Spoiling the Punch

This is almost too painful.  The volume of wordage created over this Sad Puppies* thing is heading toward the Tolstoyan.  Reasonableness will not avail.  It’s past that simply because reasonableness is not suited to what has amounted to a schoolyard snit, instigated by a group feeling it’s “their turn” at dodge ball and annoyed that no one will pass them the ball.

Questions of “who owns the Hugo?” are largely beside the point, because until this it was never part of the gestalt of the Hugo.  It was a silly, technical question that had little to do with the aura around the award. (As a question of legalism, the Hugo is “owned” by the World Science Fiction Society, which runs the world SF conventions.  But that’s not what the question intends to mean.)

Previously, I’ve noted that any such contest that purports to select The Best of anything is automatically suspect because so much of it involves personal taste.  Even more, in this instance, involves print run and sales. One more layer has to do with those willing to put down coin to support or attend a given worldcon.  So many factors having nothing to do with a specific work are at play that we end up with a Brownian flux of often competing factors which pretty much make the charge that any given group has the power to predetermine winners absurd.

That is, until now.

Proving that anything not already overly organized can be gamed, one group has managed to create the very thing they have been claiming already existed. The outrage now being expressed at the results might seem to echo back their own anger at their claimed exclusion, but in this case the evidence is strong that some kind of fix has been made.  Six slots taken by one author published by one house, with a few other slots from that same house, a house owned by someone who has been very vocal about his intentions to do just this? Ample proof that such a thing can be done, but evidence that it had been done before? No, not really.

Here’s where we all find ourselves in unpleasant waters. If the past charges are to be believed, then the evidence offered was in the stories and novels nominated.  That has been the repeated claim, that “certain” kinds of work are blocked while certain “other” kinds of work get preferential treatment, on ideological grounds. What grounds? Why, the liberal/left/socialist agenda opposed to conservatism, with works of a conservative bent by outspoken or clearly conservative authors banished from consideration in favor of work with a social justice flavor. Obviously this is an exclusion based solely on ideology and has nothing to do with the quality of the work in question. In order to refute this, now, one finds oneself in the uncomfortable position of having to pass judgment on quality and name names.

Yes, this more or less is the result of any awards competition anyway.  The winners are presumed to possess more quality than the others. But in the context of a contest, no one has to come out and state the reason “X” by so-and-so didn’t win (because it, perhaps, lacked the quality being rewarded). We can—rightly—presume others to be more or less as good, the actual winners rising above as a consequence of individual taste, and we can presume many more occupy positions on a spectrum. We don’t have to single anyone out for denigration because the contest isn’t about The Worst but The Best.

But claiming The Best has been so named based on other criteria than quality (and popularity) demands comparisons and then it gets personal in a different, unfortunate, way.

This is what critics are supposed to do—not fans.

In order to back their claims of exclusion, exactly this was offered—certain stories were held up as examples of “what’s wrong with SF” and ridiculed. Names were named, work was denigrated. “If this is the kind of work that’s winning Hugos, then obviously the awards are fixed.”  As if such works could not possibly be held in esteem for any other reason than that they meet some ideological litmus test.

Which means, one could infer, that works meeting a different ideological litmus test are being ignored because of ideology. It couldn’t possibly be due to any other factor.

And here’s where the ugly comes in, because in order to demonstrate that other factors have kept certain works from consideration you have to start examining those works by criteria which, done thoroughly, can only be hurtful.  Unnecessarily if such works have an audience and meet a demand.

For the past few years organized efforts to make this argument have churned the punchbowl, just below the surface. This year it erupted into clear action. The defense has been that all that was intended was for the pool of voters to be widened, be “more inclusive.” There is no doubt this is a good thing, but if you already know what kind of inclusiveness you want—and by extension what kind of inclusiveness you don’t want, either because you believe there is already excess representation of certain factions or because you believe that certain factions may be toxic to your goal—then your efforts will end up narrowing the channel by which new voices are brought in and possibly creating a singleminded advocacy group that will vote an ideological line. In any case, their reason for being there will be in order to prevent Them from keeping You from some self-perceived due. This is kind of an inevitability initially because the impetus for such action is to change the paradigm.  Over time, this increased pool will diversify just because of the dynamics within the pool, but in these early days the goal is not to increase diversity but to effect a change in taste.  What success will look like is predetermined, implicitly at least, and the nature of the campaign is aimed at that.

It’s not that quality isn’t a consideration but it is no longer explicitly the chief consideration. It can’t be, because the nature of the change is based on type not expression.

Now there is another problem, because someone has pissed in the punchbowl. It’s one of the dangers of starting down such a path to change paradigms through organized activism, that at some point someone will come along and use the channels you’ve set up for purposes other than you intended.  It’s unfortunate and once it happens you have a mess nearly impossible to fix, because now no one wants to drink out of that bowl, on either side.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  There will be those who belly up to the stand and dip readily into it and drink.  These are people who thrive on toxicity and think as long as they get to drink from the bowl it doesn’t matter who else does or wants to. In fact, the fewer who do the better, because that means the punch is ideally suited to just them. It’s not about what’s in the bowl but the act of drinking. Perhaps they assume it’s supposed to taste that way but more likely they believe the punch has already been contaminated by a different flavor of piss, so it was never going to be “just” punch. They will fail to understand that those not drinking are refraining not because they don’t like punch but because someone pissed in the bowl.

As to the nature of the works held up as examples of what has been “wrong” with SF…

Science fiction is by its nature a progressive form. It cannot be otherwise unless its fundamental telos is denied. Which means it has always been in dialogue with the world as it is. The idea that social messaging is somehow an unnatural or unwanted element in SF is absurd on its face.  This is why for decades the works extolled as the best, as the most representative of science fiction as an art form have been aggressively antagonistic toward status quo defenses and defiantly optimistic that we can do better, both scientifically and culturally.  The best stories have been by definition social message stories. Not preachments, certainly, but that’s where the art comes in.  Because a writer—any writer—has an artisitic obligation, a commitment to truth, and you don’t achieve that through strident or overt didacticism. That said, not liking the specific message in any story is irrelevant because SF has also been one of the most discursive and self-critical genres, constantly in dialogue with itself and with the world. We have improved the stories by writing antiphonally.  You don’t like the message in a given story, write one that argues with it. Don’t try to win points by complaining that the message is somehow wrong and readers don’t realize it because they keep giving such stories awards.

Above all, though, if you don’t win any awards, be gracious about it, at least in public. Even if people agree with you that you maybe deserved one, that sympathy erodes in the bitter wind of performance whining.

 

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*I will not go into the quite lengthy minutiae of this group, but let me post a link here to a piece by Eric Flint that covers much of this and goes into a first class analysis of the current situation.  I pick Eric because he is a Baen author—a paradoxical one, to hear some people talk—and because of his involvement in the field as an editor as well as a writer.

And So It Begins

Campaign season seems to begin earlier and earlier every time it comes around, but this time it’s starting up almost two years before?  Well, in many ways it began in 2008 and has continued almost nonstop since.

Ted Cruz has announced his candidacy.

I have two reactions to this.  The first is, perhaps predictably, “You have to be kidding.”  But the other is an unpleasant chill running through my entire nervous system.  I have come finally to embrace the maxim “Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.”  There are and will be fervent supporters for this demagogue and over the last couple of decades it has disturbed me how such thoughtless, anti-intellectual, entrenched ideologues seem to creep ever closer to the White House.  On the one hand, Romney lost because he really did not understand the mood of the nation.  On the other, those who mourn his loss have, at least in part, put enough of their kind in congress to effectively cripple national government.

I feel this would all be solved by the simple expedient of a 95% voter turnout.

No, I do not support any suggestion of mandatory voting.  Freedom does not thrive where choice is limited, and choosing not to vote is as viable a freedom as choosing to vote.

It would be less troubling if I believed that this was the case, that people were choosing not to vote.  I think for many people it’s just too much trouble, low down on the list of priorities behind shopping and yard work.  For many others, whether we wish to accept it or not, obstructions effectively dissuade voting.  And for still more, a deep pessimism that voting does no good keeps them from even knowing who the candidates are or what the issues may be.  Throw in a thick broth of lazy and there you have it.

So Ted Cruz may get and keep support from people who will find it easier to vote slogans than to actually find out something about their candidates.  He mouths the appropriate small-minded palaver about government overreach and too much regulation and the loss of American prestige.  Some people nod knowingly, as if they actually understand what he’s talking about.  If they did, they would know him for the political half-wit he seems to be.  He’s going to know how to get out the vote among those who think, when they do, in terms of feelings and disapprovals rather than by issues, so he may run a solid campaign by such metrics, but he would not know how to be a president if he won.

To wit, there may well be government overreach, but it’s not a single thing liable to a simple solution.  There is no cabal to which you can just say No and stop the problem.  And frankly, as with most things in America, one person’s overreach is another’s necessary program.  Likewise with regulation. Sure, there may well be—and assuredly are—too many inappropriate regulations imposed upon us by government.  Just as surely, my list will be different than your list, so exactly how do we come to some agreement about which should go and which should stay?  And, just to make matters worse, which government?  Municipal, county, state, or federal?  Not all regulations are from the same source.  This is why democracy, whether we like it or not, is an ongoing process, a conversation, requiring engagement by the citizenry.  It doesn’t run on its own.  We can’t just elect someone and then ignore everything afterward.

