As promised, more words.

I haven’t done very much about the political season of late. I’ve been watching it in utter dismay. I am astounded at the circus antics of those who would style themselves as America’s saviors. It’s just possible their intent is to save us from them.

Ben Carson melted down recently, bellowing that Obama didn’t get treated this way. His memory, like everything else, is deficient. But to be fair, Obama gave the sharks less to attack. He behaved like a serious-minded person, offered content, policy ideas, and a grasp of reality that did not lend itself to easy assault unless those mounting the assault intended to do so on the basis of his politics.

So they made shit up. He was born in Kenya. He’s a Muslim. He’s a communist. A variety of lesser things. With an evident lack of ability to attack him on the grounds of political position, they concocted ephemeral bullshit and hoped some of it would stick—as they have continued to do.

Carson has apparently opted to make things up for himself instead of letting others do it for him, and complains when he gets attacked for it. From my perspective, that he has now become the front-runner for the GOP nomination suggests the media has gone easy on him till now, otherwise how could he have reached this point?  When they failed to attack him and focused instead on his chief rival, Donald, he started shoveling out more nonsense to attract the detractors and gain some traction.

As a campaign strategy it may have worked too well.

Really, there are only a couple of things he has said which should have eliminated him from serious consideration long before now.

His comparison of Obamacare to slavery.

No, he did not say slavery was the best thing that ever happened to black people, that was a comment from a satirical website.  But he did suggest Obamacare was akin to slavery because “in a way, it is slavery, because it is making all of us subservient to the government.”

By that thinking, traffic laws make us all slaves.

One might put this down to the hyperbole of political campaigning, and I’m willing to concede that.  In this case, I don’t care, because it is an abuse of language and an insult to morality.  “In a way” nothing is like slavery except slavery, and we need to step back from this kind of comparison.  It’s as bad as labeling any policy you don’t like fascism just because you don’t like it. Or comparing someone to Hitler simply because you disagree with him.  It bends the meanings of those words so out of shape as to render them meaningless.

Besides, the longer the ACA  (Affordable Care Act, not “Obamacare”—this was a law written by congress, not the president, so use the correct labels, please) stands, the more actual citizens like it.  This is not a guess, this is born out by surveys. Oh, and the gargantuan economic meltdown attributed to it hasn’t happened.

It also shows a blatant insensitivity for history, but Carson isn’t the only one who indulges in that.

No, “Obamacare” is not like slavery and by saying that he exhibits a willingness to indulge the basest sort of demagoguery.  And for a doctor to take that line bothers me, since it also shows a disconnect with the realities of his profession.  Now, had he then said “We should go to single payer” then I might listen closer and give him a bit more consideration.

The other thing is this whole magilla about evolution.  He said: “I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the adversary.”

The adversary being Satan.

If you believe in that sort of thing, I can’t argue with you.  It’s bullshit, but belief is one of those non-negotiable things that thrives on disagreement.  The more people tell you you’re wrong, the more noble it is to dig in and believe.  So there is no profit in trying to argue about it.

But that non-negotiable part is worrisome in someone who wants to lead a powerful nation and might be called upon to compromise over fundamental disconnects in ideology in order to preserve, like, the world.  One of the things Obama is continually criticized on by people who think adherence to immovable ideologies is noble is his seeming willingness to compromise. It is seen as weak, poor leadership, etc. It happens to be one of the things I like about him and in that job the ability to listen and accept sometimes uncomfortable differences in pursuit of mutuality and peace is a talent I suspect Ben Carson, if he means this stuff, lacks.

He has made similarly idiotic statements about the Big Bang.

Now, he’s a brain surgeon, which is suppose to be, in certain contexts, code for “really smart.”  I’m not seeing the smart.  He keeps making shit up to gain some kind of street cred among the Party faithful.  That whole thing about being confronted in a fast food restaurant?  True or not, he said of the encounter “Guy comes in, put the gun in my ribs. And I just said, ‘I believe that you want the guy behind the counter.'”  I’m having a hard time seeing how this is any indication of presumed bravery.  He just admitted to telling a robber not to hold him up but hold somebody else up.  Point the gun at the minimum wage worker behind the counter.  Aim that thing at someone else.

He’s a doctor.  What happened to “Above all, do no harm”?  Why not, “This is between you and me, let’s go out to the parking lot” and get the assailant away from others who might be hurt?

I get it, this is supposed to be his Clint Eastwood moment.  But think about it.  He was figuratively and, if he is to be believed, literally stepping behind someone else in the face of personal harm.

Then, we have his recent problems over—wait for it—the pyramids of Giza.

“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. Now all the archaeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big — when you stop and think about it, and I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time — to store that much grain.”

To be fair, he said that in 1998, it is not part of his current campaign strategy to undermine archaeology.  But still, it makes one wonder if he has ever read a book outside of his course studies in medical school. There’s a term for this kind of thing:  pseudoscience.

Now he’s bellyaching about media scrutiny.  What did he expect?  He’s running for president.  There is one school of thought that suggests that personal beliefs should be off-limits in considerations of who should serve in that office.  As far as it goes, I accept that.  But when one opens one’s mouth and reveals it to the world, it kind of stops being only a personal belief, it becomes part of what you want the public to perceive, and an indication of what you think is important for the public to make a choice.

Now we come to the West Point thing.  He claims to have been offered a full scholarship.  What does that mean?

Here are the  admissions requirements . Note, one of the requirements is a nomination from a senator, a representative, or a president.  He would have had to apply.  A “recommendation” from a general would not have been enough.

As for his attitude toward the Black Lives Matter movement, well, it may be a question of style, but it seems perverse.  “I hate political correctness” has become akin to those who claim to hate feminism but without actually understanding what it means.

But he has supporters.  More, it seems, than Trump, which may not be saying much.

There is a deep admiration in this country for so-called plain-speaking, especially when it seems to be in service to challenging the establishment.  But such speech ought first and foremost be linked to intelligence and a bit of knowledge about what windmills you think you’re charging.  The flush of shocked cheering at the presumed independence of someone like Ben Carson should give way to a reasoned apprehension that he also seems to be independent of actual reason in too many areas.  On top of his Party consistent adherence to the standard issue GOP platform, this causes me some amusement and a bit of nervousness that people who would vote for him could be so stump gullible.

And the clown car rolls on.

Mania and the Resignation of Reason

Speaker of the House John Boehner is stepping down.  Old news by now, I know, but I’ve been looking at some of the responses and his own statements in the wake of the decision and while this is not a new opinion on my part I have come to the conclusion that a sizable element of the GOP, especially in the House, are simply batshit crazy.  I no longer believe they have an agenda.  As long as it’s not The Other Guy’s program.  When they announced back in 2009 that they intended to do anything to obstruct Obama, regardless, it was annoying but easy to assume that the more rational members of their party would temper their zeal and business would get done as it should.  And that’s been more or less true.  There are procedural tactics that have always been used by the opposition to appear to reject a policy while allowing that policy to proceed.  The GOP has been relying on them more and more so that the People’s Business can get done even while they must look to their base and present a facade of uncompromising opposition.

Boehner has been wrangling this circus now for almost 5 years.  His rhetoric has often made it seem he is one with the BSC contingent (Bat Shit Crazy people) while his deft handling of floor votes, positions, and other alignments of planets has seen more accomplished than one might expect.  But it’s a shell game and he knows it and it must be wearying to have to continually lead with a false face.

Mind you, I am no fan of Mr. Boehner’s policy stances, but he is far more a mainstream politician than appearances suggest, and he is fed up.

Such has been clear to anyone paying attention for a long time.  He has been undercut, encircled, compromised, and used by the BSC contingent and he has from time to time let it show.  Personally, I think he should have taken the high road and called bullshit on these people while he still held the gavel, but who knows what else he has had to deal with that is not public knowledge which may have stayed his hand.  Certainly he’s talking about them now.

The question I have, and have had for some time, is: what is it the BSC faction wants?  What is it they think they’re going after?

The end of welfare?

The privatization of everything the government does?

The cessation of taxation?  All of it?

The building of a military on par with the levels of World War II?

Complete return of all internal policy to the individual states, regardless of constitutionality?

The establishment of a state religion?

The end of any discussions about things that seem to impede the headlong rush toward American hegemony and domination?  (Including climate science, minority and women’s rights, economic justice, environmental science, and judicial reform?  This list could go on and includes just about everything that constitutes a criticism of business as usual.)

I look at the list, by no means complete, and all I see is a lot of flag waving in the wrong direction and rejection of reality.

