Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Monday, October 30, 2006
Mixed message in Mississippi
Sounds like teen spirit
Panhandling and community values
At the Oct. 13 meeting, the topic of panhandling ordinances was raised again. Effective May 1, 2003, Chapel Hill enacted a ban on panhandling in certain places and at certain times. Although the reach was broader than "aggressive panhandling" (which is why I would have opposed it, had I been on the Town Council), its purpose was to provide a more effective means of controlling aggressive panhandling. Controlling aggressive behavior of any kind, including the panhandling kind, is a valid public purpose. But there's a tendency to want to do more than that: to want to shove the panhandlers out of sight, so that they do not make others feel uncomfortable. (That's what the Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale ordinances are explicitly about.) At the Oct. 13 meeting, we took a look at Madison's ordinance. Here's how it defines "aggressive panhandling":
Behavior shall be construed as "aggressive" or "intimidating" if a reasonably prudent individual could be deterred from passing through or remaining in or near any thoroughfare, or place open to the public because of fear, concern, or apprehension.
"could be deterred . . . because of fear, concern, or apprehension." What kind of standard is that? It's a good deal looser than the sample definition offered on the League of Wisconsin Municipalities site (see ordinance #88).
106-1.1. Aggressive Panhandling.
1. DEFINITIONS. a. "Aggressive behavior" means engaging in any conduct with the intention of intimidating another person into giving away money or goods, including but not limited to, intentionally approaching, speaking to or following a person in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to fear imminent physical injury or the imminent commission of a criminal act upon the person or upon the property in the person's immediate possession; intentionally touching another person without consent; or intentionally blocking or interfering with the free passage of a person.
At the Oct. 13 meeting I discouraged the task force from going in the direction of Madison's ordinance, and others there, including UNC grad student Barbie Schalmo, understood the point. My complaint is not so much about the legal implications--in the conservative Fourth Circuit such a law might well pass constitutional scrutiny under the relevant set of questions. My complaint echoes that of moral philosopher Uma Narayan in The Ethics of Homelessness. When you begin to regulate panhandling according to people's perceptions of the panhandlers, as opposed to specifically "aggressive" behavioral characteristics, you have just about said that panhandling itself is "inherently harassing." She continues,
I believe that justifying a ban on begging on the basis of morally problematic public sensibilities, on stereotypes, prejudiced antipathies, and misplaced resentment, violates what [philosopher] Richard Mohr calls the Dreyfus Principle. The principle says "[s]tigmas that are entirely socially induced shall not play a part in our rational moral deliberation," and rules out using discriminatory sentiments held by people as a good reason for institutionalizing further discrimination.
Narayan thus argues, and I agree, that a concern that the presence of panhandlers in a downtown district discourages foot-traffic and therefore undermines the economic health of downtown is not a morally valid reason for the further regulation of panhandling.
On the other hand, the impulse behind the idea of the giving kiosk had much to recommend itself. I think it represented a genuine wish to be helpful, to reach out as a community to help those in need. The trouble is that we don't have natural connections with panhandlers; they appear to us as strangers, one at a time, seemingly cut off from the community. We really don't know what a pandhandler will do with the dollar we give him, and we have reason to fear the worst. The initiatives that the Downtown Outreach Work Group is about to embark on are potentially good ones--as long as they include a recognition that in the end we cannot control the lives or wills of others, that not every panhandler is dishonest or deceitful, that there is genuine need staring us in the face. (The Denver program's home page is pretty harsh: a picture of an upturned palm, inscribed, "Please help. Don't give.")
