I’m going to go out on a limb here and make some statements which may not be dependable. You are warned. I’m speculating.
But I want some optimism, so…
With the dismissal of Bannon, it is obvious—or should be—that there is no center to this administration. The Donald had no plans, no principles to defend, no competencies to bring to bear. From the beginning he was indulging in pure deal-making showmanship, and now that he has to deliver we see that the fine cloak of carnival hucksterism is draped over nothing. He is entirely about Making A Deal. He thought that’s all he had to do, come into Washington and start wheeling and dealing as if the business of the nation was no more than a complex set of real estate negotiations that required someone who could sit down and negotiate a Deal. In his conception of that, though, you base your negotiating principles on bluff and managing to get one over on the other guy. As long as you come out ahead—however you conceive of that—you’re successful. The one thing that is de rigeur, though, is that nothing is to be allowed to get in the way of the Deal.
Not even your own biases.
So we see exactly how that works in practice with the dismal display over Charlottesville. Don’t take a side, you might have to make a Deal with those guys later. If possible, make all positions roughly equal so that you somehow hold the upper hand.
This doesn’t work so well with people on the street and it works even worse with countries. You try to make China look bad so you can deal on trade imbalances, but the rhetoric you choose makes it difficult to then ask for help when North Korea acts up. And threatening North Korea as part of a bluff to get them to open up to deal doesn’t work with a leadership that thinks it has already won.
On a practical, domestic level, you make promises that require a lot of other people to sign on for without any kind of guidance on where to go with these promises, because, as a “master” dealmaker you know you can bait-and-switch. You can get them into that turkey you’ve been wanting to unload if you can just get them to the table and pliant. They either walk away with nothing or take your offer, and no one wants to walk away with nothing. They do business with you now so they can do a better deal later.
But an even deeper problem lies with the people who helped him into office. We know them now, we can see what they are, and recognize the disregard and empty polemic and the class bias and the sheer disrespect they carry with them in lieu of an actual conscience. They think everyone is just like them and when it turns out that they’re wrong they have nothing to fall back on.
Now, I suspect that had this bunch come into power in 2008 we would be in even worse trouble. The country was on the ropes then, people were terrified, insecure, the economy was in a tailspin, and everyone was out to blame someone. We might have had a deeply serious problem had this bunch gotten into power then. They would be just as inept but we would have less confidence in our ability to challenge the obscenities. The comparisons to Germany in 1932 are apt but they go only so far. These folks are eight years and an economic recovery too late.
Oh, they can still do damage—they are doing damage. But they’re doing more damage to themselves.
Bannon was dismissed because, somehow, he threatened the Deal. Whatever the Deal might be. The Deal is amorphous, unformed. You throw things out there until something coalesces, then you recognize what it’s going to be, and you start arranging the furniture to make it happen. But Bannon wasn’t interested in that. He wanted to assert a position, he had a clear agenda. Can’t have that and keep the Deal fluid. He was an unreliable negotiator. His strategy, whatever it was, would have required his boss to give up options. Can’t do that, the Deal isn’t shaped yet. When he said the presidency he and the others fought for is over, that’s what he meant. The goals he thought they were all going after are being traded for advantage, used as negotiating chips in some Deal.
It all has no center. No substance. It’s collapsing. The scramble to make appearances count for reality is failing.
So my bit of optimism. We’re going through a long-overdue purge. It will be better. All we have to do is vomit out the residue of old beliefs that, in most instances, only served to distract us from our darker selves.
It’s going to be all right.
Next year, it will have been 30 years since I attended Clarion, the science fiction and fantasy writers’ workshop, in East Lansing, on the campus of Michigan State. It has since moved to San Diego.
While there, I not only acquired–somehow–the requisite skills to write fiction, but also a cadre of lifelong friends with whom I share a bond that is unique. I can think of only one other instance where I made a friend so fast and so solidly. But I have several from this six week experience. Kelley Eskridge, Nicola Griffith, Brooks Caruthers, Andy Tisbert, Peg Kerr…others…and this guy.
Daryl is crazy. He writes fantastic fiction, after all. Also Fantastic Fiction. Sharp, funny, erudite…snappy dresser on occasion. He was at the St. Louis County Library recently, hawking his new book, Spoonbenders. He’s a pretty good hawker, too. He might have had a career in carny had actual words on pages not grabbed his attention.
Anyway, two of the denizens of a special bunch.
