distal muse

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Retrenchment

The new abortion laws being enacted across the country should come as no surprise. This was going to happen. This has been in the cards since Reagan. Reliance on the courts to defend the right to choose was as much an indication of how much we underestimated the threat as it was any kind of faith in our institutions.

Right after Roe was passed, amendments to state constitutions should have been passed to nail it down. Other laws should have been written and passed to nail it down. One of the inherent problems with a federal solution is that it’s a one-time solution that can be reversed the next time across the board. Roe should have been the start of a long series of embedding legislation which should have been taken up on the assumption that Roe could be overturned.

It didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. One, I believe, is that too much support for the right to choose is tepid. It is too often circumstantial, waffling, and uncomfortable.

Now we’ll find out. Penalties are being attached. Some have already been enacted. This means one thing that has traditionally scared the anti-choice movement off—it will now be in the courts all the time.

Let me say here that in my opinion, as a male, I should have no say in this. At all. I was never at risk in this issue. I could never get pregnant. I was never going to suffer consequences from being denied the right to an abortion. This should not be something I have any stake in.

That said, it has become politicized to the point that having an opinion is unavoidable because now it is a civil rights issue, and civil rights affect all of us.

And no, as far as I’m concerned, a fetus has no civil rights. A fetus is not a person. At best, a fetus is a manifestation of an idea, and it only becomes a person if all the parties involve follow through. All the moralistic posturing about when life begins and what constitutes a human are just that—posturing. By taking the position that a fetus—now, in some cases, a zygote—is a human being with a full suite of rights, you automatically strip rights of personhood from the one carrying it. Personhood is an aspect of autonomy. Autonomy at the very least is a matter of self-determination. By declaring that a collection of cells has greater claim to state protection than the one carrying them is by definition declaring that woman less than everyone else. You can’t have it any other way.

Until we stop waffling about that, this issue will not be resolved.

Resolution, however, entails several other issues that are hanging upon the thread of ongoing discomfort. Like equality, for instance, and not just for women.

Education for another. The rationalization of sex. Not to mention the ongoing squirming about gender, orientation, and identity. All of this is tangled up and therefore it is difficult to know just what some people are objecting to when they go on a jeremiad about abortion. We may believe our response is exclusively aimed at the words coming out of their mouths, but then when their next response comes, laden with contradiction and vehement rejection, we sense that we did not know just what we were arguing about.

This is simple:  if the goal is to reduce and/or eliminate abortions, then a sensible solution is to substantially invest in meaningful sex education and the wide availability of contraception. Attack the causes of unwanted pregnancy and empower individuals to protect themselves. How hard is that?

Apparently, very. Almost no anti-choice group does not also include a ban on contraception as a stated goal. One of the justifications touted for this stance is the notion that contraception is simply abortion by other means. Pre-emptive abortion, if you will. That contraception inculcates a lax attitude toward the value of life. That contraception leads to an acceptance of abortion.

This facile excuse-making masks a very simple reality:  that the real issue is not abortion but sex. Sex practiced outside the bounds of what is hoped to be strict social parameters that will control behaviors said advocates find unacceptable. (A recent declaration by Alabama Republican state Senator and sponsor of the bill Clyde Chambliss, responded that, “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” That’s about as clear as it can be made—he and probably his supporters are not interested in the “facts of life” regarding fertilized egg—they are concerned with pregnant women and making sure they stay pregnant.)  This is a direct assault on a woman’s right to be her own agent.  It is punitive and it is a curtailment of her civil rights. This has nothing to do with fetuses except as a means of control.

Until we largely get past the traditional views that linger like mold that sex is somehow bad and that women who try to live their lives according to the same privileged sensibilities men do are “unnatural”; until we get to a place where we can accept that sex as an act of communication is separate and distinct in intent and outcome from sex as procreation and that all of us have a right to manage our own aspirations free of outside interference, we will continue to have this problem.

It is the start of a chain, though.  If you can dictate pregnancy this way, you can dictate all the rest of the privacy concerns adhering to questions of free association and identity. This can be enlarged for purposes of a resurgent legal challenge to homosexual rights, transgender rights, adoption rights, marriage rights, and so on.  Not that it necessarily would go there but by accepting the legitimacy of such limitations on one group for purposes having nothing to do with their innate and autonomous desires, you can construe a challenge to any group failing to fit an arbitrary social “norm.”

That is not a society I care to live in.

Until we quite clearly and loudly start dealing with the underlying (and not so well hidden) issues involved, we are destined to keep fighting these back-and-forth legal wars.  Despite the distance traveled since the 1950s and all its suffocating social restrictions, people still seem reluctant to defend their right to have healthy sex.  Indeed, we still have too many people who do not believe sex is healthy. Too many people who excuse their desires and passions by making babies and therefore proving a legitimate reason for having such a good time was there all along.

It sounds silly, doesn’t it?

When you disassemble the challenges and look at the arguments and then look at the policies advocated, it doesn’t sound so silly.  The anti-choice movement has depended on the tepidness, the discomfort, of too many people in order to build the momentum they have. They have relied on our collective ill-ease with the whole subject.

