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Philosophy

On Being Overwhelmed By

Too many things.

I’ve been on Facebook for years and I have a great many people on my friends list. I belong to a few interest groups, one of which was, till recently, a Science Fiction discussion page. Natural fit, yes? I left the group. I had two comments arbitrarily deleted by the admin.

I hasten to explain that this was not an arbitrary decision on my part, to leave, at least not as arbitrary as it sounds. Nor am I particularly thin-skinned. This was a question of how much time I’m willing to waste. It had entirely to do with the nature of the post to which I responded and the nature of my comment. Thinking it over, I realize that this sort of thing is indicative of a problem most of us are facing.

Now, to the post. It was about Nichele Nichols and her iconic role, Lt. Uhura. One of the responses quoted Whoopie Goldberg, who recalled seeing her first Star Trek episode and running into the other room to alert her family that there was a “black woman on the television and she ain’t a maid.” This led to someone demanding that “politics be kept off the board! This is for science fiction, not politics.”  Well, I had to scratch my head. “How,” I asked myself, “do you talk about SF without discussing politics?”

That was the nature of my response. Mainly, to point this out, and that in some 50 + years of reading the stuff, I cannot recall a single worthwhile work that did not, even if buried in layers of subtext, have something political about it. Because science fiction is inherently political. It’s all about change. Worldbuilding? Substitute the phrase “regime change.” You don’t get there without politics. Utopia? That’s a mode centered on political theory—outdated, perhaps, but nonetheless. Dystopia? That is about the collapse of one form of politics and the substitution of another. Interstellar travel? Hugely expensive, entire nations would have to vote for it. Politics. New technologies replacing old? Political ramifications from beginning to end.  And meeting aliens, well! We have actual experience with that on a cultural level. Major politics ensue.

There’s no getting away from it. Science fiction is fundamentally, inherently political. It can’t not be. As soon as you suggest the future will be different, somewhere in there is a political question, and if you then go ahead and describe how it got to be different, you’re up to your eyeballs in politics.

So the demand to keep politics out of a discussion of SF is prima facie ridiculous.

Now, really, I know what the poster meant. He didn’t want present-day, in-the-news politics interjected in what he regarded as his “safe” escape medium. But as soon as Nichele Nichols as Lt. Uhura came up, photograph and all, that was not possible, because she was all about equality, and that is an argument we are having.  At the time she was first cast in that part, it was for many people incendiary politics. The character of Uhura was a slap in the face to white supremacists, a statement that the status quo not only had to change but would change. Damn right it was political.

But this is an indication of something we may be in danger of losing, at least for a short time, and that is the ability to talk about such things without descending into a partisan mud wrestle. Not that we ever possessed this ability completely. I remember many a conversation that proceeded along on what one might describe as a theoretical basis, and it would be civil and interesting. But there was always a line, usually somewhere that a suggestion was made along the lines of “how come we don’t do this now?” Then ranks and minds closed.

But there was that space, for a short while, where issues could be discussed like adults…

That space has shrunk in recent years.

So we end up with the absurd demand from some who seem not to realize that what they ask is not possible, not if a real discussion is to be had. Keep politics out of science fiction?

Get real.

But people are overwhelmed lately. I know I am. It manifests in a brevity of response to stupidity. It manifests in my growing willingness to call certain things stupid rather than politely engage until some clue as to the source of said stupidity emerges. I have neither time or patience lately, because the stupid is threatening to destroy too much.

It may well be, though, that we should develop a new appreciation for science fiction. All things being equal, it may end up being the last “safe” place to discuss these things among people on opposite sides of an issue.

For the sake of the future, it would be worth a try.



Pathological Ownership

Beth Moore has left the Southern Baptist Conference. If you are unaware of her and what this means, you should look into it. Beth Moore has for many years occupied a special place within that community—a preacher without portfolio, one might say, as the SBC does not permit women to hold the title “pastor.” The straight-up “pure quill” fundamentalism they espouse holds the inferred Biblical injunctions inviolable in this instance, but she has been such a forceful speaker and operates such a large organization that they are loathe to relegate her to silence. So she held that special position.

Till now.

She has split with them over Trump. The schism is instructive. Ms. Moore cannot find common ground with the majority of her colleagues over Trump.

“He became the banner, the poster child for the great white hope of evangelicalism, the salvation of the church in America,” she said. “Nothing could have prepared me for that.”

Since 2016 she has been on the outside of the SBC over this issue. She identified Trump as an exemplar of everything they should stand against, and yet she was met with silence, then disapproval, then warnings, and finally with the loss of her publisher. She could not understand the attitude of her (male) colleagues in their support for this man she saw as a walking “poster child” for evil.

To be sure, this has puzzled those outside the evangelical camp all along. The slogans and protestations over perceived moral lapses in Democrats would seem to support a no-holds-barred moralism that should have found Trump utterly unacceptable. And yet we have been witness to very public campaigns of image rehabilitation all along. It has been with mixed incomprehension and horror that we have seen people who flew into paroxysms of condemnation over Clinton’s behavior make showings of almost servile support (bordering on worship) for a man who bragged about pussy-grabbing and attempted to pay off a porn star to keep her from talking about her paid services to him. The very public ridicule he heaped on anyone who did not fit a shallow model of Americanism that combined a host of clichés and segregated anyone who didn’t meet the standard—essentially the acts of a bully picking on the weak—seemed to gain favor with the very people who claim Jesus as their exemplar. Beth Moore saw this for what it was and tried to convince the SBC to abandon its support for him, and instead found herself more and more at odds with them, more and more isolated.

It is fair to ask what is going on with this enormous contradiction. How could the self-professed moral arbiters of the country, the Christian Right, support this?

Beth Moore’s ambiguous status holds much of the answer.

It is by now a convention that in many religions women are relegated to secondary (or lesser) status. One may puzzle about how this can still pertain in a time when the evidence for any rational justification for it has been shown to be nonexistent. Certainly it is an aspect of male privilege, but that does not satisfactorily explain the complicit acquiescence of so many women. Moore is a good example of the conundrum. (Just as with people like Michele Bachman, who espouses a paradoxical belief that women should be subservient yet she herself sees no problem with holding leadership positions.) In Moore’s case, she has been in accord with the evangelical attitudes toward women and accepted a lesser status even while she has risen to a commanding position in her community. She felt the larger message important and, no doubt, felt protected within the larger community.

But when Trump’s very public attitudes toward women became a very public issue, and she protested, that community seemed to withdraw its protection.

In my opinion, this apparent betrayal is due to a basic misunderstanding which is not only endemic to communities like the SBC, but to our society as a whole, and it has to do with Ownership.

The only reason to deny equality to women and then justify it, you have to understand who thinks who owns what.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Dispossessed, there is a scene early on which strikes the issue squarely. It is a flashback of the protagonist, Shevek, as a child in, basically, preschool:

…the fat infant was at this moment coming towards the knobby one rapidly…he approached out of boredom or sociability, but once in the square of sunlight he discovered it was warm there. He sat down heavily beside the knobby one, crowding him into the shade.

The knobby one’s blank rapture gave place at once to a scowl of rage. He pushed the fat one, shouting “Go ‘way!”

