We Prospered: Leonard Nimoy, 1931 to 2015

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

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

Spock IDIC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will miss him.

 

Getting Out Of Your Own Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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?”

Well.

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.

 

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* 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.

Dining Disruptively

This is a cool thing.

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

So…

Obsession Point

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

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

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

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

“Why do you pay any attention to them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t have to do this.

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Controversial Common Sense

So Virginia’s new attorney general, Mark Herring, has announced he will not defend his state’s ban on gay marriage.  He has made a personal journey and concluded that doing so would be inconsistent with constitutional guarantees and common decency.  He cited Loving v Virginia as precedent, saying basically that the Supreme Court did not  declare that blacks and whites had the freedom to marry, but that people do.  As far as Mr. Herring is concerned, gays are people.  First.

Good for him.  I suspect this is an issue that has arrived.  More and more states are reviewing the legality of such bans and finding that, ethically and morally, they do not stand up, personal prejudice notwithstanding.  You have to designate certain folks as Not People for the purposes of maintaining such restraints and the problem with that—philosophy 101—is the lack of any kind of nonsubjective criteria.  In other words, just ’cause you don’t like somethin’ don’t mean you get to outlaw it.

You would think this would just be common sense, not controversial, but the problem for some folks is that they can’t separate personal reaction from public policy.  They look at something that bothers them and never once question the fact that maybe the problem is theirs, not the thing they find objectionable.  It seems silly to have to point this out to supposedly grown people, but if I’ve come to any realization about so-called Adulthood it’s that it also has no basis in objective reality.  Many adults are just kids with a little power and “rights.”  Somewhere along the way, maturity eluded them.  They insist publicly that “those people” should take responsibility for their own lives (over whatever issue happens to be at hand) and then impose laws, if they can, to make it harder if not impossible for such an outcome.  What they really mean is that “those people” should conform to expectations—their expectations—and change to suit common sensibilities.

Which clearly, in this case, are not so common anymore.  I think it’s fair to say that public opinion has turned and those who are still acting under the assumption that the majority of their fellow citizens agree with them that homosexuality is a “sin” and gay marriage will damage the country are increasingly in the minority.  As their numbers shrink, though, they get louder.  Judging by the decibel level one might think they still represent the majority.

It fascinates me, though, how certain folks insist on freedom to live as they choose and then try to deny others the same right, as if freedom is a small pie that has to be sliced carefully.  Give too much to one, it leaves less for others.  This has always been a common belief, evidently, judging by the way people act and talk, and has always been a lie.  But then, they aren’t insisting on freedom—not really.  They’re insisting on preferred form.  (It has always puzzled me how someone in, say, a small country far away can look the camera in the eye and declare that he is fighting for freedom and then turn around and deny freedom to half the population of his  country—women.  Clearly this is not freedom being defended but a presumed right to observe lifestyle choices which include oppression.  Freedom is a much misused term.)  Such folks, when pressed, will deny reality like a mental contortionist in order to have their way.

Well, good for Mr. Herring, and good luck.  Virginia is the seat of paradox, the home of Jefferson and Madison and yet at one time the state with the largest number of slaves.  Few places represent such extremes so vividly, between ideals and practice.  It’s nice to see a move toward bringing the two closer in line.

Upgrading Myths

I saw Man of Steel this past weekend and while I enjoyed much of it, some of it was troubling, and I’ve been pondering ever since.  To be sure, taking up so much brain time with a cinematic version of a comic book seems absurd, but only until you realize how much this stuff means to us as a culture.

Superman is a 20th Century American Myth and it has, whether we like it or not, supplied a good deal of workaday philosophical grist for our collective mills.  We keep revisiting it (and revising it and rebooting it and returning to it) for reasons that have nothing to do with common sense and everything to do with how we see—or would like to see—the world.