The events in Charlottesville evoke for me the desolation that marred the American landscape in the late Sixties. Cities burned. Riots obliterated property, took lives, attempted by sheer physical exertion to assert a condition of identity too unformed and inarticulate in aggregate to mollify the majority of Americans. It burned itself out, exhausted, and with the end of the Vietnam War some years later and the appearance of normalization in relations between the races, it seemed the “long national nightmare” was over.
The complacency which followed has brought us to a condition of absurd desperation. Once more it is all too vast and amorphous to address as a whole, but I wish here to talk about one aspect that has fueled the present explosion of what too many of us believed smothered in our national psyché.
White Supremacy. Nazism.
The ignorant and frustrated attempting to turn back the ocean of maturity that has threatened their self-defining illusions have come out to protest the removal of a statue honoring Robert E. Lee, hero of the Confederacy. Heritage is used as an excuse, tradition as justification for the continued veneration of symbols which have little to recommend them other than the growing pains of a national moral conscience. The condemnation and dissolution of slavery in the United States was at the time long overdue and the defense of the institution on economic, biblical, even “scientific” grounds was a stain on the very founding principles of the country. How anyone could feel righteous defending on the one hand the liberty assumed by the words “all men are created equal” and then on the other chattel bondage enforced by the cruelest methods imaginable is testament to the unreliability of human intelligence poisoned by greed and fear. To look at it on its face, clearly the slaveholders of that time were the most dedicated Me Generation in modern history.
The attempts by latterday apologists to try to rewrite history to say that the South did what it did for other reasons than slavery is precisely the same as Holocaust Deniers attempting to mitigate the appalling behavior the the Nazi regime. To say that “It wasn’t so bad” is not much different than believing “those people had it coming.” To then go on and say they “had it coming” and then mitigate that by saying it wasn’t actually about that anyway is the sign of a mind in moral crisis that has given up on facing truth and reality.
To be clear: the South seceded in order to preserve slavery. Period. There were four formal declarations of secession outlining causes and each one of them privileges the right to maintain slavery as justification for leaving the Union. (Jefferson Davis, in a speech before congress in 1856, made it clear that he saw the preservation of “African slavery” as little less than a moral absolute.) Other articles of secession refer to these and give support and affirmation. But some of the language might be a bit complex for the obdurate revisionist to parse, so let’s look at something a bit sharper and to the point.
Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens gave what is known as The Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861. In it he laid out the principles of the new government. He said:
Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
It seems strange to read “slavery subordination” in the same paragraph with “moral truth.” But there it is. It cannot be swept away in a bit of philosophical or political legerdemain. Those people did what they did so they could hold millions of human beings in bondage. They wanted to keep slaves, to force human beings to give up or never have lives of their own.
More? He was laying out the foundation of the Confederacy and its political and philosophical bases. To whit:
The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”
Stephens was a full-throated, hoary racist to his core. He was terrified of black people, of what they represented, what they might do, and the threat they posed to the white civilization he thought so highly of.
You can try if will to get around that, but it’s absolutely clear. It is as clear as Hitler’s statements about Jews. It is the product of a cultural-molded view that has been repudiated time and again and here we see, in our midst, these very views driving people to actions that border on the actions of the Secessionists, which were then and remain treasonous.
It might be argued that the context within which these men did what they did differed from ours and that would be fair. Lee refused Lincoln’s offer of overall command of the Union army because he did not see the United States as his country but Virginia. That was how he spoke of it, that is how many people of the day saw it. Which is why much of the nonslaveholding population of the South, even those who had some problems with slavery in principle, fought against the North, because they saw it as an invasion.
We don’t have that excuse. We have not thought of our individual states as separate countries since the Civil War ended, not in any concrete way. We know it’s not like that. (It wasn’t legally like that then, but disingenuousness goes hand in hand with self-justifications.)
So these rioting, frothing-at-the-mouth haters clamoring for the preservation of some safe space wherein they can maintain the small-minded, deformed illusions of a master race that will profit them by rewarding their inability to cope with reality or comprehend moral reasoning want us all to accept the revised view of a Lost Cause narrative that never existed. Something that will overlook their intrinsic inferiority as rational beings and privilege the things they never had to earn as qualifications to rule. “I’m white, I should be better than you!”