As for American prestige, that’s one of those noble-sounding but useless phrases that can mean anything.  The decline of American prestige?  In what way and for whom?  It’s not quantifiable, for one thing.  For another, it’s as personal as the other two points.  For some, having the world afraid of us is evidence of “ascendancy” and “prestige.”  Like we’re all of us school kids in the playground, throwing our machismo around to count coup.  For others, respect is what we want, and that’s something you earn by cooperation.  Working with other nations, more to help them with their problems than ours, but getting in return some help with ours, and then knowing when their problems are caused by us and being willing to do something about it.  Not sexy, but in the long run more effective.

I recall seeing one of the last big conferences Bush attended before he left office, and all these prominent leaders of other countries mounting the stage, many of them putatively allies, and it was obvious that none of them respected Bush.  He was all but snubbed.  They saw him as a rube.  A clueless tool of his handlers.  Whether that assessment was correct is immaterial, that was the perception, and let’s be honest, in politics perception is more than half the game.

That is not the case with Obama.  Again, whether you like it or not.

Or perhaps people just don’t recognize respect when they see it.  Respect is a voluntary thing, not something you can demand, and certainly not something frightened people give.

Cruz is a demagogue.  He also doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything other than his career.  His people are perhaps aware of his deficits.  He made his announcement to run for office in a packed auditorium—filled with students who were required to be there.  Many of them may well have shown up for him anyway, but not all, and it was little more than some opportunistic stage craft.

What he represents, if in fact he represents anything other than himself, is a laundry list of regressive ideas that are everything we’ve come to expect from reactionary coalitions of malcontents who don’t like the idea that America has to be shared with people they don’t like.  That he is one of the poster boys for a Tea Party that still won’t let go the idea that Obama is not a citizen is profoundly ironic.

To be clear, the charges that Cruz is ineligible to run for the presidency are as groundless as they were for Obama.  His mother was born in Wilmington, Delaware.  End of argument.  He’s a “natural born” American.

Still, that some people are throwing the charge at him already carries a small schadenfreude about it.

As far as I know, no one in recent memory who began their active campaign this early has made it through the primaries.  I could be wrong about that, but I think it’s so.  Which means he’s being poorly advised OR this is part of a larger Party strategy to set him up to take all the flack while another candidate, more moderate, more “electable” is positioned for a later announcement closer to time.  If so, I have to wonder if Cruz knows.

It’s going to be an interesting season.

We Prospered: Leonard Nimoy, 1931 to 2015

He was, ultimately, the heart and soul of the whole thing.  The core and moral conscience of the congeries that was Star Trek.  Mr. Spock was what the entire thing was about.  That’s why they could never leave him alone, set him aside, get beyond him. Even when he wasn’t on screen and really could be nowhere near the given story, there was something of him.  They kept trying to duplicate him—Data, Seven-of-Nine, Dax, others—but the best they could do was borrow from the character.

I Am Not Spock came out in 1975.  It was an attempt to explain the differences between the character and the actor portraying him.  It engendered another memoir later entitled I Am Spock which addressed some of the misconceptions created by the first.  The point, really, was that the character Spock was a creation of many, but the fact is that character would not exist without the one ingredient more important than the rest—Leonard Nimoy.

Spock IDIC

I was 12 when Star Trek appeared on the air.  It is very difficult now to convey to people who have subsequently only seen the show in syndication what it meant to someone like me.  I was a proto-SF geek.  I loved the stuff, read what I could, but not in any rigorous way, and my material was opportunistic at best.  I was pretty much alone in my fascination.  My parents worried over my “obsessions” with it and doubtless expected the worst.  I really had no one with whom to share it.  I got teased at school about it, no one else read it, even my comics of choice ran counter to the main.  All there was on television were movie re-runs and sophomoric kids’ shows.  Yes, I watched Lost In Space, but probably like so many others I did so out of desperation, because there wasn’t anything else on!  Oh, we had The Twilight Zone and then The Outer Limits, but, in spite of the excellence of individual episodes, they just weren’t quite sufficient.  Too much of it was set in the mundane world, the world you could step out your front door and see for yourself.  Rarely did it Go Boldly Where No One Had Gone Before in the way that Star Trek did.

Presentation can be everything.  It had little to do with the internal logic of the show or the plots or the science, even.  It had to do with the serious treatment given to the idea of it.  The adult treatment.  Attitude.  Star Trek possessed and exuded attitude consistent with the wishes of the people who watched it and became devoted to it.  We rarely saw “The Federation” it was just a label for something which that attitude convinced us was real, for the duration of the show.  The expanding hegemony of human colonies, the expanse of alien cultures—the rather threadbare appearance of some of the artifacts of these things on their own would have been insufficient to carry the conviction that these things were really there.  It was the approach, the aesthetic tone, the underlying investment of the actors in what they were portraying that did that.  No, it didn’t hurt that they boasted some of the best special effects on television at that time, but even those couldn’t have done what the life-force of the people making it managed.

And Spock was the one consistent on-going absolutely essential aspect that weekly brought the reality of all that unseen background to the fore and made it real.  There’s a reason Leonard Nimoy started getting more fan mail than Shatner.  Spock was the one element that carried the fictional truth of everything Star Trek was trying to do.

And Spock would have been nothing without the talent, the humanity, the skill, the insight, and the sympathy Leonard Nimoy brought to the character.  It was, in the end, and more by accident than design, a perfect bit of casting and an excellent deployment of the possibilities of the symbol Spock came to represent.

Of all the characters from the original series, Spock has reappeared more than any other.  There’s a good reason for that.

Spock was the character that got to represent the ideals being touted by the show.  Spock was finally able to be the moral center of the entire thing simply by being simultaneously on the outside—he was not human—and deeply in the middle of it all—science officer, Starfleet officer, with his own often troublesome human aspect.  But before all that, he was alien and he was treated respectfully and given the opportunity to be Other and show that this was something vital to our own humanity.

Take one thing, the IDIC.  Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.  It came up only a couple of times in the series, yet what a concept.  Spock embodied the implications even in his trademark comment “Fascinating.”  He was almost always at first fascinated.  He wanted before anything else to understand. He never reacted out of blind terror.  Sometimes he was on the other side of everyone else in defense of something no one seemed interested in understanding, only killing.

I’m going on about Spock because I know him.  I didn’t know Mr. Nimoy, despite how much he gave of himself.  I knew his work, which was always exemplary, and I can assume certain things about him by his continued affiliation with a character which, had he no sympathy for, would have left him behind to be portrayed by others long since.  Instead, he kept reprising the role, and it was remarkably consistent.  Spock was, throughout, a positive conscience.

On the side of science.  I can think of no other character who so thoroughly exemplified rational morality.  Spock had no gods, only ideals.  He lived by no commandments, only morality.  His ongoing championing of logic as the highest goal is telling.  Logic was the common agon between Spock and McCoy, and sometimes between Spock and Kirk.  I suspect most people made the same mistake, that logic needs must be shorn of emotion.  Logic, however, is about “sound reasoning and the rules which govern it.” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)  This is one reason it is so tied to mathematics.  But consider the character and then consider the philosophy.  Spock is the one who seeks to understand first.  Logic dictates this.  Emotion is reactive and can muddy the ability to reason.  Logic does not preclude emotion—obviously, since Spock has deep and committed friendships—it only sets it aside for reason to have a chance at comprehension before action.  How often did Spock’s insistence on understanding prove essential to solving some problem in the show?

I suspect Leonard Nimoy himself would have been the first to argue that Spock’s devotion to logic was simply a very human ideal in the struggle to understand.

Leonard Nimoy informed the last 4 decades of the 20th Century through a science fictional representation that transcended the form.  It is, I believe, a testament to his talent and intellect that the character grew, became a centerpiece for identifying the aesthetic aspects of what SF means for the culture, and by so doing became a signal element of the culture of the 21st Century.

Others can talk about his career.  He worked consistently and brought the same credibility to many other roles.  (I always found it interesting that one his next roles after Star Trek was on Mission: Impossible, taking the place of Martin Landau as the IM team’s master of disguise.  As if to suggest that no one would pin him down into a single thing.)  I watched him in many different shows, tv movies, and have caught up on some of his work prior to Star Trek (he did a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode in which he played opposite William Shatner) and in my opinion he was a fine actor.  He seems to have chosen his parts carefully, especially after he gained success and the control over his own career that came with it.  But, as I say, others can talk about that.  For me, it is Spock.

I feel a light has gone out of the world.  Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but…still, some people bring something into the world while they’re here that has the power to change us and make us better.  Leonard Nimoy had an opportunity to do that and he did not squander it.  He made a difference.  We have prospered by his gifts.

I will miss him.

 

Getting Out Of Your Own Head

I didn’t know Samuel R. Delany was black until I’d read damn near all his books, a project that took some time.  I’m talking about a revelation that came sometime in the early 80s.  Now, you might think I was a bit of an idiot for taking that long, but I had zero involvement in fandom prior to 1982 and if there were no jacket photos of authors I had not clue one concerning the first thing about them.  (Mainly because I actually didn’t much care; it was the work that concerned me, not the celebrity.)

Still, you’d think that the original cover illustration for Heavenly Breakfast, with a portrait of Chip, would have clued me in.  But it didn’t.  Not because I assumed he was white (or, later, straight), but that I didn’t care.  One of my favorite writers from the big trunk of books my mother had kept from her days in the Doubleday Book Club was Frank Yerby.  One of them had an author photo on the back so I knew he was African American, but it didn’t register as noteworthy because I honestly didn’t think it was important.

