Wildnesses

I’m delaying a post that I’m finding very hard to write. In the meantime, because it’s been that kind of a week, I thought I’d do something dramatic.  So…

Confessions of a Weekend Nerd

Apollo. Fifty years.

We landed on the moon. I look back on it now and I am amazed. I understand some of what went into it, how challenging it was, the amazing level of commitment and dedication, and how unlikely it all might have been. As my sense of history developed, long after high school, I began to see all the incredible things people do, especially here, as sort of willed accidents. By that I mean, someone or a group of someones come up with an idea of something to do, a big something, and put it out there. Others sign on and they all move in that direction. The fact of the matter is, any of a thousand things can derail it and the idea never gets off the ground. So many things have to come together to clear the way, to maintain support, to collect the resources, that the notion that anything actually happens becomes a kind of miracle. Often, it is just timing. The idea gets all the funding and commitment and talent collected before any of the myriad roadblocks effectively arise.

The space program is one of those. When you look back at everything we could and intended that did not happen, it becomes obvious that it was an unlikely thing. By the end of the Sixties, and into the Seventies, large groups had begun challenging the whole project as a pointless, expensive, wasteful vanity project. There were more important things to do here on the ground, why are we spending so much on this when there are hungry people, when there are infrastructure projects going begging, when this or that or the other thing are so much more important. And it mounted and finally, like the nibbling of ducks, dragged the behemoth down and nearly stopped it. Nixon made his fateful choice for a shuttle rather a Mars mission and we seemed to “settle” for a considerably more modest off-world presence. Then, of course, all the funding arguments about the shuttle reduced its range and capacity and while still a remarkable instrument it was far less than the dreams of the Kennedy-era enthusiast wanted.

Life and politics happened and NASA trudged on to do still amazing things, but at a much-reduced level of imaginative possibility. A lot of Americans lost interest.

Now the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing is upon us and many people over a certain age are indulging in the “where were you when” nostalgia, and probably rewriting a lot of personal history. By the enthusiastic remembrances on exhibit, one has to wonder, if that many people had been that thrilled at the time, how did the space program ever lose ground?

My friend and colleague Allen Steele is the only person I know close to my age who was at that level of enthusiasm back then. I have no doubt he stayed home from school to watch the reports on television. He saw things I never at the time even knew happened, exciting things which, if you weren’t paying close attention, you missed. My parents were excited. Some of my classmates were thrilled but they didn’t watch.

Where was I when Neil Armstrong stepped out of a very flimsy can to walk on another world? Home, because it was one of the rare times my parents decided to keep me out of school.+ Dad made me watch.

Yes, I said “made.” Because, to be perfectly honest, the whole thing by then bored me out of my skull. Tell me about it after it happened, thank you.

I felt guilty about that later, until I heard about Robert A. Heinlein’s testimony before Congress in which he chastised them for doing such a pitiful P.R. job with the space program. He saw what had happened, they had turned it into one of those incredibly lifeless, innocuous educational films we paid no attention to in school. Bad animation, endless hours of a cartoon capsule and “live” audio of back-and-forths between Gemini and Mission Control, and the oh-so-serious commentary of people like Walter Cronkite and Jules Bergman, with the occasional guest commentator like Arthur C. Clarke.

The truth is, this was a difference between the “how do we do this” crowd and the “what are we gonna do when we get there” crowd. I suspect the latter outnumbered the former, and when the answer was “collect some rocks and take some pictures” it must have rippled like a soporific grade-school lecture through us. They might have done better had they done more of the “what are we going to do next” sort of thing that popped up far too seldom, although when it did was made to sound as exciting as someone describing how they would lay new carpet.

Even back then I knew people who believed it was all fake. Challenging them about it, I sensed that really they wanted it to be fake. They didn’t want it to be real, because then they would have to pay attention to it, if only to complain about it. And then there are others who don’t want great things done. Their opinion of human beings is low, that we are more scourge than anything, and great things only sustain a set of illusions we don’t deserve to have. This is nothing new. This is a modern version of an ongoing sense that all the great things have already been done, far in the past, and that the modern world (pick your period) is a shadow of former greatness or a corruption of what we might have been. An Eclessiastical View, if you will. Then someone comes along to propose a new great thing and the struggle begins between the will to do it and those who just can’t bring themselves to let it happen.

