Philosophy

The Irish Option

I tend to avoid prognostication. Prediction. Dicey game, right answers stumbled upon seldom enough to imbue them with an aura. But I might put one out there after this week. I’m going to predict that what just happened in Ireland is the start of a movement and might come to be called The Irish Option. Just the fact that it occurred in, of all places, Ireland, that land of formerly austere and resolute Catholic dominance and abuse, will make it emblematic.

In an apparently overwhelming referendum, the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, which banned abortion, has been removed, by more than 2 to 1. People returned to Ireland from all over the world just to cast a ballot. If nothing else, this should give Americans pause to reflect on how much we value the vote.

After arguing over this for most of the last century, the issue has come down to some very simple precepts. But the primary one, the one that will carry forward, is simple—women should be the ones to decide whether or not to bear children. Only the most obdurate and unaffected stubbornness can fail to see the reasons. This single right underlies all other arguments for equality. This single factor determines self-empowerment. This single option dictates how one can conduct one’s life.

And of course it is not only the individual woman who benefits from having the choice. But we should not lose sight of this central, primary fact. Historically, women have had little to say concerning their own lives, and this biological reality has been the chief excuse for varying degrees of disempowerment, chattel bondage, and denial of agency. Redressing that has been one of the chief issues of Western Civilization since the 18th Century at least. Along with general questions of inequality, the period from 1820 (just to select a starting point—others may serve as well) to the present has been defined by a constant discourse on what we mean by civil rights and civil liberties. At every point where significant transitions occurred, individual autonomy has increased. The arguments against have fallen because they are morally unsustainable. White people are not genetically superior to other so-called races, women are not constitutionally unsuited to political engagement or forms of work men traditionally claim as their own, property is not a sufficient condition to segregate the right to vote, money is not a basis for denial of rights to those who lack it. And so on and so forth. We come at last (or perhaps not) to what remains of the justification for keeping more than half the human race in some degree of bondage. Moral arguments about sex, national arguments about the duty of motherhood, economic arguments about the structure of the home, political arguments over resources, and finally turf battles over privilege have combined in a toxic morass to muddy the core issues and make the road to a simple understanding bloody and brutal and divisive.

Certain people chafe at losing control, however imaginary. Others chafe at not having it in a very real and visceral way.

The litany of objections have all come down to a few assumptions based on tradition and an obsolete configuration of moral constraint that are more distraction than legitimate. Now in Ireland, with its history of sectional strife and tragedy, people have decided that it is time to set aside that mountain of gilded offal under which people squirm to meet standards that have nothing to do with hopes, dreams, or even practical abilities. Time to say enough to the history of sadistic denial, perverse chastisement, and unexamined fear of the female and say “We’re all people, human beings, and we want the same things, and those of us who never have to deal with a biological condition that can derail everything have no right to put chains on those who do have to deal with it.”

Choice frightens a lot of people. Because it takes power out of one set of hands and gives it those whose choice might make us uncomfortable. Because it takes away privileges. Because it unsettles. Because it changes arrangements that have given some a sense of worth at the expense of others’ freedom to live a life of their own choosing.

Now we see that some people, still, are simply terrified of the idea of the self-possessed woman.

Just as some are terrified of the idea of the self-possessed individual of a race not our own.

I have nothing to say to them, other than you will not dictate the terms of civilization anymore. Maybe you should talk to someone about what you fear.

In the meantime, I suspect more and more we’ll be seeing The Irish Option. The pushback against fear, ignorance, and hate is happening.

For those who will resort to the war cry “But the babies!” No. A zygote is not a baby. It’s not a baby until the woman carrying it says it is. But, then, it’s never really been about that anyway. Has it?

Ol’ Time Deaf & Blind

Recently I had one of those exchanges which can be intensely frustrating, more so for the thoughtful participant than the antagonist, who often seems to feel that ramping up the frustration of the deponent constitutes a “win.” Never mind the substance of the argument.

It was over the question, now almost continually asked, “How can those self-proclaimed christians support Trump now that_____?”  Fill in the blank. Of course, most of these are rhetorical, “gotcha” memes that do not seem to really want an answer.  The answer is not all that complicated. A few weeks ago a friend of mine relieved me of the burden of trying to over-analyze the question by pointing out, in a marvelous example of applying Occam’s Razor, that the question assumes all the wrong things. They support him for the same reason anyone supports “their guy.”  They’re partisan.  There’s no mystery, it’s not rocket science, and we who might legitimately wonder about the conflation of theological militancy and dubious standard-bearers often jump down rabbit holes of historical, theological, and psychological analysis.  Much to the mirth, I imagine, of those we seek to understand.

For the majority of evangelical and/or fundamentalist supporters of our current president, this answer is more than sufficient. We who lean a bit more to the left do the same thing, albeit perhaps less dramatically, excusing lapses we may decry in our elected officials when they aren’t “our guys.” The simple fact is, purity of ideology and private life are chimeras not to be found. No one, on either side, will ever meet that standard and we are wasting our time and energy hoping for one.

(I’m not altogether sure I would trust someone who appeared to meet those criteria. I want my leaders human, thank you very much, warts and all. Saints tend to have or develop agendas that are eventually at odds with human needs and, if convinced of their specialness by undue popular acclaim, stop listening when they start acting on such beliefs.)

But there are a couple of instances where the question has ancillary aspects that drift back into the office of the analyst. One, the biggest possibly, has to do with the leaders of such groups who loudly conjoin a biblical spin with support. Of course, they’re ridiculous, but the problem is, people listen to them, and here we do see the source of the original question.  The answer remains the same—they are partisan and they have agendas, usually along the lines of condemning homosexuality, ending abortion, and bringing back some kind of Mosaic aesthetic to apply to civic and private life. This is as political as you can get, but they wrap it in the sugarcoating of “god’s will”and sell it along with the hundred dollar bibles. There’s no way to tell how many of their adherents actually act on their preachments and I believe they are in the minority, just very, very loud, but it cannot be denied that there is an element of perhaps very cynical theological redaction going on. How can they support this guy out of one side of their mouths when they claim to be christians out of the other? More to the point, when they make the argument that this is wrapped up with supporting their guy. As I said, like anyone else, they’re partisan and, like most people. they compartmentalize. How can they preach that this guy was chosen by the lord to do whatever it is he’s going to (presumably what they hope he will do) and gloss over the incompatibilities over things they would never hesitate to condemn someone who is not their guy for doing? Because they are opportunistic shams who are more worried about their own power an influence than anything genuinely christian.

Now a couple of things happen when I say something like that. The first is a lot of people assume I’m talking about them when I’m not.  The label has an unfortunate effect of categorizing people of many different philosophical and personal attributes into a single group. Just as terms like “conservative” or “liberal” do. We use these labels to define what we’re talking about at the moment, unfortunately casting too wide a net and causing defenses to rise where none are needed. One consequence of this is a lot of people will start making the “well, they’re not real christians” argument, distancing themselves. Since what we’re talking about has far more to do with political partisanship than actual religion, this is unfortunate, because it’s just one more wall between people.

What to do? If someone insists on self-identifying that way and then claiming they vote in accordance with that identity, how does one deal with it without acknowledging the problematic aspects of the issue?

If you start engaging with someone over these questions by delving into what the bible actually says and how it might not be what they think it is, you discover a couple of things right off the bat that makes it either a very short or a very frustrating encounter. Firstly, your conversant may not know thing one about what you’re talking about. They have not read the bible. Not all of it, not nearly enough of of it. (I am speaking now of averages; there will always be someone who does not fill this description.) At best they have studied the parts they’ve introduced to in church. After all, those are the “important” parts. Secondly, you run into the problem that this person probably, maybe, did not come to his or her belief by a reasoned process. Which is why when you start examining the bases of their belief, they are completely at sea, and react as if threatened. Because you are threatening them.

However and for whatever reason they have come to this place, they have staked their identity on this ground and to suggest it might be sand is very, very, very threatening.