Mind you, I’m not saying I had no racist attributes.  Like any white boy growing up in St. Louis, I had my share of prejudices (and I’ve written about some of them here ) but I was always something of an outlier and a good deal of my prejudice had little to do with skin color and mostly to do with what I perceived as life choices.  It never occurred to me blacks (or any other ethnic category) couldn’t do anything I could do if they wanted to.  (I was young and stupid and the lessons of 20th Century institutional discrimination had yet to really sink in.  Bear with me.)  But I will confess that unless it was put before me directly I sort of defaulted to the assumption that most writers were white.

It didn’t bother me when I found out otherwise.

That was the world I lived in and while I question many assumptions I didn’t question all of them—that can get exhausting and perhaps even a little counter-productive if that exhaustion leads to a desire to stop worrying about everything.

But as I grew older, anytime I discovered a new writer I liked was other than my base assumption, I had a little frisson of delight.  I never once felt threatened, it never occurred to me to feel besieged or that I was in any danger of losing something.  You can do that when you belong to the dominant culture.  You know, in the very fiber of your being, that these other folks pose no such threat to you and the hegemony in which you live.  You can be…gracious.

Which is kind of an ugly thing when you think about it.  Why should I have to be gracious just because somebody who doesn’t fit a particular profile does something other members of my culture don’t think they (a) can or (b) should?  Gracious implies permission.  Gracious implies special circumstances.  Gracious implies accommodation, as if you have the authority to grant it.  Gracious, in this context, means power.  (Everyone interested in this should read Joanna Russ’s excellent How To Suppress Women’s Writing to see how the process of marginalization and delegitimizing works.)

As it turned out, I have both been reading diversely and reading based on false assumptions about merit for a long time, but it was a problem, once I realized it, caused me no pain other than momentary embarrassment.  It was an opportunity to expand my reading.

Sure, it opened me to works which called certain attitudes with which I’d lived my whole life into question.  But, hell, that’s one of the primary reasons I read. What’s the point of reading nothing but work that does little more than give you a pleasant massage?  Those kinds of books and stories are fine (and frankly, I can get plenty of that from movies and television, I don’t have to spend valuable hours reading things that feed my biases and act as soporific), but they should only be breathers taken between books that actively engage the intellect and moral conscience.  Which books tend to piss you off on some level.

Depending on how pissed off you get, this may be a good way of finding out where perhaps you need to do a little personal assessment.  However, that’s up to the individual.  You can just as easily choose to revel in being pissed off and take that as the lesson.

“But reading stories is supposed to be entertainment.  If I want edification I’ll read philosophy.”

Two things about that.  Yes, fiction is supposed to be entertaining.  If it isn’t, it’s not very good fiction.  But there are two meanings to the word “entertain” and while one of them is about sitting back and enjoying a ride the other is more nuanced and has to do with entertaining ideas, which is less passive and, yes, edifying.  Because the second thing is, just what do you consider reading fiction if not reading philosophy?  Guess what, if you read a lot of fiction, you’ve been reading philosophy, at least on a certain level.  Because philosophy is, at base, an examination of how we live and what that means and all stories are about how people live and what it means to them.  (This is one of the ways in which fiction and essay often rest cheek-to-cheek in terms of reading experience.)  The deeper, the meatier the story, the more philosophical.

Which is why some books become cause celebrés of controversy, because everyone gets it that they’re talking about life choices.  Catcher In The Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn… how are these novels not fundamentally philosophical?

Which is why the idea of telling the truth in fiction has real meaning.  “How can a bunch of made up stuff—lies—tell the truth?”  A simpleminded question that assumes fact and truth are somehow the same.  Yes, they’re related, but truth is not an artifact, it is a process and has to do with recognition.  (Do you sympathize with the characters? Yes?  Then you have found a truth.  You just have to be open to the idea.  It’s not rocket science, but it is  philosophy.)

The most important factor in hearing a truth is in listening.  You can’t listen if you shut your ears.  And you can’t learn about a previously unrecognized truth if you keep listening to the same mouths, all the time.  You have to try out a different tongue in order to even expose yourself to a new truth.  Furthermore, you can never find the point of commonality in those alien truths if you don’t pay attention to what they’re saying.

Commonality seems to disturb some people.  Well, that’s as it should be.  Commonality is disturbing.  It’s mingling and mixing, it’s crossing lines, violating taboos, and reassessing what you thought you knew in order to find out how you are like them.  Commonality is not one thing, it’s an alloy.  More than that, it’s a process.  Because as you find commonality with the foreign, the alien, the other, they’re finding commonality with you.

Which brings me to the main subject of this piece, namely the challenge put forth by K. Tempest Bradford  to read something other than straight white male authors for a year.  Go to the link and read the piece, then come back here.

Okay.  Contrary to what the nattering blind mouths of righteous indignation have been saying, Tempest is NOT saying give up reading what you’ve always liked.  She’s suggesting it would be worthwhile to try this for a year.  How is this any different than someone saying “Maybe it would be a good thing to read nothing but history books for a year” or “I’m taking this year to read nothing but 19th Century novels”?  Like any book club or reading group, she’s set the parameters of a challenge.  Take it on or go away.  Why the need to vent OWS* all over her?

I have my theories about that and others have mentioned some of them, but what I want to know here is why certain people take this as an attack on their “culture” and condemn the idea as bigoted when, at worst, it’s just push back against an unexamined set of assumptions that have prevailed all along?

What troubles me in all these reactions as well is a certain hypocrisy coming from my own group, namely science fiction writers.  We have felt under siege for decades by the so-called mainstream—judged, dissed, ill-regarded, consigned to the purgatory of “genre” and not invited to all the good parties—and we have, collectively, been justifiably irked by attitudes which, we believed, would evaporate if you people would just loosen up and read some of the work you’re putting down!  Look in a mirror, folks.

(A more reasonable objection to Tempest is expressed here by Laura Resnick, and she addresses part of the problem I began this essay with, namely that normally one has to go out of one’s way to find out personal information about the authors in question in order to do what she’s suggesting, and that does have the danger of displacing the merit of the work with an over-reliance on others factors.  However, it’s not as if this is (a) not a problem being talked about or (b) in any way easily addressed.)

There’s also an element of rage politics in this which is stunning in its idiocy.  It’s the way our current culture works, that everything can be made into a cause to be outraged.  “I prefer XYZ nailclippers to any other.”  “XYZ nailclippers are made in China!  Preferring them shows you to be an anti-American libtard self-loathing traitor!  True Americans use ABC nailclippers!”**

Really?  Are we so sensitive anymore that we can’t allow for a little more room on the very wide sofa we inhabit for a difference of opinion and maybe a little challenge?

The fury over last year’s SF awards generated by a certain group over what they perceived as an assault on their definition of science fiction by the evident expansion of what is considered good SF is indicative of a kind of entrenchment I would have thought anathema to science fiction.  It’s too easy to read the diatribes and think the whole SF community is in uproar over something it has been striving to overcome for lo these many decades.  This is the problem of the megaphone effect.

But what Tempest and others are talking about goes well beyond the SF world.  There is a problem with recognition of non-approved viewpoints and faces.  The ocean of publishing is constantly a-roil, so depending on where you look it may be hard to see, and if you’re committed to seeing only what you expect then you can very easily miss it in the chop.  But the question is, how does it harm anyone to consider the voices of others as relevant and entertaining as what you’re used to hearing? Why does the prospect of change so frighten people who have the intellect to know better?  Why is it necessary to tag someone a bigot when they suggest that maybe the homogenization of our culture is a bad thing?

I’d like to argue that you have nothing to fear, that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with White Culture, but just writing that line brings me up to the chief problem—what White Culture?  I mean, we have to assume, don’t we, that there is one thing that’s being described by that?  It’s really as erroneous and useless a descriptor as Black Culture.  Which one?  The reality is, in both cases, they only exist as a consequence of definitional tactics that seek to reduce experience into an easily codifiable box that leaves out more diversity than it could possibly include.  I am white, and in terms of writing, I can say pretty confidently that, say, Jonathan Franzen does not represent my “culture.”  It’s kind of an absurd statement on the face of it.  Attitudinally, I have almost nothing in common with him, or the kind of writing he represents, or the particular viewpoint he deploys.

White Culture is only relevant in terms of social power and its exercise and in that sense I can claim affiliation with it by default.  I can’t not be part of it because that’s how the boundaries are set.

But I don’t have to exemplify it in my own person.

This is what reading has given me—the ability to access experiences not my own.  And, by extension, understand that all experiences are not the same even as they share certain common traits.  And the entire purpose and value of deep reading is to be More.  More than what my context prescribes.  More than what my social situation allows.

So why would I feel threatened by Tempest’s challenge?  I might not stick with it, but I do not see her as claiming the work she would have me read is somehow superior to what I normally would, nor is she claiming that the white male work to which she refers is all intrinsically bad.  What she is not saying is as important as what she is.  She’s basically challenging us to do what we would normally do anyway, with one more filter in place to select for experiences outside our comfort zone.

On the one hand, it’s kind of “well, why not?” proposition.  What could it hurt?

On the other, it’s a serious attempt at overcoming the bunker mentality that seems to be the norm these last couple decades.  Retrenchment is the order of the day for some folks.  Any suggestion that the walls of the bubble in which people live are perhaps insufficient for the problems of the world gets treated to bitter denouncements.  It’s tiring.  It’s destructive.