Disclaimer:  I grew up watching George Reeves as Superman on tv.  I didn’t collect the comics so much.  Some, sure, but not like friends of mine who had stacks of them encompassing years, even decades.  As a kid, I was certainly enamored of the idea of being super strong.  (I was bullied, you bet I fantasized being able to fly, see through solid objects, and take a punch that might result in my attacker breaking his hand.)  But as I grew older I just couldn’t relate to the guy from Krypton as much as I could with Batman.  Superman was never top of the heap for me.  Just so you know.

I very much liked the Christopher Reeve film.  They hit that note perfect as far as I was concerned.  And should have left well enough alone as the subsequent films just got worse and worse.  (Superman Returns for me was an impressive-looking meh.)  I liked Lois & Clark a lot.  Not so much Superboy or Smallville.  The substance of the myth only goes so far, then it has a tendency to lend itself—badly—to soap opera (is Lois ever going to get this guy in the sack?  What about Lana? And Jimmy!), which even the estimable Lois & Clark fell into eventually.

But we’re talking about a 20th Century reboot of a Greek Myth—the god (or demigod) who comes to Earth, does amazing feats, and is wooed, sometimes seduced (or does the wooing, seducing, or, more commonly, just plain raping) by a mortal woman.  Resulting in…

Well, the thing about the Greek gods is, every time they came down from Olympus to meddle about with the mortals they left a mess behind.  They just didn’t know how to not break things.

I liked that Man of Steel went there.  When the film had been out for a time, I remember people complaining about how violent is was.  Well, yeah.  It would be, wouldn’t it?  Part of the implausibility of Superman is how tidily he fights crime.  Here, in this instance, he has to mix it up with his own kind, and to be true to its pretensions it was going to get ugly.

Where the film failed for me, thematically, was that it insisted that no new mythology could be concocted from these unlikely elements.  Christopher Nolan and company, who did a wonderful job with Batman, were clearly working toward dumping all the old stuff and coming up with a new approach, that is without changing the basic idea.  Kal-el is an alien.  He was sent here to avoid the fate of the rest of his people.  He grows up to become the ultimate Hero.  Obviously there are resonances to the Greeks and just about any other ancient pantheon you care to name.

Just as obviously, there’s no good reason to stick to the old template when trying to turn a fantasy construct into a piece of science fiction—which is what they tried to do.

Large doses of Factored Plausibility were injected into this film.  The scene of young Clark in grade school, suddenly having his X-Ray Vision come on line and c0mpletely freaking out was superb.  Yes, this would seem likely under these circumstances.  And the talk with Jonathan in the aftermath of his saving the bus of kids from the river.  This is not a Depression Era salt of the earth Jonathan Kent, but a man in the presence of something he can’t handle who is scared all the time.

And the whole backstory of Kryptonian exploration and outposts—it seems they were basing much of this on Imperial China, which was a civilization that at one time had a vast exploratory fleet and maybe even colonies and then decided not to bother with Outside and shut it all down. But of course, they left stuff all over the place.  This is good, solid extrapolitive retooling.  It made it all less Olympian and far more geopolitical.  Good, very good.

But then there is the Christ Imagery.

You know what I’m talking about.  Clark wandering the Earth, going out to the wildnerness, becoming Himself—for 33 years before coming out as an alien.  And if you didn’t get it with that, then the shot of him leaving the Kryptonian ship, arms extended, a human crucifix…

And Jor-el as the ephemeral father from heaven.

The battle with Zod and the others is obviously a war with demons—or perhaps only with those who would not give up an absolute adherence to tradition, the ultimate evangelists, that have to be tossed out of the temple.

The problem is, it was incomplete and mongrel.  They threw that stuff in there in order to play the audience, establish a mythic resonance with the familiar even as they were clearly trying to recast the myth into something more plausible in a science fiction context.  They didn’t actually do anything with those little bits.  And Jesus is really not the appropriate myth in the first place.  Moses was always the grounding myth of Superman, and they actually missed the boat on this one by severing his connection to “his people.”

It’s mix-and-match mythology, done slickly and cynically—the image will mean something, but we don’t actually have to have it inform the story with anything.  It’s just a hook.

And not a very satisfying one.