Hence my opinion that great things are willed accidents.

But they happen. Often enough to give the rest of us aspirations, a sense of potential.

Growing up, you learn—presumably—that your desires and aspirations rise or fall on what has gone before. Why was I bored by the space program? Because it wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I wanted to be on the moon already, with the space stations already built and the mission to Mars already underway or done, and the whole space-centered future I’d been reading about since I was old enough to choose my own books in place. I was impatient. This stuff, because I was not an engineering nerd, didn’t affect me. I was the kid who was more interested in how the new cars looked rather than how they ran. I was a weekend space nerd.

But this was true about most things in my life and I have to wonder how many others were the same. I was always more interested in the next thing than in the thing in front of me. I was in a hurry to get on down the road, because—

Well, the future for me was always better than the present.

Now a curious phenomena has overtaken me and possibly thousands if not millions of others. The next thing is actually in the past. The next thing we should have done in the wake of Apollo and didn’t is now the future I was more interested in then and has now picked up where it should have left off in 1974. So Apollo has been resurrected in my imagination as a seriously amazing cool thing.

So I’ve seen the movies, have been reading the new books, and kind of glorying in this great thing that happened when I was a kid. Belatedly, I’m a fan. And NASA is building a new rocket, on par with the old Saturn V, and we have plans to return to the moon (which makes sense only in terms of rebuilding the network and infrastructure to do and maybe as a way of rallying the national imagination, but we really should be going to Mars), and suddenly we have a kind of post-Columbian* enthusiasm for doing the thing we walked away from in the Seventies. I’m studying the period now with the adult interest that might have made a difference back then and caused me to pay attention despite the mind-numbingly boring coverage.

Because if asked, back then, I would never have said it was not a desirable thing to do. I would have been thrilled that we had done it. And the suggestions at the time that maybe we shouldn’t struck me as absurd. Come the weekend, I was there. I just didn’t want to pay attention to the doing. Which is a mistake. Willed accidents do happen, in spite of the kind of ambivalence to which I refer, but that ambivalence can rob them of their full potential and sometimes derail them completely.

Doing it now seems to be acquiring a new kind of enthusiasm. But it would never happen if it had not already been done.

For the record, then, I want that future. Always did. I want us in space. I want bases on the moon, colonies on Mars, ships going hither and yon, and a striving toward the outer edge. For many reasons I want that, but first and foremost I want it because that’s where my imagination finds replenishment. Because I see that as the cool thing to do. And the doing will make us better.

Happy anniversary, Apollo. Ad astra.

 

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*In the sense that it was fully half a century to a century after Columbus made his first voyage before nations really got behind the whole effort to cross the Atlantic and establish colonies.  There does seem to be a timelag connected to these sorts of enterprises. Mind you, I make no comment here on the desirability of what happened in the wake of Columbus, but the exploratory impulse on its own is, in my opinion, an essential and basically good part of human society and character.

+ Since posting this, I have been reminded that the landing was at around 10:00 PM ET, so I would not have been kept out of school to watch. It may have been the splashdown for which I was kept home. This just goes to show how disconnected I was at the time and the way in which memory plays tricks on us.

Workin’ On It

Once more before the screen, on an on-and-off rainy day. I’ve been trying to follow up on the good effect of a story sale and bulling my way through some stories that have been hanging fire for too long. What do I feel like doing instead? Well, not what’s below. I don’t fish. I would be one of those who would bring a book and fall asleep, probably get sunburnt, mosquito-bit, generally overheated, and with no fish to show for it because I wouldn’t really care.

But the sunshine would be nice. And a bit of placid surroundings. Don’t know about the audience, though…

Coffey

This is Coffey.

 

Coffey is our very good friend. Our buddy. Coffey makes sure we remember to laugh, keeps us company (especially when she can do so on the bed) and forces us to take walks.

Coffey is about 15.

Yes, that’s correct. Fifteen. She’s healthy, just very slow these days. When we grab the leash, she bounds around our feet like a puppy. She’s good for about three blocks of all-out walking, then she slows to a snail’s pace and makes up for the distance with careful study of various leaves, stalks of grass, patches of concrete, and other smells. But she still gets excited about that walk.

I haven’t posted anything about her in a while and she’s gotten a bit camera shy lately—more can’t be bothered than any kind of misplaced vanity.