No, Tempest is not being a bigot.  She prescribing a way—modest though it may be—of overcoming bigotry.

It’s an invitation.  She’s not being gracious about it.  She’s being welcoming.

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*OWS—Oppressed White Spleen.  If “they” can lob acronyms around to make their point, so can I.

**Yes, much of it is exactly that idiotic.  We find ourselves in otherwise casual interactions often forced to take do-or-die political positions over the most inane matters all in service to sorting out who’s in our group and who’s out.  I am talking about extremes here, but it pervades everything.  I recall a conversation once where the efficacy of ethanol was being discussed and when I brought up the actual inefficiency of it, both chemically and economically, the response I got had to do with energy independence and patriotism.  There was no room for the vast world of money or lobbies or special interests or alternatives.  I was either in or out.  We’ve reduced much of our normal discourse to the parameters of a football game.

 

Current Crises In The Fish Pond

I have been trying to decide where to put this—here, in the Muse, or on my critical blog, the Proximal Eye—and have finally decided it should go here, at least for the time being.  I may cross-post later or I may do something more to which this will link.  I’ve decided to put it here, though, because it pertains to culture.

The last time I was able to vote for the Hugo Award, the science fiction field’s oldest and most popular award, was 2004.  Now, to be clear, I always wanted one once I learned about them.  It’s a cool trophy and I like the idea behind it, basically that it is a fan award, voted on by those who pony up the money to attend the world science fiction convention, wherever it may be in a given year.  Or, if not attend, then support.  After becoming involved in the field way back in 1982, I found that we’re not talking about a particularly large pool of voters.  Even in years with record attendance, actual ballots cast have been modest.  People go to these things for many reasons, not all of them having to do with books and stories.  Even those who do go because of the books may have many reasons for not voting—they haven’t read any of the relevant texts for that year, nothing struck them as particularly award-worthy, or they aren’t going for the literature.  Or they may think the whole idea the award for best whatever is silly or pointless.

On this last I find myself, after 30-plus years of paying attention to science fiction as a field, having some sympathy.  Like the Oscars, I think such awards are useful for drawing attention to a field, for promoting the idea that work is being done that merits serious attention, but the notion that any given book or short story in any given year is somehow The Best is naïve.  Secondarily, that anyone could read enough of what is produced and published in that year to be able to have a good idea of what is worthwhile in comparison to everything else is kind of unlikely.  There was a time, long ago, when such a thing was possible, but we’re talking about hundreds of new books a year, never mind all the short fiction.  The best novel might easily be a book published by a press only 50 people know about and will sink beneath the turmoil of a crowded field where prominence is as often determined by print run and ad campaigns as by the quality of what one finds between the covers.  I’m not being defeatist here, just realistic.

So it might be reasonable to say that those books chosen are representative of what’s trending that year.  If the mix is lively, then we see a preliminary ballot with a variety, from high fantasy to nuts-n-bolts science fiction to what used to be called “soft” SF (meaning the science is not dominant and might be just a bit on the anthropological side rather than the physics side*), so several “trends” are represented and among them the top trend wins the award.

This in no way detracts from the works that actually win, because it’s a given that they must be in the top tier in order to garner the attention in the first place.  So out a dozen possible “best” examples of, say, space opera, the one that wins is in the vanguard of the work produced that year. Any one of those dozen might have ended up on the ballot and even winning, but for the vagaries of the process and the particular atmosphere of the field. Quibbles may ensue among supporters of one over the other, but we’re still talking about by and large excellent work.  Excellent, that is, in terms of what fans think.  Obviously professional critics, academics, and colleagues may have quite different opinions, and often do.

As with anything to which the public subscribes and has a say, the Hugo Award is more about what people like than the finer points of the book.  This is not to say that those who actually vote are incapable of assessing those points and in the past some very fine work, work judged in other venues as fine, has won.  But the Hugo remains, at the end of the day and after the smoke clears, a popularity contest.  Inevitably, sales are relevant, which means marketing is a factor, and so lobbying comes into it, as in all more or less democratic processes.  And with lobbying comes the inevitable screeching of those who suspect nefarious machinations behind the scenes to exclude.

We’re hearing it again.  No, I shan’t name them.  Suffice to say there is a vocal group currently organizing to shove itself into the upcoming awards race on the basis that their particular brand of writing has been and is being snubbed by the field at large or, implicitly and otherwise, by the secret manipulators working to keep them out for political reasons.  I’ve read some of their positions and find some merit in the claim that their “brand” is getting short shrift when it comes to the big time awards-driven red carpet arenas of the field. But that there is a cohesive effort to keep them out?

I can’t help but hear the echoes.  We’ve heard this before.  Many times.

The first time I understood it, the cries came from the science fiction field as a whole, complaining that the so-called “mainstream” ignored us, derided us, denied us our rightful place at the table of popular culture.  Talk of being in a ghetto rippled around the perimeter, and there was considerable truth in the complaint. Of course, there were lesser convulsions within the field, namely the one between fantasy and science fiction and which came first and which was a subset of the other.  Earlier, fantasy writers complained at being overlooked when science fiction was dominant, then science fiction writers felt imposed upon when fantasy topped SF in popularity (and sales).  Reading in older chronicles of the times, the schism between traditional SF and the New Wave was loud and heated.  (When Delany’s Einstein Intersection won the Nebula Award, James Blish wrote that upon hearing the news he went into the next room and bit his cat.)  Time and again, factions form and hiss at others.

And all through this, suggestions of SMOF** cabals arranging the furniture to block certain books and writers and formats and…

…I find myself finally in a place where I can just chuckle and wonder at the complaints.

Times change, tastes evolve, there is growth in the field.  One of the ironies with which we now contend is that the ghetto doesn’t actually exist anymore.  Science fiction—and Fantasy—“won” the debate with the mainstream.  I see articles talking about the “shrinking marketshare of literary SF” and wondering how this could be the case when more and more literary writers are writing science fiction (and fantasy), which is simply not being published with the old SF or F on the spine, but as literary mainstream.  (A recent example is Michel Faber’s new novel, The Book of Strange New Things, which is about interstellar travel and colonization.  It is simply not being marketed as science fiction but that’s what it is.)  I recall talk in the late 80s when certain people, under their breath, grumbled about Ursula K. Le Guin’s “defection” because her books were being marketed as mainstream.  Even then I found it an odd reaction—wasn’t this the point of the struggle, to find acceptance in the mainstream?

Evidently not, and possibly for perfectly sound reasons, namely that there is pleasure within the confines of any genre as genre.  Which is why we still have a vital mystery genre.

But on another level, this success is a call to all writers to do their work better.  The literary science fiction market is not shrinking, it is simply losing its genre markers.  Partly that means the writing appeals to those not conversant with the deep-core conventions and conceits of the field—at least, not the language.  Likewise, it means that such writers have learned how to tell a certain kind of story, a more character-centered story, set within SFnal worlds.

Why would we deny awards to people who do good science fiction just because…?

But that’s not the complaint.  The complaint, in certain more pointed protests, is that all these books and stories are talking about things and in ways that the complainers find distasteful.

I’m seeing the term SJW popping up in a lot of these posts.  SJW.  Social Justice Warrior.  And I can’t help but see the squeal of those who simply don’t want their Worlds of Warcraft sullied by genuine human issues.  That may be an extreme way to put it, but then why attach that derogation to one’s complaint if it’s not the case?

Because that label—SJW, used that way—is leveled as code for categorizing someone whose arguments you have already decided are not worth listening to.  (If it’s just the approach one or another person takes in pursuit of their ideals that’s offensive—and I get that, yes I do—then why not just call them assholes and be done with it?  Why bring their cause into it to smear along with their unpleasant approach?  Well, because it’s not just the person making the argument, it’s the argument you don’t want to hear, and having a handy label like that allows you to pre-dismiss them.***)  So last year’s big winner becomes second-rate fiction because of the SJW nature of either the work or its supporters.

And what is being defended by the folks intent on letting everyone know what they think of SJWs?  A lot of it seems to be military SF.  Not all, but much of it.

Now, however one feels about this subgenre, two things about it in relation to awards are bothersome.  One, it’s not as if military SF has never won any awards—Lois McMaster Bujold and Orson Scott Card come to mind, not to mention Joe Haldeman and C.J.Cherryh—but it seems to me that if one of the purposes of an award is to celebrate cutting edges and innovation, then it is reasonable that certain tropes will fade in and out of popularity and some may fall away from consideration completely, because if that is the defining characteristic of the work then it stands to reason that it will, over time, have less utility in finding that cutting edge.  Other things will emerge as new and interesting.

But two, I have to ask, in all honesty, how many times can we rewrite Starship Troopers and expect it to look like something new?

Unless you use it to do other things previously not done with the form.

Which, of course, means such work won’t look like what you might expect.

Find the untrod path, follow it honestly and truthfully, and it might surprise you what comes out at the end.

Or write what you really like and have fun writing.  But then don’t be surprised if a lot of people find what you do derivative.  Which doesn’t mean it will be bad or even unpopular.  But it might not be obvious awards material.

But complaining that those who are getting tapped for awards are doing so because they follow a political line with which you disagree is stretching things a bit.  If there is one thing I’ve learned about the science fiction field and fandom over the years, one should not expect cohesion.  There isn’t any.

