You Don’t Really Mean That!

Kevin Sorbo, who came to public attention portraying a mythical strongman on television, has been saying things about atheists lately.  He thinks he has a good bead on what makes us tick.

It began when he wondered why atheists are so angry at something we claim doesn’t exist, i.e. God.  Because atheists seem to spend a lot of time talking about him/her/it and being outraged about the subject.

This is deflection.  It misses the point.  Atheists are not angry at god—clearly, since we do not believe god exists.  We’re angry with god’s promoters and acolytes who keep shoving a nonexistent something-or-other in our faces and telling us we’re everything from “mistaken” to the cause of civilization’s collapse to…well, several other things one is shocked to hear come from the mouths of self-professed “good christians.”

Part of this seems to be standard in religious practice, the deflection of just about everything onto the god of choice.  It’s god’s will, it’s in the hands of god, etc.  So obviously when an atheists gets angry at the politics and social practice of devotees we can’t possibly be angry at them for the kind of activism that grinds the back teeth, we must be angry at their deity of choice.  After all, they’re only doing what god wants them to do, so how can they be held to blame?

Which is a goodly part of what drives us to distraction.

I have never had a pair of atheists knock on my door to tell me the good news of the nihilistic way of life.  I’ve never had an atheist tell me I got over a serious illness because they got together to use thought waves to communicate with the cells of my body and effect a cure.  I’ve never had to put up with an atheist telling me a certain political situation was the way it was because of a corrupted condition endemic to being human.  And I’ve never heard an atheist insist on the efficacy of magic over science.*

Insofar as the record on public action in this country goes, it is no surprise that religious thinking dominates, since it’s a matter of sheer numbers.  But it would be well for people to remember what has been justified in the name of religion in this country.  Slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, the eradication of native American culture, and the persistent insistence on irrational laws and punishments which have now resulted in our having the highest per capita incarceration rate of any developed country (which can only be explained by a devotion to some notion of sin that refuses to take into consideration genuine remediation, social context, or common sense).

Atheists are not angry at god, Mr. Sorbo, we’re angry at the impenetrable cluelessness of believers who let their children die rather than take them to a doctor, who continually see nothing wrong with setting aside the First Amendment to their advantage (but, in some cases, absolutely worship the Second Amendment), and who insist on relegating women to second-class status because, well, equality isn’t Biblical.  Let’s not even start with the debate over alternative sexualities and the question of gay marriage.

Before you protest that these people are a minority, I will agree with you, but they are a minority which enjoys massive tacit support from a broad and often passive culture base which, while disapproving many of their tactics nevertheless approves their source of inspiration and at least some of their motives.

“Well, we’re not all like that,” comes somewhere in the same conversation as “our church is different.”

No, it’s not.  In one very significant way.  Religion by definition defines unbelievers as flawed, blind, somehow crippled, and in need of fixing.

That’s what makes atheists furious.  It’s patronizing.

Now before atheists who read this nod sagely and come away feeling in some way virtuous about themselves, not so fast.

For our part we tend to adopt a superior attitude every bit as condescending and misdirected as the true believers we disdain.  Often we refuse to acknowledge the ineffable and relegate many attributes of moral systems to what we consider superstition.  At times we use our position as self-designated rationalists to pass judgments on others we deem less enlightened, and even if we tend to keep such judgments to ourselves (with notable exceptions) they nevertheless affect our behavior towards others.

That said, if anyone has a reason to be miffed…

What can be truly irritating in both camps is the aforementioned process of deflection.  Atheists are not angry at a god that does not exist but at those who insist one does and take that insistence as permission to push their beliefs on us.  The believers manages to not see the difference because, as they claim, they are doing god’s work, so it seems to not make sense to them that we make a distinction between the believer and the thing believed.

Believers get justifiably miffed at atheists who judge them and conflate that judgment with the philosophical position that seems to allow such judgment.  Atheists think themselves acting out of reason and fail to understand that they’re being boors, which is not justified by rationalism.  Rationalism in this case is just an excuse to be an ass.

Hence both sides engage in the time honored sport of talking past each other.

Not all believers act like Mr. Sorbo or those who think their god has given them permission to disregard all other philosophical positions and forget—stridently—what pluralism means.  Not all atheists are judgmental louts who treat believers like unenlightened primitives in need of education (which can lead directly to the kind of proselytization the atheist is bitching about in the first place).

But they seem to be the loudest ones in the room.

 

_________________________________________________________________________________

* I’ve heard a lot of non-christians do and say these sorts of things, but that’s another problem, which is the conflation of all alternative beliefs into the “atheist” camp.  For the record, pagans are not by definition atheists.  Nor are Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, or any other non-western faith.

Mythicism

I’ve been trying to come to terms with Ferguson since it began.  The shooting of Michael Browne sparked a response that surprised many people and the counter responses have been equally surprising among certain people, not so much among certain others.  Every time I start to write something I find what I intended to say had already been said better elsewhere.   My response, whatever it may have been or will continue to be, is not out of any isolated, singular place.  I am part of a community and how that community responds necessarily becomes part of my own response.

There’s a fund for the police officer and his family, which the last time I noticed was mounting to a respectable six-figure level.  I scratch my head and wonder what it’s for.  His family?  Sure, they shouldn’t have to bear the costs of his actions.

Another statistic I noted with deep ambivalence is that while Ferguson is 60% African American, voter turn-out in that population in that community is about 6%.  This helps explain the racial composition of Ferguson’s elected leaders and especially the police department.  Certain people are, however, using this as an excuse to continue to blame the victim and shift the responsibility back onto those who are supposed to be served by those officials when that service fails. Regardless of the voting statistics, it is the mayor’s and the police department’s job to serve the community as a whole, but we all tend to carve up factions into even smaller bits in order to avoid responsibility.  A deeper question here is why those voting rates are so low and that opens the door to bigger questions some people don’t want asked and others are tired of dealing with and still others are simply blocked from resolving.

In the confusion of response and counter response, I’m reminded once again of the single sacred thing that is at the heart of American social reality—property.  We become apoplectic when property is damaged in the course of social upheaval or criminal action.  We have mixed feelings about it in all instances, but burning a business—anywhere, anytime—triggers a deep, visceral revulsion in Americans that goes back to our origins as a nation.  Of course it’s powerful—if it weren’t, it would be useless as any kind of statement.

But many of us stop paying attention to the why once the torch is lit and we then see the unfolding of shifting issues.  The initial issue is displaced by the response, which becomes a new issue, which is then overwhelmed by the next response, which becomes still a third issue, and so on until one day we look around and realize that the primary issue has been lost in the fracturing landscape of antiphonal reaction.

We lose sight of the fact that this entire thing is about abuse of power.

Let me tell you a story. You can consider it a parable of sorts, though it happened, something I witnessed at a very young age, though I was old enough to get what was happening.  (I’m avoiding names, even though this happened so long ago the principles are either dead or have forgotten the particulars.)

I used to hang out at a certain local business as a boy.  Among the clientele of this business were many police officers.  There was a certain excitement in this, being close to people who, at that time in my life, I saw either at a distance or only on tv.  The business owner knew them by name, had cordial relations with most of them, and in return his business was given a bit extra attention by them.