…The knobby one stood up. His face was a glare of sunlight and anger. His diapers were about to fall off. “Mine!” he said in a high, ringing voice. “Mine sun!”

“It is not yours,” the one-eyed woman said with the mildness of utter certainty. “Nothing is yours. It is to use.  It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.” And she picked the knobby baby up with gentle inexorable hands and set him aside, out of the square of sunlight.

The knobby one shook all over, screamed, “Mine sun!” and burst into tears of rage.

Baby Shevek has determined that things belong to him. Personally. Perfectly natural, to a degree. The world is centered on him, he feels he has a right to the patch of sunlight, that he can, in fact, own it. We read the passage with a mix of amusement and enlightenment. We recognize this to be an infant’s response to the reality of the world.

But.

Our culture is based, largely if not wholly, on an idea of ownership that was in the beginning a redress of imbalance. The idea that anyone, regardless of “station”, could own property was radical, especially in its unremarked egalitarianism. Communal ownership was more common, but this was not the aspect of ownership that captured the imagination—rather, it was the sole ownership, the possibility the individual, any individual, could own outright the equivalent of a kingdom that became the unquestioned ethos of the American experiment. This idea—so powerful, so very American in its expression if not its origins—fueled the growth of the United States and rocketed us to heights unparalleled in history.

And it underlies everything that is currently wrong with the republic. It has always had its dark side, it has never been free of abuse, but it has gone through cycles during which it was tempered—by circumstance, by public morality, by the very excesses of those most adept at acquisition. Boom and Bust cycles are the product of poorly controlled acquisition. Theodore Roosevelt knew it and attacked it. His relative, FDR, went further.

But it’s very difficult to regulate that which is an outgrowth of a cultural feature, part of our own mythology, our identity—our psychology. Any attempt to regulate it feels like theft.

This is not new, by any means, but it has become so dominant in our culture as to be like the very air we breathe, at least for some. Ownership has come to possess us as the only worthwhile aspect of anything and everything. If looked at from this perspective, all our present ethical and social conundrums clarify, from taxes to fashion, gun ownership to healthcare, voting rights to marriage, property to opinions, abortion to minimum wage.

What Trump has done for the membership of the SBC that puts them at odds with Beth Moore and seems so perverse to many of us is to reaffirm for them what they feel proprietary about, what they believe they rightfully own, that their claims of possession are legitimate. Beth Moore does not, for them, have a right to be shocked and repulsed by Trump because she is not an owner. They are. To put it as bluntly as possible, while perhaps most of them are dismayed and censorious about Trump’s pussy-grabbing, it remains a fact for them that the pussy is there for him to grab. His grabbing it makes it his, because the woman does not own it. Women’s sexuality is not theirs.

Beth Moore does not even have a right to her own voice—they have tried to take that away from her—but only has use of it because it serves the self-presumed owners.

Absurd? When you look back at the history of personal rights over the centuries, one thing becomes clear—it always revolves around some formulation of ownership. As the franchise expanded, those opposed railed against it out of a sense of privilege, that they are losing something which they act as if they owned. What we are seeing right now across the country is exactly that—people trying to limit voting rights, reduce them, take them away from those they see as a threat. (Because the consequences of such expanded voting might impinge on other things that self-styled elites feel are theirs.) Many reasons are given, but the presumption that such restrictions are even considered is based on a notion of proprietary civic ownership that goes back centuries.

Plato discussed communal space, where everyone in a polis “owned” things in common. Aristotle thought this was a bad idea since in his view (to simplify) common ownership like that would dis-incentivize care, that without the added encouragement of private ownership, no one would feel obligated to preserve, maintain, or build. Aristotle was the one “good pagan” that the Catholic Church used to build its own social ethics and so this idea came into the mainstream of thought through the dominant religions of the modern era. Plato and Aristotle approved of limited forms of democracy, but felt that not everyone was suited to participate equally and Aristotle made no bones about believing only elite males had a natural right to ownership, which meant the ability to participate in the politics of the polis. Hence the franchise came down to us from ideas of suitability and because so much history, property, conquest, and nation-building has accrued around these ideas since, it is difficult to tease them apart. They are the air we breathe, as I said.

There has always been a cycle of balances set against this. Simple ability to enforce, the reach of government and church, the situation on the ground at any given place and time—all have made a pure form of this hard to achieve and there has always been some push-back. But we cannot seem to be rid of it. One would have thought that by the Enlightenment, the categorical denials of agency necessary would have fallen by the wayside, and yet…

Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696 – 1792) was a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, a patron of David Hume and Adam Smith, among others. He, with others, established the Philosophical Society of Scotland. A precursor to the much more influential work of Adam Smith, he was concerned about the importance of property to society. The economics aside, when it came to the franchise, he wrote:

“Those who depend for food on bodily labor, are totally void of taste, of such taste at least as can be of use in the fine arts. This consideration bars the greater part of mankind; and for the remaining part, many by a corrupted taste are unqualified for voting.”

With some allowance for the passage of much history, this would have fit rather well with Aristotle (and even Plato). Specific justifications aside, the idea that it is not only permissible but desirable to exclude certain people from participation is clear.

The rest of the 18th Century, in terms of Enlightenment thinkers, wrestled with questions of nature, merit, innate value. Property emerged as a key concern and with the creation of the United States, the momentum of such concerns barreled on with increasing force until, today, property has become everything.

The United States, however, has an in-built conflict. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are neither one based on such blatant exclusions and form the basis of a tension that has grown along with the self-conception of the country. Property, as it turns out, is only valuable when made exclusive. Politics, however, always intrudes on the uses of property, which brings in the concerns of those excluded. Rights occupy a special space that seem beholden to the ephemeral even as the exercise of Rights inevitably impacts the temporal. Because we have a love-hate relationship with ideas of property that transcend mere material objects, the inextricable dependence of one on the other creates a conception of property that seems to encompass Rights and treats them as a species of Things Which Can Be Owned. My Rights, My Land, My Freedom, My Things, My Self.

The most accessible way to conceive of all this is as property. Which means that when Rights are expanded, some people will see this as an encroachment because it depletes the value of their property. And so, the question at the center of modern conservatism, whether stated explicitly or not (or even acknowledged), is: What can I own? The next question, then, would have to be: how can I maintain the value of what I own?  This becomes the justification to deny ownership to others.

For most people, historically, the goal was autonomy. The freedom to be who you are, unapologetically, without having to justify yourself to authorities. But autonomy—agency—is not the same as ownership. Unlike property, agency should not be—cannot be—a contract or title to the claims of self possession. It must be a given, unbarterable, nonfungible, and universal. The American myth is that here, we have that. In practice, most of us do not. It is traded away every day by the fact that without money—the means of ownership—we have nothing anyone feels obligated to respect.

So alliances are made, groups are formed, coalitions emerge. Churches are ready-made for this, because by joining one the agency we seem unable to possess on our own can be “borrowed” from the cadre. But churches aren’t the only method for becoming something by allying with many. Political parties, certainly, but the principle works with businesses, charitable organizations, clubs, special interests, schools…

All these things, however, exist—here—within a framework that has promised agency.

