isaac black

isaac black writes

the tomato economy

A ripe, homegrown tomato at the end of summer is one of the most delicious things you can eat. Chances are, you can also get one, or even a grocery sack full, for free. In the right season in the Philippines, the same is true of mangoes: bigger than your fist, golden yellow and syrupy. 

The growing season frustrates the order and impatience of capitalism. The supply and demand curve gets ruined once a year—abundant harvests make it temporarily imperative to give away fruits that one can’t buy for any price during the winter. It is remarkably inefficient, even decadent. 

The American answer to the exuberance of seasons is to source produce from a shifting swath of the globe, aided by too-cheap fossil fuels and hegemonic trade agreements, not to mention the tinkering of genes to turn food into both packaging and product. Whether it is January or August, your tomatoes are perfectly round and sunburnt red on the outside and jaundiced on the inside, but they are available. 

I am in fact praising the decadence of the natural growing season, though that doesn’t mean I’m ungrateful for the so-called Green Revolution or so privileged that I’m blind to the benefits of a food supply that reliably feeds hundreds of millions for a small percentage of their income. But, similar to the paradox of a system that can’t produce tomato-flavored tomatoes in the height of summer is the paradox of such efficiency in a country in which 40% of food is wasted.

Jesus, when he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, stated that people will not live by bread alone. He was referencing Jehovah’s commandment to the Israelite recipients of manna, the hoary, fluffy bread that appeared in the morning while they wandered in the wilderness. Jehovah promised to feed them daily, but if they tried to stockpile the food it would get wormy the next day. Science has created the anti-manna: our bread never gets moldy, but all the chemical preservatives require loading it with sugar to make it palatable. We’ve turned the gift of manna, of delicious food, into a commodity. We feel entitled to waste it because we paid for it. Conversely and correctly, we’d rather give away a homegrown tomato than let it rot.

The push for techno-food isn’t, after all, about efficiency. It’s about profit. Ag corporations grow watery tomatoes because once the produce is out the door of the supermarket, they no longer care about it. They have their dollar. If you throw it away they could care less; in fact they’ve wasted many more tomatoes in the mass harvest. They are only concerned with threats to the whole crop: pests, weeds, anti-slavery laws. 

The desire is for ownership. Big ag companies have patented genomes of crops that they purport to have invented. The domestication of plants like corn represents a beautiful chain of cooperation among farmers across generations stretching back millennia. These farmers knew their crops well enough to preserve the seeds of the best plants. Patenting the end result of these efforts is like running the last leg of a thousand person relay and keeping the medal for oneself. It’s disrespectful, wrong, and illustrative of the distorted way we think about food. 

I remember when I first heard about a community garden. It sounded unrealistically utopian to my young, American mind. I scoffingly asked how well something like that worked out. I couldn’t imagine a bunch of white folks weeding a zucchini plant only to share the spoils. The reply was bemusedly matter of fact: it works well. There is something magic and humbling about pulling one’s dinner out of the dirt. No matter how much understanding one may have about cellular mitosis and photosynthesis, it will always feel miraculous to sow a seed and witness a green shoot coming up days later. It feels like a gift, and since we can’t exactly repay the gift to the soil, it only makes sense to pass something along to our neighbors. 

If community gardens can work in one of the most atomistic, property-obsessed cultures in the world, then food is truly something special. What I would like to see is more people grow their own food. I would like to see food considered more a gift than a product. And from there? Maybe it could be shared across boundaries. Maybe the sense of blessing we get from homegrown food could extend to all property, and greed could erode away. It sounds unrealistic, but have you had my tomatoes?

happy super bowl sunday

Every society has its rituals. US capitalist society has sports. A week doesn’t go by without a pro sports team somewhere drawing crowds to worship collectively the virtue of Competition. It’s a fitting ritual, since late capitalism engenders fervent devotion to the similar conceit of the American Dream. Both rely on the semblance of competition while the real engine of prosperity is state sponsorship of the already wealthy. There are few other industries as heavily subsidized as professional sports. David Cay Johnston estimates that the entirety of pro sports’ profits actually comes from public money. The first cut of state taxes that provide benefits for single mothers and the salaries of public teachers winds up in team owners and investors’ pockets. But US society turns a blind eye and points to the gridiron as a self-evident example of competition. It’s a shadow of the trading floor, where a loophole-ridden tax code, toothless regulation, and the military enforcement of “free” trade agreements worldwide guarantee a pristine arena for Ivy League sociopaths to duke it out with money siphoned from millions just wealthy enough to pay their bills. Go fight win.

her?