Occasionally, though, one would come in who was different.  It was evident in many difficult to describe ways—mannerisms, speech patterns, choice of topic—and I could tell that these officers were in some way less reliable.  It must be hard to work every day wielding the kind of power and authority a policeman has and remaining grounded, humble, connected to the people you serve.  The violence that comes with the job over time erodes idealism, hardens you to ordinary surprise, banks your sympathy at often miserly rates because it’s hard to do your job and retain an intact core of humanity that must nevertheless be there for you to function.  Protecting people requires sympathy, but it can become muddled in the contradictions inevitable in protecting people from other people who in their turn need (and deserve) your protection.  You could sense when this core had disintegrated or, perhaps, was never really there to begin with.  Instead, there was only a shell that resembled this necessary core, and the shell didn’t last very long in the daily radiation of The Job.

In any event, one evening an officer well known to us brought in another—a county—officer to introduce and have some work done.  It was a night I happened to be there and most of the conversation was the normal sort.  But then this new officer made an odd remark.

“I go through eight-cell flashlights like water.”

Hmm?  Why’s that?

Cocky grin, conspiratorial stance, leaning on the counter, hand on hip.  “Well, I get these assholes I pull over, traffic violations or what-have-you, and they get mouthy.  Y’know?  Surly.  I have to teach ‘em manners.  Kinda hard on the flashlight.”

There was a deep silence for a time. Then the owner said, “What, do they resist arrest or try to attack you?”

“Oh, hell, nothing like that!  Just get smart with me.  You don’t talk to a cop that way.  I remind ‘em who has the badge. Good thing I don’t have to pay for the flashlights.”

Silence extended.  The owner—who was not someone who spoke lightly about such things, was a veteran, worked hard, and had a deep and abiding respect for law enforcement—said: “You ever did that to me you might as well just shoot me.  Because I’d find your ass and that’d be the last flashlight you ever cracked over anybody’s head.”

Two interesting things of note in this:  one, the other officer, a city cop, backed the owner up.  He, as everybody else in that room that night, recognized that what was happening was not between a citizen and a cop but between one citizen and another who happened to be wearing a police uniform.  The owner was talking to an asshole who was hiding in that uniform, who with that admission of abuse and, most especially, with the actions he described had lost any legitimate claim of authority.  What this county policeman was bragging about was a blatant abuse of authority.  In fact, he had been lucky up to that point that no complaints had been filed and charges made.  Clearly he was picking his targets well, like any bully.

The other thing to note is that everyone in that room that night was white.  Later I thought it over and wondered what would have happened had the shop owner been black.

This was also in 1965.

In the interim, the entire spectacle of the the Sixties occurred.  Populations have shifted, demographics changed, generations have grown up to a new arrangement.

Or so we thought.

What we have witnessed unfold in Ferguson was an exercise in the myth of authority, the idea that the one with the power, in charge, so to speak, ought to be unquestioned in his or her actions unless those with even more authority call those actions into question.  The cop is always right.  Well, the cop has the gun, certainly, which we know, if we’re honest with ourselves, is no substitute for being right.  But the myth does not stop there.  The other component is a little more difficult to pin down, but it has to do with what that authority is in service to.  People may be forgiven if they think it is in service to them.  It is not, except by convention.

It is in service to order.  To an idea of public conduct.  You can understand this when you realize how often of late the police refuse to permit recording of their actions and have been harassing and barring the press.  Calling their actions toward people into question renders their mission to preserve order problematic.  Showing their shortcomings is also disorderly.  At least, in their view.

I suspect that what in previous generations could be seen clearly as racism or classism today has been obscured by the abstraction of such things into less definable tropes having to do with public displays, property rights, permits, and an idea of public action that segregates certain activities and de facto labels them disorderly.

This can be anything from something as obvious as a riot to an individual insisting the officer take his hands off her so she can explain who she is and what she’s doing there.  In every instance, the police are following an idea that their commands are absolutely essential to order and any contravention of them is by default disorderly and therefore subject to immediate remedial action, which can be anything from pepper spray to a full court beating to a shooting.

The problem with this is that the definition of “orderly” is so subjective and conditional as to be meaningless.

And where boundaries are loosely defined or entirely absent, chaos is but a heartbeat away.

That county cop and his eight-cell flashlights was enforcing an idea of “order” that seemed perfectly consistent to him, I’m sure.  Backtalk, surliness, “being mouthy” to a cop is disorderly and requires “correction.”  The cop forgot who he was working for and why.  Or never knew in the first place.  It’s too easy to assume that all the people who never cause him to pull them over are good citizens and that those who do are automatically less so.  We hear this casual relation to right and wrong all the time in phrases like “Well, he must’ve done something wrong or they wouldn’t have arrested him.”  Why, in a country founded on the revolutionary principle of innocent till proven guilty, we have such difficulty understanding how this is backwards thinking I will never understand.  Unless it goes to that sacred relation to property which is sibling to order and which is a substitute for genuine moral awareness.

The other lesson I learned from that long-ago encounter was this:  we will never have an end to this kind of abuse if the police themselves refuse to call out the bullies in their ranks and start siding with the citizenry against the wrongs done them in the name of seamless authority.  All this does is widen the fissure between the people and those they have hired to protect them.  All of them.

All. Of. Them.

Why Is This So Difficult To Get?

This is going to be a bit of a ramble, so bear with me.

We keep seeing more incidents of sexual harassment  emerging into the light of day within the science fiction community.  There are people who have been behaving poorly for a long time and finally they’re being called on it.  Why this is such a difficult concept for some people to grasp eludes me.  The excuse-making is both ancient and pathetic.  This is science fiction, these are supposed to be people who are ahead of the curve when it comes to social grasp, we like to pretend we live in the future.

Well, that may explain a couple of things.  No one adopts behavior out of the blue.  Some people have serious organic problems others have a wispy grasp of the reality and still others just don’t consider what is not wholly inside their heads worth due consideration.

Ann Leckie has penned a first-rate explanation of one of the problems with a dandy analogy.  Yes, this.  It describes so much on so many levels.  (Not only about sexual harassment, but with similar dynamics, this is one of the reasons I stopped going to live shows—the security protocols that became common after about 1980 just became too invasive and I realized I didn’t really like being in a crowd wherein every 10th or 20th person was so drunk that they had no sense of boundaries anymore.  Some people—a lot of people—will find excuses for themselves that make putting up with it worthwhile, and it is a shame this has to happen, but on the other hand, no, it doesn’t have to happen if we’d all just grow up a little.  People by the millions attended movies for decades without feeling the need to bring beer into the venue or carrying on a private drama, loudly and in public, or indulging behaviors better suited to…well, some I never did find a place where they would be better suited.  Movies are different than concerts, you say?  In what way, I ask?  Are you there for the show or to be seen?  Anyway, back to my main point.)

Of course, now, we hear the bleat of pain of the attendee who doesn’t understand that a convention is not there to be a smorgasbord of sexual opportunity and wonders why, if all these women aren’t there to have sex, how come they dress in those costumes?  I mean, really, if they aren’t looking for it, why are they showing it off?

