceful long-term solution. Various individuals envision different versions of that settlement, and the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators each want their own ethnic group to get the maximally advantageous deal. But the goal is still a deal.

The negotiators have been on a long losing streak, and their position is incredibly weak at the moment. But even at their weakest, there is a single fundamental advantage that cannot be taken from them. They are the only side that can win. There is no military solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem. There is no endgame through which either group can win through sheer force of arms.

Neither side can wipe out the other. That is not militarily feasible, politically viable, or morally acceptable. And no one is going anywhere. Israel is not going to be swept into the sea. If your goal is to do undo 1948 and make it as if Israel never existed, then your goal fundamentally cannot be achieved. Nor are the Palestinians going to be expelled. If you think that a nation founded in part by Holocaust survivors can solve its security problems through ethnic cleansing, you need to face basic reality. No One. Is Going. Anywhere.

In the long run, a negotiated settlement is the only endgame possible. But the escalators (who, like the negotiators, exist on both sides of the ethnic divide) are dedicated to prolonging the war as long as possible. Not to win it. Winning is objectively impossible. The real objective is the continuation of the war itself. If military victory were the actual goal, much of the behavior we see on the ground would be futile or even counter-productive. (Hamas's rocket attacks, for instance, don't make a lot of sense as an attempt to weaken Israel's military. But they are not an attempt to to weaken Israel's military.) If we understand the real goal to be provocation, the behavior becomes easily explicable. The violence is not an attempt to defeat the other military, but an attempt to provoke further military action by the opposition. A sudden big offensive is not an attempt to end the fight once and for all. It is an attempt to ensure that the fight does not end.

Some of the escalators are simply refusing to accept military reality, and delude themselves with dreams of victory. Some are driven by their personal ideology or personal hatreds. Some are not thinking straight at all. And some have a vested interest in keeping the hostilities going. Any conflict that goes on for as long as the Israel/Palestine conflict becomes institutionalized to some measure. Structured organizations, both official and unofficial, emerge specifically to wage that particular war. Careers are built around that war. There are wealthy and influential people who rely on the war for their wealth and influence, and power brokers who rely on the war for their power.

There are political figures, Israeli and Palestinian, whose careers are built on taking a harder-line position than their domestic political opponents, no matter how hard a line those opponents take. There are political leaders, Israeli and Palestinian, whose relationship with their constituents is founded on their constituents' fears. There are figures within the Palestinian leadership who have gotten seats at the table by making themselves indispensable to the war effort: the recruiters, the warlords, the money people. At least some of those people suspect that peace would make them dispensable. And on the Israeli side, in somewhat subtler ways (subtler, of course, because the Israeli state is more bureaucratically developed than the Palestinian movement), there are people who prosper in various ways from the militarization of the conflict.

I am not claiming that both sides are equally culpable, or morally equivalent, or any of that. I am not interested in arguing about right and wrong here. Arguments about right and wrong have led to piles of dead bodies. I am interested in arguing cause and effect.

That there are entrenched interests who benefit from the hostilities, on both sides, is not primarily a symptom of individual bad character. It is the inevitable result of a conflict that has gone on this long. A war that lasts two generations stops being just a war. It becomes a way of life. And people will fight to defend their way of life.

The escalators can always keep the war going by provoking the other ethnic group. When the opposite side retaliates, it is a pretext for further escalation, and pretty soon peace talks are out of the question again. Whenever things get too quiet, you convince yourself that the enemy is vulnerable and it's time to take advantage. Then, when the enemy strikes back, everyone on your side of the line has to rally to the fight. Things too quiet? Kidnap some hitchhikers. Build some settlements on the wrong side of the treaty line. Fire some rockets. Break a cease-fire. Sure, some of the people on your own official side of the conflict will tell you not to do these things, but once you've done them the other side will come on the attack and then the people who wanted to restrain you will have no choice but to back you.

The thing to realize here is that the Israeli escalators and the Palestinian escalators, while fighting each other on the battlefield, are also working together. They are both struggling to continue and escalate the war. You don't attack Israeli civilians and expect to get away with it. You don't kill Palestinian civilians in your reprisal attack and expect that this will calm the Palestinian side down. Bringing on the other side's reprisal is the goal. It is never stated that way. It could not be. But that is what is actually happening.

The problem is not just that IDF expeditions into Gaza will not stop the rocket attacks. It's that the point of the rocket attacks is to bring the IDF into Gaza. Why would Hamas, or elements of Hamas, want the IDF to invade Gaza? Several reasons, but one of them is that when the Israeli military is on the move, the people of Gaza have no choice but to stand by Hamas. There is no middle ground on a battlefield. And the escalators' main goal is to make negotiating impossible. Their war is against the middle ground.