But that’s a slippery idea to pin down. It’s the thing implicit in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in the enumeration of rights to be kept free of outside (government) interference (or any other), like speech, freedom of worship, privacy, assembly, legal redress, and equal access to public determination. Agency. Rather than that, we have come to regard ownership as primary, as established throughout our history by repeated referral to property as a qualification for common regard. As time marched on, the meaning of the franchise expanded, and in each expansion the issue has been centered on ownership. In the beginning, only property owners could vote. While not so explicit today, there is still a property qualification (permanent address).

In the advance toward a universal franchise, those opposed to the expansion have insisted on more and more qualifications—amounting to proof of ownership—to bear on the people they wish to exclude. After 250 years (here) of this, we have come to a point where almost everything has been, in some sense, transformed into a commodity.

Things that can be owned can be controlled.

How does this relate to the Religious Right’s support of Trump and their censure of Beth Moore?

Trump is all about ownership. His “brand” is everything. He is admired (by some) for having things. Having things is the hallmark of success in this country. Not “who you are” but “what you have” matters more to most people, because the former requires a sense of Self that is neither publicly evident or reliably fixed (people change).  (Also, who you are may be terrifying to other people, so it is easier to reduce the Self to a set of traits that you “have”—implying that you can trade them in, get new ones, swap them out, or just put them away.) Success at Having Things is understandable, accessible, universalizable. It also validates for others the presumed right to have things.

Trump is popular among certain groups because he does just that—he validates their view of what it means to be an American, which is entirely wrapped up in Having Things.

One of the things he “has” is the prerogative to deny agency to those he sees as inferiors or, at least, unworthy of consideration.

For evangelicals this includes many of the kinds of people of whom they disapprove. While Trump’s “manner” may offend their sensibilities, they do not find fault with his presumptions. In the case of the “pussygrabbing” it comes down to the fact that the pussies he is grabbing are attached to “fallen” women. After all, their wives would never be in a position to be so treated, because they are not “that kind” of woman. They know better than to put their pussies in such circumstances.

I phrase it that way because below all this, the reality for these men is that their wives’ pussies belong to them. Because this is a factor of our culture that underlies much of our disconnect over women’s rights and equity. For them, women don’t “own” their sexuality. They carry it around until a man claims it. Which is why so much of the anxiety and anger over gender equality remains a muddle for certain people.

And Beth Moore? She had the temerity to express the idea that Trump’s pussygrabbing was in all cases immoral, obscene, and deserving of censure. But she can only make that charge if women are their own persons, whole and worthy of regard as free agents.

And agency is the one thing evangelicals cannot grant outside the confining circle of their faith, which is a club of limited membership, very exclusive, and cannot admit to any kind of baseline equality. Doing so would require they change their message on so many fronts and accord respect to people and persons they a priori consider beyond the pale. Unredeemed. Damned.

Just the fact that Beth Moore has for all these years been disallowed from holding an equal position within her chosen conference demonstrates that the principle of ownership is in force to deny her agency, because she cannot own what her colleagues already claim for themselves. They see it as their prerogative to grant status and people outside their selective regard have no right to claim anything for themselves.

Consider their stance toward transgender persons: this is a threat to their purview because it is individuals taking possession of their Selves and claiming agency. That they would have to know that Self intimately enough to move beyond the reach of simple possession is a denial of the message of “salvation” through superior agency (Christ). And, on a more basic level, it frightens because gender orientation is one of those things that is “owned” and often regarded as a separate thing to be scorned (denial of the flesh). That it is fundamental to identity creates too many confusions and contradictions for the smooth apprehension of a theological proposition which is supposed to be Otherworldly.

But in practice it comes down to an ownership issue.

Consider an example outside of questions of Self. The rejection of government economic support for the poor. This would seem paradoxical. If the point is to alleviate poverty, what does it matter where the aide comes from?  But it matters if you consider the dispensation of that aid proprietary. They see it as charity and according to their own philosophy, charity comes from the heart. Governments render this moot, because it becomes a matter of economic systems. There is no “charity”—hence no Good Works, no affirmation of moral mission, no opportunity to demonstrate one’s christianity. Charity has become a wholly-owned trademark of religious expression and no one should take it away, least of all systems that might render the matter solved.

Beth Moore ran afoul of an unexamined aspect of American culture as expressed through a religious lens. Trump may be an immoral, foul, odious being, but he affirmed for them the basic right of ownership of so many issues, and hence condemning him and withdrawing support was not possible. It might have played out a little differently had a man in Beth Moore’s position done what she did, but it still would have intruded on the majority’s presumptive rights of ownership—in this case, the ownership of male privilege.

On an even more perverse level, Trump was also the proof of government corruption—he fit their idea of what the government already was. If the end game was to destroy the beast, why not support the one who best exemplifies everything they claim to hate? Putting a good man (or woman—unthinkable!) in that office would seem perverse, because what could a good man accomplish? It would only delay the advent of freedom from what they see as secular attempts at creating a baseline equality that denies their “right” to judge.

And here it generates endlessly stranger ideas of what may have been going on.

But Beth Moore turned on the juggernaut and was trampled by the unstated assumptions of the inner circle. That evangelicals can show a history of their own indulging in all the things she condemned Trump for doing ought to have been a signal that she misunderstood just what she was dealing with.

Agency, as I assume it here, is something beyond ownership. But it’s personal, and it’s malleable, and it is uncontained by convention. It actually cannot be owned, so it becomes necessary to prevent its manifestation.

I do not here claim everyone is so ensconced in this morass of what I’ve termed Pathological Ownership—but then it never requires many people to subscribe to an idea to have an impact on how the culture responds. Because we have a rather nebulous set of alternate models, the idea of Having Things being a substitute rather than an expression of Self can distort all out of proportion to the numbers involved. It helps if we know what it is we’re talking about, identify the issue at hand, instead of stumbling on assuming a different set of values at play.

Just about everything in the divisive cultural and politic mess we’ve experienced for the last few decades can be explained by this idea. The GOP won’t cooperate with the Democrats? Why? Because they seek to own the issues. If they cooperate, then they must share, and sharing is the road to ruin, because no one can own what is shared. The moment you share something it is no longer exclusively yours,.

Too many people just want to own everything.

 

 



Sifting Babel

Richard Nixon lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy by basically one vote per district across the country. Contrary to the popular myth that grew up around JFK, he was not even close to a landslide, and had Nixon challenged the outcome in court, which many of his advisors were urging him to do, history might have been different. Nixon demurred. He said he refused to be the cause of a constitutional crisis, took his loss, and congratulated Kennedy. Despite who he was and what he later did, he had a line he would not cross.  For the good of the country.

Nixon’s later administration set the conditions which eventually brought us to this year.

Nixon was still part of a culture that embraced common goals between adversaries. Simply put, both Democrats and Republicans believed in the same basic principles, they simply differed on the appropriate paths forward. Oh, certainly there were disconnects, but there had been a core of ideas and aims held as givens.

That no longer seems to be the case.  For large portions of the electorate, it would appear there are wildly different outcomes desired. The possibility for working across the aisle, compromise, and envisioning a common future has fractured. The exaggerations fueling the animosity are becoming more pronounced, to the point where at times it seems two completely separate languages are being spoken, languages which share vocabularies and even syntactical and conceptual similarities, which are becoming more and more unintelligible to each other. What the two sides mean by things like Progress, Patriotism, Tolerance, Law, and Rights require interpreters.

