Revisiting

Nostalgia can be a narcotic. Lately I’ve been going through the accumulated evidence of 50 + years and wondering why I kept it even as each bit triggers memories I’m glad to have. Do I really need this gew-gaw? This piece of paper? This book or album? Part of me can’t bear to part with any  of it, but the practical side of me is starting to sort and allocate in anticipation of the time I just have no more room, no more interest, and no further use. I’m already cutting back on acquiring more. I have enough music on my shelves to last another couple of decades, by which time I could start all over. I don’t need any more. I’m trying to figure out how to arrange my days so I can hear more of it. As for books, well, good lord…

But getting rid of it?

I go through periods of expunging my belongings, making the hard decision that I will probably never read that book (again or even once), that I haven’t listened to that album in 30 years, so why do I still have it. I’m starting to be worried about my photographic archives, which are sizeable and I haven’t made much of a dent in digitizing them (too many other things to do getting in the way, time is finite, and so forth). Recently some opportunities have presented themselves that have taken a little pressure off.

The thing is, I’ve never been able to ignore the practicalities for any length of time and pretend everything will simply go on as it is now. I’ve always known I had to prepare for the time when I won’t be here.

Does that sound depressing? It’s not, I assure you. Better, I think, to know where everything’s going to be and manage to have less of it to deal with than leave a godawful mess behind for somebody else to clean up.

There are two writing projects I have on backburners for which I have a lot of research material to hand. One of them is actually written, but I haven’t found a publisher yet. The other I have to find some time to start. I have very practical reasons therefore for keeping all those books. Believe me, I would like to get them off my shelves, many of them are not the kinds of books I would bother to reread for pleasure.

But I have other sets of books about subjects that I have vague notions about using for future projects, and I’m wondering if I’m ever going to get to them. (As I sit here, I can look up at a row of biographies of American presidents. I had a notion once of reading through them chronologically, but I haven’t read a one of them yet, and I stopped collecting them. It’s not that I don’t know anything about these people, but what I have learned I gleaned from histories of the periods, not specific biographies. Am I ever going to get to them?) Part of my conundrum is that I do not read particularly fast. I have the Oxford Histories of the United States on another shelf, each volume covering a specific period and each one a brick. Reading one can take up to a month of my time. (Fortunately I’m usually able to keep four books going simultaneously, but even so…)

And then of course there’s the music and the movies and tv series…

I have a hunger to absorb as much as I can. I never thought about this for years, because there was always more time, but.

Nostalgia combined with dissatisfaction can be genuinely painful.

There was a time I thought—carelessly—that I could do anything. You can go through life thinking that as long as the things you do do are successful. If you never turn your attention to the rest, you’re never confronted with your actual limitations.

But once you are, you have some choices to make. Howl at the injustice, turn inward, resent the short span of life and the confines of your imagination, or—

Or take inventory, acknowledge reality, and embrace what you can. You might be surprised at just how fortunate you have been to do, be, and experience what you have. And that taking life as it comes without worrying about what won’t come leaves you with an open field for the next wonderful thing.

Clearing one’s inventory can make the coming experiences fresher. That whole Zen notion of letting go (more or less) and letting the past remain the past. There is one central question I’ve found useful to ask and answer, providing we don’t take it as some kind of final judgment.

Have we done what we’ve done as well as we could?

Certainly we’ve all left some things twisting in the wind. All kinds of reasons to walk away or, often, we are prevented from seeing something through to some ideal conclusion. But in the moment, did we do the best we could, honestly, and with care? All those things you wonder if you should keep—none of it has an answer other than to remind us of the question.

I’m not advising complete divestment. I love my books, my music, my home, my things. But certain of them I love more and maybe would appreciate better with less competition around them. Many of us use our possessions as markers, extensions of identity, augments to personality. That’s why getting rid of some things is so hard. But it’s not an accurate way to see things. They do not make us more, we make them important. It behooves us to choose carefully what we invest with that kind of authority.

Anyway, it is not my intention to be maudlin. I’m just ruminating n the midst of the archaeological dig of my life to date, and thought I’d share some observations. I’m going to go work on some fiction now.

Oh, and—yes, I think I’ve done what I’ve done as well as I could. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, I’m going with the idea that the goal is end up with the right regrets, the worthwhile second thoughts. Those would be those that add to the achievements not bury you in pointless nostalgia.

Anyway, be well.

Year One

A year plus since retirement. October, 2021, I left the regular work-world. It was a harder decision than anyone knew, even me. I’d certainly given myself enough advanced notice, letting my employer know eight or so months in advance. Plenty of time to train replacements, let people get used to the idea. Even me.

Now it’s December of ’22 and I wonder at the time.

I’m sure most people have plans. Plans. “I’m going to do—.” Sure. And then reality swallows everything and what happens happens and maybe some of those plans survive. I’m looking around an office I had every intention of thoroughly cleaning, rearranging, and updating. Well, the piles are in slightly different places, and some of them are different piles than before, but in the main it doesn’t look like I’ve done a thing.

The same goes for the rest of the basement. Attempts have been made, but frankly I need a month in which nothing else makes demands on my attention.

I have, however, managed to clear some dust off my career (writing) and make some headway in getting it back on track. After my novel-writing period more or less crashed and burned, I finally decided to turn back to short fiction, and to my pleasant surprise things picked up. I’ve written and sold a score of new stories. And now I have a new novel coming out in the spring. (Not science fiction, which is a bit of a surprise, though very welcome. More about that later.) In recent weeks a few things have occurred to give me hope that matters will turn around even more. Allow me to leave that vague for the time being.

I include as an element of any advice I dispense to want-to-be writers that of paramount importance for a career is Persistence. Just showing up is inestimably vital. You cannot succeed if you quit. Persistence does not guarantee success, but surrender pretty much guarantees no success. I’m now of the opinion that this is a matter of playing in traffic. Put yourself out there, in the flow, and eventually something will hit you. Not the most coherent plan, but with few exceptions the one most of us are able to act on.

The thing I did not count on is the fading of desire. I remember the fire, the urgency, the firestorm of optimism, and the excitement at the creation of new work. The impatience with the molasses progress of execution. Why should it take so long to get these words down in the right order? Why did everything take so long…

And now, forty years after making the decision to pursue this thing, that burning eagerness has lessened. I’ve become a bit jaded and quite tired. Partly this is a kind of maturity that counsels me to use myself more efficiently, that the fire never added much to achievement. It still takes so much time to write something, to edit it, to shepherd it through the stages of getting it out into the world, and that now it seems to take the same amount of time as it did when in the grip of the fever. Calmer impulses marshal resources to better effect. 