It’s not your place to tell them they’re wrong.

The best you can do is offer—not impose—more information. Or walk away.

However, when someone steps up to willingly engage with you over this and makes a show of being open to dialogue, things change.

In the encounter I mentioned above, two things were thrown at me that I found no way to deal with effectively because they represent a mindset that a priori rejected my arguments. The first that I am “misguided” and the second that I am “rebelling against god,” which is the sole reason I fail to swallow his counterarguments.

I’ve written before about how I feel that those gentle busybodies who knock on your door to bring you the good word, without intending to, are very insulting. Because in order to presume to do that they have to make certain assumptions, one of which is that you must be stupid. That something  this important just never occurred to you to think about ever before. No, they do not consciously think this, but when confronted by someone who informs them that, no, I have considered all this and chosen a different path, they conclude that you either misunderstood something or you’re in league with the devil. The discourse runs aground on the shoals of mutual incomprehension because the places you’re arguing from are wildly divergent. If you stand your ground, I suspect they think you think they’re stupid. But at some level where space for being able to acknowledge the possibility of a different view should be, something else has filled it and communication is subsequently made far more difficult.

But the judgment that I am stupid is wrapped up in that “misguided.” Clearly, I am not getting something, which is so simple and so self-evidently true a child ought to pick up on it. Because, conversely, I can’t possibly have a worthwhile point. No, of course not. That would be impossible, since it appears to  contradict the convictions of your conversant. He didn’t seem to even register those points where I agreed with him (and there were) because I kept insisting, I suppose, that there were doctrinal problems with some of this. So I’m misguided.

And I am misguided because I’m rebelling against god. I have to be. The only reason I would argue along the lines I do is if I were angrily rejecting a god I know in my heart is really there. Because that’s the only way you can rebel against something, is by rejecting the authority of something real.

This is a fallback assumption, which is one of the reasons we see the logical absurdity that atheists worship Satan.  This is flung at us with no hint of irony.

The existence or nonexistence of god aside, this is a human inability to consider the possibility of Other Views. Even to dismiss them.

But I made the observation that, no, I am not in rebellion against god. If anything, I am in rebellion against people who insist that I’m misguided. I suppose this was ignored because, on some level, the notion that people and god can be separate in the sense that I meant is inconceivable. To be in rebellion against god’s messengers must de facto mean I’m rebelling against god.

Loops within loops.

So extract god from the core question and we come back to—they’re partisan.

(This is not, in fact, inconsistent with this brand of christianity. They are stuck in the Old Testament with all its punitive constraints and vengeance and parochial judgment. You can tell because they go all Levitical on you to defend their presumed moral superiority. Yahweh is a partisan god. Look at the jeremiads against “foreigners” and the instructions on how many of another people the Israelites ought to slaughter. He is a blood-soaked deity who has chosen a Side and promised to bless these people if they do what he says. This is partisanship.  It is not at all inconsistent, given the rhetoric about building walls, reinstating intolerances, banning programs that award benefits to people Yahweh would have had put to death. He’s their guy the way David was.)

I uttered two words that sent my opponent into eloquent condemnation—doubt and skepticism. Since he felt I was misguided, I realized he saw no utility in either of these, at least not when it came to religion.

This is not confined to religion. I want to stress this. The kind of filters in place I perceived are by no means an exclusive attribute of this view. Many people simply do not want or cannot manage to think everything through. It is perfectly human to want something, some core of philosophical reliability that goes without saying and need not be questioned. To believe is held up as a virtue. Whether it is or not, it seems to be a very human necessity. When that core is called into question…

But I would like to say this: you cannot be misguided if you are open to differing opinions and always on the hunt for questions that need answers. You can certainly wander down side roads, into cul-d-sacs, blind alleys, but if you’re still looking, it doesn’t trap you. You can only be misguided by a guide who does not have your interests in mind. Gurus, prophets, stump preachers, pseudoscientists, psychics, charlatans of all stripes who all share one thing—the desire to capture you into their scam (whether they feel it’s a scam or not) and make themselves feel “right” by the headcount in the hall.

And, really—you can’t be in rebellion against something you don’t believe exists. But then a lot of people find it difficult to separate out an idea from an actuality.

But as to how all those “good christians” can support Trump? Partisanship. They may or may not be good christians, but they are definitely dedicated partisans.

Le Guin

Of all the things I thought I would be writing about today, this is not one of them.  Of course I knew she was unwell.  Of course I knew how old she was.  Of course I know all journeys end.

Still, the impact of such endings can dislodge and shock. Because it is difficult to envisage the world continuing with such an absence.

Unlike others, I have read relatively little of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work. The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, Wizard of Earthsea, The Word For World Is Forest, The Left Hand Of Darkness…a handful of others, short stories. Enough to start a long change in trajectory for my own work and, more importantly, in my apprehension of this thing we do called “science fiction.”

So I want to talk about that instead of reviewing a biography and a bibliography others will more ably do.

Le Guin never wrote the expected. She published in the magazines, her novels came out with the SF label on the spine, some of the covers suggested that a reader might find something like all the rest of the books around them inside. And indeed there was that—interstellar settings, outré physics, aliens, exotic locations. But then there were the bits that refused to sustain the standard pattern.

“I didn’t know Fomalhaut II had all those people besides the trogs,” said Kethro, the curator.

“I didn’t either. There are even some ‘Unconfirmed’ species listed here, that they never contacted. Sounds like time for a more thorough survey mission to the place. Well, now at least we know what she is.”

“I wish there were some way of knowing who she is…” 

Early in the pages of Rocannon’s World we read that exchange and it is a promise and warning that what will follow, for decades, was all about learning who we are. Le Guin took the potential of what we call science fiction to unbury the many selves of sentient life and hold not one but many mirrors up to us. To tell us, over and over again, that who we are is more important than what. That sounds banal, certainly, because after all, isn’t all fiction about that?

Of course, but not in ways that can delineate the artificial from the organic, the applied from the emergent, the structural from the holistic the way science fiction does. Too many things are too often taken for granted, left unexamined and therefore unquestioned, in most literature, and we’re left with portraits that, while often insightful and clear, go only so far in examining the limitations of selfhood, of identity, of the ramifications of social, biological, and technological fabrics that comprise context.

Read The Dispossessed and you see this potential in full flower.

But it is a constant throughout her work. It might be said that her work was always concerned with the problems of self-expression in relation to dynamic systems, be they natural, technological, political—in fact, all three as an amalgam. The interconnections between the self and the community drove her narratives, and intentionally or not she sought balance.  (I think intentionally, oh yes, fully.)

Much has been written and debated about the impact of the Sixties on, well, everything, but within SF in particular it seemed to have been a period of enormous ferment, regeneration, and experimentation. Most of it was ephemeral and soon vanished from memory, as with almost all SF in any given period. Le Guin entered the field with all the appearances of a writer of the Old School, but there was something going on in her work that, quietly and irresistibly, infected what came after. She exemplified, through her writing, the euphemism “the personal is political.”

Getting to know another, really knowing them, is a supremely political act.  It changes everything. Its changes you, them, the context in which this discovery occurs. Being open to such knowing is to be vulnerable, and that leads to unknown possibilities. If all we look for in others is what we already have, then we never know them, and so we preserve ourselves against the possibility of change, of growth, of the pleasures of otherness. That, too, is a deeply political act, the choice to not look, to not know.

To not see.

The Left Hand Of Darkness is entirely involved in this kind of seeing. It is a story of blindnesses and veils and the necessity of seeing anew.

After Le Guin, it is impossible to understand science fiction as less than the most deeply political of literary forms.

It is also impossible to dismiss it as nonliterary. In Le Guin, the range of possible ways of seeing others is expanded beyond any probable comfort zone. She expanded her vision so much that the boundaries that had kept SF neatly barracked cracked and fell open. Oh, certainly she was not the only one, but her assault on the limits of literary convention were all the more effective because they were so pleasurable to read, and once read, impossible to forget. Her work altered your perspective.