Besides, bitching that something is “message” fiction, “social justice” fiction, that this somehow renders a work less—what exactly does that mean?  Because really, show me a first rate SF novel that isn’t in part a social justice novel.  Ender’s Game certainly is.  The DispossessedThe Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.  We can go on and on.

I suspect the complaints are based on apprehensions which have to do with aspects of story having nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of the genre.  Ancillary Justice, being the novel that took almost all the awards last year, is a space opera.  It’s a military SF novel.  It’s about AIs and distributed intelligences.  Its main character is the condensed remnant of a vast AI that was once a ship now confined to the brainspace of an individual.  What more could you want?  This is as skiffy as things get.

Oh, but it does that little thing with gender pronouns that seems to bother a lot of people.  I guess that’s what makes it the work of a Social Justice Warrior.

Except that the writer didn’t actually make any kind of statement about how this might be a preferred model for social construction.  It’s simply a thing that defines her empire as culturally distinct from others.  So it doesn’t actually do any “gender bending.”

But it does make the reader deal with the idea of gender markers in a different way.

I thought that’s what SF was supposed to do, make us see things in a different way.

Which would put Ancillary Justice out there near where the form is evolving…

Before I get too caught up in defending a given work against charges that may or may not be relevant, let me get back to the main point, which is the time-honored bleating of those who seem to misunderstand the reason they don’t get nominated for awards.  They have always been there.  In retrospect, one can often see why they didn’t make the cut, but it’s not quite so obvious at the time.  But conspiracy has always been an appealing way to explain self-perceived failure.  The world is against me.  “They” won’t let me in.

Well, I’ve indulged my share of feeling exactly that way.

I was wrong.

This will pass and some new group will coalesce around feeling slighted.  But it would be nice if in future it stayed centered on the matter at hand instead of dragging in cultural movements that have nothing to do with the stories in question…but everything to do with the prejudices of the complainants.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

* But in practice meaning that the author has paid what some may consider too much, perhaps unhealthy, attention to character and culture rather than problem-solving and world building.

**Secret Masters Of Fandom.

***This has been going on seemingly forever, and in some respects this reminds me of John Steinbeck, whose novel The Grapes of Wrath, which talked about then-current social realities with an unblinkered honesty brought derision upon Steinbeck and accusations that he was a communist.  He was seen, by talking about the plight of people being made homeless because of banking fiascoes over which they had no control and took no part in, as somehow suspect in his motives.  In his own hometown the book was burned.  A century earlier, Herman Melville was castigated by both sides of the slavery debate for his short novel Benito Cereno, each side—slaveholder and abolitionist—feeling he was taking a shot at them when really he simply told what happened.  People start leveling their version of the SJW charge usually when something jabs them in a soft spot, where they know something is wrong but they just don’t want to be made either to feel responsible for it or to do something about it.

Stop Shooting At Each Other, Please

I’m 60.

What this means for the purposes of this post is that I lived through the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I watched the reactions of the nation on the news, listened to the discussions that went on constantly for weeks and months (and in many ways are still going on), and I saw my neighborhood change in anticipation of a kind of Armageddon.  I remember the summer of  1968 seeing many of my neighbors sitting on front porches and steps holding shotguns and rifles, some with pistols strapped onto their waists, waiting for the wave of rioters to come charging down the street.  St. Louis, it seemed, was ready.  Why?  Because we could see it on the national news, every night it seemed, that somewhere whole sections of some cities—Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, others—were burning.  Troops patrolled the streets protecting first responders (we didn’t call them that then) from the occasional sniper who must have thought it “cool” to take potshots in the midst of the chaos.  We could see what was happening and a lot of people had decided it would not happen here.

Very few people were talking about the why of it all.  It was tragic enough that the assassinations had occurred, but I remember many people being baffled at the reaction.

Roll back the years to the civil rights coverage in the South and many middle class whites in other parts of the country were completely stunned by what the police were doing to poor blacks.  We could see it, right there on television, and it was a shock.

But we were Doing Things to redress those inequities, weren’t we?  Wasn’t that what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was all about?  It was going to get better, so why all this violence?  Couldn’t they see?

We didn’t ask, many of us, what it was we couldn’t see.  All many people knew was that laws were being passed, things were being made to improve, we were addressing the problems.  We saw that.

And then we saw the riots.

The gap between them was poorly filled if at all and most people, fearful, made so by the drumbeat of media coverage that concentrated on spectacular images and the sounds of outrage, reacted, often predictably, and many of them shut down their sympathy, barred the doors, and prepared to defend themselves and their property.

What was in that gap?

Everything of any consequence to the issues at hand.

Whole multiple histories of dysfunctional relations between segments of society that knew very little about each other beyond what was shown them by the media.  The meaning of King, which was not the same for everyone.  Simply the fact that his assassination and the subsequent explosions of civic unrest were not isolated incidents with no backstory, no connection, no justifications, no context.

Officer Darren Wilson, who was brought before a Grand Jury on the charge of killing an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, was acquitted by that grand jury.  Here is a link to the transcripts.  I suspect many people will not read them.  They will get their information from the media, from friends, from hearsay, from the gestalt through which they move, osmotically and coincidentally usefully, and mostly what was said at the grand jury will be regarded as unimportant.  Why?  Because minds were made up within hours or days of the shooting and likely will not be swayed by post hoc explanations.  Because there are two extremes, one of which says a cop can do no wrong in the line of duty and the other that says a cop is never to be trusted, and people fall along the spectrum between these two without bothering, often, to consider there might be a third set of determinants.  But because, really, it doesn’t matter so much why one white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager compared to the larger question of why the situation leading to that existed, occurred, and is now being vigorously shoved to one side by the institutions upon which we rely to explain the world to us.

And it just got muddier in the wake of riots.

Riots.  Why riots?

Didn’t we expect them?  Haven’t we been telling ourselves that this would occur for weeks now?  Haven’t we been gearing up for some kind of O.K. Corral showdown pretty much since the announcement that there would be a grand jury?  The new reports on people worrying over their businesses and homes, the governor calling out the National Guard, seeing businesses boarding up their storefronts in anticipation of the coming battle, acquaintances finding a way to leave town, the constant tension-building delays.  Sure looked like we expected what we got.

And the rest of the story?

We had no social media back in the Sixties, just rumor and gossip, phone calls, kitchen table discussions.  But it amounted to much the same thing—as soon as it became newsworthy that violence might occur, we primed ourselves for a fight.

Personally, I’m surprised it wasn’t worse, given the tempers and the artillery present in the streets and the weeks of stoking we’ve had.

And who actually rioted?

In my opinion, anything that constituted a “riot” occurred when the police began moving to shut down demonstrations which were till then peaceful when a few assholes decided it would be “fun” to brick some windows.  It doesn’t take much to push a seething situation over the line.

The mistake always made by the police is to treat everyone then as one of those destroying property. A conceptual homogenization occurs, devolving to Us and Them, and everyone falls into one of two categories, and both sides feel justified in their actions.  The “issue at hand” instantly transforms from where it started into something more primal, stops being about what everyone was there for to begin with.  The protestors find themselves moved from “we’re here to protest a civil injustice” to “we have a right to be here and do this” and the police move from “we’re here to keep order” to “we have to shut this all down now.”  The original message gets lost in the ensuing struggle over the new mandates.

And we have more footage for the evening circus of unruly people defying authority, etc etc.

We need to stop telling ourselves to get ready for fights that may not happen.  We need to stop pumping ourselves up in anticipation of the worst possible outcome.  We have to stop scaring ourselves.  We have to stop giving airtime to alarmists who call out the national guard at the drop of a hint.  We have to stop acting like the only solution to any problem is to shoot.

The lack of comparable media on the community and its problems is telling.  Certainly there have been some stories about the history of Ferguson and the nature of the disconnect, but they are far outweighed by the rhetoric of pain and the ominous forecasting of worse to come.  I’m encouraged in this instance by all the people and groups who are striving to put constructive information before the community, to promote dialogue, and address that all-important context, but people react most strongly when threatened, and there has been more than a little threat inherent in our media coverage.

St. Louis didn’t burn that summer of 1968.  There was trouble, certainly, but not that.  I don’t know why.  I do know that after that things began to change, across the country.  They changed sufficiently that I, as a not-particularly-observant white guy, thought we were getting past our national curse of racism.  I can’t deny that things today are much better than they were then, but the things that linger, that cling like a rotting caul to our collective psyché, I admit have surprised me in the last ten years.  Maybe it requires an oversized symbol to force these things into the open.  I’m ashamed of my own past fears and prejudices.  The nature of racist expression has changed somewhat and now seems to express itself more as economic distinctions than hatred of skin color, but the fear mongering we experience daily over questions of immigration and economic inequity and education and glass ceilings eventually eats away the camouflage hiding the real character of the problem.  We put a thick coat of paint on a house that still needs major structural attention.

But it would really help if we stopped telling ourselves to shoot at each other.

Local vs National?

A curious thing came out of the midterms.  The fact that a lot of GOP candidates won their races (many by a nose hair) and yet in those same districts more or less progressive referenda also won.  Legalization of marijuana and the legitimization of gay marriage being the two most prominent.  This is curious when you consider that for the last umpteen years now the GOP has made its bones by being obsessively loudmouthed social naysayers.  People seem to have been voting for them because they are opposed to all the things identified as signaling the End Times of Civilization, most of which can be lumped loosely under the rubric of “Permissiveness.”  Abortion, sex education, liberal arts education, science, critical thinking, and so forth have all come in for pulpit-drubbings by various right wing candidates.