I have been wondering for years now just what some people want to see happen. What do they want their country to look like if they win?

With the era of Trump, I think I know what those who support him, even now, want. Partially anyway.  If I’m even close to correct, I can definitively say it is nothing I want. More than that, it is not something they’re likely to get even if they somehow get their way politically.

When one works through the rage, the foul language, the insults, the chants and slogans, it sounds like the goal is an American Empire that acts entirely by decree. But decree that is almost entirely directed outward, at the rest of the world. The Mexican border wall is exemplary of this. Keep the world out. Keep what is American in, at least in terms of ideology, wealth, and community. Tariffs go hand in hand with this.  Certainly much of this has to do with jobs.

Following upon this is some vague desire that the economy be one which supports a large middle class that is somehow self-sustaining. One based on high wages and low prices and rests upon the dominance of American manufacturing, which should be mostly if not entirely contained within the borders of the country. It should be robust enough that some version of the single-income household can re-emerge so the culture itself ceases to be whipsawed by questions of equity fueled by low wages which require segments of society to seek work when that same culture wishes them to labor inside the home.

And all of this is to be achieved without regulations or unions or systemic wealth redistribution.

There are pundits and ideologues aplenty telling us all this can be done, but for liberal influences which privilege multiculturalism, globalization, and a variety of individual empowerment programs that seek to hamper industry, destroy the family, and deny American Exceptionalism. Charts, graphs, power-points, and pedigreed lectures reinforce the belief that we have lost our way because some of us are at heart anti-American.

The possibility of achieving this utopia of nationalist privilege is unquestioned in this instance. Facts, theories, projections, and basic reason notwithstanding, the aesthetic triumphs because accepting anything else is terrifying.

The possibility of sitting down with those so frightened is small, because fear impedes the ability to reason, which is itself terrifying to those trying to reverse damages seen as suicidal in their unchecked eventualities.

The point, though, is that we are confronting less a set of principles than an aesthetic movement. I have suggested for years that a certain element of rightwing malcontent is not doing this for sound economic or political reasons so much as it hates what the country looks like. Momentum has been gained because opportunists have fed them on their own bile for a long time. So much so and so effectively that now some of them are all but apologizing for what they did because they didn’t think it would go this far. The manipulations are not, therefore, theoretical—the Kochs and the Murdochs have admitted it—and were done for simple greed and power.

The simple reality is that people make poor decisions when they’re afraid and buy all kinds of stuff along the way. Keeping the pipelines open has been the primary aim of these people. Pipelines? The ones the money flows through.

Wartime economies run hotter than peacetime economies. We have been operating on such a footing since Vietnam. Well, since WWII really, and that military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about is anxious to maintain the flow of capital.

It is an absurdity to suggest that someone, anyone—say, Jeff Bezos—“earns” seventy billion dollars in five months. It only goes to him because that is how the system is set up. This is hydraulic capitalism and it has nothing at all to do with “deserves” or “earn” or “make” or, really, fairness. But by keeping enough people frightened of the world more or less constantly, the political and social will to change it simply never coalesces.

And now add to that this aesthetic element fed to people about what America “ought” to be, and the confusion multiplies.

But wait. Such a machine cannot operate as well as it does without a certain truth to its claims.

Globalization has impacted our economy, in some ways negatively. When you are losing your business it is difficult to look at the so-called bigger picture. And both political parties have for a long time served the same masters at the expense of the middle and working class. And the poor? Individual politicians have cared, here and there and from time to time, but the poor have been disenfranchised as a matter of course and thus do not vote, at least not in sufficient numbers to be heard. This is the unfortunate legacy of those days when both parties shared broader goals and only argued over the details of how to Get There. It is easy to understand, if we care to, how someone like Trump can come along and persuade a lot of people to vote for him when he poses as their champion against a common enemy—Washington. We cannot forget that many who voted for Trump in 2016 would have readily voted for Sanders, who is about as opposite as one can get from Trump, but who represented the same possibility—overturning the D.C. applecart.

The utility of that possibility was and is debatable and we will discover in what ways in the coming months and years, but both were lightning rods for a basic frustration.

What we have now is a roiling mass of inarticulate dissatisfaction that has grown into a social movement, and social movements are often aesthetic as much (if not more so) as political.

Aesthetic?  Look at the targets. LGBTQ rights; separation of religion; the rage over immigration; the dichotomy between demanding one set of social conformities be put into place while others be rejected, often with extreme prejudice. And, as always in this country, issues of race. Any one of these can be demonstrated to be strawman issues, but appearances—ah, appearances, and what they say about who we want to be.  Or at least be seen as. Absent the concrete aspects arising from analysis and an understanding of the components of social dynamics, the aesthetics become the binding commonalities of what amount to tribal affiliations and roll onward as if all the rest needed for cogent response to civic policy were already part and parcel of the call to action.

Unfortunately, this makes it all the more difficult to address, because it is very like ( a perversion really, but still) of matters of taste.

For my part, I reject the basic aims of this mass of inappropriately-named conservative ends. They are illusory for one thing. Hollywood codifications of far more complex phenomena. For another, we long ago passed the point of comfortable isolation. We no longer live in a world where we can ignore each other. Globalization may have been poorly handled (although I defy anyone to explain how something that dynamic can ever be “handled”) but it is inevitable. We all live on a single planet, and we have run out of room to run away from the effects we have on each other. We can’t behave like lone gunmen anymore.  Too many people will get hurt, killed, and our own legacy will be one of ignominy and ruin. We here cannot close the borders, either physically or culturally, and hope to survive, and if we keep trying the world will abandon us and we will not be part of a better future.

We have for a long time been reversing the shambles of Babel, but recently it seems some of us are trying to reinstate the fear of that idea, when everyone was utterly alone and terrified because no one could speak to each other.



Reason and Intelligence

This will be brief.

The other day during a particularly fine conversation with a coworker, the subject of “true believers” came up, specifically with regards to Amy Coney Barrett. It is often said people of a certain religiously-inclined mindset, on certain topics, are, well, not that bright. “How can they not see?”

I realized then—or at least finally codified—the basic problem with this.  It conflates intelligence with religious belief and not in a flattering way. Any cursory glance at history will show this to be erroneous. One cannot look at people like Aquinas or Augustine or even Erasmus or Calvin and make an argument that these were not intelligent, indeed brilliant, people.  In conversation with our contemporaries, we find the whole spectrum.  Yes, some folks aren’t very bright, but then others are quite bright, even near the brilliant end of the scale. The question confronting those of us who are puzzled at their adherence to ideas and creeds and conclusions which to us seem obviously dubious, even absurd, has of late been couched in the wrong terms. It’s not intelligence, not even learning.

The factor I conclude that separates one from the other—say, the credulous from the critical (and I’ll stipulate that even that formulation is freighted with certain biases that make it inaccurate)—is a question of certainty.

The one barrier I have come up against time and again in discussions with people who hold opinions of debatable integrity is Certainty.

