Coming out as polyamorous

This is just to record that I have outed myself as polyamorous on August 11th 2019, with posts on Facebook and Twitter. Links to both these platforms work at the time of posting, but they might become unavailable in the future, depending on the policies of the respective companies.

I also want to record this on my own blog, because it is important for me to embrace full transparency and not submit my lovers, and myself, to the indignities of gossip.

If you are curious about polyamory, I recommend Franklin Veaux’s FAQ page as a point of departure.

Terrour with fright" from le Brun,. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Reconciliation in the Internet age

My native country, Italy, is currently going through a crisis related to a ship called Sea-Watch-3. Owned by a German NGO, it rescued 42 migrants from the Mediterranean; was denied authorization to dock in the Italian island of Lampedusa; but docked anyway on humanitarian grounds. Its captain was arrested. As I write, it is unclear how it will end (here is the Guardian). Whatever happens next, I fear it will affect not just its protagonists (the 42 migrants, the captain, the Italian authorities and the latter’s political leaders), but all Italians. Those effects will be strongly negative. They could even disintegrate Italy’s sentiment of national unity.

Let me explain. Italians are human beings, and like all humans prone to overheating during discussions. To overstep the limits of civility, and cross from discussion into fighting. That’s normal. Just step into an Italian café on a Monday, and watch people discuss the Sunday’s football matches. It is very common to overhear people accuse each other of “stealing a victory”, or even “buying off the referee”. Of course, the actual people in those discussion were not even within a hundred kilometer radius from the stadium. Their accusers know this well, but they associate the opposite team’s supporters to the alleged wrongdoings of the team’s players or management. Humans are good at factionalism: pitting “you” against “us”, according to biologists, is innate in homo sapiens.

Something similar happens in the Sea-Watch 3 discussion. Many limits of civility and courtesy have been overstepped. I hope I am wrong, but I see the country resolving into two opposite factions of supporters. The stadium where the actual match is being fought is near-empty, but Italy’s bars are full of people shouting not only at the players, but at each other. I am reading heavy, heavy words: “kill them”, “sink them”, “inhuman” and so on.

Unfortunately, I predict the echo of these words will be with us for a long time. This has something to do with the Internet.

On the one hand, the Internet provides us with an archive of everything we share: the joy and the anger, the measured arguments and the insults and venting. It never forgets. If you, today, use the Net to demand that the navy sinks a ship full of unfortunate people, or to call minister X or representative Y a Nazi, you leave a digital trace that will not go away easily, or at all. Even if you repent, that post, or that tweet, will hang from your neck like the albatross from the neck of Coleridge’s Old Mariner.

On the other hand, social media tend to push us into “consensus bubbles” where most people are close to our own position. According to Zeynep Tufekci, these bubbles are not static, but carry us towards more and more extreme positions with time and the consumption of social media.

Together, these two effects create a situation where our most extreme positions become a cage that we can no longer break free of. If we change our minds, we know that someone will always be able to rub them in our face. And, once we express them, we find ourselves part of a bubble that rewards us for taking them: admires us, respects us as someone who is not afraid to “tell it like it is”. In this situation, it is hard to change your opinion.

Conclusions. In the age of social media, when a faultline forms in a community it tends to grow wider, crystallize, become irreversible. Forgiveness and reconciliation become harder. This is my reading of what happened in the UK: in 2015, the words “Leaver” and “Remainer” did not exist. In 2016 they were shorthand for “someone who votes Leave/Remain in the EU referendum”. In 2019 they are identities: go to any dating website, it’s full of people saying “I could never date a Leaver/Remainer”. Now, these identities are completely artificial, but the combined effect of unerasable records and consensus bubbles makes them effective anyway. I fear that, with Sea-Watch 3, we Italians have found our own faultline, our own Brexit.

In the short run, as the British example shows, it is likely that we will get mired into a continuous conflict that will cripple our ability to develop the country. After the referendum, the British government has done practically no new policy, not even around leaving the EU. And in the long run? No one knows. I fear that a deeply divided national community is unviable.

So what next? My opinion does not matter. If it did, I would use it to ask my countrymen to be compassionate, not (only) with the migrants on the Sea-Watch 3, but with each other. A person can, in a moment of frustration, get carried away and say something horrible without being a horrible person. The “enemy” that torments us on Twitter is just another human being, with a family, a car insurance to pay, maybe a dog. A couple of layers beneath his offensive language there might be arguments worth discussing.

No one has a monopoly on Italian-ness. But I like to remember this: after the fall of the fascist regime and the end of World War II, Italy gave itself a national unity government. Its minister if justice was communist leader Palmiro Togliatti, himself exiled during fascism. His most significant policy was a general amnesty. rolled out as an emergency measure, before Italy even had a constitution or a parliament. Wikipedia notes:

it pardoned and reduced sentences for Italian Fascists and Partisans alike. The amnesty included common crimes as well as political ones committed during World War II. In practice however, Fascists and collaborators benefited far more from the amnesty than Partisans did.

This move had far-reaching implications. Those who had been complicit in involving Italy in a war, and collaborated with an invading force, got home free, just like those who had fought against these choices. Fair? No. And indeed, Togliatti paid a high price to the backlash, also within his own party. But the government, and Togliatti himself, decided that reconciliation and mutual forgiveness were the only path towards a reasonably cohesive, stable nation. Conflict happens, but to move forward together reconciliation is necessary. Italy is a republic based on that reconciliation, and I do not think it has a future if we we won’t be able to reverse this trend towards entrenched positions and mutual, public insult. I hope we realize this, before it is too late.