As if there could be no other reason to cosplay than for the sexual edification and enticement of strange boys with illusions of their own desirability and prowess.

Also as if the costumers are the only ones or even the majority who are having problems with this.

It seems to me, though, that this is partially a legitimate question.

Let me take a brief detour through a short history of the treatment of sex in science fiction.  Really short.  Originally, SF was a genre marketed to adolescent males of a certain disposition (we call them nerdy today, a label I dislike for a variety of reasons, but it serves).  At the time—1930s through 1950s—these were also young men who were inclined toward the technical arts.  A lot of engineers and more than a few scientists claimed to have been inspired by reading Golden Age science fiction.  Now, a survey of the covers of the major magazines of the period would suggest a lot of semi-clad females were being creatively ravaged in the pages within, but this was not the case.  These were as sanitary in that regard as Good Housekeeping and Readers Digest.  Which, of course, irritated many of the writers, who saw themselves as writers first and foremost and chafed under the assumption (by the publishers) that all this neat stuff they were writing about was exclusively for kids.  They wanted to write adult stories that appealed to adults and part of that had to do with sex.

There is a law of some kind that states that the more and longer something is suppressed the greater the excess of it will be when the chains come off, sort of an inverse reaction, and when after the 1950s sex was no longer taboo, there was a lot of it in the stories.  Often for no reason other than suddenly it could be there.  The 1960s…well, the Sixties, what more can I say?  Not just in science fiction, but everywhere, in everything.  The Sixties was drenched in sex partly because the previous decades had been so buttoned-down about it.  (One of the things about Playboy that seems difficult for us to “get” today is that this was liberating.  Prior to what Hugh Hefner did, the prevailing attitude was that women did not have a right to their own sexuality, that any woman who took control of it and unabashedly enjoyed it was somehow trash.  Hefner blew the doors off that canard and helped usher in the sexual revolution, one facet of which said that women owned their sexuality and no one had a right to judge them for it.  This is why, contrary to the stereotype, men were more troubled by Playboy than women and in some circles waged a war to shut it down.  This will be important later.*)

In any event, all of a sudden, people in SF stories were having a lot of sex and it was not in traditional (read: 1950s) forms.  Much of it was absurd.  For a time, the idea of the domestic contract ran through a lot of stories, the idea that marriage could be reduced entirely to a short term contract that, when done, could either be renewed or both parties could go be with someone else—with no emotional downside.  More importantly, sex was treated as a purely physical function by many writers, something one did the same as exercise or swimming or attending the theater.

A lot of this went away.  With the increased number of prominent women writers, some rationality was introduced, and by the end of the 1970s a lot of the bizarreness that attended stories from the Sixties went away—or at least was treated with the kind of understanding of how people really are.

This left us, however, with an æsthetic that has never quite gone away and has, in an embarrassing way, manifested most visibly in comics, with the absurdly sexualized appearances of female superheroes.  It’s an æsthetic that is unfortunately difficult to deconstruct in such a way as to leave the cool aspects intact while getting rid of the toxic elements that tie sex to entitlement.

I said “partially” a legitimate question.  It has to do with role-playing and if what we’re looking for is some version of a future to live in where we can be “that way” then we have to understand what impulses are being acted out in so-called real life.

Nah!  It’s a legitimate question primarily so we can dismiss it.  People are expected to know the difference between stories and real life and mostly do.  This is another elaborate excuse because nothing in that suggests a disconnect from common human decency and mutual respect.

I suppose I could riff on how the surfaces of things deflect comprehension and distract from even the attempt at deeper empathy—or empathy at all—but that would perhaps elevate the problem to a level where it cannot be effectively managed.

My default behavior, from the time I became aware that girls—well, girls—has been that the female is in charge of the sex.  It’s her call.  I don’t know where I learned that, it just seemed natural to me.  They have the power, as far as I’m concerned, and that seems to me entirely natural and, for the most part, has been entirely congenial.  If she says No, that’s it.  Discussion finished.  Move on, there’s nothing more to see here.  I may not know why she said no, it may have hurt a little, disappointed me, but oh well.  (Conversely, as one ages, one realizes that one also has exactly that same right—to say yes or no.)

I have never assumed that I have a “right” to someone’s body.

Which is where a lot of this seems to be breaking down.

We are not, I hope, talking about anywhere close to a majority in this, but as Ann’s essay makes clear it only takes a few—and then the tacit cooperation of the rest—to poison an environment.

Here’s a stereotype:  “Oh, she doesn’t really mean no,  women don’t know what they want, you have to take no as maybe and then keep at her.”

In certain venues—locker rooms, for want of a better description—men who fail to recognize this can find themselves derided as less than.

Less than what, I eventually realized, I never knew.  But less.

I think this is part and parcel of that other stereotype, men who never ask directions.  As if asking is somehow unmanly.  Getting lost on a back road, though, is one thing—forcing yourself on an unwilling woman is quite another.

But asking right out is dangerous for a certain kind of mentality because if the answer is No, then all future opportunity is cut off.  Being ambiguous, refusing to acknowledge that they way you are doing something is offensive and, in some cases, frightening, all because you don’t want to risk that definitive No, that’s not very manly, either, if the adjective has any meaning outside of a bad joke.  I’ve come to the conclusion that men who don’t ask—clearly and unambiguously and politely—are a specie of coward.  Most cowards, when given the opportunity, can become bullies.  And bullies have no regard for anyone else in their quest to fill a void which they blame on others but really is of their own making.

Now, while it might seem kind to try to make space for someone like this under the assumption that really they mean no harm—maybe they don’t, not consciously—and that rehabilitation can only occur within a community, a couple of things make this simply weak-kneed avoidance.  Going back to the theater analogy, you don’t tolerate the asshole who won’t shut up during the movie or the play because it’s not about him, it’s about everyone else.  You’re not going to “solve” his problem by tolerating him in the audience, you’re only going to make the experience miserable for everyone else.  No one has a right to be an asshole.

But we add a layer now to the problem and assume that the person in question has some power.  He (or she) important and throwing them out may have other consequences we won’t like.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

That.  If that’s the excuse, then you ruin it for everyone and the asshole never learns.

But I’m not even concerned with the asshole learning anything.  I just want him/her to cease the behavior that’s making everyone else uncomfortable.

“But if so-and-so hadn’t said anything, no one else would’ve known and no one would have been uncomfortable.”

Does Omelas ring any bells?

This is not only entitled thinking—the kind that says your party is more important than someone’s well-being—it is cowardly thinking.

Why is this so difficult to get?  You establish a clear policy and those who violate it get tossed.  I have a hard time imagining a convention establishing a weapons policy—no real guns—and then choosing to look away just because a big time writer or editor decided to show up with an AR-15 across their shoulder.  Cons have had policies about even fake weapons for decades now and have enforced them without getting all uber sensitive.  But once more, when it comes to sex, reason abandons us?

People have been banned from conventions for decades because of inappropriate (and often criminal) behavior, so it baffles me that a sensible policy over harassment cannot be devised and enforced.  Instead, we get a lot of hand-wringing and mumbling and excuse-making.