No wonder the rest of the world is looking at us in dismay, wondering what ever happened to the Wise America that seemed imminent in the post WWII era.

Boehner is calling bullshit now on his colleagues who, by his assessment, seem to have no clue what this country is all about.  Of course he’s not saying it quite that way, but that’s what it amounts to.  They are living in a land of fever dreams and non sequiturs, refusing to compromise over the simplest things because they believe compromise leads to—

What?  I see vague, indistinct fears voiced.  Socialism?  They don’t appear to know what that is.  If they actually believe Obama is a socialist, they clearly have no idea.  But even so, they seem unaware that we’ve been using socialist tools since the 1930s and what do you know, our spines are still straight, our knuckles do not drag on the pavement, and a good number of us can think.  We have become the largest economy on the planet (whether you believe that’s a good thing is another matter, but the point is they think it is, so how has socialism been a problem?), the most powerful military force in history (again, mileage varies on how one feels about that, but they see this as a positive), and until we started enabling the top 1% to suck all the money out of the economy, we had the highest standard of living on the planet, even while incorporating those evil socialist programs.  Of course, they (the BSC faction) believe that if we’ve slipped on that a little it’s because of those socialist programs, not because they’ve been doing everything they can to enable the pillage of our national treasure, but the problem is they still talk about things as if we still had that position in the world and that we’re about to lose it.

Causation is one of those scientificky concepts they seem not to grasp.

But I don’t know what kind of country they think they’ll have when and if they get their wishes.  From the evidence, I don’t think most of us—including them—would like it very much.  They have no vision that I can see.

What I see is a lot of nativist warmongers who think by handing over the keys to the kingdom to the top 1% everything will be marvelous for them.  They remind me of Grima Wormtongue.

But I believe they are caught up in a mania.  They have no program, because that requires reasoned deliberation, and that has become an enemy to them.  They are headlong rushing toward the eradication of the institutions and people they think are their natural enemies, but it’s panic-driven.  It’s like some dark, twisted form of Beatlemania.  Reasonless and ultimately empty, but in this case even the music sucks.  They are a mob.  You speak reason to them and they do not understand.

They have been told so often and for so long that America needs to be great again and they seem never once to stop and ask what that would look like.

A job for everyone?

No divorce?

Minorities in distinctly small numbers who are nothing but grateful just to be here?

Men calling all the shots and women reduced to sex toys and brood mares?

God plastered all over everything, especially those things that should exist unquestioned?

Industry and invention but no actual science?

And what about all those people who simply don’t fit that kind of construct?

Well, that’s what prisons are for, I suppose…

A large part of the problem is that too many of us, even those of us not charter members of the BSC contingent, live too much by labels.  Even when we seem to be on the “right side” of an issue, very often we don’t know what’s in that issue.  This makes it difficult to argue effectively against people who don’t care about any of that but just want to win.  Win at all costs.

We have some serious issues that don’t get any real air-time.  The presidential debate was a demonstration of how little any of these people  are even aware of them.

For instance, whatever your feelings about the causes of climate change may be, the fact is we’re seeing it, and one of the consequences will be a dramatic redistribution of potable water.  This is already happening.  None of those people even raised the issue.  Of course, we’ve been told our real concern is oil, and consequently we’ve seen this horrible practice of fracking take off, to the quick benefit of  certain shareholders, but also to the gradual detriment of water.  Now, there may well be a lot to be discussed on either side of that issue, but it doesn’t even raise a blip on the radar of presidential campaigning!

For another instance, we have a growing number of displaced workers and a shrinking pool of traditional jobs to absorb them.  If anything gets said at all, it is couched in terms of entitlements and lazy people without a single nod to the fact that we are building our own replacements and jobs are simply not there.  No discussion of it at all on the level of local communities devastated by standard Big Business practices that often obliterate local economies.

Oh, can’t talk about that!  That implies a need for Regulation and we all know that regulation is inimical to growth.


But my point is, these kinds of things, which are real and current and need to be dealt with do not get a reasonable public debate because we’re so damn caught up about someone’s fucking email account or whether angels are real.

I did not side with Mr. Boehner, but he has my sympathy.  He has probably felt like the only rational person in the room most of the time.  He has been bludgeoned by stupidity.

The problem, however, is that the GOP is losing its reasonable members.  They are becoming increasingly shrill because the BSC faction thinks it’s winning because people like Boehner throw up their hands and walk away.  You can only be in the same room with idiocy for so long before you begin to doubt your own sanity.  But it is that shrill, loud whine of lunacy that most people hear and it has the unfortunate attribute of overwhelming everything else.

It would be nice for a change if the quiet, thoughtful ones would stop demurring in the face of what is becoming criminal irrationality.  I kind of like a two-party system, but in order for it to function properly both parties must have credibility.  Right now, judging by the rhetoric and who they have running for the top position, the GOP has no credibility.  Not with me, anyway.  And I don’t think that’s a good thing.


Bernie and the Clown Car

Scott Walker has dropped out of the presidential race. Given another month, all that will remain will be Kasich, Fiorino, and Trump.  Maybe Bush, but even he’s been resorting to hired audiences.  Maybe not Kasich, either, he seems not be doing well, but I’ll address that below.

I thought I’d seen the bottom of the barrel in national politics, but this election cycle is so far bottomless in terms of pointless rhetoric, jeremiads, lies, and crappy spectacle.  I would like to say something serious about the GOP but they haven’t given us anything serious since the season premiered. I felt a bit sorry for Governor Kasich, who in the Grand Debate kept trying to bring the discussion back to policy and serious issues.  Unfortunately, he was upstaged by the Trump Train that kept running over the other clowns tied to the tracks.

What can be said of a roster of candidates who seem so dedicated to being on the wrong side of so much?

When Jeb Bush proposed Margaret Thatcher for the face of the ten dollar bill, it was indicative of so many levels of disconnect from American reality that I believed it could not get worse.  (He called her Ronald Reagan’s “partner.”  This is so revealing of so much that it’s difficult to unpack in one sitting.  In truth, I doubt Jeb really understands just how meaningful that gaff was.)  At least Trump is doing what he’s doing on purpose.

It is difficult to see much merit in the choices.

Bobby Jindal wants to be white (or so it would seem—just look at the official portrait he commissioned recently) and denies that race is an issue.  At a time in this country of surging racial tension, I can only imagine what kind of a message he thinks he’s sending.  (Did you know he took his name from the Brady Bunch?  His real name is Piyush)  This is a new level of misrepresentation, but of what I’m not sure I want to say. On policy he’s demonstrated an anti-immigration bias, but that’s in the news a lot.  Of course he’s an antichoice candidate, he couldn’t run on the GOP ticket if he weren’t, but he also backs a Constitutional amendment for a balanced federal budget.  This issue has come up from time to time.  It’s stupid.  It shows a profound misunderstanding of how government funding works.  A state can have such a law and get by because in times of catastrophe a state can depend on the federal government, but only because the federal government is not prohibited from spending outside its budgetary limits.  Put this in the Constitution and see what happens next time a flood or hurricane produces a disaster that requires federal help.  More than that, though, it would produce serious impediments to our international agreements, treaties, foreign aide programs, and all those ships, planes, and soldiers we keep at the ready in case we need to invade another country or intervene between two other powers for the benefit of the world.  Now, Jindal is actually a Rhodes Scholar, which suggests he’s smart enough to know better—know better about a lot of things—so why doesn’t he seem to get this?  I think he does, which means he misrepresenting the issues, which means he doesn’t think the voters aere smart enough to see through this nonsense, but it also means he’s relying on a base that just might be that uninformed.  And,hell, he’s been given the Duck Dynasty Seal of Approval,so maybe that’s the case.  But its disingenuous.  He’s playing to his base at the expense of the truth, which is pretty much what passes for politics in this country, regardless of party, but it appears this year the GOP has distilled itself down to the true essence of nonsense.

Then there’s the usual roster of absurdities—christians are under attack and he wants laws passed to protect them; he’s opposed t gay marriage; another one who thinks corporations are people and pay too much in taxes, despite the growing evidence that corporations of a certain size are really vampires; and he’s a climate change denier.

Of course, he’s polling at 4%, along with Rand Paul, so why pick on him?

No reason other than he, in one person, exemplifies so much that is wrong with the GOP.

Chris Christie is a vindictive man who has nothing but a gruff manner to recommend him, which is wearing thin finally.

