Now That We’re Here

The Transgender Issue.

Excuse me? Issue? What issue?

This is in some part about science fiction, but really about my entire civilization, and touches on the choices we have facing us. I start with the so-called Transgender Issue because it exemplifies a problem I’ve been having with certain apparent contradictions.

As far as I’m concerned, the issue is not with trans people but with those who are ideologically opposed to them. The concerns they raise run counter to what I grew up expecting.*

I suppose none of this should surprise me, and from some quarters it doesn’t. I do wonder who made them arbiter of other people’s sense of self, but we’ve never had a shortage of the self-appointed in search of an issue to inflate their own sense of importance. But when I find people from my “clan”, so to speak, expressing fear and dismay and standing with those seeking to distance themselves somehow from people who are according to them too different to tolerate, I am saddened. A lesser sadness comes from those of my generation who seem somehow not to get the current eruption of respect demands. Dismissing it as “woke” (always in quotes, because that’s the way they make it clear they’re being sarcastic) and the language of snowflakes. A more perfect reversal of roles is difficult to imagine. It has become possible for people who have as groups been made to put up with dismissive reductions of agency for centuries to speak out and require regard which has always automatically been accorded the dominant group, and members of that self-assumed dominant group are offended. They don’t understand the rules, they don’t see why they should have to accommodate what seem to them to be petty requirements, they fail to acknowledge that a long history of indifference has brought them to a moment where the costs of disproportionate regard are coming due.

Two items of personal history. My parents named me with some care. Mark. Aside from its relative rarity when I was born, it seemed to them sufficiently self-contained to resist shortenings, nicknames, and other common assaults. My dad did not care for his name, even less for the nickname: Henry, Hank. They didn’t want people turning William to Bill (or, worse, Billy) or Charles to Chuck, or any of the rest. They did not count on the imaginative nastiness of kids, who simply called me other things rather than respect my name. By the time I graduated high school, I’d had enough. My name is Mark. Not Marcus, not Marky, not any of the rather tortured substitutions on hand. It was as if they had to own a piece of my identity. It chafed. Looking back, it seems rather small of me, but I became strident. I refused to answer to anything but my given name. I snapped at people I had to work with to stop distorting it. I made a bit of an ass of myself.  Petty perhaps, but also indicative of a larger problem, namely that hierarchies disenfranchise people by first denying them their preferred self-identifiers. By such means we lose parts of ourselves, hand control over to others.

The second has to do with the common referents extant in my youth for anyone or any group that was supposed to be seen as inferior. I grew up in a linguistic sea of slurs, disenfranchisements, insults, and categorizing that was, I suppose, intended to maintain the barriers between people who someone thought should not mingle. The disturbing thing to me now is how utterly ordinary and “normal” this was. And anyone objecting was subject to censure, sometimes violently. You will be who and what we say you are. Because granting even the autonomy to name oneself and designate how one preferred to be seen in the world meant yielding authority. And once you give in on one thing, the rest is at risk of tumbling down.

What kind of a world would that be?

Well, the kind of world I wanted to live in.

Not specifically about matters of personal identity, but certainly a world where the kind of equality that was honored more romantically than actually really manifested. A world where you could be whoever and whatever you wish to be…as long as I can be what I am as well.

I got this more from science fiction than from history. History, after all, shows exactly the opposite to be the norm. Science fiction held out the possibility of changing that norm.

Well, now we’re here. And it seems a lot of people I thought wanted pretty much the same things are unwilling to accept that this is where all those wonderful changes would take us. They wanted all kinds of technological innovation, beautiful cities, starships, infrastructure solutions to energy and food and communications and better education.

Just, can we keep the social arrangements more or less the same?

Too many people who didn’t “fit” have been denied access for too long. Maybe we all assumed the boundaries would come down and we’d all gradually—what?—get used to each other?  The assumption underlying that implies that we’re all pretty much exactly the same except for maybe some cosmetic differences. The fact that people are shocked that there was always more to it suggests—to me, at least—that we weren’t really paying attention.

Asking that we all respect each other’s self-identification choices is a pretty basic courtesy. The fact that it seems so difficult for some suggests the problems go deeper than simple courtesy can address.

A certain ideal kind of person wants to not be bothered with all that, wants to just be seen as who and what they are without having to introduce themselves that way. But also wants their assumptions about everyone else’s identity to go unquestioned and conform to expectations—without asking. This is privilege. And it may well be that some day we’ll get there, where that ideal person is basically everyone—including whatever extraterrestrials we may encounter. I find it curious that among my “clan” it has always been accepted, tacitly, that with aliens such respect would be axiomatic, but somehow when it comes to actual human beings there are occasions of fraught ill-ease.  And it’s not so much that the idea isn’t acceptable—it’s just that, with the changes, some folks resent having to participate.

Everyone who ever misnamed me growing up quite plausibly did so as a joke. The problem was, I never found it funny, just disempowering. It was the presumption that made it insulting, more so than the actual alternate label. How much worse had the label itself been intended to hurt, to “keep me in my place”—which was pretty much the result if not the intention. And since it had no other utility than to make the labeler feel better or feel superior, then I suppose the intention was always there.

Given the problems some people seem to be having with something as simple as gendering, I suppose when faced with actual physiological morphology and people changing their bodies to match their Selves we should not be surprised at even greater discord. My question is, why? Over what? Isn’t knowing who we are one of the primary elements of being human, having agency, living in the world as a fully realized manifestation of what and who we are?

The future has arrived and people are complaining. Big surprise.

The shock comes from, I suppose, realizing that we never really knew who we are, much less who others might be. There’s comfort in the mask for some. Well, your discomfort should not diminish others.

For my part, while I have stumbled over old habits, I’ve faulted myself for the mistakes made in regards to others requesting respect. I do not begrudge them the demand for agency.

I have to ask, though, if we have this much trouble according respect to human beings, just how are we going to deal with honest to goodness actual aliens?

Too many of us, I feel, liked being tourists in this future, but never really wanted it.

That kind of makes me sad.

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  • John Varley’s work incorporated a very advanced level of, as we called it then, sex change. Samuel R. Delany featured it in his novel Trouble On Triton. That’s just off the top of my head. What I want to point out, though, is that I took this idea as an “of course!” concept. Why not? And as time passed and I knew more, the whole idea of trans simply did not bother me. The way it has subsequently manifested was not as I might have expected, but as one more possibility in the toolbox of humans making themselves as they wish in the world, it simply made sense.

 

3000 Words About Bad Faith

We compartmentalize. All the time. We divide things up so they don’t inhibit our ability to act, to judge, to feel. We don’t even seem to have to learn how, it just develops as life unfolds. The walls, though, are porous, and occasionally they collapse altogether. But they re-establish given opportunity. 

But sometimes the divide between one part of ourselves and another can become toxically entangled. It can cause a lot of pain, confusion. When challenged, there’s a kind of panic that attends to our desperate attempt to put those walls back up, to find a way back to the comforting areas where one thing did not conflict—violently at times—with another. 

The old jokes about never discussing religion or politics at dinner or with strangers indicates an awareness of this phenomena that goes way back. Because established beliefs can run afoul of new evidence or personal feelings or even with other established beliefs. They exist in balance, precariously at times, and we have rules of engagement to prevent the explosion that may occur when one is shoved against the other. Why we don’t do something about the contradictions is one of the great conundrums of life, but most of us discard old ideas with difficulty. As I say, they are comfortable. We’ve been living with them a long time.

But sometimes resolving the conflict is vital. Life or death. 

“My body, my choice.”

On the surface, not a difficult concept, and likely for most people in most circumstances, an automatic “of course.”

