Unintended Consequences and Reagan’s Legacy

Trying to understand our present circumstances can easily take one into a kind of archaeology. How did we get here from…where?

I see a lot of people putting up old videos of Ronald Reagan making statements which the present Republican Party would not support on a bet. The argument over Social Security being one of them.

Listening to Reagan today feels odd, like he was some kind of kindly old uncle who patted the air and told us all to calm down and eat our vegetables and play nice. He is, however, held in such high esteem by people who wouldn’t tolerate his old school moderation for a minute, and you have to wonder why.

That he’s dead and no longer around to criticize helps. But it doesn’t explain the heart-felt gratitude of those who are so far to the right of him that it’s surprising they’re still on the map.

To a younger generation, it must seem strange. What was it about Reagan that has turned him into an icon for people who seem bent on dismantling everything he seemed to have stood for?

Knowing what he stood for, though, is a problem.

He was elected as a reaction to the public perception of his predecessor as a weak president. Reagan was the modern era’s first MAGA president.

To be fair, he was elected at the end of a decade of lows in American history. A president left office in disgrace, we ended a war in ignominious defeat (though many believed otherwise), the economy was reeling from the combination of major cuts in spending for war materiel, the demobilization of millions of servicemen, expanding job opportunities for women and minorities, and a general malaise. The Seventies were split between those who wanted to party and those who wanted the kind of presumed clarity of the WWII era. Jimmy Carter was a genuinely good man in an impossible position, although in hindsight he was dealing with things, and given another term might very well have solved many of these problems without the consequence of fueling a rising cronyism and the beginnings of the deep divisiveness we’re living with now. The debacle in Iran did him in and we elected The Great Communicator.

He had another nickname—the Teflon President.  His administration resulted in 138 indictments and/or convictions for scandals, the largest of any president.  Scandals from grant rigging to the savings & loan crisis (a test run for 2008) to the Iran-Contra Affair. Somehow, none of this managed to tar his image and no hint of any wrongdoing was ever successfully laid at his feet.

And yet.

In my opinion, we are living through the consequences of Reagan and what I feel to be the greatest disservice he did to this country.  Done, I have no doubt, from the best intentions.  He saw himself as a savior, willing to do just about anything to rescue America from its own self.

A few years ago I was in attendance at an event with James Rosebush. He served as Nancy Reagan’s chief of staff. He had published a book, called True Reagan, and he was touring. The book is about Reagan’s religiosity. Apparently, Rosebush had had many conversations with Reagan and as the two of them shared deep religious convictions, many of these conversations revolved around that.  Rosebush contended that Reagan was a Biblical scholar. During the presentation, there was even a hymn sung, Reagan’s favorite (no, I do not recall which it was).

Rosebush said something that night that sent a chill down my backside but which almost immediately put the last 30 years in a clear context. He claimed that one of Reagan’s core beliefs was that government, especially large government, was an obstacle to people knowing Jesus. That it was one of his missions to do something about that.

Hence the whole shrinking the size of the federal government thing he kicked off.

But it also makes one of Reagan’s most famous statements make a completely different kind of sense.  “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Mileage varies, of course, and individually people will have different experiences, but when you consider the size and complexity of this country and all the services our governments, state, local, and federal, have performed, the United States has had possibly the most successful government in history. Never mind the mean-spirited detractors who spin it with hearsay and lie and chafe under regulations.  Now that we have someone who actually is tearing things apart, as these institutions begin to fail we may come to see how well they worked before because we never noticed them till they no longer functioned.

But to the point that Reagan saw government as a barrier to god, that statement takes on a wholly different meaning.

The problem, of course, is that we did not know he believed that. Rosebush said Reagan knew he could never say so in public, because he knew he could never get elected.

I’m sorry,  but that’s fraud. I believe we had a right to know that’s how he felt. Because most people who voted for him did so no doubt under the mistaken belief that he intended to make government work better.  I can say that because throughout our history, that has been a basic assumption in ever election—vote for this guy because he’ll make things run better.

Not tear them apart.

Reagan’s antipathy toward the Soviet Union clarifies with this as well. Granted, most Americans thought of the Soviet Union as an enemy, but there was certain fervor Reagan brought to it that went a bit beyond.  He raised the deficit and the national debt to field a war machine the sole purpose of which was to spend the Soviet Union into penury. But the fact remains that he was Republican, running in a party that traditionally viewed itself as the more fiscally responsible of the two major parties, and he began a decades-long cycle of mounting debt incurred under Republican administrations. Along with this was the rise of the Grover Norquist arm of conservatism which sought actively to suffocate the federal government.

