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.


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.




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.


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.

Racism: It Begins Early

They were marched into the classroom, single file, and lined up along the blackboard to face the roomful of white faces.  It would be sheerest invention to say I remember everything about that day.  The only things I recall had to do with questions about how my own situation was about to change.  Thinking back, though, I can recall, without remembering a single one of their names, a general tension transmitted between the two groups.  Groups clearly being treated as groups.  And the expressions I saw were not the excited faces of new students but the suspicious faces of new problems.

Negroes.  Or, as we sometimes said in 1962 St. Louis, Nigras.  (One of the ironies of growing up was that if we used the vulgar euphemism in the hearing of adults we were punished for it, even though it was in common usage among those same adults.  They treated it much like cussing, which was a privilege of adulthood.  The lesson, clearly, was that a child did not have a right to indulge the language of racism. This was something we could look forward to, like being able to say shit and damn and, though we didn’t yet know the word, fuck without being cuffed by an adult.)

I want to say there were about a dozen of them.  Transfers.  Kids our age—2nd grade—but different.  Alien.  I’m not sure any of us had ever been so close to a black person before then.  I know I hadn’t.  I only saw them on tv or in the movies, occasionally on the street somewhere as we drove by.  My entire childhood experience till that day had been with caucasians, and it hadn’t been entirely wonderful at that.  Since moving abruptly from kindergarten to 1st grade (after a scant month in school, because my birthday is in October) my “school experience” had become one of daily misery.  People who speak glowingly of the innocence of children have forgotten or lived under such unimaginably ideal circumstances as to be from another planet.  My peers quickly identified me as weak and easily bullied and so began several years of torment.  It’s possible that I looked on these new arrivals with some perverse hope that maybe the bullies would pay attention to them and leave me alone.  (There is a short story by Frederik Pohl called The Day The Martians Came which speaks eloquently to exactly this.)

What I do remember is the suspicion in their faces.  All of them.  From appearances they were not happy to be there.  They were unwillingly subjects in a great social experiment and though they probably could not have understood it that way they surely knew they were being used.  In any case, they had no choice.

Neither did we.  I say “we” as though I were actually part of the other side of this encounter, and I suppose I felt that way, because although I was singled out for “special” attention I never questioned my status as part of the class, part of the group, part of—well, part of society, and that society was clearly defined for me by every marker available.  I didn’t know enough then to label that mass of received messaging, it was like the air, you breathed it in and it sustained you, because how could you not?  You couldn’t say “I don’t want to breathe this air, I want to breathe that air over there” but on the way, even if you tried, you still had to breathe, and this was the air that was available, and it did its job, it filled your lungs and let you live.  But even so, there was no way for us to imagine that we needed to breathe different air.  If we thought about it at all, the question would have been “Why don’t you breathe the same air?” Ignorance is like that.

Presentation is powerful.  They marched those kids into class.  Class was interrupted, which only happened when something Important was about to happen.  We had to Pay Attention.  It was a spotlight being shone on these new arrivals and they were lined up in a way I would later identify as a police line-up, made to face us, who were all still sitting at our desks, so we could get a good look at them and recognize that this was different, they were different, the situation was different.  We were being told to accept them, that we had no choice, that these were new students.  Told.  But we were being shown that these were not kids.  They were problems.  They might be kids one day, if they passed some test they were clearly being tasked to pass, but we didn’t know what that might be.  Oh, we had tests among ourselves (one of the reasons I was on the outside of all the in-groups, my inability or disinterest in these tests), the passing of which gained you privileges with your peers.  The rules were known.  Baseball, cars, later on pop music, and a vague interest in matters military.  Trading cards were big.  We all were supposed to Just Know, and if you didn’t, you were weird and not to be trusted.  But the test these kids would have to pass, no one knew what that would be.  What could it be? But the lines were drawn, that morning, by the principle, the teacher, the entire edifice of St. Louis public education that had decided that rather than just let them in to find a desk like everyone else had done, they had to be escorted in like prisoners, and displayed with a kind of ceremony which designated them as, from day one, not like us.

That line, invisible though it was, persisted.  They played among themselves, they sat in a group, they went home together.  I don’t recall a single black kid joining the cub scout troop.  It was easier for me, in retrospect, to blame it on them not wanting to be a part of us. Of course, none of us crossed the line, either, that I know of.  We didn’t make the attempt to include them, but the base assumption was, probably, “why should we?”  Even then we had internalized the privilege of the dominant group.  It was our club that mattered.  I did not for a long, long time make the connection to the way I was bullied and the way they were ostracized, labeled, even though it was right in front of me.  Why?  Because maybe if I had made that connection I would have been forced to choose sides.  And what if they didn’t accept me, either?  As it turned out, I did get beaten up by one of them, but it was different than any other time.  My beatings and tauntings were always public, in front of others, but this one time I found myself in the cloak room alone with my assailant. I said I didn;t remember a single one of their names, but that’s not true. I remember this one.  His name was Percy and I had to escape him rather dramatically.  Later I understood—if he had tried to do that like everyone else, he would have been beaten, probably by several white boys, who would have taken exception to him presuming to beat up a white boy.  But it set up one more barrier for me that took a long time to die.  Curiously, Percy is the only one of all of the black students whose name I remember.