Most of the struggle between the negotiators and the escalators is political; it is about whose faction is in ascendance, whose policy wins the debate, and whose orders get obeyed or ignored on the ground. But sometimes things actually flare up into intra-Israeli or intra-Palestinian violence. Fatah and Hamas have sometimes exchanged gunfire. An Israeli Prime Minister has been murdered by an Israeli fanatic because a final peace deal started to seem plausible. If the doves get too close to a deal, the hawks on their own side sometimes try to kill them.

But the hawks haven't needed to do anything so blatant lately, because the party of war has been on a roll. The Israeli and Palestinian hawks have worked together in a masterpiece of unspoken coordination, a long series of seamless no-look passes. In this, the escalators have a massive advantage over the negotiators. The Israeli and Palestinian doves need to communicate explicitly with one another, and they need to trust each other. They have to hold talks. In short, they have to actually negotiate. The Israeli and Palestinian hawks don't need to communicate with each other at all. They can simply act. They know what will happen if they provoke the other side. They can count on it. It's not about trust. It's about predictability.

Worse yet, the doves need unity and discipline on their own side in order to function. They need to deliver on their deals. But the hawks can disrupt things through insubordination or disobedience. They can, to various degrees, freelance. Settlers can disobey the Israeli government, but know that the state and the army will eventually have to back them. Palestinians can initiate attacks on Israelis without necessarily clearing it all the way to the top, and some people doing the attacks are not necessarily inside any real chain of command. ("Let's go kidnap a few teenaged Israeli hitchhikers" is not a plan hatched at the top level of leadership.) But the people who go ahead with those attacks know the leadership will not disavow them. An IDF commander can promise his superior that he will use restraint, and then use harsh and provocative tactics once an operation starts. A Palestinian who doesn't like a cease-fire can break it with just a few like-minded accomplices. Last Friday's cease-fire was broken almost immediately by a small group of armed Palestinians. That was not a real attempt to take military advantage, which would require a coordinated set of attacks by a large group. That was free-lancing, one small unit or cell just going out on its own. Your leaders agree to a cease-fire, you go out and shoot at Israelis, cease-fire over. That wasn't a side effect. That was the main point of the attack. 

As long as this behavior goes on (and it goes on, to different degrees, on both sides), the war will never end. The hawks cannot defeat each other, and on some level aren't even trying. But they are committed to driving any hope of peace from the field. And they are willing to frag the doves when necessary. As long as those seeking to escalate the war can continue defying restraints imposed by their own side, the war will go on forever. And that is really the goal.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Snobs vs. the Ivy League (or, The Question of Bill Deresiewicz'sCharacter)

There is nothing a snobbish Ivy Leaguer likes better than putting down the Ivy League. It's an easy way to signal that you are above your own Ivy League school and the privilege it confers -- all a big humbug that your superior perspective sees right through -- while holding on to every last scrap of that privilege. It allows you to position yourself as not only 1. better than people who didn't get into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, but 2. the benevolent champion of those little people who didn't get in and also 3. better than everyone else who did get into your school and who, unlike you, need to take the place seriously. It's a time-honored game for the insider's insiders, and William Deresiewicz plays it like an old hand in the latest New Republic, with an article titled "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League."

Even the title of that article is disingenuous. William Deresiewicz has never studied or worked outside the Ivy League. He has three degrees from Columbia. He taught for ten years at Yale. Public colleges, and the students at public colleges, are merely rhetorically convenient symbols for him. He displays no understanding of, and no curiosity about, what those places and people are actually like.

Is going to an Ivy League school worth it? Unless you are already a person of enormous inherited privilege, the question is disingenuous. Of course it is. This question is like the popular media question, "Is going to college worth it?" No one asking that question honestly believes that they would have been better off not going to college; they would not be writing in whatever magazine is asking the question this week if they had not gone to college. And none of them would be willing for their own children not to go to college. Asking the question is an act of dishonesty. The writer is at the very least deceiving him- or herself.

Deresiewicz argues that one should turn down admission to an Ivy League school and go to a public university, where you will build superior character. So, if you get into Harvard you should go to the University of Massachusetts instead. Let me say, as a proud alumnus of both Harvard and U. Mass.: don't be ridiculous.

And yes, I learned to think at Harvard. Of course. Were some of my classmates careerists who resisted genuine introspection? Yes, surely a few. But no institution teaches students to love thinking. Only another person can teach you that. The Harvard I went to abounded with such people.