Ted Cruz, for all his anti-immigration rhetoric, has had his own oops moment with the question of nationality.  This wouldn’t be an issue if Cruz hadn’t stoked the fires of the Birthers during his tenure in the senate.  And then that gaff where he mixed up “Keynesian” with “Kenyan.”  Cruz also, along with several of the others, wants to make the Patriot Act permanent.  I’ve already stated how this is one of my biggest disappointments with Obama.  What I will not support is another president who can’t see his (or her) way past this kind of fearmongering and sees something “necessary” in violating the Constitution and our civil rights.

But again, Cruz isn’t polling very strongly.

Carly Fiorino is another of those baffling chimeras the GOP seems to love—a former CEO who cost her companies market share and recovered by firing thousands of people and somehow has made this a virtue.  A business “leader” who is actually rather bad at what she does—unless what she think it’s all about is filling her own coffers, then, yeah, she’s great.  But also, this affection they have for business people, as if that’s any kind of recommendation for high office.  Details aside, there is one fundamental difference between government and business that puts the lie to this idea.  Business, at its base, is about beating the competition.  Governance is about accommodating competing factions.  In practice, the two things couldn’t be more different.  So every time I hear a Ross Perot or a Mitt Romney blow smoke about how their business experience has made them fit for the presidency, I first want to ask How?  And then I realize that they have the wrong idea about what government is all about.  Probably they think that once they get in office they can do something about all those annoying rules and regulations that frustrated them in business and then make it easier for businesses to siphon off resources from the public trough.  Which is pretty much what’s been happening since St. Ronnie and the era of deregulation.  I think it’s fair to say we have subsequently found ourselves in deep doo-doo because of it.

No, if Carly does well with the GOP at all it’s because of another fundamental disconnect—they think because the mood of the country seems to favor a woman for president, any woman will do.  They made that mistake with Sarah Palin and that scotched their last chance of electing a serious politician to the White House.

And what can be said of Ben Carson, who seems to think African Americans didn’t have it so bad as slaves?  No, I don’t really think he believes that, but it fell out of his mouth, so I have to wonder at the filters he has in place or what really goes on in that skull of his.  Here is a doctor, at least putatively a man of science, who thinks evolution and the Big Bang are inventions of Satan.

Trump is doing well in all this because he is an honest clown.  So far I have not heard one thing he has said that did not come first from the mouth of another GOP face, although couched in more arcane and abstruse rhetoric. He has stripped away the Newspeak  and is simply reporting what, for many people, the GOP has come to stand for.  His misogyny is in line with the voting records and speeches made in opposition to women’s rights we’ve been listening to for decades now.  His immigration remarks reflect the growing nativist sentiment of the party.  His view on the economy is completely in the fold as are his views on taxation.  He is a vulgar, selfish ideologue shouting his message in catchy phrases not quite but almost at the level of what one could find on lavatory walls in truck stops across the country.  He is an outsized, tasteless, gauche demagogue who cannot be argued with by the others on the debate platform because they believe that stuff, too, they just don’t want to say it like that.

Trump is, if he keeps going, handing the next presidency to the Democrats.

The only solution for the GOP is to clean house of all the mean-spirited, small-minded, myopic idiocy that keeps shouting down reason and common sense and find a candidate that speaks to the issues as if he or she actually has a grasp.  I mentioned Kasich.  Not my favorite guy, but he is more reasonable than the rest.  But like past also-rans (I know, he hasn’t dropped out yet, but he can’t compete with the ones fighting for the steering wheel of the clown car, he will) the one GOP candidate that might save the Party and possibly begin to steer it back toward some semblance of rationality has no chance because the screaming hordes cheering on Trump and who would have preferred a Cruz won’t—possibly can’t—listen.  They have been told for decades that the evil Democrats will destroy their country and they just can’t seem to get past that.

And the Democrats?  Most of them seem to be stuck in the “let’s just keep the ship on course and worry about where we’re going once the storm is past” mode.  They will do less damage.  They might, if there is a thorough turn-over in congress, do something worthwhile.

Right now I’m backing Bernie.  I’m too cynical to believe he win the nomination—tricks and deals and smoke-filled rooms have a way with people like him—but so far he’s saying things I find more relevant to the world than any of the others.  And who knows, he could be this century’s Andrew Jackson in terms of a populist revolution.  (No, I do not think Bernie Sanders is in any way like Jackson, just in case any of you who read this might decide I’m making any kind of policy comparison—as far as I’m concerned, the only thing Jackson did came before he took office in terms of expanding the franchise.)

And, really, I think the business-as-usual crowd should be worried—Bernie got applause at Liberty University, of all places, even while maintaining his convictions on an issue which there, of all places, one would think would get him nothing but boos.

As for the GOP, I’m watching the retrenchment of stupidity and ignorance, all because they hate—-I can think of no more accurate word—hate President Obama.  I do not understand.  These are the people who are supposed, by virtue of their election to high office, be above that, but after seven years I can conclude nothing less.  They hate him.  Institutionally.  When he’s gone, I worry that they will do something with that hate other than shed it.  What will be their next target?

Well, there are already several they seem ready to go after.  Some they already have.

Dear Anonymous

Sir (or Madam, as it was not clear from the lack of signature which you may be),

Thank you for your note of the Nth instant concerning your feelings about our organization’s position regarding the current crisis in our community.  The strength and sincerity of your position are well represented in the brevity of your declaration that you will cease to do business with us due to our public stance.  As you may know, the open exchange of ideas is central not only to our own philosophy but to the very identity of our community and country.  Unless we know, unless we can discuss and debate, unless we can openly disagree and engage with each other and, in time, find common ground based on such free exchanges, we cannot move forward, we cannot improve, we cannot redress grievances or attend to injustices.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that you chose to send your note anonymously.

You place me at a disadvantage, since obviously you know how to directly communicate your sentiments to me but I have no recourse to reply other than by public pronouncement.  I can only conclude that you have no interest in my response, and so also conclude that this was not the sincere offer to engage that it might seem at first brush.

Why is that?

Well, perhaps there is a clue in what you chose to say to me.

You have declared that you find my—and my organization’s—position partisan, that I have failed to see a “bigger picture” by not including irrelevancies in my stated position, and that I am therefore “fueling hatred” by supporting only one side of the issue.  You claim that by not opening out a larger umbrella that includes so many factors that the basic point of my argument would be lost in the muddle that I am an agent of chaos.

You finish by declaring that you will never do business with us again.

Since I don’t know whether you have ever done business with us in the first place, as you failed to identify yourself, I have no way of knowing how much of a loss this may (or may not) be.

However, I’m sure you have your reasons for remaining anonymous.  Possibly many reasons.  So, be that as it may, I will address myself to your detailed charge that I and my organization may be  “fueling hatred.”

The hatred is already there.

Let me see if I can explain this by an analogy.  “Fuel” suggests a fire, which seems apt in this case, so—

If a particular house is on fire and the fire department has yet to be called, if I start a campaign pointing out that a house is on fire in order to bring the firefighting strength of the community to the scene and put it out, then why would you try to undermine that by pointing to all the other houses that are not burning and complaining that the blazing house is getting preferential treatment when everyone knows “All Houses Matter”?  If you’re successful, then the fire department will spray water all over everywhere and likely fail to put the fire out in the one house that is burning.

Of course, the problem with that is, since the fire will not then be out, it will likely spread to all those other houses which received a then-unnecessary dousing.

My declaration that “This House Matters” on the other hand points to the problem and it can, hopefully, be dealt with directly and thoroughly, before all those other houses are engulfed.

There is no logic in your opposition to my campaign.

Unless you don’t want the fire in that house extinguished.  Unless you want it burned to the ground so you don’t ever have to think about it again.  Unless you don’t regard the people living in that house as worth the same consideration as the residents of all those other houses.

Surely not.  That would be cruel.  That would be—how shall I say this?—discriminatory.  That would be the position of…

But, surely not.  Surely you are not so bereft of human sentiment as to wish ill upon people you probably don’t know.  You would have to not know them to think that way, because surely if you did know them then you would be even less endowed with the compassion necessary to live profitably in a community.

Ah, not your community?  Well, that’s just a matter of perspective, isn’t it?  Perspective and border grids?

But, as I say, surely not.

Maybe you simply object to someone interrupting your tranquility by summoning a gaggle of loud firefighters into your neighborhood.  After, your house isn’t on fire, why should you have to put up with the noise and inconvenience of saving someone else’s house?  And, really, shouldn’t they have paid closer attention to their house so that it didn’t catch fire in the first place?  Obviously, it’s their fault, otherwise the house wouldn’t be on fire.

And me?  You object to me calling attention to the fire?  Because it may spoil your weekend plans?