If we’re careful, we’ll have her for a while yet.

But she’s 15. I’m amazed.

Greyshades

I haven’t done any new black & white for a while, so.

There is a color version of this (and for sale) which you can see here.

 

Random Bits

No plan here, just thoughts. It’s Sunday as I begin writing this, second day for me of a four-day weekend. Timing.

Lack of attention bedevils me. I have things to do, a wide variety, and I get befuddled by which I should pay most attention. It matters because I end up scattering my attention widely and so get little done in each endeavor. Some of my friends understand this, but not all.

This morning I got out of bed (I hesitate to say “awoke” because I wouldn’t classify my condition that way) and stumbled through my morning routines. Making coffee is so embedded in my brain that I think if I sleep-walked that is one of the things I would do. Donna was already up, tending to the dog. To be honest, I felt like going back to bed, but I intuited that it would only waste time. Another hour or two would not improve my ability to feel whole, just delay it. Further honesty requires me to admit that mornings like this frighten me a little, because I feel so “off” that I think something must be wrong.

I’m just tired, really. An hour or two after getting out of bed I feel pretty much as I’ve always felt. Slow but present.

I’ve had a number of conversations of late about intelligence. Genius, even. I think a genius would be internally unaware of it. My father, I sometimes feel, was a genius. Is. (Yes, he’s still alive, but now so impaired by deafness and poor sight that interaction is virtually impossible.) He never believed so. He railed about how other people seemed so stupid, how they overlooked, missed, or never figured out things which seemed so obvious to him, and he blamed laziness or prejudice or ambivalence. How could they not see? When I pointed out to him that he himself was far from ordinary, he bridled. No, that couldn’t be it. He did not see himself as a particularly smart man. But he was dogged, possessed of a degree of focus and ability to concentrate I found unachievable. His own opinion would never allow recognition of his “gifts,” if gifts they were.

I’ve been accused—recently—of being “superior.” Not a compliment.

We live in a culture that prizes knowledge only when it’s somewhere else. It’s cool when it’s on tv or in a lecture hall or, most importantly, when it makes someone a lot of money. But when it lives next door to us we resent it. When we have to talk to it every day we hate it, because it feels like someone is showing off, trying to be better than everyone else, getting off on making others feel stupid. I’ve never understood that. It’s not like all the information isn’t there for everyone to access.

It’s a choice of what we find important. As far as I’m concerned, too many people are too invested in things that don’t matter. (Is that me being judgmental? Why, yes, it is. Unapologetically. You have to choose, you have to decide. Others, I realize, level their judgment at me to the same or greater degrees. What good is that novel you just read? Isn’t that a waste of time? Well, the same could said about the goal that player just made that you reacted to orgasmically. If you’re going to judge me for having no interest in your passion, I’m going to judge you for having none in mine. Let’s lay it out and compare worth some day and see how what stacks up.)

(I have noticed that this phenomenon is not limited to intellectual pursuits. I’ve been insulted in the past for being in good physical condition. I lift weights, it shows. I’ve been treated as somehow weird by people who…well, any deviation from an assumed norm will intimidate people who just can’t seem to bring themselves to do the work to achieve something they might actually want to do. It’s as if they think they should have been born with these characteristics and when it turns out they have to do some actual work, instead of embracing the opportunities, they turn to resentment of those who do.)

I didn’t intend to complain this morning. But I have some things on my mind. This is a free-flowing post. Read at your own peril.

I made myself go to the gym this morning. I halfway expected to be unable to finish a workout. Instead, as often happens, about half to two-thirds through, I felt better. Blood flowing, I came awake.

And on the drive home I started having conversations in my head.

Yes, I talk to myself. I always have. My interactions with my fellow creatures have often been frustrating to me. Things I miss, don’t get, say wrong, hear wrong, respond inappropriately. A good deal of what people see today is a carefully constructed façade designed to offer an interface that works in group settings. Not fake, no, but selective and practiced. At one time I did try putting a fake front up and it never worked. It took a long time for me to realize that, though, because part of the front was a very selective filter that kept useful interaction out.

