A Few Thoughts In Advance of the State of the Union

A year in and it is about as clear as it will ever be that we have a president both unequipped and disinterested in the job to which a quarter of the eligible population voted him into. The flailing in congress is now centered on second guessing him, improvising constantly with each revision that looks like policy, and trying to find a viable position in which to be when the final bill comes due and he is either impeached or resigns. By now, I imagine, most of them are hoping one of those happen, because the third course is trying to manage a complex, expensive nation through three more years and fearing the possibility of another four (plus possibly his vice presidential successor) should he be reelected.

I am quite serious about that, for the following reasons.

There was no way to reasonably expect him to win in the first place, but he did. All the flaws in our system came into play in a perfect storm to hand the wrong person the job. Between 40 and 47% of eligible voters did not vote. Even so, the popular vote totaled to give his opponent more. Had a mere five percent higher turnout happened…

The electoral college did its job as the representative bulwark to defend the smaller states from the larger, who in a straight popular election could swamp the Montanas and Wyomings and Alaskas all the time. If you do not understand why this is bad, just look at the consequences of gerrymandering on the state level which favors concentrations of one population group over others. Size matters. But in this case, it also failed because it does have the power to change its decision based on results that may be questionable. (A solution to this problem could be as simple as delaying the announcement of the E.C. results by a few days or a week. Unless I am mistaken, there is no law that says they must announce at the same time as the popular vote.)

Unless the Democratic Party fields a candidate that can stand apart from past problems and rally the base, Trump represents a focal point that may attract enough support to do it again.

The Republican Party misread its base as badly as the Democratic Party misread its base. The difference was, the GOP had fostered the base it then misunderstood, while the Democratic Party simply ignored its traditional base in favor of a base it represents rather well, but speaks to as if it were something else. The result was, that while the argument between the two frontrunners of the Democratic Party was, when broken down side by side, almost negligible, the difference between the final Republican candidate and those he ran against was as profound as can be even as the distinctions on policy were practically nonexistent. You might think I’m saying style over substance, but I’m not. Something worse—our president accepted the rhetoric of the GOP as if it were gospel while none of the rest of the slate did. Trump understood that a significant portion of the GOP base supported the rhetorical stances of the party in the most literal way, while the others thought they could conduct politics as usual and ignore the means by which they had gained power.

As for the electorate, the Trump supporters wanted what they got. (They probably didn’t understand what they were asking for and for some of them, maybe most of them, probably expected the changes they demanded to affect Other People and not them.) The Democrats created a chasm between their two candidates where none existed. Bernie Sanders was not going to run his administration significantly differently than Hillary Clinton. But the 24-hours news cycles, FaceBook, and the Talk Radio chaos fed the small differences between them and turned Hillary into a monster.

It is probably true that had Sanders gotten the nomination, more Democrats would have come out to vote. He probably would have beaten Trump on the simple basis that he did not suffer under an onslaught of unsubstantiated hatred. (That would have come, though, had he gotten the nomination. Still, I think he would have won, which is not to say he was going to be any better at the job than Clinton, only that the public perception of him might have allowed for more people to set aside biases they thought vital and participate. This begs the question of how such biases could have been such that the very act of participation could be seen as pointless given the choices.) He would have won because those who supported Hillary would have, while being disappointed, understood that a larger issue was at stake, put aside their disappointments, and voted for him. In spite of Sanders pleading with his supporters to do the same for Clinton, they stood by their shallow principles and allowed the country to be handed over to a real problem. In this way, they were no different than their rightwing counterparts who vote single issue even when that issue is based entirely on falsehoods and a complete misunderstanding of the issues involved.

Both parties, either by omission or direct action, have a share in the situation. Both are badly compromised by an overdependence on money. Both are hampered by a lack of focus on solutions. Both have accepted the diminishment of dreams and are fighting over fenceposts.

This is not to say that there is not now a clear moral difference between them. By default if nothing else the Democratic Party has become, if not a champion exactly, the advocate for ethical policy.

The electorate, on both sides of the divide, have been aware for decades that they are not being represented. They are also tired of the continual blaming that substitutes for cooperation and sound policy.

Both sides expected their candidate to make a thorough housecleaning of Washington D.C.

It may not have occurred to either side that a great deal of the mechanism they have been taught to mistrust and even hate actually works fairly well when you consider what it is tasked to do.

But that doesn’t fit a narrative of righteous rage.