Edwin Lanier, for example, son of a former mayor of Chapel Hill, is a recovering alcoholic and a panhandler who is homeless--by his own choice.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
This project happened to come when I was reading the last chapter of Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire: on his experience growing Monsanto's genetically engineered NewLeaf potato. About "the satisfactions of the ordered earth" he writes,
The experience of the sublime is all about nature having her way with us, about the sensation of awe before her power--about feeling small. what I'm talking about is the opposite, and admittedly more dubious, satisfaction of having our way with nature: the pleasure of beholding the reflection of our labor and intelligence in the land. In the same way that Niagara or Everest stirs the first impulse, the farmer's methodolical roes stitiching the hills, or the allees of pollarded trees ordering a garden like Versailles, excite the second, filling us with a sense of our power.
These days the sublime is mostly a kind of vacation, in both a literal and a moral sense. After all, who has a bad word to say about wilderness anymore? By comparison, this other impulse, the desire to exert our control over nature's wilderness, bristles with amgibuity. We're unsure about our power in nature, its legitimacy, and its reality, and rightly so. Perhaps more than most, the farmer or the gardener understands that his control is always something of a fiction, depending as it does on luck and weather and much else that is beyond his control. It is only the suspension of disbelief that allows him to plant again every spring, to wade out into the season's uncertainties. Before long the pests will come, the storms and droughts and blights, as if to remind him just how imperfect the human power implied by those pristine rows really is.
The ivy and microstegium have gone underground. Not for good but for a season, and that will have to be good enough.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Beyond our control
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
So it goes.
All things considered, it will only take a few tens of thousands of years at most before almost every trace of our present dominance has vanished completely. Alien visitors coming to Earth 100,000 years hence will find no obvious signs that an advanced civilisation ever lived here.[. . .]
Ocean sediment cores will show a brief period during which massive amounts of heavy metals such as mercury were deposited, a relic of our fleeting industrial society. The same sediment band will also show a concentration of radioactive isotopes left by reactor meltdowns after our disappearance. The atmosphere will bear traces of a few gases that don't occur in nature, especially perfluorocarbons such as CF4, which have a half-life of tens of thousands of years. Finally a brief, century-long pulse of radio waves will forever radiate out across the galaxy and beyond, proof - for anything that cares and is able to listen - that we once had something to say and a way to say it.
But these will be flimsy souvenirs, almost pathetic reminders of a civilisation that once thought itself the pinnacle of achievement. Within a few million years, erosion and possibly another ice age or two will have obliterated most of even these faint traces. If another intelligent species ever evolves on the Earth - and that is by no means certain, given how long life flourished before we came along - it may well have no inkling that we were ever here save for a few peculiar fossils and ossified relics. The humbling - and perversely comforting - reality is that the Earth will forget us remarkably quickly.
Meanwhile on our occupied planet, there are better and worse places to have a baby.
Monday, October 16, 2006
From age to age
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Near and far
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Revisionist history at UNC
"This is not revisionist history," proclaimed the chancellor by way of introduction. He meant (he went on to say) that it wasn't glossing things over or leaving things out. I wondered if any of the historians next up on the panel would challenge this assertion. In fact, Harry Watson was quick to do so. "Normally, historians make progress by a process of revision and revisionism," he said. "I hope this is an example of good revisionism in process." Historians know that all history is revisionist history.
The web site is pretty great. Take a look around.
Langston Hughes with Chapel Hill bookstore owner Tony Buttitta, 1932.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Hakluyt and Woolf: a rare combination
The featured book is a truly rare first edition of Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries (1599), offered for $60,000. Its publication is described as a crucial step toward the founding of the British Empire:
While serving in Paris as a member of Queen Elizabeth I's embassy to France, Richard Hakluyt repeatedly heard the English derided for their comparative lack of accomplishment on the sea compared to other nations. But Her Majesty's Sailing Ships had passed through the Strait of Magellan, traversed the Pacific, established trade with sultans and czars, and, most triumphantly, circumnavigated the globe under the bold and brazen leadership of Francis Drake. Determined that England be accorded her rightful place as first among sea-going nations, he undertook what no one had done before: to collect in one book and present to the world the most comprehensive collection of England's accomplishments of geographical exploration and discovery. Much was at stake, as the race to claim predominance in the New World was on, and Hakluyt, with his peers Walter Raleigh and Francis Bacon, worked tirelessly to promote the cause. The inclusion by Hakluyt of hundreds of accounts of discovery by other nations spurred Elizabeth's ambitions and helped lay the foundations of empire.