Logically, then, there are two conclusions.  Either you don’t believe you should sacrifice your peace of mind in the cause of putting out the fire…or you want the fire to run its course.

I suppose it’s possible that you don’t believe there actually is a fire.  That’s possible.  But then why object when someone points out to you that there is?

Is it possible you could feel responsible for that fire?

This analogy has run its course.  Obviously we’re not talking about houses on fire—although that has been a part of this—but people who are living in conditions less than ideal.  And through no fault of their own, are being abused for having to live in those conditions.  Or, even less comfortably for you, abused simply for being who they are.

Which is sort of similar to what you’re doing to me and my organization.  I—we—have taken a position of conscience.  Because this is who we are.  You are objecting to that and threatening us as a result.  Just because of who we are.

What is more, a part of you knows you’re wrong.  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any of this anonymous nonsense.  You want me to know how very strongly you disapprove of what I do but not strongly enough to sign your name to the disapproval.

Another possibility is that you feel compelled to take part in this debate but you don’t have anything useful to say.  You resent that, you resent being made aware of problems you’ve probably been ignoring all your life—or never believed were problems—but now that there is an argument, you really want to take part in it, but there is nothing—nothing—in your background, your lived experience, your education, or among your family or friends that would provide you with one constructive thing to contribute.  Saying nothing is not an option, because then you wouldn’t be in on the action, so…

That would be kind of juvenile, though, don’t you think?  Not knowing how to build something and feeling left out, you do the one thing you know how to do—throw a brick at someone else’s building.

No, surely not.  Surely you aren’t that bereft of options or compassion.

But you felt the urge to threaten.  Why?  You felt the need to try to obscure a problem and make it seem not so important.  Why?  You felt the need to get angry at the people calling in the fire department instead of taking your place in line at the bucket brigade.  Why?

I am left finally with the one conclusion that makes any sense to me, given the paucity of clues with which I have to work because you have chosen not to engage in a dialogue but instead throw a brick—a paper one with words on it, but a brick nonetheless.  That, in it’s simplest terms, you have caught yourself looking into the mirror I’ve helped hold up and you don’t like what you see.  You hate me now for showing you a glimpse of yourself you thought long buried and forgotten.

To once more use the house analogy, while you may not have set the fire, you probably stood on the sidelines with a bag of marshmallows and a long stick.

I’d rather not think that of you but there’s no way for me to know otherwise, because you’ve chosen to show me this and nothing more.  I can’t discuss it with you.  I don’t know you.

You don’t know me, either.  And evidently, you don’t want to.

And that is where the problem begins and finally ends.

Sincerely yours…

….but you already know who I am.


I Don’t Read That Stuff

What follows is a completely personal, wholly biased view.

On average, I read between four and seven books a month.  That’s cover to cover.  From time to time I have a month wherein I manage ten to twelve, but that’s getting rarer.  Between four and seven is what it comes out to and at that rate I’m reading fifty to eighty books a year.

I put that out there so that what follows may make more sense than the usual kind of argument about taste in reading matter and why I don’t wish to waste time on certain things.

I’m sixty, which means I have maybe fifteen, maybe thirty years left to do the things I want to do, and I’m getting picky about what fills my time.  Too much trivial nonsense does simply because that’s the way life is.  And it’s hard to break habits made when you were much younger and it felt like time was plentiful.  I’m not being morbid, just practical.  Trivia has a function.  Upon trivia, friendships cement, the culture binds itself together, and the time between important things is bridged with something that at least keeps us engaged.

Anyway, given all this, plus the very important fact that I’ve been reading books (without pictures) since I was eight years old (at least—and I’m not, believe me, being critical of comics, I actively read them till I was 18 or 19 and still consider them worthwhile) and my tastes have…

I was going to say, “my tastes have changed,” and that’s certainly true, but it’s just as if not more accurate to say my tastes have evolved.  I still like the same kind of things I did way back, but not in the same form I did then.  When I was 12, the Lensmen were the ne plus ultra of fiction, the absolute coolest of the cool. Today? Not so much.  But I still love space opera as a form.  Only now I want a better example, language pitched to my level or higher, and maybe some subtext and a story that isn’t just about finding the next biggest weapon to defeat the slimy aliens but maybe tells me something interesting about human nature under unique conditions, which means characters that inhabit more than two dimensions.  While I can’t get through Triplanetary anymore, I can still read Delany’s Nova or Iain Banks’ Culture novels with pleasure.  Why?

No single reason, but a constellation of them resulting in what we start to recognize as serious literature.  The fact is, I pick up Embassytown by China Mieville and I have an experience which simply cannot be duplicated by—

Ah, there’s a problem.  We verge now on comparisons.  And that gets tricky, because I don’t wish to denigrate anyone’s work.  I have always tried to address the different pleasures of fiction, top to bottom, without resorting to saying So-and-So is great while Such-and-Such is crap.  For one thing, a lot of people may very much like Such-and-Such and by calling it crap I am by definition saying they have bad taste.  It becomes elitist in a particularly counterproductive way.

For another, this hasn’t much to do with what one likes.  That word covers a lot of territory and means many vague things having to do with pleasure. No one has cause to say anyone’s pleasure is somehow less important because of its position on some presumed scale of relative value.

But that’s not the same as claiming all experiences are of equal merit.  All books are not the same and yes, some are better than others.  “Like” has little to do with those assessments, though.

A well prepared filet mignon is obviously “better” than a hamburger from a fast food chain.  The fact that McDonalds has sold billions upon billions is not an assessment in any way that their burgers are better than the steak you’ll be served at a five-star restaurant.  Popularity is not an endorsement of quality.

A rough comparison at best, but I make it to establish the idea that while you may eat more burgers than filet mignons garnished with champignon mushrooms, you know the difference and you also know it’s a question of experience that allows us to recognize the distinction and understand it.  You’re going to have a deeper culinary experience with the latter.

Unless you have no taste at all and can’t tell the difference.  That’s certainly possible and by the evidence of certain groups would certainly seem the case.

Enough with the culinary analogy, let me get back to choice of reading material.  What I do not read any longer has to do with opting for the deeper experience.  I read slowly, relative to some, and I don’t have time to tear through mediocre books.  I have developed to the point where Doc Smith just doesn’t do it for me any longer.  I mean, the ideas are great, the seeds of later pleasures, but the execution is pitched to the bright 12-year-old and eschews any kind of nuance.  For one thing, you begin to notice eventually, if you read with any kind of acuity, that while we’re all in the far future, everyone acts and talks as if they lived in 1932 Brooklyn.  Even the aliens.  If it were satire, I could understand, but it’s not, it’s meant to be taken seriously.  And, really, it’s the far future and everyone (even the aliens) is so white.

I want something special.  I want my synapses engaged as fully as possible.  If I have to do a little work to understand the full substance of a sentence, great, especially if the work pays off exponentially.

Which has resulted in a long, gradual drift away from the slam-bang of what once represented the bulk of my reading choice toward material that causes me to react in ways I find much more satisfying.

Some books require more from a reader.  The reader has to rise to the level of the book.  Experience teaches us to recognize these books when we find them—and sort them out from those that may be obtuse just for the sake of hiding their lack of anything to say—and experience also gives us the desire to have those experiences.  Which, perhaps unfortunately, leaves us unsatisfied with less nutritious fare, fare which once filled out requirements.

This is akin to growing up.  You just don’t find the things that fulfilled you as a kid to be all that wonderful as an adult.

Assuming we’ve grown up.

Okay, I am here at the point where I either have to give a concrete example or leave this whole thing a vague, kind of hand-wavy bit of stuff with the message so buried as to be useful only to those of an archaeological bent.  Ordinarily, I would not feel I need to do so, but given events and circumstances in my genre of first love—science fiction—maybe I should just bite the bullet and go for it.  After all, names have already been named and assertions made and being polite to the point of swallowing meaning serves no useful purpose.

I will not, however, name names.  If I do, it will be those who are long dead and whose day is past. Unlike some who have dragged the discourse that is science fiction to the level of a political convention floor fight, I will not point at specific works currently in play in order to say “Here be crap” and make the bones of my argument on the unnecessarily scoured sensibilities of people who toil earnestly at their craft.

Earnestness does not inoculate anyone against doing mediocre work.  Nor does it guarantee exemplary work.

What do I mean by mediocre writing?

Writing that exhausts itself by one reading, fails to fulfill the potential of its ideas, and/or rests upon cliché to make the page turn.

Good writing by contrast allows for multiple readings from which deeper meaning and new interpretations  can be derived.