But more than that, I simply don’t suffer from disappointment and disillusion as much. Rejections still hurt, but not as much, and there’s a muffling kind of acceptance that seems therapeutic now. If it will happen, fine, I can only work the machine the best I know how and wait.

I wonder if this is not just the result of callouses grown thicker and that I’m missing out on something that I once felt to be so significant, possibly even the point.

Still, I’m working. I believe I’m writing better than ever, the work that goes out is better. My impatience is the only thing that seems lacking.

And then there is the rest of life…

I’ve begun reading philosophy again. Once upon a time, I was a casual admirer of Ludwig Wittgenstein. I appreciated some of his approaches to what was known as Logical Positivism, part of the Analytical School of modern philosophy. Primarily, it was his (quite arrogant) thesis that all of philosophy’s “problems” stemmed from misapprehension and misconstruals of language. That if we just figured out how to be absolutely clear, we would understand. Granted, he realized later how simplistic this claim was and embarked on a deeper analysis of language structures and their application to questions of the real. 

I have believed for some time that science fiction is at base the most philosophical of literary endeavors, that the primary assumptions in most of it have no relevance outside an attempt at understanding the nature of reality in a unique way that emerges in the array of speculative presentations against which human struggle might be understood in evolutionary terms. In a way, the very idea of The Future has no actual meaning outside a philosophical framework. The best we can say is that something will follow the Now in which we exist. We call that the Future, but it has no material reality that we can examine. By the time there is something to examine, it is no longer The Future, and from our position Now we can only make assumptions about the Future because Now is the Future of a Past we can cite.

That is the exact sort of proposition that one would find in a good piece of science fiction. It is also the sort of thing that informs philosophical propositions.

It relates here, now, in this, because the day I retired I had a speculative framework of what my Future would be like. Ambitions, desires, expectations. (If you think about, life is a science fiction story.)

I haven’t attended to philosophy as such for some time now. It would be fun to get together a group (again) for regular discussions. The last several years have in so many ways challenged common agreements on causality, truth, and commonality itself, and it seems the only sane responses are either to yield to the impossibility of ordering the conceptions of the world (insanity) or work at better understanding in order to create conceptions that reduce the chaos. Ultimately we can only control our own reactions. 

Some of this, for me, comes from having reached a strange place in relation to those past ambitions. I am in many ways more comfortable in my own skin than I have ever been, but at the same time I recognize the world around me as a place I do not know how I found. I’m reading older books, my indulgence in history has increased, and yet I still revel in the new voices I encounter, even while the names on the spines fail to spark the kind of thrill I once had regularly seeing a new work by an author with whom I was familiar. I can see clearly how nostalgia can become a trap, one we may not wish to escape. The familiar has such gravity, increasing year by year, distorting our path.

It’s Christmas weekend. The landscape is punctured by rabbit holes. The people you surround yourself with (and who are likewise surrounded by you) are the only guidons to keep you on the solid plane of vital connections. The deep structures of reality (of perceptions) are anchors to a world navigable to the betterment of the soul. The hypotheses of conspiracy wonks are less than the shadows on Socrates’ cave wall. (I will not call them conspiracy theories—that elevates them above their utility and lends credibility where none exists—but at best hypotheses, at worst con games designed to distract from actual living.) I am still with my partner of over 42 years. Snow fell yesterday. The sun is bright today. I’m listening to some very good music (late period Herb Alpert, if you care to know—he seems to have left behind the heavy reliance on “catchy” tunes and clever hooks that made him so popular in the 60s but he is still one of the cleanest horn players around) and I have the capacity to speculate on matters of moment. The trick is to identify what matters.

Wittgenstein, as I noted, asserted that we need find the clearest way to express ourselves in order to “solve” the problems of philosophy. I have no real quarrel with that idea—after all, I’m a writer, story aside my work consists of trying to find clearer ways to say things that might lead to truth—but I would only add that life does not have A Solution. Living is a process, an evolving set of realignments, relocations, and above all recognitions (re-cognitions). There is no single answer, only the ongoing encounter and construction of an imagination that renders chaos meaningful.

Starting on that path can be as simple a thing as cleaning up one’s office. 

Blame

So Trump said (more or less) that if the midterms go well, he should get all the credit and if they go badly, he should get none of the blame. This is politics. He then noted that what would likely happen is the reverse—that a Republican victory would garner him no credit and a defeat will give him all the blame. Again, this is politics. This kind of thing is standard. We see this at the presidential level all the time, if only in the rather shallow fact that a newly-elected president inevitably gets the blame for what his predecessor did when the new guy fails to magically fix everything in the first hundred days. More seriously, presidents get blame for things that are out of their hands—currently, that would include inflation.

The predicted Red Wave did not happen (except in Florida, but that state currently seems to inhabit an alternate universe) and the Republicans are scurrying about trying explain how it’s not their fault. My take is somewhat different—I’m amazed they did as well as they did. I realize people vote their wallets, but I keep wondering at people so divorced from how things work that they would happily vote away their rights for anticipated solutions which the people they vote for have little to do with. The institution that deals with things like inflation is the Federal Reserve and it is doing its job and as the Fed has a firewall between itself and Congress, there is no value in voting out the party that had nothing to do with the situation in the assumption that the other party, which have virtually no meaningful say in any solution, will magically fix the problem. I look upon the citizenry of my country in bafflement that this simple reality is so hard to grasp.

Oh, funding bills? Like for infrastructure? It is largely accepted by both parties that America’s infrastructure is in sore need of attention, so exactly where is the issue? Inflation or not, roads need repair, as do bridges, and we need a high-speed rail system and high-speed internet, regardless. Not funding these things would make the economy worse. But monetary policy—which is where we find things like inflation—is out of Congress’s hands. Do people really not know this or do they just vote the way they do to be arbitrary?

Let’s assume they do not. Then that means a great many people have no problem with the social fascism extant in the GOP. That voting away civil liberties is somehow worth it to keep a book about LGBTQ+ issues out of the hands of kids, that this is a reasonable trade-off.

Likewise, crippling the healthcare system for women and criminalizing gender-specific treatments is worth reducing half the population to conditions wherein they have much harder times to fight poverty and establish equity, things they have been and are still fighting to obtain for over—well, pick your date: half a century, over a century, since the Founding. Mind you, I am not referring only to abortion, but to a whole host of gynecological needs which even now we see examples of women being denied treatment because healthcare workers are afraid that such treatment might land them in jail, depending on the state. This is not theory but practice.

So the GOP is now making statements about who to blame as if their problems are simply a matter of selecting the wrong candidates. They cannot find it in themselves to look at their policies and recognize that they are out of step with actual people. (Because I can predict with a certain amount of certainty that on any of the above issues, many of them while being quite happy to deny Other People those rights, will expect to retain them as privileges, under the table or otherwise, for themselves.)

