Sir (or Madam, as it was not clear from the lack of signature which you may be),
Thank you for your note of the Nth instant concerning your feelings about our organization’s position regarding the current crisis in our community. The strength and sincerity of your position are well represented in the brevity of your declaration that you will cease to do business with us due to our public stance. As you may know, the open exchange of ideas is central not only to our own philosophy but to the very identity of our community and country. Unless we know, unless we can discuss and debate, unless we can openly disagree and engage with each other and, in time, find common ground based on such free exchanges, we cannot move forward, we cannot improve, we cannot redress grievances or attend to injustices.
Which makes it all the more puzzling that you chose to send your note anonymously.
You place me at a disadvantage, since obviously you know how to directly communicate your sentiments to me but I have no recourse to reply other than by public pronouncement. I can only conclude that you have no interest in my response, and so also conclude that this was not the sincere offer to engage that it might seem at first brush.
Why is that?
Well, perhaps there is a clue in what you chose to say to me.
You have declared that you find my—and my organization’s—position partisan, that I have failed to see a “bigger picture” by not including irrelevancies in my stated position, and that I am therefore “fueling hatred” by supporting only one side of the issue. You claim that by not opening out a larger umbrella that includes so many factors that the basic point of my argument would be lost in the muddle that I am an agent of chaos.
You finish by declaring that you will never do business with us again.
Since I don’t know whether you have ever done business with us in the first place, as you failed to identify yourself, I have no way of knowing how much of a loss this may (or may not) be.
However, I’m sure you have your reasons for remaining anonymous. Possibly many reasons. So, be that as it may, I will address myself to your detailed charge that I and my organization may be “fueling hatred.”
The hatred is already there.
Let me see if I can explain this by an analogy. “Fuel” suggests a fire, which seems apt in this case, so—
If a particular house is on fire and the fire department has yet to be called, if I start a campaign pointing out that a house is on fire in order to bring the firefighting strength of the community to the scene and put it out, then why would you try to undermine that by pointing to all the other houses that are not burning and complaining that the blazing house is getting preferential treatment when everyone knows “All Houses Matter”? If you’re successful, then the fire department will spray water all over everywhere and likely fail to put the fire out in the one house that is burning.
Of course, the problem with that is, since the fire will not then be out, it will likely spread to all those other houses which received a then-unnecessary dousing.
My declaration that “This House Matters” on the other hand points to the problem and it can, hopefully, be dealt with directly and thoroughly, before all those other houses are engulfed.
There is no logic in your opposition to my campaign.
Unless you don’t want the fire in that house extinguished. Unless you want it burned to the ground so you don’t ever have to think about it again. Unless you don’t regard the people living in that house as worth the same consideration as the residents of all those other houses.
Surely not. That would be cruel. That would be—how shall I say this?—discriminatory. That would be the position of…
But, surely not. Surely you are not so bereft of human sentiment as to wish ill upon people you probably don’t know. You would have to not know them to think that way, because surely if you did know them then you would be even less endowed with the compassion necessary to live profitably in a community.
Ah, not your community? Well, that’s just a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Perspective and border grids?
But, as I say, surely not.
Maybe you simply object to someone interrupting your tranquility by summoning a gaggle of loud firefighters into your neighborhood. After, your house isn’t on fire, why should you have to put up with the noise and inconvenience of saving someone else’s house? And, really, shouldn’t they have paid closer attention to their house so that it didn’t catch fire in the first place? Obviously, it’s their fault, otherwise the house wouldn’t be on fire.
And me? You object to me calling attention to the fire? Because it may spoil your weekend plans?
Logically, then, there are two conclusions. Either you don’t believe you should sacrifice your peace of mind in the cause of putting out the fire…or you want the fire to run its course.
I suppose it’s possible that you don’t believe there actually is a fire. That’s possible. But then why object when someone points out to you that there is?
Is it possible you could feel responsible for that fire?
This analogy has run its course. Obviously we’re not talking about houses on fire—although that has been a part of this—but people who are living in conditions less than ideal. And through no fault of their own, are being abused for having to live in those conditions. Or, even less comfortably for you, abused simply for being who they are.
Which is sort of similar to what you’re doing to me and my organization. I—we—have taken a position of conscience. Because this is who we are. You are objecting to that and threatening us as a result. Just because of who we are.
What is more, a part of you knows you’re wrong. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any of this anonymous nonsense. You want me to know how very strongly you disapprove of what I do but not strongly enough to sign your name to the disapproval.
Another possibility is that you feel compelled to take part in this debate but you don’t have anything useful to say. You resent that, you resent being made aware of problems you’ve probably been ignoring all your life—or never believed were problems—but now that there is an argument, you really want to take part in it, but there is nothing—nothing—in your background, your lived experience, your education, or among your family or friends that would provide you with one constructive thing to contribute. Saying nothing is not an option, because then you wouldn’t be in on the action, so…
That would be kind of juvenile, though, don’t you think? Not knowing how to build something and feeling left out, you do the one thing you know how to do—throw a brick at someone else’s building.
No, surely not. Surely you aren’t that bereft of options or compassion.
But you felt the urge to threaten. Why? You felt the need to try to obscure a problem and make it seem not so important. Why? You felt the need to get angry at the people calling in the fire department instead of taking your place in line at the bucket brigade. Why?
I am left finally with the one conclusion that makes any sense to me, given the paucity of clues with which I have to work because you have chosen not to engage in a dialogue but instead throw a brick—a paper one with words on it, but a brick nonetheless. That, in it’s simplest terms, you have caught yourself looking into the mirror I’ve helped hold up and you don’t like what you see. You hate me now for showing you a glimpse of yourself you thought long buried and forgotten.
To once more use the house analogy, while you may not have set the fire, you probably stood on the sidelines with a bag of marshmallows and a long stick.