We are not obliged as a nation to help you maintain your delusions. We are not obliged as a people to stand by while you try to stand apart in order to throw stones at the things you don’t like. We as moral beings owe nothing to a past that aggrandized inhumanity in the name of tradition or heritage or states’ rights or—
Or White Superiority.
Which, we are beginning to learn, was never a real thing.
The South worked overtime to cover its existence in a patina of false chivalry as antidote to the poison in its own belly. The lie at the heart of every movie or book that romanticized Dixie is that gentility was ever its raîson detré. The captivity in which it held its slaves was echoed in the straitjacket in which it dressed its “society” with its balls and belles and rituals of modern-day cavaliers. And later the stranglehold it maintained on the working class, with sharecropping the most visible form, in an attempt to revive the aristocratic presumptions of the plantation system, so that some mock nobility could exist on the backs of people with no viable way out of their bondage was no more than the refusal of former slaveholders and sons of slaveholders to hold on to the shards of an imagined life of leisure and grace that only ever existed by virtue of the spilled blood and broken bones of human beings who never had any say in their lives.
Robert E. Lee in the end was granted pardon by the expedient wisdom of victors who sought only to end the bloodshed and knew if they dealt with him and the others as they deserved under the law there would have been years more of senseless fighting. The man owned human beings. You may try to dress that up any way you wish, but that is a horrible thing. He and the others who fomented rebellion in order to maintain a system steeped in a depravity that required the worst aspects of human brutality to persist.
And the excuse they used was the argument of Negro Inferiority.
Now today we see people who have been raised with a painfully redacted version of the Lost Cause and are also incapable of dealing with those who do not look like them taking to the streets and the voting booth to try to force their intolerance on the rest of us. They themselves lack the integrity, the intellectual weight, and the moral substance to be equal to the challenges of their own shortcomings and deal with the world around them with any constructive resolve. They perceive opportunities being handed to people they cannot accept as equals and rather than look at themselves and try to come to terms with what they do not possess, they seek advantage by intimidation, by violence, by brute assertions of privilege mistaken as rights. They have raised the specter of Naziism in our midst because they sense if not recognize their obsolescence. If this is all the support that will come to defense of a statue, then it is perhaps right that the statue be removed.
But this deserves no defense. Yes, they have a right to express their opinion, but that right does not extend to forcing the rest of us to tolerate their demands on how that opinion is expressed.
Human beings must not be held in bondage. This is a truth.
The South committed treason when those states seceded and took up arms against the Union. That is also a truth.
They did so not out of some rarefied position on states’ rights and misunderstanding over the nature of the union they had all agreed to join and ratified in the constitution. They did so to maintain their labor pool and property values, no matter how hideous the conditions or immoral the institution. That deserves no respect on any level.
There is no valid argument for any present-day defense of those times, that philosophy, or the so-called traditions descended from them. The mob that showed up to protest the removal of a statue glorifying an era of horrific pain and suffering based on the indignity of human subjugation may know something of that history. Or they may not. In either case, that history is knowable.
The foundations of Southern thinking were then desperately elitist, terrified of losing the throne of superiority not only to those they considered their racial inferiors but to any and all that did not meet their standards. This quote from the Muscogee Herald, an Alabama newspaper, in 1856:
Free Society! we sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists? All the Northern men and especially the New England States are devoid of society fitted for well-bred gentlemen. The prevailing class one meet with is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman’s body servant. This is your free society which Northern hordes are trying to extend into Kansas.
There is in the stunted soul of a Nazi and inability to cope with equality of any sort. The Nazis of Germany in the 1930s till the end of the war were, to their core, thieves, moral cowards, and perpetually incapable of recognizing the humanity in anything. They erected a state based on pillage and called it great. They sought a conformism of mind impossible to achieve not only because they lacked any grasp of human nature but because their standards were paper-thin, devoid of substance, and necessitated the virtual lobotimization of imagination.
We must confront and reject this intractable belief that anyone is intrinsically better than anyone else that lies at the center of the White Supremacist movement. At the end of the day, no one can be allowed freedom in the face of the amalgamated mediocrity of a mind that demands an inferiority in others in order to feel that it is safe to get out of bed in the morning and face a day everyone has the same right to enjoy. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that a civilization cannot survive the successful expression of the politics that inevitably emerge from such unadmitted terror as that harbored by those who ascribe to such movements and accept as “natural” such inhuman beliefs.