I’ve been hearing a handful of Republicans broach the possibility that they have failed on social issues. A few voices, here and there, identifying the problem in their alienation of certain voting blocs with unpopular or tone-deaf stances.

And yet, the over-half-century long propaganda train that has labeled Democrats as, originally, Tax-and-Spend Liberals and more recently as Socialists disturbs enough people that they will blink when given the opportunity to categorically repudiate a party that serves an idea of the free market that doesn’t actually reflect reality and assumes isolationism and defense spending are the only things that matter and that to stay in power is willing to strip people of their civil liberties and their ability to act on conscience and backs censorship and has perfected gerrymandering to the point now that elections are imperiled, too many people seem willing to put their actual rights at risk rather than face a future with the boldness America is supposed to be filled with.

It is heartening that damn near every election-denier across the country has lost their election race, but that leaves us with a party that seems to think this is just a temporary set-back, a matter of popularity rather than policy, too close to securing unassailable positions. Our own Senator Hawley (Missouri) has stated that it is time to bury the old GOP and create a new party, and as far as it goes, I agree. But such a new party, in order to be viable—philosophically, morally, politically—and be something identifiably in step with American principles, would necessarily have no place for people like him.

We cannot rest on this election. It will take a few more election cycles to re-establish the confidence the GOP has damaged in our democracy. And we need a federal election law to prevent states from arbitrarily rejecting fair elections.

Fair elections. It’s amazing how the fraud being claimed by the deniers, when you get right down to it, always ends up demeaning traditionally minority voters and impairing their ability to cast ballots. If you don’t want to be labeled racist, stop tilting the scales to white (usually male) voters. After the 2016 election, when evidence of foreign involvement was demonstrated, commissions worked heroically to close loopholes, plug gaps, and establish the next elections as the safest and most secure in our history. There may still be work to be done, but after all that, to claim that the 2020 election could be stolen is purest fantasy. All that really means is, your candidate lost, and you can’t deal with that. Apparently, a lot of Americans, of both parties, agree. The deniers lost.

Don’t go looking to blame the candidates as such. The problem is in the policies. The shift we may be seeing is a clear statement that those are in need of fixing.

This time, at least, I am somewhat relieved. I’m not holding my breath today. Next time, we need to oust the reactionaries.

The Chains Of Normal

Over my lifetime, one concept has popped again and again to tangle things in a web of pseudo-logic. It seems to go unexamined most of the time, until it emerges as the fulcrum of issues over systemic change. Normal. We seem ever in search of Normal. To be Normal, to return to Normal, to stop deviations from Normal.

But we have a damnable time defining what that is. I mean, really, just exactly what is Normal?

Normal has changed steadily over my lifetime. And with every major realignment, a new Normal becomes established and accepted and soon enough we find ourselves contending again over that which is Not Normal. It’s understandable that some people get confused and frustrated. I keep remembering poor Tevye from Fiddler On The Roof, striving to find a way to see the changes and accept them, always declaring his fidelity to Tradition.

It doesn’t help that we all have a different idea about what Normal is. Not necessarily wildly divergent ideas, but if the topic is pursued long enough, these small variations can emerge that throw the whole notion of Common Ground into question.

What is Normal?

More to the point, why should we always try to assert a common definition as if anything else will doom us to chaos and agony?

I see two concepts of Normal in conflict. They overlap, but are not the same. The first might be something like “that which supports a common and consensual equilibrium throughout a community.” Normal, in this case, might be construed as that much-acknowledged but hard to achieve “level playing field” we hear so much about.

That it is so difficult to achieve may be due to the other concept of Normal: “that which allows me to feel secure in my expectations and opinions.”

In my teens, men with long hair were seen as violators of Normal. You could point to pictures of Wild Bill Hickock all you wanted, and Society refused to accept that boys walking around with hair to their shoulders was in any way Normal. It wasn’t done. And while it may seem trivial today (because that background concept of Normal has changed) it created an ugly atmosphere in the country. (My freshman year in high school saw the football team assault the handful of “hippies” that attended my school and forcibly cut their hair off. Of course, three years later, some of those with the longest hair in the school were on the varsity team.)

Why should these things conflict? Well, that should not be difficult to understand. If you have an idea of what is Normal and then the community around you exhibits changes that cause you ill-ease, requires you to question your assumptions, or even, at some point, shift your politics or moral assessment, what we see most often is an aggressive denial of those changes, and at some point a reliance on a presumed set of standards called Normal.

“That’s not Normal!”

We can go down the list of things in the last 60 years that were opposed because they were not Normal. Civil Rights. Homosexuality. Women’s Equality. Opposition to these things often enlisted language and philosophies that seemed more involved and sophisticated than merely saying they were not Normal, but when you dig down you can see that, for many people, these were violations of personal desires to feel secure in their expectations and opinions. We know this because over time, all of this has become accepted—become Normal—for most of us. It turned out none of these things were actually dangerous to the community.

Opposing them was.

The perversity of these conflicting concepts of Normal can be seen in cases of those who engage in behaviors which they personally pursue but then hide because they realize this may not be Normal. The awareness of community standards drives the given behavior into hiding. Sometimes these behaviors are inimical, both personally and publicly. But attempting to be seen as Normal overrides even the logic of coming to terms with the deviation.

How to tell the difference? How, in other words, to “normalize” something and how to know when such normalization is not acceptable?

Start with a simple question: does this hurt anyone? (One should include one’s self in that question, but for practical purposes, look beyond.)

Help for certain problems is avoided by the overwhelming urge to appear Normal.

But we don’t actually have a good idea of what that really is. To each their own only goes so far, because the community had to be considered.

So perhaps a definition of Normal might be: “that which allows for a mutuality of conditions sustaining both community equilibrium and personal fulfillment in private choices.”

Ah, but what might this mean in practice?

Obviously, this would entail a recognition that personal concepts of Normal have limits. As would community concepts. (There was a time unwed pregnant girls were put in “homes” so they wouldn’t be seen out in public. A girl in my high school sued the public school system when it tried to kick her out for being pregnant—and won. Of course, many people expressed outrage that a pregnant girl would be attending classes with all of us “innocent” students. But this was what passed for Normal back then. And it changed.) So obviously some notion of harm would have to be better codified on both sides.

It could be worked out. We do it anyway, but it’s such a messy process that often leaves casualties behind. Those chains of Normal are loud when they get rattled. I think it’s an innocuous idea that becomes pernicious too easily. We’ve traditionally been too willing to censure, incarcerate, punish things that in the end only make certain people uncomfortable. Their efforts to suppress behaviors that ruffle their delicate sensibilities (or their power base) harm far more than not.