Sometimes you can see the difference sentence by sentence.  Often scene by scene, chapter by chapter.

When you’re 12 years old, the better writing may leave you baffled, because it is not always straightforward and single-pointed.  So no one should feel bad for not getting Joseph Conrad at that age.

I pick Conrad because he wrote rousing adventures.  But they are so much more than that, and it’s that so much more that has seen his works continue to be published, read, and appreciated by large audiences.  Once you’ve internalized the sea-going thrills and fighting in something like Lord Jim you find that, upon further or more careful reading, there is so much more.  And that so much more actually calls into question the heroic æsthetic of the surface read and causes—presumably—a deep reflection on the the meaning of heroism—and cowardice—and the mythic templates we accept that define them.


Well, if you’re bored by such contemplations, then stick with action-adventure.

If beautiful sentences bore you or you are blind to them, stick to simple plot-thickening prose.

If you are not emotionally moved in ways other than by pure adrenalization, then stick to the slam-bang thrills and avoid anything that talks about the soul in multiple ways.

(If you can read Dante’s Inferno and believe that it has anything to do with the afterlife, then stick to work more facile and less steeped in metaphor.  You will do less disservice to Dante and perhaps yourself.)

In short, if a sentence like “It was strange that even sex, the source of so much solace, delight, and joy for so many years, could overnight become an unknown territory where he must tread carefully and know his ignorance; yet it was so*” reads like gibberish, seems pointless, or causes the kind of reaction that refuses to allow for the possibility that more is going on here than simply your inability to decode meaning and apprehend the layers involved, then you may have reached your limit with sentences like “What he really needed was a session with a pleasure unit in order to clear his mind for the ordeal ahead.”  If you can’t understand why the former sentence is a richer text, revelatory of character in ways that the latter sentence simply not only fails to be but in some ways actively resists being, then—

But I border now on insult.  In light of the current kerfluffle going on in the field, it’s hard not to, though.  The essential nature of science fiction is being challenged, all in the name of what appears to be a petty rejection of message.  As if science fiction has not always been message fiction.

In terms of plot and idea, if calling into question the basic assumptions by which civilization, culture, and the very lives we lead promises to be an impenetrable drudge, then I have to wonder why you claim to like science fiction at all.  Because that’s what it’s all about, dislodging the reader from cozy assumptions of self-justified rightness.  And no, stories wherein humanity must wage war against an alien race in order to preserve an identity which goes largely unquestioned do not represent the chief benefit of the form.  The physiognomy and bloodlust of the aliens is exciting for only a brief time if there is nothing more to the story.

Yes, I’m indulging a bit of elitism here.  I have nothing against well-done action stories.  I read one recently that offered, or at least promised, a nice twist on the formula, but then failed to deliver and turned into a pat good-guys-cleverly-defeating-alien-menace-with-cool-explosions story.  I enjoyed the ride but will never read that book again.

And that’s okay.  It was even well-written in terms of character, exposition, pacing.  It’s not a question of condemning things just because they aren’t Dostoevsky.

But using the author of Crime and Punishment as an example, to argue that work deserves an award precisely because it isn’t Dostoevsky is a seriously flawed idea, especially when the award in question is supposedly for the Best of Field.  We give awards to the Dostoevsky’s in order to set bars and celebrate potential, not congratulate ourselves for reveling in mediocrity.  To insist that the better work is undeserving because it does things differently from the usual is a statement of adolescent resentment.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the source of the spleen.  It’s not that SF is message fiction, but the message being conveyed that has sparked all this contention—and who is delivering it.

It can be asserted that overall, since 1926, a good deal of SF, especially of the planetary romance and interstellar adventure variety, has been, in subtext if not overtly, imperialist.  Brave Earthmen venturing forth to conquer and pacify an alien and maleficent universe.  By default if nothing else, most of those high principled adventurers have been white males.  That aspect wasn’t the main point of the choices made, just the default assumption based on current standards of perceived merit.  John W. Campbell, jr. was an unapologetic champion of this ethic, so much so that he eventually annoyed many of his best writers with his chauvinism.  Nevertheless, the model stuck, because it allowed for the continual generation of really cool stories.

Came a time, though, when we finally became a bit more introspective and realized how parochial much of it was, how chauvinistic, and, yes, how racist much of it was.  So, like any healthy art form, stories began appearing that questioned these assumptions.

And the questioning resulted in a lot of really cool stories.

It may be that some folks still like the old ideas and forms so much and, coupled with a weariness of continual reassessment and moral reevaluation, yearn nostalgically for days of unquestioned heroic virtue, that the current noise in opposition to what has been derogatorily labeled as the work of Social Justice Warriors is just their way of stamping their feet and demanding unequivocal action adventure of the so-called Golden Age variety.  From some of the sales numbers I’ve seen, there is a healthy market for such stories.

Speaking personally, though, please don’t try to tell me work built guilelessly on discredited values and outgrown sentiment is award worthy—and by that I mean exemplary of the best, indicative of the future, and representative of the limits of possibility.

I end this now because I am coming perilously close to venting spleen and getting personal.  I’ve watched this advent over the Hugo Awards with dismay and bewilderment.  There has been too much doubling down on false pretense and too much empty fury and not enough genuine debate over what is actually at issue in terms of the work.  Those who have brought this to fruition have placed many of their colleagues in unfortunate situations for no good purpose, or at least for purposes poorly stated if not seriously misrepresented.  If, by their lights, the “wrong” work wins a rocket this year and they continue to erupt in fury over a perceived injustice in the direction of the field, then in my opinion they seriously misunderstand the nature of the endeavor of which they claim a share.

In any event, I have looked at the work at issue and, from a purely personal vantage, like so much else in what is too little time to spare, I have to say, I just don’t read that kind of stuff anymore.



*Okay, I’ll name one name.  That sentence is from The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, whose works I suspect, were they being written and published today would bring down the disdain of those who have made loud and gaseous cause over “social justice” fiction.

Sandblasting History

A call has gone out to eradicate the carvings on the face of Stone Mountain in Georgia.  The work depicts Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, presumptive heroes of the Confederacy. In the wake of movements to remove Confederate iconography from government buildings, parks, and other, especially federal, properties, this would seem to be another symbol of the co-called Lost Cause in need of removal.  Sentiment is running high on both sides of the argument and a quick read of the issues would suggest that, yes, this ought to be removed.  It’s in a public park, supported by tax dollars, and represents three personages one could easily label traitors to the United States.  As far as it goes, I have no quibble with the labels.

The carving is another matter.  On Facebook I recently opined that this is like the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas in Afghanistan. An extreme comparison, perhaps, but the more I think about it the more I’ll stand by it. In a few centuries or more, when all this is part of some dusty chapter in history books with little left to stir the blood, it may well appear more like the usual eradication of the loser’s history by the victors.  A history people then might well be annoyed at not having to hand.  It will by then just be an interesting carving.  The politics will likely have faded into quaintness (we can only hope) and the judgment will be that temper trumped reason and a work of art was destroyed to appease the passions of the moment.

I doubt that argument would have any traction with either side just now—those wanting it effaced who see it as emblematic of current (and past) injustice and those wanting it preserved feeling their heritage is being tossed aside with no regard for feelings.  My suggestion that preserving for a later time when it has lost all immediate meaning may seem facile and probably will find offense on both sides—those who may see my position as a negation of their outrage or those who see my demotion of its symbolism to mere novelty over time.

But what about all those other emblems being removed?  What about that?  Well, what about that?  They’re being removed, not destroyed.  Those who appreciate them will not have lost them, but they in fact have no place as part of the representative symbols of our country.  The Confederacy was a rebellion against elected authority, it lost, and is now gone.  Heritage is a personal thing but it has a public function, certainly.  However, public heritage is a matter of democratic symbolism, not the maintenance of symbols of a presumed right subsequently proven nonexistent.  A government building may (and does) have as part of its function to represent a national mythology (and when I use that word I intend no denigration, but rather a definition that what is being represented is a distillation of feeling, committment, and identity that transcends mere event, indeed which exists usuall in spite of event) relevant to us all as a commonwealth.  However earnestly it may be construed, the Confederacy represents nothing we are required to preserve in any positive iconography.  Its existence was a perversion of the core beliefs informing the Union as codified in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  It could well be said that the Civil War represented the final referendum on the principles espoused in the Constitution, and those principles won.  This is the reality with which we live today.

I digress, but with purpose. The symbols of the Confederacy are being removed from government property, finally relegated to places and in the keeping of hands with no official function in the representation of the United States.  Removed.  Not destroyed.