They are certain. Absolutely so. They have staked out a patch of intellectual or ideological ground and named it inviolable because here, they claim, is absolute truth, absolute reliability, absolute morality. In the face of that certainty, there is no purchase. Unless and until one can move them to entertain the possibility that they are in error, the argument is pointless.*

Certainty.

So here’s my thesis. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Arguing that people (and here we can insert a wide, wide range of belief and opinion, much of which is not even religious, but has the appearance of religious conviction) who hold certain beliefs do so because they are “not that smart” creates a secondary problem, because now you have made a fundamental error in judgment. We are not dealing with intelligence.

We are dealing with a question of Reason.

And by reason, I mean the ability to apply critical analysis.

We have to ask about an ability to reason. And one’s ability to do so is contingent upon many things, but I think it viable to contend that one loses that ability in direct proportion to a failure to suppress certainty.

The unreasonable is a hallmark of a failure to suppress, even for just the space of the dialogue, certainty.

I find myself automatically mistrusting someone who has no doubts. Doubt is necessary to the useful application of reason. Doubt even as a tool of modeling.

I think it might be useful to shift our perceptions in this. Attacking intelligence only entrenches. Fostering a positive capacity to intentionally doubt is conducive to reason.

Something to consider.

 

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* I will also stipulate that they may still retain their opinion and that is fine, but they will have engaged in a process whereby reason has a chance to allow other viewpoints, other conclusions, and perhaps create a more productive ground of mutual respect and consideration.



Corruption and Pathology

Aphorisms, like any good cliché, hold a grain of truth, which is why they can’t be easily dismissed.

“You can’t cheat an honest man.”

That one has haunted us for ages and it’s an instance of something that points in the right direction but fails to be sufficiently inclusive. Of course honest people can be cheated, it happens all the time. Because honesty isn’t enough if fear undermines it. One doesn’t have to be dishonest to be vulnerable to fraud, which was the point of the original saying—that only people “looking for a deal” are liable to be cheated, because their blindness to false promises that offer them unwarranted advantage makes them so. But we know it’s largely bullshit.

At least on its face. If you peel back a couple of layers, it actually suggests that no one is honest, that we all have an avaricious nature inside of us somewhere, one that under the right circumstances can emerge to trip us up. As you look deeper, the aphorism says much more than it seems to, but you have to be willing to go there to see it. The proof of the saying would be in finding an “honest man” and trying to cheat him. That may be harder than we like to admit.

Consequently, it’s more useful than at first glance. It says things about human nature, in such a way that we can avoid direct indictment. It’s the start of a conversation, though. The pairing of two conditions to examine a proposition:  cheating and honesty. What do they have to do with each other? Well, obviously they’re connected. Cheating is obviously a question of honesty. The phrase spreads the responsibility around. It suggests all parties play a part. It has come down to mean something perhaps narrower and it is an easily debunked warning.

But it cannot be ignored and, onion-like, the layers revealed in peeling expose how actually complex the proposition really is.

I’d like to try something similar with another such pairing. I’m not sure how to phrase it as neatly as the first, but something like:

You cannot corrupt an unprejudiced person.  Or perhaps, bigotry produces corruption.

Several things become apparent. The first and foremost is the use of corruption here can be misapprehended. By corruption I mean far more than the present-day definition of someone open to financial and monetary influence, one who profits by abandoning duty and responsibility, can be bought. There is certainly that, yes, but I think the greater range of meaning must be considered. The simplest being “the impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle.”  This can be achieved by means other than fiscal and therefore becomes harder to reduce to a simple material quid pro quo.

And the bigotry?

My proposition is that the only way to corrupt someone is if they are already convinced of (a) their own innate superiority, (b) the de facto inferiority of others, and (c) the fear resulting from those convictions when dealing with those they perceive as their natural inferiors. That fear—which can take the form of resentment, hatred, aversion, and the desire to limit or control the actions, behaviors, and mobility of those others—renders one vulnerable to corruption.  In fact, it’s probably more common to encounter corruption based on these things rather than with mere money, but also much harder to expose and understand and, therefore, to confront and overcome.

The feeling of threat underlies all this and the willingness to compromise in matters of ethics can lead to an erosion of principle. Any honest look at history reveals this.

But we have to come to an understanding of corruption that serves rather than merely blames.

In the context of our country, we can look at the big one, the issue that nearly ended the union. Slavery.

We declared that All Men Are Created Equal and then promptly subverted that idea by refusing to consider All Men (and women). To do this required that we embrace a belief in our innate superiority. Once embraced, it was not difficult at all to add people to the inferior categories for opportunistic reasons. Foreigners, Native Americans, Asians, the Poor, people of other religions, political opponents—all of it follows from the concession that our stated principle of equality was not to be applied as stated. And yet we touted that as our defining virtue.

But it did not end with the abolition of the institution. We fought a war finally to remove slavery from our country and yet…and yet…

The betrayal of principle continued, even among those who were on the front lines of ending slavery, because they ultimately could not acknowledge the perniciousness of their prejudice. That while slavery was odious, the presumed inequality of people of color remained an accepted norm, and every move to redress that condition was fought, consciously or unconsciously, by people willing to ignore and betray stated principles in order to guarantee a sinecure of superiority.

It becomes an easy thing to move from one betrayal to another when the basic hypocrisy is left unacknowledged and unaddressed. Because one sees oneself as innately superior, for whatever reason, and is therefore willing to see others as necessarily inferior, then anything that presents as an aid to maintaining that condition can appear acceptable, even if unethical. Because preserving status is vital to maintaining all other aspects of life. Yielding to monetary corruption is perhaps the simplest expression, because votes can be bought ultimately in service to the preservation of privilege.

Which can only be seen as acceptable, even good, because it goes to supporting a false structure of superior/inferior, relegating individuals, groups, and classes to lower status, which is acceptable in order to protect a status based on bigotry.

(And then the willing use of force to maintain the conditions that appear to demonstrate the presumed inferiority of groups who, because we cling to our assumptions, must be made to stay where they are.)

Why bigotry? Because in order to assume the correctness of one’s corruption, you have to believe others are simply less deserving. Innately, because it is impossible to know them well enough if at all to base your judgment on anything other than assumptions derived from cliché, stereotype, or the uncritical acceptance of assertions themselves based on assumptions of inequality. To accept these things is to be prejudiced and to act on these things to preserve status is, in my view, fundamentally corrupt.

It’s the believe in an unearned, intrinsic status based on assumptions of systemic inequality that makes one open to various forms of corruption. If we fail to recognize this, we will be continually blindsided by the choices and decisions of those in whom we wish to invest trust who then go against the desires and express wishes of others.

I am not suggesting that the abolition of bigotry is either possible or would solve all problems of corruption if it were. What I am suggesting is we will have no chance to resolve these matters without a better understanding of both bigotry and corruption and their, as far as I can see, natural relation to each other.  Corruption is, at base, an illicit means of gaining advantage over others by increasing the power and resources of those who instigate corruption. It works because on some level the people they corrupt want the same thing—a sinecure of advantage to keep perceived inferiors in check.

We focus almost exclusively on financial corruption. This is a mistake. While such examples are a problem, they tend to brush over the flaw that makes such corruption possible, namely the belief in special privilege, especially at the expense of others, and obviously extralegal privileges always come at the expense of others.