I’d rather not think that of you but there’s no way for me to know otherwise, because you’ve chosen to show me this and nothing more. I can’t discuss it with you. I don’t know you.
You don’t know me, either. And evidently, you don’t want to.
And that is where the problem begins and finally ends.
….but you already know who I am.
It’s the Fourth of July. The national birthday party. On this day in 1776 was the official reading of the Declaration of Independence, when the Thirteen Colonies broke from Great Britain and began the process of forming a nation. In the 239 years since we as a people have engaged an ongoing and often contentious, sometimes violent conversation about the one thing we like to say distinguishes us from every other people or nation or country on the globe: Freedom.
Contentious because everyone means something different when they use that word. We do not agree on a common definition. This isn’t a deep, difficult to understand reality, we simply don’t. Put any group of people together from different parts of the country and have them talk about what they mean by Freedom and while certain common ideas bubble, once you get into the details you find divisions, sometimes deep.
Clearly for most of the first century, as a nation, we had a pretty limited notion of what it meant. It meant freedom for a certain few to do what they wanted at the expense of others.
So native Americans didn’t have it, nor did slaves, nor, for the most part, did women. Even a white skin on a male body didn’t guarantee one equal consideration, because money and property were important, and, to a lesser extent, natural born versus immigrant, language, and religion. We, like any bunch of people anywhere, fell into groups and competed with each other over privilege and those who came out on top extolled the virtues of freedom while doing what they could, consciously or not, to limit it for others who might impose limits on their success.
This is not controversial. This is history. We’re human, we can be jerks like anyone else. What makes it awkward for us is this widely-held belief that we are unfettered supporters of Freedom.
In the simplest terms, we claim to be free when we feel no constraints on preferred action. So if you’re going on along doing what you like to do and no one tells you that you can’t, you feel free. If, to complicate things a bit, someone passes a law that says Those People Over There may not do something you have no interest in, well, you don’t feel any less free and may wonder why they’re complaining about being oppressed. After all, you’re free, you don’t have any complaints, and that makes this a free country, so stop bitching.
Naturally, if someone passes a law that says you can’t do something you either want to do or makes claims on your resources in order to support such rules, now you feel a bit less free, imposed upon, and maybe complain yourself. Of course, Those Other Folks Over There are quite happy about the new law and themselves feel freer as a result, so they look at you now as the sore thumb sticking up.
But it still involves questions of constraint, which is what the law is about, and we agree in principle that we need laws.
If we need laws to restrain—to tell us what we can and cannot do—doesn’t that immediately beg the question of what it means to be free? I mean, the libertarian line would be that I’m a grown-assed adult and I can control my own life, thank you very much, you can keep your laws.
What if your desire for unconstrained action puts a burden on other people?
What if, to make a big but logical leap, your sense of freedom requires that others have less than you or, to put it back at the beginning, that some people be ownable? You know: slaves.
That the Founders built it into the framework that slavery could not only exist within the borders of this new “land of the free” but that it was illegal to discuss the issue in Congress for twenty years might cause us to ponder just what they meant by Freedom.
And it did take over a century before the laws began to change concerning women and property. Was a time a wife was legally owned by her husband—her, her body, and all her associated belongings—and could be thrown out with nothing but the clothes on her back if the marriage went sour. That doesn’t even take into account that it wasn’t till 1919 that women could legally vote.
How does this fit with our self-congratulatory view as the freest nation on Earth?
Well, we say, that was then. This is today and we’re not like that.
Aren’t we? Then why are we still arguing—loudly—over questions of equality, and in several areas of concern?
I put these out there to leaven the uncritical jubilation over what really is a worthy aspect of this country.
What the Founders implicitly recognized was the multifaceted and often conflicting perceptions people will inevitably bring to this question. They may well have held some overarching, abstract view as to what Freedom meant but they knew such could not secure the kind of stability necessary for a viable nation. Absolute freedom would destroy us just as surely as absolute tyranny. So they set up a framework in which we as a people would continually argue about it, and by extension demonstrated that it was this freedom to hash it out that they saw as the most relevant, the most viable, and in the end the only practicable way of securing individual liberty over time. They built into it all the nearly sacred idea that we can say and think what we please and set up fora wherein we could express ourselves without authoritarian retribution.
That was the idea, at least. Like everything else they put in place, it hasn’t always played out that way. McCarthy wasn’t the first one to send a chill through the republic to make people afraid of ideas.
We are, however, free to argue. Sometimes we have to bring ridiculous force to the table to make an argument, but at the individual level we can go to our various barbecues this weekend and have it out on any topic without fear that some censorious official will show up at our door next week to take us to a room and be questioned about our beliefs. There have been times when even this was not a guaranteed freedom, but over all this is what the Founders decided on as the most efficacious form of freedom to protect. They arranged things so the suppression of the freedom to have an opinion could end up fueling a political movement and take the argument into the public arena where it can be further debated.
But this also means we have to learn to privilege the freedom of expression and thought over any other.
And it’s hard. It is damn hard.
Follow the comment threads of any heated or controversial post anywhere—the equivalent today to Letters to the Editor in other periods—and you can see that many people just don’t get that. It frightens them. Why? Because it’s fluid. Because it means things change. Because it calls into question what they thought were absolutes. Because they grew up thinking their country was one thing, unchanging, ordained by divine testimony, and their sense of freedom is based on holding to those absolutes and defending them from those who would see things differently. Flux, change, revolution.
They came to believe that all the work was already done and everything would be fine except for Those People Over There, those…those…malcontents.
Forgetting, of course, that the whole thing came from the minds and labor of malcontents.
We come away from our youthful education about 1776 with the belief that the war was the revolution, but this is not the case. It was the war for the revolution, which is what came after. The revolution was the process of setting up a new form of government and establishing a framework distinct from what had gone before. 1787 was the year of revolution. The Constitution was ratified by the delegates to the convention on September 17, 1787. It then had to go before the individual states for final acceptance, which was not finished till May, 1790, when the last state, Rhode Island, voted to accept it by a two vote margin. Those two and half years were the actual revolution, because revolution brings us the new. In a way, 1776 was little more than a decree to stop sending the rent to England and a statement that we were willing fight over the right to have a revolution. The war was not the revolution, it only allowed the revolution to happen.