Well. Be that as it may. Sad to say, the pro-choice movement is likely going to lose this one. Having lost it, we will regroup, and maybe next time do the necessary trench-warfare in the state legislatures, and school boards, and town halls to instantiate this right in too many places, too deeply to be effectively challenged.

We need to. I am not willing to live in a Calvinist dystopia. I don’t think the Fifties were all that wonderful. I don’t want my friends to suffer a retreat from the dream of equity.

This has been a fight with ignorance. The depth of that ignorance is on display now across the country. People who don’t know—and who don’t want to know, because knowing confuses them, makes them doubt. They want a pure, righteous cause by which to feel virtuous.

For the life of me, I’ve never understood why genuine equality doesn’t fill that bill.

Equality? For the ignorant—that a woman can be shackled by a condition and have her entire life twisted and reshaped through no choice of her own and that men can never be so trapped automatically makes this an equity issue. That is reality. And I have no doubt that many if not all the architects of the so-called pro-life cause know that perfectly well and they are glad of it, because they think that’s as it should be.

 

 



On Being Overwhelmed By

Too many things.

I’ve been on Facebook for years and I have a great many people on my friends list. I belong to a few interest groups, one of which was, till recently, a Science Fiction discussion page. Natural fit, yes? I left the group. I had two comments arbitrarily deleted by the admin.

I hasten to explain that this was not an arbitrary decision on my part, to leave, at least not as arbitrary as it sounds. Nor am I particularly thin-skinned. This was a question of how much time I’m willing to waste. It had entirely to do with the nature of the post to which I responded and the nature of my comment. Thinking it over, I realize that this sort of thing is indicative of a problem most of us are facing.

Now, to the post. It was about Nichele Nichols and her iconic role, Lt. Uhura. One of the responses quoted Whoopie Goldberg, who recalled seeing her first Star Trek episode and running into the other room to alert her family that there was a “black woman on the television and she ain’t a maid.” This led to someone demanding that “politics be kept off the board! This is for science fiction, not politics.”  Well, I had to scratch my head. “How,” I asked myself, “do you talk about SF without discussing politics?”

That was the nature of my response. Mainly, to point this out, and that in some 50 + years of reading the stuff, I cannot recall a single worthwhile work that did not, even if buried in layers of subtext, have something political about it. Because science fiction is inherently political. It’s all about change. Worldbuilding? Substitute the phrase “regime change.” You don’t get there without politics. Utopia? That’s a mode centered on political theory—outdated, perhaps, but nonetheless. Dystopia? That is about the collapse of one form of politics and the substitution of another. Interstellar travel? Hugely expensive, entire nations would have to vote for it. Politics. New technologies replacing old? Political ramifications from beginning to end.  And meeting aliens, well! We have actual experience with that on a cultural level. Major politics ensue.

There’s no getting away from it. Science fiction is fundamentally, inherently political. It can’t not be. As soon as you suggest the future will be different, somewhere in there is a political question, and if you then go ahead and describe how it got to be different, you’re up to your eyeballs in politics.

So the demand to keep politics out of a discussion of SF is prima facie ridiculous.

Now, really, I know what the poster meant. He didn’t want present-day, in-the-news politics interjected in what he regarded as his “safe” escape medium. But as soon as Nichele Nichols as Lt. Uhura came up, photograph and all, that was not possible, because she was all about equality, and that is an argument we are having.  At the time she was first cast in that part, it was for many people incendiary politics. The character of Uhura was a slap in the face to white supremacists, a statement that the status quo not only had to change but would change. Damn right it was political.

But this is an indication of something we may be in danger of losing, at least for a short time, and that is the ability to talk about such things without descending into a partisan mud wrestle. Not that we ever possessed this ability completely. I remember many a conversation that proceeded along on what one might describe as a theoretical basis, and it would be civil and interesting. But there was always a line, usually somewhere that a suggestion was made along the lines of “how come we don’t do this now?” Then ranks and minds closed.

But there was that space, for a short while, where issues could be discussed like adults…

That space has shrunk in recent years.

So we end up with the absurd demand from some who seem not to realize that what they ask is not possible, not if a real discussion is to be had. Keep politics out of science fiction?

Get real.

But people are overwhelmed lately. I know I am. It manifests in a brevity of response to stupidity. It manifests in my growing willingness to call certain things stupid rather than politely engage until some clue as to the source of said stupidity emerges. I have neither time or patience lately, because the stupid is threatening to destroy too much.

It may well be, though, that we should develop a new appreciation for science fiction. All things being equal, it may end up being the last “safe” place to discuss these things among people on opposite sides of an issue.

For the sake of the future, it would be worth a try.



Another New Look

I do this from time to time because (a) I’m bored, (b) I’m curious, (c) something breaks, or (d) I want people to think I’m engaged, paying attention, and updating because, you know, I’m trying to be current or relevant or…

Yeah, whatever. I’m never sure what it is I’m trying to accomplish when I switch themes.  Probably the equivalent of Spring Cleaning, only not as physical.