I should certainly not turned down Harvard when I was 17 and gone to U.Mass instead. That would have been crazy. And anyone telling a young person in my position to do that isn't striking a blow against elitism. They're just trying to keep less-privileged people out of the elite.

I said yes to Harvard for a simple reason: I could not afford not to. I grew up comfortably middle-class. But we certainly weren't the upper middle class. (One of my parents was a high school teacher, the other  police lieutenant.) I could not turn down a break like getting into Harvard. I could not count on getting another break like that again. Anyone who tells a kid like me to turn down Harvard is doing that kid wrong.

Any 18-year-old who gets a chance to go to school with people smarter than she or he is should take that opportunity. Knowing that nearly all of your classmates know interesting things that you don't is a gift that only a fool would refuse. I am grateful that I was given that opportunity; there is no stronger expression of entitlement than ingratitude.

I have three university degrees: two from world-famous universities and one from a state school. I have spent the last ten years teaching in a public university. I think it's fair to say that I have seen both sides of this question. And I am absolutely committed to public education. In fact, what makes me angriest about Deresiewicz is the way his phony, patronizing praise for public universities helps paper over the crisis that public schools are in.  Public universities have been bleeding support for years, with our resources falling further and further behind those of the wealthy private colleges, and Deresiewicz knows it. The endless budget problems interfere, inevitably, with the education we can provide our students. Disguising that basic and terrible fact is a bad thing.

Let me confess here that this is personal. In an earlier article on this theme, Deresiewicz claimed that students were better off going to the university where I teach than they are going to Yale. He named us specifically and repeatedly. We have wonderful students and I am proud of them, but telling people to turn down Yale for us is insane. But still more insane was Deresiewicz's reason: you see, when Yale students struggle, they have enormous resources to help them: a small but well-trained army tutors and counselors. My students don't have that. We have some tutors and some counselors but when our students hit trouble (and my students as a group have far, far more troubles than Yale students), they are mostly on their own. Deresiewicz feels that this is a great thing. You see, it builds character. Isn't it better to be at a poor school, struggling?

I don't feel great about that. I long for the resources I used to be able to call in to help Stanford undergrads when they were in trouble. When my students get in trouble, I don't have those people to call, and that is a terrible, terrible feeling.

My students need that help and they don't get it. Deresiewicz applauds that. In fact, Deresiewicz, avowed anti-elitist, applauds struggling poor kids not getting help. That itself is outrageous. But Deresiewicz's cheap rhetorical ploy had real-world effects at my school, because it served as an excuse for not providing any of that help that our students need. When Bill Deresiewicz says it's great that my students don't get help, he does my students wrong. It will take me a long time to forgive him.

But what about character? What about elitism and snobbery? It is true that elite schools are full of students who are already from various elites. That is the nature of the beast. But, whether Deresiewicz realizes it or not, the class system is alive and well among the students at public universities. Rich students and poor students have very different experiences at those places, to the ultimate detriment of both. Skim the annual lists of famous party schools: it's not the kids who need to work for their tuition money who are throwing those parties. Drinking your way through school while studying the absolute minimum is one of the oldest ways for students to express their wealth and privilege, and it is now perversely easier to get away with that game at Flagship State than at one of the Ivies.

I cannot deny that elite universities have more than their healthy share of the arrogant, the entitled, and the egotistical. No one who has spent time at one of those places could deny that. There are a lot of big egos at Harvard and at Stanford both. But my experience of the world is that there are some arrogant and entitled people everywhere. Those people don't always base their sense of superiority on going to a fancy school, or on any educational achievement or talent. In fact, many people who feel superior to others don't base their conviction of superiority on anything that anyone else can detect. Arrogance and entitlement are their own reasons. And if you want to prevent a bright teenager from becoming an arrogant jerk, sending her to a school where there are always three smarter people in the room is not a bad idea. Most of what I know about humility I learned at Harvard.

Deresiewicz wants to discuss character, and I don't want to impugn his. My spouse knows him from her own Yale days, and speaks well of him as a teacher. I am certainly willing to hope that his character is better than his essay makes it appear. 