Until it comes to sex. (I will stipulate here some muddle when it comes to drugs and such, but we do not so much dictate what can be done with someone’s body but only what may be legally possessed. Drugs are not, generally speaking, Of The Body; they are foreign substances. Even so, regulations regulate possession—we tend not to criminalize using drugs, but having them. Sex, by comparison, is Of The Body.) Then we encounter all the rooms into which people have shoved conflicts, embarrassments, unresolved questions, religion, desire, fantasy, ambition, guilt…a stew of unexamined reactions and complications that remain so because so many of us just don’t want to think about them. Because the vagaries of the act and the desire conflict with social issues and other beliefs which we may not have examined, at least not deeply enough to find the fulcrum of our dis-ease. 

And then there’s the fact that so much of what we feel about it changes over time. It is intrinsically part of our body—all the unmitigated hormonal things we seem mostly unable to control, that once we survive puberty we wish to be done with—and it is often in conflict with the dogmas of our upbringing. No wonder people want to put it in a cage and ignore it.

Until we can’t. 

Now, many people figure all this out well enough to avoid lifelong neuroses, therapy, or self-loathing and live lives wherein sex is an organic part of who they are. Most of them do this well enough that quite often the struggles and conflicts may be forgotten. So much so that when they pop up in others and lead to erratic or irrational behavior, we’re surprised and unsure how to deal with the results. And if these conflicts erupt into the public forum, we find ourselves in the awkward position of defending positions with which we are only tenuously familiar.

But suddenly we find our lives being intruded upon and our own sense of what we presume to be our rights challenged in ways that catch us off-balance. Because—compartmentalization being what it is—the challenges do not always come at us straightforward. They are often couched in terms designed to mask deeper issues.

“My body, my choice.” We have, at least in this country, and more generally in the religious traditions to which we are heir, treated sex like a thing apart, a separate something that is not to be admitted as part of who we are. In popular culture it is often portrayed as a sort of prize, to be won, a reward in certain circumstances, but in too many instances as property, a commodity, a thing that can be owned. It is a thing that happens to us, a thing that takes control of the aspect of ourselves we do consider as who we are. We make excuses for it, treat it like a lapse, a mistake, we hide it, we use it to extort, intimidate, smear, manipulate, like it’s a drug or a demon or anything other than an intrinsic part of our own identity. 

You can trace this all in the hypocrisies on exhibit. People who believe contraception is “wrong” and yet, after fifteen years of marriage have only one or two children; those who publicly decry infidelity, yet carry on affairs which they pretend don’t happen; women who picket clinics and then avail themselves of those very services when they are “caught.”

“Caught.” An archaic but telling euphemism describing an unwanted pregnancy. It encapsulates the issue nicely. Unpacking it reveals all the incommensurable elements, the contradictions, false assumptions, and judgements that permeate this matter. She did something she should not have and got “caught.” Meaning becoming pregnant. Which of course makes pregnancy a punishment. Combined with the attitude expressed by many who condemn abortion—or birth control of any kind—that such things are “letting them get away with it.” Get away with what? Having sex? Being sexual? Why should that be something about which anyone other than the consenting participants have any say?

A man I worked with when I was 20 took pains once to describe to me how at one time he suspected his wife of cheating on him. It was a fraught period in his marriage but he found out his suspicions were groundless. “I didn’t have to kill her,” he concluded. A few months later he had to go on a business trip with the company owner and he gleefully looked forward to it, that he would have the opportunity to “grab a piece of ass” while he was away. I looked at him in some dismay. I reminded him of what he had said about his wife’s fidelity. He dismissed it by claiming this was different. When I asked how, all I got was a puzzled stare, like I should just know.

“Grab a piece of ass” is another one those euphemisms that explains so much when you unpack it. Firstly, it reduces an essential element of another person to an object. It abstracts out the “thing” from the person who has it. It turns that thing into an object that the woman only seems to carry around. He wasn’t going to find a person to make love with, he was going to make use of her genitals, which are somehow Not Her, or perhaps simply not hers. There are many of these turns of phrase, which do the work of rendering the components of sex isolated from the person who has them. Some of this attaches to the male sexual apparatus (“my dick has a will of its own”), but not nearly as much and not to the degree that women’s sex organs are so rendered.

By so doing, though, possession is established as the essential element in what amounts to a kind of third party transaction. To underscore what I’m suggesting, the history of prostitution, especially in the modern era, reinforces the assertion that women have only provisional ownership of their genitalia. 

Which does make the whole thing a kind of property rights issue, based on an inability to see ourselves as whole beings that are, as part of that wholeness, sexual.

Why is this important in the current climate?

Because it also, by extension, sets pregnancy apart from the woman, defines it as a thing separate from her Self, that once that condition is established she no longer is meaningfully in possession of either her body or her pregnancy. 

There is a pathology to this which seems pernicious. It is bound up with a resistance in our culture to not “own” our sexuality. Since the Sixties and the so-called Sexual Revolution, there has been a reaction to perceived obscenity, lewdness, promiscuity, and permissiveness that saturates the Culture Wars. This is where it manifests. It reduces sex to the social equivalent of taking drugs, making it a separate practice from what is “normal.” When the practical distribution of contraception for women became common, the discussion came closer to what was really at issue. The insistence by social conservatives that contraception be banned, returning sex to something fraught with the risk of “getting caught” tells us what is really going on. Sex must not be normalized as something innate to what it means to be human. 

(But marriage! Well, yes, but that’s an arrangement. Sex is implicitly offered as both reward and excuse for getting married.)

The fact that the anti-choice movements feel they have a moral right to impose their objections on everyone undercuts any legitimate moral rationale. This is not about morality but about ownership.

The fact that many anti-choice advocates are willing to make exceptions in the case of rape or incest underscores this even further. Sex, in this formulation, is something that “happens to” a woman. Therefore the unwanted product of it can be seen as a separate, utterly alien manifestation ruled by “special conditions.” The idea that sex is an organic expression of a woman’s sense of self is, in this formulation, incommensurable with the “happens to” concept. (In rape trials, the fact that a woman’s manner, history, apparel, so forth are used as defense of the rape underlines this attitude. In order to be found “innocent” she must be seen as without her own sexual identity.)

Bringing this to the whole abortion issue, wherein a fetus is argued to be fully human, we can see how it plays out. In this, the woman does not—cannot—be entirely self-possessed. If she is, then the pregnancy is inseparable from her. It is something of herself. It is her body, producing a condition. It is, in a way, Her. Which gives her agency over it. 

It is not a separate thing which can be granted agency by social decree. Which is what the anti-choice crowd would assert, going directly back to the initial assumption that her sexuality is not intrinsic to her identity—it is this Other Thing which by custom, tradition, and even legal precedent is given special acknowledgement defining it as an object that can be owned.

And traditionally, owned by someone other than herself, either her father, her husband, or in the current assertion Society. Anyone but herself. This can only be asserted by denying that it is an inextricable part of her.

If pregnancy is an emergent condition, with a potential if carried through, but primarily an expression of a woman’s Self, then there is no moral or ethical basis for denying her the choice to either proceed or terminate. It is as much Her as her lungs, stomach, heart, bones, and we grant her agency over those by implication in the instances of organ donation or elective surgery or DNR mandates.

If pregnancy is a separate object, something other than and outside her, then she does not “own” it and can claim no agency over it.*

But we can only assert that if we strip away her right to Self entirely, effectively reducing her to slavery, indeed all way to machine-hood.

If we agree a Woman is an individual with rights to self-determination and agency, then it is impossible to morally assert the kind of authority over her that would deny her the right to her sexuality and all that attaches to it.