Part of the problem is that Superman is such an uncooperative idea with which to make good science fiction.  They tried mightily in this one, but they kept coming up against the parts that make no real sense other than as fantasy—or myth.  They tried for an upgrade but ended up with just a patch.  So it is neither the old familiar Superman (which Christopher Reeve portrayed so well) or a brand new, fully reimagined Superman that might suit the 21st Century.  This wouldn’t matter so much if not for the fact that Superman had been made and has always served to Mean Something.  We have long since realized he could never be A Savior, not in the sense perhaps implied by Nolan et al.  He’s one man, although incredibly gifted, and even he can’t be everywhere and do everything.  So overtly tying him to Christ is a cheat.  It’s also not what he was intended to represent.  Ever.

At best, Superman represented the idea that limits are intended to be superseded.

That’s my take, anyway.  What Man Of Steel was intended to mean, I’m not sure.  Maybe the makers weren’t, either.  But if they do another one, I would suggest trying to come up with new substance for new myths.  The old ones don’t work so good anymore.  If you’re going to upgrade something like this, leave the past behind.  At least that part of it that no longer answers any real needs.

Either that, or leave it as a comic book and don’t change anything.

Great special effects, though.  Cecil B. DeMille would be envious.

War On Christmas?

By now most people know about the flap over FOX News person Megyn Kelly’s absurd remarks concerning the ethnicity of (a) Santa Claus and (b) Jesus.  Actions within the DMZ of the annual War On Christmas have reached new levels of ridiculous.

I wasn’t going to say anything about this, but…

Santa Claus is white?  Really?  After all this time, we’re going to have that debate?

If you must know, Santa Clause is your favorite uncle dressing up in a red suit and bellowing joyously at a key moment in your life.  What color is he?  What nationality?  Whatever you answer, then you know what color Santa Claus is.

Santa Claus is not St. Nicholas.  Not because an argument cannot be made that the legends of St. Nikolaos of Myra (or Bari, depending which one prefers) can’t be construed as the model for the modern Saint Nick, Sinterklaas, aka Santa Claus, but because Santa Claus, culturally, is something else altogether by dint of centuries of “drift” and the compiling of other attributes of distinctly non-Christian provenance.   Like Christmas itself, the two long ago became Something Else.  (The modern Santa Claus is more descended from pre-Christian Germanic Odin than anything Christian.  Christmas itself, as we practice is, is from the Yule celebrations of the same pagan tradition.)

Jesus…well, really, does this actually need explaining?

But the question is, does all this constitute any kind of “War On Christmas”?  I don’t see Christmas suffering a bit.  It is now as has been since I can remember a time of family, of friends, of fellowfeeling, of charity, corny music, decorations, and the setting aside for a day, a week, a month of petty differences to embrace one another.  I haven’t seen much evidence that we’re doing any less of this than ever before.

What there is some struggle over is the idea that some people have it wrong and that those who think they have it right have some kind of obligation to shame the rest of us into accepting their version above any other.  Failing that, they then take it upon themselves to take our indifference to their dogmatic myopia as evidence of a war on Christmas and launch a counterattack by pissing and moaning about…

Well, frankly, about style.  As far as I can tell, they don’t like what other people’s Christmas looks like.  For one, we seem to have these other traditions all mingled in—Hannukah and Kwanza—distorting and “sullying” their vision, as if it’s all some kind of banquet hall and they object to the decorations.

I suppose what really bothers me this time is the flat out racism in evidence.  Santa Claus is white, get over it.  Jesus is white, historical fact, too bad about all you other people who think it might be otherwise.

Seriously?

Let me ask, in all seriousness, what color is the human heart?  I don’t mean the muscle, I mean the essence of our sentiment.  What color is that?  Because I was raised to believe that both Santa Claus and Jesus were all about the human heart, about healing it, about nurturing it, about celebrating it, which makes it an essential aspect of our commonality.  After discarding much of the silliness of both icons, I still find inspiration and succor in that basic truth.  I think that part is a good idea and how it is celebrated is irrelevant alongside the idea that it is celebrated.