(That annoying piece of advice, so often given, to just “be yourself” used to infuriate me. Firstly, how the hell does one do that? I mean, really. First it assumes you know who you are. Second it assumes that you have a choice about how you come across to other people. You do, as it turns out, but it rarely comes automatically. And thirdly, it fails to take into account whether or not you like who you may be as “yourself.” Don’t people realize that “being yourself” may well be the last thing you want to be because you find whatever that is to be…wanting? Of course they do, they’ve been having the same struggle, but probably don’t realize it. All those “popular” people, do we really believe that’s who they really are? If you could look inside to see, would it be what you see on the outside? No. So, stupid advice, well-meant, but as often as not self-defensive.)

I’m sitting here in my office, trying to rework a short story that has resisted conclusion for months. Like most of my short stories in the last several years, it seemed promising because I had a very cool idea. The idea remains cool. Getting it across as a compelling story is another matter. And, as usual, I am procrastinating by working on this post instead.

I’m listening to Walter Piston. He was an American composer, mid-20th Century. I stumbled on him during one of my periods of exploring obscure classical music. You can listen to him and hear a bit less experimental version of Barber and Copland and maybe Hanson. (Again, who? Yeah.) I’ve got a few CDs of his symphonies. They make excellent background for writing, but when you really listen to them you hear a familiar strain of anxiety that seems a part of most American neoclassical. You listen to Copland and the others and you can hear a boldness, a brashness that seems distinctly American. But along the way, especially in the symphonies, comes a stretch of uncertainty. I call it anxiety. The anxiety of not being so sure of yourself, perhaps, or the anxiety of knowing you have a lot of responsibility and can’t really carry it. (I sometimes think Ives, whom I cannot really stand, was about nothing but that uncertainty.)

The best science fiction carries that anxiety in its guts. We’re boldly going where we don’t belong and nervous about it, but eager. so eager to see the next neat thing.

So I get home, muscles still humming from a decent workout, brain filled with a silent conversation about an unresolved issue, and Donna is still doing landscaping in the back yard.  I help by moving some heavy stones, then retreat inside, eventually migrate down to the office, and start riffing on these stray thoughts.

Most days, lately, I write a few sentences, correct some errors, tweak. Then I scoot to the other computer and cruise. Yesterday I listened to a report on “downgrading” humans, which talked about how the information explosion has been coopted by the so-called Attention Economy to the detriment of actual intellection.

Downgrading Humans. According to the report, our brains are not equipped to deal with the information deluge constantly poured through them. We get overwhelmed, the tools we have to sort wheat from chaff are inadequate, we can’t tell noise from signal after a while, and soon we’re just clicking through from one bit to the next in a parody of research. The limitation offends, I’m sure. I’m resentful of my inabilities, especially when it comes to knowledge. But it’s an academic kind of resentment now that rarely obtrudes into the kind of seething animosity a teenager might feel when being told no. It’s more frustration now when I run against my own lack of information and ignorance when I’m in the middle of a project or a conversation.

The problem I imagine with what is being described as “downgrading” is that indulging the immersion in click-throughs can come to feel like genuine learning.

Plus, there’s something addictive about. The dazzle of bright, shiny objects.

There’s a big market for self-help books. A lot of them are practical, how to do things, but a lot of them are about changing your life, becoming a new or different or better person. Many border on genuine psychology, but most seem to be manuals for self-improvement that only glance off the deeper aspects of who we are. Years ago, groping toward some kind of self-knowledge, I read a lot of them. Fritz Perls, Leo Buscaglia, Eric Fromm, others. I gleaned useful things from them all, but it seemed as I grew older, less and less of what I read in these books offered anything truly useful. Reality never conforms to neat paragraphs of “if this, then do that.” But occasionally there was genuine insight. I stopped reading them after I shifted into philosophy. But there’s a huge market. You would think we live in a world of remarkably healthy self-actualized people. I have no idea, but I have come to believe that most of these books sell to people who believe that all they have to do is read them and that is sufficient. Acting on the advice? Well.

I’ve taken a hard look at my own habits. I’ve become craggier in some ways. The state of the world has a bit to do with this, but in general I’ve been dissatisfied with my own progress along various fronts. I wondered, after hearing about this phenomenon, if I were a victim of this. Turning to the very thing that is largely the source of the problem is an irony past stating, but it is true that even though an overwhelming amount of dross permeates the internet, there is much that is worthwhile. A degree of ordinary scepticism is required and some robust filters, but you can find out useful things. So I did a bit of research on internet trends and realized quickly that I am a weekend tourist at worst. This thing distracts me, but I spend far more time reading books than ever I spend online.