This is the legacy of this unstated and unrevealed philosophy. The reversal of the parties in terms of spending and fiscal responsibility can be put on Reagan.

Two other things he did which, combined with the above, put him the running for one of our most destructive presidents. He opened the door to a politicized religious movement that has vexed us ever since and he initiated the Second Gilded Age with the absurdity of trickle-down economics.

Neither of those two had the kind of apparent impact they later manifested, but he started it, and, I believe, in support of his unstated belief that government must be reduced to a size where it can do almost nothing for people.

Because, after all, government gets in the way of people knowing god.

At this point, it would be useful to point out what may be, for some, a distinction without a difference. We are often challenged by charges of anti-religiosity when a programmatic measure is resisted or struck down as unConstitutional. School prayer, for instance. What seems obvious to those with less ideological intentions is that the idea of banning school prayer is absurd. No one can do that. Prayer is personal. How can it even be monitored? No one can stop a child from praying in school—silently, at any time. What is demanded, however, is not prayer but recitation in support of attempted conformism. Those who insist on such demonstrations, whether they realize or admit it, are not seeking a freedom to pray—which is private and personal and unrestricted—but the permission to force adherence by public observance. The difficulty should be obvious in any example of divergent religious beliefs.

This, among other things, becomes a rallying point for the belief that government interferes with religion. The day the government sends agents into a church and orders the congregation to cease worship is the day you will have that.

I point this out to make it clear that what has resulted from Reagan’s unstated beliefs is not in support of religion as a personal expression but an ongoing debate over the texture, tone, and tenor of our public identity. And before it is taken that I mean something akin to a fashion statement, it is important to remember that when you insert these changes into public discourse, you are making a statement about what is acceptable, which eventually can become matters of law. This is not benign. The simple answer to school prayer has always been: let each child pray silently according to his or her own creed, which has never been acceptable to the vocal advocates of formalized school prayer.

Because Reagan also allowed the intense politicization of the Religious Right in the form of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. As an example, he could not have been more obvious in his preferred form. Falwell was strident, divisive, arrogant, and something of a charlatan. His was a programmatic christianity that sought, in contrast to all past fundamentalist movements, political influence if not direct political control.  Apologists will say Reagan only used them to stir up a base of voters with no real intention of ceding anything to them. If so, then that, too, would have been a species of fraud, but one we have become accustomed to, at least in a naively cynical way. By the end of his presidency, however, the lines had been clearly drawn and we see the battlefield in stark terms today.

At the same time, this movement, such as it was at the time, was gifted with an issue that allowed it to shift debate from the tractable to the unanswerable: abortion. What this did for those who have fueled the divisiveness is allow for transfer of concern from systems to identity in a way that had not been done since christianity overwhelmed pagan traditions.

Most problems in human relations can be addressed if not solved through practical methodologies—systems. Most of the 20th Century in the United States and, arguably, throughout the world has been a period of aggressively creating institutions and systems for dealing with what at one time or another have been profound problems, from food distribution to health care to legal equity for citizens. We were actually getting pretty good at it, so much so that it seemed possible that we might solve all the major problems and establish the kind of continental if not global future once considered the pipe dreams of science fiction. (We’re still on track in many areas, present calamity-politics notwithstanding.)

Granted, no system is perfect, and granted something always go awry. People get overlooked, ignored, sometimes trampled.  (But if you want to look at an example of how successful our system-building has been, as a rough measure, look at how much free time and access so many people have today to complain about how bad they have it. Not that many people don’t have it bad, but compared to 60 or 70 years ago, more of us are enjoying the benefits of effective problem-solving to the point that too many people have no idea what it is they’re trying to dismantle or how bad things would become if the dismantling is successful.)  But we can look back and see a clear progress. We’ve been getting there.

But systems are complex and understanding them, especially in terms of why something hasn’t been fixed yet, requires the kind of time and attention most of us do not have. When election time rolls around, many of the issues are abstract, heavy on detail, and necessitate a grasp of nuance in causal relationships that, frankly, we pay our representatives to understand so we can get on with our lives.