Just now we’re seeing that conflict play out over competing notions of Normal. Not to make light of it, but really, the outraged sensitivities of one group trying to reassert a standard of Normal that was revealed as inadequate decades ago is causing enormous harm.

Normal is a monster. I’ve had that cudgel waved over my head a good deal of my life, for one thing or another, most of it relatively innocuous in itself. “Why don’t you be normal?” And ultimately, the question had little meaning, because all it meant was “why don’t you be like the rest of us and not make us feel uncomfortable around you?” Well, in the end, their discomfort was not my problem, though they tried to lay it on me. And this was over things like hobbies or aesthetic preferences (my love of science fiction at one time). What might it have been like if the issues had been more life-threatening?

I would welcome a community-wide reassessment of what constitutes Normal. We have a heuristic appreciation of it and in some instances it works well enough, but given that the only constant is change, we need to have a clearer idea about it.

Fascism, after all, is the ultimate insistence by one group on everyone else about what is Normal. We’ve seen what that costs.

 

 

School Prayer

Over the years, I have modified my opinion on this many times. For a long time I believed it was a non-issue—how do you prevent it? If a student is intent on praying, what would prevent it?

Nothing. Which leads to the next realization that the people complaining about, demanding it, leading the charge against a prohibition that does not, in fact, exist are not interested in prayer in school: they’re interest in School Prayer, which requires public demonstration. What they want is openly-led prayer, as a group, with full participation.

This is not prayer, this is indoctrination. This is taking a position and directing the students to attend to what is being advocated. One major problem with this is that those students who decline to participate will be singled out and self-identified. What, one may ask, is wrong with that? Did you never go to school in the United States? Any deviation from a presumed “norm” is an excuse for bullying.

What is desired is an imposition of conformity.

Well, one might ask again, what is wrong with that? Isn’t that part of the point of attending school?

To which I must concede, yes, it is. We wish our people to have a common grasp of what it means to be a citizen and for that a certain degree of conformity is required.

Which is why this is such an intractable issue for many people.

How do I feel about it now?

Well. I believe the problem is not so much with a relative dispositions of a required set of conformist doctrines so much as that this is not supposed to be what school should be about in the first place. School—ideally—is where we should be sending children to learn how to apply skepticism. We should teach them how to think, how to examine the world, take things apart and put them together again. We should be allowing them to discover, in lightly directed ways, how the world works, what it means to develop understanding, and how to approach life critically. We should be teaching them, in short, how to avoid being duped.

While there may be schools where that level of actual learning takes place, for the most part it doesn’t happen other than by accident. I’ve always felt, at least after reaching an age and a level of understanding that allowed it, that public schools are not there to teach but to produce Citizens—consumers, workers, voters, patriots, parrots. Therefore, School Prayer is just another aspect of this and would be consistent with the programmatic inculcation of the conformity too many people prefer to the possibility of having a population of critical individuals questioning every damn thing and maybe challenging the status quo regularly.

So (again) how do I feel about it now?

Absolutely not. Religious instruction of any kind, unless done within the context of history classes, should be kept out of school, because it is by definition antithetical to skepticism. Which is of course why some people want it in there.

Somehow, some way, many students manage to acquire the tools of critical thinking even through the often mind-numbing “instruction” that passes for learning. They emerge as questioners, as independent thinkers. Apparently enough of them that the proselytes of conformity want to throw this in to the mix to see if something can be done to shut it down. So in the name of giving actual freedom of thought a chance, I must declare that I prefer religiosity of any kind kept out of public education. The fact is, religion depends on faith, which is incompatible in concept with skepticism. Mature believers certainly do find ways to balance them, but it seems unfair to expect kids to find that balance before they are even acquainted with the power of their intellects.

The day comes when we actually teach critical thinking as a matter of course, then by all means, admit prayer. Until then, I say leave it out. We do too much already to instill a stifling conformity.

3000 Words About Bad Faith

We compartmentalize. All the time. We divide things up so they don’t inhibit our ability to act, to judge, to feel. We don’t even seem to have to learn how, it just develops as life unfolds. The walls, though, are porous, and occasionally they collapse altogether. But they re-establish given opportunity. 

But sometimes the divide between one part of ourselves and another can become toxically entangled. It can cause a lot of pain, confusion. When challenged, there’s a kind of panic that attends to our desperate attempt to put those walls back up, to find a way back to the comforting areas where one thing did not conflict—violently at times—with another. 

The old jokes about never discussing religion or politics at dinner or with strangers indicates an awareness of this phenomena that goes way back. Because established beliefs can run afoul of new evidence or personal feelings or even with other established beliefs. They exist in balance, precariously at times, and we have rules of engagement to prevent the explosion that may occur when one is shoved against the other. Why we don’t do something about the contradictions is one of the great conundrums of life, but most of us discard old ideas with difficulty. As I say, they are comfortable. We’ve been living with them a long time.

But sometimes resolving the conflict is vital. Life or death. 

“My body, my choice.”

On the surface, not a difficult concept, and likely for most people in most circumstances, an automatic “of course.”

Until it comes to sex. (I will stipulate here some muddle when it comes to drugs and such, but we do not so much dictate what can be done with someone’s body but only what may be legally possessed. Drugs are not, generally speaking, Of The Body; they are foreign substances. Even so, regulations regulate possession—we tend not to criminalize using drugs, but having them. Sex, by comparison, is Of The Body.) Then we encounter all the rooms into which people have shoved conflicts, embarrassments, unresolved questions, religion, desire, fantasy, ambition, guilt…a stew of unexamined reactions and complications that remain so because so many of us just don’t want to think about them. Because the vagaries of the act and the desire conflict with social issues and other beliefs which we may not have examined, at least not deeply enough to find the fulcrum of our dis-ease. 

And then there’s the fact that so much of what we feel about it changes over time. It is intrinsically part of our body—all the unmitigated hormonal things we seem mostly unable to control, that once we survive puberty we wish to be done with—and it is often in conflict with the dogmas of our upbringing. No wonder people want to put it in a cage and ignore it.

Until we can’t. 

Now, many people figure all this out well enough to avoid lifelong neuroses, therapy, or self-loathing and live lives wherein sex is an organic part of who they are. Most of them do this well enough that quite often the struggles and conflicts may be forgotten. So much so that when they pop up in others and lead to erratic or irrational behavior, we’re surprised and unsure how to deal with the results. And if these conflicts erupt into the public forum, we find ourselves in the awkward position of defending positions with which we are only tenuously familiar.

But suddenly we find our lives being intruded upon and our own sense of what we presume to be our rights challenged in ways that catch us off-balance. Because—compartmentalization being what it is—the challenges do not always come at us straightforward. They are often couched in terms designed to mask deeper issues.