At present we have a collection of apparent contradictions before us, some telling us things are better than they were, others quite the opposite. Prevarication, dissembling, and mendacity have always attended any political period, but to these we must add incompetence of a possibly dangerous level. With his supporters, all this passes muster because they see it as the hallmark of “their guy” being assailed by entrenched interests and having to fight back with the available tools. They are sure the apparent contradictions are more aspects of the hall of mirrors they believe D.C. to be than any flaw in his character. Again, this is familiar to any group of supporters of almost any candidate in a spotlight. He’s saying what he needs to say to stay in power and do the job.

The reduction to a form is a useful way to make sense of what can be a baffling complexity, but one which, if not tempered by sound judgment, can overwhelm our ability to recognize a real difference in kind. In this case, the usual dance of politics that supporters believe him to be performing does not explain what is clearly someone incompetent to the task.

One example is the recent attempt to bully a publisher into canceling publication of a book. Never mind what the book is about, whether it is factual or fair, this was an action taken out of petty spite and in clear violation of everything we are supposed to be about. I do not risk hyperbole in this—blatant censorship, of the kind we have always criticized in the worst dictatorships, is involved, in writing. That his lawyers had to explain to him why he could not do this should be enough to show that he is ill-suited to the job.

This has occurred several times already, the necessity of someone to explain the president the limits of his office. It remains to be seen if such discussions encompassed actual principle, that it would be unconstitutional. The continual and ongoing tussle over immigration is typical.

Then there is the pandering over American jobs. The recent tariff imposed on solar panels shows a profound disconnect over what he is supposed to be good at, namely business. Two plus years of pledges to secure jobs inside the country, and thus far he has demonstrated a lack of clear understanding. This tariff will eventually cause the loss of over twenty thousand jobs in a till now growing industry. An industry, by the way, that supplies a need but also fulfills the promise of a more environmentally friendly industry. Trump’s pandering to worker sympathies vis-a-vís the coal industry is the basest kind of cynical posturing. Environmental concerns aside, coal is a dying industry. It costs too much for too little gain. This is an example of the law of diminishing returns. Of course, this also demonstrates the skewed priorities of the party to which he is attached, in that public outrage over the lost livelihoods of coal workers is met not with any kind of sinecure for the workers but with protectionist legislation for the companies. It would never occur to them to simply pension these workers with full benefits and let the companies die the way companies do. Protect the people working the mines rather than hold them hostage to guaranteed profits for people who will even in the aftermath lose nothing but a bit of power.

Point being, there were ways to approach this that would have been capitalist-friendly and environmentally sound and progressive, but there is a burden of cronyism attached that makes sensible action incommensurable with most of those choices.

One benefit, an unintended one, to be sure, of this presidency is that the stage-managed mendacity of the last twenty years is being undone. Immigration reform, of the kind that would have resolved all the current issues, was proposed by, of all people, Bush. His own party refused to cooperate. Bush, at one time the darling of the GOP, could not get it done. Like other such issues, including abortion, the pattern has been clear and not always party-specific: certain issues make irreplaceable campaign topics. Votes can be garnered by stirring the base with the right rhetoric. Solve these issues, you take those away, and candidates would have to rely on other things, less visceral, on which to campaign. Now there is a president demanding action and threatening to topple the house of cards.

On immigration, the charade has been two-fold. Certainly it is easy to frighten certain groups with images of foreigners flooding the country and threatening our “americanness.” But it has also been a standard tool to make the economic argument that these immigrants, especially the illegal ones, are the reason wages are stagnant. (Of course, there are two elements to this, which coexist jaggedly if one cared to give it any thought: jobs being shipped overseas to take advantage of labor costs as well as immigrants coming in to threaten wages by lowering labor costs. There is something amiss with the calculus here, but people who are anxious or frightened think badly. The primary purpose of these issues is to maintain that condition. Consider just one factor: those coming here are coming here for jobs. Those jobs, obviously, have not been “shipped overseas” and require someone to do them. If actual labor costs were addressed to make wages fair, it wouldn’t matter who fills them, cost would not be the deciding factor. Similarly, jobs shipped overseas to take advantage of lower costs include regulatory costs here, bypassed by building plant in countries where such regulations do not exist. A simple solution would be to impose a reimportation tariff to essentially nullify that benefit and take away the justification for exporting plant.)

Mitch McConnell and his gang are running in panic because Trump is threatening their job security. If he were doing so intentionally, with some kind of purpose, it might be a good thing, but he has yet to follow through on any of this. It has all been a matter of unintended consequences.

