A Home in the Digital World
August 16, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Transportation is a subject I address frequently in my columns. But, as is often the case in journalism, it’s usually necessary to write about it piecemeal given various editorial constraints. So I might cover flooding subways one week and a gonzo proposal for sky gondolas over the Seaport the next. But rarely do I have the luxury of looking at such a major policy area in its entirety. Which is nonideal because a good journalist is always interested to spark discussion and debate—and it’s difficult to have a proper conversation with readers if they aren’t aware of my general views on the topic at hand.
Such was the case a three weeks ago when I published a piece that took a dim view of Bird Rides dumping its dangerous electric rental scooters all over Cambridge and Somerville without first discussing the move with officials in either city… following a nationwide pattern of flouting relevant laws that is clearly its business model. About a day later, a few wags took to Twitter to slam me for having the temerity to suggest that motorized skateboards with handlebars might not be the ideal vehicles to allow on area streets in numbers. On both political and safety grounds.
I didn’t mind the hazing, of course. But it was vexing to watch Bird fans that clearly hadn’t even bothered to read the article in question—let alone my broad and deep back catalog—attack me as some kind of car-loving anti-environmental reactionary in the service of flogging their hipster transportation fetish du jour. Be they paid marketers or merely geeks with an idée fixe.
With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to run through my general views on transportation policy in this epistle. To clarify why I don’t think that any electric conveyance thrown at us by sociopathic West Coast frat boy CEOs is automatically the best way to save the planet while safely getting people around town with their groceries and pets. I will, however, leave long-distance intercity travel by land, sea, and air aside for now for the sake of space.
It’s not possible to hold forth on transportation without first addressing the absolute necessity that humanity stop burning carbon to meet our civilization’s power needs. If we fail to shift from getting power from oil, gas, and coal to clean renewable energy sources like wind, water, and solar, then we are well and truly doomed. Not in centuries, but mere decades from now. Among the largest sources for global warming inducing carbon emissions are cars, trucks, and motorcycles. And with carbon multinationals like ExxonMobil dominating American politics, it’s going to be extremely difficult to institute the major changes that will be required to replace those vehicles—and the “car culture” that has built up around them—with zero carbon alternatives that will be acceptable to a broad array of communities. Yet without such a transition, anything else we might do will merely be tacking colorful bunting onto our species’ collective coffin. That said, any decent transportation network will have to be based on electricity. Unless some of our cleverer scientists and engineers come up with sufficiently powerful and portable renewable power sources (tiny cold fusion reactors, harnessing evil spinning gnomes, etc.) that don’t require plugging vehicles into charging stations for periods of time every day or three.
We’re not going to be able to move millions of people to new green transportation alternatives without redesigning the places where they live and work. One appealing way of doing that over time is to build dense clusters of housing and offices around major multimodal transportation hubs that are connected to each other by mass transit. Which will, among other salutary effects, help solve the “last mile” problem of getting commuters from such hubs to their homes and workplaces in weather conditions that are only going to get more unpredictable and dangerous as climate change accelerates.
But while it’s become fashionable and profitable for developers to build such high-density enclaves for rich people, it is generally not being undertaken for everyone else. Until it is, it’s going to be extremely difficult to successfully introduce the transportation alternatives we need. Probably the toughest issue will be converting existing urban neighborhoods and suburban tracts based on square miles of individual atomized domiciles over to sort of more compact and connected urblets without upending people’s carefully constructed lifeways by government fiat. Though, ironically, the global warming-driven imperative of our moving entire cities like Boston away from flooding lowlands onto higher ground—and eventually northward to cooler climes—will provide us an opportunity to start development from scratch in many locales. Since given the choice between staying in aging housing stock with ever worsening service and transportation options, and moving to new clusters of high-rise and low-rise buildings hooked up to a robust grid, people will likely move of their own accord.