I any event, I’ve been doing the usual gaping in dismay at the national (and state) political scene, trying to find something to say that might make it all fit an understandable set of parameters, and the last couple of posts I wrote about it were attempts at explaining larger forces. That’s my way of dealing with the world, trying to comprehend, describe, and thereby put it in some form that allows me to make sense of it.

This time? I’m watching the Republican Party turn itself inside out and for the life of me it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, they’re trying to gain leverage by aligning themselves with a proven liar, a mediocre businessman, a berserker, an anti-intellectual, a boor, a sexual predator, a supremacist, someone with the verbal skills of a third-grader who has no sense of history and seems distracted by bright and shiny with no regard for worth and substance. I cannot help but think he’s got a black book on these people that puts Nixon’s enemies list to shame. But then, I look at the last four years and can’t help but think that, even if he had, he’s just not capable of using it. Not well.

So my best response usually is, WTF?

So far, Biden is doing exactly the right thing. The job. He’s not getting drawn into making comparisons, denying allegations that have no substance, responding to the kind of shallow gotcha polemics that can do nothing but make everyone look stupid. He’s not rising to the bait. And his spokesperson, Psaki? Brilliant. If they keep to this, at some point the GOP will finally crawl up its own rectum and suffocate on the nonsense.

One point for all you folks who may be on the fence about the GOP: McConnell has declared his intention to follow the same program he did with Obama—block everything he can, no matter what. That means the GOP will do nothing. Nothing will be accomplished that they can take any credit for.

In his case (McConnell’s), I believe this is because he is frankly not smart enough to know when he’s punching himself—and his constituency—in the face.

All in all, we have reached a point where there is, in fact, nothing left to say concerning the post mortem of the previous administration.  I can think of one or two things that came out of it all that have some merit, none of which I can honestly attribute to any kind of studied comprehension on the part of the ex-president:  We’ve been talking for decades about China and the need to address the violations in trade practices and so forth and, ill-aimed as it may have been, that shot was fired. From what I’ve seen so far, the Biden administration is not rolling back aspects of that which may do some good. It needed to happen at some point. It was a start. There were one or two moves in the Middle East that were not horrible and something can be built on it, but moving the embassy to Jerusalem was perhaps ill-advised. It may, however, have unforeseen positive consequences. It was a bone thrown to the far right of the party.

Not much. Certainly not enough to justify the tidal waves of stupidity that flooded the country from twitter and the administrative butchering our institutions received. Not enough to make the level of civic ill-ease worthwhile.

Not enough to forgive the unparalleled wreck they made of our pandemic response. And before anyone shouts “But this was unprecedented!” let me say, yes, but the previous administration had put together a response playbook which was basically thrown in the trash. Work done by even earlier administrations in anticipation of something like this was ignored as well. Preparatory groundwork was laboriously done which these people didn’t understand, wouldn’t spend the money on, and therefore faced a challenge which they subsequently mishandled. It’s amazing to me more people aren’t dead. But the damage is ongoing because the final injury done was to validate stupidity. People who feel empowered to dismiss fact and science and reason because they were told not to trust anything coming from anywhere but the president (even though very little actually came from him) will continue to thwart efforts to contain this epidemic. We may not achieve the kind of herd immunity we need or could have, not because we don’t know how but because people refuse to cooperate simply because.

Well. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest.

I haven’t been writing fiction lately. I have a novella in the queue at Analog, but I don’t know when that will be coming out. I’ve got a few short stories that are making the rounds. And I’m shopping for a new agent. I’ve been here before, but I’ve never been here when I’ve been this tired. I have one story I’ve been laboring at for months now. Partly, this is a time issue. Partly, this is a recovery issue. The holiday season just past taxed me to my limit physically. I’ll write about that some other time. I’m 66. I don’t bounce back like I used to, although to be honest I think I’m doing pretty well for a 66-year-old. I still get the gym, I still put in a full day’s work, I’m still alert. But I’m no marine. Partly, also, there’s a certain amount of discouragement attaching to all this.

I put my photography galleries online for the purpose of selling my visual work, but to date I’ve gotten very thin response. I’m not sure if people realize they can buy the work available.  I’ll be revisiting that whole thing in the coming months.

I’ve had both my shots now. I’m officially vaccinated. We were lucky not to have gotten ill. It will be nice to be able to go out again, but I doubt anything will be normal for a while.

My father is in a home. None of us wanted this to happen, but it did. He’s 90. Mom is coping as best she can and we’ve been visiting her more regularly. Things are murky in that area. No matter what, nothing will go back to what it once was.  Seems to be the theme of the last few years.

This has been a catch-up kind of post. New look, a state-of-the-union statement, so to speak. I may be writing more personal reports in the coming year. Stay tuned. And I hope all is going okay with you.