People are pointing to the upsurge in economic activity as some kind of sign that his “policies” are working. Of course, these same people would deny other presidents credit on the basis that what we see happening has far more to do with the outgoing administration, because what can a president do in one year to cause this kind of surge all on his own? And that argument would be correct. A new administration’s policies take two, sometimes three years to show up all on their own. But in this instance, there is a bit of anticipatory greed at work, waiting for the gates of the city to be thrown open for the pillage to begin. We have actually fixed nothing in the wake of 2008 and are vulnerable to another meltdown because the political will is absent in D.C. to reimpose the kinds of regulations that would work to prevent it. In both parties, frankly. This is the one area where Sanders may well have been more effective. Be that as it may, there is no coherent policy to explain it in terms of the current administration. The tax reform bill came after the stock market surge, so they are not causally connected.

Tuesday night is another State of the Union address, Trump’s first. He has some explaining to do. Polls suggest that thus far he has done nothing his supporters sent him to Washington to do. He has not heard them. They want healthcare, jobs, cost-of-living adjustments, variety of things he has spent his life working to get out of paying for as a businessman. The failure to address any of these, certainly, is not all on him, he heads a party that is more concerned with keeping power than solving problems.

(The drawback to solving problems is, as I indicated, that once solved they cease to be effective campaign issues. And to be fair, this is human nature. If things are running smoothly, then the necessity of maintaining the things that make them run smoothly loses valence, and people wonder why they still have to be concerned with it. You can survey history in many areas to see this, where the cost of maintenance becomes burdensome when the need for it seems to disappear in the absence of crises.)

The sad truth is, the people who voted for him who are beginning to realize that they were betrayed believed they were getting something else. But they in fact got what they asked for—a blustering egoist chanting “Make America Great Again” while offering nothing other than nativist pabulum as a plan. What they wanted was someone who would make changes that provide them security, in jobs, in healthcare, in education. Never mind that some of their judgments on what to do about this are questionable at best. This is not to say some of these issues are not real, only that their solutions require something this man does not possess—ability.

He also lacks any kind of depth, either of intellect or character, the kind needed to get outside his own head and see the world through other eyes. His conflicts with his staff demonstrate this clearly. (Even if only a quarter of Wolff’s book is true, it is frighteningly chaotic in the White House, with most of the staff trying to mollify an intemperate egotist rather than conducting the business of the people.)

We have fostered in this country a suspicion of expertise, of intellectualism, of sophistication. We have nurtured a disregard for nuance, a quality essential for diplomacy. We have fed on a spring of poisoned waters that called itself news and we have given in to short term fear. It may well be that Hillary Clinton was not the right candidate—that candidate may not have been in the race—but she would not have broken everything the way it’s being broken now. All because we have given in to fear.

It doesn’t matter what he promised to do. For the people who still support him, you should start realizing he can’t give those things to you. It may be too much to hope that you begin to realize that you wanted the wrong things. Some of them—a country for white people only, a country with an oil well on every plot of land, a country where everyone, even children, can go armed wherever they want—are things ultimately contrary to any sane American’s vision for where and how they want to live. Do I blame Trump for fostering this? No, he’s just the face of it. And the mouth.

You have been had. And we’re all paying the price of that rejection of Better.

Le Guin

Of all the things I thought I would be writing about today, this is not one of them.  Of course I knew she was unwell.  Of course I knew how old she was.  Of course I know all journeys end.

Still, the impact of such endings can dislodge and shock. Because it is difficult to envisage the world continuing with such an absence.

Unlike others, I have read relatively little of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work. The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, Wizard of Earthsea, The Word For World Is Forest, The Left Hand Of Darkness…a handful of others, short stories. Enough to start a long change in trajectory for my own work and, more importantly, in my apprehension of this thing we do called “science fiction.”

So I want to talk about that instead of reviewing a biography and a bibliography others will more ably do.

Le Guin never wrote the expected. She published in the magazines, her novels came out with the SF label on the spine, some of the covers suggested that a reader might find something like all the rest of the books around them inside. And indeed there was that—interstellar settings, outré physics, aliens, exotic locations. But then there were the bits that refused to sustain the standard pattern.

“I didn’t know Fomalhaut II had all those people besides the trogs,” said Kethro, the curator.

“I didn’t either. There are even some ‘Unconfirmed’ species listed here, that they never contacted. Sounds like time for a more thorough survey mission to the place. Well, now at least we know what she is.”