But the distraction is enough to derail my concentration. It’s worse when I’m not working on a specific project. The discipline of the project keeps me focused.

Of course, then there are the days when my hindbrain cries out for relaxation. For what Donna calls “vegging.” One of the things my parents, worrying all through my upbringing that they would fail to implant it, managed to instill is an ethic that demands I waste no time. So even the things I do for “relaxation” seem to require a practical reason, a purpose. I’ve invented a number of excuses to fool my subconscious so it will leave me alone when I’m indulging the “frivolous.” I wish I could just…

I listen to music to put me in moods. Moods to write, to read sometimes, to work out. Music is a deep pool of inspiration and replenishment for my soul. We live in an age where the available sounds are greater than at any time. The possibilities are amazing. I hear better performances, more intriguing compositions, wilder explorations today than ever before, in just about any genre of music you care to name. You would think we could find a common soundtrack with all this to choose from, but the click-through ethic renders too many too impatient to sit and truly listen.

Or does it? That same volume of data may just serve to lend cover to large groups of people who do exactly that—sit and listen. They don’t answer surveys, they don’t buy in predictable manners, they don’t feed the pop machinery. It may be that we’re about to hear from them in a Big Way. I have noticed a lot of young people buying more books, books you might not predict they would buy. And of course the books being published…I can’t say that they are “downgraded.” No more than they ever were. And the best is better than ever before.

I take my optimism where I can find it.

Among the things I want to do before I’m gone: publish a dozen more books, record and release an album of original music, mount a couple of exhibits and possibly publish a monograph of my photographs, and maybe start drawing and painting again. State like that it would seem I need another lifetime. One thing I’ve come to appreciate (though perhaps not experienced yet) is that a lifetime doesn’t have a specific time limit and you can have more than one, overlapping or contiguously.

We’ll see what can be done with that.

Thank you for indulging me.

Visual Commentary

I did a short walk-around not long ago and made photographs. I haven’t had time to do anything with them till now, so…

Take them as metaphor, as studies in texture, as current commentary. Or just as interesting images.

 

One Nation, Two Governments, Civil Discord

Across the divide, two nations eye each other, suspicious and nervous. The problem they face is one of fundamental identity, exacerbated by a complete obfuscation of recognizable borders, because they live in each others’ back yards. There are times it seems a spark could set them at each other, breaking down doors, killing, attempting extermination.

Extreme? Sounds like any one of numerous civil war scenarios in the past half century, from the collapsed Yugoslavia to Rwanda to South Sudan. Neighbors, sometimes with intermarried families, abruptly at each others’ throats.

We take comfort in the confidence that it can’t happen here. But in fact it often does, and has, just not in the nationwide, all-vestiges-of-law-and-morality cast aside scope of some of these places. And in the past several years we have heard the rattling of sabres among groups that feel this kind of explosion of rage and all-or-nothing “readjustment” is becoming necessary. We hear talk of “second amendment solutions” and the threat of violence if an election goes counter to a certain set of expectations. Many of us probably shudder briefly and then resume our tacit reliance on law enforcement and the basic civility of our national “character” to ensure that it won’t happen.

But flare-ups, brushfire conflicts, terrorism…these things do happen and will and may become more common before we realize a solution. What do we think all these mass shootings are?

It’s easy to see them as aberrations, one-offs and outliers. Not anything to do with a legitimate issue. A “gun control” issue on the one hand, a “mental health” issue on the other. But what if they’re symptomatic of a deeper problem having to do with how people see their lives within contexts which some view as universal and others, contrariwise, see as alarming shifts in representation?

While wrestling with the symptoms, we are absorbed in the label game. 

Here seems to be the basic problem: we have become two nations (maybe more) by the progressive drift of perceived representational dynamics over decades. The people who, for a simple way of identifying them, voted for Trump and support what many view with alarm as a destructive suite of anti-government policies that appear purposed to strip civil rights, are reacting primarily to what they see as their abandonment by what was once their government. All the talk about “taking America back” is not simply a rhetorical device to discredit certain policies, but expressing a genuine sense of having been cut out by the very institutions they once supported as American citizens.