After Le Guin, there is no going back to previous standards.

After Le Guin, it is impossible to pretend that change can be forestalled, that the world is complete, that the self and the community can be kept apart to mutual benefit, that politics is ignorable, that others are not us.

After Le Guin, really, the universe is bigger, richer, livelier, more dangerous…and not at all what we might wish to expect.

She was amazing. She amazed.

 

Difficult Books

Change of angst.

I saw one of those clickbait surveys, 200 “difficult” books, that challenge you by offering titles to select and then rating your score. I took it because it’s amusing to see what the zeitgeist thinks is worthwhile literature, and this one was better than some, but several of the titles gave me pause, thinking, that’s a difficult book?

I wonder what criteria are being used, other than perhaps page count and venerable authors.  Also, what do they mean by “difficult”—conceptually challenging or just a slog?  I mean, certainly Atlas Shrugged is a “difficult” book, but not the same way Ulysses is, or even the same way Oliver Twist is.  Ulysses requires some intellectual acumen on the part of a reader, some familiarity with history and literature, a bit of theology, and an ability to recognize human foible in any of dozens of various guises.  Atlas Shrugged merely requires a strong stomach and a lot of patience. Being tone deaf to good literature would help as well. And of course what the latter has to say about the human condition vis a vis economics is meaningless drivel compared to the portrayal of class abuse in Oliver Twist.  Telling the difference and knowing why the one doesn’t stack up to the other would be a good start to determining what qualifications one is using for “difficult” reads.

But it’s a good question, what qualifies as a difficult—in this case, read a challenging—book.  And by challenging I mean a work that forces you to think about the text and risk change by having read it deeply and honestly.

Admittedly, there are some novels which are merely difficult through obscurantism. They’re hard because the writer didn’t have much to say but didn’t want to admit that.  They usually don’t last past the life of the author. Sometimes they don’t last past the initial print run.  But the difficulty of the structure and the sentences and the fog of pseudointellectual posturing is in these instances little more than a guarantee of early extinction.

The problem is, sometimes a really good work bears some resemblance to such work. It becomes easy to overlook the real virtues of such novels because audience for them is harder to find.

Take Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Disclaimer: I do not care for this novel. I find it difficult to enjoy the sentences. When someone pointed out to me that it has really funny parts, I was surprised.  The torture of the sentences prevented my ever seeing that, but I was willing to be shown. I’ve been through again, recently, and I’m prepared to admit that it is a Great Novel.  But it is seriously difficult.  And part of the difficulty is that Melville loaded his sentences with multiple meanings, subtext, and unpleasant reality.  It is difficult because what it has to say is difficult to say in such a way that the meaning will get past the innate cultural barriers to recognition.

But it survived because that recognition is to be found and eventually people found it and the impact was enormous.

It bears multiple readings.  Unpacking it takes time. Such a book demands the two things modern readers seem to lack the most:  time and patience.

But going through that list of 200 “difficult” books what I found mainly were books that are long and involved and in some instances convoluted (Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest) and books with Reputations. The latter are the kinds of books you might find on readers’ shelves, but rarely read.  They know somehow they should read them, but they just haven’t.  And may never.  Because…well, they’re hard.  They reward patience, necessitate experience, require a bit of preparation, and yield nothing to casual taste.

It put me in mind of some of our recent teacup typhoons in science fiction.  Why struggle to understand something that makes the brain sweat when all the thrills and reassurance that you are smart can be found in the shallower waters of quicker reads?

Well, the answer is unsatisfying to a particular kind of reader.  You read the hard books because they make you more.

I won’t say “better” because I don’t know quite what that means in this context (or whether that sort of judgment has any place in talking about literature), but the expansion of the psyché is a real thing and it is only achieved by constantly taking on the difficult.  Only by doing so do you reach a point where you can discern the real difference between something like Atlas Shrugged (dense but superficial, and in many ways fraudulent) and a Gravity’s Rainbow (dense but meaningful, expansive and revelatory).  But more to the point, a book like Atlas Shrugged will not change you—if you are open to its message, all it will do is pacify your doubts and reinforce your prejudices, without ever challenging you to think about people or history in a different way, while the Pynchon cannot help but call into question pat beliefs and unsettle comfortable preconceptions.

So when such lists are constructed, it’s worth asking: how will these books make me different or new?  How well do they tell the truth?  How much do they expose about self-deception, deceit, and the lies of the world?  That’s where the “difficult” part is.

A thousand pages of froth changes nothing.  It just takes a long time to get through.

Observations On The Collapse of a Deal

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make some statements which may not be dependable. You are warned. I’m speculating.

But I want some optimism, so…

With the dismissal of Bannon, it is obvious—or should be—that there is no center to this administration. The Donald had no plans, no principles to defend, no competencies to bring to bear. From the beginning he was indulging in pure deal-making showmanship, and now that he has to deliver we see that the fine cloak of carnival hucksterism is draped over nothing. He is entirely about Making A Deal.  He thought that’s all he had to do, come into Washington and start wheeling and dealing as if the business of the nation was no more than a complex set of real estate negotiations that required someone who could sit down and negotiate a Deal. In his conception of that, though, you base your negotiating principles on bluff and managing to get one over on the other guy. As long as you come out ahead—however you conceive of that—you’re successful. The one thing that is de rigeur, though, is that nothing is to be allowed to get in the way of the Deal.

Not even your own biases.

So we see exactly how that works in practice with the dismal display over Charlottesville. Don’t take a side, you might have to make a Deal with those guys later.  If possible, make all positions roughly equal so that you somehow hold the upper hand.

This doesn’t work so well with people on the street and it works even worse with countries.  You try to make China look bad so you can deal on trade imbalances, but the rhetoric you choose makes it difficult to then ask for help when North Korea acts up.  And threatening North Korea as part of a bluff to get them to open up to deal doesn’t work with a leadership that thinks it has already won.

On a practical, domestic level, you make promises that require a lot of other people to sign on for without any kind of guidance on where to go with these promises, because, as a “master” dealmaker you know you can bait-and-switch.  You can get them into that turkey you’ve been wanting to unload if you can just get them to the table and pliant.  They either walk away with nothing or take your offer, and no one wants to walk away with nothing.  They do business with you now so they can do a better deal later.

It’s vacuous.

But an even deeper problem lies with the people who helped him into office.  We know them now, we can see what they are, and recognize the disregard and empty polemic and the class bias and the sheer disrespect they carry with them in lieu of an actual conscience.  They think everyone is just like them and when it turns out that they’re wrong they have nothing to fall back on.

Now, I suspect that had this bunch come into power in 2008 we would be in even worse trouble.  The country was on the ropes then, people were terrified, insecure, the economy was in a tailspin, and everyone was out to blame someone. We might have had a deeply serious  problem had this bunch gotten into power then.  They would be just as inept but we would have less confidence in our ability to challenge the obscenities.  The comparisons to Germany in 1932 are apt but they go only so far.  These folks are eight years and an economic recovery too late.

Oh, they can still do damage—they are doing damage.  But they’re doing more damage to themselves.

Bannon was dismissed because, somehow, he threatened the Deal.  Whatever the Deal might be.  The Deal is amorphous, unformed.  You throw things out there until something coalesces, then you recognize what it’s going to be, and you start arranging the furniture to make it happen.  But Bannon wasn’t interested in that.  He wanted to assert a position, he had a clear agenda.  Can’t have that and keep the Deal fluid. He was an unreliable negotiator.  His strategy, whatever it was, would have required his boss to give up options.  Can’t do that, the Deal isn’t shaped yet.  When he said the presidency he and the others fought for is over, that’s what he meant.  The goals he thought they were all going after are being traded for advantage, used as negotiating chips in some Deal.

It all has no center.  No substance.  It’s collapsing.  The scramble to make appearances count for reality is failing.