Which means that this issue is not wholly, possibly not even initially, about the so-called unborn.

Which of course is now being demonstrated in the raft of anti-choice laws being touted to constrain us on several fronts directly to do with personhood and matters of self-determination emergent from an acknowledgment that sexuality is an irreducible aspect of identity. Of Selfhood.

What this comes down to is a recognition that the separation of primary aspects of ourselves is a form of distancing that allows for the intrusion of third-party control, which cannot remain isolated to only that aspect but eventually expands to become control over the whole Self. That in this instance, the feelings, desires, thoughts, and apparatus of a woman’s sexuality must be seen to belong entirely and only to her, as essential elements of her sense of agency; that all of this cannot be possessed and therefore controlled by third-party forces. And if that is the case, the use and condition of those components cannot be selectively determined by anyone else because to do so necessarily leads to such intrusive determination of her entire Self. That such autonomy being necessary as both precondition and purpose of free will within any legal context seeking to hold as a necessary part of democracy, with personal liberty as its intent and justification, then it cannot be tolerated that such autonomy and agency be selectively restricted by common law, regardless of the condition or use to which the individual defines as personal prerogative.

We may not therefore seek to dictate personal choice in matters of sexuality or its concomitant aspects by selective legislation beyond the commonly understood social limits regarding assault if we wish to maintain the image of a free society with guarantees of individual liberty.

The current threat to outlaw abortion and the associated attempts at controlling and/or outlawing contraception and all other movements to bar a host of sexual/gender freedoms (trans rights, same sex marriage, etc) are fundamentally anti-democratic, authoritarian, and unsupportable by any legitimate theory of liberty.

Finally, to put this in an even larger context, we must look at the broad goal of the entirety of the Civil Rights movements of the last…well, for the sake of definitional efficiency, since the end of WWII. What all such movements share in common is an assumption of the freedom of association. The self-evident freedom to associate with whom and how we choose. That segregation, either by race, class, or sex, are anti-democratic and a denial of any concept of individual liberty. The upheavals of the last 70 years all come down to this fundamental freedom, and the current struggle over individual autonomy and the self-definition of the individual and the agency accorded to each of us, here exemplified by the anti-choice movement, is axiomatically autocratic and authoritarian and cannot be isolated in its effect to a narrow aspect of our individual Self.+

Lastly, it is evident from the wider context that all of these limiting attempts are being done in bad faith. Laws are being advocated on the basis of a single thing that have as their ultimate goal several other consequences having little to do with the primary justification. The “innocent” are not being protected by any of this. “Innocence” in this case refers only to a condition wherein all other aspects of individual autonomy and agency are absent. It is, rather, an idealized concept that is being imposed exclusively for the purposes of control. Clearly, based on the general lack of advocacy and support for most childcare proposals, “innocence” here refers to that which does not have a presence in the world. In other words, that which is not an individual. Bad faith. **

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*Of course, if that is the case, that we are defining the pregnancy as a separate thing, like an infection or a disease or a surgical implant, then bodily autonomy enters into the discussion from a different direction, namely that no one has the right to “implant” a foreign object into anyone without permission. And then we are right back to realizing that this is in no way about protecting the unborn but about denying women autonomy and agency—because we would have to make a special case for this particular “foreign object” to override her ability to say what can be done with and in her body.

+ In the attempt to define a fetus as a separate individual for the purpose of legislating restrictions on the autonomy of a woman, the argument fails on its face, firstly because it is not a separate individual but until born it is an expression of her body and her self, but secondly because in order to assert such restrictions you must first strip her of autonomy—her freedom—by limiting the definitional parameters of liberty for her and removing agency from her as an individual. It is functionally illogical to base presumed liberties on the constraint of liberty of someone else. And by liberty I refer to matters of self identity and freedom of association. There may well be attempts to example other forms of action which can be construed as expressions of autonomy—for instance, theft, assault, murder—and therefore be protected as such, but this fails by the simple metric that these actions and expressions also require the stripping of someone else’s liberties in order to occur and by definition cannot be confused with legitimate and moral expressions of individual agency within a free society.

**A clearer statement on this could not have been made than that by the Alabama state senator Clyde Chambliss who said at a hearing “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” His concern is not for “life”—in this case fertilized eggs in vitro—but for pregnant women. He expressed no concern here for the loss of “innocent life” but for the idea that a woman might do something about her pregnancy. Which is pretty much tacit admission that the fetus and the woman are not independent entities, but a holistic organic system. Which means that the only rights at issue are the woman’s and in this formulation they are being specifically targeted. Senator Chambliss exhibits no deep philosophical position in this statement but a naked rejection of individual—female—agency.

Trekness

I sometimes marvel at my own inability to apprehend the cluelessness of my fellow beings. Some positions come out of the zeitgeist that leave me gobsmacked at the utter feckless density of people.

And then I recover and reconsider and realize, no, I’ve been hearing this kind of nonsense my entire life. One just never expects it from those one considers allies. It calls into question all assumptions, then, about what one considers an ally, and the realization (which has always been there, really) clarifies that it’s all surface.

There are fans of Star Trek who have apparently only ever cared about the ship, the uniforms, the phasers, and the astronomy (such as it is). When it comes to the message? Not so much. They groove on the coolness of the æsthetics and manage never to quite grasp the underlying themes. Their favorite episodes, no doubt, are those with the maximum number of phaser blasts. Stand-offs between the Federation and the Klingons/Romulans/Cardasians/etc are held up as the whole point of the show. Somehow, they have reduced the entirety of the universe to a military SF genre.*

Fair enough. There has been a great deal of that. It’s exciting, it pulls in eyeballs, it offers a kind of astropolitical board game view of the future interstellar gestalt. But after 50-plus years of an expanding milieu, I can’t say that those have been the episodes or arcs that have stayed with me or had the deepest impact or resonance with me.

I do not see those as the soul of Trek.

They’re aberrations. They are presented as the thing to be solved so they stop happening. And the thing being defended is the vast, peaceful diversity of a polity steeped in nurturing the best of what is possible. The motto that started the whole thing and continues to be the basis for each new series—seek out new life and new civilizations—is the heart and soul of it, but that seeking and finding comes with a commitment to learn, grow, adapt, and remake ourselves in the face of the new.

In other words, it’s not about conquest, it’s about mutuality.

To be perfectly clear, Star Trek has been “woke” since the very beginning, when that multi-ethnic bridge crew appeared in living rooms all across a white-dominated United States. Equality and diversity have been the underlying given throughout the whole franchise. Poorly handled at times, muffled at others, occasionally embarrassingly unaware, but all through it.

Here’s the thing about aliens in science fiction. They have always, for the most part, been stand-ins for humans who are different. They have always been there as something against which to react and learn about differences. They have always been there as challenges to assumptions.

The conflicts? In the best and most memorable examples, breakdowns in communications, understanding, or intolerance unmitigated.

Oh, sure, there has been a great deal of war-fueled SF born out of recasting our own conflicts. More than a few based on WWII, the Cold War, Vietnam. But even among the best of these, there is the message, to be read if willing, that the whole thing is a mindless, stupid mistake that brings all parties down in the end. “Winning” is a lesson in irony.

The lesser material revels in the glory of conflict and the “honor” of coming out on top.

I can see no instance of Star Trek in which this has ever been a laudable scenario. Even Kirk, cowboy that he was, almost always did everything he could to avoid conflict. His worst moments were those in which he gave in to the easy solutions and wore the mantle of revenge.

For the rest of it, everywhere you looked the show extolled the virtues of cooperation, of dignity, of equality, of diversity. It was just there.