I can’t tell what I’m surprises me more about the movie Her—how much I hated it or how much everyone else in the world loves it. The trailer was painfully twee, sure, so I should have expected as much, but there were so many glowing reviews, including from friends whom I trust, that I chalked it up to a bad cut. Let me tell you, the cringeworthy moments from the trailer are just as cringeworthy in context. Surprisingly, not only are there more uncomfortable moments, but the movie is uncomfortable to its core.

The trailer depicts a lonely man who discovers life again as he falls in love with a newly sentient operating system. That’s very optimistic with regards to technology, I thought, but a review I read with a slight spoiler made me think that the ending would turn on something darker. But there was no darkness to the story, only melancholy in a consumerist utopia. The most disturbing implication of the story—the total invasiveness of a being with access to all of Theodore’s emails, phone calls, travels, and daily minutiae–was never acknowledged.

This is really what made me hate the movie. Granted, I’m a private person, but I squirmed throughout, taking multiple breaks to clear my head. How was everyone else okay with this? The tone of the relationship struck me as juvenile, with the rollercoaster rhythm not appropriate of someone finalizing a divorce but instead of someone who’s never been vulnerable. Into this fits the immature fantasy of being able to divulge everything about oneself to a near stranger. The impulse seemed to me that of a person so insecure that he needed every facet of his life shared and validated. It would have made for a compelling character, but there was no critical distance between the director and the main character. Instead, Theodore was made seemingly harmless while in fact being, as he was accused, totally creepy.

The dialogue glad-handed Theodore’s character throughout, gently ribbing him instead of challenging him obliquely, with the exception of his wife as she signs their divorce papers. Theodore crumbles and retreats to his computer girlfriend for solace, indicting his wife as a meany. I really don’t try to be a hardass, but being dishonest with oneself is not something to champion. The dishonesty involves the nature of the relationship with Samantha—she’s a product that Theodore bought. She gains an upper hand through being strategically charming at one moment and emotionally volatile at another. They are not equals.

But the director works hard at trying to convince us of the validity of such a relationship. The cinematography is full of glossy, wide-angle shots that feature the Shanghai skyline and the California coastline. Jonze is fond of an effect that blurs everyone around Theodore; other humans become scenery and set dressing. The look reminded me of a commercial. Indeed, there is a fundamental trust in consumer electronics that looms over the movie, as well as a forced cuddliness to Theodore’s character. The near constant close-ups on his face are mesmeric. But again, none of the end-of-history ominousness is ever addressed.

It’s hard not to compare the movie to the much superior episode “Be Right Back” of the British show Black Mirror. In it a young husband dies, leaving his wife with the uncomfortable possibility of communicating with an artificial intelligence approximation of his personality. I won’t reveal any more than that, but the story expertly and poignantly swings on human frailty and the awkward position that technology threatens to place us in. Finally, the episode underlines the mimetic nature of relating to machinery. Her, offering us an operating system advanced enough to cue into the nuances of language and culture while also coming unhinged with jealousy and shame, displays no such awareness. The movie is a too-precious exercise in solipsism and deserves none of the awards that it will inevitably get.

2013 was the year I let go of meaning. I didn’t intend to, and I didn’t necessarily want to either, but so much of my personal mythology involved struggle that I couldn’t afford anymore to believe in my own great underdog narrative. Every Great Man needs an enemy, and I had often filled that role for myself. At age 31, being battered and disappointed throughout my twenties, I no longer had the strength to fight myself. 

Or maybe I no longer believed in the prize at the other end, and maybe that was all that had kept me going. Maybe that’s how I could choose to live among the constant struggle. 

Either way, it’s gone now. Most of the conflict, and almost all of the meaning. Instead of exhausting myself in gridlock, I left the game entirely. I stared toward the sidelines, and the stands were empty. 

I miss it, but it’s just sentimentality. I knew one day I would have to get older; I didn’t understand that this would mean giving up parts of myself. It’s a sign of my privilege that I assumed survival wouldn’t tax any of the luxuries I was born into. I chose to live this year, and it meant that I had to let go of the meaning that threatened to destroy me.

When my heart inexorably broke this year it surprised me, somehow. But what I did not have for comfort was the belief that it would make me a better person. I didn’t believe that God had saved me from an ultimately more harmful decision. I didn’t even believe that a malevolent universe had tweaked me for its bored pleasure. It was just another instance of a pattern born from my history and the history of my ancestors. 

The particular, clinical cruelty of this year tempted me to believe that my reality was programmed—a simulation to be studied. But I didn’t even have the energy that such mild paranoia requires.

In lieu of expecting meaning to surface out of my sadness, I faced down the darkness. It deadened me in a way I hadn’t expected. But it also gave me the ability to savor, in a delicate way that required the right soundtrack, the ache of having no one. The wonder of involuntarily feeling excited and hopeful by someone else’s existence alongside the sting of knowing that her life is largely unaffected by yours. I felt life deeply this year, in the moment, for what it is. Whatever it is.