So my bit of optimism.  We’re going through a long-overdue purge.  It will be better.  All we have to do is vomit out the residue of old beliefs that, in most instances, only served to distract us from our darker selves.

It’s going to be all right.

Nazis In Our Midst

The events in Charlottesville  evoke for me the desolation that marred the American landscape in the late Sixties. Cities burned. Riots obliterated property, took lives, attempted by sheer physical exertion to assert a condition of identity too unformed and inarticulate in aggregate to mollify the majority of Americans. It burned itself out, exhausted, and with the end of the Vietnam War some years later and the appearance of normalization in relations between the races, it seemed the “long national nightmare” was over.

The complacency which followed has brought us to a condition of absurd desperation. Once more it is all too vast and amorphous to address as a whole, but I wish here to talk about one aspect that has fueled the present explosion of what too many of us believed smothered in our national psyché.

White Supremacy. Nazism.

The ignorant and frustrated attempting to turn back the ocean of maturity that has threatened their self-defining illusions have come out to protest the removal of a statue honoring Robert E. Lee, hero of the Confederacy. Heritage is used as an excuse, tradition as justification for the continued veneration of symbols which have little to recommend them other than the growing pains of a national moral conscience. The condemnation and dissolution of slavery in the United States was at the time long overdue and the defense of the institution on economic, biblical, even “scientific” grounds was a stain on the very founding principles of the country. How anyone could feel righteous defending on the one hand the liberty assumed by the words “all men are created equal” and then on the other chattel bondage enforced by the cruelest methods imaginable is testament to the unreliability of human intelligence poisoned by greed and fear. To look at it on its face, clearly the slaveholders of that time were the most dedicated Me Generation in modern history.

The attempts by latterday apologists to try to rewrite history to say that the South did what it did for other reasons than slavery is precisely the same as Holocaust Deniers attempting to mitigate the appalling behavior the the Nazi regime. To say that “It wasn’t so bad” is not much different than believing “those people had it coming.” To then go on and say they “had it coming” and then mitigate that by saying it wasn’t actually about that anyway is the sign of a mind in moral crisis that has given up on facing truth and reality.

To be clear: the South seceded in order to preserve slavery. Period. There were four formal declarations of secession outlining causes and each one of them privileges the right to maintain slavery as justification for leaving the Union. (Jefferson Davis, in a speech before congress in 1856, made it clear that he saw the preservation of “African slavery” as little less than a moral absolute.) Other articles of secession refer to these and give support and affirmation. But some of the language might be a bit complex for the obdurate revisionist to parse, so let’s look at something a bit sharper and to the point.

Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens gave what is known as The Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861. In it he laid out the principles of the new government. He said:

Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

It seems strange to read “slavery subordination” in the same paragraph with “moral truth.” But there it is. It cannot be swept away in a bit of philosophical or political legerdemain. Those people did what they did so they could hold millions of human beings in bondage. They wanted to keep slaves, to force human beings to give up or never have lives of their own.

More? He was laying out the foundation of the Confederacy and its political and philosophical bases. To whit:

The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”

Stephens was a full-throated, hoary racist to his core. He was terrified of black people, of what they represented, what they might do, and the threat they posed to the white civilization he thought so highly of.

You can try if will to get around that, but it’s absolutely clear. It is as clear as Hitler’s statements about Jews. It is the product of a culturally-molded view that has been repudiated time and again and here we see, in our midst, these very views driving people to actions that border on the actions of the Secessionists, which were then and remain treasonous.

It might be argued that the context within which these men did what they did differed from ours and that would be fair. Lee refused Lincoln’s offer of overall command of the Union army because he did not see the United States as his country but Virginia. That was how he spoke of it, that is how many people of the day saw it. Which is why much of the nonslaveholding population of the South, even those who had some problems with slavery in principle, fought against the North, because they saw it as an invasion.

We don’t have that excuse. We have not thought of our individual states as separate countries since the Civil War ended, not in any concrete way. We know it’s not like that. (It wasn’t legally like that then, but disingenuousness goes hand in hand with self-justifications.)

So these rioting, frothing-at-the-mouth haters clamoring for the preservation of some safe space wherein they can maintain the small-minded, deformed illusions of a master race that will profit them by rewarding their inability to cope with reality or comprehend moral reasoning want us all to accept the revised view of a Lost Cause narrative that never existed. Something that will overlook their intrinsic inferiority as rational beings and privilege the things they never had to earn as qualifications to rule. “I’m white, I should be better than you!”

We are not obliged as a nation to help you maintain your delusions. We are not obliged as a people to stand by while you try to stand apart in order to throw stones at the things you don’t like. We as moral beings owe nothing to a past that aggrandized inhumanity in the name of tradition or heritage or states’ rights or—

Or White Superiority.

Which, we are beginning to learn, was never a real thing.

The South worked overtime to cover its existence in a patina of false chivalry as antidote to the poison in its own belly. The lie at the heart of every movie or book that romanticized Dixie is that gentility was ever its raîson detré. The captivity in which it held its slaves was echoed in the straitjacket in which it dressed its “society” with its balls and belles and rituals of modern-day cavaliers. And later the stranglehold it maintained on the working class, with sharecropping the most visible form, in an attempt to revive the aristocratic presumptions of the plantation system, so that some mock nobility could exist on the backs of people with no viable way out of their bondage was no more than the refusal of former slaveholders and sons of slaveholders to hold on to the shards of an imagined life of leisure and grace that only ever existed by virtue of the spilled blood and broken bones of human beings who never had any say in their lives.

Robert E. Lee in the end was granted pardon by the expedient wisdom of victors who sought only to end the bloodshed and knew if they dealt with him and the others as they deserved under the law there would have been years more of senseless fighting. The man owned human beings. You may try to dress that up any way you wish, but that is a horrible thing. He and the others who fomented rebellion in order to maintain a system steeped in a depravity that required the worst aspects of human brutality to persist.

And the excuse they used was the argument of Negro Inferiority.

Now today we see people who have been raised with a painfully redacted version of the Lost Cause and are also incapable of dealing with those who do not look like them taking to the streets and the voting booth to try to force their intolerance on the rest of us. They themselves lack the integrity, the intellectual weight, and the moral substance to be equal to the challenges of their own shortcomings and deal with the world around them with any constructive resolve. They perceive opportunities being handed to people they cannot accept as equals and rather than look at themselves and try to come to terms with what they do not possess, they seek advantage by intimidation, by violence, by brute assertions of privilege mistaken as rights. They have raised the specter of Naziism in our midst because they sense if not recognize their obsolescence. If this is all the support that will come to defense of a statue, then it is perhaps right that the statue be removed.

But this deserves no defense. Yes, they have a right to express their opinion, but that right does not extend to forcing the rest of us to tolerate their demands on how that opinion is expressed.

Human beings must not be held in bondage. This is a truth.

The South committed treason when those states seceded and took up arms against the Union. That is also a truth.

They did so not out of some rarefied position on states’ rights and misunderstanding over the nature of the union they had all agreed to join and ratified in the constitution. They did so to maintain their labor pool and property values, no matter how hideous the conditions or immoral the institution. That deserves no respect on any level.

There is no valid argument for any present-day defense of those times, that philosophy, or the so-called traditions descended from them. The mob that showed up to protest the removal of a statue glorifying an era of horrific pain and suffering based on the indignity of human subjugation may know something of that history. Or they may not. In either case, that history is knowable.

The foundations of Southern thinking were then desperately elitist, terrified of losing the throne of superiority not only to those they considered their racial inferiors but to any and all that did not meet their standards. This quote from the Muscogee Herald, an Alabama newspaper, in 1856:

Free Society! we sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists? All the Northern men and especially the New England States are devoid of society fitted for well-bred gentlemen. The prevailing class one meet with is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman’s body servant. This is your free society which Northern hordes are trying to extend into Kansas.