So the complainers, those who have somehow been taken by surprise that there is a core of empathy and acceptance and tolerance and an examination of difference and an exaltation of plurality and discussions of what it means to live in a society where everyone by right is accorded the agency of self-worth and the benefits of choice and that, yes, these are the bases of political discourse, have frankly not been paying attention.

Maybe their filters have been set too high and now that we have a few recent examples where the continual, ever-present message has been a bit more foregrounded than in past examples, they are shocked that what they saw as one thing, is actually much, much more. Star Trek has not become Woke (and I find it fascinating that a term intended to signify a state of awareness, of people paying attention, of recognizing what is around you has been repurposed as a pejorative by those who clearly would rather not be challenged by any of that, much the same as all past slurs of the anti-intellectual, the empathetically-stunted, the self-satisfied, the privileged ignorant) it has always been.

Just what do you think all the controversy over Kirk and Uhura kissing was about if not a bunch of unself-conscious racists reacting against an example of what we term miscegenation? Maybe go look up Loving v Virginia for a bit of then-current background. This was Trek saying “this should not be an issue!” But it was and it offended and had the term been current then, people would have been calling the show Woke.

Certain people have a deep investment in not seeing what they find challenging to attitudes with which they are comfortable. In this case, I’m quite pleased they are being unsettled. Squirm.

What I challenge here is the a-historical nonsense being touted that SF has never been political. SF by suggesting the future will be different is fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that change is essential is  fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that we still do not know what Being Human means is fundamentally political.

And SF that actively seeks to deny all this and puts forth a philosophy that such matters are settled and all that remains is for us to assert an end to self-discovery…well, that kind of SF comes in two forms: dystopia and crap. (The dystopic form is aware that this is merely an assertion of power and is basically wrong. The other form is philosophical onanism and is essentially anti-science fiction.)

I find it sad that these things need to be said. I grew up with Star Trek and from the very beginning it was the most positive piece of science fiction on television. It offered a future free of things like poverty, the KKK, anti-intellectualism, tribalism. Those are the aspects of it that sank in, made it a narrative that could not be denied, and has led to what it became today. Not the guns, not the wars—the aspirations of a future worth living in, for everyone.

If that’s being Woke, I’ll take it. Better than staggering through life asleep and destructive.

 

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*”But I don’t wanna see stuff about LGBTQ+ or compromise or learning about alien life forms so I can live with them or about empathy or how flawed humans are or any of that gooey touchy-feelie let’s-all-love-each-other shit!” Then all I can ask is, “Why in the Verse are you reading or watching science fiction in the first place? Just for the SFX? How sad.”

Choosing

Given my previous post, this is not what you may think. But it’s related. Intimately.

When campaign season is in full flower and the claims and counterclaims of politicians mingle in the air like pollen or murmurations or dogfights, it can be understandably difficult to know how to choose. Trying to sort them by policy is occasionally maddeningly fraught. What is best for the country as opposed to what is best for you personally; what may have long term consequences which in the short-run may seem perfectly fine but ten or thirty years down the road leads to disaster; how to tease through the statistics and understand how they relate to anything that might be addressable. To be sure, it is possible to wend a path through all this and fine merit in the various positions, but often reliable information is think on the ground and the epic nature of some issues can make you feel insignificant.

What can be most difficult is choices made on ideology. Having a set of abstract convictions about national identity tied to a fixed notion of civic morality can become problematic when faced with circumstances requiring a change in approach that seems to run counter to those convictions. (Capitalism in its present form produces this disconnect all the time.)

People wish to have a heuristic by which to make a choice in as clear and uncomplicated a manner as possible. But how do you know? Listening to the blind mouths and talking heads, how can you tell the candidates apart in any meaningful way?

For myself, the devil is in the details. Knowing the issues, understanding history, and having at least a passing acquaintance with moral philosophy are my most useful tools. Admittedly, they do not always work. Politicians lie. There is little defense against that unless they lie about demonstrable fact. Lying about intent, principles, lying about their platform…difficult to parse. For people with little time and insufficient training in how to not be fooled, the emotions lead the way. Probably for most people this is the case. Emotions need to be tempered.

So I offer for these heady times a simple rule-of-thumb that in the last several elections has served better than others.

If a candidate says (basically) vote for me and I’ll do something about those people over there, the ones you believe are a problem—that’s toxic from the get-go. That politician is betting on your intolerance, your fear, your ignorance, and giving you something to hate. I will not vote for that candidate (even if they have ideas I might otherwise support—good ideas do not depend on individual candidates).

If a candidate says (again, basically) we have challenges to face, problems to solve, and we must do so together—I will listen and, quite possibly, vote for them.

The first is divisive and creates more problems than it can possibly solve.  The second is healing, and if followed through will solve more problems than it will create. That’s fairly clear. Especially today, in this raging pool of fingerpointing and frustration.  Don’t vote for the dividers. (Now, you may think the one asking that we work together is a divider because they won’t acknowledge what you consider a problem with Those People Over There, but what you really need to do is examine your premises. Even if there might be a real issue, why would you support anyone who would gain political traction by making it worse? There is no solution in that.)

For those continually claiming that there is no real difference between the sides, well, in this instance there is a huge difference.

Something to consider. Hope it helps.

Backlash

I’m seeing a lot of comments that This Is The Beginning. Referring of course to the leaked SCOTUS opinion to overturn Roe.

No, this is not the beginning. The beginning was the first time we allowed the so-called Pro-Life movement to derail state services to protest something that ought to be considered a basic right. It has grown from that seed. This is not the beginning, this is somewhere along just past the middle.

The mistakes—only in hindsight in some instances, but not all—began when we allowed the notion that one person’s idea of proper behavior merited their intrusion into another person’s life choices. We can air all that time and again and gain no traction because for the committed anti-choice advocate there seems to be no compromise. They come from a deep background that does not allow for a conception of sex as a matter of individual choice. Which is why we see so many of them not only on the front lines of the anti-abortion movement, but also advocates for limiting access to contraception, anti-LGBTQ rights, and among the loudest in opposition to Trans rights. We can try to psychoanalyze motives all we want, but clearly they have some belief that sex should only ever be conducted within the strict limits of a presumably biblical model, because evidently sex is not a right shared by humans but a reward for Good Behavior (gifted primarily if not exclusively to heterosexual men) and grounds for punishment if indulged by anyone outside those limits.

The emphasis on those limits tells us what is at stake politically. All the posturing and rhetorical sleight-of-hand aside, what this says to women as a group is:  how dare you have aspirations.

All personal aspirations—goals, dreams, ambitions, preferences—begin in a recognition of choice. And all choice—the “reward” of growing from child to adult—is grounded in the ability to say No.

When you say to a woman that she may not control her life based on her own aspirations, you are telling her she may not say No.

You are telling her that she has no choice.

And before you object that men are likewise bound, very simply we are not. In this particular part of life, we have one freedom women have for millennia been denied: we can walk away.

All the rest follows from that basic distinction.

Now, of course this limitation of choice is useful for any dominant group in relation to those not in that group. But it all comes down to that one thing—a denial of the freedom to have aspirations and act on them.

This has been pointed out and argued for five decades—longer—and yet those who would gleefully overturn Roe are unmoved. They know what they want and the longer we ignore the fact that what they want has nothing to do with the ostensible focus of their cause and try to litigate what is or is not “human” in the context of what happens within a uterus, the more we lose ground. It is an intractable argument in those terms because it is not based on fact, evidence, or logic, but on sentiment and resentment. The kind of sentiment, I might add, that rejects all other sentiment if it does not align with theirs.

A woman’s ability to determine her own reproductive destiny, regardless of circumstance, is fundamental to any concept of equality.

