In “The Agency Moment” Bobo gurgles that a bold letter from George Eliot in July 1852 exemplifies the moment she took the wheel in her life, and that everyone comes to that point eventually. In the comments “gemli” from Boston has this to say: “Even the dead can’t rest when David Brooks needs to argue against maintaining the social safety net. George Eliot and Herbert Spencer, not to mention a few fictitious “guys,” are invoked to flesh out his parable that says we must depend on inner strength rather than a livable minimum wage.” In “China, Coal, Climate” Prof. Krugman says the agreement between China and the United States on carbon emissions is a pretty big deal. Here’s Bobo:
George Eliot was an emotionally needy young woman. Throughout her 20s, she fell for a series of inappropriate and unavailable men, craving their affection. At one point, she got herself involved in a bizarre tangle with an editor and two other women. It was like a tragic farce as the women competed for his sympathy, complete with shifting alliances, slammed doors and storms of tears.
In 1852, at age 32, she fell in love with the philosopher Herbert Spencer, the only one of the men who was close to her intellectual equal. Spencer liked her company but could not overcome his own narcissism and her lack of beauty. In July that year, she wrote him a bold letter.
“Those who have known me best have already said that if ever I loved any one thoroughly, my whole life must turn upon that feeling, and I find they said truly,” she declared.
She asked him not to forsake her, “If you become attached to someone else, then I must die, but until then I could gather courage to work and make life valuable, if only I had you near me. I do not ask you to sacrifice anything — I would be very glad and cheerful and never annoy you.”
Finally, she added a climactic flourish: “I suppose no woman ever before wrote such a letter as this — but I am not ashamed of it, for I am conscious in the light of reason and true refinement I am worthy of your respect and tenderness, whatever gross men or vulgar-minded women might think of me.”
Some biographers have said that letter represented a pivotal moment in Eliot’s life, with its mixture of vulnerability and strong assertion. After the years of disjointed neediness, the iron was beginning to enter her soul and she was capable of that completely justified assertion of her own dignity. You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.
The letter didn’t solve her problems. Spencer still rejected her. She remained insecure, especially about her writing. But her energies were roused. There was growing cohesion and, at times, amazing courage.
I’ve been thinking about moments of agency of this sort because often you see people who lack full agency. Sometimes you see lack of agency among the disadvantaged. Their lives can be so blown about by economic disruption, arbitrary bosses and general disorder that they lose faith in the idea that input leads to predictable output. You can offer job training programs, but they may not take full advantage because they don’t have confidence they can control their own destinies.
Among the privileged, especially the privileged young, you see people who have been raised to be approval-seeking machines. They act active, busy and sleepless, but inside they often feel passive and not in control. Their lives are directed by other people’s expectations, external criteria and definitions of success that don’t actually fit them.
So many people are struggling for agency. They are searching for the solid criteria that will help them make their own judgments. They are hoping to light an inner fire that will fuel relentless action in the same direction.
I know an army officer who had a terrible commanding officer who only offered him negative feedback. He worked under this guy for 18 months, and whatever he did the feedback was the same. He had to come up with his own criteria to determine if he was doing well or poorly. He had to make decisions regardless of external affirmation or criticism. He discovered agency because external support was gone.
I once knew a guy who was batted about by people who should have supported him. For a time he took it, reacting painfully to each abuse. But finally he just got fed up. In a moment of indignation he lashed out. Every human soul is entitled to dignity and respect. He tasted agency in a flash of anger and an instant of revolt.
I once read about a guy whose childhood was a steady calamity. He was afraid, unable to control his mind and self. But he became a writer and discovered he was magnificent at it. Through the act of writing, he could investigate his fears and demystify them. He discovered agency by finding something he was good at and organizing his life around that gift.
Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action. The agency moment can happen at any age, or never. I guess that’s when adulthood starts.
He’s such a tiresome blowhard. Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
It’s easy to be cynical about summit meetings. Often they’re just photo ops, and the photos from the latest Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, which had world leaders looking remarkably like the cast of “Star Trek,” were especially cringe-worthy. At best — almost always — they’re just occasions to formally announce agreements already worked out by lower-level officials.
Once in a while, however, something really important emerges. And this is one of those times: The agreement between China and the United States on carbon emissions is, in fact, a big deal.
To understand why, you first have to understand the defense in depth that fossil-fuel interests and their loyal servants — nowadays including the entire Republican Party — have erected against any action to save the planet.
The first line of defense is denial: there is no climate change; it’s a hoax concocted by a cabal including thousands of scientists around the world. Bizarre as it is, this view has powerful adherents, including Senator James Inhofe, who will soon lead the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Indeed, some elected officials have done all they can to pursue witch hunts against climate scientists.
Still, as a political matter, attacking scientists has limited effectiveness. It plays well with the Tea Party, but to the broader public — even to non-Tea Party Republicans — it sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, because it is.
The second line of defense involves economic scare tactics: any attempt to limit emissions will destroy jobs and end growth. This argument sits oddly with the right’s usual faith in markets; we’re supposed to believe that business can transcend any problem, adapt and innovate around any limits, but would shrivel up and die if policy put a price on carbon. Still, what’s bad for the Koch brothers must be bad for America, right?
Like claims of a vast conspiracy of scientists, however, the economic disaster argument has limited traction beyond the right-wing base. Republican leaders may talk of a “war on coal” as if this were self-evidently an attack on American values, but the reality is that the coal industry employs very few people. The real war on coal, or at least on coal miners, was waged by strip-mining and natural gas, and ended a long time ago. And environmental protection is quite popular with the nation at large.
Which brings us to the last line of defense, claims that America can’t do anything about global warming, because other countries, China in particular, will just keep on spewing out greenhouse gases. This is a standard argument at think tanks like the Cato Institute and among conservative pundits. And, to be fair, anyone proposing climate action does have to explain how we can deal with the free-rider problem of countries that refuse to contain emissions.
Now, there is a good answer already available: “carbon tariffs” levied against the exports of countries that refuse to join in the effort to limit emissions. Such tariffs probably wouldn’t even require any change in existing trade law, and they would provide a powerful incentive for holdouts to get with the program. Still, until now, the suggestion that China could be induced to participate in climate protection was informed speculation at best.
But now we have it straight from the source: China has declared its intention to limit carbon emissions.
I know, I know. The language is a little vague, and the target levels of emissions are much higher than environmental experts want. Indeed, even if the deal were to work exactly as stated, the planet would experience a highly damaging rise in temperatures.
But consider the situation. America is not exactly the most reliable negotiating partner on these issues, with climate denialists controlling Congress and the only prospect of action in the near future, and maybe for many years, coming from executive orders. (Not to mention the possibility that the next president could well be an anti-environmentalist who could reverse anything President Obama does.) Meanwhile, China’s leadership has to deal with its own nationalists, who hate any suggestion that the newly risen superpower might be letting the West dictate its policies. So what we’re getting here is more a statement of principle than the shape of policy to come.
But the principle that has just been established is a very important one. Until now, those of us who argued that China could be induced to join an international climate agreement were speculating. Now we have the Chinese saying that they are, indeed, willing to deal — and the opponents of action have to claim that they don’t mean what they say.
Needless to say, I don’t expect the usual suspects to concede that a major part of the anti-environmentalist argument has just collapsed. But it has. This was a good week for the planet.