The Undoing

Here is a fact. The Republican Party, at the state and local level, is engaged in a purge. With a few exceptions, the apparatus is ousting members who do not support Trump. Anyone who has spoken against him, who will not support the Big Lie, who wish to move the Party away from him, are being removed from offices, barred from positions of responsibility, and pushed out the door. They’re welcome to call themselves Republicans but if they will not throw their lot in with the Trump cult, they are being treated as unreliable and untrustworthy and being removed. This goes all the way up to congress, where Liz Cheney is engaged in defending herself from exactly this.

One might say this is delusional on the part of those rallying to the former president, but we see people who publicly denounced Trump’s allegations about a fraudulent election now joining in on the big purge. Delusion is one thing. This is something else.

The comparisons to the Nazi Party have been going on for a long time, to the point that it has become almost a cliché. But it is valid to look at how such organizations operate historically and compare. This is is very much how such things go. In order to guarantee lock-step conformity, any independent voice, anyone who might hold conscience above program, has to go. The organization cannot afford the muddying effect of actual diversity of opinion in its effort to achieve its goals. In this sense, the GOP is becoming an antidemocratic organization. Along with the systematic attempt to enact voter suppression laws in state after sate, no one should doubt that this is a party bent on achieving unquestioned dominance of our civic institutions.

To what end?

That’s been the question for me: just what is it they wish to see?

I don’t think it’s subtle at all. They want this all to be Theirs. Even conservative supporters of such things as Social Security and Medicare seem to be joining the effort to undo those things. Every time someone talks about privatizing one of these programs it is entirely an effort to exclude. Even as some talk about expanding the GOP, making it more inclusive, the policy agenda the party pursues is one of stripping the government of the power to represent all the people. When you privatize something, you basically say that anyone can have these services if they can afford them. Pay for play. What about those who can’t afford them?

Too bad.

The twisted logic on display suggests that those who can’t afford to play are not Americans.

While no one has actually said those words, it is fairly obvious from four decades of programmatic reduction of common service that this is the ethos. No money? Gee.

But they have been thwarted often enough that what we see now is a last-ditch attempt to shore up Party Purity and make it impossible to mitigate the worst effects of what seems to be an attempt to destroy all safety nets and render all movements toward a more egalitarian society impotent. Basically, if certain people cannot choose who to exclude from services they feel they rightly deserve, they will dismantle it all so no one can have them. Then, afterward, when they have control, they will rebuild them with exclusions already in place.

We’ve seen this before, most clearly in school systems.  We’re seeing it now in voting restrictions. Party spokespeople have stated clearly that if voting rights are made more accessible, more egalitarian, the GOP will be at a disadvantage.

There is a deep admission of elitism at the heart of this that goes beyond simple competitiveness. These are people who believe they are chosen to be the only true Americans, and all these other…people…are the unwashed, vulgar, below-the-salt commoners who need to be shown their Place.

Pointing out what they’re doing to them does no good.  They know exactly what they’re doing and see nothing wrong with it.

Trump is meaningless, even to them, as anything other than a point of focus.

This is more dangerous than anything we’ve seen since the Depression. It is dangerous because the message has appeal to people who can’t fathom why they have to share something with strangers who don’t look like them, talk like them, think like them. It has appeal to people who think being an American entitles them to being superior. It has appeal to people who think taking care of everyone only means there will be less for them. It appeals to people who harbor resentments and think if only they could do something about those people over there then life would get better. It appeals to people who think if they hand their conscience over to the self-appointed vanguard of a New Order, that order will make sure they can keep their property. It appeals to people who, while perhaps being circumspect about their sentiments, actually feel a little bit safer every time a black man is killed by a cop.

The GOP is currently dominated by people who seem to believe that they alone know what being American means and in order to see that vision into dominance are willing to destroy everything that mitigates the damage elitism does in a country they feel is rightfully theirs and only theirs.

Right now, the various philosophies that have sustained them since the Seventies are being held up to review and seen wanting. The economic program known as trickle-down is being openly criticized and more people see it as a failure. Their record of gerrymandering and voter suppression is a public disgrace. It’s unraveling on them. But. It would not take much for them to simply regroup, abandon any attempt at soft-selling themselves, and just taking the forum. We cannot rest on the limited success of the last election, not while it’s still being challenged by the lies. It will take a few more elections to return our institutions to sanity.

In the short term, it may well be that Liz Cheney and a few others could form the basis of a new party that may well finish the destruction of the GOP as it now stands.  I’m not sure that would be any kind of a fix in the long run, but it might give us all the breathing space to find the common ground we’ve had yanked from beneath our feet and exorcize these demons of disunity.

I don’t know. Have a care. As Wellington said once, “it was the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” That, I think, is what we’re facing.



Management Style

Since Bill Clinton’s win over George H.W. Bush, I’ve held the opinion that what we need is less “inspiration” and better management. Not sexy, of course, but when you consider the enormous complexity of our institutions and the tangled interconnections with the world, it should be obvious that someone whose chief virtue is a Chautauqua Meeting ability to command attention and inflame an audience into tongue-speaking, emotion-laden excitement is not likely to either care or understand the true requirements of the job of president.