“I wish there were some way of knowing who she is…” 

Early in the pages of Rocannon’s World we read that exchange and it is a promise and warning that what will follow, for decades, was all about learning who we are. Le Guin took the potential of what we call science fiction to unbury the many selves of sentient life and hold not one but many mirrors up to us. To tell us, over and over again, that who we are is more important than what. That sounds banal, certainly, because after all, isn’t all fiction about that?

Of course, but not in ways that can delineate the artificial from the organic, the applied from the emergent, the structural from the holistic the way science fiction does. Too many things are too often taken for granted, left unexamined and therefore unquestioned, in most literature, and we’re left with portraits that, while often insightful and clear, go only so far in examining the limitations of selfhood, of identity, of the ramifications of social, biological, and technological fabrics that comprise context.

Read The Dispossessed and you see this potential in full flower.

But it is a constant throughout her work. It might be said that her work was always concerned with the problems of self-expression in relation to dynamic systems, be they natural, technological, political—in fact, all three as an amalgam. The interconnections between the self and the community drove her narratives, and intentionally or not she sought balance.  (I think intentionally, oh yes, fully.)

Much has been written and debated about the impact of the Sixties on, well, everything, but within SF in particular it seemed to have been a period of enormous ferment, regeneration, and experimentation. Most of it was ephemeral and soon vanished from memory, as with almost all SF in any given period. Le Guin entered the field with all the appearances of a writer of the Old School, but there was something going on in her work that, quietly and irresistibly, infected what came after. She exemplified, through her writing, the euphemism “the personal is political.”

Getting to know another, really knowing them, is a supremely political act.  It changes everything. Its changes you, them, the context in which this discovery occurs. Being open to such knowing is to be vulnerable, and that leads to unknown possibilities. If all we look for in others is what we already have, then we never know them, and so we preserve ourselves against the possibility of change, of growth, of the pleasures of otherness. That, too, is a deeply political act, the choice to not look, to not know.

To not see.

The Left Hand Of Darkness is entirely involved in this kind of seeing. It is a story of blindnesses and veils and the necessity of seeing anew.

After Le Guin, it is impossible to understand science fiction as less than the most deeply political of literary forms.

It is also impossible to dismiss it as nonliterary. In Le Guin, the range of possible ways of seeing others is expanded beyond any probable comfort zone. She expanded her vision so much that the boundaries that had kept SF neatly barracked cracked and fell open. Oh, certainly she was not the only one, but her assault on the limits of literary convention were all the more effective because they were so pleasurable to read, and once read, impossible to forget. Her work altered your perspective.

After Le Guin, there is no going back to previous standards.

After Le Guin, it is impossible to pretend that change can be forestalled, that the world is complete, that the self and the community can be kept apart to mutual benefit, that politics is ignorable, that others are not us.

After Le Guin, really, the universe is bigger, richer, livelier, more dangerous…and not at all what we might wish to expect.

She was amazing. She amazed.

 

2018

Later I’ll post my favorite posts of the year. For now, it’s too damn cold in my office for that kind of cut-and-paste indulgence.

So let me just wax nostalgic about the year just past.

The things I love are still with me.  Top of the list, Donna.  We’ve been moving through some changes, dealing with stuff and nonsense, and have finally gotten to a place where life can be simply enjoyed again, rather than wrestled with.

Coffey is still full of puppy-ish enthusiasm.  Slower, certainly, but for a 13-year-old dog remarkably spry. No arthritis or other impediments. She sleeps a bit more.  Of course, some of this is stored energy from being by herself a goodly chunk of most days while the humans are at work.  Coffey is a joy.

My friends are all reasonably well.

I have a good job. Some new faces came this year and we had a great year. Our first (annual) book festival came off magnificently and this year’s will be even better. I’ve settled, more or less, into my role as consignment buyer.  Despite every intention to the contrary, I have become an acquisitions editor. It has been an education.  I have been very pleasantly surprised by some of the books I’ve gotten for the store.  I’ve also learned quite a bit about that world and the reasons behind the choices made.

I finished a new novel and turned it in to my agent in July. We wait. I think it may be the best thing I’ve ever done—it is certainly different than anything I’ve ever done, written at a level I don’t think I’ve ever achieved before. Of course, once again, I think I’ve written something that has no real category, is a bit off from the expected. My agent has been tremendous in her support.

I’m now working on the third book of my alternate history trilogy, which has taken far longer and traveled some much stranger roads than I expected. Once more I’m immersed in the Napoleonic Era, trying to get as many things “right” as I can.  This is all but a straight historical in many ways.  I’ve had some surprises with this one, in my research, but I will be glad to finish.  Maybe a couple more months and I’ll have the first draft done.