Look, this isn’t about the predator’s problem.  That’s not in anyone’s job description to try to fix at a convention.  This is entirely about what is allowable conduct in the theater.  To argue that it spoils the æsthetic is evasive—if so, then it’s time to change the æsthetic.  Victims of harassment already know they don’t feel safe around the predator, but to then double down and make them feel unsafe among the people they look to for protection as well—because the predator is not dealt with once the problem is known—can call everything into question.  Especially when “everyone” knows what the problem is and no one seems willing to do anything about it.

_______________________________________________________________________________

*The Playboy thing is difficult for some of us who remember a time when what they did was relevant to a larger issue, which was exactly the “who owns female sexuality” question.  It has become problematic because the culture moved on and at some point Playboy became the opposite of what it initially tried to be, which was in some sense countercultural.  Today it’s pretty much just another “girlie” magazine (what we called them back when I was a newly-emerged adolescent on the prowl for cheap thrills) but there was a time it meant something else.  The whole point of the erotic content was that (a) sex is not “dirty” and (b) sexuality was and is the sole property of the individual.  Secondarily, it also called the whole standard American model of what “good girls” were allowed to do and be and for that matter the standard issue American lifestyle into question.  But it’s a relic now and context has changed.

We Were Just Talking

A couple of decades of online conversation has revealed many thing about our culture, about our selves. One is how little most of us seem to consider what we say before we say it.

I recently saw the term “flaming” used in a description of certain problematic exchanges in a forum I till recently frequented.  I’m sure it’s still in current usage, but I hadn’t thought of the term in some time because I long ago vacated forums and chatrooms where this was a common problem.  One of the more congenial things about FaceBook is that while flaming (and trolling and all such related hate-baiting tactics) still happens, users aren’t locked into the thread where it occurs. With multiple conversations going on all the time among many different arrangements of “friends” it is not a problem requiring something like a nuclear option to deal with.  You just stop commenting on a poisoned thread and move over to a new one, often with the same people.  True, the flamer might move with you, but the mix-and-match nature of FaceBook makes this less convenient.

Unlike a dedicated forum with a regular membership, etc.

You can find one, filled with like minds and congenial conversation, which can run on for some time till one day someone you thought you “knew” (solely from the interactions in the forum) says something wholly baffling and even hurtful, but certainly unexpected and baiting.  Or a new member shows up and after a few days or weeks turns into an aspersion-casting, logic-defying, unreasonable twit.  Such people indulge, usually, in the ancient schoolyard game of “let’s you and him fight.”  They get everyone stirred up, create a toxic situation, and then, often, leave.  “My work is done here.”  People who were once friends, or at least friendly, are now on opposite sides of issues they had no hand in either creating or aggravating.  Mistrust, defensiveness, and a new attention to certain words and phrases dominates the forum and arguments flare at the drop of a phrase.

Partly, it seems to me, this is one of the unfortunate factors in what we know to be human nature.  Some people are only enjoying themselves when they create a mess.  In my opinion, it’s the same kind of mentality that gets off on obscene graffiti, incendiary phone calls to talk shows, or gossips who spread rumors about people they hardly know.  For such people communication was invented in order to sow discord.  People getting along nicely is something they cannot abide because where’s the fun in that?  In a way, this is related to the more refined pleasure of honest debate and philosophical enquiry, wherein positions are taken and defended in order to find a higher accord.  But it has the same relationship to this as Tae Kwon Do has to a drunken fist fight in a bar.

Another part of this, however, is less perverse but more difficult to define and that has to do with the difference between written discourse and casual conversation.  Two people sitting across from each other—at a barbecue, having a beer, over dinner, what have you—just talking do so within a set of protocols that, when transferred to the written word, are at best “loose.”  We rely on a whole suite of cues that have nothing to do with the actual words we use.  Tone, inflection, regional accent, body language, gestures, facial expression, and the all-important momentum of the exchange work to add multiple players of interpretive possibility to the dialogue only the better fiction writers seem able to encode in words on the page.  They manage this by careful attention to which words and how they are placed within a scene and contextualized according to the emotional framework set up.

Which means that great care is taken to achieve a particular effect.

Not something the vast majority of people “chatting” in forums, online, get anywhere near doing.

Instead, we type our words and send them out knowing in our own heads what we meant and unaware that without the full holistic surround of an actual face-to-face conversation such intent is completely absent and the person reading them may have a completely different set of circumstances dictating how those words will be interpreted.

It’s amazing anything meaningful gets transmitted and received at all.  But it does, because many of us, maybe even most of us, learn over time how to write a dialogue, which is a different thing than when we’re talking.

Some never figure out the difference.

Hence the thoughtless ingredient thrown innocently into a stew stirred by many hands, resulting in a soured moil of potential vitriol.

The great essayists make it look easy.  Just write, like you’re talking to someone, and your meaning will be conveyed.  Right.  Of course it will.  The reason we regard great essayists as great is that they make it look so easy.  We can read it and understand it, it ought therefore to be within our power to do the same thing.  It’s just talking.  Do that all the time.

But putting words down is very different than speaking them.  For one, they remain there, precisely as written, to be gone over again and again, to be reinterpreted, again and again, to be copied and pasted in responses that can be shoved back in our faces angrily.  Embarrassment, defensiveness, or egotistical refusals to understand why what we said wasn’t understood for what we meant, all this can feed into an impossible collection of antiphonal postings that quickly have nothing to do with the original topic and are now about hurt feelings, impatience, and perhaps even past events that have nothing to do with the present “conversation.”

Letter writing is even more considered than most of what passes every hour on the internet as epistolary exchanges.  Until mailed, the letter is not finished.  It can be reread, reconsidered,  reviewed. It can be thrown away and begun again.

Theoretically, so can something about to be posted to the internet, but it would seem we treat it more like that face-to-face at the picnic than as letter-writing.  So we dash it off and hit SEND and then what happens happens.

Unfortunately, those words, unless deleted by an administrator, are always there, unlike the unfortunate way you said something at the picnic, which can vanish from foggy memory as soon as the topic changes.  People looking for something to focus on can find them and use them against you.  You were not, no matter what you thought, “just talking.”

Still, even this is instructive for those who will be bothered to learn.  A thoughtful reconsideration of how we say things reveals how much of our conversation is less actual information than ritual.  It could potentially teach us how to say things we really want said instead of just mouthing sounds that are the conversational equivalent of greeting cards.  Understanding the host of assumptions supporting a sentence would be a very good thing for us to learn.  Because even at the barbecue sometimes someone says something so void of any real substance and yet so potentially inflammatory that you know the speaker really doesn’t have a clue what that sentence really means.

Or maybe they do.  And that is instructive as well.  In either case, we should consider our response…carefully.

Dining Disruptively

This is a cool thing.

Dan Reus of Disruptive Diner contacted me a bit over a month ago and asked me to participate in this. Naturally, I had no real idea what I wanted to say or how I would say, which was compounmded by the format—Pekchuka, which means literally fast talking. I came up with something, which is posted above. I had fun. I’d have fun doing it again.