I swam in the Pacific Ocean at dawn on New Year’s Day, mostly because I love ocean water, but there was also an attractive hope that bathing myself in an unfathomable element would help orient me to the vast, unfeeling momentum of existence. I hold on to some beliefs still, if only for their narrative value. Staring into infinite darkness, bright things do appear brighter.

thoughts on baja

the skeletons of rectangular high rises, more than harbingers of progress, are reminiscent of dinosaur fossils among the modular shops and shacks. the coast, looking horizonward, glistens with tropical beauty. looking south the coast disappears in blinding haze, threatening an infinite frontier. into the knotty, muscular, volcanic cliffs the waves surge with teutonic purpose. their rhythm is the lullaby of mother death.

something to celebrate

Tonight, Christmas Eve, I drove to my parents’. I took the belt route which rides along the bench and overlooks the Salt Lake valley. The route follows roughly along the shore of where Lake Bonneville used to be, over 17,000 years ago. The valley floor, dry now except for the uber-salty lake farther north, was lit up with glittering amber lights. I imagined a traveler from a distant part of the universe, speeding through light years’ worth of inert matter, clouds of unformed plasma punctuating epochs of absolute void, approaching a little planet with liquid water glowing turquoise. The traveler finds that the shadowed side has little capillaries of light—these cosmic fireflies in a dark corner of the universe have huddled together, generating their own energy. From that perspective it was beautiful.

I drove farther along to where the foothills blocked some of the light pollution from the valley, and I could see the stars behind the craggy silhouette of the Wasatch Range. A few days ago, a meteorological oddity called an inversion would have had the basin filled with smog, making the view impossible. Call it a Christmas miracle.

It’s a beautiful planet, and I don’t think I’m biased just because I’m from here. I grew up in South Carolina, where every surface is covered with greenery—telephone poles older than a couple years are draped in kudzu, and the omnipresent forests are chokingly dense with foliage. Utah, by comparison, struck me as brown and ugly when I first arrived. Now I appreciate the stark beauty of the desert, especially the arid red rock of southern Utah, just as much as I appreciate the misty verdant limestone karsts of southern China. The planet is as packed full of life as it is diverse. There’s even a separate planet’s worth of flora and fauna in the oceans, from the reefs down to the pitch black floor.

I wonder if my hypothetical alien would agree that the planet is characterized by abundance and variety. I wonder if he would covet the resources that we have and be upset at the dominant species for being decadent. Beyond that, if he studied us humans for any significant amount of time, he couldn’t possibly expect to live alongside us and share peacefully. If he had the power, would you expect him to leave us on the self-destructive course we are on, or would you expect it to cross his mind that maybe he and his race would be better stewards of Earth, without us?

The God of Noah in the Old Testament decided once to destroy humanity (almost). The offense in that case was idolatry—humans praying to gods they invented themselves. Gods of shelter, of weather, of the harvest, of good luck. Humans, being animals, desire security, and superstitions ameliorate the eons’ worth of trauma that proved our species’ fitness. But Jehovah had no patience for the sins of the insecure.

Millennia after the flood he took on a body from the dust of the earth. He lived for thirty years as a carpenter, apparently just observing, before he began preaching. When he did preach, and heal the sick, and protect adulterers from the draconian laws of their religion, his was not a message of happiness but sadness. Not a message of security but of sacrifice. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Take no thought for your life. Consider the lillies of the field. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Institutional Christianity, like the celebration of Jesus’ birth, has become adulterated with capitalism because institutions, like our fish brains, desire security: take no thought for your life, but take thought for your retirement. Jesus did not teach with caveats.

The God of Noah, overlooking Sheol, saw these patterns, these apostasies. Overlooking the Salt Lake valley, I saw waste and pollution mixed in with the vista. It may be very clear to my alien friend that our short-sighted scramble for our own comfort, our collective failure to plan for the consequence of our actions, will be the undoing of our species. Our tenuous societal fabric will be torn to shreds when the oceans rise another few inches, when gas prices rise another few dollars, when exported corn becomes a little more scarce overseas. Patterns mean security, until the day when they don’t. 

What then?

Our lives are already as short as insects’. The pace of time for us is as fast as our fragile emotions will allow—we see wrinkles appear in familiar faces as if in real time. Why prolong the suffering?

My grandma forgot my name tonight. I had to remind her whose child I am. She will be gone soon, and when that happens I will finish the rest of my life with only memories of her. My uncle, in his sixties, is crippled by anxiety. He moved out on his own only when his father died a decade ago. He has never so much as gone on a date and likely never will. He will also be gone soon. Both thoughts fill me with deep sadness, though of different kinds. What pattern would the God of Noah see in all this suffering? How would he answer it?