And what was that sea change in the affairs of people? That the people would choose their leaders? Not an especially new idea—kings had been elected before (in fact, the Thirty Years War began over just such an election)—but here it would be the way we would always choose our leaders. The mechanism by which we made that choice, now, that was based on the revolution, which was folded into this rather imprecise notion of Self Determination. But it rests ultimately on the sacred right of each one of us to disagree.
It is by disagreement—loudly and publicly, but beginning privately and from conscience—that we move toward that other nebulous concept “a more perfect union.” Which itself is a strange phrase. More perfect. Perfection, by definition, does not come in degrees. It either is or isn’t. Usually. Unless they, the Founders, were recognizing the fact that change is inevitable, especially if we’re going to sacrilize the freedom to disagree. In practical terms, your perfection, however conceived, is unlikely to be mine. If so, then the formula is there to move us from one state of perfection to another equal but different state of perfection.
Which is unlikely and sloppy logic. Most likely, they knew, as they should have, being good students of the Enlightenment, that perfection is unachievable but the idea of it serves as a spur to do better. Perfectibility is the ongoing process of seeking perfection. In the seeking we have to define it and in the definition comes the debating. In the debating we find a method for—often convulsively—blocking the hegemony of factions, or at least tearing them down when they become onerous.
So in order to “form that more perfect union” we accept that it is always just over the next hill and we have to have a consensus about what it looks like and to get there. Which sets us to arguing, which is the best guarantor of liberty of conscience.
But we have to work at it. Which means the revolution is not finished. What they set in motion was something that would never be finished if we tended to it seriously and with reason and commitment. So if anything, July 4 is the day we should celebrate as the point when we took steps for creating the conditions for the revolution. The revolution followed the surrender of the British and the commencement of the work to create a nation. That was—and is—the revolution.
As long as we can meet and differ and find accommodation despite our differences and allow for those differences to be manifest to the benefit of society, the revolution continues. That it continues is the sure sign that we have freedom (and tells the nature of that freedom). Even when we don’t always use it or recognize it or allow it to define us. Oh, we have work yet to do! But we can do it if we choose.
Just some ruminations from a citizen. Have a safe Fourth of July.
I’m in “talks” with a publisher. Cool things may be in the offing soon. Details when things are more concrete. Will this be career-changing? Who knows? It will, to be sure, take me another step on the way. It will not, at this point, be life changing.
Change is one of those terms we bandy about almost like an incantation. “Things will change” “If you don’t like it, change it” “Change is good for you” “changes are coming” and then there is the most puzzlingly problematic corollary, “Things will never be the same again.”
I’ve never understood that phrase, not in any concrete way. I know what it is supposed to mean, but in that specific sense, the question that rarely gets asked is “What things were these that were always the same in the first place?” Because in many small but no less real ways, just waking up in the morning brings you a life that isn’t the same anymore, even though it bears striking similarities to the one you had the day before.
Or put it in a slightly larger context, the oft-remarked “History changed with that event.” You really have to step back and asked “How? It wasn’t history yet when it happened, so how could it change before it was?” I mean, History changing….again, I know what it’s intended to mean, but it’s also sloppy in that it assumes history had an expected direction before said event.
Which it didn’t, really. That’s telec thinking, which humans love to indulge and which is almost always wrong.
Back to the first instance, though. “Things will never be the same” is incantatory in that it masks a hope. If change is good—or at least necessary—then you don’t want things to be the same all the way to the end.
Unfortunately, we seem to live with a profound inertia that often imposes a suffocating sameness day to day.
Perversely, we can become victim to this by embracing an impossible nostalgia, by turning our backs on the possibilities of change, and wishing for things “the way they used to be.” Too often, this involves a highly edited version of those times, with some additions and revisions that tidy up the less pleasant realities we endured, and turning them into a Camelot to which we cannot return. Mainly because, in significant ways, we were never there.
But if the prospect of changing into something unknown is too daunting, people can let this little capsule fantasy swallow them up. They live inside a constrained and ever more false set of memorative tableaux as though in a castle under siege. Should the walls ever come down, they can be left defenseless and naked, surrounded by realities made more frightening because they never bothered to understand them.
We only have one path—forward. No matter what all the gurus and wise-beings have said about pathways, all them share this in common. Tomorrow is our next stop. We can arrive at the station with anticipation, an open heart, and curious mind, or try to stay in the back of the car when the doors open and ignore what’s out there. But we will go forward. No other direction is possible.
That can get very frustrating, even if you do want to find out what’s out there. It’d be nice to stop at one of these stations occasionally and stay a while, recover a bit, rest up.
No such luck. The only thing we can do is try to travel in company with good people who will share the weight and join in the marvelment at the next stop.
They aren’t always the same folks, from one stop to the next. And sometimes people who’ve been along with you for years may, for a variety of reasons, drop away.
A pity, sometimes. Things will never be the same without them.
But then, they weren’t going to be anyway.
Just some musings for a rainy Saturday.
He was, ultimately, the heart and soul of the whole thing. The core and moral conscience of the congeries that was Star Trek. Mr. Spock was what the entire thing was about. That’s why they could never leave him alone, set him aside, get beyond him. Even when he wasn’t on screen and really could be nowhere near the given story, there was something of him. They kept trying to duplicate him—Data, Seven-of-Nine, Dax, others—but the best they could do was borrow from the character.
I Am Not Spock came out in 1975. It was an attempt to explain the differences between the character and the actor portraying him. It engendered another memoir later entitled I Am Spock which addressed some of the misconceptions created by the first. The point, really, was that the character Spock was a creation of many, but the fact is that character would not exist without the one ingredient more important than the rest—Leonard Nimoy.