So…

Award Season

The Hugo Award nominees have been announced and, imagine this, there is Controversy.

I don’t have a dog in this hunt, as I have nothing on the list nor have I published anything in the last year or two that would be eligible. That will change this year, as I have a short story collection coming out soon which includes a number of Brand New Previously Unpublished stories, but for this year, I’ m not involved.  None of this affects me.

But controversy, oh my.

First off, let me send a big congratulations to Ann Leckie.  Her really excellent novel, Ancillary Justice, has made the short list on a scad of awards.  She did not take the PKD, which kind of puts us in the same company.  Both our first novels (counted as the first novel that was entirely our own original work—my first published novel was a franchise work) made the PKD shortlist and we both did not win.  (I prefer that to “we both lost” but it may appear a quibble to some.)  Ancillary Justice is a fine piece of work and I will be writing up a review of it any minute now over on The Proximal Eye.  It’s on the Hugo ballot and for my money should take the award.  Of course, it’s also on there against Charlie Stross, who writes my kind of skiffy as well, so…

Which brings me to controversy number one.  Robert Jordan’s entire Wheel of Time series is on the slate as a single work.

Long ago there was a Hugo given for best series, which Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy won.  (It was up against Lord of the Rings, which causes me to ponder which would win today, but I’ll leave that for another post or another blogger entirely.)  Why they didn’t find a way to continue the award is one of the mysteries of the Hugo, especially since series always have been and today are even more prominent in the genre.

But this thing is 15 books, all of them massive.  By sheer volume, the Wheel of Time makes Game of Thrones appear to be light reading.

Disclaimer:  I tried to read the first book.  Tried.  Gamely charged at it three or four times.  I realize there are fans out there who probably have named their children after characters  in the series, but frankly this is really not my thing.  To me, this is like reading a full genetic chart of category Fantasy and I found it mind-numbingly boring.  I have since been told by people who read maybe seven or eight of them that basically they’re the same book over and over again and that this is indicated by the series title.  Wheel, get it?  But this is simply what I’ve been told, I did not make it past 50 pages of volume One.

To put a whole series up, though, directly competing with individual, standalone novels seems at base unfair.  I’ve always had some ambivalence about single novels within a series winning awards, because how can they not be at least partly judged by what went before?  So the award goes to a work that has an edge to start with.  But I concede that it is entirely likely that a single novel in a series can rise above the rest, so…

But to intentionally nominate the whole series?  No, I think this is a touch unfair unless it competes against other series.

This, however, brings us to the fundamental truth of the Hugo Award which many people tend to overlook.  This award is not about the work, it’s about the fan.  A work derives kudos, certainly, from what the fan decides, but the only metrics being time period (when was it published) and how many people liked it, it doesn’t matter about the work so much as it does about the reader.

Which brings me to the second Major Controversy.  A writer who goes by the nom de blog Vox Day has a story on the ballot.  This has caused consternation among folks who know something about this guy.  He was expelled from SFWA last year, the first time a member has ever been ejected.  He is a vocal presence on the internet and his opinions are, to put it mildly, eyebrow-raising in the extreme.  His name popping up on the Hugo Ballot has caused a lot of noise to bubble up about “fixing” the ballot, as if he could not possibly have gained such a slot because he wrote a worthy story.

Gaming the Ballot has happened in the past.  It’s based on membership to the world science fiction convention.  Buy enough memberships, vote them all, whatever you want to see on the ballot can be there.  (Yes, I know, it’s not quite that simple, since supposed safeguards have been put in place, but on the other hand, yes, it is that simple.)  There have even been nominees in the past who were a bit embarrassed by their continued presence year after year because of the efforts of a group of dedicated (and presumably moneyed) fans.

As to Vox Day himself, I will only say that, based on what I’ve read of his posts (which fed into his getting ousted from SFWA), he and I do not share a world view.

But again, it doesn’t matter, because the Hugo is not about the story as much as it is about the reader.  We can’t say to one group that their choice of nominee is invalid because this other group over here thinks the author is a world-class curmudgeon.  (If that were the basis of qualifying nominees I can think of at least half a dozen off the top of my head who should never have gotten on the ballot.)   Vox Day didn’t get on the ballot, he was put on the ballot.  By readers.

Everyone has their own set of standards about what ought to be.  There are other awards where such things matter more.  This one—the Hugo—is based on reader reaction.  The fans.

Which is not to say I undervalue it.  I’d love to be nominated for one of those sleek rockets.  More, I’d like to bring one home.  It means people like the work.

Not me, so much.  The work.  That’s the part that matters.  It’s not about you (me) it’s about the reader and how much he or she likes the work.

So as another season of controversy unfolds, maybe it would be a good idea to keep that in mind.

So good luck to the nominees.

Obsession Point

I have a friend who likes to engage me on our points of departure.  He’s a self-admitted conservative, I am not.  He’s a sincere Christian, I’m an atheist.  Looking around at the current culture, you would think that should make any conversation we might have problematic at best, impossible at worst.

Yet we carry on the occasional hour, two-hour, sometimes three hour conversation and never once descend into anger or dismissive rhetoric.  And yes, we talk about religion regularly.  We talk about politics.  We talk about meaningful living.  It’s the kind of exchange of ideas from different perspectives that seems both rare and uniquely pleasurable.  Would that we taught kids growing up how to appreciate this kind of conversation as, at the very least, an æsthetic pleasure.

Consequently, when he questions me on priorities, I tend to listen.

A couple weeks ago, after the monthly jam session (he runs a church basement coffeehouse to which I’ve been going and participating for more than a few years now) we hung around and started talking about current subjects.  My opening statement concerned the new movie Noah and the absurd fact that the studio has decided to put a disclaimer on it to appease religious reactionaries who are bothered by “historical inaccuracies.”  I expected a laugh over the ridiculousness of this—these are not people who have much patience for that kind of shallow literalism—but instead what followed was a discussion of my obsessive attention to people like Ken Ham and the anti-evolution crowd and biblical literalists in general.

“Why do you pay any attention to them?”

Well, I replied, somewhat glibly, stupidity is fascinating.

Patiently, though, my friend worked at that.  Really?  Aren’t there better things to focus your attention on than the obdurate intractability of intellectual ostriches?  Don’t you have, like, books to write?

At the end of the conversation (which is not to say that it’s over) I had to concede that I spent far too much time and mental energy worrying over the misreadings, misinterpretations, manglings, and malignancies of what is a minority example of entrenched ignorance.  Like watching a neighbor gradually destroy his property (and being unable to do much about it), or watching a slow-motion train wreck, or even repeatedly viewing and complaining about a very expensive yet utterly brainless film, it is both attractive and repellant to observe this particular bit of cultural shadow-play.

The answer to the question has occupied me now since.  Why do I give them so much of myself?

The glib answer is that they draw attention to themselves in such a way as to seem important and relevant.  Paying attention to them feels, on a shallow level, like being engaged.  Noticing them, knowing what they’ve been saying and seeing what they’re doing, seems like being a responsible agent in my own culture.  Every time they manage to censor discussions in schools about evolution or try to force prayer into the classroom or some other culture-war battleground is pushed into the news, being aware of it just seems the thing to do.