There is in the stunted soul of a Nazi and inability to cope with equality of any sort. The Nazis of Germany in the 1930s till the end of the war were, to their core, thieves, moral cowards, and perpetually incapable of recognizing the humanity in anything. They erected a state based on pillage and called it great. They sought a conformism of mind impossible to achieve not only because they lacked any grasp of human nature but because their standards were paper-thin, devoid of substance, and necessitated the virtual lobotimization of imagination.

We must confront and reject this intractable belief that anyone is intrinsically better than anyone else that lies at the center of the White Supremacist movement. At the end of the day, no one can be allowed freedom in the face of the amalgamated mediocrity of a mind that demands an inferiority in others in order to feel that it is safe to get out of bed in the morning and face a day everyone has the same right to enjoy. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that a civilization cannot survive the successful expression of the politics that inevitably emerge from such unadmitted terror as that harbored by those who ascribe to such movements and accept as “natural” such inhuman beliefs.

Enough.

The Absurdity of Unexamined Positions

Recently I had an exchange with someone over climate change. It was short and frustrating. The basis of the exchange was a report—recycled from 2007 and given a new lease on life because of the recent book and film—on Al Gore’s presumably exorbitant energy use in his home.  Depending on which non-news site you chose, he either uses 34 times more than the average American or 21 times.   The intent of the articles was to show Mr. Gore as a hypocrite, someone preaching the sermon but then balking at the walk.

It’s true, he lives large.  He has a ten thousand square foot home, which is more than five times the size of the average American home, and that doesn’t include the grounds.  But there was also no mention made of the carbon offsets he buys or the investments he makes in green energy or the money he spent upgrading a century old house to more modern energy efficiencies or the way he has specified the source of much of his energy so that a lot if not most comes from alternate sources.  This was a standard-issue bit of simple-minded criticism that says if you do not live in a hovel when preaching about certain things, you’re automatically a hypocrite.  It is not, I should point, about forcing Al Gore to reduce his lifestyle but to force him to shut up.  None of these people would care if he moved into a double-wide with solar panels and a hydrogen cell to live off the grid.  Their purpose is to get him to stop talking.

As I said, the exchange was short. This was with a climate change denier fully invested in the belief that it is all a hoax.  I was reminded of the mindset of occultists and alchemists, who at their base believed fervently that answers were unobtainable, that if you thought you had found the truth you were automatically wrong.  No, few if any ever stated it so baldly, but it’s obvious from the way they would avoid genuine experiment, deny all arguments that might contradict received wisdom, and generally evaded any conclusion that suggested they were in pursuit of the unattainable.  Science had to rid itself of this obdurate self-imposed blindness before it could flourish and it seems clear that we are burdened with some variation of it still.

But I wondered, just what drives this kind of selective self-censorship?

Well, obviously a lack of understanding.  The science is complex and people often have difficulty grasping causal concepts that seem to contradict personal experience. When your city is frozen in the grip of a record-breaking snow storm it’s difficult to reconcile the assertion that global temperatures are rising.  Difficult but not impossible, especially if the following summer comes with record-breaking heat, for perhaps the fourth or fifth consecutive year.  (Climate has changed in St. Louis.  When I was a kid, three feet of snow in December was not unusual, snow that lasted through February sometimes. Now?  People are stunned when we have a foot that lasts a week, if that. Summers are hotter. Certain insect patterns have shifted. Things have changed and when I look for explanations the only model that conforms to experience is global climate change.)  Lack of understanding can be corrected, though.  People can learn.  They may not want to but they can.

Sometimes, though, they go down a cul-d-sac and get stuck in a plausible dead-end. Staying there, though, depends on things having little to do with evidence or logic.

Consider: the rejection of climate change makes no sense. Addressing the problem of where we get our energy is a technical issue, a matter of engineering. There are several reasons, perfectly sound ones, to change the way we do this.  Pollution is the simplest one.  What kind of a world do you want to live in?  One with soot, particulates,  toxicity? The expense of defending against such things is high, depending where you live. Environmental degradation is another. Tearing up mountains to extract coal, leaving ugly holes, spilling the effluent into waterways, drilling—and fracking is worse.  Look at satellite images of fracking-intense areas and the clouds of waste gas.  And of course earthquakes where few if any had occurred before.  And the damage to water tables.

Jobs is the cry.  Displacing workers.  Well, building a whole new industry would seem to be a jobs-positive thing. The technology and industries to not only build solar and wind would expand the jobs market, but also the construction of the networks, distribution, and upgrading and maintaining the grid (which needs it anyway, regardless of the energy source), all these things mean jobs.

The expense!  The expense we currently shoulder in artificially maintaining obsolete systems should by now be common knowledge.  The expense on taxpayers subsidizing industries that are collapsing not to mention the downstream expense of cleaning up after the pollution.  The expense of people made sick.  The asthma rates in coal country are rising.  We pay an exorbitant amount to maintain the illusion that coal and oil are the only means to accomplish what we want to.

Someone like Al Gore comes along and starts pointing this out.  You might quibble with some of his details, but in essence he has a sound argument.  Instead of attacking the argument—which might lead to some edifying consequence, like all of us learning something useful—his character is attacked.  This is not an uncommon tactic.  Some people seem to feel a person has to be virtually a saint in order to hold and disseminate an opinion.  But if what he says is supported by the science, what difference does it make how he lives?  What is it about his lifestyle that invalidates the message?

He’s asking other people to change but, presumably, he won’t.

What exactly is he asking most people to change?  If tomorrow your electricity came from wind turbines instead of a coal-fired plant, what has changed for you?  Electricity is electricity. The costs? Costs aren’t rising anyway?  Your taxes aren’t going to subsidize the industry?  Or is this more akin to the fear of “death panels” presumably inevitable with universal health care?  We go along with this and next year someone from the government will take away your car or truck? Transportation is already changing, it will continue to do so, and in ten years you may find you don’t even want your car, but that’s beside the point.  Such a fear is a boogeyman used to keep us from addressing the problem.  My question stands: what exactly is he asking you to change?

The question of costs is not irrelevant, but as I say, they’re going up anyway.  Maybe in the long run there might be some relief if part of the cost is not in cleaning up so much detritus.  But that requires long term thinking outside your immediate sphere.  You have to consider the community, the country, the planet.  Most people find that difficult, if not to achieve then to sustain.

Lifestyle.  Your lifestyle will change.

That is almost unanswerable because it’s so nebulous.  As I suggest above, change is coming anyway, but probably not what you expect.  On the simple question of how you get your energy, what changes?  Still, not an irrelevant point.

There will, perhaps, be less available energy. To do what?  We’ve been undergoing a small (perhaps not so small) revolution in energy efficiency for lo these last few decades.  Our houses are full of devices that operate on far less electricity than their ancestors required.  That’s not likely to stop.  But we can look at Europe to see the numbers and discover that the very thing which will provide jobs will also suffice to power your lifestyle.

But I suspect the thing feared in terms of change has nothing to do with actual resource. What will change is some aspect of identity.

From what to what?

Basically, the changes in policy required to address climate change would be a net positive whether the science is flawed or not.  Breathing cleaner air, securing the potability of our water, lightening our touch on the ecologies are all desirable and come with economic benefits regardless.  If it turned out by some odd oversight that we got the climate change model wrong, so what?  We would have built a new energy grid based on cleaner models and generally improved the well-being of the commonwealth.  If we aren’t wrong about climate change, we can add saving the world for humanity as a bonus.

But like someone who doesn’t want to give up steak for dinner, we treat climate change like vegetarianism.  It doesn’t matter that the science may be correct about the health benefits, we still want our meat.  It’s a question of identity.

We burn oil and coal!  It’s American!  All this wind and solar is somehow…somehow…feeble.

Perhaps the deniers can’t imagine building with such tools.  Perhaps they can’t accept joining in a global cooperative effort not being invented or run by America.

Whatever the reason, short-term vested interests love you.  Because they are able to count on you as foot soldiers in the fight to forestall the imposition of regulations on them.  They do not want to be told what they can or cannot do and this is just another species of limitation on their personal vision of Who Counts.