And what are the cheaper, ubiquitous, and more efficient transportation modalities that will get us to a carbon-free future? I think trains, trolleys, monorails, and similar mass transit options will still play a vital role in moving large numbers of people from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city. In fact, I believe we need to massively expand rail lines to reach far out into the exurbs. And figure out ways to use such lines for cargo containers as well. Buses—with dedicated lanes—will remain vital in many areas. Especially where it’s too expensive or impractical to build out rail lines. Boats can also be very useful for the same purpose in most weather conditions in areas adjacent to oceans, lakes, and rivers.
And cars? Well, that’s a big complicated discussion, but here’s my brief take. Carbon-burning cars need to be relegated to museums and antiquarian societies for collectors and hobbyists. But there’s no getting around fact that despite all their myriad problems, most people currently like being able to jump into a car and go where they want to go. So what can replace that? At first, shifting over to electric cars will be a big help. Then there will be a debate over robot cars. And that’s a tricky one because that technology won’t work well at first, and will displace many driving jobs if not introduced deliberately without corporate malice aforethought. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if you see me attacking “public-private” initiatives to shove such cars down people’s throats.
Nevertheless, society will gain much if we can make the new technology work. Because fleets of robot cars can likely replace the individually owned car entirely. Allowing people to get between areas well away from major transportation hubs at will—simply by using the future equivalent of a rideshare app to order a robot car for the trip. Robot trucks will be able to deal with moving cargo point to point. And simple electric golf carts—either robotic or not—will suffice for trips around neighborhoods.
We can then gradually reduce or eliminate motor vehicle traffic from many roads over time—allowing bicycles (on ubiquitous dedicated bike lanes) to really come into their own. As for electric scooters? In most locales it will probably be best if they remain an idiosyncratic vehicle choice for young individuals who like to stand out from the crowd, and not accepted as a serious transportation alternative. Because they’re not. Meanwhile, flying cars, jetpacks, and the like will have to be a topic for a future article.
Building out transportation alternatives needs to be seen as an opportunity for new job creation, not just an excuse for job destruction for the purpose of corporate profit extraction. Such jobs should be “good jobs” with living wages, shorter work weeks (something we’ll need worldwide to compensate for the rise of the robots), and generous benefits. People losing jobs in the existing transportation sector should be retrained at government expense and get priority placement in jobs in the new transportation sector. All of said jobs should be unionized.
As many of these transportation alternatives as possible should be public. Leaving our transit future to private companies like Uber, Lyft, Lime, Bird Rides, etc. is a prescription for disaster. Because all such corporations look out for their bottom lines first, and the public good second (if at all). And every entrant to that new sector has sought to end-run public planning processes and government regulators in a never-ending quest to make a fast buck—to the point of Uber purposely designing their payment algorithm so that their drivers would keep driving while making as little money as possible, according to Vanity Fair.
So if we’re going to ensure that commuters have a voice in a reasonably democratic and rational transportation planning process going forward, then we have to expand public transportation to control the commanding heights of its sector. And regardless, the role of privately owned vehicles must be minimized if we’re going to reduce carbon emissions enough to save ourselves from the worst depredations of human-induced global warming.
That’s my basic thinking on at least regional transportation. Happy to participate in civic dialogues on the subject any time.
Thanks to Suren Moodliar, co-author of the forthcoming A People’s Guide to Greater Boston [University of California Press], for ongoing ever-illuminating conversations on transportation, housing, and many other policy areas.
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
August 7, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
We don’t get much news about Western Mass in Boston. And since the population is relatively small in the largely rural western counties of the Commonwealth, it can be easy to miss significant stories. Because the scale of noteworthy happenings is naturally smaller there. Because our diminished metro news outlets have trouble covering the entire state. And because, let’s be honest, Bostonians don’t usually care about what happens west of, like, Brookline.
So at first glance, word of a homeless encampment out in Greenfield isn’t something that would get much attention hereabouts at the best of times. But for a city with a population that fell by more than 500 people to 17,456 between the 2000 and 2010 censuses—with a median household income of $33,110, and 14 percent of residents below the poverty line—it’s an important enough development to warrant a series of articles in the local press. And I think it deserves coverage here in the Hub as well.