Image: Terrour with fright” from le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Redesigning urban living at scale: the case of “Red Vienna” in the 1920s

I just saw a very inspiring exhibition called Das Rote Wien, (“Red Vienna”) at the Wien Museum. I want to make a quick note of what I saw, since it relates to our reflection around The Reef.

Background: Vienna is, even today, unique. A large percentage (about 20%) of all apartments for rent in the city are owned by the municipality (Gemeinde Wien). Additionally, they are not concentrated in one or few low income areas, but are scattered all across the city. There are no ghettos in Vienna.

The foundations for this state of affairs were laid in a short period, from 1919 to 1933, called “Red Vienna”. Here is how I understand the situation:

  • The Austrian Empire loses World War 1 and much of its territory. It morphs into a federal republic and turns to socialism. Socialist ideas spread: about the dignity of man, the centrality of urban workers in society, and the role of the state in bringing about a new kind of society. The Socialist party wins a majority in the federal parliament.
  • In 1919, it loses control of the federal government, but maintains a high consensus in Vienna (about 50% of votes throughout the period preceding Austria’s assimilation into Nazi Germany). Socialists refocus on Vienna as the cradle of their utopia.
  • Meanwhile, post-war hyperinflation has swept away public debt.
  • Rent controls are established in 1917. This ends real estate speculation and leads to falling real estate prices.
  • In 1922 Vienna is separated from the rest of Lower Austria, and becomes its own state (Land). It can now levy its own taxes. This enables a radical, and very successful, fiscal policy:

These taxes were imposed on luxury: on riding-horses, large private cars, servants in private households, and hotel rooms. (To demonstrate the practical effect of these new taxes, the municipality published a list of social institutions that could be financed by the servants tax the Vienna branch of the Rothschild family had to pay.)

Another new tax, the Wohnbausteuer (Housing Construction Tax), was also structured as a progressive tax, i.e. levied in rising percentages. The income from this tax was used to finance the municipality’s extensive housing programme. Therefore, many Gemeindebauten today still bear the inscription: “Erbaut aus den Mitteln der Wohnbausteuer” (built from the proceeds of the Housing Construction Tax). (Wikipedia)

  • Red Vienna deploys substantial intellectual firepower. Socialists mobilize Freud, Adler, Popper, Gödel, Loos, Neurath and others, and offer them seats on boards of research- and policy institutions. The exhibition has an impressive visualization of the Netzwerk Intelligenz, showing how these intellectuals worked with one another in various organizations contributing to the city’s governance.

  • Red Vienna works across the policy spectrum to implement the socialist vision: education reform, social services, health care, green areas. Housing is a central concern. In fact, Viennese citizens had not been waiting around for socialist leaders to make up their minds, and had taken that matter into their own hands.

Following the war, thousands of “wild” settlers occupy land on the periphery of Vienna, where they erect simple dwellings and grow gardens for their food. Emerging from this is the cooperative-oriented Viennese settler movement. Architects and intellectuals, such as Adolf Loos, Margarete Lihotzky, and Otto Neurath see a new democratic way of living in the simplicity and functionality of settlement houses.

  • In a very creative move, the city government decides to support, rather than repress, this movement:
  • In order to guide the settlement activity and certainly also to control it politically, the municipality provides the settlers financial and technical support beginning in 1920. By 1933, roughly 8,000 settlement houses had been built in Vienna.
  • In 1923 Red Vienna moves beyond surfing the wave of the settlements movement, and rolls out a full-fledged strategy. It consists of the already mentioned Wohnbausteuer, earmarked to finance the city’s affordable, high-quality housing strategy, and of a construction plan. The latter is another innovation:

“New Vienna” is not developed as residential estates in the periphery, as is the favored practice internationally, but unstead, is integrated into the existing city in the form of several-story “people’s apartment buildings”. […] All of the rooms are furnished with windows, and all of the apartment have running water and toilets. Their rather moderate dimensions are extended by communal spaces, such as laundry rooms and baths. Until 1933 approximately 380 council housing buildings are constructed, with more than 60,000 apartments able to house 200,000 people.

So, in less than 15 years, Vienna built 60,000 apartments, plus 80,000 settlement houses. Assuming an average of 4 inhabitants per house, this means lodging 200,000 people with the New Vienna program + 320,000 people with the bottom-up settlements. This runs up to 520,000 people… in a city of 1,700,000 inhabitants!

These buildings brought about a huge increase in the quality of urban life, and in that of Vienna’s landscape. This increase was permanent: almost all lodgings are still in use today, 100 years after Red Vienna, and Vienna is always topping the charts of the most livable cities in the world. This, despite the Nazis ending Red Vienna in civil war and ultimately annexation in 1933.

It appears we have

There are so many valuable lessons in here that I do not even know where to start. Maybe it is even more interesting to consider the interplay of the various factors: preconditions like Vienna’s debtlessness  and the “plasticity” of the Austrian constitutional architecture, and therefore the city’s power to levy taxes (courtesy of losing a major war); intellectual resources (mostly inherited by imperial times); bold policy; and an impressive ability to “sniff the wind” and channel and support emergent phenomena like the informal settlements, rather than fight them back.

It would be worth looking deeper into the matter. Unfortunately many sources are available only in German. Does anyone have any insights to offer?

(Reposted from Edgeryders)