Usually, such abilities are at least understandable in a wartime leader. Rallying the troops, so to speak. But then, after the speeches, the hard work of actually running things must happen, and that requires a different set of skills, many of which are far from inspiring other than in the abstract.  (Consider, most successful military actions have always depended more on logistics than on tactics and the guy leading the charge. But we rarely pin medals on the supply officers.)

Eisenhower understood this. He was not a frontline commander, but he understood people, and knew how to organize, and could prioritize necessities. He was not a particularly inspiring speaker, but he was solid, dependable, even if most people didn’t quite know why. (His last speech as president addresses a technical issue which probably most people simply didn’t get—the military-industrial complex is an abstract concept about systems. He understood perfectly, though, how systems and institutions can develop enormous momentum and end up running us over, all because we ignore them because they seem so impersonal. He warned us about it and while some knew very well what he meant, we were never able to activate the political will to counteract it—because we tend not to vote for that sort of representative. We’re too hooked on Being Inspired.)

With the smoking ruin of Vietnam and the civil unrest that accompanied it, we began relying more and more on “inspiring” candidates. By the time Clinton came along, it seemed obvious that we had been running the country on a war footing practically since the end of WWII, and it was beginning to show signs of unendurable stress.  We needed to slow down, so to speak, stop fighting a war we were increasingly complicit in fueling for the benefit of an economy that was also clearly serving fewer and fewer people the way it ought to. The loudest voice extolling the most patriotic qualities in opposition to one existential threat after another in order to save the country from the shame and wreckage of movements no one really understood well enough to honestly oppose kept winning elections and overbalancing our institutions in favor of more extreme versions of an America Triumphant became the accepted standard of candidates.

When what we really needed was a good manager, not a General on a stallion leading a charge.

This trend gave us the last administration, which was almost all bombast and bluster and inspirational excess (for some, at least) and almost no actual management.

For years, I’ve been saying that I no longer care to be inspired. I want a competent person who will manage things. We needed that when Clinton won. We got some of it, but he was hampered by the jingoistic hunger to be A LEADER.

Well, fingers crossed, we may finally have what we need. According to this editorial in the New York Intelligencer, Joe Biden may have learned something from the last 40 years and has the presence of mind to act on what he’s learned.

We’ll see. It may fail, but I think this approach deserves a chance.  Because the other way, the mindless, adrenalin-driven screaming of hordes of followers behind that Leader On A Charger leading us toward the next hill has been tearing us apart.

Besides, the next hill may well be a cliff.



Pathological Ownership

Beth Moore has left the Southern Baptist Conference. If you are unaware of her and what this means, you should look into it. Beth Moore has for many years occupied a special place within that community—a preacher without portfolio, one might say, as the SBC does not permit women to hold the title “pastor.” The straight-up “pure quill” fundamentalism they espouse holds the inferred Biblical injunctions inviolable in this instance, but she has been such a forceful speaker and operates such a large organization that they are loathe to relegate her to silence. So she held that special position.

Till now.

She has split with them over Trump. The schism is instructive. Ms. Moore cannot find common ground with the majority of her colleagues over Trump.

“He became the banner, the poster child for the great white hope of evangelicalism, the salvation of the church in America,” she said. “Nothing could have prepared me for that.”

Since 2016 she has been on the outside of the SBC over this issue. She identified Trump as an exemplar of everything they should stand against, and yet she was met with silence, then disapproval, then warnings, and finally with the loss of her publisher. She could not understand the attitude of her (male) colleagues in their support for this man she saw as a walking “poster child” for evil.

To be sure, this has puzzled those outside the evangelical camp all along. The slogans and protestations over perceived moral lapses in Democrats would seem to support a no-holds-barred moralism that should have found Trump utterly unacceptable. And yet we have been witness to very public campaigns of image rehabilitation all along. It has been with mixed incomprehension and horror that we have seen people who flew into paroxysms of condemnation over Clinton’s behavior make showings of almost servile support (bordering on worship) for a man who bragged about pussy-grabbing and attempted to pay off a porn star to keep her from talking about her paid services to him. The very public ridicule he heaped on anyone who did not fit a shallow model of Americanism that combined a host of clichés and segregated anyone who didn’t meet the standard—essentially the acts of a bully picking on the weak—seemed to gain favor with the very people who claim Jesus as their exemplar. Beth Moore saw this for what it was and tried to convince the SBC to abandon its support for him, and instead found herself more and more at odds with them, more and more isolated.

It is fair to ask what is going on with this enormous contradiction. How could the self-professed moral arbiters of the country, the Christian Right, support this?

Beth Moore’s ambiguous status holds much of the answer.

It is by now a convention that in many religions women are relegated to secondary (or lesser) status. One may puzzle about how this can still pertain in a time when the evidence for any rational justification for it has been shown to be nonexistent. Certainly it is an aspect of male privilege, but that does not satisfactorily explain the complicit acquiescence of so many women. Moore is a good example of the conundrum. (Just as with people like Michele Bachman, who espouses a paradoxical belief that women should be subservient yet she herself sees no problem with holding leadership positions.) In Moore’s case, she has been in accord with the evangelical attitudes toward women and accepted a lesser status even while she has risen to a commanding position in her community. She felt the larger message important and, no doubt, felt protected within the larger community.