So let's make it personal, Bill. You speak of character. Why not apply for a teaching job outside the Ivy League? If you believe in the mission public education, why not be part of that mission? Romanticizing my students' poverty is not good for them, and not healthy for you either. But you have the tools to help fight their disadvantage. It is not an easy job. It is much harder, in most ways, than teaching at Yale. And it will sorely test your spirit, because teaching a full range of college students means that at least a few of your students will not succeed, no matter what you do, because things outside school prevent them. Knowing that you cannot get them all through is a bitter thing. Knowing that another budget cut is coming, sooner or later, is hard on the spirit. But you wanted to build character, didn't you? You can use the privileges that you have been given to help those who have been shut out. Ranting about how awful Yale is helps no one, and it is a waste of your talents. Our country is full of less privileged schools, with less privileged students. Get a job at one. It is a chance to do something good, and something useful, in the real world.

Cross-posted from Dagblog 

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Jaws and Climate Denial

There is no better Fourth of July movie for my money than Jaws. I would watch it at least twice every Independence Day weekend if that wouldn't bore and annoy my spouse. It was designed and filmed so carefully that time has transformed it into a beautifully accurate period piece, capturing the New England beaches of my 1970s childhood in loving detail. Time has also turned it into something else it was not originally meant to be: a parable about the dangers of denying climate change.

Jaws is the story of a community whose economy depends on its natural resources. That's true of every community and every economy, but in this story it's simple and obvious. The town has a beach. Its entire economy depends upon tourists coming to that beach during the summer. If the summer people don't come, everyone will go hungry. Clear enough.

Then the natural world throws up a problem; there's a shark in the water, and that shark kills a swimmer. The local police chief wants to close the beaches, but doing that at the height of the tourist season means financial ruin for the townsfolk, the danger that they will, as one character puts it "be on welfare all winter."

Watching the movie, the right thing to do is obvious. But that doesn't mean it's easy. Closing the beaches would cause real pain for many people. It isn't a cheap or easy solution.

The town authorities cave and do the wrong thing, trying to wish the shark away. They change the first victim's cause of death to "boating accident." When a second person is killed, they balk at the price of commissioning a serious shark hunt by a professional and instead countenance an amateurish bounty hunt that brings in "a shark, but not the shark." That gives them just enough apparent evidence to dismiss scientific advice and open the beach for Fourth of July weekend.

Then, as one of my friends likes to say during the shark sequences: nom nom nom nom nom.

The last act of the movie leaves the island behind to focus on the daring shark-hunters' interpersonal struggles and their fight with the monstrous fish. But the ending of the town's story is clear: they have destroyed their economy, not simply for a few crucial weeks but for the entire summer and probably for years to come. No summer people are coming to an island where three people have been killed. And tourists aren't going to magically forget the shark attacks next summer either. Trying to deny the problem in order to protect the beach economy leaves the beach economy in ruins.

So it is with us. Our economy depends on exploiting fossil fuels. And burning those fuels has begun to create major problems. Reducing emissions will not be cheap or easy. It will have painful costs, and there is no point in underestimating those costs. Nor is it helpful to expect that people who will bear heavier losses than the rest of us should simply take those losses. It's dysfunctional to let individual create massive social expenses, but it's also dysfunctional to make individuals shoulder massive social expenses themselves.

But here's the thing: avoiding the necessary economic sacrifice in the short term only makes the price of the eventual economic sacrifice higher. If we don't take the emissions-reduction hit now, we will incur all the costs of a changed climate AND eventually have to reduce our emissions even further. We will hold on to Fourth of July weekend and lose all of our summers. The character talking about "being on welfare all winter" isn't talking about closing the beaches for two weeks. He's talking about the cost of cheaping out and not killing the shark.

The Jaws parable is playing out in North Carolina right now, where the State Legislature has ordered experts to change a report on how rising sea levels will affect the Outer Banks. (At the same time, Virginia is taking steps to protect its endangered coastline.) North Carolina is afraid that the news of rising sea levels will be bad for the Outer Banks's beach-tourist industry, so (like the Mayor and medical examiner in Jaws), they have had the alarming report amended. The problem for the Outer Banks is that, as they say, This was no boating accident. And waiting until the sea level has already risen too high to ignore means waiting until it may be too late for the Outer Banks to be saved.

Denying climate risk is like ignoring a debt; it simply gets harder to pay off. I understand why people on the Outer Banks are afraid that their property will lose value if the state projects a thirty-nine-inch rise in the sea level by 2100. But if no steps are taken to deal with the rising sea, property on the Outer Banks will someday lose all its value. You can't sell a hotel to the fish.

And sooner or later, every climate denialist will have to hear the hardest news of all: "Summer is over. You're the Mayor of Shark City."

P.S. It has come to my attention since I started this post that the admired Historiann has also recently posted about Jaws, and that she has only recently seen the movie for the first time. Welcome to Amity Island, Historiann. Amity, as you know, means friendship.

cross-posted from Dagblog