I think that is a very important distinction.

Destroying monuments is, in my opinion, like burning books.  Even something as vile as Mein Kampf I would refrain from destroying.  Destruction like that—the purposeful attempt to eradicate a symbol of history—invites a peculiar kind of martyrdom.  It makes the symbol into something it did not start out to be and gives it new life and meaning.  It becomes a different, though kindred, cause celebre and then you have to figure out how to fight that new fire.

Kemal Attaturk wanted his country to be secular, out of the hands of the imams.  He knew better than to destroy the mosques, because then he would have created a monster he could never kill. Instead he turned them all into museums. Nothing was destroyed but they lost their power to fuel rebellion.  When the Soviet Union fell, all the statues and monuments were taken down.  A few may have been destroyed, but officially they were all simply removed and placed in a kind of graveyard where they have become the ghosts of a discredited era.  Not symbols of a lost cause waiting to be rallied around.

It would be best if the Stone Mountain carving could be removed.  Hard to move a mountain, though, so it becomes a thorny logistical problem.  Maybe the state could auction it off to a private owner.  But I would rather it remain to outlive its putative symbolism than be sandblasted and thereby become, Phoenix-like, a symbol for a renewed set of tensions.

When the Taliban dynamited those Buddhas, the world was shocked.  Attempts had been made to dissuade them.  The Buddhas had for most the world long since ceased being religious icons and were just seen as art.  It was senseless to destroy them, especially out of the anger of a shortsighted ideology that will likely fade into oblivion in time.  By the time the Taliban have become a footnote in a history text for all their other crimes, the destruction of those Buddhas may continue to represent everything about them.  We rightly decry the loss of so much art at the hands of missionaries burning their way through Central and South America.  The brilliance of church art from the Middle Ages has few examples remaining in place because of the temper of the iconclasts of the Reformation and the Clunaic movement.  All these people thought they were fighting evil and by their lights were right to eradicate these symbols.  They did cause themselves more problems by so acting, sometimes in the short run, often enough in the long run.

To be clear, I have zero sympathy with the romanticism of the Confederacy and the dewy-eyed revisionism of the antebellum South.  It is accurate to say the seceding states committed treason.  I will take my lead from Lincoln, though, who did not and would probably not have gone there.  Hard as it was, he saw them as misguided, strenuously arguing a case that had no merit but needed arguing.  The aspects of Reconstruction that exacerbated the animosities the War created probably would not have been part of his policy had he lived, but by treating them as, in toto, traitorous states in need of occupation and “rehabilitation” created the subculture which today struts like a barnyard cock with nothing to do but crow and has become fodder for opportunistic politicians feeding on the poorly understood sense of victimhood based on borrowed wounds.  Rather than give them one more thing to be angry out, it would be better to simply ignore them until they become a forgotten irrelevance.  The pathetic attempt to assert the secession was all about “state’s rights” rather than slavery is so clearly an attempt to rewrite history—history which is right there in all the various declarations of secession, justification number one, the presumed right to keep their slaves—that it would be sad if it weren’t getting people hurt on the streets.

Make Stone Mountain into a teachable moment.  Put up a sign right there that says “These Three Men Acted Stupidly In Support of an Immoral Cause” and talk about it.  And talk about the people who can’t see the truth in that claim, the people who erected a monument to stupidity.  That might serve our purpose much better than just erasing them.  Because we’ll do that and then many of us will assume the argument is over and then later be very surprised to find out that it was only the beginning of a new one based on the same old tired ignorant nonsense.

Finally, if we’re going to get all righteous about Stone Mountain, maybe we might consider that the original owners don’t think too much of Mount Rushmore.

Freedom and Those People Over There

It’s the Fourth of July.  The national birthday party.  On this day in 1776 was the official reading of the Declaration of Independence, when the Thirteen Colonies broke from Great Britain and began the process of forming a nation. In the 239 years since we as a people have engaged an ongoing and often contentious, sometimes violent conversation about the one thing we like to say distinguishes us from every other people or nation or country on the globe:  Freedom.

Contentious because everyone means something different when they use that word. We do not agree on a common definition.  This isn’t a deep, difficult to understand reality, we simply don’t.  Put any group of people together from different parts of the country and have them talk about what they mean by Freedom and while certain common ideas bubble, once you get into the details you find divisions, sometimes deep.

Clearly for most of the first century, as a nation, we had a pretty limited notion of what it meant.  It meant freedom for a certain few to do what they wanted at the expense of others.

So native Americans didn’t have it, nor did slaves, nor, for the most part, did women. Even a white skin on a male body didn’t guarantee one equal consideration, because money and property were important, and, to a lesser extent, natural born versus immigrant, language, and religion.  We, like any bunch of people anywhere, fell into groups and competed with each other over privilege and those who came out on top extolled the virtues of freedom while doing what they could, consciously or not, to limit it for others who might impose limits on their success.

This is not controversial.  This is history.  We’re human, we can be jerks like anyone else.  What makes it awkward for us is this widely-held belief that we are unfettered supporters of Freedom.

In the simplest terms, we claim to be free when we feel no constraints on preferred action.  So if you’re going on along doing what you like to do and no one tells you that you can’t, you feel free.  If, to complicate things a bit, someone passes a law that says Those People Over There may not do something you have no interest in, well, you don’t feel any less free and may wonder why they’re complaining about being oppressed.  After all, you’re free, you don’t have any complaints, and that makes this a free country, so stop bitching.

Naturally, if someone passes a law that says you can’t do something you either want to do or makes claims on your resources in order to support such rules, now you feel a bit less free, imposed upon, and maybe complain yourself.  Of course, Those Other Folks Over There are quite happy about the new law and themselves feel freer as a result, so they look at you now as the sore thumb sticking up.

But it still involves questions of constraint, which is what the law is about, and we agree in principle that we need laws.

If we need laws to restrain—to tell us what we can and cannot do—doesn’t that immediately beg the question of what it means to be free?  I mean, the libertarian line would be that I’m a grown-assed adult and I can control my own life, thank you very much, you can keep your laws.

What if your desire for unconstrained action puts a burden on other people?

What if, to make a big but logical leap, your sense of freedom requires that others have less than you or, to put it back at the beginning, that some people be ownable? You know: slaves.

That the Founders built it into the framework that slavery could not only exist within the borders of this new “land of the free” but that it was illegal to discuss the issue in Congress for twenty years might cause us to ponder just what they meant by Freedom.

And it did take over a century before the laws began to change concerning women and property. Was a time a wife was legally owned by her husband—her, her body, and all her associated belongings—and could be thrown out with nothing but the clothes on her back if the marriage went sour. That doesn’t even take into account that it wasn’t till 1919 that women could legally vote.

How does this fit with our self-congratulatory view as the freest nation on Earth?

Well, we say, that was then.  This is today and we’re not like that.

Aren’t we?  Then why are we still arguing—loudly—over questions of equality, and in several areas of concern?

I put these out there to leaven the uncritical jubilation over what really is a worthy aspect of this country.

What the Founders implicitly recognized was the multifaceted and often conflicting perceptions people will inevitably bring to this question.  They may well have held some overarching, abstract view as to what Freedom meant but they knew such could not secure the kind of stability necessary for a viable nation.  Absolute freedom would destroy us just as surely as absolute tyranny.  So they set up a framework in which we as a people would continually argue about it, and by extension demonstrated that it was this freedom to hash it out that they saw as the most relevant, the most viable, and in the end the only practicable way of securing individual liberty over time.  They built into it all the nearly sacred idea that we can say and think what we please and set up fora wherein we could express ourselves without authoritarian retribution.

That was the idea, at least.  Like everything else they put in place, it hasn’t always played out that way.  McCarthy wasn’t the first one to send a chill through the republic to make people afraid of ideas.

We are, however, free to argue.  Sometimes we have to bring ridiculous force to the table to make an argument, but at the individual level we can go to our various barbecues this weekend and have it out on any topic without fear that some censorious official will show up at our door next week to take us to a room and be questioned about our beliefs.  There have been times when even this was not a guaranteed freedom, but over all this is what the Founders decided on as the most efficacious form of freedom to protect.  They arranged things so the suppression of the freedom to have an opinion could end up fueling a political movement and take the argument into the public arena where it can be further debated.

But this also means we have to learn to privilege the freedom of expression and thought over any other.

And it’s hard. It is damn hard.