“My body, my choice.” We have, at least in this country, and more generally in the religious traditions to which we are heir, treated sex like a thing apart, a separate something that is not to be admitted as part of who we are. In popular culture it is often portrayed as a sort of prize, to be won, a reward in certain circumstances, but in too many instances as property, a commodity, a thing that can be owned. It is a thing that happens to us, a thing that takes control of the aspect of ourselves we do consider as who we are. We make excuses for it, treat it like a lapse, a mistake, we hide it, we use it to extort, intimidate, smear, manipulate, like it’s a drug or a demon or anything other than an intrinsic part of our own identity. 

You can trace this all in the hypocrisies on exhibit. People who believe contraception is “wrong” and yet, after fifteen years of marriage have only one or two children; those who publicly decry infidelity, yet carry on affairs which they pretend don’t happen; women who picket clinics and then avail themselves of those very services when they are “caught.”

“Caught.” An archaic but telling euphemism describing an unwanted pregnancy. It encapsulates the issue nicely. Unpacking it reveals all the incommensurable elements, the contradictions, false assumptions, and judgements that permeate this matter. She did something she should not have and got “caught.” Meaning becoming pregnant. Which of course makes pregnancy a punishment. Combined with the attitude expressed by many who condemn abortion—or birth control of any kind—that such things are “letting them get away with it.” Get away with what? Having sex? Being sexual? Why should that be something about which anyone other than the consenting participants have any say?

A man I worked with when I was 20 took pains once to describe to me how at one time he suspected his wife of cheating on him. It was a fraught period in his marriage but he found out his suspicions were groundless. “I didn’t have to kill her,” he concluded. A few months later he had to go on a business trip with the company owner and he gleefully looked forward to it, that he would have the opportunity to “grab a piece of ass” while he was away. I looked at him in some dismay. I reminded him of what he had said about his wife’s fidelity. He dismissed it by claiming this was different. When I asked how, all I got was a puzzled stare, like I should just know.

“Grab a piece of ass” is another one those euphemisms that explains so much when you unpack it. Firstly, it reduces an essential element of another person to an object. It abstracts out the “thing” from the person who has it. It turns that thing into an object that the woman only seems to carry around. He wasn’t going to find a person to make love with, he was going to make use of her genitals, which are somehow Not Her, or perhaps simply not hers. There are many of these turns of phrase, which do the work of rendering the components of sex isolated from the person who has them. Some of this attaches to the male sexual apparatus (“my dick has a will of its own”), but not nearly as much and not to the degree that women’s sex organs are so rendered.

By so doing, though, possession is established as the essential element in what amounts to a kind of third party transaction. To underscore what I’m suggesting, the history of prostitution, especially in the modern era, reinforces the assertion that women have only provisional ownership of their genitalia. 

Which does make the whole thing a kind of property rights issue, based on an inability to see ourselves as whole beings that are, as part of that wholeness, sexual.

Why is this important in the current climate?

Because it also, by extension, sets pregnancy apart from the woman, defines it as a thing separate from her Self, that once that condition is established she no longer is meaningfully in possession of either her body or her pregnancy. 

There is a pathology to this which seems pernicious. It is bound up with a resistance in our culture to not “own” our sexuality. Since the Sixties and the so-called Sexual Revolution, there has been a reaction to perceived obscenity, lewdness, promiscuity, and permissiveness that saturates the Culture Wars. This is where it manifests. It reduces sex to the social equivalent of taking drugs, making it a separate practice from what is “normal.” When the practical distribution of contraception for women became common, the discussion came closer to what was really at issue. The insistence by social conservatives that contraception be banned, returning sex to something fraught with the risk of “getting caught” tells us what is really going on. Sex must not be normalized as something innate to what it means to be human. 

(But marriage! Well, yes, but that’s an arrangement. Sex is implicitly offered as both reward and excuse for getting married.)

The fact that the anti-choice movements feel they have a moral right to impose their objections on everyone undercuts any legitimate moral rationale. This is not about morality but about ownership.

The fact that many anti-choice advocates are willing to make exceptions in the case of rape or incest underscores this even further. Sex, in this formulation, is something that “happens to” a woman. Therefore the unwanted product of it can be seen as a separate, utterly alien manifestation ruled by “special conditions.” The idea that sex is an organic expression of a woman’s sense of self is, in this formulation, incommensurable with the “happens to” concept. (In rape trials, the fact that a woman’s manner, history, apparel, so forth are used as defense of the rape underlines this attitude. In order to be found “innocent” she must be seen as without her own sexual identity.)

Bringing this to the whole abortion issue, wherein a fetus is argued to be fully human, we can see how it plays out. In this, the woman does not—cannot—be entirely self-possessed. If she is, then the pregnancy is inseparable from her. It is something of herself. It is her body, producing a condition. It is, in a way, Her. Which gives her agency over it. 

It is not a separate thing which can be granted agency by social decree. Which is what the anti-choice crowd would assert, going directly back to the initial assumption that her sexuality is not intrinsic to her identity—it is this Other Thing which by custom, tradition, and even legal precedent is given special acknowledgement defining it as an object that can be owned.

And traditionally, owned by someone other than herself, either her father, her husband, or in the current assertion Society. Anyone but herself. This can only be asserted by denying that it is an inextricable part of her.

If pregnancy is an emergent condition, with a potential if carried through, but primarily an expression of a woman’s Self, then there is no moral or ethical basis for denying her the choice to either proceed or terminate. It is as much Her as her lungs, stomach, heart, bones, and we grant her agency over those by implication in the instances of organ donation or elective surgery or DNR mandates.

If pregnancy is a separate object, something other than and outside her, then she does not “own” it and can claim no agency over it.*

But we can only assert that if we strip away her right to Self entirely, effectively reducing her to slavery, indeed all way to machine-hood.

If we agree a Woman is an individual with rights to self-determination and agency, then it is impossible to morally assert the kind of authority over her that would deny her the right to her sexuality and all that attaches to it.

Which means that this issue is not wholly, possibly not even initially, about the so-called unborn.

Which of course is now being demonstrated in the raft of anti-choice laws being touted to constrain us on several fronts directly to do with personhood and matters of self-determination emergent from an acknowledgment that sexuality is an irreducible aspect of identity. Of Selfhood.

What this comes down to is a recognition that the separation of primary aspects of ourselves is a form of distancing that allows for the intrusion of third-party control, which cannot remain isolated to only that aspect but eventually expands to become control over the whole Self. That in this instance, the feelings, desires, thoughts, and apparatus of a woman’s sexuality must be seen to belong entirely and only to her, as essential elements of her sense of agency; that all of this cannot be possessed and therefore controlled by third-party forces. And if that is the case, the use and condition of those components cannot be selectively determined by anyone else because to do so necessarily leads to such intrusive determination of her entire Self. That such autonomy being necessary as both precondition and purpose of free will within any legal context seeking to hold as a necessary part of democracy, with personal liberty as its intent and justification, then it cannot be tolerated that such autonomy and agency be selectively restricted by common law, regardless of the condition or use to which the individual defines as personal prerogative.