Along comes Reagan and, more importantly, the iconoclasts riding in on his coattails. In order to sell their program—and in order for the Religious Right to gain and maintain traction in the political sphere—the attention of the voter has to be moved from the mind-numbing tangle of systems to the clear-cut, heroic lines of indentitarianism. Namely, the struggle of Good versus Evil.

Abortion was tailor-made for that.

Reagan was less concerned about that, though, than about the Soviet Union, and given his apparent belief that government interfered with people knowing god, the Soviet Union for him could be nothing but an exemplar of Government As Satan. For him, this was not a struggle over competing economic systems and their concomitant expressions of colonialism—this was about Right versus Wrong, Virtue versus Sin, God versus godlessness.

So he began the tradition of sapping our national wealth to fund a crusade against evil in the world in the form of the Soviet Union.

There was, frankly, never much enthusiasm for trying to find common ground with them or, given victory in the struggle, providing aid to see them through into a workable polity. Because that would have meant building exactly what Reagan thought was wrong in the world—a viable and rather extensive government.

This also undid him in the Iran-Contra Affair. His convictions about communism being irreconcilable with godliness led him to fund brutish men who used those arms to destroy schools and clinics. He could not see past his preconceptions to understand that, while he might disagree philosophically with the Sandanistas, they had been duly elected by their people, and the targest of the right-wing Contras were sick people and children along with federal troops. It was a shameful abuse of his office.

Reagan exhibited a deep and largely innocent faith in people being basically able to do anything they needed to do, without state assistance of any kind. He must have felt that without the tremendous burden of soviet state apparatus, the Russian people would just naturally have developed into a benign community of self-sufficient American clones. If he felt that way, he did not understand the nature of his own people, either.

Consider another action he took that has resulted in a massive problem today: according the Rosebush in the same lecture, Reagan “did not believe in psychiatry or mental health problems.” He gutted HHS, if you recall, and shut down the mental health institutions that had been caring for the disabled. They ended up on the street and many remain there because there is nowhere for them to go. PTSD does not exist, bipolar disorder is a myth, and I suppose schizophrenia is possession by devils and the sufferers only need to find god.  However far down the line he actually thought this through, the result has been a chronic homeless problem that had the added “virtue” of demonstrating the insufficiency of government of solve problems.

As for his economic policies, that was clarified as well. He based his program—supply-side or, popularly, Reaganomics—on something know as the Laffer Curve. I wrote about it at the link. It has been obvious for a long time that he did not understand economics well enough, if at all, to see this for the nonsense it was. (His vice president understood, hence his smoke and mirrors comment, but by the time George H.W. Bush was in office we were wedded to it.) I don’t believe it would have mattered. It looked like a way to get the government out of economic regulation, which by extension would have ultimately crippled the government, which would be consistent with his unstated beliefs. For what it’s worth, I also do not believe he expected it to really hurt anyone. I think he naively accepted reassurances from business that if he “took the chains off” of course they would do right by the country.

(A side note here: Reagan oversaw the pillage of our high-tech industrial base. Not many people are aware that during his two terms over 280 companies fell prey to the corporate raiding of the day and were purchased by foreign owners, primarily British and Japanese. These were not companies that just made lightbulbs and tv remotes, but many companies doing classified work for our government and had developed very sophisticated methods for building very complex things that gave us a considerable edge globally. Upon purchase, though, those methods if not necessarily the products became foreign property and we lost vital edges. Many of these companies petitioned Washington for protection because of the highly-sensitive nature of what they did, but Reagan grandly declared that we “have no industrial policy” and allowed them to be sold out of the country. To my mind, this shows no Machiavellian long-game, but a fundamental disconnect and a lack of understanding about the nature of what was happening and what we were losing. But it is consistent with his opinion, apparently, that government should stay out of everything. See: Anthony Campagna, The Economy In The Reagan Years)

They did right by themselves, which has resulted in the morass of stagnant wages and endless arguments over cost-of-living, and the obscene imbalance in wealth.

Once begun, the diminution of our public faith in our institutions proceeded apace, to the point where we collectively mistrust everything and grope for tangible meaning that might once have simply been there had we known at the time what it was this man, who remains for many one of the greatest presidents we ever had, truly believed. Now we are faced with these pocket movements of denying everything from the Holocaust (a perennial favorite) to the Anti-vaxxers and climate change denial. These are all aspects of systemic knowledge and in the case of vaccination of systemic problem-solving (successfully, I might add) but which have been tied to big government and somehow in opposition to a moralistic self-image that rejects codification.