I was 12 when Star Trek appeared on the air. It is very difficult now to convey to people who have subsequently only seen the show in syndication what it meant to someone like me. I was a proto-SF geek. I loved the stuff, read what I could, but not in any rigorous way, and my material was opportunistic at best. I was pretty much alone in my fascination. My parents worried over my “obsessions” with it and doubtless expected the worst. I really had no one with whom to share it. I got teased at school about it, no one else read it, even my comics of choice ran counter to the main. All there was on television were movie re-runs and sophomoric kids’ shows. Yes, I watched Lost In Space, but probably like so many others I did so out of desperation, because there wasn’t anything else on! Oh, we had The Twilight Zone and then The Outer Limits, but, in spite of the excellence of individual episodes, they just weren’t quite sufficient. Too much of it was set in the mundane world, the world you could step out your front door and see for yourself. Rarely did it Go Boldly Where No One Had Gone Before in the way that Star Trek did.
Presentation can be everything. It had little to do with the internal logic of the show or the plots or the science, even. It had to do with the serious treatment given to the idea of it. The adult treatment. Attitude. Star Trek possessed and exuded attitude consistent with the wishes of the people who watched it and became devoted to it. We rarely saw “The Federation” it was just a label for something which that attitude convinced us was real, for the duration of the show. The expanding hegemony of human colonies, the expanse of alien cultures—the rather threadbare appearance of some of the artifacts of these things on their own would have been insufficient to carry the conviction that these things were really there. It was the approach, the aesthetic tone, the underlying investment of the actors in what they were portraying that did that. No, it didn’t hurt that they boasted some of the best special effects on television at that time, but even those couldn’t have done what the life-force of the people making it managed.
And Spock was the one consistent on-going absolutely essential aspect that weekly brought the reality of all that unseen background to the fore and made it real. There’s a reason Leonard Nimoy started getting more fan mail than Shatner. Spock was the one element that carried the fictional truth of everything Star Trek was trying to do.
And Spock would have been nothing without the talent, the humanity, the skill, the insight, and the sympathy Leonard Nimoy brought to the character. It was, in the end, and more by accident than design, a perfect bit of casting and an excellent deployment of the possibilities of the symbol Spock came to represent.
Of all the characters from the original series, Spock has reappeared more than any other. There’s a good reason for that.
Spock was the character that got to represent the ideals being touted by the show. Spock was finally able to be the moral center of the entire thing simply by being simultaneously on the outside—he was not human—and deeply in the middle of it all—science officer, Starfleet officer, with his own often troublesome human aspect. But before all that, he was alien and he was treated respectfully and given the opportunity to be Other and show that this was something vital to our own humanity.
Take one thing, the IDIC. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. It came up only a couple of times in the series, yet what a concept. Spock embodied the implications even in his trademark comment “Fascinating.” He was almost always at first fascinated. He wanted before anything else to understand. He never reacted out of blind terror. Sometimes he was on the other side of everyone else in defense of something no one seemed interested in understanding, only killing.
I’m going on about Spock because I know him. I didn’t know Mr. Nimoy, despite how much he gave of himself. I knew his work, which was always exemplary, and I can assume certain things about him by his continued affiliation with a character which, had he no sympathy for, would have left him behind to be portrayed by others long since. Instead, he kept reprising the role, and it was remarkably consistent. Spock was, throughout, a positive conscience.
On the side of science. I can think of no other character who so thoroughly exemplified rational morality. Spock had no gods, only ideals. He lived by no commandments, only morality. His ongoing championing of logic as the highest goal is telling. Logic was the common agon between Spock and McCoy, and sometimes between Spock and Kirk. I suspect most people made the same mistake, that logic needs must be shorn of emotion. Logic, however, is about “sound reasoning and the rules which govern it.” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy) This is one reason it is so tied to mathematics. But consider the character and then consider the philosophy. Spock is the one who seeks to understand first. Logic dictates this. Emotion is reactive and can muddy the ability to reason. Logic does not preclude emotion—obviously, since Spock has deep and committed friendships—it only sets it aside for reason to have a chance at comprehension before action. How often did Spock’s insistence on understanding prove essential to solving some problem in the show?
I suspect Leonard Nimoy himself would have been the first to argue that Spock’s devotion to logic was simply a very human ideal in the struggle to understand.
Leonard Nimoy informed the last 4 decades of the 20th Century through a science fictional representation that transcended the form. It is, I believe, a testament to his talent and intellect that the character grew, became a centerpiece for identifying the aesthetic aspects of what SF means for the culture, and by so doing became a signal element of the culture of the 21st Century.
Others can talk about his career. He worked consistently and brought the same credibility to many other roles. (I always found it interesting that one his next roles after Star Trek was on Mission: Impossible, taking the place of Martin Landau as the IM team’s master of disguise. As if to suggest that no one would pin him down into a single thing.) I watched him in many different shows, tv movies, and have caught up on some of his work prior to Star Trek (he did a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode in which he played opposite William Shatner) and in my opinion he was a fine actor. He seems to have chosen his parts carefully, especially after he gained success and the control over his own career that came with it. But, as I say, others can talk about that. For me, it is Spock.
I feel a light has gone out of the world. Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but…still, some people bring something into the world while they’re here that has the power to change us and make us better. Leonard Nimoy had an opportunity to do that and he did not squander it. He made a difference. We have prospered by his gifts.
I will miss him.
I didn’t know Samuel R. Delany was black until I’d read damn near all his books, a project that took some time. I’m talking about a revelation that came sometime in the early 80s. Now, you might think I was a bit of an idiot for taking that long, but I had zero involvement in fandom prior to 1982 and if there were no jacket photos of authors I had not clue one concerning the first thing about them. (Mainly because I actually didn’t much care; it was the work that concerned me, not the celebrity.)