We may not therefore seek to dictate personal choice in matters of sexuality or its concomitant aspects by selective legislation beyond the commonly understood social limits regarding assault if we wish to maintain the image of a free society with guarantees of individual liberty.

The current threat to outlaw abortion and the associated attempts at controlling and/or outlawing contraception and all other movements to bar a host of sexual/gender freedoms (trans rights, same sex marriage, etc) are fundamentally anti-democratic, authoritarian, and unsupportable by any legitimate theory of liberty.

Finally, to put this in an even larger context, we must look at the broad goal of the entirety of the Civil Rights movements of the last…well, for the sake of definitional efficiency, since the end of WWII. What all such movements share in common is an assumption of the freedom of association. The self-evident freedom to associate with whom and how we choose. That segregation, either by race, class, or sex, are anti-democratic and a denial of any concept of individual liberty. The upheavals of the last 70 years all come down to this fundamental freedom, and the current struggle over individual autonomy and the self-definition of the individual and the agency accorded to each of us, here exemplified by the anti-choice movement, is axiomatically autocratic and authoritarian and cannot be isolated in its effect to a narrow aspect of our individual Self.+

Lastly, it is evident from the wider context that all of these limiting attempts are being done in bad faith. Laws are being advocated on the basis of a single thing that have as their ultimate goal several other consequences having little to do with the primary justification. The “innocent” are not being protected by any of this. “Innocence” in this case refers only to a condition wherein all other aspects of individual autonomy and agency are absent. It is, rather, an idealized concept that is being imposed exclusively for the purposes of control. Clearly, based on the general lack of advocacy and support for most childcare proposals, “innocence” here refers to that which does not have a presence in the world. In other words, that which is not an individual. Bad faith. **

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*Of course, if that is the case, that we are defining the pregnancy as a separate thing, like an infection or a disease or a surgical implant, then bodily autonomy enters into the discussion from a different direction, namely that no one has the right to “implant” a foreign object into anyone without permission. And then we are right back to realizing that this is in no way about protecting the unborn but about denying women autonomy and agency—because we would have to make a special case for this particular “foreign object” to override her ability to say what can be done with and in her body.

+ In the attempt to define a fetus as a separate individual for the purpose of legislating restrictions on the autonomy of a woman, the argument fails on its face, firstly because it is not a separate individual but until born it is an expression of her body and her self, but secondly because in order to assert such restrictions you must first strip her of autonomy—her freedom—by limiting the definitional parameters of liberty for her and removing agency from her as an individual. It is functionally illogical to base presumed liberties on the constraint of liberty of someone else. And by liberty I refer to matters of self identity and freedom of association. There may well be attempts to example other forms of action which can be construed as expressions of autonomy—for instance, theft, assault, murder—and therefore be protected as such, but this fails by the simple metric that these actions and expressions also require the stripping of someone else’s liberties in order to occur and by definition cannot be confused with legitimate and moral expressions of individual agency within a free society.

**A clearer statement on this could not have been made than that by the Alabama state senator Clyde Chambliss who said at a hearing “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” His concern is not for “life”—in this case fertilized eggs in vitro—but for pregnant women. He expressed no concern here for the loss of “innocent life” but for the idea that a woman might do something about her pregnancy. Which is pretty much tacit admission that the fetus and the woman are not independent entities, but a holistic organic system. Which means that the only rights at issue are the woman’s and in this formulation they are being specifically targeted. Senator Chambliss exhibits no deep philosophical position in this statement but a naked rejection of individual—female—agency.

Trekness

I sometimes marvel at my own inability to apprehend the cluelessness of my fellow beings. Some positions come out of the zeitgeist that leave me gobsmacked at the utter feckless density of people.

And then I recover and reconsider and realize, no, I’ve been hearing this kind of nonsense my entire life. One just never expects it from those one considers allies. It calls into question all assumptions, then, about what one considers an ally, and the realization (which has always been there, really) clarifies that it’s all surface.

There are fans of Star Trek who have apparently only ever cared about the ship, the uniforms, the phasers, and the astronomy (such as it is). When it comes to the message? Not so much. They groove on the coolness of the æsthetics and manage never to quite grasp the underlying themes. Their favorite episodes, no doubt, are those with the maximum number of phaser blasts. Stand-offs between the Federation and the Klingons/Romulans/Cardasians/etc are held up as the whole point of the show. Somehow, they have reduced the entirety of the universe to a military SF genre.*

Fair enough. There has been a great deal of that. It’s exciting, it pulls in eyeballs, it offers a kind of astropolitical board game view of the future interstellar gestalt. But after 50-plus years of an expanding milieu, I can’t say that those have been the episodes or arcs that have stayed with me or had the deepest impact or resonance with me.

I do not see those as the soul of Trek.

They’re aberrations. They are presented as the thing to be solved so they stop happening. And the thing being defended is the vast, peaceful diversity of a polity steeped in nurturing the best of what is possible. The motto that started the whole thing and continues to be the basis for each new series—seek out new life and new civilizations—is the heart and soul of it, but that seeking and finding comes with a commitment to learn, grow, adapt, and remake ourselves in the face of the new.

In other words, it’s not about conquest, it’s about mutuality.

To be perfectly clear, Star Trek has been “woke” since the very beginning, when that multi-ethnic bridge crew appeared in living rooms all across a white-dominated United States. Equality and diversity have been the underlying given throughout the whole franchise. Poorly handled at times, muffled at others, occasionally embarrassingly unaware, but all through it.

Here’s the thing about aliens in science fiction. They have always, for the most part, been stand-ins for humans who are different. They have always been there as something against which to react and learn about differences. They have always been there as challenges to assumptions.

The conflicts? In the best and most memorable examples, breakdowns in communications, understanding, or intolerance unmitigated.

Oh, sure, there has been a great deal of war-fueled SF born out of recasting our own conflicts. More than a few based on WWII, the Cold War, Vietnam. But even among the best of these, there is the message, to be read if willing, that the whole thing is a mindless, stupid mistake that brings all parties down in the end. “Winning” is a lesson in irony.

The lesser material revels in the glory of conflict and the “honor” of coming out on top.

I can see no instance of Star Trek in which this has ever been a laudable scenario. Even Kirk, cowboy that he was, almost always did everything he could to avoid conflict. His worst moments were those in which he gave in to the easy solutions and wore the mantle of revenge.