But that’s understandable.  That’s greed and avarice.  What’s the denier’s excuse?  Being somehow joined with the mighty by association with the self-styled giants of industry?

I accept the science involved.  A cold snap here and there isn’t enough to convince me all the rest is a phantom.  But it doesn’t matter.  Accepting the need to change the way we use this planet means so many other things, including eventually taking the power to dictate from people who have no business having it in the first place.  Climate Change Denial costs so much more and fails to address everything else that goes to the need to change.

When Reagan ripped the solar panels off the White House in a fit of thoughtless national pomposity, he empowered a mindset that we’re still having to put up with.  A mindset that won’t debate, won’t consider, won’t yield, and won’t change. not because the thing it rails against is wrong but because it cannot stand not being right.

Past As Door To Future

Recently I learned that the church I attended as a child is holding its last service in September. Emmaus Lutheran Church, on Jefferson Avenue. I say the “church I attended” with a certain degree of disingenuousness. I attended because I had to.  I went to the grade school affiliated with it and every Wednesday morning all the students were ushered into the church to hear services. There were three pastors I recall.  The first was a Reverend Wilson.  I didn’t know much about him because he wasn’t there very long after I started at the school. I recall a slim man with salt-and-pepper hair and a ready smile.  He could have been 40 or 50, but I seem to remember a wife that looked on the young side, so he might have been prematurely gray.  He left and duties were shared between the considerably older (and semi-retired) Pastor Summers and the school principle, Mr. Oberman. They didn’t get a permanent replacement for Wilson till after I had left.

I rarely went on Sundays. The only time I did so regularly was during a short time when I had a girlfriend, a classmate, and I went with her.  In hindsight, obviously I wasn’t going to be edified.

I remember being fervent in my faith at the time.  (For a brief period, I even testified to strangers, on the street.)  I know, that may sound like a contradiction, but even then I did not equate faith with regular attendance.

Well after leaving Emmaus I did a personal assessment of the things I took from there. It should be born in mind that my feelings about the place are mixed thoroughly with my memories of going to school there and the times I went through, so it is difficult to tease apart the church bits from the rest.  It may be pointless to do so in any case. Halfway through high school I understood that the only thing I wanted from that time and that place was distance.  Judge me if you wish, but all I got from Emmaus Lutheran School and Church was a deep sense of self-loathing and confusion and a bitter resentment over how much time and energy was and would be required to get all that protestant hellfire and guilt out of my brain.

My sense of personal shame was as much a result of my peers showing me time and again how little they thought of me as it was the thunderous Old Testament retributive doctrines, but since we were all being handed the same things it may be that the whole experience is the point.  What I learned there was a pervasive intolerance.

I had one brief interaction with them years after leaving, which resulted in my threatening a lawsuit for harassment. That did the trick and I never heard anything from them again. That was desired and appreciated.

The school closed first, of course.  I believe the building was sold.  Something is going on in it anyway and it is not parochial school classes. (I think.)  I was surprised to learn last week that the church had still been in business.  Like old actors you haven’t seen anything about in years and think are dead, I was surprised to hear that services were still being held.  Despite the tenacity of the congregation, I am not surprised they are shutting it down.  Demographics.  People move, die, neighborhoods change.  The demographics mutate and unless an institution is willing to change with them, they do not survive.  My memory suggests that this was not a parish interested in modernizing.  Maybe they tried.

But it is also a fact that traditional churches of almost any denomination are struggling.  This is neither new or uncommon. That Emmaus had lasted this long is a testament to persistence.

Some may feel they failed in their mission. No, probably not. They simply failed to adapt their mission to new conditions and needs. That particular manifestation of the Lutheran Church just faded out.

Plus, no doubt, they ran out of money.

I would never have known anything about this had I not been added (without permission, as often happens) to a Facebook group of fellow classmates.  I hadn’t heard a peep out of them for however long I’d been a member until this shattering news came across Messenger.  Good heavens, now that it’s too late, they’re all shocked.  Maybe. I could have happily gone on knowing nothing about it. But I lurked on the thread for a few days, watching the comments, and then quietly left the group without saying a word.  Why say anything?  I don’t care but there’s no reason to rain on their party on that account.  I didn’t want to be the curmudgeon who tells the truth about Uncle Phil at the funeral, so to speak.

But I do have one friend from those days who made a point of contacting me about it.  Even though we had talked about my experiences and feelings about the place for literally decades, he was offended by my indifference.  Not, I think, over the religious aspect, but over the nostalgia.  Be that as it may, I was once again made to feel a smidgeon of guilt over my lack of interest, and here it is going on half a century since I left that place and the caul of it still clings.  Amazing.

I know other Christians who  came up through their churches in wholly different conditions and look at me oddly about this, but I came away from Emmaus with a burden of guilt based on the whole “you are a worthless smear of shite on the heel of god and steeped in sin for which there is no cure and unless you beg, beg beg forgiveness the fiery pit of perdition awaits” school of religious behavioral conditioning. I was furious with them for years.  Life is hard enough without being made to feel that way by people supposedly preaching love.

I also came out of it with a more subtle but in some ways worse set of cultural biases that reinforced a White Christian West is the Best attitude that relegated anyone who didn’t accept that view to a lesser status, the status of the benighted who require “saving.”  This is, bluntly, imperialist, racist in many cases, certainly a view soaked in the kind of privilege that, to take one example of many, saw the decimation of native American cultures.

And for a short while it acted as a set of filters through which alternate views had a hellish time getting through.

All these things clogged my brain like taffy and it took a long time to flense the pathways.  They may not be entirely cleaned out to this day. The only part of that period of education for which I am grateful, at least as it concerns my intellectual development, was the opportunity it afforded my father and I to engage in intense quasi-Socratic dinner table dialogues that eventually spanned far more than just what I was taught in Bible studies that day.  (I did take some measure of delight in asking uncomfortable and mostly unanswered questions in class.)

My subsequent studies in religion and theology left me even less enamored of Lutheranism, but this is nothing special.  I have little use for any organized, institutionalized religion.  They are all of them built by men for the purposes of men and to pursue those purposes they need money and money displaces the mission in time.  (I choose my adjectives purposefully.)

Emmaus served one purpose for me—it catapulted me out of the narrow chute of parochial thinking.  It was not the result they would have approved.

I was already reading science fiction then.  My 5th grade teacher, a rangy man with flame red hair, told me it was a waste of time.  When I asked why, he informed me that all those space stories were worse than fabrications, because there was nothing else Out There.  No aliens, no other civilizations, nothing.  All that Up There had been made by his god for our edification.  It was just there for us to look at and admire.

Emmaus showed me the door out.  On the other side was a future.  Several futures.  One of them was mine.  I look back as seldom as I can.

Just in case anyone is interested.

A Chronic State of Nostaligic Disconnect

In the past few weeks, things have not gone well for political philosophies based in traditional formulations.  Right or Left (but more so on the self-identified Right) there is a kind of flailing, a death throe undulation that looks like grasping for anchors in something that feels historically relevant but in fact turns out to be sunk in air or sand and simply gets torn loose the moment any real strain is put on it. At its most discernable, there are a lot “I know what you mean” moments, but even these are more “I think I know what you mean, maybe” moments that later turn out to be coincidental brushes with familiar syntax and not much in the way of substantive connection.

Take healthcare.  Whatever your personal feelings about what we should do, nothing being done is what anyone seems to want.  Trump said “We’re gonna fix it!” the GOP nodded sagely, then wrote a bill that would not fix it, but would return the state of American healthcare to some rough semblance of how it was back in 2007, but isn’t, because now no one, not even the insurance industry, wants that.  They have redrafted the bill to do less damage, but that’s not what they want to do, nor is it what Trump promised, although he keeps cheering congress on as long as there is some kind of repudiation of the ACA, which is not what the voters want, either.  In their case, they never really knew what they wanted other than for things to not cost so much, but as to how to “fix” that, those who voted for the current administration have no idea and distrust every single attempt to do so.  In the meantime, the professionals who might have some insight into this are being ignored, congress is pretending it’s serving the People by doing something which can only drive up costs, and Trump is offering zero sense of direction other than “Change something!”