Especially when the encampment is on the Greenfield Common, opposite the Greenfield City Hall (better known as the Town Hall prior to a recent change in nomenclature). Something unusual is definitely afoot.
It seems two local homeless people began camping on the common a couple of months ago. A number that quickly grew to 20 regular residents in as many as a dozen tents. According to the Greenfield Recorder, their “de facto spokeswoman” Madelynn Malloy “and others have said previously they are camping on the common because there is no other place that is safe for homeless residents to go and because current city law allows them to stay there day or night. There are no requirements for licenses or permits to be there and the homeless residents’ actions are not considered loitering, but public assembly. The city has an ordinance prohibiting loitering, but it only applies to sidewalks.”
A city count of last January pegged the homeless population at 39, but area charities have said the actual number is significantly higher—as they noted during the brutal cold snap at the end of 2017 when their shelters were so overwhelmed that the Salvation Army put up $1,600 to house people at Days Inn. Since that time, the Greenfield Human Rights Commission and homeless advocates have been pushing for the city to do more. Meanwhile, the encampment has put a very human and public face on the crisis, and has sparked meetings and debates in local government about how to find housing for the homeless.
Unfortunately, there seems to be at least as much concern from Mayor William Martin to get the city council to pass rules effectively banning camping on Greenfield Common as there is to find ways to house local homeless people. The latter being the obvious policy priority, if for no other reason than to relieve overwhelmed private social service agencies.
Most recently, a breakthrough of sorts—also reported in the Greenfield Recorder—happened when the city council voted to put a port-a-potty closer to the common than the one local churches previously made available. “According to the Department of Public Works, the cost of a temporary restroom is $150 a month and includes emptying it. The mayor’s office said the first two months of the portable toilet would be paid for by the Interfaith Council and an unnamed local business. There is no plan currently in place for funding after the two months.” The council also voted, apparently contrary to the mayor’s wishes, to decrease “regulations on churches to set up temporary shelters” and open “the former Wedgewood Gardens property on Kimball Drive as a possible site for an encampment.” The mayor then vowed to “attempt to find temporary housing solutions through a ‘rapid re-housing team’” made up of “city officials and social service and humanitarian agencies.”
Baby steps perhaps. But it would not do to underplay the difficult situation Greenfield government finds itself in. It’s going to take officials time to find even a stopgap solution. Large cities like Boston aren’t doing a great job of dealing with a growing homeless crisis either; so it’s obviously more difficult for smaller municipalities with fewer resources to house and provide services for even a few dozen people.
Particularly when, as was pointed out in a DigBoston op-ed by Lawrence social services executive Joe D’Amore in January, many communities in Massachusetts ban people from sleeping in public spaces or even “loitering” there. Which merely shifts the burden of dealing with homelessness to more densely populated and tolerant locales with more social services like Lawrence. Or Greenfield.
Hopefully people will retain the right to sleep on the Greenfield Common overnight when needed, and the city government will cobble together some longer-term housing options for its homeless population before winter sets in.
Yet however things turns out in the largest burg in Franklin County, the situation is interesting not because it is unique… but because it is sadly commonplace. Across Massachusetts and all over America the story is the same. Despite claims of a “strong economy” from Republicans and many Democrats, homelessness is ever more persistent and ever more desperate.
To see an actual strong economy in a place like Greenfield, one has to look back to the 1950s—when the city was home to major metal-working concerns, the largest being Greenfield Tap & Die. But that plant was sold off to a larger company in 1958, and most of its jobs disappeared over decades. The city’s last major manufacturing business, Lunt Silversmiths, went under in 2009 during the Great Recession.
According to the Republican, Lunt had 800 employees in 2001. And only “12 to 15” by the end. It’s difficult for even larger cities to recover from that kind of blow to their job base, let alone a small city like Greenfield.
It will thus shock no one that the rise of the opiate crisis tracks closely to this decline in the city’s fortunes. And it’s therefore ironic in the extreme that the former Lunt plant is now home to two drug treatment facilities, Franklin Recovery Center and Northern Hope.