So, based on these things—supply-side economics, the decoupling of institutions from public faith, and the shift in public discourse from problem-solving to indentitarian posturing—I put in my bid for Reagan being placed near the bottom. And the irony is, he probably had no idea it could get so bad. He was basing his iconoclasm on a firm faith in the very institutions he had launched his supporters to destroy. He had a deep, quaint faith in American Goodness that was unsupportable then and seems badly mauled now. The average American probably is, by most measures, a good person, certainly not malevolent, but once you rise through the layers to where power politics and money mix poisonously, Goodness is only something talked about at the bottom of a ledger or the tally of a poll.

Government interferes with people knowing god.

There are two major things wrong with that idea. The first comes out of a twisted notion that people only go to church when things are bad. So if we solve problems and fix our institutions and secure the common wealthfare as we can, this belief says we will lose faith in god.  Why worship god when we can do this all for ourselves?

Well, that’s a rather punitive and stunted view of religious faith. Not uncommon. But even if it were true, for the adherents to justify wrecking the well-being of people they don’t know in the cause of pushing them out of necessity into a set of beliefs that may not be free and genuine is vile.  (Of course, there is a corollary belief that successful states are automatically decadent and this is ungodly. Well.)

The other thing wrong with this, is a simple misapprehension of that old saying about deities working in mysterious ways. What if those successful institutions are the natural expression of a faithful community?

Either way, to hold such a conviction and then run for high office and allow people to believe you will do the right thing by them—well, you may, regardless, but to withhold that information means you don’t trust your own message or the people you’re delivering it to. We had a right to know the man we were electing as well as possible.

Now we have another of these Make America Great Again people in office, only there is no good-natured, naive uncle in that suit but a venal, corrupt narcissist who likely would never have gotten close to this had the stage not been set by a man still worshiped and longed-for who could not now, as he was then, get elected to a state legislature for the party he once led.

Government interferes with people knowing god.

And we wonder why there is a separation of church and state built into our constitution.





November 8th

I am still sorting through my feelings about election day. A couple of things, not new.  Election Day should be made a national holiday. There is no excuse, unless the parties are determined to prevent people of opposing or “unreliable” groups voting. 

Another thing, I think we should stop talking about impeachment. It would blow up in all our faces if the House moved to impeach.  Not that I wouldn’t like to see him removed, but right now the downside might be worse than just letting him lose the next election. Impeach him and lose, which would happen with a loaded Senate, and he’d be a martyr of sorts. There is more than enough work to be done and right now enough momentum to see through a change in occupant in 2020. Let’s let the process work.

We have made colossal fools of ourselves this time around, through our divisions, our indifference, our fear. Watching the exchange with Jim Acosta the other day I half expected him to get down and try to punch a reporter, which would have been delicious.

But enough. We know that if elections are free and open we can repair this. We know because we’re still witnessing attempts at gimmicking local elections and in many cases it still did not work. 

We have to trust that we can do this.  The machinery is not broken but it must be used in order to function properly.  To all those out there who still sat on the sidelines, you are helping no one. 

Anyway, the chief problem right now is that certain people are playing the oldest political game in the book—they are making us afraid and then pointing out targets. So I ask, in all honesty—

Just what are we afraid of? 

And make no mistake, some folks will claim they aren’t afraid, just angry, but when they take action and lay blame, we know otherwise. They’re afraid. 

Of what?

It would be easy to mess this up by allowing distractions and pettiness.

But enough.  Let me leave you with an image.  There’s a lot in it, and can be interpreted in many ways, but the truth is mainly that I think it’s a cool photograph.

Have a good day.

Simply Stated

Let me for a few minutes be clear.  We bandy politics and philosophy daily, there is a give and take which makes us who we are, and the vast majority of it—at work, at school, on weekends, among friends—is good. The free exchange of ideas is the very basis of who we wish to see ourselves as a country.

Comes a point, though, when the belief that all ideas are somehow equal and equally valuable must be challenged and disposed of. This is a toxic notion, a slow poison, and in its later stages results in an inability to discern reason from fear, truth from propaganda, morality from tribalism.

If someone tells you that you should be afraid of  some superficially-defined Other, that person is not your friend.

If someone tells you that if not for Them, all our problems would be solved, that person is a liar.

If someone tells you that you are more valuable than someone else because you look one way and They look another, that person is using you.