So my suggested aphorism—you cannot corrupt an unbigoted mind.  It is certainly, as all superlatives, flawed, but I feel that until we come to grips with the connection we will be forever fighting wars, both ideologically and militarily, to redress the inevitable imbalances attendant upon ignoring it.

Perhaps, after all, this does have something to do with honesty and cheating.

 

 

 



Detritus

Things pile up.

In 27-some years of living in my house, debris accumulates. Not dust, that can be swept up, wiped away—redistributed—but Stuff. Books, papers, nick-knacks, unquantifiable objets-d’art. A long list of “do you know what this is, where we got it, do we want/need/feel impotent to discard it?”

In my case, books, music, movies. Media. I am an art packrat. A “pack-art” or an art rat or some such. My shelves are full, the stacks are growing, and I find myself unwilling to part with any of it, because it all means something. I have a three foot shelf of books about the Napoleonic Age I am loathe to be rid of because they are research for a trilogy I have written but not sold and on the off-chance I need to do further work on that trilogy, I do not want to lose the books. (I have another, seven foot shelf, of books about the Civil War and Reconstruction Era for a novel which never got out of the note stage, but which I very much want to write, so I’m hanging on to the books.) I have piles of books I want to read, but have no idea when I’ll get to them, and some of them will be rather beside-the-point if I don’t get to them soon.

Then there are the sheaves of notes. Story ideas, phone numbers, websites, research comments, scribbles. Some of it goes back 30 years and I can look at the words and wonder just what that was all about.

The music and videos are another matter. I listen to music a lot. I love movies and television shows. But we now have Netflix, which adds to the obvious impossibility of “catching up.” I’m beginning to think about that during retirement, but then there are all the books…

It is my past and I am unwilling to bury it.

A bit of morbid darkness creeps in sometimes, looking at all this. Leaving it all behind for others to pick through, assuming they will. More likely it all just goes out the door. No one in particular will know the history of acquisition behind it all.

Which for the most part doesn’t bother me.

But I am an artist. I don’t mean that in any egoistical sense, only in that I have spent my waking life creating things, ostensibly beautiful things, for the pleasure of others. I have spent almost as long puzzled that no one really gets to see much of it. I am—have been, remain—terrible at self-marketing. I have tens of thousands of photographs going back to my adolescence. Most of it unremarkable, journeyman work, forgettable if not just bad. But there are some good images.

I have nothing in place to secure the future of that body of work.

The writing is different. I’ve managed to get it out there, in front of people, and I am modestly able to claim some kind of imprint on the public. Not much, but it won’t all just vanish.

My music is yet another matter still.

But it is there. All of it. Sitting beneath the surface of a life.

I wonder how other people anticipate the evidence of a life lived. I had every intention of being more or less orderly, with a place and a context for each important object. The filing system of my experience should have been like a gallery, through which one might stroll and see everything. Instead, it’s more or less a mess. A comfortable one, for the most part, but sometimes I see the need to impose order, just so it doesn’t look like it needs throwing out.

Purges can be therapeutic, though, never mind the freeing up of space.  There is the mental drag of always being reminded of what you haven’t done yet.

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I wonder about the workers tasked with throwing things out of suddenly vacated houses or apartments. Are they aware that they are excavating lives? Not curating, though. That’s what concerns me now.

I had other plans for my ecology.

I think “ecology” is a useful way to look at one’s life, the furnishings, the rituals, the care. Healthy ecologies extend across the entire spectrum of possibility and desire. We assemble them over life. Early on, it’s a matter of adding things in, then arranging them, and finally some weeding becomes necessary.

But there’s some comfort in all that surround. Familiarity, at least. And throwing things out can sometimes feel like self-surgery.

It is true, though, that sentimentality can become a trap. It can feel better than the here and now, especially since it is so malleable. Sentiment (as well as a constantly reshuffled memory) rewrites history for us.  Not only pain, but everything acquires a temporal gloss. Like the speed of light, the closer we approach precision, the harder it becomes, and we can never quite get there. We assume record-keeping, memorabilia, scrapbooks, and the components we build to represent our lives (to us as well as to others) will make it easier.

I’m not sure what that means, though. As the past recedes, faster and faster, dopplering out of reach sometimes, the objects meant to remind become in themselves the thing of which we are reminded. Not the event or the people or the place, but the thing. At which point we have to question if it is worth keeping. If the memento no longer memorializes but, perhaps, just takes up space for something more valuable…

These are certainly personal considerations. But it may be that the same applies to larger matters. How much do we keep as a community? As a city? As a nation? At what point do the things meant to memorialize take on a self-importance that supplants the legitimate memory and thus become blockages, impediments, worse than useless? What might we learn or discover in their absence? What might we become if no longer encumbered by the distorted memorials of a past which may have no real relationship to what we were and certainly not to who we are?

If I finally get rid of that pile of old notes, will it change who I am? Probably not. But it might let me be who I am with a little more clarity.

Something to think about.

 



Truths

I have rarely watched party conventions. They are filled with hyperbole, grandstanding, speech-making excess. All the emotion-laden hucksterism we usually joke about at other times. I distrust decision-making based on limbic response to blatant attempts to “inspire” me. Inspiration, to my mind, should be an emergent property of action, of character in service to sound ideas, to a self-evident moral response to circumstance. I am inspired by what someone does, is doing, not by the particular rhetoric of promises and assertions that I should believe in something as embodied by the speaker when I have not seen that speaker doing any embodying.

In this, I suspect I am in a minority. People seem largely to prefer cheering to deliberation.

In any event, I have usually made up my mind well before the convention, so unless a dark horse comes riding onto the floor, there are no compelling reasons for me to subject myself to what amounts to four days of self-congratulatory back-slapping, bragging, and crowd-rallying, the last of which I deeply mistrust. Too often, large crowds end up displaying the least dependable aspects of human nature. The momentum of large groups can overwhelm reason and restraint and end in riot. And by riot I do not necessarily mean the physical kind. There are many types and they are all destructive.

But conventions are instructive at a distance. You can tell a lot about the people in attendance, supporting them. This year the difference could not be more stark, and on a very simple metric.

The crowd component I mention above…

The Democratic convention this year was held online, virtually, in order to handle the pandemic in as responsible a way as possible.

The Republican convention was held in the traditional way, bringing crowds together, regardless of the pandemic and its potential consequences.

That’s pretty much all one needs to know about the difference between the two parties right now. Because the one is banking on its ideas and its embrace of common sense and a modicum of concern.  The other is banking on the momentum of the mob, and for that to be a factor, people have to be in the hall, in sufficient numbers for the excitement of the party to overwhelm reason.

Much has been said about the nature of our democracy. This has always been a topic, but it has grown into a major factor. Are we a democracy? If so, why do the parties make it hard for some people to vote? Shouldn’t the right to vote be axiomatic and unquestioned? “The Founding Fathers____!”

Fill in the blank.  It’s said they distrusted democracy, hence we have a republic, which is held up as some kind of anodine to democracy. it is said they loved democracy, hence humbled themselves before the dictates of The People. You can find quotes to support both positions. Like pulling quotes from the Bible, one can defend almost any assertion based on what the Founders said.