And yet, it seems, even while in local to state races the electorate has been rewarding such rhetoric, when given the chance to actually vote on specific policies the trend would appear in the opposite direction, if only by a smidgen.

According to polls, the country has maintained more or less the same split over abortion, namely that the majority favors its legality.  On the local level, the Right have resorted to playing very narrow games of accreditation for facilities in order to shut down clinics and in some cases have enacted what may appear to the uninvolved perfectly reasonable waiting period laws, but every “personhood” amendment on the ballot across the country failed.  When it comes to the actual core issue—a woman’s right to choose—that divide doesn’t budge.  (If they keep playing games like this, though, we may discover in the next couple of election cycles that a greater majority favor legal access than we previously assessed as people get tired of the brinksmanship.)

The War on Drugs, declared under Nixon lo these many decades past, is losing its moral legitimacy with more and more people.

And finally Texas school books have been purged of anti-science rhetoric.  Now all we have to do is achieve the same in history.

So what exactly is going on?  If right wing demagogues are being elected to “represent” districts while at the same time those districts are rejecting the social programs being pushed by these demagogues, some head-scratching is in order.

It may not be as baffling as it first appears.  It just depends on what battle we think is being fought.

It occurs to me that, stepping back and trying to see it as a whole, the closest fit would be to see this as a variation on the Civil War.  Specifically, the debate between local and federal control.  It is a fact that most of the men who fought for the Confederacy were not slave owners, they had no direct stake in the Peculiar Institution (although it would be a mistake to maintain that they were totally unaffected by the question), and that there were deep pockets of abolitionist sentiment throughout the South. Of the multiple reasons they would fight so ardently, the one that makes the most sense is the “Because you’re down here” issue.  They did not think of themselves as Americans in the sense of a single national political (or even social) entity, but as a general idea expressed through regional tradition.  Culturally, it would difficult to describe a New England seaman, an Appalachian hardscrabble farmer, and a Louisiana riverman as belonging to the same social aggragate.  We are, as we like to say, a nation of immigrants, and no one abandoned their heritage when they got off the boat, even if they tried.  We are a nation of villages.

When the Civil War broke, the driving political question was where the primary power to change lives lay.  Locally?  Where most people, even in the North, naturally assumed?  Or centrally, at the federal level, with laws emerging from the minds of people most of the country did not know and did not understand and could, it would be reasonable to assume, knew nothing of “how we live here.”

This is not to say we lacked any kind of national identity.  Far from it, but for the most part the two—local, or regional, and national—had little real interaction.  You could be an American and believe you lived in a country of fellow Americans, without that ever meaning you had to do anything to accommodate the sensibilities of people living a thousand miles away.  Or even a hundred, for that matter.  It became an issue when those people came to your area and began telling you that, in fact, you did have to make such accommodation.

Again, probably for most people in any given area or era, this was not a big deal.  But we can see explosions of when it became one.  The Range Wars in the west over settlers and grazing rights is exactly this kind of dispute.  The Whiskey Rebellion, while not usually characterized this way, was one of the earliest and most prominent, an explosion coming out of the fact that the Atlantic seaboard had no idea of the conditions for survival in Western Pennsylvania.

The so-called Civil War is the largest of these and utterly transformed the relationship between states and the nation as a single entity.

It’s useful to recall the by-now well-known statement that Robert E. Lee made when refusing command of the Union Army, that he could never fight against his country.  It is perhaps simplistic to see that as his claiming that Virginia, the state, was what he regarded as “his country” and it wouldn’t be wrong, only insufficient.  Lee was not simplistic and he was a West Pointer.  “His country” may well have been both—Virginia and the United States—and his statement would then have made sense as a declaration of his unwillingness to fight in opposition to the configuration in which both existed in relation to each other.  Fighting for the Union in order to facilitate the imposition of the federal over the states would for him be as bad as treason, because that meant changing the very intent of that relationship.

David Brin has written an overview of a version of this ongoing civil war.  While I might quibble with details, it suffices to describe a sentiment which I believe is at the heart of the apparent contradiction evident in the last election.  The visceral rage evidenced by the Right since Obama’s election, something which has been building and gaining momentum since Reagan took office, seems to me perfectly explicable when viewed  in this way.  What we’ve been seeing is not so much a rejection of progressivism or even social justice—although there certainly is such rejection by certain factions—as it is a rejection of federal hegemony and centrality.  Progressive ideals and social justice become collateral damage in this fight, which may seem a weak description of the real impact of such damage, yet the lack of any kind of genuine guiding principle behind their rollbacks can be explained by the apparent larger battle.  This may be the last phase of an ongoing war over identity that has raged, to greater or lesser degree, for two centuries.

We want to be Americans but only as defined by local identity.

As I noted in the previous post, low midterm voter turnout may be an artifact of a perceived pointlessness in voting locally when one can do nothing about another district’s or state’s representative.  If, in other words, my vote won’t get that guy from Ohio or Kentucky out of office, what’s the point?  This would be a component of this identity question, expressed in ambivalence and manifest as apathy.

When you look at certain maps of electoral trends, there would appear to be a set of characteristics that are being squeezed.  As frustrating as recent politics have been, federalism seems to be gradually winning the field. America is becoming one country, finally, after all this time.

Which would explain, in part, the most recent battle over immigration.  The forces circling the wagons around the besieged identities of which I speak see rationalizing immigration policy as another attack on their primacy.  Who can say what several million newly naturalized voters might do at the polls?  Better to do all we can to keep them out and try to gain some kind of upper hand for—

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?  If what I suggest underlies all this, then the fight is over the desire to retain independence from the very thing you put forward as a last hope for freedom.  You want to be an American but you don’t want to change yourself in order to be what that might mean.

Which makes several apparently absurd things make a kind of sense.  Opposition, for instance, to the theory of evolution.  If evolution is true—and, worse, we teach it to our kids—then that means change is natural, indeed inevitable, and, furthermore, that there is no scientific basis for exclusion.  These twin notions, when put in political context, are explosive for certain people who are also trying to assert that our Founding Fathers based our guiding documents and institutions on Biblical foundations, which they by their own admission did not.

God created Americans, whole and perfect, and these pesky scientific notions of change and mutation and inconstancy violate that conceived perfection.

Ridiculous?

How about climate change, then?  Never mind the cause, but the fact of it means we will have to change how we live in order to meet the challenge of the new environment.  We will environmentally stop being the Land of Milk and Honey, the cornucopeia we have always told ourselves we are.  If you are someone who believes the above idea about perfect creation, then this can be nothing but divine judgment (as opposed to natural evolution, which might be addressable if we would just get out of our own way), and by all that is who we wish to be that cannot be.  It must be because of—

And the litany of the excluded follows.  Gays, minorities, socialists, feminists.

As long as the larger world did not intrude upon your small patch of the landscape and you could define yourself according to standards shared by your next door neighbor without any regard for the nation or the world, everything could be fine.

Of course, it’s not, because such hermetic isolation is impossible, and ideas if nothing else seep in.  The former Soviet Union was nothing if not an almost century-long attempt to isolate an entire nation ideologically from outside ideas, and if failed miserably, resulting in its collapse when the weight of willed ignorance grew too much.

I’m not here claiming a preference so much as indicating vectors and possible causes.  The invective hurled at Obama would seem baseless and utterly without motive in any rational sense, the yowling of people who feel threatened for no apparent reason.  But if seen from this perspective, it begins to make a kind of sense.  This is, possibly, the last campaign of a civil war that has been going on for a long, long time.  This is a stand against the future.  Obama won both elections by wide margins of the popular vote, so clearly this is not a majority reaction, but a stung minority who see him as representative of a change which many of them may not themselves have clearly defined.  That the very progressive measures which one assumes are the meat and bread oppositions of the representatives recently elected passed in so many places suggest that policy is less important in this than a kind of granulated regionalism.

It’s not the kind of argument, unfortunately, that lends itself to clarity, to a clearly defined right and wrong.  Which is what makes the rhetoric so unfathomable at times.

Another Aftermath

Midterms are over.  Many people are freaking over the results.

Here is a list of sixth year losses for sitting presidents from the last century.

1918 – Woodrow Wilson (D): Lost 22 seats in the House, lost 5 seats in the Senate.
1938 – Franklin Roosevelt (D): Lost 72 seats in the House, lost 7 seats in the Senate.
1950 – Harry Truman (D): Lost 28 seats in the House, lost 5 seats in the Senate.
1958 – Dwight Eisenhower (R): Lost 48 seats in the House, lost 13 seats in the Senate.
1974 – Richard Nixon (R) (although Gerald Ford was President when the elections took place that year): Lost 48 seats in the House, lost 4 seats in the Senate.
1986 – Ronald Reagan (R): Lost 5 seats in the House, lost 8 seats in the Senate.
2006 – George W. Bush (R): Lost 30 seats in the House, lost 6 seats in the Senate.
2014 – Barack Obama (D): Lost 13 seats in the House, lost 7 seats in the Senate.