But when Trump’s very public attitudes toward women became a very public issue, and she protested, that community seemed to withdraw its protection.

In my opinion, this apparent betrayal is due to a basic misunderstanding which is not only endemic to communities like the SBC, but to our society as a whole, and it has to do with Ownership.

The only reason to deny equality to women and then justify it, you have to understand who thinks who owns what.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Dispossessed, there is a scene early on which strikes the issue squarely. It is a flashback of the protagonist, Shevek, as a child in, basically, preschool:

…the fat infant was at this moment coming towards the knobby one rapidly…he approached out of boredom or sociability, but once in the square of sunlight he discovered it was warm there. He sat down heavily beside the knobby one, crowding him into the shade.

The knobby one’s blank rapture gave place at once to a scowl of rage. He pushed the fat one, shouting “Go ‘way!”

…The knobby one stood up. His face was a glare of sunlight and anger. His diapers were about to fall off. “Mine!” he said in a high, ringing voice. “Mine sun!”

“It is not yours,” the one-eyed woman said with the mildness of utter certainty. “Nothing is yours. It is to use.  It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.” And she picked the knobby baby up with gentle inexorable hands and set him aside, out of the square of sunlight.

The knobby one shook all over, screamed, “Mine sun!” and burst into tears of rage.

Baby Shevek has determined that things belong to him. Personally. Perfectly natural, to a degree. The world is centered on him, he feels he has a right to the patch of sunlight, that he can, in fact, own it. We read the passage with a mix of amusement and enlightenment. We recognize this to be an infant’s response to the reality of the world.

But.

Our culture is based, largely if not wholly, on an idea of ownership that was in the beginning a redress of imbalance. The idea that anyone, regardless of “station”, could own property was radical, especially in its unremarked egalitarianism. Communal ownership was more common, but this was not the aspect of ownership that captured the imagination—rather, it was the sole ownership, the possibility the individual, any individual, could own outright the equivalent of a kingdom that became the unquestioned ethos of the American experiment. This idea—so powerful, so very American in its expression if not its origins—fueled the growth of the United States and rocketed us to heights unparalleled in history.

And it underlies everything that is currently wrong with the republic. It has always had its dark side, it has never been free of abuse, but it has gone through cycles during which it was tempered—by circumstance, by public morality, by the very excesses of those most adept at acquisition. Boom and Bust cycles are the product of poorly controlled acquisition. Theodore Roosevelt knew it and attacked it. His relative, FDR, went further.

But it’s very difficult to regulate that which is an outgrowth of a cultural feature, part of our own mythology, our identity—our psychology. Any attempt to regulate it feels like theft.

This is not new, by any means, but it has become so dominant in our culture as to be like the very air we breathe, at least for some. Ownership has come to possess us as the only worthwhile aspect of anything and everything. If looked at from this perspective, all our present ethical and social conundrums clarify, from taxes to fashion, gun ownership to healthcare, voting rights to marriage, property to opinions, abortion to minimum wage.

What Trump has done for the membership of the SBC that puts them at odds with Beth Moore and seems so perverse to many of us is to reaffirm for them what they feel proprietary about, what they believe they rightfully own, that their claims of possession are legitimate. Beth Moore does not, for them, have a right to be shocked and repulsed by Trump because she is not an owner. They are. To put it as bluntly as possible, while perhaps most of them are dismayed and censorious about Trump’s pussy-grabbing, it remains a fact for them that the pussy is there for him to grab. His grabbing it makes it his, because the woman does not own it. Women’s sexuality is not theirs.

Beth Moore does not even have a right to her own voice—they have tried to take that away from her—but only has use of it because it serves the self-presumed owners.

Absurd? When you look back at the history of personal rights over the centuries, one thing becomes clear—it always revolves around some formulation of ownership. As the franchise expanded, those opposed railed against it out of a sense of privilege, that they are losing something which they act as if they owned. What we are seeing right now across the country is exactly that—people trying to limit voting rights, reduce them, take them away from those they see as a threat. (Because the consequences of such expanded voting might impinge on other things that self-styled elites feel are theirs.) Many reasons are given, but the presumption that such restrictions are even considered is based on a notion of proprietary civic ownership that goes back centuries.

Plato discussed communal space, where everyone in a polis “owned” things in common. Aristotle thought this was a bad idea since in his view (to simplify) common ownership like that would dis-incentivize care, that without the added encouragement of private ownership, no one would feel obligated to preserve, maintain, or build. Aristotle was the one “good pagan” that the Catholic Church used to build its own social ethics and so this idea came into the mainstream of thought through the dominant religions of the modern era. Plato and Aristotle approved of limited forms of democracy, but felt that not everyone was suited to participate equally and Aristotle made no bones about believing only elite males had a natural right to ownership, which meant the ability to participate in the politics of the polis. Hence the franchise came down to us from ideas of suitability and because so much history, property, conquest, and nation-building has accrued around these ideas since, it is difficult to tease them apart. They are the air we breathe, as I said.