The reemergence of certain symbols and organizations—the Confederate flag, the KKK, the whole concept of Originalism—baffle those of us who have viewed the social progressivism of the post WWII era as a Good Thing. The so-called Safety Net, the destruction of accommodation barriers, the gradual (and much too slow) emergence of equity consciousness, and the growing sense of self-awareness vis-a-vis our national character and its shortfalls—all these things, for many of us, are net positives. In our own lives, the sense of security, the expansion of community, and the acceptance of limits on the use of power have defined for us a maturation, something which seems so obvious as to not need defending as ideals. The use of government to achieve these things felt like an obvious means, since most other instruments of social change seemed arbitrary, with spotty records, and often a priori resistance based on tribal identities which ran counter to the larger goal. Not to mention obvious limits on effectiveness. The progress achieved, many felt, appeared so self-evidently right as to be its own justification. 

We forgot certain key elements (or never knew them) and ran headlong into the wall around a completely different set of assumptions, namely those that defined community according to an unexpressed (though sometimes aggressively mischaracterized) principle of exclusivity.

One of the characteristics of what we call “Americanness” has always been an assumed tolerance. The whole Statue of Liberty aesthetic overarches what we believe is our national distinction, that we welcome anyone, that there is a basic egalitarianism we simply accept, and that here the prejudices of the past do not pertain. It’s an impossible standard, however, not so much wrong as unattainable in the face of all the other aspects of our national identity which stand against it. By that, I mean things like American Exceptionalism (which is understood, if at all, as an inbred trait rather than as a property of institutions and systems) or the rather pernicious belief in individualism as our most useful trait. These things can combine to challenge any claims that anyone from anywhere can be as “good” as we are. (This underlies and informs a peculiar expression of imperialism which manifests differently than what we consciously identify as such.)

We are tolerant as long as it seems to cost us nothing, or at least nothing we feel as part of our identity. In this we are human, like anyone else. But because we believe we are by definition more tolerant, we can be blind to instances of systemic (or personal) intolerance, often transferring the causes onto those against whom we behave intolerantly. “Its their problem if they can’t or won’t appreciate how good we’re treating them.”

(Implicit in that sentence is the essence of the problem—the exclusivity—that “we Americans” know what is good “them” and have chosen to bestow it. Some may feel this is largesse, graciousness. Those receiving it may feel it to be arrogance, especially since some of the most important things never get “bestowed”—like genuine acceptance and equality.)

Since 2016, these disconnects have emerged into the public sphere unapologetically, erupting into ideological conflict, with the whole apprehension of Government exhibiting profound rifts between groups that fundamentally misunderstand each other.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps even the assumption that there is any misunderstanding itself is a misunderstanding of what is actually happening, what we are really seeing.

Firstly, though, I think it is important to understand tolerance. In my view, tolerance is a step along the way to normalizing a relationship. We tolerate the new until a space can be made for simple acceptance. For individuals, this can be a very long time and occasionally acceptance never comes. For communities, however, a different order of processing must come into play. Tolerance is a period during which assessments must be made in order to determine the nature of what may be a new normality. Again, acceptance may never come, but what is vital is the attempt and the assessment. During this process, the community and the thing being tolerated have concomitant obligations to find that space or find a way to reform around mutually beneficial conditions of being. Special spaces may result wherein practices and behaviors might be sustained in ways that do not run counter to the community at large. (Hence, religious communities may find places within secular societies in an accommodation requiring respectful acceptance of differences from both, and certainly a degree of interaction which will naturally change both parties over time. The willingness or at least acceptance of gradual change to allow the accommodation to work better is necessary. Problems arise when an obdurate rejection of any change, on one or both sides, is experienced. Change still happens, but it likely will not be beneficial to either group.)

Too many people seem to believe tolerance simply means “putting up with something you don’t like, understand, or approve of.” In this formulation, there is no acknowledgment of the necessity to work toward accommodation. It becomes a static condition, unresolved, and therefore an irritation. Furthermore, it would appear a significant number of people feel that tolerance requires them to be “like the thing tolerated.” This, if accepted unreservedly, can lead to unresolvable tensions and eventually rejection.

This is vital to understanding where we have arrived in our current distress.