Some of which was unequivocal.  Much of it was implied. A good deal was personal opinion.

But it seems evident that they recognized a basic truth about human nature.

People do not live wholly by ideas.

People live where they are and by what they feel and in relationship to who and what they know. One way to put it is that people are less deliberative and more reactive.

For instance, you’re a colonial listening the the reading of the Declaration of Independence and you hear those words “All men are created equal.” How do you feel? Quite likely, if you are a patriot of the day, you hear that and think of King George and think “He’s no better than me, we are in fact created equal!” And that feels good, feels right.

What you do not do is turn around and say, “By god, that’s true, we should free our slaves and stop killing natives! We’re created equal!”

The idea has a limited range of effect. It may work in one direction, but not the other. Certainly, looking at history, this is a perfectly accurate reading. Ideas do not change prejudice, behavior, habit, or desire, not unless those ideas already in some aspect conform to one’s prejudices, habits, and desires. It is inarguable, based on the evidence of things done, that people ratified the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and then continued living as though none of it actually applied to them. In each period of our history, a struggle has occurred over what our principles say and what we wish to do.  All men are created equal, except some, whose situation we do not wish to change because it will cost us, and besides, those words only applied to me. Freedom of speech, of course, except for that newspaper publishing things with which I disagree, so I will burn it down. The franchise should come with equality, which is expressed in our Declaration, except for people I know who will vote against what I want to do, so no.

This is not a ridiculous idea. This is privilege, short-sightedness, and the consequence of people fearful of sharing something they only just now won, and not trusting that it means the same thing to others as it does to them.

And besides, life is competition, the struggle for advantage, cut-throat and dog-eat-dog, and abiding by lofty principles will erode gains made by one group in favor of other groups with no obvious affinity.

The Founders knew people were like this. It is why they created a system that worked against any one person or faction gaining and keeping power and also why they distrusted pure democracy. They took a very long view of how this might evolve, and some if not all of them knew it could get ugly.

But what choice did they have? They came very close to re-instituting a monarchical system they had just fought a war to be rid of. How to prevent that obvious desire? They heard from people who were happy and proud to be free who then wanted to turn right around and put themselves back in the same chains. No doubt they thought it would be different because they would be “our” chains. Then, too, they knew they could not simply overthrow the entire system already in place without releasing the jackals of civil war. We nearly had that anyway over the first decade or two. I think they knew it was inevitable as well, but had no idea how long it would take, and established a set of promises that gave legal pretext for suppression when it came.

The history of the Republic is underpinned by large segments of the populace acting on the assumption that certain rules did not apply to them. That to “do the right thing” according to those ideas would have meant not doing what they thought they had been given permission to do in the first place. Colonizing, settling, exploiting, intruding, and embracing intolerance when necessary in order to keep doing what they believed to be their right to do. What became the moneyed class, capitalists, assuming they could ignore the principles as long as business improved. And later, certain Citizens who assumed the law did not apply to them, because they were important and those pressing complaints against them were not.

Because ideas rarely trump that innate limbic response which can from time to time inform crowds and overwhelm reason.

When the charge “the Founders never intended” is leveled during times of disputatious turmoil, we should stop right there.

Yes, they did intend. Because they knew the ideas they sought to elevate as the foundation of a principled polity would take time, conflict, blood, and riot to instantiate. Yes, they did intend that we go to the mat over these things, because they knew it was the only way behavior changes across populations and even within families. They knew because they had just been through a class in exactly that. The arguments they made to Britain and the Crown over representation, taxation, treaties, self-government—arguments that were perfectly reasonable, even legally sound according to British law—had failed to move the king and Parliament, because that “august” body and George III simply did not feel their laws applied to Others. The entire war could have been avoided if ideas had immediate power as self-interest and pride and passion. The Founders had watched England squander the good will and potential of the North American colonies over questions of privilege and the assertion of authority.  In other words, they had watched human stupidity wreck a sound relationship.

So they knew what could and would happen when ideas—especially new ideas, ideas based in abstracts (albeit with profound real-world consequences) ran afoul of people being who and what they were.

And, yes, what they created took that into account. So what they “intended” was that we hash it out. They knew we going to fight about these things. All they did was set the ground rules and sprinkled some idea throughout to give us the right things to fight about.  Did they cover every contingency? Of course not. How could they anticipate what might change? Oh, wait—they did. The Ninth Amendment.

The flaw, if flaw it is, in the system is that with growing success materially our interest in participating intellectually tends to wax and wane. That’s why Jefferson stressed education. But even that is no guarantee that we might not come to a point where most of us could be willing to throw the whole thing out for the simple expedient of having Someone Else make all these difficult decisions. As well, the more complex the world becomes, the likelihood that enough of us might have the time, intellect, or interest in understanding these complexities well enough to make the kinds of judgments we elect representatives to do grows smaller. It’s not impossible, but look at where we are now.

But the fight goes on and out of the kicked-up dust and spit and broken teeth some kind of emergent property forms to take us to the next step. It almost never looks like we’ll make it, but at each one of these periods something comes about that carries us through.

Because ultimately we move against demagogues. Not because we disagree with their positions or dispute their ideas, but because we will not be dictated to. Persuaded, seduced, enlisted, certainly, all that, and at times we find ourselves with leadership taking us questionable directions because the program was presented with flowers and candy, but when the specter of bullying autocracy becomes evident, we bristle.

It’s not a method I am comfortable relying upon.

But to the point, we have an ongoing tension between who we want to be and who we are. Slowly, oh so slowly, over time, we have changed, becoming closer to an ideal which, itself, has changed. You could ask almost anyone if they agreed with that initial statement, All Men Are Created Equal, and for the most part find agreement. Of course, that’s what it means to be an American.

Then the other shoe falls. All men. And, in fact, all people, are created equal. All.

And then, if you press it, you find equivocation. When it becomes clear that you mean they should treat everyone equally.

Well, wait just a minute…

No, people don’t like that. For many reasons, not all of them as capricious as it might seem. For the most part, the discomfort is mild and usually unexpressed. But it’s there, and given the proper nourishment, erupts. But over time, we know the principle is better than the impulsive rejection.

Gradually we become who we wish to be. Sometimes it takes generations. And sometimes, there has to be a very public, very bitter contest over it. And if we’re lucky the reasons for embracing the ideas over the impulses show themselves starkly.  Then we have a choice. Who do we want to be?

Two conventions. Just the difference in the way they were handled is indicative of the choice.

As to the content…well, that’s been clear for a while now.

This is not, should anyone believe otherwise, a plug for one party or the other. Parties evolve, morph, turn into their opposites, encompass positions that are often far from ideal. No, I’m not shilling for one party or the other. I’m talking about where the human beings are right now. Where you find the clearest expression of human sentiment, ethics, and, yes, morality. I’m talking about people trying to be one thing or the other, but really I’m talking about people trying to be the best version of what our ideas have shown we can be. Where do they happen to align now? Where will we find the better angels of our nature? The room is not so important, although just now the nature of the room itself is telling, but who is in it.

 

 

 

 



Should I Or Shouldn’t I?

The question came up recently among friends about answering the claim that, concerning the wearing of a mask these days, “I have freedom of choice. If I choose to risk getting sick, it’s still my choice.”