And as we have seen since the Phyllis Schlafly campaign to derail the ERA, that is the thing at the heart of the matter. One group saying to the other, you may not have aspirations. We want you to fill a subordinate role.

Equality begins with the freedom to say no. No, I will not surrender my autonomy to meet your expectations of who I should be.

And boys, if you don’t think this applies to you, too, I think you have a surprise coming.

Post Pandemic?

Our governor, Mike Parsons, has announced that, for Missouri, the pandemic is over. It’s been demoted to “endemic.” Which means, in case anyone is wondering, that it’s not gone, it has “settled in” as a constant, like the flu or colds or mosquitoes. He’s more or less following the trend. People are abandoning their masks and it appears to have reached a point where he might as well give it the seal of approval or look like a stick in the mud. Or a Democrat.

I’m still masking. Depending on where I am, this is becoming a minority practice. I’m waiting for the notices of a new spike, but who knows? Maybe the Omicron variant isn’t as nasty in its consequences. Serendipity may make this look like a smart call.

But if it’s true that the virus is entering a less fatal phase, that evolution is doing what it does and making the changes from a killer to a nuisance, what does that say about the last two plus years of our collective reaction? Politicians can only do so much. If people are unwilling to go along with the recommendations—the rules—there’s not much they can do. Usually, only a minority of people in a given community resist the imposition of new requirements. What makes this last couple of years so frustrating is the nature of the requirements in the face of the kind of emergency that has made many of us look like fools.

This is not new. During the savage Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918, people across the United States resisted health regulations to isolate, quarantine, take basic prophylactic measures. Here in St. Louis, Dr. Max Starkloff, the city director of public health, went so far as to have people arrested who refused to stay home. That pandemic was in some ways worse than the present one. When restrictions relaxed, people got sick and died dramatically. But people bristled at being told what to do. Some thought their position in society was protection, others thought prayer would work, still more simply refused to believe they could catch it based on the centuries-old canard that illness was a sign of moral failings.  That last may have some credibility, but not the way people meant it. God was not going to protect them, but their willingness to be good citizens made a difference.

Be that as it may, the experience has left me a bit more cynical as to the dependability of my fellow citizens. Yes, wearing a mask has been annoying. Yes, using hand sanitizer ten times more often than usual is irritating. Yes, having to be aware of how close one is to anyone else requires more thought than we’re used to. I’m sure some people chafe at being required to wear shirt and shoes in restaurants or other stores (and personally I’ve always wondered why in designated areas men can go topless but not women). It’s been a while, but I’ve been turned away from certain restaurants for being underdressed, i.e. no shirt and tie—t-shirt and tennis shoes didn’t cut it. But they were rules of engagement and for the most part no one questions them. Mainly because the minority that complains is so small as to be ignorable.

It has been instructive. In science fiction from time to time we’ve had depictions of mass reactions consistent with what we just saw. It is a truth largely to be accepted that when people gather together in sufficient numbers, behavior changes. To paraphrase K from Men In Black, “a person is smart, but people are dumb, panicky, and dangerous.” Add a dose of partisan politics to the mix and we can have the full display of social discontent over what amounts to fashion.

The flip side of this is the amazing resilience and adaptive genius of so many people. While the intransigence and childishness of loud clots of obsessive complainers garnered headlines and news spots, the shear brilliance of others has been a balm to cynicism. Of course, many of those who have stepped up have been worked to the bone, and burn-out is the next epidemic we’ll have to deal with, but those who have just dealt with the situation and continued to serve is the stuff of inspiration. Without them, far more people would be dead, incapacitated, and unable to manage from day to day, and we certainly would not be having the recovery we seem to be experiencing. I have no doubt a lot of the self-styled “true patriots” who have been nothing but embarrassments with their refusal to simply be polite through all this will try to take credit when the smoke clears, claiming that they knew all along and so forth, but they will only be able to stand up and make those claims because of all the people who simply went to work to deal with the situation.

It’s been harder perhaps than it should have been because too many of our civil servants have opted to follow the winds of social reaction instead of taking the lead and allowed themselves to set policy according to the petulant mewling of a perceived constituency whose basic political position is “I don’t want to be bothered.” Had we all simply accepted that we faced a novel problem that required an extraordinary response, we might not have so many dead or, of lesser but not insignificant importance, divided ourselves even more than we have been.

To me, one of the saddest aspects of the lessons to be learned is just how self-involved so many of us are. Whether you agreed with assessed efficacy of the measures suggested or not, the fact is wearing a mask, social distancing, curtailing your usual social meanderings was for the benefit of others. You wear the mask to protect other people from your germs, not you from theirs. How hard is this to understand? The bleating of the imposed-upon marks a low point in basic civility and politeness. You don’t be polite only when it’s your idea. That’s not politeness. That’s not consideration. That’s showing off.

Be that as it may, I feel like I’ve been living in a very large zoo with restless animals set to stampede at any moment. The degree of skill on the part of those who have managed to impose some semblance of common decency among us is an achievement to be marveled at. My hat is off to those who have seen us through.

Thank you.

Patriots

I want to be precise here, so there is no misunderstanding. There will be, because the moment it becomes clear that I’m being critical of a certain posture, some will stop understanding what I’ve written (many would stop reading) and will fall back to automatic reactions that are designed to shield them from any meaningful reassessment. It can’t be helped. People live by heuristics, build walls of rhetorical shielding behind which they can feel secure, and doubt is anathema. Questioning becomes a threat. Just by bringing up the idea of an alternative point of view, the defenses come into play to shunt these ideas and their purveyors into a predetermined category, one which says that they need not be listened to, in fact, must not be.

So when I say that I am tired of people throwing their patriotism around like a glove in the face of others like a challenge to duel, I know there will be those who will immediately see the threat to their so-called principles and stop hearing what might come next. They append it to their introductions, like some kind of degree, both personally and on their social media pages, any chance they get. “I am So-n-So, patriot.”

To me, this is nothing but a red flag waved to attract attention, a goad, like saying “So what are you going to do about?” It’s a dare to question, to disagree, to argue, to fight. It’s a method for slotting people into Us And Them categories, and as such it is laziness incarnate, because it is designed to prevent meaningful engagement with any viewpoint that may differ. It is, as I said, a shield—and a whip. Using it that way is intended to cause reaction, to establish a set of rules for engagement.

However, it says far more about the insecurities of the one using it than it does of any presumed opponents.

Most people I doubt consciously do this, but it has the semblance of community. Like putting a flag out on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. Celebratory examples abound. But they are special occasions and people not so insecure in how they may feel about their neighbors, their community, their country then put them away for the next holiday. It’s not necessary to prove who you are to everyone all the time.

Of course people do use labels all the time. Religious affiliations, degrees, business titles, political parties, fraternal associations. Shorthand, mostly, a way of signaling who they are, what they find important, where they come from. But for most people, these are open doorways, the start of interaction, a place to begin understanding. The common utilization of such indicators aids quick connection, suggests interests in common, avoids certain misapprehensions, and smooths the way for people to know each other.

That’s not what I’m addressing here.

I’m talking about those who use the label Patriot to validate and justify hatred, intolerance, and a kind of chauvinism that admits to no other possible way to see the world. A refusal to see alternatives. And, at all costs, a rejection of the possibility of being wrong.

More than that, the belligerent claim implies—strongly—that others are not. Patriots, that is. That even the discomfort of being challenged by the claim is an indication that one lacks “proper” patriotism. It is an insult designed to make the one insulted appear in the wrong. That anyone who is willing to consider the idea that the United States of America could be wrong about something is not to be trusted because—well, might be unpatriotic, possibly treasonous.