On the same page, a first edition of A Room of One's Own (1929) is offered for $9,500, "signed by Woolf in purple ink."
It wasn't a first edition of Hakluyt that Virginia Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, brought home to her from the library; as she tells us, it was "those five cumbrous volumes in which the printers of 1811 had thought good to entomb" him. As she recalled in her diary in December 1929, her father "must have been 65; I 15 or 16, then; & why I don't know, but I became enraptured, though not exactly interested, but the sight of the large yellow page entranced me. I used to read it & dream of those obscure adventurers, & no doubt practised their style in my copy books." By the time she comes to write a review of a study of Hakluyt by the early 20th century scholar Walter Raleigh, she understands that the volume is "founded on hard truth, that the voyagers were substantial English seamen, and that the whole makes a consecutive chapter of English history"; yet still, what she finds most compelling is the poetry and imagery of discovery, as in this passage from (the original) Sir Walter Raleigh on reaching Guiana:
I never saw a more beautifull countrey, nor more lively prospects, hills so raised here and there over valleys, the river winding into divers branches, the plaines adjoyning without bush or stubble, all faire greene grasse, the ground of hard sand easie to march on, either for horse or foote, the deere crossing in every path, the birdes towards the evening singing on every tree with a thousand severall tunes, cranes and herons of white, crimson, and carnation pearching in the rivers side, the aire fresh with a gentle Easterly winde, and every stone that we stouped to take up, promised either golde or silver by his complexion.
As Alice Fox was the first to notice, the sense of imagination that Woolf gathered from Hakluyt's Voyages launched her upon a lifetime of reading and reinterpreting the Renaissance in inventive, productive, even progressive ways: not as the Renaissance of Burckhardt and Empire, but more as an imagined site for personal and, potentially, cultural reinvnention. In stark contrast to T.S. Eliot, who, reading and writing at the same time, drew from the Renaissance a notion of "order" from which the modern world was in the steady process of deteriorating, Woolf relished in the moment of discovery when nothing was fixed and all worlds could be new. No doubt mistakenly--but with a compelling optimism--she persisted in seeing the Renaissance as a time "far more elastic" than her own--even finding within it the roots of an unfulfilled promise of democratic equality.
Luckily for me, just as I was starting to write my dissertation on Woolf and the Renaissance, a microfilm copy of her voluminous papers held by the New York Public Library was issued. It wasn't hard to talk the UNC library into buying it, and it was great fun to be the first to use it. It saved me a trip or several to New York; but on the other hand, I still have never seen the originals, which are written in various colors of ink, including purple. A whole layer of interpreation flattened by the microfilm camera!
A copy of A Room of One's Own "signed by Woolf in purple ink" would be quite a thing to discover.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
Makes perfect sense to me.
Thursday, October 05, 2006
Thoughts of war, and more
VQR bonus: a moving essay by Chapel Hill's own Alan Shapiro on his troubled, talented son.
UPDATE: Following Garth's tracks, here's the Frost poem.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Eyes and ears on the prize
The web site that goes along with the series add considerable value: listen to the freedom songs yourself.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Par for the parking deck
THE ARLINGTON PARKS and recreation division is currently identifying the level of interest of private companies to develop and operate a miniature golf facility next to the Ballston Common Mall. The course would be located on a one-acre parcel of land at the intersection of Glebe Road and Randolph Street, in front of the mall's parking garage.
. . .
The course will be "integrated into the fabric of Ballston," and "will not look like a mini-golf facility on the side of a highway with a 300-foot T. Rex" on the grounds, McPartlin said — adding that county officials have "yet to broach" the subject of whether the course will include a windmill.