Whether morally sustainable or not, structurally we have worked under a false formulation of what Equality means. Regardless of what it says in the various declarations of rights, we are not born equal. “Created” equal may be more accurate than we usually think, although in this case it has nothing to do with theological origin stories (though they certainly, all of them, contain the germ of reality). People, in a given context, are literally “created”, i.e. made equal—by those acknowledging their status. It is a consequence of initiation. Equality, at least the kind we’re always arguing about, is a wholly political and legal state, requiring the bestowal and recognition of agency and admission as an equal according to the requirements of the community.

We daily move through the world with a base assumption that we were born into this world with a full set of naturally-bestowed rights. Any perusal of history demonstrates the falseness of that assumption. We may well argue that it should not be that way, and I would certainly be among the first to agree and argue against the desirability of the opposite view. But in the struggle to defend and expand such rights, I believe it is important to realize from whence they come and how they are secured.

And how they are reduced.

The 20th Century saw profound changes in our understanding, at a fundamental level, of what constitutes a just society. It drove us to embrace a “care and feeding” approach across communities that, to some extent, sought to dissolve previously traditional barriers between classes. During the Great Depression this was easier to do than previous eras because the catastrophe had so threatened the status quo that positive action was possible if only to forestall a revolution. It was not at all certain at the time that capitalism would survive. The collapse was global. After WWII, the changes resumed in the areas of civil rights and economic enfranchisement. It was doable then because of the unprecedented expansion of our economy, which made it seem that all these changes would actually pay for themselves and cost the comfortable almost nothing. It was easy to be magnanimous during fat times.

With the Sixties came even more progressive actions extending to the environment and declaring a war on poverty itself. Along with this, we saw an eruption of challenges to tradition, lifestyle changes, erosion of public conformism, much of it æsthetically problematic, along with a loud denunciation of the state apparatus vis-a-vís the Vietnam War, which called into question the previously unexamined givens of the responsibilities of the individual to the state when moral evaluations of specific actions are at issue. 

Right here we can see the fissures forming which have led to where we now are.

The presumption currently, for some, is that a group of us have turned against their government. I think this misses an important point. I do not believe these disaffected people believe their government has simply drifted away from them. Rather, they believe there has been a coup and this is not Their Government, nor has it been for a very long time.

That shift serves to explain many otherwise baffling aspects of the current divisiveness in the country. Primarily because, if this is the case, then all those who seem so dedicated to bringing about the collapse of what the rest of us see as sound governance see themselves as patriots and our criticisms of their choices and actions would be to them the desperate holding actions of an alien polity.

For the first few decades after WWII, government could be seen to embrace a traditionalist embodiment of American values. Not until Vietnam and the Counterculture did the cracks become chasms and it was evident, at least to some, that what had once been taken as given had in fact become anathema to a different set of priorities and, indeed, aims. The people government traditionally represented—white, lower to upper middle class, essentially Christian, native-born, prone to assume what the government did was in the main for the “common” good and ought to be supported—began to separate into two broad groups: the first, those who, while still more or less holding those traditionalist views, believed in the expansion of the franchise, the modification of representational democracy to better serve previously under-represented groups, and who had gradually become less inclined to blindly trust what the government did. The second, those who had watched with growing alarm at the emergent enfranchisement of both groups and ideas that ran counter to what they viewed as “American” and became less and less enamored of the changes embraced, supported, and advocated in Washington. 

In its simplest terms, the former group have come to be defined as liberal while the second, conservative. The disagreement between the diverging viewpoints quickly centered not so much on the policies in question as on the authority of government to enforce said policy. For many, it may well have begun simply over a question of who retains the authority to determine behaviors. Tolerance, even condemnation of past discriminatory policies, may have been perfectly acceptable, but not if mandated by law. On the other side, addressing these issues—which for many are matters of justice—are necessarily the proper function of government. Think segregation, fair accommodation, educational and employment equity, and so forth.

Up till 1974, both these groups, divided as they may have been over basic questions of proper governance, largely saw The Government as their government. The tug-of-war between ideologies and government responsibility has always been a normal part of our republic, and the give-and-take seen as a necessary pendulum swing in the quest for optimal policy. Conservatives and Liberals saw each other as part of the same community.

In 1974, President Richard M. Nixon resigned in disgrace rather than face impeachment, which was in the offing. This signaled the end of status quo political comity. The Right (not conservatives, but who nevertheless saw themselves as such) saw this as a coup. 