I had a conversation yesterday with a coworker about music that ended up going into some places I didn’t like. We have these faux clashes from time to time, they’re always–always–done with great good humor and the self-awareness that we’re just, you know, funnin’. But this time I actually found myself getting a bit worked up.
It was about music. He took exception to my categorical dismissal of punk as essentially garbage. Fair enough. Superlatives are always wrong. Do I hate punk? Hate is a strong word. I loathe it. I find its self-justifications back in the day one with all anti-intellectual movements. The amount of punk I’ve listened to, while small, has yet to offer anything that might suggest there’s any actual ability on display. The whole point of it back then was to loudly and hideously repudiate progressive rock and the associated slickly produced pop that borrowed many of the aesthetic trappings of prog even while it very decidedly was not prog. Along comes little Johnny Rotten to make a counter-statement and reduce the caliber of rock back to some basement level from-the-gut roar that’s supposed to be what rock is all about in the first place, but hell, even in its infancy rock’n’roll could boast better musicians on their worst day than what styles itself as punk on its best.
That is my opinion. I’m an Old Fart, so deal with it. I listen to music for the delightful things it does among my synapses and my synapses are 62 years old and impatient with three chords, a bridge, and a lot of disingenuous screeching. I long since moved over to jazz because I want good playing, nuance, sophistication, and tonal qualities that surprise in a delightful way.
Had punk come out of the adolescent desires of a bunch of wankers who couldn’t play well but still wanted to be ROCK STARS, I probably wouldn’t feel quite to strongly about it. But it didn’t. (Maybe some of them came out of this, but they were swept under the tent of…) It came with a manifesto and set about trying to wreck a cultural aesthetic that was pushing toward some kind of transcendence.
Pompous? You bet. And a lot of progressive rock was over-the-top, arpeggios and glissandos for the sake of showing off. Partly, this was a consequence of the way such industries work, always demanding the next new thing that sounds pretty much just like the last thing that sold a gillion records and sold out stadiums for umpteen months. The money machine driving variety for its own sake and to hell with any kind of genuine artistic sense. Hell, I would have cut loose with something completely Other under those pressures.
But while that is understandable, what I object to is the abandonment of skill and attention to the actual musicality that came with punk. I dislike punk because, basically, it sounds terrible.
Now, my friend started offering examples of “good” punk and it was interesting. Because the examples offered were of bands that had a sense of that musicality and, aside from poor vocals, had moved away from the primal hammering of early punk toward something more…nuanced? They…progressed. They got tired, I suppose, of just channeling dissatisfaction and rage and realize that their instruments could actually be used to make…you know…music.
I loathe country and western as well, but I would never say that those artists have no ability or talent. They can play! It seems a shame that so often they use their considerable ability to pretend that they can’t, but I respect them as musicians, I just don’t care for their product.
I suppose I am unfair about it, but I can’t help it. I really despise punk rock. Not for the impulses that drove it but for the categorical rejection of musicality aimed at bringing down genuine musicality. I get rage. But we did that in the Sixties and it sounded good!
Except for some of the singing. I have to admit, the whole aesthetic of the singer-songwriter who’s gonna do his or her stuff whether they can carry a tune or not never impressed me. It seemed for a while we were getting over that nonsense, but here comes punk bringing it all back with a vengeance. “I don’t wanna practice! I don’t wanna take voice lessons! I don’t wanna have to be good! I just wanna be a STAR!” Or, so they claimed, anti-stars. Which still required an audience, and the larger the better, which means a following, which means popularity of some sort, which makes you, if you get enough of it, let’s see…a Star.
I just wanted to get some of that off my chest. Thank you for your indulgence.
Recently I had an exchange with someone over climate change. It was short and frustrating. The basis of the exchange was a report—recycled from 2007 and given a new lease on life because of the recent book and film—on Al Gore’s presumably exorbitant energy use in his home. Depending on which non-news site you chose, he either uses 34 times more than the average American or 21 times. The intent of the articles was to show Mr. Gore as a hypocrite, someone preaching the sermon but then balking at the walk.
It’s true, he lives large. He has a ten thousand square foot home, which is more than five times the size of the average American home, and that doesn’t include the grounds. But there was also no mention made of the carbon offsets he buys or the investments he makes in green energy or the money he spent upgrading a century old house to more modern energy efficiencies or the way he has specified the source of much of his energy so that a lot if not most comes from alternate sources. This was a standard-issue bit of simple-minded criticism that says if you do not live in a hovel when preaching about certain things, you’re automatically a hypocrite. It is not, I should point, about forcing Al Gore to reduce his lifestyle but to force him to shut up. None of these people would care if he moved into a double-wide with solar panels and a hydrogen cell to live off the grid. Their purpose is to get him to stop talking.