Follow the comment threads of any heated or controversial post anywhere—the equivalent today to Letters to the Editor in other periods—and you can see that many people just don’t get that.  It frightens them.  Why?  Because it’s fluid.  Because it means things change.  Because it calls into question what they thought were absolutes.  Because they grew up thinking their country was one thing, unchanging, ordained by divine testimony, and their sense of freedom is based on holding to those absolutes and defending them from those who would see things differently.  Flux, change, revolution.

They came to believe that all the work was already done and everything would be fine  except for Those People Over There, those…those…malcontents.

Forgetting, of course, that the whole thing came from the minds and labor of malcontents.

We come away from our youthful education about 1776 with the belief that the war was the revolution, but this is not the case.  It was the war for the revolution, which is what came after.  The revolution was the process of setting up a new form of government and establishing a framework distinct from what had gone before. 1787 was the year of revolution.  The Constitution was ratified by the delegates to the convention on September 17, 1787.  It then had to go before the individual states for final acceptance, which was not finished till May, 1790, when the last state, Rhode Island, voted to accept it by a two vote margin. Those two and half years were the actual revolution, because revolution brings us the new.  In a way, 1776 was little more than a decree to stop sending the rent to England and a statement that we were willing fight over the right to have a revolution. The war was not the revolution, it only allowed the revolution to happen.

And what was that sea change in the affairs of people?  That the people would choose their leaders?  Not an especially new idea—kings had been elected before (in fact, the Thirty Years War began over just such an election)—but here it would be the way we would always choose our leaders.  The mechanism by which we made that choice, now, that was based on the revolution, which was folded into this rather imprecise notion of Self Determination. But it rests ultimately on the sacred right of each one of us to disagree.

It is by disagreement—loudly and publicly, but beginning privately and from conscience—that we move toward that other nebulous concept “a more perfect union.”  Which itself is a strange phrase.  More perfect.  Perfection, by definition, does not come in degrees.  It either is or isn’t.  Usually.  Unless they, the Founders, were recognizing the fact that change is inevitable, especially if we’re going to sacrilize the freedom to disagree.  In practical terms, your perfection, however conceived, is unlikely to be mine.  If so, then the formula is there to move us from one state of perfection to another equal but different state of perfection.

Which is unlikely and sloppy logic.  Most likely, they knew, as they should have, being good students of the Enlightenment, that perfection is unachievable but the idea of it serves as a spur to do better.  Perfectibility is the ongoing process of seeking perfection.  In the seeking we have to define it and in the definition comes the debating.  In the debating we find a method for—often convulsively—blocking the hegemony of factions, or at least tearing them down when they become onerous.

So in order to “form that more perfect union” we accept that it is always just over the next hill and we have to have a consensus about what it looks like and to get there.  Which sets us to arguing, which is the best guarantor of liberty of conscience.

But we have to work at it.  Which means the revolution is not finished.  What they set in motion was something that would never be finished if we tended to it seriously and with reason and commitment.  So if anything, July 4 is the day we should celebrate as the point when we took steps for creating the conditions for the revolution. The revolution followed the surrender of the British and the commencement of the work to create a nation.  That was—and is—the revolution.

As long as we can meet and differ and find accommodation despite our differences and allow for those differences to be manifest to the benefit of society, the revolution continues.  That it continues is the sure sign that we have freedom (and tells the nature of that freedom).  Even when we don’t always use it or recognize it or allow it to define us.  Oh, we have work yet to do!  But we can do it if we choose.

Just some ruminations from a citizen.  Have a safe Fourth of July.

Work History, Wages, and Doing The Things

The other day I was taking with friends about that pesky subject, wages. Minimum wage is in the news, a big argument, and the politics are necessarily touchy.  Comparisons were made and my own situation caused a bit of raised eyebrows and “What’s up with that” detours through personal histories.

According to some, among people who have known me a long time, I have always been seriously underpaid throughout my working life.

Before we get into that, though, I would like to reference this article, written by my boss, Jarek Steele, about the current anxiety-laden question of raising the minimum wage.  Go read this, then come back here.

First off, I would like to say that I work at a wonderful place.  Left Bank Books is now family.  As you can tell from the essay, they are thoughtful, concerned people with no small amount of brainpower and good bead on life as it is and a solid moral sense.  I’m lucky to work there.  I’ll come back to that later.

Now. Most of my adult life I have been relatively unconcerned about my wages.  I don’t know where I got this from, but I’ve always felt they were secondary to several more important factors.  Some of this is naïveté, but some of it is a result of early on making a choice between security and fulfillment. For many people, money serves as fulfillment, and for some it genuinely is.  They work to have.  I offer no judgment here, everyone is different, and it’s all a question of degree anyway, because we fall along a spectrum.

For myself, I’ve always worked to Be.

Perhaps a small difference to some, but a huge difference over time. I came out of the box, as it were, with intentions to be a certain kind of person, to do certain things, to make a crater in the world that looks a certain way, and if the pursuit of money got in the way of that, then I ignored the money.  Not consciously, because I always just assumed that somewhere along the way I would have it, mainly as a consequence of having done all the stuff that fulfilled my requirements of Being.

Now, if this all sounds a bit zen and possibly foolish, so be it. I’d be willing to bet many if not most of us have career-type dreams at some point that focus mainly of what we’re doing and not how much money we’re going to make doing it.  But this is America and identity is conflated with owning things, so it becomes very difficult to tease apart the doing from the reward.

Which brings me to my rather jagged career path, which saw me graduate high school intent on a career in photography, which I pursued as an art first and foremost and, in the end, only.  I never figured out how to make it pay.

So I worked for a major photofinishing chain, then a period as an in-house commercial photographer for a marginal advertising company, then as a delivery driver for a custom lab, and finally as the darkroom jockey of one of the best camera stores/black & white labs in town.  That last for 20 years.

I never became the photographer I thought I’d be, at least not commercially.  I did all the things.  Portraits, landscape, art and abstract, architectural.  Occasionally I did them for clients, but mainly I did them because they were cool to do and they produced images I wanted to see.  I was Doing Photography and that was the important thing. I was fulfilled.

All the while I drew my wage from my job, which supported the art and all the other stuff.

Then I picked up the writing again.  Time passed, I learned my craft, started selling stories, and then that 20 year stint of a job ended with the close of the business. Two years later I applied to and got another lab job, at which I worked for 11 years, most of them rather unhappily.

(And here the concerns over money enter in the most annoying way, because money would have been the means by which I would have been able to just write instead of having to work at something I no longer loved in order to eat.)

The story sales never added up to enough for me to quit that job.

But I was getting published.  I was fulfilled, at least in the desire to Do The Thing.

Age does force one to confront certain realities.  Looking back, I realized that I had never pushed for more money.  I never once, in all the years of “working for a living,” asked for a raise.  Somewhere in the back of my head there floated the assumption that good work brought remuneration, so if the people I worked for chose not to give a raise, then it was due to my lack of good work.  I could maintain this attitude largely because, with one exception (that first job right out of high school) I have never worked for a large corporation.  Never.  I have spent my employed life working for small local businesses, the health of which I could see, right in front of me.  They all struggled.  I was part of that struggle, so adding a burden to them was not in my nature.  I never asked for a raise.

Instead, I lived a life that fit with my earnings.  One could do that at one time.  And I did get raises, so it’s not like I’m talking about trying to scrape by on minimum wage.  (Which was, btw, right around two dollars an hour when I graduated high school, and I worked for Fox Photo over a year before they granted me a ten cent an hour raise.)  But I never asked.  I was always grateful when they came, but I never asked.  The people for whom I worked were usually close enough to the ground to show appreciation when they could.  For a while I made a decent living.

Donna and I, however, had no children.  That one fact explains a great deal about how we could opt to work for who we chose (often) and live as we pleased without overly worrying about income.  We were careful.  When we bought a house, we paid it off early.  We carry no balances on our credit cards.  We owe no bank anything.

And we realize how unusual this makes us.

But it also points up the major disconnect many people suffer in their lives in terms of employment and compensation.  I never asked for raises because, by and large, I never had to.  Had we lived a more traditional lifestyle, money would have been the single greatest driver of all our choices.

However, my comment above about being underpaid…

Several years ago an opportunity opened for me to possibly take a job as an editor at a local magazine.  I’m not familiar with the task, but I’ve always been a quick learner, so I had no doubts about my ability to come up to speed, and I could offer myself for a bit less than others might.  I went over the requirements of the position with a friend who had been in this end of the industry.  She remarked as one point that the salary would probably be X, which was low, but in a couple of years I could probably come up to standard.  I laughed and told her I’d never made that much in a year in my life.

She was flabberghasted.  How, she wondered, could someone with my abilities have been so undercompensated?