Nixon was possibly the last conservative Republican president who still believed in the kind of service that defined the core of 20th Century American democracy. While he brought to bear many deeply problematic, even destructive policies, he also did many things which today would be anathema to his presumed natural base, the EPA for instance. He was, in fact, working to bypass rule of law to push his agenda and the “shadow”government he used to do end-runs around congress was the cause of his undoing, a method later used by Reagan and then, more thoroughly, by Vice President Cheney under Bush.

Given the decade just ended, however, with Vietnam and the whole parade of culturally-challenging upheavals known as the Counterculture, it must have looked to many people as if the one “decent” American who wanted to “bring us all together” had been hounded into exile by political gypsies, fellow travelers, and Leftists who lacked any regard for traditional American values. Discussion of whether or not Nixon had been framed was common up through the Nineties, and may still inform dinner-table conversations in many rightwing households today.

If, as it appeared, Nixon’s downfall was a fiendish coup to oust “decent” government and replace it with something so outside the pale as to threaten the very idea of America, then viewing this moment as the point at which Everyone’s Government became Their government serves to explain what has happened since and how support for someone like Trump can be accepted as part of a war to reclaim that government. Mitch McConnell’s defiant refusal to do anything President Obama wished to do now makes sense as another step in a conflict wherein one part of our country feels it is not being served by “that” government, and until all the liberal influences can be ousted and replaced by dependable “conservative” elements, then the war continues. Trumps “drain the swamp” rhetoric is a battlecry in this war, embraced by people who feel Washington is held by people who have wrested it from them.

The dispute over diverse issues such as trade, abortion, immigration, marriage equality, and taxes comes down to a bitter fight to retake a government which is seen as illegitimate. And in such a war it does not matter if the Other Guy has a good idea, he is first and foremost the “Other Guy, on their side.” And must be opposed—especially if he or she has a good idea. Accepting the idea would be the same as legitimizing a government viewed as “not mine.”

Those who say there is a civil war going on may be correct, but not the kind we might expect. For their part, Democrats, who for purposes of convenience (if not in fact) we can characterize as liberals, have been trying for some time to accommodate a Republican Party that has seen its ranks replaced over time by warriors in the cause of winning this war. To date, many of them have not yet realized the nature of the dispute.

We can ask on what grounds the disaffected Right has embarked on this war. There are many answers, but the one that matters most is that for too many of them, government has failed to serve. The one issue on which they may have common cause with the left is the question of who that government does serve. Too often, and for many complex reasons, it is the moneyed interests, who for their part really don’t care which side is “right” as long as they are granted freedom to manage finances as they see fit.

On the ground, however, we find ourselves back at the beginning, in a debate over tolerance—what it is and where and to whom it applies—and those who feel this is not “their” government look upon all the things they distrust and even despise as attempts to bury their way of life. Shouting at them that all this is making it difficult is not impossible to govern, while intended perhaps to make them more aware and shake them out of the grip of whatever obdurate self-centeredness we may think is possessing them, is precisely the point behind how they vote and what they wish to see enacted. Or, in many cases, repealed.

What they’re saying is “Hey, we’re the Americans here, not Them! Try governing in our behalf instead of undermining everything we believe in!”

The opinion of those who disagree with all those things just angers them more.

But it does, in fact, come down to a question of what tolerance is. Is tolerance a space wherein an opportunity for understanding to grow on both sides? Or is it merely a suspension of disapproval until someone learns to be “like us”?

It is perfectly understandable that now, when it appears that another coup has taken place and the legitimacy of government is at issue, that questions of racism and sexism, homophobia and economic justice have exploded into the public arena in ways not seen in a long time. These are the icons of tolerance. One side looked upon changes in the past with a kind of “how long do we have to put up with all this before it can return to normal?” fraying patience, while the other side pushed to make these changes not only permanent aspects of the landscape but footholds leading to further changes. 

Government, in some ways, has been caught in the middle.

We will not resolve this until we recognize the nature of the divide. 

Of Time and Software

I’ve been having difficulties for the past several months with this posting window. First I couldn’t load images, then for some reason the entire composing window vanished. I ended up having to back-door my posts through my other blog. This morning, though, I boot up to find an update that has, apparently, resolved the issues.  (Knock on digital wood.) Sometimes, it seems, just waiting, biding one’s time, leaving well enough alone…

In any case, allow to leave an image while I bask in the readjustment of my online universe.