A somewhat less glib answer is that the very real political power such groups seem to enjoy worries me.  I don’t want to live in a country designed by biblical literalists.  And determining how they’re wrong and why is basic to any kind of pushback.

And of course, since this conversation took place, we have the incident of the FOX television affiliate in Oklahoma blocking fifteen seconds of the new Cosmos program, the 15 seconds dealing with evolution, and my blood boils.  I react.  I become insensed.   And I immediately go to write a new blog post about how stupid this is and how malevolent this kind of nonsense is and how—

Which is, actually, a waste of my time.  Really, there are better-qualified people doing exactly that.  You can find links to some of them on the sidebar over to the right.  You want to read a better-informed and more current tirade against this kind of thing, go to Freethought Pharyngula—P. Z. Myer is an evolutionary biologist and apparently has more time, energy, and inclination than I do to keep abreast of all this nonsense—or check the science blogs to which I maintain links.

I don’t have to do this.

And yet…and yet…I keep doing it.  Even here,  in addressing a different kind of question, I’m thrashing about and striking back.  Willful ignorance, asserted as if it is a positive attribute, with an insistence that it is Right and Truth and we should all bow to its inevitable godlines MAKES—ME—CRAZY.

Why?

Because, at base, I loathe my own ignorance.  I loathe that part of me that desperately wants to be right, whether I am or not.  Because I am aware of my ignorance and strive to correct it and because I see that as an important fight it disturbs me—more, it frightens me—when others not only don’t see the worth in that fight but are dedicated to preventing the triumph of knowledge.

So, I suppose the simple answer to my friend’s question is—fear.  Those people scare me.  They are the ideological descendents of Inquisitors, witchfinders, book-burners, imperialists of dogma, stone-throwers, and censors.  Because I read Lest Darkness Fall and Fahrenheit 451 and my imagination is such that I can see what a victory for them would mean for people like me.

And because I honestly lack any kind of faith in those who are my intellectual and cultural kindred that we will win this fight.

But that still doesn’t fully address the challenge he laid at me feet.  Why do I  pay so much attention to all this when I could better serve my own purpose and the purpose of the civilization I support in so many other ways?

Because, when combined with all of the above, this has become a rut.  It is easy.  And it feeds my sense of relevance.  But really it’s a paltry diet.  There are richer meals to be had, that would be more beneficial, to me and to others.  So it is an itch which has become easy and habitual for me to scratch.  And in certain company, it’s a sign that I am part of a certain group of like-minded.

It’s a poor excuse.  I could be doing better things with my time and frankly getting more out of my intellectual life.  Because at the end of the day, I’m not going to change their minds, and those who nod along with me when I dive into one of my tirades don’t need me to tell them about this.

I think it is worth paying attention to when tax money goes to something like Ken Ham’s Creation Museum.  That’s an abuse of public trust and a violation of the law, frankly, and should be made public and stopped.

But I don’t need to go on about Ken Ham’s idiocy.

The spot that itches has grown raw and inflamed from repeated scratching and no salve is in sight.  I need to leave it alone.  I have a book on mathematics to hand, another about the history of science fiction, and still another about World War I.  Yes, I have a couple of books dealing with the assault of reason, which is not only from a religious reactionary quarter—reason is under assault from many quarters—but I’m a fiction writer.  My job is to tell stories about the world and because I write science fiction I can do a little prognosticating.  I have to stop pissing away time on pointless subjects.

Besides, I really do think they’ll fade.  When I sit myself down and really examine it, the world view we define as that of Reason will maintain and eventually the nattering naysayers will diminish.  It’s just difficult to see that day to day and believe it when there are people worrying over the “historical” inaccuracies in a Hollywood film about a mythical event.

So I wish to thank my friend for opening a door and pointing out that I’ve been perhaps wandering the wrong hallway for a time.

This is why we must cultivate relationships with people we disagree with.

Blind Mouthings

I suppose I should link to some of the news feeds about this, but I think it’s been sufficiently covered among those who give a damn that I don’t need to.

My people—what I used to think of as my people—have once more led with their chins and embarrassed the lot of us.  Recently a mini-catastrophe, relevant to the exalted standards and reputation in which certain folks would like to believe the SF community maintains, explode-a-pated all over everyone in the carnival reaction to Jonathan Ross, a person of some note on the BBC and in England, being selected to host the Hugo Awards at the next worldcon in London.  Seems Mr. Ross has a less than tarnishless reputation in popular circles as a comedic curmudgeon who likes to belittle people of various types, most notably women, and makes fun of everyone whom he considers targettable. I’m taking this on faith here as until this happened I had no clue who the man is.

He has withdrawn himself as host to the awards in the wake of what by all accounts has been a savage twitter attack on him and his family from, ahem, Certain Elements within the SFnal community.  Or maybe not.  It’s hard to tell with these things, since everyone can hide so neatly behind hashtags and handles and alternate personae.  For all anyone knows, the whole assault may have been two or three exceptionally small-concerned misanthropes in a basement somewhere with too much time, a live feed, and no clue what it means to live in a community.

Neil Gaiman has written rather well on the subject. (So, yeah, I guess I’m linking to some of it.)

A couple of things occur to me about this, one from some personal experience.  I’ve done time serving with an organization that had as part of its mandate the selection of Notables for certain public events.  I’ve been in the proverbial “back room” while such things have been deliberated.  My first reaction to this was “Didn’t the people who chose him have a clue what might happen?”  And I thought, “it’s possible for enthusiasm to overwhelm common sense in these things, the whole idea of Getting Someone Important to appear can seem so rarefied as to pump nitrous oxide into any discussion and lobotomize a committee.”  On that score, it seems to me, SF fans, even those in positions of authority, are often still just 12 years old.  Even so, when some one among them says “This is not a good idea” it is incumbent on the others to listen and at least have a damn good reason for going ahead anyway.  From what it looks like on the outside, this didn’t happen.  Someone threw what weight they had around and stamped their feet and got what they wanted…and reaped a minor whirlwind.

This is why such things take time, or should, and why we need to get over the whole Big Name Personality Syndrome that affects too many of us.  SF wants to be taken seriously, SF should grow up and take the world seriously.  None of this should ever have gotten out of that Back Room.  If Mr. Ross came with that kind of baggage, the issue should have died a quiet death long before invitations had been made and resignations proffered.  That is called professionalism.

Still, no one is psychic.  Mistakes get made.

But the second thing that occurred to me was what Neil said.  Whoever, whichever segment of My People, decided to take it upon themselves to tell Mr. Ross what they thought of him and his family—you have acted the Ass.

Before the internet, before FB and Twitter, people got exercised about this stuff, talked trash among themselves, and maybe a few would write letters.  Nasty fan mail has always been with us.  But our technology has enabled us to show our true selves faster and more publicly than ever before possible and it is, in instances like these, ugliness incarnate.

Just what difference do you think letting someone know you think he’s on your “never invite for cocktails” list makes to either him/her or to the world at large?  No, don’t overthink it, I’ll tell you.  None.  All it does is add a bit more vile to an already questionable brew. This is the snickering prankishness of chickenshit adolescents who think it’s cool to let everyone who already doesn’t know they exist know that they care very much about being ignored by making themselves even less pleasant than anyone realized before.