Meanwhile, he has modified his requirements of the propose border wall by asking that it be transparent “so no one on this side will be hit in the head by the packages of drugs being thrown over it.”  Which has so many layers of problematic misapprehension of the problems it’s intended to address as to qualify as some form of mystic pabulum handed down from an airless mountaintop.

(He also bragged in an interview how great the G20 meeting was because there were, like, 20 countries represented.  Ahem.  Two things about that–either he is ignorant enough to think that is useful information or his supporters didn’t know that was what the G20 is.  Or, well, he thinks his supporters wouldn’t know this, so….never mind.)

Meanwhile (again) at the state level, the Illinois legislature finally found the spine to tell the governor that they’ve had enough of his party fundamentalism, the state needs a budget, and for it to have even a prayer of being relevant, the state needs revenue, so yes, we’re raising taxes.  The fact that this is significant is reflective of the dissociation across the entire political spectrum with regard to taxes.  In Missouri we have a strong cadre of very wealthy people who do whatever they can to eliminate any tax that dares raise its head, like some manic game of economic whack-a-mole that serves none of the purposes it is purported to serve.  Along this line, our state legislature has decided to repudiate attempts at the city and county level to address minimum wage issues and bar St. Louis—or any other municipality—from raising local minimum wages above the state level, which is a joke.  Why? None of the excuses make any sense.  Basically there seems to be some attitude at work that poor people need the incentive to become middle class and if we pay them enough that they might be able to feed their families and possibly attend classes to try to better themselves, then they will have been handed an unfair advantage and not properly appreciate it.  If there were not evidence at hand that this is a bullshit argument it would still be laughable because it ignores the current economic realities and instead seems to assume the situation is no different than it was in 1964.

And again meanwhile the people who are supposed to understand such things are scratching their heads at the puzzling data that while productivity has been rising steadily for the last seven years, along with job growth, wages have stagnated.  The increased profitability of all these companies has not resulted in an increase share of the wealth with workers, as it would have (again) back in 1964, and they don’t understand what’s happening.  What’s not to understand?  Two things have changed since then that explain it quite well—one is that technology has become significantly more effective, which results in the need for fewer and fewer actual employees (I saw a resent example from, I believe, Kentucky about a steel mill that produces wire, which thirty years ago would have employed a thousand people, but which has been replaced by one which produces the same amount of product but employs fourteen, none of them on the shop floor) and we have seen a gutting of unions, which were always the most effective way to force management to pay an equitable share of profits.  But people at the top, charged with analyzing and interpreting this kind of data, are “confused.”

Everyone is confused when no one is willing to face the realities of our new present.

The normally natural affinity for a comforting past has been distorted by the manipulations of identity politics and the toxic overuse of pointless nitpicking combined with an endemic ignorance of context to create a situation in which constructive change is becoming less and less possible, at least on a national level.  If every suggestion for change is met with swords drawn and blood oaths taken to resist, all possibilities fail. (A sensible approach to healthcare would be a single payer system, but it requires people to back up, give it some breathing space, and a chance.  Instead the immediate response among too many is “No!  That will lead to—!” Fill in the blank.  Death panels? Rationing? A complete destruction of a healthcare system which is, at the level of public service, is already dysfunctional? None of this is rational, but we have frightened ourselves enough that unless it is something we are completely familiar with we see it as threat.  But in the case of health care, no one is familiar with its workings, only its results, and not even then do most people know why the results are as they are.)

In the meantime—once more—we have a widening disparity between rich and poor which has opened a chasm.  Such chasms have happened before and they always precede revolutions.  The question for us will be, how bloody this time?

All because those who might ordinarily be trusted to supply meaningful context and useful direction are either ignored or just as helplessly clinging to a nostalgic hope of “returning things to the way they used to be”—on both sides.

Which leaves the vast majority of people in an awkward kind of stasis.  Waiting.  Struggling.  Clinging.

Into this moves the impulse to control absolutely.  Travel bans, surveillance, behavioral rule-making that does nothing but hobble, identification requirements that do nothing but isolate and segregate, public events that end up defining in-groups and shutting others out, calls for a kind of public piety that serves only to make some people targets while reassuring no one.  These are the components of tyranny, the necessary elements of fascism.  Both those terms have of late been used too freely and consequently are losing some of their prognostic power.  When you have a combination of too much fear and too little sense of sanity, that’s when the power mongers—who never, ever have solutions—have the best chance of seizing power.

As we move forward, it might be a useful habit to start asking of every proposal, “Who does this serve?”  If it does not serve you and yet you are inclined to support it, ask why?  And if the answer is, “It makes me feel safe from Those People” then it’s a good bet it’s a bad proposal, especially if “those people” are your neighbors.  Get in the habit of seeing things this way. Like any rule, it won’t track a hundred percent every time, but we have gotten into the opposite habit of thinking that any proposal that seems to benefit someone we either don’t like at the expense of people we like to pretend are “our people” (the rich, the powerful, the right skin color) or we believe will limit our “rights” in some vague way (and usually rights we either don’t have to begin with or are not really rights but privileges) are automatically bad.  Again, sometimes this might be true, but it’s a horribly limiting, fearful way to see the world and will lead ultimately to exactly what we think we’re trying to prevent.

Habits of thought anchored to the sand of a past that no longer pertains. Praising a history more hagiographic and mythic than factual. Preserving symbols that don’t mean what we think they do and believing that by protecting all this we will solve the problems of tomorrow.  We’ve been indulging this kind of nostalgic political nonsense for decades now.

Do you like where it’s brought us?

Perceptual Drift

Once in a while, something comes along to knock us out of our course, drives us to take a look at things from a perspective long discarded, and calls upon us to reassess.  Shocks that set us not only back but prompt the kind of deep re-evaluations we sometimes believe we do all the time. It’s fair to say one such shock is this election just past, which many of us, on both sides of the political divide, are puzzling over, conservatives no less than liberals.

Coming upon the heels of that we may be fortunate to find a book or two, hear a lecture, find revelation in an analysis that brings us up short and calls into question everything we took for granted for, well, decades.

Thomas Frank, known for his first book, What‘s the Matter With Kansas?, most recently published such an examination—Listen, Liberal is as complete an indictment of the Democratic Party and the assumptions of liberalism as I have seen in one place in many years. What is particularly troubling for me—and perhaps for many like me—is that all the points he raises are based on history which I knew, events that I remember, paths taken that at the time seemed inevitable, but which I never interpreted this way. I indulged a fairly banal process of explaining it to myself so that all these things became acceptable, even normal, in a way that now, looking at the shambles of where I always thought we were headed, I find bewildering. None of us, ever, are free of self-deception, especially in the face of specific alternatives we find unacceptable at the time.

Then Frederick Dutton, Democratic Party power broker, went farther: he identified workers, the core of the New Deal coalition, as “the principle group arrayed against the forces of change.” They were actually, to a certain degree, the enemy. Dutton acknowledged that it was strange to contemplate such a reversal of the moral alignment that had put his own party into power, but you couldn’t argue with history. “In the 1930s,the blue collar group was in the forefront,” Dutton recalled. “Now it is the white-collar sector.” Specifically: “the college-educated group.” That was who mattered in the future-altering present of 1971.

This was in the aftermath of the 1968 debacle of Democratic failure which put Richard Nixon in office and announced the coming Age of Plutocracy which has come upon us with the inevitability of an ice age glacier. The “student” movements of the Sixties aligned with the perceived betrayal of the Johnson Administration over Vietnam and the chasm of perception between generations that placed the youth movements on the opposing side against their traditionalist parents’ generation. The Republicans capitalized on the Old Guard vote in the wake of Johnson’s resignation and the year of political chaos that was 1968. The anger exploded in Chicago and the Democratic Party leadership saw the future as one in which the educated class would be the group to court.