As I said, the exchange was short. This was with a climate change denier fully invested in the belief that it is all a hoax. I was reminded of the mindset of occultists and alchemists, who at their base believed fervently that answers were unobtainable, that if you thought you had found the truth you were automatically wrong. No, few if any ever stated it so baldly, but it’s obvious from the way they would avoid genuine experiment, deny all arguments that might contradict received wisdom, and generally evaded any conclusion that suggested they were in pursuit of the unattainable. Science had to rid itself of this obdurate self-imposed blindness before it could flourish and it seems clear that we are burdened with some variation of it still.
But I wondered, just what drives this kind of selective self-censorship?
Well, obviously a lack of understanding. The science is complex and people often have difficulty grasping causal concepts that seem to contradict personal experience. When your city is frozen in the grip of a record-breaking snow storm it’s difficult to reconcile the assertion that global temperatures are rising. Difficult but not impossible, especially if the following summer comes with record-breaking heat, for perhaps the fourth or fifth consecutive year. (Climate has changed in St. Louis. When I was a kid, three feet of snow in December was not unusual, snow that lasted through February sometimes. Now? People are stunned when we have a foot that lasts a week, if that. Summers are hotter. Certain insect patterns have shifted. Things have changed and when I look for explanations the only model that conforms to experience is global climate change.) Lack of understanding can be corrected, though. People can learn. They may not want to but they can.
Sometimes, though, they go down a cul-d-sac and get stuck in a plausible dead-end. Staying there, though, depends on things having little to do with evidence or logic.
Consider: the rejection of climate change makes no sense. Addressing the problem of where we get our energy is a technical issue, a matter of engineering. There are several reasons, perfectly sound ones, to change the way we do this. Pollution is the simplest one. What kind of a world do you want to live in? One with soot, particulates, toxicity? The expense of defending against such things is high, depending where you live. Environmental degradation is another. Tearing up mountains to extract coal, leaving ugly holes, spilling the effluent into waterways, drilling—and fracking is worse. Look at satellite images of fracking-intense areas and the clouds of waste gas. And of course earthquakes where few if any had occurred before. And the damage to water tables.
Jobs is the cry. Displacing workers. Well, building a whole new industry would seem to be a jobs-positive thing. The technology and industries to not only build solar and wind would expand the jobs market, but also the construction of the networks, distribution, and upgrading and maintaining the grid (which needs it anyway, regardless of the energy source), all these things mean jobs.
The expense! The expense we currently shoulder in artificially maintaining obsolete systems should by now be common knowledge. The expense on taxpayers subsidizing industries that are collapsing not to mention the downstream expense of cleaning up after the pollution. The expense of people made sick. The asthma rates in coal country are rising. We pay an exorbitant amount to maintain the illusion that coal and oil are the only means to accomplish what we want to.
Someone like Al Gore comes along and starts pointing this out. You might quibble with some of his details, but in essence he has a sound argument. Instead of attacking the argument—which might lead to some edifying consequence, like all of us learning something useful—his character is attacked. This is not an uncommon tactic. Some people seem to feel a person has to be virtually a saint in order to hold and disseminate an opinion. But if what he says is supported by the science, what difference does it make how he lives? What is it about his lifestyle that invalidates the message?
He’s asking other people to change but, presumably, he won’t.
What exactly is he asking most people to change? If tomorrow your electricity came from wind turbines instead of a coal-fired plant, what has changed for you? Electricity is electricity. The costs? Costs aren’t rising anyway? Your taxes aren’t going to subsidize the industry? Or is this more akin to the fear of “death panels” presumably inevitable with universal health care? We go along with this and next year someone from the government will take away your car or truck? Transportation is already changing, it will continue to do so, and in ten years you may find you don’t even want your car, but that’s beside the point. Such a fear is a boogeyman used to keep us from addressing the problem. My question stands: what exactly is he asking you to change?
The question of costs is not irrelevant, but as I say, they’re going up anyway. Maybe in the long run there might be some relief if part of the cost is not in cleaning up so much detritus. But that requires long term thinking outside your immediate sphere. You have to consider the community, the country, the planet. Most people find that difficult, if not to achieve then to sustain.