Because it had never occurred to me for a long, long time that I had been.  I’d been Doing The Things, and wasn’t that what mattered?

No.  At least it’s not the only thing.  Money is the means by which we live the kind of lives we wish to.  I want “success”—monetary success—as a writer so that I can do that and nothing else.  But I’m not good at that kind of success. I’ve never been adept at parlaying skills and artistic ability into money.  Whatever it is that allows some people to be skilled at getting compensated, I’ve never been good at it.

And the owners of corporate America know that most people are like that.  They depend on it.  The main reason unions were so important is for that reason and that most people need someone who is good at understanding that game to struggle on their behalf.  But the fact remains, most people take what they can get and then worry about the shortfall.

Because we have consistently misunderstood the relationship between, in the classic terms, labor and management.  As the economy has changed, that misunderstanding is becoming critical, because we are collectively faced with the consequences of our failure to address it.

Business knows average people aren’t either interested or especially adept at Doing Business.  That alone gives business—and I’m talking business at the disembodied corporate level here—an advantage because they take it.  They can shortchange employees because they know how and their employees don’t know they have either any power or can find the means to engage management to worker advantage.  Had we kept abreast of the changes to labor’s benefit these past 30 years when we shifted predominantly from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, then the present strained issue of raising minimum wages would not be so traumatic.  The problem of catching up is putting strain on small to mid-level businesses that they should not have had to bear.  Because we’ve been underwriting cheap product and services for decades by a disproportionate-to-reality compensation formula that treats people like parts.  Read Jarek Steele’s breakdown above.  Numbers, folks, and realities.

Drastic measures become necessary only because of indolence in the system.  As long as the numbers of people receiving poor compensation for work that has become increasingly primary were low, the problem could be ignored.  It’s not even so much that so many are trying to make full livings on minimum wage but that all wages are commensurately constrained by the growing imbalance in consumer ability to pay for what we need and want.

Then there are people like me, who frankly have never known how to care about the money.  Or at least never felt the freedom to demand it, because we keep getting sidetracked by Doing The Things.

Because Taking Care of Business consumes the one thing that art demands—time.  I loved doing photography.  I hated running a business.  I love writing.  Paying attention to marketing and sales is frankly loathesome.  I wish sometimes (lately more than ever) that it were otherwise, that I had that ability to engage promotions and negotiations, but I am who I am and do it only because if I don’t then some day I won’t be able to do the art anymore.

Which, by completely unconscious intent, has caused me to work locally, for people I see everyday and can talk to as friends more than as employers.  I think this is a good business model, but because it is not primary in this country, because people who think very much differently set the parameters of what constitutes “business practice” for so much of the country, this is not the business model that trumps treating people like parts.

We’ve been arguing about this since the founding of the Republic, since the idea of the yeoman farmer and the independent artisan was turned into a romantic myth by the privileging of corporate giants saw a massive culling early on, when it became harder and harder for the independent owner to function in the face of cheaper prices and savage competition that stripped people of their own labor by turning them into wage-slaves.  The argument went on and on, the battle raging for over a century and a half, until finally the Second World War, the Cold War, combined to usher in the era of corporate hegemony that, while not eradicating the small business managed to place the entire economy in thrall to the requirements of giants.*

Hyperbole?  Consider what happens when a large corporation closes a plant or leaves a market and dozens of smaller, local businesses—those that survived the initial arrival of that corporation, at least (mainly by learning to service it)—find their customers drying up because so many of them are unemployed.  Taxes dry up as well, so relief doesn’t stretch as far, and we no longer have an economy that will support a regrowth in a timely manner.  Towns have been abandoned due to this cycle.

Doom and gloom?  No, I think there’s enough latent ability and power in local, small business to still have a good chance at not only holding its own but of succeeding and altering the standard model.  Because there is still value in prizing Doing the Things over Making the Buck, and compensation can flow in those directions.  We’re looking at a crucial time where those kinds of choices are more important than they have been in a long time.

Which leaves me back at where I started, admitting to a kind of aphasia when it comes to this money thing and by and large, as inconvenient as it is, still not much interested in changing who I am in order to meet some mogul’s notion of success.  I work where I work and do what I do because I can decide that “career” is not a synonym for sheer acquisitiveness.

I am lucky, as I say, and do not in any way offer my life as an example of how to do this.  I might well have ended up in much worse places.  But it’s the people around me who have made the difference.  They all ought to be better off, but we’re all Doing The Things and making the world, at least around us, better off.  Meantime, I am grateful.  I can still Do The Things.

It would be good if more of us remembered or realized that that is why we work so hard.


* Consider further the completely bass ackwards relationship between large corporations and local communities wherein the community is required by circumstance to bride the corporation to set up shop—a bribe done with tax money, which means the community starts off impoverishing itself for the “privilege” of hosting an entity that will then extract profits from that community to distribute among people who do not live there.  And when the latent wealth of that community has fallen sufficiently that the profits to the corporation are less than deemed desirable, they then close up shop and leave, the community having grown dependent to such a degree that, scaffolding removed, the local economy collapses, partially or completely.  What should be the case is the corporation ought to pay the community for the privilege and the relationship should be one where the community as host is a primary shareholder and gets compensated first.  Unworkable someone in the back says?  Not so.  Alaska did this will the oil companies decades ago and every Alaskan since gets a stipend from Big Oil.  Or did till recently.

Passing of Giants

I cannot adequately tell you how I feel right now.  My insides are being roiled by a gigantic spoon.

Chris Squire, bass player, co-founder of in my estimate one of the greatest musical groups to ever grace a stage, has died.

A brief report of the particulars can be read here.

I have been listening to, following, collecting, and appreciating YES since I first heard them late one night on my first stereo, a track being played as representative of an “underappreciated” band.  That status did not last long.  A year or two later, they were a major force in what has been called Progressive Rock, a label with some degree of oxymoronicalness in that, not a decade before their advent, all rock was progressive.

Rather it was transgressive and altered the landscape of popular music.  By the time YES came along, divisions, subdivisions, turf wars of various arcane dimensions had become part and parcel of the scene, and there were those who found YES and others like them a transgression to some presumed “purity” of rock music that seemed to require simplistic chord progressions, banal lyrics, and sub par instrumental prowess.  As Tom Petty once said, “Well, it was never supposed to be good.

Well, I and many of my friends and millions of others, across generations, thought that was bullshit, and embraced their deep musicality, classical influences, and superb craftsmanship. They were a revelation of what could be done with four instruments and a superior compositional approach and as far as I’m concerned, Punk, which began as an intentional repudiation of actual musical ability, was a desecration of the possibilities in the form.

Chris Squire and Jon Anderson met and created a group that has since become an institution, with many alumni, that challenged the tendency of rock to feed a lowest-common-denominator machine.  Nothing they did was common, expected, or dull.  Some of it failed, most of it elevated the form, and all of it filled my life with magic.

The ache felt by many at the loss of George Harrison is the ache I now feel at the loss of Chris Squire.  He was brilliant.

There may be more later, but for now, here is an old piece I wrote about YES.

Much To My Pleasant Surprise…

The Supreme Court, in a (predictably) five-to-four vote, has declared that people can get married.

Barriers to marriage based on the criteria that the involved participants must fit a predetermined template having to do with gender are no longer viable or, more importantly, legal.

No, I didn’t expect this.  I am delighted to be wrong.

This also means that we can perhaps start moving forward on a slew of other reforms that are long overdue.  I know there are people who are doubtless going apoplectic about this, predicting the end of all things, the demise of civilization, the collapse of our republic, yada yada yada.

As if any of that could be determined by what two people do to make a home together.

Well, I suppose it could, but letting more people participate in an already-established system which has been held up to be the foundation of that very civilization?  It never made sense, but bigotry rarely does make sense.  This has always been about social control, stigmatizing certain groups for the purposes of preserving privilege and power, and dictating codes of conduct which we have learned the loudest proponents of don’t obey anyway.  At a minimum this takes away the ability of certain people to misrepresent themselves at other people’s expense.

So, two wins in one week.  The ACA still passes constitutional muster, much to the dismay of those who thought any attempt to provide publicly-subsidized health care would also bring about the End Times, and now gender is no longer a legal consideration in who gets to marry whom.

(And for all those who for some reason feel marriage is strictly about procreation—yes, you Mr. Santorum—well, no, that has never been either the sole purpose or even the primary reason, and maybe now we can start having a more rational dialogue about that issue.)

So, all in all, this would seem to be a pretty positive week for a whole lot of folks.