After that I have some decisions to make. If things don’t change…

This is the first year in a long, long time that I’ve chosen to make resolutions.  No, I won’t tell you what they are.  I don’t need anyone else’s expectations to live up to, this will be hard enough.  But check here in the next few months for an update on at least one of my decisions. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

I may be facing a hard time this year. My dad is not doing well. I’ll leave that as it stands for now.

I managed to get through 51 books this year, cover to cover.  I’ll do a post about those over on the Proximal Eye in the next few weeks.

Healthwise, I seem to be doing okay.  I’m more tired than I like, but everything works, and the other day at the gym some young guy guessed my age at 52. Heh.  If I can be mistaken for 62 when I’m pushing 80 I will be pleased.

I don’t know if I’ve become more stoic and accepting of how things are or if I’m just too tired to give the same damn that I once did. Almost nothing has gone according to plan, which is to be expected, but enough went close enough to be a source of mixed satisfaction and frustration.  One thing this past year that caused me to reassess my attitude came from a former coworker, a young writer whose first novel was released to considerable acclaim and a degree of commercial success I frankly envy. Talking about it, though, she suggested that she hoped to be as successful as I am. This baffled me. I do not consider myself successful at all.  “How do you figure that?” I asked. “You have 12 books out,” she said. “Yeah, but they didn’t do very well.”  “You have 12 books out.”

That was it. I had sustained a publishing career long enough and well enough to have put out a body of work she thought admirable. It forced me to reassess my own standards. What do I mean by success? I’d fallen into the usual, equating it with money. Well, that certainly is one measure of success, but not the only one.

I’d always aimed for the condition of sustaining myself materially by the work—that since what I wanted to do was to write, then the writing had to pay the bills.  I never reached that point. Came close, but it has slipped further and further away from that moment. I’d gotten into the habit of thinking myself a failure.

But there are other metrics, and my coworker confronted me with one, and I realized that rejecting her assessment would have been cruel. To her, certainly, but to myself as well.

I’m still working through all the implications of that. I still want to be able to write for a living, but it has, for now, become less an issue.

With that in mind, 2018 awaits.

Of course we are now living in a shit show nationally.  All the fights waged in youth seem in need to fighting again. I’ve been vocal here about that and will continue to be.  But the fact is, I am a lucky, lucky man. I have so much, from great people, and I’ve had and will continue to have opportunities to do more.  So many people never get the chance.

So may the coming year offer for us all the chance to realize the good life can hold and let us all have some of it.  And be aware of what is good.  And that we’ve experienced it.

Travel well, travel far.

Post Christmas

So it’s the 26th. Digesting, relaxing, contemplating.

Saw my parents. Wished good cheer to each other and others.

This morning, I went to the gym, paid taxes, other errands. Lunch. Then looked at some of the images from the last few days. It has been a hell of a year. We have come here, to the verge of 2018, unsure of some things, comforted by the people still with us and close, and at least willing to face what  challenges may come. A mixed bag, as they say.  (Whoever “they” are—I suspect different “they” for each saying.)

Per Mr. Gaiman’s sage advice, I made some art. Till I have something more to say, I will share it with you.  Be well.  See you on the other side of the sun.

 

 

 

 

Holiday Wish

It’s Christmas Weekend.  That and several other seasonal  celebrations. People want to celebrate. It doesn’t matter what the label says, it’s the same full-to-brim wish for mutual love and respect.  Gift-giving is great, but the sharing of hope, dreams, soul-urge, and the commonality of human decency underlies and overarches it all.

So a kind of card for any who may stop by here.  Be well, be safe, be loved, be amazed.

Immorality Sweeps The Land!

Roy Moore lost. In a state so Red it could be on Mars, Doug Jones squeaked into the win by 1.5%.

Moore is refusing to concede. In some quarters, this is seen as principle. In the civilized world, sour grapes. But delusional.

“Immorality is sweeping the land!”

Says a man who allegedly hit on teenagers when in his thirties, and then relies on a biblical defense, something about Mary only being 13 or some such nonsense, and the fact that he asked their parents.  Forgive me if I find that whole scenario simultaneously dubious AND extra-creepy.  (But there is in the South, and presumably other places, a whole cult of True Believers who groom their prepubescents for marriage by parading them in adult drag in front of potential husbands, so maybe. If that’s the crowd he’s drawing from, you have to ask what standard of morality he actually subscribes to, because it isn’t that of anyone I know, even among my conservative friends.)