I’ve been personally confronted with this kind of thing. “Not much of an American, are you?” It’s an absurd charge. For one, it reduces what it means to be “an American” to nothing but a set of litmus tests based on personal prejudice. For another, it attempts to make ignorance a sign of righteousness. But more corrosively, it rejects dialogue.

More than that, it rejects any position that does not align with a personal conviction of How Things Should Be. “I’m a Patriot, my mind is made up.”

Wishing your country to validate and support your prejudices is not patriotism. You aren’t defending the country, then, you’re using it. And yes, when you insist that others conform to your conception of what constitutes a “proper” citizen of your country, that is an expression of prejudice. When you tell them because they do not think the way you do they are not—cannot be—patriots, that is prejudice. Because to admit that anyone can be a patriot and see things differently, calls your own conception of patriotism into question, and that means changing, and that—well, it would seem to be inconceivable.

What this sort of braggard seems incapable of is any kind of humility of the sort that is contributive and supportive. Staking out an ideological ground and then subjecting everyone else to tests to see who fits and who doesn’t is neither. Doing so is not patriotic, it’s pathological. True strength is not paranoid. Claiming your intolerance is from a sense of patriotism is to confuse love of country with fear of others.

The problem this makes for all of us is the very use of the label, because this practice requires a degree of mimicry. Many of the stated sentiments of the false patriot (or perhaps I should say the Shallow Patriot? Just because the sentiment is misused, co-opted, doesn’t mean the abuser doesn’t actually love his/her country) sound just like what one would expect to hear from a genuine patriot. It’s not, therefore, so much what they say so often as how it is said and the context in which it is said. If you hold a morally or ethically tenuous or indefensible position and your primary or only defense of it is that you are a patriot, then some question is legitimate. Arguing an issue on its merits is quite different from arguing something on its allegiances. It is a peculiarly slippery appeal to authority.

Someone followed me on Twitter the other day and when I looked at their profile, the second identifier was Patriot. I then scrolled through their posts and found a list of chest-pounding, aphoristic belligerencies consistent with the Shallow Patriot movements that inform efforts to undermine many of the aspects of this country I most appreciate. It prompted me to write this and to state that I find people who do this—what I used to call Lapel-Pin Patriots—pitiable. Dangerous, too, but more simply offensive in their assertion that anything which threatens their insular understanding of what this country is must be countered, even, apparently, by force if they think it necessary.

I’ve known real patriots. They don’t brag about it. They never refer to themselves that way. They are, in fact, empathetic, generous, and open-hearted. More than that, I believe they understand love quite well.

 

Just a Brief Comment About Upcoming Election Year Stupidity

I know, I know, you catch more flies with honey, etc etc.  I don’t care.

I would like to address the growing expectation (at least in the media) that there will be a Red Wave this fall, and the GOP will retake the Senate and House. I’m a bit of a history buff, I know these things happen cyclically, that the first midterm after a Party regains the White House tends to end up in the hands of the Other Party,  Yadda yadda. And I’m hearing the pundits talk about Biden getting the blame for this or that and his approval ratings, etc.

Listen. Biden won because the Last Guy was an unmitigated train wreck. The voting public, most of them, had had enough. The Party machines still had enough mojo to guarantee the ridiculous outcome in the Senate which has led to pretty much most of the frustrations of this past year. Pretty much but not all.

Yes, I know there are two Democrats in the Senate who have been grit in the gears, but the one thing we should not be distracted about, should not forget, is that the GOP is still Trump’s party and they have been nothing but a disaster for many more years than Trump was in office.  But it should not—SHOULD NOT—be forgotten that the vast majority of them are still in his ideological pocket and will damage voting rights, women’s rights, immigration rights, and push for an economy that privileges the wealthy AT THE EXPENSE OF THE MIDDLE CLASS. (I do not give a shit, frankly, about how personally wealthy someone gets. But if they do at the expense of the commonwealth, through artificially suppressed wages because they will not reinvest in the community or through the absurdity of tax breaks that might put five bucks a week more into the paychecks of working people but millions into the burgeoning assets of those who hide their wealth offshore, or through offshoring manufacturing because American labor costs too much or through the blockage and disassembling of safety net programs, then I have to wonder at the intellectual capacity of those who keep voting for them—it’s like being held up and not only handing over your wallet but your bank account number and the pistol to the robber.)  The fact of the matter is, the GOP has not changed. So voting them back into power expecting a different (read Better) outcome would be dumb.

The GOP is not a new party. The GOP is writing laws in the states to prevent people from voting. The GOP is backing movements (looking at Texas and Florida) to strip rights from women and LGBTQ and minorities. They are doing this. Nothing in the year since Biden won the election has shown that they have learned one thing about being on the wrong side of history.

So we have rising inflation. The president has no control over that. And frankly neither does either political party through Congress. We have had two years of a global pandemic that has fundamentally rearranged our economic priorities. There is now a war in Ukraine that, in order to do the right thing and see justice done, requires the isolation of Russia, which means certain commodity prices will go up. I have a difficult time fathoming a response that says “I don’t give a damn about other people’s freedom if my gasoline prices go up.” But that seems to be what’s happening.

I won’t even go into the absurdity of the posturing of self-identified libertarians protesting mask mandates. How childish can you get? Where’s all that furor over voter ID requirements and gerrymandering that disenfranchises communities and outright bar people from their right to vote?

So. All I’m saying is, if you’re considering voting for the GOP this fall because you don’t like inflation, masks, and the presumed stalemate in Congress, don’t. Remember why we voted Trump out. And while you’re venting spleen over Sinema and Manchin, bear in mind that if the GOP weren’t in lockstep in opposition to anything Biden might propose (the Build Back Better bill? The John E. Lewis voting rights act?) then those two would be sidelined and inconsequential.

Last January 6th, we witnessed a violent attempt to overturn an election. You hand Congress back to the GOP, the perfectly justified prosecutions in that investigation will be suspended.

This is no time to vote with your wallet, because nothing will change in that regard. We’re in this situation now due to decades of one-sided tax policy and preferential legislation in favor of off-shoring industry and our unwillingness to see members of the wealthy class as criminals. Giving control back to them will solve none of these disparities.

I expect that to happen. Because—again, any more than cursory perusal of history will show—Americans are, in a group, pretty nearsighted.

That is all.

The Other Country

Two things prompt me to write this: the first is the number of Trump-aligned members of the GOP who are praising Putin’s incursion into and threat against Ukraine. The second is the verdict in the federal hate crimes trial against the three men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.

Bear with me.

With the ratification of the Constitution of the United States and the general agreement about what it suggested for the country then newly-formed, a divide opened between Ideals and Aspirations. That divide has widened and diminished over the years, but never gone away completely, and today it is a massive canyon.

The problem is buried in crossed purposes, unanticipated expectations, and simple human nature.

The declarations which accompanied the Founding, the philosophy embedded in the Declaration of Independence and, more importantly, in the Constitution, are of a rarefied idealism, statements of goals and ambitions, promises of intent that here shall be a place where the concepts of liberty and justice would triumph over the pettiness of ordinary daily existence, especially as opposed to what passed for these things in Europe. Here people would be treated equally before the law, would be given opportunity to pursue dreams, would enjoy property protections and permitted the unencumbered expression of their sentiments. We would have no classes, no aristocracy. Merit, expertise, ability would matter instead of birth and provenance.

The idea, emerging from Enlightenment ruminations, was that human nature possesses a natural…”rightness”…and that given opportunity it would emerge, more or less equally in everyone. And that with the proper political framework human beings would somehow coexist peacefully and look to their own abilities and expressions to be happy and productive, free to manage their own lives.

