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.

To Cut Or Not To Cut

Congress is about to tackle a new tax reform battle. The assertion hotly debated currently is over the corporate tax rate. It stands at 35%, down from its historic highs in the 1950s of over 50%. It should be noted that during the postwar years of the late 1940s through Eisenhower’s administration, growth of GDP was close to 4% on average. During most of the 2000s, enjoying the lower tax rate, growth has average 1.8%.  That number is deceptive in a few ways, but for our purposes just one is important. GDP—national growth—has been sluggish according to some yet corporate profits have been historically high. Corporations on average are making far higher profits than might be expected from a “sluggish” economy.  Here is a more detailed analysis from the Economic Policy Institute.  Basically, what this suggests is that corporate income tax rates have little or no bearing on either profitability or national growth.  This is a talking point that sounds impressive but is essentially beside any point.

The usual pro-tax cut rhetoric has been deployed once more, basically that cutting corporate tax rates will make money available to corporations for reinvestment and by extension jobs growth.  We have heard this many, many times, and since 1980 it has become a strained, threadbare assertion with no relation to what actually happens.  It makes perfect sense on the surface, but again reality is not so simple.

We have one fundamental problem:  who exactly will buy all the new manufactures who aren’t buying them now?

The Great Depression taught us a few things (which we seem hell-bent on forgetting), one of which was that productivity was not the problem. Accommodation was. Corporations had no trouble making what they were in business to make, productive capacity had reached epic heights, but the availability of all those manufactures had outstripped available credit. With no one able to buy any of it, the corporations drowned themselves in product. Relief programs designed to provide said credit were fought tool-and-nail by conservatives afraid that “give-aways” would sap our moral strength, which resulted in short-sighted policies based on outdated economic and social models which left thirty million Americans unemployed and, worse, largely unemployable. The economy—read, The Market—adjusted quickly to function without them. Without large infusions of money from government and then, later, the adrenalized demands of World War II, those people would have starved.

What will actually happen to all that so-called “extra” money freed up by another tax cut will not go into reinvestment. Some may, but not at the level all the starry-eyed tax reformers want. Most of it will go into dividend payments and bonuses to people who are already doing fine. Once distributed, it will then be absorbed in investment portfolios with global holdings and not spent here, at least not at the level hoped for in order to spur the kind of growth this proposal is touted to spur.  A few people might get raises, but frankly—and I am being a bit of a cynic here—what new jobs have not already been created in an environment of historically high profits will not be created just because those profits are raised even higher. The corporate strategies which seem to work well now will not be changed. Few large corporations are champing at the bit for that money in order to build new factories to make the things they likely will not pay high enough wages to permit purchase in large enough quantity to justify the reinvestment.

What is being discussed a bit more openly is all the money locked away in tax havens.  It is suggested that reducing tax penalties will induce corporations to bring that money back into the United States. But why should it?  If they needed it for growth, they would find a way to use it. They don’t need it.  These are war chests, basically, and reserves to balance economic controls across borders to the benefit of the depositors.

What might be more effective is a bottom up plan that puts that money directly in the pockets of working class and middle class people. Directly. Before we create a permanent dependent class that will never have quite enough and will, in hard times, serve as the seed bed of anarchist sentiment aimed at destruction.  It may be time finally to talk seriously about a guaranteed basic income.

Any rejection of this based on misplaced notions of fairness must take into account the fact that as things are configured now, a certain class enjoys exactly such a thing. What do you think dividends are? One might claim that they are not guaranteed, but they are as reliable as can be.  Any cursory perusal of reputable investment fund performance over the last fifty years shows almost no risk for investors, and with the continued emphasis on tax cuts for corporations, which result in even higher profitability in aggregate, there is certainly a public monetary element involved—where do you think those cuts end up?  And the money itself originates from the communities now being asked to credit these entities with even larger sums, usually at their longterm expense.

 

 

Difficult Books

Change of angst.

I saw one of those clickbait surveys, 200 “difficult” books, that challenge you by offering titles to select and then rating your score. I took it because it’s amusing to see what the zeitgeist thinks is worthwhile literature, and this one was better than some, but several of the titles gave me pause, thinking, that’s a difficult book?

I wonder what criteria are being used, other than perhaps page count and venerable authors.  Also, what do they mean by “difficult”—conceptually challenging or just a slog?  I mean, certainly Atlas Shrugged is a “difficult” book, but not the same way Ulysses is, or even the same way Oliver Twist is.  Ulysses requires some intellectual acumen on the part of a reader, some familiarity with history and literature, a bit of theology, and an ability to recognize human foible in any of dozens of various guises.  Atlas Shrugged merely requires a strong stomach and a lot of patience. Being tone deaf to good literature would help as well. And of course what the latter has to say about the human condition vis a vis economics is meaningless drivel compared to the portrayal of class abuse in Oliver Twist.  Telling the difference and knowing why the one doesn’t stack up to the other would be a good start to determining what qualifications one is using for “difficult” reads.

But it’s a good question, what qualifies as a difficult—in this case, read a challenging—book.  And by challenging I mean a work that forces you to think about the text and risk change by having read it deeply and honestly.

Admittedly, there are some novels which are merely difficult through obscurantism. They’re hard because the writer didn’t have much to say but didn’t want to admit that.  They usually don’t last past the life of the author. Sometimes they don’t last past the initial print run.  But the difficulty of the structure and the sentences and the fog of pseudointellectual posturing is in these instances little more than a guarantee of early extinction.