Still, you’d think that the original cover illustration for Heavenly Breakfast, with a portrait of Chip, would have clued me in. But it didn’t. Not because I assumed he was white (or, later, straight), but that I didn’t care. One of my favorite writers from the big trunk of books my mother had kept from her days in the Doubleday Book Club was Frank Yerby. One of them had an author photo on the back so I knew he was African American, but it didn’t register as noteworthy because I honestly didn’t think it was important.
Mind you, I’m not saying I had no racist attributes. Like any white boy growing up in St. Louis, I had my share of prejudices (and I’ve written about some of them here ) but I was always something of an outlier and a good deal of my prejudice had little to do with skin color and mostly to do with what I perceived as life choices. It never occurred to me blacks (or any other ethnic category) couldn’t do anything I could do if they wanted to. (I was young and stupid and the lessons of 20th Century institutional discrimination had yet to really sink in. Bear with me.) But I will confess that unless it was put before me directly I sort of defaulted to the assumption that most writers were white.
It didn’t bother me when I found out otherwise.
That was the world I lived in and while I question many assumptions I didn’t question all of them—that can get exhausting and perhaps even a little counter-productive if that exhaustion leads to a desire to stop worrying about everything.
But as I grew older, anytime I discovered a new writer I liked was other than my base assumption, I had a little frisson of delight. I never once felt threatened, it never occurred to me to feel besieged or that I was in any danger of losing something. You can do that when you belong to the dominant culture. You know, in the very fiber of your being, that these other folks pose no such threat to you and the hegemony in which you live. You can be…gracious.
Which is kind of an ugly thing when you think about it. Why should I have to be gracious just because somebody who doesn’t fit a particular profile does something other members of my culture don’t think they (a) can or (b) should? Gracious implies permission. Gracious implies special circumstances. Gracious implies accommodation, as if you have the authority to grant it. Gracious, in this context, means power. (Everyone interested in this should read Joanna Russ’s excellent How To Suppress Women’s Writing to see how the process of marginalization and delegitimizing works.)
As it turned out, I have both been reading diversely and reading based on false assumptions about merit for a long time, but it was a problem, once I realized it, caused me no pain other than momentary embarrassment. It was an opportunity to expand my reading.
Sure, it opened me to works which called certain attitudes with which I’d lived my whole life into question. But, hell, that’s one of the primary reasons I read. What’s the point of reading nothing but work that does little more than give you a pleasant massage? Those kinds of books and stories are fine (and frankly, I can get plenty of that from movies and television, I don’t have to spend valuable hours reading things that feed my biases and act as soporific), but they should only be breathers taken between books that actively engage the intellect and moral conscience. Which books tend to piss you off on some level.
Depending on how pissed off you get, this may be a good way of finding out where perhaps you need to do a little personal assessment. However, that’s up to the individual. You can just as easily choose to revel in being pissed off and take that as the lesson.
“But reading stories is supposed to be entertainment. If I want edification I’ll read philosophy.”
Two things about that. Yes, fiction is supposed to be entertaining. If it isn’t, it’s not very good fiction. But there are two meanings to the word “entertain” and while one of them is about sitting back and enjoying a ride the other is more nuanced and has to do with entertaining ideas, which is less passive and, yes, edifying. Because the second thing is, just what do you consider reading fiction if not reading philosophy? Guess what, if you read a lot of fiction, you’ve been reading philosophy, at least on a certain level. Because philosophy is, at base, an examination of how we live and what that means and all stories are about how people live and what it means to them. (This is one of the ways in which fiction and essay often rest cheek-to-cheek in terms of reading experience.) The deeper, the meatier the story, the more philosophical.
Which is why some books become cause celebrés of controversy, because everyone gets it that they’re talking about life choices. Catcher In The Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn… how are these novels not fundamentally philosophical?
Which is why the idea of telling the truth in fiction has real meaning. “How can a bunch of made up stuff—lies—tell the truth?” A simpleminded question that assumes fact and truth are somehow the same. Yes, they’re related, but truth is not an artifact, it is a process and has to do with recognition. (Do you sympathize with the characters? Yes? Then you have found a truth. You just have to be open to the idea. It’s not rocket science, but it is philosophy.)
The most important factor in hearing a truth is in listening. You can’t listen if you shut your ears. And you can’t learn about a previously unrecognized truth if you keep listening to the same mouths, all the time. You have to try out a different tongue in order to even expose yourself to a new truth. Furthermore, you can never find the point of commonality in those alien truths if you don’t pay attention to what they’re saying.
Commonality seems to disturb some people. Well, that’s as it should be. Commonality is disturbing. It’s mingling and mixing, it’s crossing lines, violating taboos, and reassessing what you thought you knew in order to find out how you are like them. Commonality is not one thing, it’s an alloy. More than that, it’s a process. Because as you find commonality with the foreign, the alien, the other, they’re finding commonality with you.
Which brings me to the main subject of this piece, namely the challenge put forth by K. Tempest Bradford to read something other than straight white male authors for a year. Go to the link and read the piece, then come back here.
Okay. Contrary to what the nattering blind mouths of righteous indignation have been saying, Tempest is NOT saying give up reading what you’ve always liked. She’s suggesting it would be worthwhile to try this for a year. How is this any different than someone saying “Maybe it would be a good thing to read nothing but history books for a year” or “I’m taking this year to read nothing but 19th Century novels”? Like any book club or reading group, she’s set the parameters of a challenge. Take it on or go away. Why the need to vent OWS* all over her?
I have my theories about that and others have mentioned some of them, but what I want to know here is why certain people take this as an attack on their “culture” and condemn the idea as bigoted when, at worst, it’s just push back against an unexamined set of assumptions that have prevailed all along?