The ability to add your two-cents at a keystroke has enabled some of us to ramp up the ugly faster than their minds could possibly intervene with a cautionary “Maybe you should think this through before you Send.”  In this instance, they have let Mr. Ross know how much they dislike him by demonstrating how much worse they can be than he.

Or, even sadder, these are people who do this habitually, without any stake in the debate, simply because they’ve become intoxicated by the sound of their own ignorance flashed across the world.  “Oh, look!  An Issue!  Let me let let me, I can come up with a really cool insult, too!”

People who lead with their mouths and have nothing to say, who walk into any room, any party, often uninvited, with no clue how to behave or, apparently, even how to think.  There is an arcane term for them—boors.  They indulge boorishness.

It’s not just science fiction where this has been on display, its even worse in political fora.  We scratch our heads and wonder why such third-rate politicians are the only ones who run for office anymore.  It’s bad enough to be challenged by the marginally thoughtful, but to have to deal daily with sport pissers would drive anyone with any self-respect to question the value of running for office.

Finally,  though, it is the anonymity afforded by the technology that exacerbates.  The ignorant, the boorish, the cowardly can lob  this shit from the presumed comfort of no one knowing who they are.

It accomplishes nothing.

I think it’s sad what has happened to Mr. Ross.  There are ways of dealing with these sorts of things that spare feelings and have the benefit of not making everyone involved look like a fool.

I suppose we should be grateful that this is how it’s done, though.  Tarring and feathering used to be the preferred manner and it could actually kill.

Assholes For Jesus

I waited to see the outcome of the Arizona anti-gay bill before writing this.  I wanted to use that title for a post since I saw that whole insane debacle over Ted Nugent (and then got into a truly implausible argument with someone who insisted that there is nothing racist in the term “mongrel” not even when modified with “subhuman”), but since Nugent didn’t actually say anything of a religious nature it was a stretch to make it fit.

On the other hand, it would seem all of a piece with that insane bit of hate-mongering going on in the Arizona legislature.  Of course, here in Missouri—my home state, yay—something similar is wending its way through the committees.

I once had an unnerving conversation with a practicing Muslim who explained to me in very reasonable tones and with more than a dollop of sadness that while she had many gay friends and felt no personal animosity toward any of them, if she lived in a Muslim state then she would have to support the death penalty for them since that is what Allah decreed.  She even allowed that perhaps this would be wrong, but she could not deny the words of Allah.

Need I go into an explanation about compartmentalization?  People create rooms within themselves and put contradictory things in separate places.  So the Mafia enforcer can, in fact, appear to be a loving husband and father and even give generously to the poor, but when the boss says “kill this one” that room opens and a different set of ethical protocols comes into play.

Let me here offer a disclaimer:  in answer to a hypothetical WWJD question, I don’t for a minute think Jesus would give his blessing to any of this stuff.  This isn’t about him or even really about Christianity, which surely is being thoroughly mangled in all this.  Much of this nonsense would make it appear as though Jesus is the above-mentioned mob boss sitting in a dark, heavily leather-appointed office somewhere, pointing and saying “kill that one.”

What this is about is people taking advantage of some very old (presumed) sayings in an allegorical book in order to foist their own intolerance onto a world they see changing in ways that make them very uncomfortable.  It’s obvious that the general ethical direction of the country, possibly the world, is moving away from the limited and limiting strictures of a worldview that is no longer viable.

In Uganda a law has been enacted that will criminalize homosexuality in the extreme.  Even a cursory look at it shows that it has been written and enacted out of fear. Abject fear.  The fear of someone who may well have nightmares about being forced to engage in homosexual activities.  The sheer terror evident in the law should cause anyone with a modicum of rationality to back up and look at the fear rather than what it’s about.

Insofar as this has anything to do with Christianity as we find it in the New Testament, this is about fear of losing power.  It’s fear of sex in its most inappropriate manifestation, as an exercise of power.  In the case of Uganda, all one need do is look at its history since Idi Amin to see that it has suffered terribly through practices of warfare that include rape as a normal tool of state oppression and more than a little child abuse in the form of child soldiers.  Idi Amin himself died of syphilis.  Sexual abuse would seem to have been institutional in Uganda.  Fear must be rampant.

So they pick a representative victim onto which all this fear can be projected and try to vitiate their pain by inflicting even more.

What’s our excuse?

Governor Brewer, yielding to pressure from within and without Arizona, has vetoed senate bill 1062.  Even if her sentiments inclined her to support it in essence she must realize the damage such a thing would do to her state.

But what about the sponsors of it and all those in the state legislature who voted for it?

The freedom to refuse service to gays due to religious conviction.

Why this should have to be explained to anyone, that it is wrong, astonishes me.  Why anyone thinks this has anything to do with religion dismays me.  Why anyone would adhere to a set of beliefs that promoted this kind of hatred and bigotry saddens me.  Why other people keep putting these hatemongers into office baffles me.

I wrote about this several years ago during Missouri’s attempt to establish a constitutional amendment regarding gay marriage.  I won’t rehash my arguments here, but if you wish, they’re here.  Cherry-picking the Old Testament is common enough and automatically discredits any argument based on biblical principles that asserts literalness and infallibility.  It just does.  For those of you who think otherwise, think harder.  It’s hypocrisy.  Plus, as I’ve said before, we live in a Post Levitical world.  Most of the people supporting Bill 1062 wouldn’t for a second consider selling their daughters or charging someone for deflowering them.  Nor would they stone them or any woman for the “crime” of being raped.

But some might.

This is an example of trying to do something odious and making it seem moral by wrapping it in a shroud of piety.  Change the parameters and ask these folks if they would support a law that allowed them to discriminate against blacks or Hispanics on religious grounds.  If they look at you funny, you can point out that most hate groups who regularly refer to minorities as “mud people” and, ahem, subhuman mongrels do so based on a notion of racial purity proferred by god.  They take the whole notion of “chosen people” very seriously, while of course completely failing to understand anything at all about the history, the mythology, or the use of that term.  They are generally very vocally pious and think because of their devotion to a crack-brained notion of WWJD they have a good bead on what is or is not morally acceptable.

I suspect a great deal of the fear expressed in all this goes directly to an erroneous yet powerful concept of ownership.  They’re afraid something they think belongs to them is about to be taken away.  Maybe not even the same thing, but I’m willing to wager that it is something within the same compartmentalized space of preconceived and misconstrued assumptions about what is “naturally” theirs.

But maybe it’s something simpler.  Maybe it’s just a consequence of exhaustion.  Thinking back, I can tell you that the world in which I came of age is in so many ways just not here anymore.  Every year, every decade has brought massive changes that for many people seem utterly confusing, destabilizing…frightening.  Maybe their only defense, in their view, is to build a wall and shout “No more! I can’t handle anything else!”  After dealing with being told to think differently than their parents and their grandparents for all this time, they’ve latched onto anyone or anything that tells them they don’t have to change.

However.