His issues are, in no particular order, The Bible, homosexuality as national threat, and abortion.  As far as I could tell, he had no stance of his own on education (unless it relates to the Bible), economic growth (unless that remark about slavery counts), foreign policy, the budget, or anything else that may be relevant to actual people living today.

Now, if you want to discuss morality, we can start with that: the complete apparent disregard for any issue that might have any real impact on his potential constituency. Irresponsible?  Surely. But in one of the reddest of the red states, where economic conditions still lag and poverty is a profound problem, concentrating on non-issues and counting on that to win the day, with nothing in his tool box with which to address the present realities, strikes me as a sign of someone who has a badly skewed moral compass.  Added to that the allegations of sexual misconduct, his blatant bigotry, and his disregard for law (he was a state supreme court judge and somehow did not care that he was in violation of federal law over the decor on state property)—this is not someone I would trust to tell anyone what is or is not moral.

That he relied on the entrenched aversion of the voters to anything labeled Democrat to see him into office is also blatantly arrogant, especially knowing full well that his state is one of the most problematic in terms of voter suppression.

I am not well pleased that it seems to have been the sexual misconduct allegations that lost it for him.  Maybe it wasn’t, but I would be happier if I thought people had finally decided to look at the issues and judged him an inferior candidate on the merits.  It is telling that while it appears white women voted for him in a majority, when you tease apart evangelicals from a more secular group, only evangelical white women voted for him as a majority.  White women who are not all caught up in the religious balderdash that passes for political value voted predominantly against him.

While it is true that one should not equate intelligence with religious affiliation, it is difficult to avoid when you see this sort of thing. Blindness, of course, afflicts different people in different areas, but damn, we have to stop pandering to the evangelical vote this way.  This is not 4 B.C. and this country is not, despite the aggressive wishing of many people, a christian nation, not the way they mean it.

But have it your way.  I’ll take a little honest immorality over willfully ignorant moral posturing any day.

But that’s not what we’re seeing.  Every single issue Moore saw fit to blather about, at base, was about stripping away civil rights.  Period. Dress it up any way you like, he longs for the days of the mint julep on the veranda as the master gazes out upon his plantation-fiefdom. He wants people “in their proper place.”  He wants an aristocracy.  I find it telling that people like him believe the way to achieve it is through the religious beliefs of people are afraid of the future.

Moral leadership my ass.

Being Adult

I have been wrestling with all the recent allegations of sexual harassment and assault boiling up like magma from a caldera. The image is apt—volcanoes can appear sedate, dormant, unthreatening for decades or even centuries, and then, suddenly, boom! Like that volcano, it does not mean there was never a problem before, only that we grew comfortable with its failure to express itself and assumed everything was fine.

Well, some people did.

The problem I’ve had, I will admit, has been incredulity. Knowing there are men in the world who behave this way is not quite the same as learning that  those men and so many and for so long are like this, and it is a bit overwhelming.  And in some instances the temptation is great to make excuses. Circumstances, the times, “it was different back then”…  Personal heroes melt into their own clay and we’re left trying to reconcile the obvious and often real divide between what we perceive as the good done from the closed-door actions we are now learning about. How, we ask, can that person, who has done so much worthwhile work in the world, be someone who could do that to a woman?  And what does it say about the apparent good work?

What does it say about our judgment?

What, finally, do we do about something which seems as pervasive as air?  Is this something we just have to put up with if we want things to get done in the world?

Overwhelming.

And, of course, we have the bizarre situation of a president guilty of the same behaviors who at various times has bragged about it.

Through all this, as well, is the real fear that one of the solutions that might be proposed and gain ground is the segregation of the sexes.  Keep ’em apart.  Obviously men can’t be trusted and women will always be vulnerable, and by so thoroughly mixing them up in situations where perhaps they ought not to be together—work, politics, schools, etc—we have somehow invited this.

Anyone with half a brain will immediately see that as not only unworkable but as offensive as the behavior such a proposal would purport to protect women from.  Such a solution might be viable for five-year-olds, but it seems to me we live in a society that is already over-infantilized, especially in this area.