Lifestyle. Your lifestyle will change.
That is almost unanswerable because it’s so nebulous. As I suggest above, change is coming anyway, but probably not what you expect. On the simple question of how you get your energy, what changes? Still, not an irrelevant point.
There will, perhaps, be less available energy. To do what? We’ve been undergoing a small (perhaps not so small) revolution in energy efficiency for lo these last few decades. Our houses are full of devices that operate on far less electricity than their ancestors required. That’s not likely to stop. But we can look at Europe to see the numbers and discover that the very thing which will provide jobs will also suffice to power your lifestyle.
But I suspect the thing feared in terms of change has nothing to do with actual resource. What will change is some aspect of identity.
From what to what?
Basically, the changes in policy required to address climate change would be a net positive whether the science is flawed or not. Breathing cleaner air, securing the potability of our water, lightening our touch on the ecologies are all desirable and come with economic benefits regardless. If it turned out by some odd oversight that we got the climate change model wrong, so what? We would have built a new energy grid based on cleaner models and generally improved the well-being of the commonwealth. If we aren’t wrong about climate change, we can add saving the world for humanity as a bonus.
But like someone who doesn’t want to give up steak for dinner, we treat climate change like vegetarianism. It doesn’t matter that the science may be correct about the health benefits, we still want our meat. It’s a question of identity.
We burn oil and coal! It’s American! All this wind and solar is somehow…somehow…feeble.
Perhaps the deniers can’t imagine building with such tools. Perhaps they can’t accept joining in a global cooperative effort not being invented or run by America.
Whatever the reason, short-term vested interests love you. Because they are able to count on you as foot soldiers in the fight to forestall the imposition of regulations on them. They do not want to be told what they can or cannot do and this is just another species of limitation on their personal vision of Who Counts.
But that’s understandable. That’s greed and avarice. What’s the denier’s excuse? Being somehow joined with the mighty by association with the self-styled giants of industry?
I accept the science involved. A cold snap here and there isn’t enough to convince me all the rest is a phantom. But it doesn’t matter. Accepting the need to change the way we use this planet means so many other things, including eventually taking the power to dictate from people who have no business having it in the first place. Climate Change Denial costs so much more and fails to address everything else that goes to the need to change.
When Reagan ripped the solar panels off the White House in a fit of thoughtless national pomposity, he empowered a mindset that we’re still having to put up with. A mindset that won’t debate, won’t consider, won’t yield, and won’t change. not because the thing it rails against is wrong but because it cannot stand not being right.
Recently I learned that the church I attended as a child is holding its last service in September. Emmaus Lutheran Church, on Jefferson Avenue. I say the “church I attended” with a certain degree of disingenuousness. I attended because I had to. I went to the grade school affiliated with it and every Wednesday morning all the students were ushered into the church to hear services. There were three pastors I recall. The first was a Reverend Wilson. I didn’t know much about him because he wasn’t there very long after I started at the school. I recall a slim man with salt-and-pepper hair and a ready smile. He could have been 40 or 50, but I seem to remember a wife that looked on the young side, so he might have been prematurely gray. He left and duties were shared between the considerably older (and semi-retired) Pastor Summers and the school principle, Mr. Oberman. They didn’t get a permanent replacement for Wilson till after I had left.
I rarely went on Sundays. The only time I did so regularly was during a short time when I had a girlfriend, a classmate, and I went with her. In hindsight, obviously I wasn’t going to be edified.
I remember being fervent in my faith at the time. (For a brief period, I even testified to strangers, on the street.) I know, that may sound like a contradiction, but even then I did not equate faith with regular attendance.
Well after leaving Emmaus I did a personal assessment of the things I took from there. It should be born in mind that my feelings about the place are mixed thoroughly with my memories of going to school there and the times I went through, so it is difficult to tease apart the church bits from the rest. It may be pointless to do so in any case. Halfway through high school I understood that the only thing I wanted from that time and that place was distance. Judge me if you wish, but all I got from Emmaus Lutheran School and Church was a deep sense of self-loathing and confusion and a bitter resentment over how much time and energy was and would be required to get all that protestant hellfire and guilt out of my brain.
My sense of personal shame was as much a result of my peers showing me time and again how little they thought of me as it was the thunderous Old Testament retributive doctrines, but since we were all being handed the same things it may be that the whole experience is the point. What I learned there was a pervasive intolerance.