What troubles me in all these reactions as well is a certain hypocrisy coming from my own group, namely science fiction writers. We have felt under siege for decades by the so-called mainstream—judged, dissed, ill-regarded, consigned to the purgatory of “genre” and not invited to all the good parties—and we have, collectively, been justifiably irked by attitudes which, we believed, would evaporate if you people would just loosen up and read some of the work you’re putting down! Look in a mirror, folks.
(A more reasonable objection to Tempest is expressed here by Laura Resnick, and she addresses part of the problem I began this essay with, namely that normally one has to go out of one’s way to find out personal information about the authors in question in order to do what she’s suggesting, and that does have the danger of displacing the merit of the work with an over-reliance on others factors. However, it’s not as if this is (a) not a problem being talked about or (b) in any way easily addressed.)
There’s also an element of rage politics in this which is stunning in its idiocy. It’s the way our current culture works, that everything can be made into a cause to be outraged. “I prefer XYZ nailclippers to any other.” “XYZ nailclippers are made in China! Preferring them shows you to be an anti-American libtard self-loathing traitor! True Americans use ABC nailclippers!”**
Really? Are we so sensitive anymore that we can’t allow for a little more room on the very wide sofa we inhabit for a difference of opinion and maybe a little challenge?
The fury over last year’s SF awards generated by a certain group over what they perceived as an assault on their definition of science fiction by the evident expansion of what is considered good SF is indicative of a kind of entrenchment I would have thought anathema to science fiction. It’s too easy to read the diatribes and think the whole SF community is in uproar over something it has been striving to overcome for lo these many decades. This is the problem of the megaphone effect.
But what Tempest and others are talking about goes well beyond the SF world. There is a problem with recognition of non-approved viewpoints and faces. The ocean of publishing is constantly a-roil, so depending on where you look it may be hard to see, and if you’re committed to seeing only what you expect then you can very easily miss it in the chop. But the question is, how does it harm anyone to consider the voices of others as relevant and entertaining as what you’re used to hearing? Why does the prospect of change so frighten people who have the intellect to know better? Why is it necessary to tag someone a bigot when they suggest that maybe the homogenization of our culture is a bad thing?
I’d like to argue that you have nothing to fear, that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with White Culture, but just writing that line brings me up to the chief problem—what White Culture? I mean, we have to assume, don’t we, that there is one thing that’s being described by that? It’s really as erroneous and useless a descriptor as Black Culture. Which one? The reality is, in both cases, they only exist as a consequence of definitional tactics that seek to reduce experience into an easily codifiable box that leaves out more diversity than it could possibly include. I am white, and in terms of writing, I can say pretty confidently that, say, Jonathan Franzen does not represent my “culture.” It’s kind of an absurd statement on the face of it. Attitudinally, I have almost nothing in common with him, or the kind of writing he represents, or the particular viewpoint he deploys.
White Culture is only relevant in terms of social power and its exercise and in that sense I can claim affiliation with it by default. I can’t not be part of it because that’s how the boundaries are set.
But I don’t have to exemplify it in my own person.
This is what reading has given me—the ability to access experiences not my own. And, by extension, understand that all experiences are not the same even as they share certain common traits. And the entire purpose and value of deep reading is to be More. More than what my context prescribes. More than what my social situation allows.
So why would I feel threatened by Tempest’s challenge? I might not stick with it, but I do not see her as claiming the work she would have me read is somehow superior to what I normally would, nor is she claiming that the white male work to which she refers is all intrinsically bad. What she is not saying is as important as what she is. She’s basically challenging us to do what we would normally do anyway, with one more filter in place to select for experiences outside our comfort zone.
On the one hand, it’s kind of “well, why not?” proposition. What could it hurt?
On the other, it’s a serious attempt at overcoming the bunker mentality that seems to be the norm these last couple decades. Retrenchment is the order of the day for some folks. Any suggestion that the walls of the bubble in which people live are perhaps insufficient for the problems of the world gets treated to bitter denouncements. It’s tiring. It’s destructive.
No, Tempest is not being a bigot. She prescribing a way—modest though it may be—of overcoming bigotry.
It’s an invitation. She’s not being gracious about it. She’s being welcoming.
*OWS—Oppressed White Spleen. If “they” can lob acronyms around to make their point, so can I.
**Yes, much of it is exactly that idiotic. We find ourselves in otherwise casual interactions often forced to take do-or-die political positions over the most inane matters all in service to sorting out who’s in our group and who’s out. I am talking about extremes here, but it pervades everything. I recall a conversation once where the efficacy of ethanol was being discussed and when I brought up the actual inefficiency of it, both chemically and economically, the response I got had to do with energy independence and patriotism. There was no room for the vast world of money or lobbies or special interests or alternatives. I was either in or out. We’ve reduced much of our normal discourse to the parameters of a football game.
Labels can be limiting and as far as that goes I can agree with those who disdain them, saying they do not like creating or existing in boxes. Fine sentiment. But some labels are useful to accomplish the ripping apart of boxes and the freeing of those trapped in them.
I am a feminist.
Nothing new in my saying that, but times have, superficially, changed, and now a lot of people seem to claim not to know what that means anymore or, worse, claim that it means something which it does not.
Below is a TED Talk by novelist Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. Here, in easy to understand (even for those who may be obdurately opposed to understanding) language, she gives a thorough primer and explication of the problems of being a woman in a world where men are the privileged sex and where more and more the simple truth of what she describes is being disingenuously yet ingeniously denied.
I have written often about where I stand on this issue. First and foremost, everyone is a person first. Sex and gender are important but should never be a limiting factor. What I am free to do as a male should be open for anyone. (What I am free to do as a white male should also be open to anyone, but that is another, albeit related, issue.) This is very difficult for some people to understand, for reasons which Ms. Adichie touches on.
But for all those who wonder in mock dismay what is the matter with all these women complaining about the lives they live, the culture, keep talking about rape culture, the glass ceiling, sexism, harassment, objectification…yes, I say “mock dismay” because I’m beginning to believe that you actually do know what it’s about, what the matter is, but you just don’t want to take responsibility for changing things—or, you just don’t want things to change. So you intentionally misunderstand.