For the rest of it, everywhere you looked the show extolled the virtues of cooperation, of dignity, of equality, of diversity. It was just there.

So the complainers, those who have somehow been taken by surprise that there is a core of empathy and acceptance and tolerance and an examination of difference and an exaltation of plurality and discussions of what it means to live in a society where everyone by right is accorded the agency of self-worth and the benefits of choice and that, yes, these are the bases of political discourse, have frankly not been paying attention.

Maybe their filters have been set too high and now that we have a few recent examples where the continual, ever-present message has been a bit more foregrounded than in past examples, they are shocked that what they saw as one thing, is actually much, much more. Star Trek has not become Woke (and I find it fascinating that a term intended to signify a state of awareness, of people paying attention, of recognizing what is around you has been repurposed as a pejorative by those who clearly would rather not be challenged by any of that, much the same as all past slurs of the anti-intellectual, the empathetically-stunted, the self-satisfied, the privileged ignorant) it has always been.

Just what do you think all the controversy over Kirk and Uhura kissing was about if not a bunch of unself-conscious racists reacting against an example of what we term miscegenation? Maybe go look up Loving v Virginia for a bit of then-current background. This was Trek saying “this should not be an issue!” But it was and it offended and had the term been current then, people would have been calling the show Woke.

Certain people have a deep investment in not seeing what they find challenging to attitudes with which they are comfortable. In this case, I’m quite pleased they are being unsettled. Squirm.

What I challenge here is the a-historical nonsense being touted that SF has never been political. SF by suggesting the future will be different is fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that change is essential is  fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that we still do not know what Being Human means is fundamentally political.

And SF that actively seeks to deny all this and puts forth a philosophy that such matters are settled and all that remains is for us to assert an end to self-discovery…well, that kind of SF comes in two forms: dystopia and crap. (The dystopic form is aware that this is merely an assertion of power and is basically wrong. The other form is philosophical onanism and is essentially anti-science fiction.)

I find it sad that these things need to be said. I grew up with Star Trek and from the very beginning it was the most positive piece of science fiction on television. It offered a future free of things like poverty, the KKK, anti-intellectualism, tribalism. Those are the aspects of it that sank in, made it a narrative that could not be denied, and has led to what it became today. Not the guns, not the wars—the aspirations of a future worth living in, for everyone.

If that’s being Woke, I’ll take it. Better than staggering through life asleep and destructive.

 

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*”But I don’t wanna see stuff about LGBTQ+ or compromise or learning about alien life forms so I can live with them or about empathy or how flawed humans are or any of that gooey touchy-feelie let’s-all-love-each-other shit!” Then all I can ask is, “Why in the Verse are you reading or watching science fiction in the first place? Just for the SFX? How sad.”

Choosing

Given my previous post, this is not what you may think. But it’s related. Intimately.

When campaign season is in full flower and the claims and counterclaims of politicians mingle in the air like pollen or murmurations or dogfights, it can be understandably difficult to know how to choose. Trying to sort them by policy is occasionally maddeningly fraught. What is best for the country as opposed to what is best for you personally; what may have long term consequences which in the short-run may seem perfectly fine but ten or thirty years down the road leads to disaster; how to tease through the statistics and understand how they relate to anything that might be addressable. To be sure, it is possible to wend a path through all this and fine merit in the various positions, but often reliable information is think on the ground and the epic nature of some issues can make you feel insignificant.

What can be most difficult is choices made on ideology. Having a set of abstract convictions about national identity tied to a fixed notion of civic morality can become problematic when faced with circumstances requiring a change in approach that seems to run counter to those convictions. (Capitalism in its present form produces this disconnect all the time.)

People wish to have a heuristic by which to make a choice in as clear and uncomplicated a manner as possible. But how do you know? Listening to the blind mouths and talking heads, how can you tell the candidates apart in any meaningful way?

For myself, the devil is in the details. Knowing the issues, understanding history, and having at least a passing acquaintance with moral philosophy are my most useful tools. Admittedly, they do not always work. Politicians lie. There is little defense against that unless they lie about demonstrable fact. Lying about intent, principles, lying about their platform…difficult to parse. For people with little time and insufficient training in how to not be fooled, the emotions lead the way. Probably for most people this is the case. Emotions need to be tempered.

So I offer for these heady times a simple rule-of-thumb that in the last several elections has served better than others.

If a candidate says (basically) vote for me and I’ll do something about those people over there, the ones you believe are a problem—that’s toxic from the get-go. That politician is betting on your intolerance, your fear, your ignorance, and giving you something to hate. I will not vote for that candidate (even if they have ideas I might otherwise support—good ideas do not depend on individual candidates).

If a candidate says (again, basically) we have challenges to face, problems to solve, and we must do so together—I will listen and, quite possibly, vote for them.

The first is divisive and creates more problems than it can possibly solve.  The second is healing, and if followed through will solve more problems than it will create. That’s fairly clear. Especially today, in this raging pool of fingerpointing and frustration.  Don’t vote for the dividers. (Now, you may think the one asking that we work together is a divider because they won’t acknowledge what you consider a problem with Those People Over There, but what you really need to do is examine your premises. Even if there might be a real issue, why would you support anyone who would gain political traction by making it worse? There is no solution in that.)

For those continually claiming that there is no real difference between the sides, well, in this instance there is a huge difference.

Something to consider. Hope it helps.

Backlash

I’m seeing a lot of comments that This Is The Beginning. Referring of course to the leaked SCOTUS opinion to overturn Roe.

No, this is not the beginning. The beginning was the first time we allowed the so-called Pro-Life movement to derail state services to protest something that ought to be considered a basic right. It has grown from that seed. This is not the beginning, this is somewhere along just past the middle.

The mistakes—only in hindsight in some instances, but not all—began when we allowed the notion that one person’s idea of proper behavior merited their intrusion into another person’s life choices. We can air all that time and again and gain no traction because for the committed anti-choice advocate there seems to be no compromise. They come from a deep background that does not allow for a conception of sex as a matter of individual choice. Which is why we see so many of them not only on the front lines of the anti-abortion movement, but also advocates for limiting access to contraception, anti-LGBTQ rights, and among the loudest in opposition to Trans rights. We can try to psychoanalyze motives all we want, but clearly they have some belief that sex should only ever be conducted within the strict limits of a presumably biblical model, because evidently sex is not a right shared by humans but a reward for Good Behavior (gifted primarily if not exclusively to heterosexual men) and grounds for punishment if indulged by anyone outside those limits.

The emphasis on those limits tells us what is at stake politically. All the posturing and rhetorical sleight-of-hand aside, what this says to women as a group is:  how dare you have aspirations.