And of course, immediately this proved untenable. Because people have different ideas about what liberty means, what its expression looks like, and what constitutes oppression. The simple overwhelming fact that so many of the newly-minted citizens of a professed “free” nation believed it acceptable to enslave others serves to demonstrate this disconnect. The ideal of equity was an ideal many people simply did not understand.

The Anglo population had a rough sense of the outlines. Britain had been on a path toward a form of populist equality for centuries, although they were far from there at the time. The French Enlightenment thinkers embraced some of this, modified by their apprehension of New World sociopolitical concepts as gleaned from various encounters through the 17th and early 18th Centuries with native Americans, who represented an alternative to the hierarchical structures Europe embodied. But it was in the end framed by Eurocentric considerations born of a long history of social Place. Everyone had a slot in the social structure and as long as they stayed there, content, and tended the responsibilities and duties inherent in these structures, things ought to have been fine. Of course, they weren’t, for many reasons (wars, plagues, migrations, discoveries), but that was the problem with people who refused to accept their Place.

Much of this was in the process of eroding when the American split happened, but not enough that too many people did not still carry these ideas of Place and Position inside them, down in their psychés where the Givens of How Things Ought To Be reside in unexamined stews. So unfolded the piecemeal journey of coming to terms with the difference between what was expected and what was intended over the course of our entire existence as a country, of people step by step coming to be made to accept that Equality really does mean Everyone.

But then we run into the problem of defining Equality. Everyone has some notion about it, what it means, but generally I think it’s imprecise and muzzy, a “sense” of something that, the more we try to concretize it, the more it disintegrates in the attempt to lock it down.

Worse, for some people it seems to be at odds with concepts of liberty.

The westward expansion in this country was fueled as much by rejections of equality as by a desire for liberty. In fact, I would suggest that “liberty” for many people then was at least in part of desire to be apart from those with whom they did not wish to share equality.  Not, I think, in any pernicious sense. Only in the sense of seeking self-fulfillment without owing it to anyone not of their choosing.

This was a newish idea. Groups had embraced something like this over history. But here, then, it became an individual aspiration of people who took the claim of Liberty as personal in a way that had not manifested in quite this way before.

Small proto-countries developed within the boundaries of The Country. Enormous ranches, religious enclaves, company-owned towns and counties, plantations…I call them proto-countries because in many instances they exercised the kind of internal autonomy usually only found in nation-states. (The geographic boundaries of these agglomerations have become less defined, dissolving, so that they more and more overlap the country at large.) Our history is rife with attempts at establishing separatist communities. The one thing they all share is a claim to independence of action and a desire for liberty. Often the liberty of one person, defining the parameters of liberty for everyone following. And that definition, while claiming consanguinity with the claims established in our Founding documents, almost always missed a primary element, namely a guarantee of personal equity across all class, racial, and ideological lines.

The point being that throughout our history there has been a functional disconnect between manifestations of equality and liberty, that the rallying cry of freedom and liberty have more often than not jettisoned embrace of equality at some critical juncture where the achievement of liberty, in the view of those close to self-defined success, was within reach. A realization that genuine equality would threaten that concept of liberty, while unspoken, came into play. Looking at the roster of “heroes” of our republic down the centuries, it seems obvious that Liberty means unrestrained action and freedom from ideological constraint. Obviously unachievable in whole, but that never stopped some from trying. Seldom is there any real acknowledgment of the need to conform to general embodiments of equality. If equality happens, it would be fine as long as it does not impede the personal struggle for liberty. Given the vicissitudes of human nature, this is obviously a conflicted arrangement. Equality and liberty cannot, in this formulation, coexist.

Basically, the people living here, while reveling in the lofty ideals of our stated principles, have rarely had the intention of living up to them if doing so meant abandoning a personal concept of freedom and liberty. And equality, in my opinion, was for most incomprehensible. Even where the concept was understood, it likely could not be understood without feeling that it meant yielding personal liberty. For all of us to be equal, none of us could be more or superior or better. For all of us to be equal, some would have to be granted that which was not earned. For all of us to be equal, all of us would have to have the same access, the same freedom of association, the same regard.

The same property rights.

The various eruptions of separatist sentiment over 250 years of our history is central to an understanding of where we seem to be today. People claiming the status of “true patriots” are attacking our institutions, declaring them illegitimate.  (Without the least apparent sense that if they “won” then they would eventually be faced with the same reaction from a different group, making the same claim.) It would be refreshing to hear them just once explain that what they claim to prize about our Founding has nothing to do with the ideals of liberty, but the opportunity to accrue the power to be separate and beholden to none. Another unachievable goal, but one I believe is aspirational and inspires the sullen anger of those who reject out of hand the concept of equality that was, frankly, never something they had either faith in or inclination to partake of.

The various movements for secession exemplify this, frivolous though most of them are. These are folks who want to live in that Other Country that, for them, is also America. You know, the country where each man is a king and civilization is that state of community where everyone knows their Place? That Other Country that was implicit in the early promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The remarkable fact is, for most of our history, the system cobbled together by the Founders has managed to accommodate these countervailing ambitions without coming apart at the seams. The Constitution is a framework for allowing competing factions to break upon each other and flail until they fade. Only once have we come to serious blows from the strain, and for a brief time we came close to melding the two seemingly antagonistic aspects of our national ideal—liberty and equality.  We’ve inched closer to that in the time since, but now we seem to be pulling apart again, and the struggle centers as much on the misunderstanding of those two concepts as on the outright rejection of their mutuality.

Mutuality. Because there can be no true liberty without equality. Liberty cannot successfully exist in a zero-sum game that requires some to lose in order for others to win. That’s not liberty. Winning is not freedom. And dominance is no basis for peace. If one’s life is always to be engaged in a competition not of one’s choosing, then is to be in thrall to impulses that do not nourish, do not enlighten, do not fulfill, but only distract. Until we stop pursuing the desire to feel superior to others, we will never be free of manipulation and we will never have the liberty we claim to value.

That liberty is only gained by the mutuality of regard that is the basis of equality.

We will not find it in that other country of kings and paupers, of the dominant and the resentful. We have to find it here and we have to find it with each other.

Oh, and Putin and the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery? It has to do with arbitrary power and the disregard of others. Hallmarks of the denizens of that other country. If that’s not apparent by now…

 

 

Life Of Words

My last post dealt with my principled opinions and feelings about book banning/burning. This one will be personal.

I realize it sounds clichéd when someone says reading saved their lives, but it shouldn’t. Our lives are saved by the people around us, those who are with us, relatives and friends and teachers, in an ever-widening circle of familiarity. That network is the reason we are alive and the people we are. I know it’s fashionable to try to claim island status, that we are ourselves by our own hand, but it’s nonsense, and even those most stridently dedicated to that bit of myth know better, unless they are so utterly isolated as to be clinically dysfunctional. That claim is made for a simple reason—certain people don’t wish to be beholden to those of whom they disapprove. 

As a result, at some boundary away from the center, as that circle of support expands, many reach a point where they stop knowing or caring about or accepting the next ring. The connection is too vague, from a place too unfamiliar, about people too unlike us.

Well, that’s where reading comes in. And it is absurd not to understand that books are part of that inner circle for many of us. They are our friends, with us, teaching. They are a refuge and a source of understanding. The moment we begin to read a book, it comes alive and is there. 

As I have written before, I did not have a particularly great time as a child. Not horrible. But I had trouble fitting in. Many of the daily fascinations of my “friends” baffled me. Once I got into school, these bafflements led to embarrassments which led to further disconnects which opened the door to bullying. 

Movies, tv, and books became my safe place. 