There are those—politicians, all, whether they serve in political capacities or not—who benefit from the rest of us being afraid.  They categorize, sort, and judge and tell you to do the same on the basis of traits that are at their simplest none of your business and at the most complex entire fabrications that resemble fact but are nothing but fantasy.  All they want is the power you will give them by accepting their version of reality.

It could not be clearer that  none of this is theoretical. The cage doors have been flung open and the jackals are loose. We have always had the hatefilled, the small-minded, the stunted souls, the corrupted among us, but they stay usually in their rooms because—usually—the rest of us refuse to allow them valence. That changed. They received day passes.

Shooting up a synagogue, a church, a school, a nightclub, a concert because the shooter is so blindly afraid does not happen in a void.  Someone stoked that fire, then stood back, counted the votes from the newly-frightened, and judged it a win.

This is not who we once thought we were. There are those implying that this is somehow insurmountable and to deal with it we have to go farther down the road of disowning our dreams and our decency and, by the way, keep Certain People “in line.” 

They aren’t hiding anymore and the argument that both sides are equally at fault has worn into threads.  Stop listening to the fear mongers.  More, take away their pulpit.

We should not allow ourselves to be defined by body count.

Poll-Less

Here’s a thought. November 6th is fast approaching.  It could be argued that we have not seen a more important mid-term in decades. I can’t think of one, other than all those that people stayed home in droves from and allowed a minority to vote a broken congress into power.  We have a chance this time to start fixing some of that.

My suggestion—stop paying attention to polls. They have nothing to say to you personally.

Seriously, polls are like click-bait on the internet. They track trends among certain demographics and are often so targeted that they leave most people out entirely.  Even the good ones have in-built flaws. For the most part, they’re annoying and often harmless, but sometimes…sometimes…

Part of what went off the rails in 2016 is an artifact of polls. All but a couple told us there was no way the election would go the way it did.

And a lot of people took them at face value, said “I don’t have to worry about it” and did something else that day.

Before anyone jumps all over this and suggests I’m blaming this on one thing, I said “part of what went off the rails.”  The polls added to a number of problems.  But I believe that voting according to polls—or, worse, not

The only poll that matters is the election.

I would suggest everyone stop answering those irritating cold calls “We’re conducting a poll” robo-things that use what we say in who knows what manner to derive reports that may have no real utility in terms to making rational choices On The Day.

Everyone believed the polls that said this guy would lose by double-digits.

Stop it. Look at the candidates, look at their records, look at what they say, then look at your own situation and try to see how what they say, have done, or promise to do will impact your life.  We’re hiring staff to run the country on our behalf. Does an employer check a poll on how popular a candidate for a job is or what people think of him or her as opposed to someone else? No. Resumes, past performance, conduct during the interview, can this person do the job.

A great number of incumbents have said and done things of late that are, in my opinion, simply unacceptable. The track record of this congress in terms of how I want my country run has been simply execrable. That’s the only poll that matters until November 6th, when the one that counts happens.

Polls, I suspect, make some people complacent. Don’t do that. Vote like you have no idea who will win. Vote for what matters, not what the spread suggests. Stop listening to the distractions.

And please—vote.



Clueless

Some people think if they throw enough words of the “what if” or “but then” variety, anything can be twisted out of shape enough to render even the most toxic subject harmless.

Take sexual harassment.

The presumption on the part of some men that a woman is there for their entertainment underlies the casual fecklessness of the entire frat-boy mentality.  They excuse themselves with all manner of absurdity. “She was there to party” “her clothes” “she didn’t say no” “she laughed.”

That last one gets me every time.

I worked with a man for nine years who used that as his justification for a level of “flirtation” that bordered on intimidation. Every attractive woman who came into the store could be a target for his brand of locker room humor and he excused himself from charges of harassment by saying “But they laughed.” Which to him signaled they were having a good time and what he was doing was acceptable.

He seemed tone deaf to nervous laughter. He was oblivious to the rictus of “I can’t believe you just said that.”

Gradually, they stopped coming. We lost business. One good friend complained to me about it and I advised her to call him on it. She did. Immediately afterward, his comment was “I had no idea she was such a bitch.”

“She’s not,” I said. “You’re just such an asshole.”

He looked genuinely hurt. I patiently tried to explain what he was doing that was wrong. Maybe he didn’t want to get it, but I still believe that he was so steeped in the culture of the Fifties and Sixties that he just couldn’t accommodate the idea that what he had been doing all his adult life was fundamentally wrong.  Disrespectful, intimidating, humiliating.  “But they laugh.”