Enough. This isn’t rocket science. Testicles do not make you superior or give you a pass for idiotic behavior and bad choices. They aren’t a membership card in an elite club established by divine proclamation. Just because your mommy told you how special you are doesn’t mean rules shouldn’t apply to you and just because your daddy may have acted the king of his domain doesn’t mean you inherited the privilege.
Of course, the capacity for ignoring such things is one of the true indicators of a kind of genius. But I can’t help feel that it’s wasted genius. I see the behavior of certain males and all I can think is, “Man, what the hell is the matter with you?”
Kevin Sorbo, who came to public attention portraying a mythical strongman on television, has been saying things about atheists lately. He thinks he has a good bead on what makes us tick.
It began when he wondered why atheists are so angry at something we claim doesn’t exist, i.e. God. Because atheists seem to spend a lot of time talking about him/her/it and being outraged about the subject.
This is deflection. It misses the point. Atheists are not angry at god—clearly, since we do not believe god exists. We’re angry with god’s promoters and acolytes who keep shoving a nonexistent something-or-other in our faces and telling us we’re everything from “mistaken” to the cause of civilization’s collapse to…well, several other things one is shocked to hear come from the mouths of self-professed “good christians.”
Part of this seems to be standard in religious practice, the deflection of just about everything onto the god of choice. It’s god’s will, it’s in the hands of god, etc. So obviously when an atheists gets angry at the politics and social practice of devotees we can’t possibly be angry at them for the kind of activism that grinds the back teeth, we must be angry at their deity of choice. After all, they’re only doing what god wants them to do, so how can they be held to blame?
Which is a goodly part of what drives us to distraction.
I have never had a pair of atheists knock on my door to tell me the good news of the nihilistic way of life. I’ve never had an atheist tell me I got over a serious illness because they got together to use thought waves to communicate with the cells of my body and effect a cure. I’ve never had to put up with an atheist telling me a certain political situation was the way it was because of a corrupted condition endemic to being human. And I’ve never heard an atheist insist on the efficacy of magic over science.*
Insofar as the record on public action in this country goes, it is no surprise that religious thinking dominates, since it’s a matter of sheer numbers. But it would be well for people to remember what has been justified in the name of religion in this country. Slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, the eradication of native American culture, and the persistent insistence on irrational laws and punishments which have now resulted in our having the highest per capita incarceration rate of any developed country (which can only be explained by a devotion to some notion of sin that refuses to take into consideration genuine remediation, social context, or common sense).
Atheists are not angry at god, Mr. Sorbo, we’re angry at the impenetrable cluelessness of believers who let their children die rather than take them to a doctor, who continually see nothing wrong with setting aside the First Amendment to their advantage (but, in some cases, absolutely worship the Second Amendment), and who insist on relegating women to second-class status because, well, equality isn’t Biblical. Let’s not even start with the debate over alternative sexualities and the question of gay marriage.
Before you protest that these people are a minority, I will agree with you, but they are a minority which enjoys massive tacit support from a broad and often passive culture base which, while disapproving many of their tactics nevertheless approves their source of inspiration and at least some of their motives.
“Well, we’re not all like that,” comes somewhere in the same conversation as “our church is different.”
No, it’s not. In one very significant way. Religion by definition defines unbelievers as flawed, blind, somehow crippled, and in need of fixing.
That’s what makes atheists furious. It’s patronizing.
Now before atheists who read this nod sagely and come away feeling in some way virtuous about themselves, not so fast.
For our part we tend to adopt a superior attitude every bit as condescending and misdirected as the true believers we disdain. Often we refuse to acknowledge the ineffable and relegate many attributes of moral systems to what we consider superstition. At times we use our position as self-designated rationalists to pass judgments on others we deem less enlightened, and even if we tend to keep such judgments to ourselves (with notable exceptions) they nevertheless affect our behavior towards others.
That said, if anyone has a reason to be miffed…
What can be truly irritating in both camps is the aforementioned process of deflection. Atheists are not angry at a god that does not exist but at those who insist one does and take that insistence as permission to push their beliefs on us. The believers manages to not see the difference because, as they claim, they are doing god’s work, so it seems to not make sense to them that we make a distinction between the believer and the thing believed.
Believers get justifiably miffed at atheists who judge them and conflate that judgment with the philosophical position that seems to allow such judgment. Atheists think themselves acting out of reason and fail to understand that they’re being boors, which is not justified by rationalism. Rationalism in this case is just an excuse to be an ass.
Hence both sides engage in the time honored sport of talking past each other.
Not all believers act like Mr. Sorbo or those who think their god has given them permission to disregard all other philosophical positions and forget—stridently—what pluralism means. Not all atheists are judgmental louts who treat believers like unenlightened primitives in need of education (which can lead directly to the kind of proselytization the atheist is bitching about in the first place).
But they seem to be the loudest ones in the room.
* I’ve heard a lot of non-christians do and say these sorts of things, but that’s another problem, which is the conflation of all alternative beliefs into the “atheist” camp. For the record, pagans are not by definition atheists. Nor are Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, or any other non-western faith.
This is a cool thing.
Dan Reus of Disruptive Diner contacted me a bit over a month ago and asked me to participate in this. Naturally, I had no real idea what I wanted to say or how I would say, which was compounmded by the format—Pekchuka, which means literally fast talking. I came up with something, which is posted above. I had fun. I’d have fun doing it again.
I have a friend who likes to engage me on our points of departure. He’s a self-admitted conservative, I am not. He’s a sincere Christian, I’m an atheist. Looking around at the current culture, you would think that should make any conversation we might have problematic at best, impossible at worst.