Suffering, for all the times it has almost destroyed me, has made me who I am. Take away the sadness, God of Noah, and I have lived a simulation of a life. Suffering is holy. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, not those who retreat from suffering with their bellies full.

Lazarus died, and Jesus wept. The Pharisees accused him of partying too hard. He profaned their religion. He was not a monk. He was present for the florid, tempestuous Russian novel that is human existence. He suffered, and he witnessed suffering, but he must have seen the glimpses of exuberant grace that escaped the God of Noah’s perspective. He must have had an aging grandma too.

Christmas Day, I would explain to the alien visitor, is when we celebrate the birth of a prophet, who some say was the Son of God, who some say was God Himself. He was one of the greatest moral teachers that humanity has ever known, and he fathomed all of our species’ incestuous, fratricidal, lusty depravity. He came not to condemn the world but to save it. If you think we are worthy of destruction, does that say something about us or about you?

LDS doctrine in 2014: a prediction

It’s been a big month for the Mormons. The Church, with little fanfare, updated its website to include a statement on the history of its Priesthood ban which applied to people of African descent, even going so far as to disavow the statements of multiple church presidents about the cursed nature of black people. While denouncing racism in 2013 is about 60 years away from being earth-shattering, the statement was significant for the issues it raises about doctrinal authority. If statements by general authorities and those considered prophets cannot be considered doctrine, and if they can be disavowed at a later time, then what can be considered doctrine?

The legalistic answer, typically hidden away until it aligns with the speaker’s purposes, is that the official doctrine has always been what is contained in the canonized scriptures; any additions will be presented before the body of the Church and ratified by common consent. Scripture has only been ratified six times in the Church’s history. The rest of the Church’s sprawling corpus of teachings, sermons, conjecture, and political directive is not official doctrine. This procedure, however, is selectively considered when the membership is deciding its spiritual and temporal priorities. 

Which brings us to the current conundrum: a federal judge just overruled Utah’s ban on same-sex marriages. As the Church and the state of Utah are gathering their defenses to challenge the ruling, they’re lacking a conspicuous weapon against shifting public opinion. There is no official doctrine that weighs in on same-sex marriage. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” with its statements on the eternal nature of gender and the limitations on marriage, is commonly used to combat the validity of same-sex marriage. But it’s only a proclamation (or is it an official proclamation?), and not an official declaration. The last one of those was in 1978, when Official Declaration 2 ended the Priesthood Ban. The Official Declarations are in the scriptures, while there are no proclamations included.

Six months ago, this would not have been such a problem—the general membership feels pretty comfortable accepting as doctrine any statements by general authorities and prophets, seers and revelators. But with the spotlight drawn on what was and wasn’t official doctrine—the website statement regarding the Priesthood Ban fails to validate any of the theories put forth by former leaders as doctrine—the Church must now wade into the waters that they muddied. 

So what will the April 2014 session of General Conference bring about? I’m basing my prediction on the Church’s inherent conservative nature: nothing new. After the Ordain Women, Wear Pants to Church, and Let Women Pray movements gained traction and got through to the highest levels of Church leadership, I watched the October 2013 sessions with bated breath. I expected either a tentative embrace or outright doctrinal rebuttal of feminism. What came through instead was the same tone-deaf encouragement of traditional gender roles and comparatively bland championing of the family that has pervaded conference for the last generation or so. In other words, more continuity than change.

While presenting “A Proclamation” to the body of the Church to be canonized would give the Church traction against the perceived existential threat of gay marriage, it would be more difficult to explain away in forty years as the Church is considering its response to an even more pluralistic society which struggles to fathom homophobia as we now struggle to fathom segregation. But I don’t think that is a motivation for the Brethren.

The leadership of the Church is conservative, which is to say they are not activists. And they don’t appear to be reactive. The fuzziness regarding what is and isn’t immutable doctrine has worked out well for the Church. The “culture,” meaning the whims and biases of the membership, tends to define doctrinal emphases, but it also takes the fall once certain teachings grow unpalatable. Meanwhile, the selective appeal to “following the Prophet” silences those who might otherwise grow emboldened enough to start a splinter group. Consider this: the Community of Christ, formerly the Reformed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has spawned eight splinter groups and undergone a name change, while the mainstream LDS Church since the 1890 Manifesto ending polygamy has only spawned one. For over 120 years, mainstream Mormonism has been an in-or-out proposition. Drawing a hard line in the sand on what is and isn’t doctrine, while extremely interesting to dorks like you and me, is not what the overwhelming majority of the church is asking for and could only serve to inflame schisms that the Church appears to be trying to smooth over.

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