There has always been a cycle of balances set against this. Simple ability to enforce, the reach of government and church, the situation on the ground at any given place and time—all have made a pure form of this hard to achieve and there has always been some push-back. But we cannot seem to be rid of it. One would have thought that by the Enlightenment, the categorical denials of agency necessary would have fallen by the wayside, and yet…

Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696 – 1792) was a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, a patron of David Hume and Adam Smith, among others. He, with others, established the Philosophical Society of Scotland. A precursor to the much more influential work of Adam Smith, he was concerned about the importance of property to society. The economics aside, when it came to the franchise, he wrote:

“Those who depend for food on bodily labor, are totally void of taste, of such taste at least as can be of use in the fine arts. This consideration bars the greater part of mankind; and for the remaining part, many by a corrupted taste are unqualified for voting.”

With some allowance for the passage of much history, this would have fit rather well with Aristotle (and even Plato). Specific justifications aside, the idea that it is not only permissible but desirable to exclude certain people from participation is clear.

The rest of the 18th Century, in terms of Enlightenment thinkers, wrestled with questions of nature, merit, innate value. Property emerged as a key concern and with the creation of the United States, the momentum of such concerns barreled on with increasing force until, today, property has become everything.

The United States, however, has an in-built conflict. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are neither one based on such blatant exclusions and form the basis of a tension that has grown along with the self-conception of the country. Property, as it turns out, is only valuable when made exclusive. Politics, however, always intrudes on the uses of property, which brings in the concerns of those excluded. Rights occupy a special space that seem beholden to the ephemeral even as the exercise of Rights inevitably impacts the temporal. Because we have a love-hate relationship with ideas of property that transcend mere material objects, the inextricable dependence of one on the other creates a conception of property that seems to encompass Rights and treats them as a species of Things Which Can Be Owned. My Rights, My Land, My Freedom, My Things, My Self.

The most accessible way to conceive of all this is as property. Which means that when Rights are expanded, some people will see this as an encroachment because it depletes the value of their property. And so, the question at the center of modern conservatism, whether stated explicitly or not (or even acknowledged), is: What can I own? The next question, then, would have to be: how can I maintain the value of what I own?  This becomes the justification to deny ownership to others.

For most people, historically, the goal was autonomy. The freedom to be who you are, unapologetically, without having to justify yourself to authorities. But autonomy—agency—is not the same as ownership. Unlike property, agency should not be—cannot be—a contract or title to the claims of self possession. It must be a given, unbarterable, nonfungible, and universal. The American myth is that here, we have that. In practice, most of us do not. It is traded away every day by the fact that without money—the means of ownership—we have nothing anyone feels obligated to respect.

So alliances are made, groups are formed, coalitions emerge. Churches are ready-made for this, because by joining one the agency we seem unable to possess on our own can be “borrowed” from the cadre. But churches aren’t the only method for becoming something by allying with many. Political parties, certainly, but the principle works with businesses, charitable organizations, clubs, special interests, schools…

All these things, however, exist—here—within a framework that has promised agency.

But that’s a slippery idea to pin down. It’s the thing implicit in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in the enumeration of rights to be kept free of outside (government) interference (or any other), like speech, freedom of worship, privacy, assembly, legal redress, and equal access to public determination. Agency. Rather than that, we have come to regard ownership as primary, as established throughout our history by repeated referral to property as a qualification for common regard. As time marched on, the meaning of the franchise expanded, and in each expansion the issue has been centered on ownership. In the beginning, only property owners could vote. While not so explicit today, there is still a property qualification (permanent address).

In the advance toward a universal franchise, those opposed to the expansion have insisted on more and more qualifications—amounting to proof of ownership—to bear on the people they wish to exclude. After 250 years (here) of this, we have come to a point where almost everything has been, in some sense, transformed into a commodity.

Things that can be owned can be controlled.

How does this relate to the Religious Right’s support of Trump and their censure of Beth Moore?

Trump is all about ownership. His “brand” is everything. He is admired (by some) for having things. Having things is the hallmark of success in this country. Not “who you are” but “what you have” matters more to most people, because the former requires a sense of Self that is neither publicly evident or reliably fixed (people change).  (Also, who you are may be terrifying to other people, so it is easier to reduce the Self to a set of traits that you “have”—implying that you can trade them in, get new ones, swap them out, or just put them away.) Success at Having Things is understandable, accessible, universalizable. It also validates for others the presumed right to have things.

Trump is popular among certain groups because he does just that—he validates their view of what it means to be an American, which is entirely wrapped up in Having Things.

One of the things he “has” is the prerogative to deny agency to those he sees as inferiors or, at least, unworthy of consideration.