The opiate crisis relates directly to the homeless crisis. And both relate to the ongoing jobs crisis. Increasingly unregulated capitalism, as I often write, is clearly incapable of providing good jobs for our population. As the job base collapses, people in Greenfield, Boston, and around the nation are stuck with lousy part-time, temp, contract, independent contractor, and day labor gigs. Or with no jobs at all.
As these downwardly mobile people see their lives collapsing, they turn to opiates. Maybe because they got injured in their precarious pseudo-jobs and got put on addictive pain killers by well-meaning doctors being suckered by criminal conspiracies like oxycontin-maker Purdue Pharma of nearby Stamford, Connecticut. Or maybe because they couldn’t take the humiliation of no longer being able to provide for themselves and their families, and reached for the strongest, most reliable, and readily available chemical solace. And soon enough, more and more of these folks end up on the streets.
Without public jobs programs, new public housing, and cradle-to-grave public healthcare, local, state, and federal governments will not be able to fix these related crises. Even if they wanted to. Which they don’t in this era of gangster capitalism. Nor will “private” charities. Many of which already rely on shrinking pools of government money to do what little they can do to stem the tide of rising poverty.
So it’s critical that people in big cities like Boston—especially press and policy makers—pay careful attention to small municipalities like Greenfield. They are canaries in the coal mine of a political economic system that can only be called failing, the less it is able to provide for the growing number of people on the bottom of our societal pyramid.
As such, we ignore the Greenfields of our nation at our peril. We must act now to stop the rest of our communities, large and small, from continuing their rolling collapse. A task we can best begin by rebuilding government at all levels to focus on the human needs of all of its denizens. And stop privileging the schemes of the rich and powerful few over the livelihoods of the struggling multitude.
Townie is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. His Apparent Horizon column is winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
November 28, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
The timing couldn’t have been better. No sooner did this publication release last week’s editorial announcing our “unnaming” policy of refusing to print the names of ultra-right wing leaders and organizations, than the Gray Lady provided the best possible example of the type of reporting we think American news organizations need to stop producing immediately.
The New York Times article in question offered a warm and fuzzy portrait of a midwestern nazi family. The reporter, Richard Fausset, didn’t press his subjects about their politics in any meaningful way and essentially humanized them for no good reason at all. The result of this misstep was a huge and immediate backlash from the public. And Atlantic magazine swiftly retorted with a devastating parody of the piece called “Nazis Are Just Like You and Me, Except They’re Nazis… despite what you may have read in The New York Times.” A must read, if ever there was one.
What Fausset and his editors did was valorize an ultra-right winger and his small but growing political party. They provided publicity where none was called for. In doing so, they violated their ethical mandate as journalists to “minimize harm” in their reporting. Since the article will doubtless help recruitment for its subject’s organization while making nazi ideology seem like a totally ok belief system that anyone might have.
So, for readers wondering why DigBoston has taken our stand of refusing to publicize the ultra right, this episode should provide clarity. Nothing good comes of news organizations helping nazis, fascists, and white supremacists spread their ideas. We’re not doing it going forward, and we continue to encourage our colleagues around the country to join us in our stand.
Jason Pramas is the executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.
November 21, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
As journalists, my DigBoston colleagues and I have a responsibility to do our best to cover news of the day fairly and accurately. And that’s based on our abiding belief in practising ethical journalism. Even though we’re street reporters for an alternative urban news weekly—a bit rough around the edges… and known for wearing our emotions on our collective sleeve from time to time in our pursuit of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.
In 2002, Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute—an influential Florida journalism school—condensed journalistic ethics down to three principles that we strongly agree with:
It’s that third admonition that comes into play when we consider how to approach covering events run by ultra-right wingers. Like last weekend’s rally at Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common. Which is why this publication has decided to “unname” ultra right-wing individuals and organizations in our pages going forward.
The rally itself and the couple of similar small Boston rallies that preceded it are almost comic in their insignificance, but the ideas they represent are not. When put into practice, they do a great deal of harm. By helping spread them, then, we would too—violating our ethical mandate to minimize harm in the process.