I only attended that school for another year or so and then transferred to a private school where there were no black students until 6th grade and they didn’t last long.

I grew up aware of the divide and for years unable to understand it other than as a conflict between sides.  The historical nature of the conflict occupied one part of my brain, but the other part, the emotional part, refused to budge.  I made excuses, offered explanations to myself, went along with the ingrained attitudes with which I had grown up, though always uneasily, and every time I was presented with a chance to praise, to see exceptionalism, I took it, never quite questioning the standard I was using to judge.  To say someone, some group, is “just like me” is in itself a barrier.  A very soft, mushy barrier that on its surface seems like a step forward, an opening of boundaries.  But “just like” denotes a difference because it makes a comparison.  It’s not the same as saying “he is me” or “we are the same.”

What began then took me nearly two decades to unlearn and I’m still working on it, because there are always new groups held up as Other, who don’t rate, who aren’t “like us,” who won’t assimilate, who fail the (false) comparisons (of course, because how to not fail in the face of a lie?).

But that’s what we did back then.  We made comparisons.  Who’s better, worse, just like, completely different, less, more?  Us and Them is a game played in the nursery.  Partly it’s an identity builder, but it also erects walls and fences.

Like that morning when I came face to face with what I was being told not to trust by the very mechanism of introduction.  We didn’t question why they were on the other side of the line that had been drawn.  Even if we had, we couldn’t then understand that that would still be the wrong question.  We didn’t have the stuff yet to ask why there had to be a line at all.

Thus is racism nurtured.

Why Science Fiction?

I found out several years back, when my career started wobbling, that my dad, concerned, wondered aloud to my mom, “Why’s he writing science fiction? Wouldn’t it be better to do something people will buy?”

Of course, he didn’t understand that the odds of making money at writing are pretty much the same in any genre, that it’s as much luck as talent, more than a little being in the right place at the right time sort of cosmic alignment, and personalities are always involved.  There’s a bit of playing the lottery in trying to launch a writing career.   Once you start publishing, it’s natural to think things will get easier or at least more predictable.  But stability is a distant shore you keep rowing toward.  You bump into a lot of other boats on the way.

His concern was over financial matters and it might not appear evident to anyone not involved in the writing business how these things play out.  In my own case, I will say that it might not have mattered what I chose to write about, the trajectory might have been much the same.  The business aside, though, the question has validity in terms of the artistic choices we make. Why this and not that? What is it that inspires you to do what you do and not something else?

I’m currently working on a new novel.  As I’m writing, I find myself venturing more and more into what is recognizably literary mainstream.  The choices I’ve been making about the way I approach the characters and the themes feel less genre-soaked.  I sense I’m pitching my prose toward a wider audience.  That said, it is definitely science fiction, insofar as I’ve set it in the future and I’m talking about the changes in human conditions brought about by technological and cultural shifts.  I’m very interested in how then will be different from now.

Isn’t that what “mainstream” does as well?  Detail the difference in a character that emerges after a series of transformational events?  Trace the path of those changes and show how people evolve over time, under pressure?

As far as I can tell, the chief difference between mainstream and science fiction lies in the nature of the change.  In mainstream, characters evolve in perfectly recognizable ways to become something perfectly recognizable to our current apprehension and experience.  In science fiction, those changes connote differences we may not recognize and cannot yet achieve because they require the world around us to be different.  That “What If” in science fiction is qualitatively different and sometimes quantitatively distinct.

Yet it’s still change.  It’s about character.

One of the clearest distinctions between SF and Literary Fiction I ever read put it this way: science fiction always privileges premise over character.  In other words, the normal SF story is about its conceit more than it is about its people.  I can understand that, but then I have to ask: Well, isn’t the standard historical novel more about the history than it is about the people in it?  I pick on historical fiction because it shares the most with science fiction in terms of approach and purpose.  Both are about people in conditions and contexts separated from the here and now by distinct differences in culture and technology.

(I could point out here that, even were this to be generally accepted, received wisdom would make the fact that Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies, winning the Man Booker Prize raised almost no eyebrows, but had something like Ann Leckie’s currently much-praised novel Ancillary Justice even shown up on the long list for that esteemed Literary award there would have been dismay and more than a smidgen of ridicule.)

To be fair, a great deal of science fiction has treated the changes in technology and culture like suggestive exoticisms rather than as serious considerations.  A lot of this may have to do with maturity more than any inherent problem with the conceits themselves. Speaking for myself, when I began writing (as a teenager especially) I included as much strange stuff as I could imagine simply because it was strange.  It rarely served the story, not because I didn’t want it to, but because firstly I thought the strangeness was the point and secondly because I had a long way to go before I understood how one makes such things relevant to the story.

Insofar as science fiction emerged from an adolescent-driven pool of interest, this makes perfect sense.  In my own case, it was many years before I found myself consciously caring about character.  I was most interested in event, in novelty, in that exoticism I mentioned.  I was interested in the “coolness” of the thing, not the emotional inner lives of the people living in that coolness.  No more than I cared about the personal insecurities and childhood regrets of any of the gunslingers in the westerns which I also indulged because of their innate coolness.  In that case we wouldn’t necessarily call it exoticism, but it was.  It wasn’t here or now, which seemed dull and annoying.