Yet somehow this was seen as something that had to be done at the expense of labor, which was suddenly perceived as hopelessly archaic, a drag on change. Even though Labor, as an organized body politic, was still solidly Democratic, they were seen as a burden. Of course, they were also seen as a reliable source of votes. They were, in short, taken for granted.

This is the story Frank narrates in his new book and it is a hard thing to realize how correct he is. That basically the Democratic Party—and by extension America itself—left Labor in the ditch and committed itself to fostering a class of voters who are in many ways indistinguishable from the so-called upper 10%, if not in money then in aspirations.  And it is in those aspirations that the tale is told most painfully, because we have witnessed the betrayal even of them, despite the fact that they are exactly who the Future was supposed to be about.

I have a slightly different take on the path Mr. Frank describes. I remember all that with a different emphasis.

My parents were born during the Great Depression. One thing that bound many of them together, ideologically, was a conviction that their children and grandchildren would not have to suffer through what they did. They were solidly blue collar people.  College was a fantasy for most and I think it was understood that the upper reaches of white collar sinecure would always be for the few. But they would try. If at all possible, they would get their kids into college.  I remember my father telling me that he wanted me to be able to make a living without having to cut my fingers. Also, the assumption for many was that white collar was more secure, despite the realities at the time that union jobs represented the better security.

They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, but it didn’t turn out the way they hoped, for many reasons.

The other thing was the Space Race.

I know, this seems an unlikely cause of our present calamities, but consider—with Sputnik, the United States entered into a technology showdown of unprecedented configuration. We were suddenly in a do-or-die competition over knowledge-based innovation. This was a Cold War initiative that got sold to the public in the guise of exploration—which it was, in many of its parts—so we could count political coup and perfect missile technology along the way.  Industry had to be conjoined with science and for the coming Age of Space we needed scientists and engineers—not Teamsters or Auto Workers. The National Science Foundation made a big push to transform education to meet the coming requirements. Education had to be remade.

The experiment turned out to be a disaster in slow motion. In spite of the success of the space program, teachers found themselves at odds with the new requirements, students were being short-changed in basics, the ability of the massive edifice of public education to turn on a dime and create the Future turned out to be a pie-in-the-sky wish. And of course in the midst of all this came the convulsions of the Sixties, by the end of which even the basic assumptions of education were called into question, along with all the confidence in government that had existed since FDR.  Unions were seen more and more as stodgy repositories of old school billy-club thinking (not without some justification—but there’s the rub, of course: all of this transpired with “some” justification), more in the way than not.

(My father was screwed over by his union over technological innovation. This was a real thing. Many unions sensed the coming problem all this innovation was bringing, because the basic question that was asked last if at all was “What about the displaced workers?”)

We were about to Build The Future. As of 1969 we were on the Moon, we were going to the other planets, space stations would soon be orbiting the planet, the future the future the Future!

And it didn’t happen.

Instead we were made ripe for a political realignment that sidelined Labor in the name of that Future which was then turned into a source of votes to undo the New Deal. Instead of going to Mars, we got the Shuttle; instead of universal healthcare, we got the benefits of skyrocketing medical technology along with skyrocketing costs the government refused to take on, leaving more and more people unable to pay for what should have been medical care the envy of the world; instead of full employment, we got a war on the poor and demands for “welfare reform” that created a permanent underclass of poor by which management threatens workers with banishment if they unionize or demand a fair share of the burgeoning wealth owned by fewer and fewer.

All aided and abetted by a Democratic Party that decided its political fortunes were best cast with those people who didn’t want to cut their fingers to make a living.

Frank calls it the Professional Class.  These are the people who don’t join unions because they more or less see themselves as independent contractors, quasi-libertarians, loners, wannabe entrepreneurs. Without benefit of the formal structure, they also make up one of the strongest unions in history because they keep nonmembers out more effectively than any organized union ever did.  They do it by social category, not by skill set or paid dues.  Although if one wished to see it this way, college degrees represent paid dues of an extortionate level. They like to believe they represent a merit-based social hierarchy, but in fact out-of-the-box skills trouble if not frighten them. The idea that someone may be able to “do what they do” and in some cases do it better without benefit of matriculation through the unofficial union membership program they prefer is inconceivable and anyone who comes along to show that this is an error on their part is not welcomed for his or her abilities but shut out because they have rough table manners.

And just as the base of the GOP seems unable to see how their party is not doing well by them, these shiny professionals are dismayed by their party’s inability to challenge the GOP on the state and congressional level because the Democratic Party is serving a class that is simply in most ways too like Republicans to draw a base of natural allies, namely Labor.

What should be a merit-based society has become what might be called a Credentialist Society, which is not the same thing, though in many respects the two resemble each other. Bernie Sanders’ call for free college is a blunt attack on the chokehold universities have on who is or is not to be allowed to participate. The price of that union card has grown all out of proportion to the benefits it confers on the membership.

There’s nothing anti-American about this, though.  While we boast of our founding as a nation of immigrants and a society based not on pedigree but ability, the fact remains that we have a history of exclusion, attempts to keep certain people out.  We are functional snobs.  Real equality scares us, because individually we fear we won’t measure up on a level playing field. Some of us, anyway. And both parties have played on that fear to achieve essentially the same result. While the Republicans are an Us vs. Them party for the rich, the Democratic Party has become an Us vs. Them party representing those who want to be the rich—and feel like they have a shot at it if they can just find a way to free themselves of their declassé roots.  Consequently, most of us have been left in the lurch.

A friend of mine who is a thoughtful conservative once told me, when I asked, that one of the things about the Democratic Party that troubled him most was its racism. I thought that was odd, since in recent years it was fairly obvious that most of the racists seem to adhere to the Republicans. I’ve since rethought that. Not that I believe the racism of the GOP is any less real, but the Democratic Party exhibits a kind of circumstantial racism, a racism by default because the economy has been engineered in such a way to assign poverty along broad racial lines, casting such people into labor pools that suffer the most when the jobs are lost and technology displaces them and the housing prices of the upwardly aspirant make it impossible for them to live in desirable neighborhoods.  The Democratic Party would rather fob them off with entitlements than do anything to address the economic situation that makes them, essentially, the Left Behinds.  The GOP at least is more honest in saying they aren’t interested in those people at all, if not in word then deed.

But going back to Thomas Frank’s argument, the Professional Class is where we all wanted to be.  And we didn’t want to be unionized because unions are drags on upward mobility—or so we believed.  We collaborated in the current situation by failing to understand our own preferences—our own prejudices.

Which has brought us to our current situation.

There is nothing natural about the the 1%. There is everything natural about their success.  Why?  Because that’s who we wanted to be.  Many of us.  And we went along with changes in our political reality because we were told that the Future was going to come about by virtue of innovation and technology and the concomitant methodologies of investment portfolios and fey capital.  We were played—by both parties in their own way, yes, but also by our own conceits.

There are a number of quibbles I have with Mr. Frank’s narrative—those technological innovations are not phantoms and are having very, very real effects on the way work is done. The reality we have now is that we simply do not need as many people to make all the things we need to have made.  When Obama talked about “shovel ready” programs, the reality he evoked no longer pertained.  When Roosevelt did that, building a highway could employ ten or twenty thousand men.  Today a hundred people can built that same road.  What we have failed to realize is that while the labor requirements of the mid-20th Century no longer pertain, neither should the economic structures of the 19th Century, which is what we have.  Just because a business owner can do the same work with less than half the workforce previously employed doesn’t automatically mean said owner gets all that money personally.  “Share in the wealth” used to mean one thing by participation in its creation, but the human component in that creation has changed and now it means something else.

In any event, I recommend Thomas Frank’s new book. Argue with it, by all means, but if nothing else it should dislodge preconceptions and open us to the possibility of redoing our political expectations.