I post this to show that what happened is perfectly “normal” in the sense that American politics are cyclic and adhere to no single view of logic or common sense, nor do they respond to reason.  What we saw Tuesday was part of a trend that every single president who had two consecutive terms has had to deal with.  The only president who did not suffer this was Clinton and that is due largely to the absurd shenanigans of a congress that tried to impeach him and had failed in its ridiculous “contract with America” bid.  It’s tempting to say Newt Gingrich, who seems to only be smart when he is either out of office and not running for office, caused the historic hiccup.

That said, there are other lessons.  We had low turnout.  Of course we did. Less than a third of eligible voters bothered. This also is typical for midterms.

Why?  It’s not like there isn’t enough anger to go around.

Partly, I think we have a problem with perception based not so much on the presumed uselessness of voting in the midterm but on who we are allowed to vote for.  Consider: during presidential years, we have twice or more turnout and naturally congress benefits from this as a matter of course.  As long as people are there to vote for a president, they might as well vote for their representatives and all the other stuff on the ballot.  But the chief goal is to vote for a president, which is national and for whom everyone gets to vote.

Unlike in midterms where you may not vote against someone else’s representative.  To put it more plainly, no one not living in Kentucky can vote for Mitch McConnell’s opponent.  So if you perceive McConnell as a major source of your dissatisfaction with congress, there’s nothing you can do about it unless you live in his state.  So why bother?  Your vote won’t get him out of office.

What about your own state representatives and senators? Like it or not, people tend—tend, mind you—to see less problem with their own representatives, but even with that there’s a certain amount of frustration adhering exclusively to national problems that, I think, depresses and demoralizes voters who feel that just voting in their own small patch won’t really change anything if that guy over there gets re-elected by the folks in his state.  If you can’t affect all of the neighborhood, what’s the point in straightening out the mess in your own backyard?

This still leaves us with the fact that two-thirds of Americans either were too lazy, too ill-informed, or too depressed to bother going to the polls.  Add to that the wrinkle in some states that many people were turned away from polls over some variant of voter ID rules.

Over all this, though, is still the problem of candidate identification with principles.  A lot of Democrats tried to distance themselves from President Obama, seeing too-close affiliation with him as a problem.  The irony is that in those instances where a candidate embraced Obama, those candidates did well.  We saw something similar to this under Clinton.

But that still leaves us with the question of why people seem to be voting against their own interest in so many instances.

Fear certainly.  The one emergent factor of the last few decades of Republican campaigning that seems consistent is the playing on certain rather unspecified fears.  A vote, it is suggested, for the GOP is a vote to bring back things that are under threat.  But what is under threat?  Our way of life?  How so?  Especially in light of the fact that most GOP policies since Reagan have marched in lock-step with a shrinking of the so-called American Dream.  The more we vote for Republicans, it appears, the more we lose of what was supposed to be our birthright.  A strong middle class, upward mobility, job security, and an unquestioned superiority on the international scene.  None of these have seen much in the way of success since Reagan.  Not even under Democrats, which suggests it is not inextricably tied to the GOP, but is a  consequence of a set of factors apart from party politics but which party politics has exacerbated as an issue.  So the troubling reality is just that—reality—but probably isn’t the calamity we have made it.  At worst, we could probably have slowed the losses way down with a bit less panic-driven ideology, at best we could have made some efficacious changes that would have addressed the reality of a changing global situation that would have seen us transformed but better off.  It’s hard to think straight when the alarm is going off in our ears 24/7 by people whose main priority is getting elected and staying in office.

What we very much needed after the Soviet Empire collapsed was a sound management team that would have midwived a shift from a constant war-footing into something resembling the domestic prioritizing of the pre-WWII period.  But that’s not, as they say, “sexy” and it’s difficult to run on the complexities involved in such a realignment.  Instead, both parties sought out and rode power issues, manufacturing new enemies for us to be on guard against, scaring the constituency, and probably hoping we had enough wherewithal to allow for a federal war superstructure despite the fact that we couldn’t really afford to maintain one forever.  Domestic issues would take care of themselves, let the locals handle that, we here in Washington have bigger issues.

And they did.  Primarily that the world was beginning to catch up economically and in some cases pass us by socially.

Here’s where it gets tricky and where I think the real fear being played on comes into it.

The fear played upon is the fear of impotence and loss of identity.  This has been so since the Civil War and, surprisingly enough, it still plays, because in many ways the United States of America is still not One Country.  We are, in some ways, fifty small countries under a single umbrella, which we are proud to claim but bristle when we have to do anything to support.

No?  Consider the irrational outrage over our current president.  Not the policy arguments or the disagreements over ideology—one should expect that and frankly be a bit concerned in its absence—but over Who He Is.

People who think of themselves as Americans voted him into office.  The people who hate him do so from a perspective that defines “America” as their state, their county, their city or town.  They are the same folks who see D.C. as a foreign land and vote against “Washington Insiders” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) and seem to also be those most stridently opposed to immigration reform and frightened about the demographic shift in ethnicity we see happening.

We see the results of this in elections.  The more “national” the election, the less power these folks seem to exercise, but the more local and narrow the more we see something like the Tea Party gain ground.

“As long as America looks like Kansas, everything will all right,” one can hear them say.  Or Oklahoma or Kentucky or Texas.  But the country doesn’t look like Kansas.  Or rather it looks like that plus everywhere else.  And it’s the “everywhere else” that seems to be at issue.

By any metric, Obama has been a successful president.  I resisted the conclusion that his detractors are obsessed with his race, but it seems inescapable.  If he were white his track record would be what people are arguing about, but I see almost no acknowledgment of his accomplishments, only squealing that he is terrible, that he has taken us in the wrong direction, that he is the worst ever.  When asked on what basis, you get either nothing or vague rumblings about Obamacare or taxes, or flat-out untruths.

And yet, when you look at the midterms, it would seem people are not so uniform in their fear, because this was normal.  Look at FDR’s sixth year debacle in the above list.  Or Eisenhower, as a comparison.

So while we may be looking at this and wondering where everybody’s brains have gone, that’s not a fair reaction.  Frankly, if this were intended as some kind of referendum on Obama, it ain’t much of a one.  At least eight of those states were marginal to begin with and have now returned to what is normal for them.  In two years, a slew of senate and house seats are up for grabs and it’s then that we will see whether or not the country has suffered a political lobotomy.  I’ll make my prediction now, that the GOP is going to take a severe licking.  They have defined themselves in too many regressive ways as a party opposed to meaningful reform and one, frankly, of mean-spiritedness.  They have managed to put themselves on the wrong side of history, and if they can only stay in power by virtue of a tepid midterm turnout as the one we’ve just seen, then they are in serious trouble.

But the Democrats need to clean their own stables and stop mealy-mouthing about what they stand for. If fear is the driving force in recent politics, then many Democrats exemplify it by being so frightened of losing their seats that they won’t be the representatives they were elected to be.

So chill.  This isn’t the end of the world, it’s just politics as usual.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be pissed off about it, but it also doesn’t mean it’s the worst that’s ever happened.

For all you people who didn’t vote because, well, there is no good reason.  You bitch and complain all the time and then do nothing.  We have a system that responds to those who operate the controls and the more basic control is the vote.  If you don’t put your hands on the switches, the system won’t work for you, it will work for those who do.

 

 

Vote

Tomorrow is a midterm election day.

I can hear it already.  Yawn.  What is it with progressives and anyone left of Attila the Hun? Don’t you remember what happened at the last midterm?  We had record low voter turnout across the country and in a wide range of close elections—close elections—the Tea Party put enough people in congress to allow for four years of the worst congressional performance in memory.

Let me repeat that.  Close elections.  We had an average turnout of 23 to 27 % of eligible voters and by any metric  Tea Party candidates took seats riding in on around 13 to 15 % of eligible votes.  They declared a mandate and proceeded to screw things up so badly that congress has been getting its lowest approval rating since approval ratings were a thing.

The perversity of the average voter being what it is, the blame has been heaped on (a) the System and (b) the President.

The blame is really on this attitude that midterms don’t matter, coupled with a deep conviction that individual votes don’t matter, with an extra dollop of  “it doesn’t matter, everything is corrupt anyway.”

The blame—really, does this need saying?  Maybe it does.  The blame is on bone-stupid lazy people who are too busy to pay attention and have other things to do which they think are more important.  Bone stupid.  How do you blame a system when you don’t even use it?  How do you blame the president, who many of you voted for, when the problem is congress?  Why is it so hard for people of an even mildly liberal bent or even a moderate bent to understand the importance of midterms and that the problem is not systemic unless you don’t exercise your primary control function?

Vote!  Goddammit, I don’t care who you vote for so much as that you vote!  There are differences between the candidates, but sometimes those differences are not apparent in the ten seconds you’re willing to glance at the platforms!

Some key points to keep in mind.

We know, we have seen, it has been demonstrated that financial sector deregulation does not work to the benefit of the working class.  Yet low turnout tomorrow will result in a majority of those who have been pushing for exactly that.

We know, we have seen, it has been demonstrated that trickle down economics does not work, yet low turnout tomorrow will likely make that the standard for economic policy.

We know, we have seen, it has been demonstrated that education works less and less well when it is defunded and forced to teach to tests rather than teaching to think, yet a low turnout tomorrow will see education shortchanged even more.

We know, we have seen, it has been demonstrated that reform is necessary in several key areas and said reform has been consistently blocked by a loud, ignorant bloc of congressmen who have a nearsighted vision of the future, and yet low turnout tomorrow will hand them a larger mandate—immigration reform, infrastructure funding, science, tax reform, healthcare.