And that has no color.  No ethnicity.  No politics, no religion, no ideology.  Just you and me and who we love and who we wish to love and the desire that love be the universal attribute by which we know ourselves.

So if there’s a war on Christmas, it is being prosecuted by those who keep insisting that there can be only one way to celebrate it.  Such people are truly small of spirit, and now it appears they’re bigoted as well.

Which is really sad.  Look at the opportunity being passed up in this, of getting outside your tiny enclave of conspiracy-driven paranoia and siege mentality and finding out that maybe those people down the street you’re not sure about are really kind of cool and interesting.  Being so publicly obsessed withe tropes instead of getting down with the True Meaning of the Holiday is just dumb and more than a little hateful.

Christmas is what we make it, out of the feelings of sharing and discovery and renewal.  It’s about being open and forgiving and generous and for one day out of the year setting aside differences and realizing that, in a very basic way, there aren’t any.  It’s about letting in the idea that we can be better together than alone and that shared joy multiplies and that there ought to be no limits on that.  It’s a Technicolor time.

It shouldn’t be whitewashed.

Boycotts and Bully Boys

I’m not going to the theater to see Ender’s Game, not because I’m boycotting it or Mr. Card, but because I don’t care enough about it to spend coin on it.  Of course, that can be said of 99% of the movies released in the last couple of decades—we don’t go to the movies anymore.  It’s a habit we got out of shortly after buying a house.  Priorities, y’know?

Not that I don’t eventually see them.  (We finally saw The Time Traveler’s Wife this past weekend, long after it’s theatrical release.  A couple of weeks back we saw Cloud Atlas at a friend’s house.)  We get there, eventually, but we aren’t driven by the mass energy of the zeitgeist.  It has benefits.  Seeing things well after the initial hype and scurry allows for a calmer, less media-driven appreciation.  We see it when we’re ready.

I doubt I’ll ever be “ready” to see Ender’s Game in that for decades now I’ve encountered a low-level of discussion about the novel and, more recently, its author, that “distance” is not something achievable in the sense of seeing it when controversy is not hanging in the air, like the smoke from a dozen cigars shortly after their users have left the room.  Ender’s Game is one of those novels that have acquired a kind of cultural mass, a displacement quotient, around which debate, reaction, argument, and controversy orbit.  Dune is one of those, but for different reasons.  (Outside the genre examples of this abound—think Catcher In The Rye, Ulysses, Atlas Shrugged.)  The mention of them in the right group triggers what eventually become standard, predictable set-piece conversations, and one counts status points and self-defines socially/politically/culturally by one’s stance vis á vis how one feels about the subject.  They take on lives of their own.  You could almost put them down on guest lists or schedule them as part of the entertainment over dinner.

I read Ender’s Game in the early 1980s, I don’t remember exactly when.  I remembered the novelette from which it was expanded as being one of the better stories in Analog in the Seventies.  My reaction?  I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It was a good ride.  I went on to read several more Orson Scott Card novels, eventually losing interest in him.  I felt the sequel to Ender’s Game—Speaker For The Dead—was a superior novel, much more substantive than the first.  I did not then nor do I now think either was Card’s best work.  I went through a phase of OSC and moved on.  (He wrote a series of superb short stories early in his career, which are still, some of them, masterpieces.)

Now the movie is coming out and so has Mr. Card, apparently, and guess what?  He’s become a lightning rod of controversy because he is not much like his landmark stories.  He is a very openly homophobic man and apparently one of those who talks blithely about governmental overthrow if the country doesn’t go the way he thinks it should.

(I say “blithely” because we hear this all the time and often from people who are so engaged with things as they are that it is difficult if not impossible to take them seriously.  It has all the significance of a child threatening to run away from home or stop breathing if things don’t conform to expectations.  It’s a way of attracting a certain kind of attention.  Someday the rest of us may learn that the best way to deal with this is to ignore them.)

How many other people does this sound like?  We may personally know someone who thinks and talks this way.

And most of the time it never comes up.  The plumber might be a Tea Party idiot, but since we never talk politics with him, we never know, and hell, he does good work.  If someone else informs us that he is a political idiot, do we automatically stop using his services?