Yet we carry on the occasional hour, two-hour, sometimes three hour conversation and never once descend into anger or dismissive rhetoric. And yes, we talk about religion regularly. We talk about politics. We talk about meaningful living. It’s the kind of exchange of ideas from different perspectives that seems both rare and uniquely pleasurable. Would that we taught kids growing up how to appreciate this kind of conversation as, at the very least, an æsthetic pleasure.
Consequently, when he questions me on priorities, I tend to listen.
A couple weeks ago, after the monthly jam session (he runs a church basement coffeehouse to which I’ve been going and participating for more than a few years now) we hung around and started talking about current subjects. My opening statement concerned the new movie Noah and the absurd fact that the studio has decided to put a disclaimer on it to appease religious reactionaries who are bothered by “historical inaccuracies.” I expected a laugh over the ridiculousness of this—these are not people who have much patience for that kind of shallow literalism—but instead what followed was a discussion of my obsessive attention to people like Ken Ham and the anti-evolution crowd and biblical literalists in general.
“Why do you pay any attention to them?”
Well, I replied, somewhat glibly, stupidity is fascinating.
Patiently, though, my friend worked at that. Really? Aren’t there better things to focus your attention on than the obdurate intractability of intellectual ostriches? Don’t you have, like, books to write?
At the end of the conversation (which is not to say that it’s over) I had to concede that I spent far too much time and mental energy worrying over the misreadings, misinterpretations, manglings, and malignancies of what is a minority example of entrenched ignorance. Like watching a neighbor gradually destroy his property (and being unable to do much about it), or watching a slow-motion train wreck, or even repeatedly viewing and complaining about a very expensive yet utterly brainless film, it is both attractive and repellant to observe this particular bit of cultural shadow-play.
The answer to the question has occupied me now since. Why do I give them so much of myself?
The glib answer is that they draw attention to themselves in such a way as to seem important and relevant. Paying attention to them feels, on a shallow level, like being engaged. Noticing them, knowing what they’ve been saying and seeing what they’re doing, seems like being a responsible agent in my own culture. Every time they manage to censor discussions in schools about evolution or try to force prayer into the classroom or some other culture-war battleground is pushed into the news, being aware of it just seems the thing to do.
A somewhat less glib answer is that the very real political power such groups seem to enjoy worries me. I don’t want to live in a country designed by biblical literalists. And determining how they’re wrong and why is basic to any kind of pushback.
And of course, since this conversation took place, we have the incident of the FOX television affiliate in Oklahoma blocking fifteen seconds of the new Cosmos program, the 15 seconds dealing with evolution, and my blood boils. I react. I become insensed. And I immediately go to write a new blog post about how stupid this is and how malevolent this kind of nonsense is and how—
Which is, actually, a waste of my time. Really, there are better-qualified people doing exactly that. You can find links to some of them on the sidebar over to the right. You want to read a better-informed and more current tirade against this kind of thing, go to Freethought Pharyngula—P. Z. Myer is an evolutionary biologist and apparently has more time, energy, and inclination than I do to keep abreast of all this nonsense—or check the science blogs to which I maintain links.
I don’t have to do this.
And yet…and yet…I keep doing it. Even here, in addressing a different kind of question, I’m thrashing about and striking back. Willful ignorance, asserted as if it is a positive attribute, with an insistence that it is Right and Truth and we should all bow to its inevitable godlines MAKES—ME—CRAZY.
Because, at base, I loathe my own ignorance. I loathe that part of me that desperately wants to be right, whether I am or not. Because I am aware of my ignorance and strive to correct it and because I see that as an important fight it disturbs me—more, it frightens me—when others not only don’t see the worth in that fight but are dedicated to preventing the triumph of knowledge.
So, I suppose the simple answer to my friend’s question is—fear. Those people scare me. They are the ideological descendents of Inquisitors, witchfinders, book-burners, imperialists of dogma, stone-throwers, and censors. Because I read Lest Darkness Fall and Fahrenheit 451 and my imagination is such that I can see what a victory for them would mean for people like me.
And because I honestly lack any kind of faith in those who are my intellectual and cultural kindred that we will win this fight.
But that still doesn’t fully address the challenge he laid at me feet. Why do I pay so much attention to all this when I could better serve my own purpose and the purpose of the civilization I support in so many other ways?
Because, when combined with all of the above, this has become a rut. It is easy. And it feeds my sense of relevance. But really it’s a paltry diet. There are richer meals to be had, that would be more beneficial, to me and to others. So it is an itch which has become easy and habitual for me to scratch. And in certain company, it’s a sign that I am part of a certain group of like-minded.
It’s a poor excuse. I could be doing better things with my time and frankly getting more out of my intellectual life. Because at the end of the day, I’m not going to change their minds, and those who nod along with me when I dive into one of my tirades don’t need me to tell them about this.
I think it is worth paying attention to when tax money goes to something like Ken Ham’s Creation Museum. That’s an abuse of public trust and a violation of the law, frankly, and should be made public and stopped.
But I don’t need to go on about Ken Ham’s idiocy.
The spot that itches has grown raw and inflamed from repeated scratching and no salve is in sight. I need to leave it alone. I have a book on mathematics to hand, another about the history of science fiction, and still another about World War I. Yes, I have a couple of books dealing with the assault of reason, which is not only from a religious reactionary quarter—reason is under assault from many quarters—but I’m a fiction writer. My job is to tell stories about the world and because I write science fiction I can do a little prognosticating. I have to stop pissing away time on pointless subjects.
Besides, I really do think they’ll fade. When I sit myself down and really examine it, the world view we define as that of Reason will maintain and eventually the nattering naysayers will diminish. It’s just difficult to see that day to day and believe it when there are people worrying over the “historical” inaccuracies in a Hollywood film about a mythical event.
So I wish to thank my friend for opening a door and pointing out that I’ve been perhaps wandering the wrong hallway for a time.
This is why we must cultivate relationships with people we disagree with.