Those ideas are many, varied, and extremely confused as it turns out. The expressed beliefs of people organizing recent hard-right events have been an ill-conceived mishmash of right-wing libertarian, right-wing nationalist, right-wing populist, and right-wing Christian evangelical thinking plus an assortment of random conspiracy theories.
To our point, however, DigBoston cannot ignore the fact that these organizers work with latter-day nazis, fascists, and white supremacists. Neither can we turn a blind eye to the toxic thread of misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant views present in their circles.
Nor can we go along with many other media outlets in pretending that rally organizers aren’t simply giving one version of their politics in the light of day, and another version in the relative privacy of their normal online forums.
As Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center said to the New Republic earlier this year, “The right says the left is violent and they need to be prepared for it, but when they turn their head they’re wishing for nothing but violence, death, and destruction, on anyone and anything that’s not white.”
It’s clear to us that the most reprehensible supporters of such rallies, from Boston to grim Charlottesville to San Francisco, do not believe in democracy and are interested in bathing the world in the blood of their perceived enemies. Who include all people of African descent, all Latinos, all Native Americans, all Asians, all Arabs, all Muslims, and all Jews.
Yes, we’re back to that insanity.
They also lump in all their political enemies for conversion or extirpation depending on their individual ethnic, religious, or racial backgrounds: Democrats (who they consider to be socialists, communists, or whatever), socialists, communists, anarchists, Greens, and other parties and ideologies to the left of President Donald Trump. They further have a deep and abiding hatred for women and LGBTQ folks, and expect the former to submit to male domination—and the latter to at best run and hide, and at worst to go to the death camps they like to “joke” about in dank corners of the Internet.
They assign these people subhuman status and deem them unworthy of participation—or indeed existence—in the hateful society they want to create. They also ascribe magic powers to some groups like Jews. They believe said groups control the world with those imagined powers and must be destroyed because of them.
In addition, they believe that people of northern European descent—a group in which many of them claim or feign membership—have their own magic powers. And that they have been chosen by History or God or Wotan or Fate to rule the world and have a right to eliminate all opposition to that rule—which will make the planet “pure.”
For a long time since World War II, it’s been easy to dismiss such reactionaries as lunatics because the original nazis and fascists were crushed by force of arms at the cost of tens of millions of lives. And driven from public life the world over. But now they have returned in many countries including the US, their ideas being spread over the web along with a lot of much nicer ideas.
In working with today’s nazis, fascists, and white supremacists, we believe that the organizers of the recent ultra-right rallies are effectively joining forces with them and are therefore helping build their movements. As such, while we agree that all parties concerned have the right to free speech, we do not think that extends to the right to free publicity for any of them in our pages. Given the clear and present danger that genocidal malcontents in their ranks present.
Stopping ultra-right forces from becoming a real threat to humanity requires not playing their game. As journalists, the way we play their game is by drawing attention to their spokespeople and organizations, and helping them spread their toxic ideas to even more of the kind of confused, bitter, angry people they’re already recruiting on social media.
So, we’ll report on ultra-right events when we decide they’re newsworthy, but we refuse to give ultra-right leaders and organizations the publicity and media platform that they want most of all. Because more attention gets them more followers and thus more political power. And we think that other news media—network TV first and foremost—are being extremely irresponsible and unethical by continuing to create a press feeding frenzy around every ultra-right action or pronouncement they hear about.
We’ll cover the activities of ultra-right individuals and organizations from time to time in carefully considered ways. We’ll even quote them—either anonymously or using pseudonyms we make up for each occasion. But we will not print their names in DigBoston, and we won’t link to their websites or social media presences either. Except when they commit crimes. Or in rare situations where we will do greater harm by not printing their names. That’s our unnaming policy. And we’re sticking to it. We will also apply it to other individuals and organizations that call for —or work with those who call for—crimes against humanity. In the interest of minimizing harm in our reporting. And in the defense of democracy, social justice, and human rights—which is our core mission as a publication of record.
We invite fellow journalists and news outlets the world over to join us in adopting this policy.
The editors and staff of DigBoston encourage readers to share this editorial widely.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.