I had one brief interaction with them years after leaving, which resulted in my threatening a lawsuit for harassment. That did the trick and I never heard anything from them again. That was desired and appreciated.
The school closed first, of course. I believe the building was sold. Something is going on in it anyway and it is not parochial school classes. (I think.) I was surprised to learn last week that the church had still been in business. Like old actors you haven’t seen anything about in years and think are dead, I was surprised to hear that services were still being held. Despite the tenacity of the congregation, I am not surprised they are shutting it down. Demographics. People move, die, neighborhoods change. The demographics mutate and unless an institution is willing to change with them, they do not survive. My memory suggests that this was not a parish interested in modernizing. Maybe they tried.
But it is also a fact that traditional churches of almost any denomination are struggling. This is neither new or uncommon. That Emmaus had lasted this long is a testament to persistence.
Some may feel they failed in their mission. No, probably not. They simply failed to adapt their mission to new conditions and needs. That particular manifestation of the Lutheran Church just faded out.
Plus, no doubt, they ran out of money.
I would never have known anything about this had I not been added (without permission, as often happens) to a Facebook group of fellow classmates. I hadn’t heard a peep out of them for however long I’d been a member until this shattering news came across Messenger. Good heavens, now that it’s too late, they’re all shocked. Maybe. I could have happily gone on knowing nothing about it. But I lurked on the thread for a few days, watching the comments, and then quietly left the group without saying a word. Why say anything? I don’t care but there’s no reason to rain on their party on that account. I didn’t want to be the curmudgeon who tells the truth about Uncle Phil at the funeral, so to speak.
But I do have one friend from those days who made a point of contacting me about it. Even though we had talked about my experiences and feelings about the place for literally decades, he was offended by my indifference. Not, I think, over the religious aspect, but over the nostalgia. Be that as it may, I was once again made to feel a smidgeon of guilt over my lack of interest, and here it is going on half a century since I left that place and the caul of it still clings. Amazing.
I know other Christians who came up through their churches in wholly different conditions and look at me oddly about this, but I came away from Emmaus with a burden of guilt based on the whole “you are a worthless smear of shite on the heel of god and steeped in sin for which there is no cure and unless you beg, beg beg forgiveness the fiery pit of perdition awaits” school of religious behavioral conditioning. I was furious with them for years. Life is hard enough without being made to feel that way by people supposedly preaching love.
I also came out of it with a more subtle but in some ways worse set of cultural biases that reinforced a White Christian West is the Best attitude that relegated anyone who didn’t accept that view to a lesser status, the status of the benighted who require “saving.” This is, bluntly, imperialist, racist in many cases, certainly a view soaked in the kind of privilege that, to take one example of many, saw the decimation of native American cultures.
And for a short while it acted as a set of filters through which alternate views had a hellish time getting through.
All these things clogged my brain like taffy and it took a long time to flense the pathways. They may not be entirely cleaned out to this day. The only part of that period of education for which I am grateful, at least as it concerns my intellectual development, was the opportunity it afforded my father and I to engage in intense quasi-Socratic dinner table dialogues that eventually spanned far more than just what I was taught in Bible studies that day. (I did take some measure of delight in asking uncomfortable and mostly unanswered questions in class.)
My subsequent studies in religion and theology left me even less enamored of Lutheranism, but this is nothing special. I have little use for any organized, institutionalized religion. They are all of them built by men for the purposes of men and to pursue those purposes they need money and money displaces the mission in time. (I choose my adjectives purposefully.)
Emmaus served one purpose for me—it catapulted me out of the narrow chute of parochial thinking. It was not the result they would have approved.
I was already reading science fiction then. My 5th grade teacher, a rangy man with flame red hair, told me it was a waste of time. When I asked why, he informed me that all those space stories were worse than fabrications, because there was nothing else Out There. No aliens, no other civilizations, nothing. All that Up There had been made by his god for our edification. It was just there for us to look at and admire.
Emmaus showed me the door out. On the other side was a future. Several futures. One of them was mine. I look back as seldom as I can.
Just in case anyone is interested.
The great conundrum at the heart of the movie Thelma and Louise is the problem the pair face in fleeing the law. They have to go to Mexico. They know that, they agree. But Louise refuses to enter Texas. Thelma tries to reason with her, but to no avail. Louise will not go to Texas. They’ll have to find another way. Thelma lets it drop, recognizing the complete irrationality of the position, not knowing what to do about it, but thinking perhaps eventually reason will prevail and they’ll get to Mexico.