If Jesus were going about today, preaching, and he encountered the young man who kept nagging him about what more he could do to serve, I doubt Jesus would tell him to give up his wealth.  Not today.  Today, I think he would turn to him finally and say “Give up your fear and hatred.  Stop being afraid of people who are different.”  “Wait—can’t I just write you a check?”  “No.  You have to change.”  And that young man would step back, eyes wide, and for a few moments look at the vast store of things he has grown afraid of.  He would then lower his head and walk away.  He might give away his wealth then—to a group working to ban gays (or minorities, or women) from equal rights.

But he might cling to the forms he had been following all along which had brought him to tag along after the coattails of the Man from Galilee.  He’d become an asshole for Jesus.  Because giving up wealth would be easier than facing fear and defeating it.

It Hurts

By now, I’m sure, many people know about the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  Bill Nye, he of the bow tie, the science guy, stepped up to the podium to have it out, toe-to-toe, with Ken Ham, erstwhile champion of creationism, founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky which has been the subject of continual mirthful derision by anyone with even a scintilla of understanding about science.  They were to debate evolution versus creationism, which in my mind is like debating the similarities between Einstein and Sasquatch.  Other than the assertion by certain folks that they are somehow (a) equivalent and (b)…well, really, there is no “b” in this formulation.

Apparently even a poll conducted on Christian Today shows that Bill Nye pretty much mopped the floor with Ken Ham, who answered not one single question put to him by Nye in any useful way. Only 9% of respondents apparently saw Ham as the winner.  Of course that won’t be the end of it.  After the debate, a number of self-styled Christians presented questions for Nye which they, presumably, thought would stump him.  Buzzfeed posted several.  Go take a look, then come on back.  (You can also see the entire debate there.)

What’s that phrase? “The stupid…it hurts.”

Was that unkind?  Sorry.  (Not really.)   But while any single one of these can be dismissed as, oh, lack of attention, missed something in biology class (or astronomy), didn’t see that special on NOVA, collectively this amounts to willful ignorance at best.

“If humans came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”  Seriously?  Do you really not know how dumb that is?  You came from your parents—we all did—so why are there still parents?  Sorry, that was flip, but it does, actually, point up the problem, albeit in a rather crude and simplistic way.

And noetics?  That isn’t part of any segment of this debate, so…?

There was a time I would get mightily energized by this kind of thing.  I admit I had a deep-seated interest in being on the “right” side of this debate.  I still do, but it hardly gets me out the door anymore because I realized somewhere along the way that what we’ve been witnessing in the efforts of people like Ken Ham, as strenuous and perhaps sincere as they are, is the death spasm of a world view that doesn’t work.  It never did, but there was a time that understanding that didn’t make much difference, except to a few intellectual outliers here and there.  The fever pitch of condemnation coming from them is the sound of panic as the world prepares to leave them behind.

No, I’m not talking about the death of religion.  I do not believe that is possible.  I’m only talking about a very public formulation of a view of religion that has as its primary purpose nothing more than the regimentation of the faithful and the casting out of the new.  I’m talking about a narrative that seeks to impose and deny.  Impose its substance and form and deny any countervailing view.  I’m talking, really, about style.

Style is about identity.  When we talk about it that way, as style, it seems insignificant in the larger scheme of things.  Fashion.  And much of it is ephemeral.  But shift it to something else, as in artistic expression, and it takes on a bit more meaning.  The style of a writer is that writer’s voice, personality—identity.  There is something so deeply personal about style in this sense and we all recognize it.  We instantly recognize a musician with whom we are familiar by the style of playing.  Unknown canvases by painters declare identity in the manner of brushstroke or photographs betray their creators by the particular angle, frame, contrast.  Style at this level is inextricably linked to identity and when that style is declared no longer valid, a kind of death attends.

Because this is æsthetics, something utterly vital and intrinsic to our sense of self, yet so rarely discussed when any list of what makes us human gets trotted out for debate.  How we see the world and how we react to what we see, this is æsthetics in action and it defines us.  It defines us culturally, historically, and individually.  You can see it in that list of questions, in many ways so pathetic, when the question is framed in terms of awe and wonder.  A sunset, the amazingness of the world—even that fey reference to noetics—these are questions of reaction and interpretation to sensory experience, filtered through a value system that provides us with a quality of self grounded in our relation to the matrix of reality through which we move:  æsthetics.

Ken Ham’s museum displays exhibits showing humans coexisting with dinosaurs.  At some level, this is a world he wishes to have as real.  What kid doesn’t love dinosaurs at some point?  It’s inexplicable.  I’m continually amazed at what seems to be a persistent fascination across generations.  Part of us really wants there to be dinosaurs.  Not only that, but dinosaurs in our midst, at least at some point.

Dinosaurs aren’t in the Bible.  In fact, I know of no holy book in any culture that mentions them unless you want to see dragons as some neolithic abstraction of dinosaurs.   (They’re not, they emerge out of very different pools of myth, namely serpents, the Worm, but after the discovery and ultimate understanding of fossil dinosaurs dragons became more and more visually conforming to them.)  Yet even the most ardent of creationists are fascinated.  There is no mention of them in Genesis, they would never have fit on the ark, and there’s no mention in that story of any animals left behind (the song about the unicorn notwithstanding).  Had they been, we would have found much, much fresher bones, not buried nearly so deep.

At some point people like Ken Ham came to accept the reality of dinosaurs, not as deceptive deposits from Satan to worry our overly-curious intellects, but as species in their own right.  Intentionally or not, they had to accept science in order to make the effort to write them into their stunted history of the universe, which has opened them to eventual extinction as examples of mainstream thought, much less champions of any kind of reality.

In a way, the debate just passed was totally unfair.  Ken Ham kept pointing to his narrative as its own evidence, offering nothing beyond it to answer the evidence-laden arguments of his opponent.  He wasn’t even in the same debate, really.  He was there to insist that all these things Bill Nye represents should be ignored in favor of a story.  He insists that the story is sufficient and this other thing, this science thing, is nothing but an evil distraction from what he thinks is important.  The sad part is he probably doesn’t even know why that story is important.

It’s important because all wonder-based growth begins as a story.  We’re fascinated, entranced, and there’s magic in the narrative.  So much magic that we want to know more.  And so we go looking and if we look honestly we find so much else that transcends the modest confines of that first story.  We find universes of wonder, which we might never have looked for without first having been delighted by a story.  Ken Ham found a story that amazed him.

But then he stopped.  He stopped looking, because, it seems, he never wanted to leave that first moment of childlike wonder, wanting it to be everything.  It’s sad because while we can revisit it and we can experience the same sensation again and again and again, with new discoveries, if we try to freeze that moment and keep it, unchanging, it either fades…or rots…all on its own.  What some folks do then is build a museum in their hearts to preserve a memory that is no longer there, leaving us with the surrounding edifice and an echo.  Without new sounds, new sights, new growth, the museum calcifies and eventually becomes a fossil, never buried, bleached and empty.

At some point, Ken Ham built that museum out in the open for everyone to visit.

Apparently, fewer and fewer go.  It possesses novelty, but no genuine wonder.  And without wonder, what is there?