For evangelicals this includes many of the kinds of people of whom they disapprove. While Trump’s “manner” may offend their sensibilities, they do not find fault with his presumptions. In the case of the “pussygrabbing” it comes down to the fact that the pussies he is grabbing are attached to “fallen” women. After all, their wives would never be in a position to be so treated, because they are not “that kind” of woman. They know better than to put their pussies in such circumstances.

I phrase it that way because below all this, the reality for these men is that their wives’ pussies belong to them. Because this is a factor of our culture that underlies much of our disconnect over women’s rights and equity. For them, women don’t “own” their sexuality. They carry it around until a man claims it. Which is why so much of the anxiety and anger over gender equality remains a muddle for certain people.

And Beth Moore? She had the temerity to express the idea that Trump’s pussygrabbing was in all cases immoral, obscene, and deserving of censure. But she can only make that charge if women are their own persons, whole and worthy of regard as free agents.

And agency is the one thing evangelicals cannot grant outside the confining circle of their faith, which is a club of limited membership, very exclusive, and cannot admit to any kind of baseline equality. Doing so would require they change their message on so many fronts and accord respect to people and persons they a priori consider beyond the pale. Unredeemed. Damned.

Just the fact that Beth Moore has for all these years been disallowed from holding an equal position within her chosen conference demonstrates that the principle of ownership is in force to deny her agency, because she cannot own what her colleagues already claim for themselves. They see it as their prerogative to grant status and people outside their selective regard have no right to claim anything for themselves.

Consider their stance toward transgender persons: this is a threat to their purview because it is individuals taking possession of their Selves and claiming agency. That they would have to know that Self intimately enough to move beyond the reach of simple possession is a denial of the message of “salvation” through superior agency (Christ). And, on a more basic level, it frightens because gender orientation is one of those things that is “owned” and often regarded as a separate thing to be scorned (denial of the flesh). That it is fundamental to identity creates too many confusions and contradictions for the smooth apprehension of a theological proposition which is supposed to be Otherworldly.

But in practice it comes down to an ownership issue.

Consider an example outside of questions of Self. The rejection of government economic support for the poor. This would seem paradoxical. If the point is to alleviate poverty, what does it matter where the aide comes from?  But it matters if you consider the dispensation of that aid proprietary. They see it as charity and according to their own philosophy, charity comes from the heart. Governments render this moot, because it becomes a matter of economic systems. There is no “charity”—hence no Good Works, no affirmation of moral mission, no opportunity to demonstrate one’s christianity. Charity has become a wholly-owned trademark of religious expression and no one should take it away, least of all systems that might render the matter solved.

Beth Moore ran afoul of an unexamined aspect of American culture as expressed through a religious lens. Trump may be an immoral, foul, odious being, but he affirmed for them the basic right of ownership of so many issues, and hence condemning him and withdrawing support was not possible. It might have played out a little differently had a man in Beth Moore’s position done what she did, but it still would have intruded on the majority’s presumptive rights of ownership—in this case, the ownership of male privilege.

On an even more perverse level, Trump was also the proof of government corruption—he fit their idea of what the government already was. If the end game was to destroy the beast, why not support the one who best exemplifies everything they claim to hate? Putting a good man (or woman—unthinkable!) in that office would seem perverse, because what could a good man accomplish? It would only delay the advent of freedom from what they see as secular attempts at creating a baseline equality that denies their “right” to judge.

And here it generates endlessly stranger ideas of what may have been going on.

But Beth Moore turned on the juggernaut and was trampled by the unstated assumptions of the inner circle. That evangelicals can show a history of their own indulging in all the things she condemned Trump for doing ought to have been a signal that she misunderstood just what she was dealing with.

Agency, as I assume it here, is something beyond ownership. But it’s personal, and it’s malleable, and it is uncontained by convention. It actually cannot be owned, so it becomes necessary to prevent its manifestation.

I do not here claim everyone is so ensconced in this morass of what I’ve termed Pathological Ownership—but then it never requires many people to subscribe to an idea to have an impact on how the culture responds. Because we have a rather nebulous set of alternate models, the idea of Having Things being a substitute rather than an expression of Self can distort all out of proportion to the numbers involved. It helps if we know what it is we’re talking about, identify the issue at hand, instead of stumbling on assuming a different set of values at play.

Just about everything in the divisive cultural and politic mess we’ve experienced for the last few decades can be explained by this idea. The GOP won’t cooperate with the Democrats? Why? Because they seek to own the issues. If they cooperate, then they must share, and sharing is the road to ruin, because no one can own what is shared. The moment you share something it is no longer exclusively yours,.

Too many people just want to own everything.

 

 



Triptych

I like series photographs. A set of images, either telling a story or simply variations on a theme. I haven’t done many, but here’s one I think worth a look. I took these in the early Eighties, somewhere in the country. (I am horrible at documenting my visual work, the where when who why and how of things. Oh, well.)  Anyway, maybe someone will find them compelling enough, either singly or as a set, to hang on their wall.

Each is linked to the gallery.

https://Markimages.zenfolio.com/p832508234/e83a31c1d




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