All personal aspirations—goals, dreams, ambitions, preferences—begin in a recognition of choice. And all choice—the “reward” of growing from child to adult—is grounded in the ability to say No.

When you say to a woman that she may not control her life based on her own aspirations, you are telling her she may not say No.

You are telling her that she has no choice.

And before you object that men are likewise bound, very simply we are not. In this particular part of life, we have one freedom women have for millennia been denied: we can walk away.

All the rest follows from that basic distinction.

Now, of course this limitation of choice is useful for any dominant group in relation to those not in that group. But it all comes down to that one thing—a denial of the freedom to have aspirations and act on them.

This has been pointed out and argued for five decades—longer—and yet those who would gleefully overturn Roe are unmoved. They know what they want and the longer we ignore the fact that what they want has nothing to do with the ostensible focus of their cause and try to litigate what is or is not “human” in the context of what happens within a uterus, the more we lose ground. It is an intractable argument in those terms because it is not based on fact, evidence, or logic, but on sentiment and resentment. The kind of sentiment, I might add, that rejects all other sentiment if it does not align with theirs.

A woman’s ability to determine her own reproductive destiny, regardless of circumstance, is fundamental to any concept of equality.

And as we have seen since the Phyllis Schlafly campaign to derail the ERA, that is the thing at the heart of the matter. One group saying to the other, you may not have aspirations. We want you to fill a subordinate role.

Equality begins with the freedom to say no. No, I will not surrender my autonomy to meet your expectations of who I should be.

And boys, if you don’t think this applies to you, too, I think you have a surprise coming.

Patriots

I want to be precise here, so there is no misunderstanding. There will be, because the moment it becomes clear that I’m being critical of a certain posture, some will stop understanding what I’ve written (many would stop reading) and will fall back to automatic reactions that are designed to shield them from any meaningful reassessment. It can’t be helped. People live by heuristics, build walls of rhetorical shielding behind which they can feel secure, and doubt is anathema. Questioning becomes a threat. Just by bringing up the idea of an alternative point of view, the defenses come into play to shunt these ideas and their purveyors into a predetermined category, one which says that they need not be listened to, in fact, must not be.

So when I say that I am tired of people throwing their patriotism around like a glove in the face of others like a challenge to duel, I know there will be those who will immediately see the threat to their so-called principles and stop hearing what might come next. They append it to their introductions, like some kind of degree, both personally and on their social media pages, any chance they get. “I am So-n-So, patriot.”

To me, this is nothing but a red flag waved to attract attention, a goad, like saying “So what are you going to do about it?” It’s a dare to question, to disagree, to argue, to fight. It’s a method for slotting people into Us And Them categories, and as such it is laziness incarnate, because it is designed to prevent meaningful engagement with any viewpoint that may differ. It is, as I said, a shield—and a whip. Using it that way is intended to cause reaction, to establish a set of rules for engagement.

However, it says far more about the insecurities of the one using it than it does of any presumed opponents.

Most people I doubt consciously do this, but it has the semblance of community. Like putting a flag out on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. Celebratory examples abound. But they are special occasions and people not so insecure in how they may feel about their neighbors, their community, their country then put them away for the next holiday. It’s not necessary to prove who you are to everyone all the time.

Of course people do use labels all the time. Religious affiliations, degrees, business titles, political parties, fraternal associations. Shorthand, mostly, a way of signaling who they are, what they find important, where they come from. But for most people, these are open doorways, the start of interaction, a place to begin understanding. The common utilization of such indicators aids quick connection, suggests interests in common, avoids certain misapprehensions, and smooths the way for people to know each other.

That’s not what I’m addressing here.

I’m talking about those who use the label Patriot to validate and justify hatred, intolerance, and a kind of chauvinism that admits to no other possible way to see the world. A refusal to see alternatives. And, at all costs, a rejection of the possibility of being wrong.

More than that, the belligerent claim implies—strongly—that others are not. Patriots, that is. That even the discomfort of being challenged by the claim is an indication that one lacks “proper” patriotism. It is an insult designed to make the one insulted appear in the wrong. That anyone who is willing to consider the idea that the United States of America could be wrong about something is not to be trusted because—well, might be unpatriotic, possibly treasonous.

I’ve been personally confronted with this kind of thing. “Not much of an American, are you?” It’s an absurd charge. For one, it reduces what it means to be “an American” to nothing but a set of litmus tests based on personal prejudice. For another, it attempts to make ignorance a sign of righteousness. But more corrosively, it rejects dialogue.

More than that, it rejects any position that does not align with a personal conviction of How Things Should Be. “I’m a Patriot, my mind is made up.”

Wishing your country to validate and support your prejudices is not patriotism. You aren’t defending the country, then, you’re using it. And yes, when you insist that others conform to your conception of what constitutes a “proper” citizen of your country, that is an expression of prejudice. When you tell them because they do not think the way you do they are not—cannot be—patriots, that is prejudice. Because to admit that anyone can be a patriot and see things differently, calls your own conception of patriotism into question, and that means changing, and that—well, it would seem to be inconceivable.

What this sort of braggard seems incapable of is any kind of humility of the sort that is contributive and supportive. Staking out an ideological ground and then subjecting everyone else to tests to see who fits and who doesn’t is neither. Doing so is not patriotic, it’s pathological. True strength is not paranoid. Claiming your intolerance is from a sense of patriotism is to confuse love of country with fear of others.

The problem this makes for all of us is the very use of the label, because this practice requires a degree of mimicry. Many of the stated sentiments of the false patriot (or perhaps I should say the Shallow Patriot? Just because the sentiment is misused, co-opted, doesn’t mean the abuser doesn’t actually love his/her country) sound just like what one would expect to hear from a genuine patriot. It’s not, therefore, so much what they say so often as how it is said and the context in which it is said. If you hold a morally or ethically tenuous or indefensible position and your primary or only defense of it is that you are a patriot, then some question is legitimate. Arguing an issue on its merits is quite different from arguing something on its allegiances. It is a peculiarly slippery appeal to authority.

Someone followed me on Twitter the other day and when I looked at their profile, the second identifier was Patriot. I then scrolled through their posts and found a list of chest-pounding, aphoristic belligerencies consistent with the Shallow Patriot movements that inform efforts to undermine many of the aspects of this country I most appreciate. It prompted me to write this and to state that I find people who do this—what I used to call Lapel-Pin Patriots—pitiable. Dangerous, too, but more simply offensive in their assertion that anything which threatens their insular understanding of what this country is must be countered, even, apparently, by force if they think it necessary.

I’ve known real patriots. They don’t brag about it. They never refer to themselves that way. They are, in fact, empathetic, generous, and open-hearted. More than that, I believe they understand love quite well.