The problem is, sometimes a really good work bears some resemblance to such work. It becomes easy to overlook the real virtues of such novels because audience for them is harder to find.

Take Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Disclaimer: I do not care for this novel. I find it difficult to enjoy the sentences. When someone pointed out to me that it has really funny parts, I was surprised.  The torture of the sentences prevented my ever seeing that, but I was willing to be shown. I’ve been through again, recently, and I’m prepared to admit that it is a Great Novel.  But it is seriously difficult.  And part of the difficulty is that Melville loaded his sentences with multiple meanings, subtext, and unpleasant reality.  It is difficult because what it has to say is difficult to say in such a way that the meaning will get past the innate cultural barriers to recognition.

But it survived because that recognition is to be found and eventually people found it and the impact was enormous.

It bears multiple readings.  Unpacking it takes time. Such a book demands the two things modern readers seem to lack the most:  time and patience.

But going through that list of 200 “difficult” books what I found mainly were books that are long and involved and in some instances convoluted (Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest) and books with Reputations. The latter are the kinds of books you might find on readers’ shelves, but rarely read.  They know somehow they should read them, but they just haven’t.  And may never.  Because…well, they’re hard.  They reward patience, necessitate experience, require a bit of preparation, and yield nothing to casual taste.

It put me in mind of some of our recent teacup typhoons in science fiction.  Why struggle to understand something that makes the brain sweat when all the thrills and reassurance that you are smart can be found in the shallower waters of quicker reads?

Well, the answer is unsatisfying to a particular kind of reader.  You read the hard books because they make you more.

I won’t say “better” because I don’t know quite what that means in this context (or whether that sort of judgment has any place in talking about literature), but the expansion of the psyché is a real thing and it is only achieved by constantly taking on the difficult.  Only by doing so do you reach a point where you can discern the real difference between something like Atlas Shrugged (dense but superficial, and in many ways fraudulent) and a Gravity’s Rainbow (dense but meaningful, expansive and revelatory).  But more to the point, a book like Atlas Shrugged will not change you—if you are open to its message, all it will do is pacify your doubts and reinforce your prejudices, without ever challenging you to think about people or history in a different way, while the Pynchon cannot help but call into question pat beliefs and unsettle comfortable preconceptions.

So when such lists are constructed, it’s worth asking: how will these books make me different or new?  How well do they tell the truth?  How much do they expose about self-deception, deceit, and the lies of the world?  That’s where the “difficult” part is.

A thousand pages of froth changes nothing.  It just takes a long time to get through.

Annual Pose

Okay, so maybe this is going to be a thing. I think I put my vanity in a box and on a shelf because I don’t wish to be vain. I am, somewhat. I am saved from being an ass about it by being basically too lazy to really  attend to it, at least to the extent of making myself an object of derision. But it’s there, I admit it.

Most of my vanity has to do with the interior. I want to be a certain kind of person. I wish people to see the kind of person I’m trying to be. And I want what they see to be genuine. Maybe “vanity” is the wrong word, since too often it attaches to matters of surface only. And maybe I use that word to caution myself to pay attention to what matters.

In any case, I work at maintaining certain standards, both physically and mentally. I am not as successful at any of it as I would like to be, but it’s the journey, right? Whatever.

I turned 63 this year. I cannot quite get my head around that. In another generation I would be two years from falling into an actuarial expectation of being dead.  I would be spent, replete with health problems, fading.  When I was a child, 65 was the age at which people died.  Today?

But that’s not even the weirdest part.  The weird part is the history that I have personally lived through, knowing it as history, and being in a position to represent some of that history.  The other weird part is that, intellectually, I still see myself as somewhere around the mid to late 30s.

As I say, weird.  However, I’ve been posting annual updates like this–not as regularly as perhaps I should, but I see now that it might be a useful thing.

So. This morning, after coming home from the gym, I asked Donna to take a couple of pictures.

 

 

I’m weighing in at round 160.  I no longer bother getting on a scale.  I go by how well my clothes fit and how out-of-breath I get running down the street.  (Yes, I occasionally break into a sprint when I’m walking the dog, just because.  I can still do three blocks at a good run.)

The hair is thinner, grayer, the wrinkles a bit deeper, especially when I’m facing into the sun.

I feel tired a great deal of the time.

But aside from working out regularly, I work a full-time job, still play music, and I’m still trying to make the best-seller lists.

And chores.  Don’t forget chores.

But–most importantly–I still feel like I have options.  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A writer.

A photographer.

A musician.

A friend.

Someone people might possibly be glad to know.

 

The thing is, how to know when or if any of that is achieved?  I have to be comfortable in my own skin first.  And my skin is…

Well, not, perhaps, for me to say.  But I have every intention of sticking around long enough to find out.

So this is 63.

Let me post another photograph, to follow, of something maybe a little more interesting.  (Remember, one of the things I want to be is  photographer…?)  And leave off with something more abstract to contemplate.

Thank you all for putting up with me all this time.

 

 

 

A Picture Instead

The last several weeks have been alternately nerve-wracking, inspirational, depressing, too-cool-for-school, enervating, elating, and disappointing. The drain on resources has left me unable to judge overall.  Consequently, I’m being very chary what I write here.  So I’m going to put what energy I have into some fiction.

In the meantime, here’s a new picture.  Enjoy.