We know, we have seen, it has been demonstrated that corporations have no conscience, do not have the best interests of anyone other than their shareholders in view, and have used every single opportunity to maximize the pillage of our national treasure to the detriment of our citizens, and yet low turnout tomorrow will see an expansion of the view that corporations are somehow People and should be privileged over and above the workers they employ.

Now, it may be that those who read this will think that all those things are generally good things.  Fine.  Vote accordingly.  But if you don’t think that’s the path we should be treading, vote accordingly but for the country’s sake, VOTE!

Naturally, I assume I’m preaching to the choir here, but who knows?  It’s that choir that keeps sitting out the midterms and I’m tired of living with the results of your disinterest.

This has been a personal public service announcement.

Games, Equity, and He-Man Woman Hater Clubs

I do not play games.  I haven’t for decades.  I used to play Trivial Pursuit™ and I still enjoy a game of chess, but both these games are high on the mental acuity charts and low on the following the rules charts.  Sorry, but it’s true—to play Trivial Pursuit™, inane as some of the questions are occasionally, you actually have to know something about, you know, The World and its contents.  That’s why people who read widely and pay attention to things outside themselves do well at it.  Chess requires strategizing way outside the possibilities prescribed by the relatively simple set of rules and works the gray cells and synapses much more thoroughly than the repeatable pattern-following of many games.

Most games bore me, but more than that I am put off by the zero-sum essence of so many of them.  For me to win, someone has to lose, and while that is also true in both chess and Trivial Pursuit™, it is also true that you can play both those games without having that as the primary focus.  Chess is a problem-solving game and Trivial Pursuit™ is about its contents.  That’s my take on both and I’m sticking to it.

Even so, I rarely play either anymore.  The fundamental competitiveness of games puts me off.  I’m not particularly competitive and I have too often come face to face with the ugly side of a player who staked his entire status on winning games.  (I’ve played foosball once.  Once.  Some friends of mine and I happened to be in a bar, toying with trying the game out.  None of us had played it before.  We were approached by a guy who, in retrospect, was a regular and a true foosball fanatic, who offered to play by giving us a fourth.  Well, he was on “my side” and I was terrible.  My friends and I were laughing while trying to figure it out, but this guy damn near punched me out for being so bad.  It was far more to him than “just a game” and I never tried it again.)  For the most part, this is just me and I have no brief on others who are into playing games.  They’re having a good time, life is short, go for it.

So this is about those who make a life out of games, especially those who have chosen to invest in those games everything of value of themselves.  Obsession above and beyond the weekend warrior variety, because for these folks the game is life.

Even with that, there are many gamers for whom more is definitely merrier, they are inclusive, expansive, and social.  I’m not talking about them.

I’m talking about those who are evidently very particular about who gets invited into the clubhouse.

We come now to the ongoing farce known as GamerGate.  I say farce knowing full well that it has, for some, gone way beyond what may normally be meant by that word.  This is not harmless.  This is exemplary of just about everything negative in a certain kind of mindset.  We’re talking elitism, hypercompetitiveness, insensitivity to others, paranoia, exclusiveness in the extreme, and the abandonment of empathy that comes from a psychic insularity bordering on the pathological.

Extreme?

You do not threaten people’s lives and physical safety over a fucking game!

What’s wrong with you?  So there’s a girl who plays games as well if not better than you and she has some suggestions for making it better for more people.  So?  What’s this whole Attila the Hun thing about keeping her out and beating, raping, and maybe killing her if she doesn’t stop criticizing your fucking game?  Did you miss the part that it’s a game?  Didn’t your mother teach you that you don’t make threats to people just because they have a different opinion?

Or are you so terrified of women that you just can’t deal with them inside the clubhouse?

Yes, I’m using the simplest terms and models for this because I just cannot wrap my head around anyone older than nine reacting this way.

Unless, of course, we are dealing with a sociopathology that has somehow found a place within gaming from which to look out upon a world that is nothing less than an absolutely hostile place determined to take away all meaning from your life.

This is basic ingrown immaturity which in order to feel worthwhile at all seeks to define everyone else as in some way less in order for you to feel even nominally worthwhile.  It appears not much more complicated than that, although I will quickly point out that simple heuristics, put in play, can often result in complex manifestations.

It would be perhaps worthwhile to see a full psychological and anthropological work-up on the mentality at work in someone who is so threatened by the presence of a female in their preferred venue of escapism that they would resort to violence to not only prevent the females from entering but to tear them down to a level of complete subservience from which they might never be able to rise again.  Maybe.  But I think it reasonable to say that we’ve all encountered something like this from time to time in individuals who have so little sense of who or what they are that just about anything outside their sphere of understanding demands that they ridicule, revile, and render harmless via full-bore antagonism.  Rather than step outside and find out about something, better for them to shut it down, blow it up, kill it.  Rather than risk the hermetic seal insulating them from any recognition that there are things which they not only lack understanding but which are perhaps more important than the arrangement of furniture in their pyschic den they play a hard and fast game of total destruction on the offending truth.

Game?  Did I say game?  Indeed, because that’s all this is.  The harm comes from the sudden interface with reality that catches them completely unprepared.  The game is all, the game is the world, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world itself was the game.  Simpler, where the rules, as byzantine, myriad, and manifold as they are, could be known, memorized, mastered, and those who did not play by them could be penalized immediately, without any considerations of rights or ethics or pesky maturity.  A place where every eventuality is covered by a rule.

For young males of a certain age and mentality, females seem to conform to no rules, at least none they understand.  The presence of a female is a chaos-making event that is fraught with exactly the kind of uncertainty these males have fought hard to deny.

I say that knowing full well that any individual, of any sex or gender, who is not part of the game represents exactly that kind of potential to upend everything and render all these carefully-wrought rules…inapplicable.  Imagine trying to roll against someone who not only may not know what the die faces mean but who doesn’t care.  Imagine then the sheer terror of rolling against someone who not only knows all the rules you do but intends to change some of them to accommodate factors you joined the game in order to avoid.

The vitriol and childish, tantrum-soaked invective of the GamerGaters is precisely the reaction one should expect from someone in full reality-denial mode who doesn’t want their (artificial) paradigm fucked with.  They doubtless experience similar reactions to males who threaten the model, but it’s harder to tell the males apart.

Women are obvious purely by their appearance.

Is this sounding pathetic?

Here’s something even more so.  That some idiot can publicly threaten violence in a public space and get away with it because the powers that be are too afraid to piss off a different set of Gamers playing by another set of reality-denying rules by doing anything about it.  I’m talking about the Anita Sarkeesian event in Utah, canceled because the university refused to enforce a no-carry policy in an open carry state, and yes, I’m comparing the fanatics backing open carry to the GamerGaters, because they’re exhibiting the same pathology of establishing the parameters of a worldview inconsistent with reality or reason and excoriating anyone who suggests that maybe there are circumstances in which a reasonable alternative to walking around armed every-damn-where might be in order.

Like in the auditorium of a university where there will be a speaker appearing who has been threatened with death if she steps up to the podium.

(Pathology?  What else do you call people who see the blocking of approval of a surgeons general at a time when we may be facing a rather nasty epidemic just because he said some things you find objectionable?  I suggest that the mentality is about the same.)

Others have gone public with rebuttals and denunciations of the GamerGaters, so much of what I have to say is redundant to say the least.  But I’m saying it because I think more males need to get out there with this, that targeting women, because they are women, because you can’t handle dealing with them is pathetic, spineless, and repulsive.  I don’t care what level psionic warrior you are within the cramped confines of your game, if you don’t know how to talk to a girl like a human being and feel so threatened by females that you would rather stay in the monastery of your game than even attempt to accommodate reality, you have nothing.

And under no circumstances is it acceptable to threaten anyone, especially if all they do is suggest your game could be improved.

I realize that GamerGate is comprised of a small group within the large and diverse gaming community, but the structure of these games has the unfortunate effect of granting permissions for obscene behavior in the minds of certain poorly functioning child-men.  In this is it similar to religion, and in a world which is fully aware of the weight of ugliness layered upon women because men have decided what they are and what they may be, no one who has the least interest in something called morality or civilization can tolerate this infantile nonsense.

Admittedly, I have no profound insights here.  There’s actually, in my mind, very little depth involved.  These are people who have mistaken a game for reality and forgot—or never learned—how to behave in public.  Assholes who talk loudly in the movie theater, ruining the experience for everyone, and who ought to be escorted out.  These are the disrupters who sat in the back of the class, fouling the air for everyone else.  The inept wannabes who think it’s cool to drug a girl at a party and rape her, because who the hell wants to actually talk to a girl?  The real question is, why don’t they want to talk to you?  Well, because.

Within their games they are warriors and rulers, wizards and magicians, with many arcane powers.  Unfortunately, outside of the game they’re still ten years old and they haven’t learned how to behave.

But they aren’t ten.  Physically, they’re adults, and living with such illusions makes them just a bit dangerous.

So, guys—yeah, all you males on the sidelines who know better—time to step up and start stating up front that this is wrong, that women are people first and foremost, that venting spleen over someone just having an opinion is the mark of a very poorly developed intellect, and that threatening and abusing women is no longer acceptable.

As for the GamerGaters—I’m reminded of that foosball fanatic who was ready to take me to the parking lot and beat me up because I caused him to lose a game.  Pathetic.  Grow up.  I’ve known magic people and they didn’t get their powers from a fucking board game.  They got them by living life.