With growing experience and maturity we eventually discover that, on a fundamental level, it really always has been a question of character that brought us back again and again to the particular stories we loved.  We just didn’t think of it in those terms or have the intellectual or emotional stuff to recognize and expect more from that part of the story.  We could grasp the emotional significance of swords and guns, or spaceships and rayguns, but not be equipped to handle an existential crisis in the midst of the changed milieu in which the story was set.  That milieu seemed easier to grasp, like next year’s new car models or a new fashion just on the scene.  Experience teaches, gradually, that such things have little value with the viewpoint of the people living with them.

So the question becomes, since character eventually emerged to dominate my concerns, why then do I still write science fiction?

Because that appreciation of the exotic and the cool factor did not erode simply because my appreciation for what others hold to be all-important grew.  Because I am in many ways still 12 years old.  And lastly (though not, perhaps, finally) the world seems to have caught up with science fiction and to do it honestly and rigorously and with due attention to all æsthetic concerns demanded of good art is to write perfectly good Literary Fiction.  If we can regard stories about England under Henry VIII as  “literary” then we can so regard stories about the interstellar diaspora.  Both eras may be equidistant in terms of relevance to the present and both may serve as substrates for telling us things about ourselves.

Finally, though, I write it because I love it and to do any art really well love has to be involved.  I may be able to write an essay about something I find only somewhat amusing or interesting but my ficti0n requires viscera and I’m only able or willing to supply that if I am in love.

Although my reading is no longer largely science fiction and I have grown pickier about it than I was in times past, a good science fiction story still pumps my imagination and drives my senses more than any other form.  It takes a lot of work to write fiction and if I’m going to devote that much to it I’m only going to do so if I love it.  I find that while I feel just as strongly for individual works in other genres, I do not feel that way about other genres in toto.  If they were neighborhoods, I’d only want to live in the SF district.  I can visit the others as much as I want, but I’ve built my house on the Foundation of science fiction.

And I can’t tell you how pleased it makes me to see other neighborhoods adapting the style and coming here to visit more often.

All that said, it does sometimes pain me to see so much in the field still written as if the neighborhood was still under siege, a ghetto where a certain want of technique is regarded as a kind of gang color and a disregard for more refined observations as a sign of defection, where the obstinate insistence that fine writing—which can only really derive from closer scrutiny, greater empathy, and more honest assessments of character—is somehow the mark of someone who doesn’t “get” SF, and where the simple recognition that the world and therefore the universe is a multiplying heterogeneous metaplex and should be written about as such is a form of betrayal.  Genuine experience must be conveyed through the lens of genuine observers, i.e. characters who are real and complex as we can make them.  This is the only way to deal out truth, which at the end of the day is our stock in trade.

At least, that’s my opinion.

And that, not to put too fine a point on it, is why I still write science fiction.

The Matter

Labels can be limiting and as far as that goes I can agree with those who disdain them, saying they do not like creating or existing in boxes. Fine sentiment. But some labels are useful to accomplish the ripping apart of boxes and the freeing of those trapped in them.

I am a feminist.

Nothing new in my saying that, but times have, superficially, changed, and now a lot of people seem to claim not to know what that means anymore or, worse, claim that it means something which it does not.

Below is a TED Talk by novelist Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. Here, in easy to understand (even for those who may be obdurately opposed to understanding) language, she gives a thorough primer and explication of the problems of being a woman in a world where men are the privileged sex and where more and more the simple truth of what she describes is being disingenuously yet ingeniously denied.

I have written often about where I stand on this issue. First and foremost, everyone is a person first. Sex and gender are important but should never be a limiting factor. What I am free to do as a male should be open for anyone. (What I am free to do as a white male should also be open to anyone, but that is another, albeit related, issue.) This is very difficult for some people to understand, for reasons which Ms. Adichie touches on.

But for all those who wonder in mock dismay what is the matter with all these women complaining about the lives they live, the culture, keep talking about rape culture, the glass ceiling, sexism, harassment, objectification…yes, I say “mock dismay” because I’m beginning to believe that you actually do know what it’s about, what the matter is, but you just don’t want to take responsibility for changing things—or, you just don’t want things to change. So you intentionally misunderstand.

Enough. This isn’t rocket science. Testicles do not make you superior or give you a pass for idiotic behavior and bad choices. They aren’t a membership card in an elite club established by divine proclamation. Just because your mommy told you how special you are doesn’t mean rules shouldn’t apply to you and just because your daddy may have acted the king of his domain doesn’t mean you inherited the privilege.

Of course, the capacity for ignoring such things is one of the true indicators of a kind of genius. But I can’t help feel that it’s wasted genius. I see the behavior of certain males and all I can think is, “Man, what the hell is the matter with you?”


You Don’t Really Mean That!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm?  Why’s that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was also in 1965.

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

Or so we thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All. Of. Them.