The Republican Party is playing the part of Louise over the Affordable Care Act. They have now found themselves face to face with the need to go to Mexico. But they refuse to go through Texas. (I know, the ironies multiply.)
(Now, mind you, there are problems with the ACA. It is not what we should be doing, but it’s what we have, and we have examples to go by as to what to do, which is to work on it and make it better. Medicaid and Medicare were horrible when they were first enacted, but over time they have been made into something pretty good.)
Basically, they are beginning to realize that they can’t fulfill what has been their unspoken (though sometimes admitted) philosophical position for decades, which is that government is the enemy. They have campaigned on the presumption that their main task is to undo as much government structure as possible. Repeal, defund, tear apart. They have embraced the idea that their mandate (from who, when, and for what reason?) is to strip America of its government.
Starting with taxes. And of course they’ve been tilting at entitlements since Johnson. Their stance on the environment shows a consistent commitment to the idea that government, especially the federal government, should do nothing. Deregulate, roll back taxes, do less, do nothing, let corporate entities step it, remain aloof, privatize. The drumbeat of group-march has driven them into a position wherein the very idea of a successful or even improvable government program is oxymoronic.
Now they are faced with the fact that people—the very ones they have been presuming to serve by gutting all these programs—actually don’t want them to do that. And in order to improve anything, they will have to work across the aisle to actually make the ACA work better.
They have to go to Mexico and they have to go through Texas to get there.
As for their constituency, well, it’s not like they haven’t been getting mixed signals all along. In general there has been a constant background demand of “FIX IT! But don’t change anything.” They have fed back the disinformation and disconnect and reinforced the idea that government can’t do anything, in spite of evidence to the contrary. People—their people—have believed for decades that government spends far too much and delivers too little, all to the wrong people. (And, most importantly, that it can do nothing else, that it is impossible for it to function to the benefit of the people.) Combined with local, regional, and class attitudes, nurtured by the hyper aggressive distortions of talk radio and Fox News and the attendant priesthood of conspiracy-driven paranoia, this basic belief has been the chief barrier to reasonable discourse, the mustard gas in the air.
But even fantasy must eventually yield to reality and when thousands of solid Tea Party supporters and Trump voters understood that they were about to lose the health care provided under the much maligned and hated “Obamacare” the message changed. “Fix it but don’t take my healthcare away!” “Repeal this thing but leave it in place!” “Take us to Mexico but don’t go to Texas!”
Now some senate Republicans are suggesting that the geography requires them to go where they swore they would never go.
In its most generalized form, the GOP has taken it as given that government should not step in where they believe markets should do a job. But if those markets fail to function in accordance with public benefit, what then?
The more rabid among them seem to believe that it doesn’t matter, that only those who can thrive in that environment deserve any regard, that if you need what you cannot yourself provide, too bad, you don’t merit aid because “obviously” you fall into some category of freeloader, goldbricker, slacker, or political outlaw.
As Al Franken said in an interview (paraphrased) they believe you should pull yourself up by your boot straps. But what if you don’t have any boots?
Underlying this is some sort of apprehension that economies are somehow natural phenomena and that those who can’t survive and thrive in them should be weeded out in a bad application of Darwinian survival (based inanely on a theory they otherwise don’t accept—Texas again). They can’t quite come out and say that because it might be in poor taste or the Left might use it against them, but clearly it’s there. If you have no property, if you don’t make money, if you do not conform to an ideal image of American Self Sufficiency, you should die. You do not, by virtue of simply existing, deserve any consideration from the rest of society.
Unless you’re a fetus.
The contradictions of their positions are becoming manifest and even among themselves they seem to be coming to the conclusion that, for incomprehensible reasons, reasons that should not be, what they see as the only true template for America simply will not work. They may not understand why but at least the cracks in the casing around their ideologies, at least in some cases, are beginning to let light in.
Or they really are just worried about their jobs.
It will be interesting to see how they manage this. They’re actually going to have to, at some point, come to terms with how many of their policies over the last few decades have led to a state of the nation wherein people have been made surplus in service to a pillage of wealth that while it may look great on paper has actually eroded our general welfare. I seem to recall that being one of their jobs, to see to the health of the commonwealth…
So what exactly will Louise do? Go through Texas? Or do we continue driving toward the edge of that cliff?