I had a small assortment of Golden Books, a couple of Dr. Seuss books, and a bizarre variety of comics. There were no bookstores near me at that time, so I don’t even know where they came from. We occasionally went to a big Drug Store called Katz (we called almost any store that had a pharmacy department a Drug Store, whether that was its primary business or not) and they had a magazine section where some of my comics came from. I got my first library card when I was six and there was the school library.

Unknowingly, my world was expanding.

I discovered “real” books around the age of 10. Real Books were books with no pictures. I admit the transition was difficult—I am primarily a visual person. What developed was a reading method that reached its peak around age 15 or so and has to some extent stayed with me. I loved movies. Upon starting a new novel, I would cast the characters and in my mind I ran a film of what I read, translating the words into scenes. By the end of high school, I was reading close to a 100 books a year (my senior year I read about 200, cutting class regularly to go to the public library for the day and sit reading). This fell off sharply when I got a job, but I have maintained a reading rate of between 50 and 100 books a year since. Although, as I got older I found myself reading more deeply, therefore slower, and so my average is somewhere between 60 and 80.

There may have been a year or two where my reading fell off close to nothing, but for 60 years I have never not read.

I had no idea reading could cause controversy until I was in seventh grade. The year before I had started bringing books to school, mass market paperbacks, most of which fit easily into a back pocket. I tried to find someplace to read during recess. I had little interest in going out to the playground. Eventually I found an unused room behind the stage in the gym where I could read for half an hour. I was smart enough not to disappear completely during recess, lest they try to come find me. I don’t know if that actually worked or if someone figured out what I was doing and decided to leave me alone. 

I did find my popularity with the girls rising. Many if not most of them were also readers. And they would borrow my books when I finished. In retrospect, I did bring some rather “inappropriate” books to school. Emmaus was a parochial school. Last Summer, The Master of Falconhurst, Flowers In The Attic…probably not what the parents of those girls would have considered suitable. And in hindsight, this was the reason they were borrowing my books and not getting their own. They couldn’t.

It didn’t become an issue until the principal, a dour older man named Adolph Oberman, caught me with a copy of Harold Robbins’  The Carpetbaggers. He took it, glowered, said nothing, and called my parents.

The Carpetbaggers is filled with quite explicit sex. For its day, quite explicit. 

The conference Mr. Oberman had with my mother and me was educational. (Yes, I was present. I think he expected a united front in making me ashamed of myself.) He handed the book to my mother and asked if she was aware that I was reading it.

“No,” she said. “Why?”

He was a bit dismayed. “Do you think this is appropriate for him?”

She shrugged. “If he can’t handle it, he’ll stop reading it. Or he’ll ask me about it. Either way, I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t censor what my son reads.”

Mr. Oberman was shaken. I was surprised, too, not because I had any sense of the book being a problem, but because I had come to expect that anything I did that resulted in this kind of a conference was automatically A Bad Thing. That my mother was putting the ball back in his court was unexpected. 

“I would prefer he not bring such things to school,” was about all he could manage.

On the way home she asked me where I had gotten it, but that was all. No lectures, not demands to see what else I owned, no impression of disapproval.

My mom is a hero to me.

It was around this time that I got my first bike and found the neighborhood bookstore. When my parents realized that I was spending my allowance on books, my allowance increased. They never questioned what I brought home.

Entering high school in the fall of 1968 was to walk into a maw of a cultural beast in full transformation. Till then I was marginally aware of “hippies” and the War and the Counterculture. Over the next few years I found out what it was all about and had a front row seat at the battle to control information. My favorite history teacher was reprimanded for allowing a debate over Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation to take place. I challenged the syllabus for its insipid choices and was finally told flat out that the books selected (for our school, which was traditional blue collar school) were chosen because they were short enough not to challenge our presumed attention spans. I read Fahrenheit 451 and learned about the history of censorship and suppression—

—which baffled me and angered me. These were my friends—the books—how dare anyone burn them?

And this is what nonreaders do not seem to get. Books are alive the moment a reader finds them. They are conversations. They are what remain of lives long gone yet through them still present. They are the Past, they are people, they are the future-maybes, they are the record of civilization, and they are the repository of the whole of human experience. When I could not talk to my peers, when they had nothing they wanted to say to me or know from me, I could open a book and be with people. 

For a long time I didn’t appreciate that aspect, but as I grew older I realized that the relationships on the pages I had attended to were, in their own way, as worthy and rich and supportive as those with flesh and blood on two legs and a whisper in my ear. Sometimes more so, because here these people, many long-dead, were explaining themselves to me, which most of the people around me never did. And because of these silent conversations via the word, eventually I understood the people around me, too.

It did save a lot of time and grief.

Granted, it can put one at odds with the people around you. For a time, as many devoted readers know, you are the odd one, the weirdo, the bookworm, the nerd, the dork. For a people who seem to value Experience, I always found it curious—and unfortunate—that they never realized that reading, close reading, is experience.

But some seem to sense, even understand in a clever and sly way, that it is, and that experience brings change.

I grew up able to read anything I came across. Did I read inappropriate material? First, define that for me. Secondly, I would hope so. You don’t expand your self by playing it safe and staying within arbitrarily defined “appropriate boundaries.” And, really, reading a book is about the most risk-free exposure to inappropriate there is.

Back at Emmaus, another incident occurred which I did not know about at the time, at least not the full story. That stolid, conservative principal, Mr. Oberman, decided, some time between my sixth and seventh grade, to try to bring into the school a sex education program. He found one that had been designed by christians, constructed with a concern about religious sensibilities while still dealing factually and fully with the world of chaos about to fall upon students of our age. There was a presentation at a PTA meeting, which my mother attended. (At the time my dad worked nights, which left mom to deal with this sort of thing.) According to my mother, it was a beautiful course, tasteful, knowledgeable, pitched to just the right level. She thought it would have been terrific. Only one other parent and she voted to approve it. Every other parent there said no. One, according to mom, even said “I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”

I get the idea—if you don’t tell them, they won’t know to indulge it. It’s a stupid idea, but it’s as common as hydrogen. Because we were being told about it. Only not properly and not factually and not within any kind of framework that would allow us to understand it as it should be understood. We were getting it from older kids, from magazines that “showed up” and were passed around, from the age-old osmotic passage of “forbidden” knowledge that is the font of superstition, trash history, racism, and conspiracy-driven nonsense that somehow Everyone seems to know and no one bothers to verify. We were learning how french kissing could get a girl pregnant, how masturbation will cause cognitive degradation, how sex would cause hair growth, how a thousand other false “everybody knows” bits were true and a science-based course on human sexuality was a sin. All because parents—most of them in that place and time—could not handle the idea of sex education. 

For myself, by then I had acquired the priceless habit of Looking Things Up. I was made to feel stupid a couple of times about sex by my peers. What did I do? I rode my bike to that bookstore and bought a book about it. Love and Sex in Plain Language by Eric Johnson. A slim book, barely 110 pages, with illustrations. That was another book that got passed around to some of the girls. But it was the first time I ever had proof that what my classmates were telling me was empty nonsense.

But the nonsense was being passed around. That sex education course would have been as much damage control as anything else. 

“I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”

Given that, what might they have felt about other topics? Like slavery or religious bigotry or Manifest Destiny or evolution or—? And we want people like that to determine what everyone else’s children can have access to why? Because believe me, they aren’t trying to keep those books out of their children’s hands for the benefit of the kids.

I imagine it’s possible, even likely, that some people consider me untrustworthy. Unreliable. Corrupt. A Bad Influence. Unpatriotic. I read all those books (somewhere close to 4000 by now) and filled my head with all those things nobody needed to know. 

But having read all those books—and living the kind of life such reading helped give me access to—I also know exactly what such opinions are worth.