My reaction was basic, which I will reveal at the end of this.

Choice is one of those perennial topics that rises and falls with public fashion.  We link it to our ideas of liberty the way we link certain colors and seasonal clothing. At least until it really matters, but then we tend to dismiss it as a right and turn it into a species of moral determination that brooks no debate. We have it or we don’t. Period. Mitigating circumstances, point-of-view, necessity—and it is almost always the unaffected decrying the tragedy of permissiveness when someone whose situation is unknown, alien, or unfortunate seeks redress through choice which, all things being equal, most people never have. Or have to exercise.

Making a choice because the outcome is important means weighing options, reviewing evidence, considering multiple factors. It is a matter of consideration, not a reflex, or, worse, playing to a script because it sounds righteous. Denigrating people who have to make choices, who do that work, is done by people who probably have never been faced with a critical issue that requires thought, maybe sacrifice, and the knowledge that what choice is made affects others beside yourself.

I’m being categorical here because listening to and watching some of the protestations over the wearing of masks and seeing them “masked” as a matter of personal choice stirs my blood a bit. I’m sorry, but no, you are not making a choice based on reasoned consideration of viable options. You’re just saying you don’t want to be bothered. It’s too much trouble. It feels funny.  It’s inconvenient.

Because all the nonsense about this being a violation of rights is empty posturing. You’re just a selfish jerk who probably doesn’t obey traffic laws very well, either.

And if you add to that the excuse that your current fearless leader has given you permission to be a jerk, then I will add that you’re a moral coward as well.

Because this is on you, as an individual (which is what you’re claiming, after all), defending your right to choose. Offloading the responsibility onto the blind mouthings of that empty suit—well, that’s more of the same, isn’t it?

You just can’t be bothered.

So, no, this isn’t an example of choice in action.  This is an abandonment of all the factors that go into making choice a valuable right.  If you were actually exercising that right, then you would go somewhere and isolate yourself from human contact until a vaccine is available.  That would be the reasoned exercise of the right you’re claiming.  Putting others at risk just because you don’t want to be bothered…well, that’s just lazy self-centered blather.

And, yes, since you ask, that’s really how I feel.



The Only Thing We Have To Fear

We received one of those chain e-mails detailing in exhaustive hyperbole how all our current woes stem from the Left’s plot to “hurt” the president. It was filled with blaming, with tortured reconstructions of history, with the logic of the obsessively fearful. On the one hand, it made no sense. On the other, its message could not be clearer. The sender is terrified.

Of what, I am not exactly sure. But it encapsulates a raw, undifferentiating fear that first and foremost just wants everything to stand still.  Everything. And maybe back up a few steps, history-wise, to an imagined time that never was.

It was altogether depressing, not just because it was so laden with bad history and worse reasoning, but because someone felt it necessary to construct such a thing in the first place. And because of the efforts of others who provided the groundwork for such a thing to become accepted truth for too many people.

The truth is not difficult to find, only difficult to embrace, because mingled with any truth is a certain amount of ambiguity.  We usually confuse truth and fact, but what we’re seeing is not a confusion of them, but a rejection. There’s little in these things that demonstrate any investment in reality, of any kind. It’s pseudoscience and alternate history, an imitation of comprehension.

And yet, somehow, it feels real.

The reality of the cage.

The reality of the gated community, the narrow selection of news sources, the country club exclusions, the property tax impediments. The reality of purged voter rolls, underfunded schools, privatized healthcare that excludes by price. The reality of assuming everyone should be like you, and if they are not then they deserve no regard.

The reality of looking at a man designated their leader standing in front of a church holding a bible while calling for stronger police action and not noticing that he had his path cleared to that church by law enforcement and tear gas. This perfectly embodies the mentality of his core supporters, who are terrified. They are not angry.  They are not in dudgeon over the state of the union. They are in vehement disagreement with the direction of the country, but not based on a reasoned examination of what is and what could be.  That assumes cause and a reasoned response to issues.  There is none of that.  You can tell by what they excuse in the name of getting their way. Because, above all else, they are terrified.

It is difficult for someone who is not terrified to deal with someone who is. All the usual connections are buried under layers of reaction and adrenaline and doubt so profound Dante wrote an epic about it. That level of fear is itself terrifying and infectious. Walking it back, extracting the poison, that kind of work takes time and a degree of patience itself damaged in the confrontation.

The sad part is, those who are that fearful, that terrified of losing…something…seem unaware that they have already lost it. Because what they most want is to stop being afraid.

So they channel it into anger. They take a position, set up a perimeter, defend it with all the vitriol at their command, not realizing that the tiny space they have boxed themselves into holds almost nothing. Worse, while in that state of self-erected rage, they have become so easily manipulated by those who have figured out how to benefit from their inattention.  All someone has to do is point.

We seem too often to feel we are apart from or above history. We understand on some level that one of the chief tools of the autocrat is to single out a group that is in some way identifiably distinct from an ill-defined “majority” and start pointing at them whenever problems mount to the level of public agitation. Time and again we have watched dictators, strongmen, juntas, tyrants direct the frustrations and anger of their people at a target. We even seem to understand that this is done to distract that presumed majority from the actions of the one in charge and to gain the power to direct the fortunes of a country for his own ends.

But we don’t think it can happen to us.

This after decades of being whipsawed in exactly that way. Civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, social justice, immigration reform.  Each one of these causes has been marked by an antagonism far outweighing the actual difficulties of achieving what ought not to be controversial in the least. Every single one of these instances have been amenable to straightforward solutions which became mired in factional disputes over—

Over what? Questions of whether the people at the heart of these issues were deserving? On what basis were they not? The resentment was fueled by someone, some group, pointing a finger and frightening people with possibilities that upon examination were baseless, cruel, silly, and ultimately illusory.  Like an experienced gambler, they parlayed our feelings of discomfort into nightmare fears of calamity, and in the end they accrued more power to stir that brew again and again, until among certain of us the reaction has been axiomatic. The finger is raised, no more prodding is required, we are ready to do battle to defend Our Values.

Which are what, exactly, in this construction? Hatred? Oppression? Denial of agency? The solution of the gulag, the concentration camp, debtors’ prison, or state sanctioned murder?

It is difficult individually to see how the structures at play feed into this. We live with them, for the most part they serve us, and if we are never abused by them it is hard to accept that they can be abusive to others.  But it isn’t that complex.  Things like lending practices, insurance risk-evaluation, investment strategies all can be used to target and exclude.  Jobs? Look at shareholder reports to see how those are affected. Even something as simple as refusing to acknowledge a word or a fact or a change in how a detail is used in a report can produce inimical consequences for some group with which we may have no direct connection.

Reagan blocked the CDC from talking about gays during the AIDS crisis. The deaths mounted. Something as simple as a refusal to look at a detail can kill.

The only reason this happens is because people are terrified. Sadly, they often don’t even know what it is that frightens them, they only know that they’re frightened.

And someone is right there to use that to take power from them and keep it for themselves.

If this country, this experiment, this idea perishes, it will be because too many of us are too afraid to be who we want to be.  Who we intended to be.  Who we can be.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it.

 




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