I grew up believing intrinsically that in matters of sex, women had the final say. Always. For me, forcing an issue was simply unthinkable. Nothing my parents ever said explicitly told me this, it was more a matter of…well, it was pervasive on a certain level. But my parents also offered the example of a man and woman who constantly respected each other and did nothing without the others consent. Furthermore, my father was not one of those who had some innate idea of “women’s work” that rendered him unwilling or incapable of doing anything in the house that needed doing. I saw no such gendered division of labor growing up in my home. Along with the movies and television I saw at the time, I came of age with an idea of women as…

I had no idea at the time. Certainly, upon entering adolescence, they became alien to me.  This was also reinforced by many of the same givens that had shaped everything else. I had no idea, by age thirteen, how to talk to girls.  This was aided by my grade school, which was parochial, and had, in retrospect, the unusual physical situation of two entirely separate playgrounds for the boys and the girls, separated by the very building. By seventh and eighth grade, a transgressive air attached to the boys sneaking to the other side and talking to Them through the chain-link fence that kept them isolated from us.

Then, too, was the whole hormonal thing and all the boys felt it keenly, this quite obvious transformation we had no idea how handle. The girls, of course, seemed to us to have it all in hand. They were very self-assured in their emerging sexuality and we guys, feckless and inarticulate as we were, could only watch and try to find a way to be cool while restraining a drool reflex.

Then high school, where dating really became a thing, and at which I was very bad.  And of course it was another way of rating people—who went out with whom, how “well” you did, and so forth. Without much being stated bluntly, it became clear that those who did poorly at this ritual were somehow defective.

And for no discernible reason.

We do not, in this culture, have anything like formal adulthood rites. No one takes us in hand to teach us what we need to know. We expect parents to do this, but there is nothing universal, nothing agreed upon, and in too many instances parents choose to punt. Leaving us all to figure it out from the clues which, in some instances, are the equivalent of reading tea leaves.

(This is evermore difficult for anyone not traditionally cisgendered, who likely grows up being flatly told that their essential self is “wrong” or “obscene” or “broken” and the tea leaves get tangled with weeds.)

That so many of us come out as well as we do is a tribute to those elements of our culture that do serve and to our own sense of being.

It seems to me that we still inhabit a euphemistically-driven culture. One must “read the signs” regarding things no one is willing to state baldly. Most of us, I hope, have outgrown this, but when you look at some of the dialogues in play about rape that center on how a woman was dressed instead of on the brutality of her attacker, you have to wonder how much past this we are.  “Dress” is treated as a sign—not perhaps by the rapist but by the people who can’t quite accommodate the ugly dynamics of it who seek to find  reason to blame the victim.

(This is not something isolated to sex—during the height of the Sixties, with regards to riots, one heard it all the time that “if those people had been home where they belonged, the police wouldn’t have had to bash their heads in.”  On campuses, “they should have been in their dorms studying instead of where they were.”  And of course the whole issue of dress attended as well.  But it is most egregious when it comes to our treatment of women who have been abused.  We seem, collectively, unwilling to simply say that none of that is important.  Well, some of us have that problem.)

I confess that I tried to find some way to intellectualize these behaviors by blaming the culture of Code Speak. Mixed signals, yes-no-maybe, and so forth.

No.  This will not suffice.

I am perfectly willing to lay the blame on the perpetrators, even if I might be able to find reasons for their behaviors.  But basically they are simply not adults.

A thirty-year-old man who consistently hits on teenage girls has an inability to deal with other adults.

A man who threatens a woman with her job in order to elicit sex from her is because he is a child with too much power incapable of dealing with others as equals.

A man who makes suggestive remarks to a coworker on the off-chance that she might take him up on it has no concept of appropriateness or confidence in his ability to interact as an adult.

I would go so far as to suggest that men like this really don’t treat other men well, either, but it comes out far less because the rules of male interaction are  bit more ritualized and, really, the sexual component in many instances is less present.  But if push comes to shove, these abusers have no regard for their male colleagues, either. An office full of such nascent sociopaths and arrested adolescents would be pure hell for anyone not a member of their “club.”

I could describe examples—a boss who thought it was outrageously funny to take his shirt off, fill his hand with soft-soap, and appear to the woman working that day with the declaration “See what you made me do?” A coworker who told me that he once thought his wife was cheating on him and was relieved to find out she wasn’t because otherwise he would have had to kill her, but then later when preparing for an out-of-town business trip with our employer gleefully anticipated “getting a little” when he was there.  An earnest talk by an older acquaintance about how you couldn’t let women turn you down, that this was degrading not only to you but to men in general, and really,”they want it just as bad but they need an excuse”—but if you think about it you have heard this and seen it often.

Women have been complaining about Man Childs for decades. They define separate spheres of appropriate work, but fall down on maintaining even their own.  The deficit in equal work. The petulance exhibited when they can’t play.  It rests on a continuum.