Boycotts are being called for with regard to OSC.  In one instance, pains have been taken to distinguish between this and any kind of censorship.  It’s not his ideas being boycotted but the man himself, by denying economic support.  A fine line, that, and there is a difference, because ideas can’t be so constrained according to the moral calculus of our political standards, but we can always choose freely what we do or do not spend our money on.  The difference is real, of course, but so is the fact that in public action ideas tenaciously refuse to be teased free of their purveyors, so to attack the one (economically) is to impact the other (dialectically).

I won’t be joining any boycotts.  To my mind, a boycott is personal.  I choose what to spend my money on and that makes it personal.  By joining an organized boycott, it no longer is personal, not in the same way.  It’s political, and mass political movements have a tendency to lose the kind of finesse and nuance the personal necessitates.  Because your personal viewpoint necessarily becomes subsumed in the politics of a movement and dissension from the movement aut0matically becomes suspect by the larger group.  Conformity evolves, individualism becomes confused then lost, and what began as a specific protest of a specific thing becomes a cookie cutter that divides the public from the private in a regrettably destructive way.

Further, this is coming painfully close to book banning.  I know, no one is calling for that, in fact so far everyone is very carefully denying that is what is going on.  But it’s not very many steps between boycotting one movie, one book, one author and boycotting a body of work and then arguing that said body of work should not be “supported” (available) and removing it from…

So it goes.  Suddenly the socially conscious, liberal minded, civil rights oriented boycotters morph into thought police.

How likely do I think that is to happen here?  Not very.  But that’s not argument against refusing to participate in the boycott.  Just because in this instance it won’t happen doesn’t make the process any less odious.

This is a purely personal viewpoint.   I won’t join or support a popular boycott like the one being called for against Orson Scott Card because by doing so I lose a certain amount of control over what I might mean by not spending coin on him or his work.

And besides, Card himself stated it—such protests put more money in his pocket, because controversy attracts profits in this game.  Catcher In The Rye might never have become the phenomenon it did had it not been banned.  The wrong kind of attention was paid it and boom! it’s a cultural icon.  Regardless the quality of the book.

My personal opinion about Ender’s Game has been consistent since a few years after originally reading it when I realized that it was—is—manipulative, button-pushing, and fundamentally flawed.  It depicts scenarios of responses to bullying that are devastatingly gratifying and wholly implausible and unsupportable.  It is a well-written rollercoaster ride that I enjoyed at the time of reading that later left a bitter aftertaste.  I thought it only worth praising because of its sequel, which is a novel of redemption and expiation, a startling portrayal of guilt and responsibility and an argument for tolerance.

Which is ironic, since the work portrays a level of empathy and compassion the public statements of the author belies.  The man who wrote Speaker For The Dead is not the same as the one who seems bent on revolution in order to prevent gays from being able to live as equals in a human society.

Unless…and this is a wicked thought, but not inconsistent with some of the great monsters of religious thought down through the ages…unless the whole purpose of Speaker For The Dead  is to argue that such redemption is the whole point of the series.  That Ender is not sorry for what he (unknowingly) did to the Formics so much as willingly embracing his rôle as a Shiva Christ.  His fate, his destiny is to shoulder that responsibility, not avoid it—not wish he had never done it—but to immerse himself in the total package of destroyer and mourner.

And one cannot mourn what is not lost.  So the Formic had to perish so he, Ender, could be St. Stephen.

Which makes it not so much an argument for tolerance, belated or otherwise, but an argument that the goal of human enlightenment is to wallow in the shame of unbridled destruction.

(In a way, this is much like the many cults of the Native American the United States has embraced in the last century and a half, cults that romanticize and eulogize the vanished Indian, appraisals that could not exist the way they do without the very destruction of the Indian they seem to mourn.  The Indian had to die in order for this peculiarly American form of self-flagellation to be enjoyed and enshrined in film.)

Not something, to my mind, which should be shoved off the stage, boycotted into oblivion.  That is something that needs to be discussed, at length, so we can recognize it when we encounter it.