All of this, though, comes down to a mindset that will not accept even the possibility of being told No.  The circumstances, the power differentials, the absurdity of some of the behavior, all of it might be avoided by a simple practice of dealing openly with each other in situations where both parties are free of ancillary obligations and can walk away. “No, thank you.”  But for certain people, that no is intolerable.  So they use blackmail, threat, physical force.  Euphemism.  Turn it into a joke.  Anything but be an adult who knows how to accept being turned down.

Because, of course, this isn’t about relationships—it’s about power. Again.

And I have to say, if you are willing to subvert the autonomy of an individual for your personal gratification, you have no business leading others in any capacity.  I don’t care if you’re a CEO, a senator, the director of a movie or a nonprofit, or the president.  After due consideration, if you can’t see other people as people, then…well, I’m afraid I have to tell you no.

Try to be an adult about it when you lose your position.  I know.  That’s hard.  Probably everything you’ve done to get to your position has been so you didn’t have to be an adult.

Oh well.

 

Trivial Lit?

In a recent article in the Guardian, we learn that science fiction seems to have a deleterious effect on intelligent reading among certain test subjects. In a study conducted by researchers, the appearance of certain words—like “airlock” or “alien” or related descriptors having to do with setting—acted as signals that the story concerned lacked merit and thus could be dismissed as “not serious.”  Consequently, less connection with character occurred. Worse, even the basic recognition that the story being read was in all other respects identical to the “literary” version they had just read to which they had paid due attention.

I was reminded of an essay by Samuel R. Delany in which he noted the disconnect in decoding SF texts among certain adults whose children navigated those waters with ease. In this case, Delany was describing an interpretive failure, that when encountering a phrase like “the asteroid minding operation” there was a loss on the part of certain readers. They simply could not visualize that which was being described. Delany was noting that reading protocols are constructs and we have to learn them, the earlier the better. In other essays he went further and showed how a literary reading of a sentence could differ strikingly from a science fictional reading of the exact same sentence ( “she turned on her left side”, for instance ) and that, for the SF reader, that tension between the mundane and the speculative was a significant part of the pleasure of the SF experience.

But this study is different. It does not demonstrate a failure on the part of readers to decode the science fiction story—it shows a dismissal of the story as trivial because it is science fiction. Hence, no attempt is then made to find its other merits or even to recognize that such merits are even present. That the “trigger” words allowed the reader to simply recategorize the story as shallow and insignificant, because, I assume, its all that “space nonsense” and “kid stuff.”

Which is sadly unsurprising, even today, long past the time when this was the reaction on the part of the vast majority of readers.

However, it is new—or newish— in one respect, which is the a priori assumption not that the SF text makes no sense but that it is necessarily trivial. An assumption that, well, it’s not incomprehensible, it’s just not worth comprehending as anything other than…

So all the usual qualities of literary fiction which may be present are missed because the effort to find and respond to them is not made due to the shift in setting and æsthetic.

We might call this provincialism.

It occurred to me that the reverse happens for possibly the same reasons. That the seasoned SF reader may well dismiss a literary work because all those trigger words are not present, and therefore the expectations encoded in the story are weighted toward those literary values which the provincialist assumes cannot be present in a science fiction story.

Or, at least, those words are not present in sufficient degree to counter the presence of those other qualities and thus make it obvious that the story in hand requires attention to all those other things. Which may well be the very reasons a given reader has abandoned straight up literary fiction in the first place.

We might call this parochialism.

(I recall as a stridently biased youth having arguments about such things and declaring, quite seriously, “I don’t give a damn about character, I want event!” In other words, all the things that make a work of literature valuable having to do with empathy and pathos and the possibility of learning something about life just got in the way of what I considered the genuinely worthwhile aspect of a story, namely the gadgets, the setting, the plot, the novelty. This is a response to exoticism.  Partly this is an indication of immaturity, the inability to step outside yourself and into someone else’s head, and partly this is inexperience as  reader.  But largely I think this is a consequence of the insularity of an inferiority complex.  Who gives a damn about people who don’t give a damn about you? Which, when you think about it, in terms of fiction is kind of absurd.)

The recent raging against change within the SF community strikes me as a species of this syndrome.

For the most part, this problem erodes with exposure and experience. But one has to know what the problem is to begin with.

SF has become more accepted among the so-called mainstream, but it would be a shame if it had become accepted not as an equal to mundane literature but only as comfortable novelty with no real merit.  I doubt that’s the case and I have reservations about certain aspects of the study, but it would make for a worthwhile colloquium—or maybe just a good panel at a science fiction convention.