This is who he saw himself as and he thought it was cool.  He thought I was being a whiney liberal. 

But we lost almost all our female customers of a certain age and physical description.

Now he did ask one question that got me thinking. “If I say the same things at a party, I don’t drive anyone away.”

Well, I had to question that a bit, but—

The difference between a social occasion where everyone is perfectly free to walk away and a business environment wherein the parties are trapped by a set of necessities which do not allow easy egress. In order for them to walk away they have to be willing to break a business arrangement. They have to find another source for what they need. They have to start over to build a relationship.

None of this has a damn thing to do with making yuk-yuk over sexual innuendos and flirtation.  There are costs involved.

Of course, there are always costs involved, just that some of them are not so immediate or monetary. Loss of respect, at minimum.  Actual fear. Women who may realize that they’re quite glad never to be alone with you. The easy intimacy of friendship lost.

Not to mention just adding to the general toxicity of a culture that takes as given, usually unstated but always there, that women are there for a man’s pleasure.

And those who reject that?

The oblivion of being recategorized and cast out.  At best. Punished at worst. Punished by assault, but actions based on the assumption “Oh, she really wants it even if she’s saying she doesn’t.”

Underlined by ridicule.

But it was all in fun! After all, the boys were laughing.

Demon Mask

This last two weeks have been stunning in the extremes of experience and emotion. Between the unexpected trip to Los Angeles at the invitation of Susan Ellison to attend the memorial gathering for Harlan to the circus in congress to the second annual BookFest in the Central West End to a significant amount of personal matters, I have rarely had such a ride.  I should write about these things in separate posts, but just now I lack the energy and the coherence of thought to deal with it.

So bear with me as I sort and shuffle. 

Meanwhile, an image. While in L.A. we went to the La Brea Tar Pits. An amazing place, with an amazing history extending back 30 or 40 thousand years. Of the photographs taken, I reworked this one after seeing a rather impressive version done by Marty Bast, a mutual friend of Harlan’s, who has a unique eye. Alas, Marty has no online gallery, but posts from time to time on FaceBook. (You really should cobble a gallery together, Marty.)

I worked my version through other changes. A fossil face (I forget the species at this remove).  Done as a demon. 

Use this as a placeholder and reminded that I am not gone. But you might see this as a subtle indication of my state of mind. Maybe.  I wouldn’t take me too seriously about that. 

On the other hand…

Doors, Handles, Other Things

Some controversy has erupted around the Hugo Awards. Again.

I have two memories that relate.  One was an early memory of one of the Oscar presentations wherein someone—an actor—took the opportunity to make statements of a controversial nature.  I was young, I didn’t entirely understand why all the adults around became so…resentful.

Yes, that’s the word.  They resented the intrusion of controversial matter into what they seemed to feel was something meant for them.  It was on their television, it was supposed to be there to entertain them, it was not supposed to make them think about things outside the movie that was being honored.

“That’s not the appropriate place for that,” was a phrase I first heard then and later heard a great deal in situations like this.

The second memory involves a concert wherein the performer took a few minutes to say something about oppressed people and political will and so forth.  Its matters less here what he said than the reaction of some of my acquaintances.  “I hate it when they do that.  They shouldn’t put politics in the show. It’s not the proper place for that shit.”

Well, that struck me wrong at the time.  It was rock, which in my mind had till then always been political. Remember the Counter Culture?  Hippies? The Free Speech Movement?  Vietnam?  Country Joe and the Fish?  Rock had a history of being political, so this seemed…revisionist?

 

 

Not the proper place.  Not the appropriate venue. The wrong stage.

Well what is?  And by what criteria?

And who exactly is breaking any kind of contract here?

Nora Jemisin won her third Best Novel Hugo in a row.  Her brief, pointed acceptance speech spoke to the work she had to do and some of the barriers she had to overcome to get to this point.  It is, or should be, no secret that her being on that stage has been a matter of some consternation to some people who have not exactly been circumspect about their feelings.

Some folks thought it was “inappropriate” for her to interject comments aimed at those who have quite vocally wished her ill.

“Not the proper place.”

Well, frankly, fuck that.  If not at your own award ceremony, when? Some time and place where the easily offended won’t hear it?  At a place and occasion where it won’t be noticed?  When she does not have such a platform and can say these things without anyone having to be confronted by it?

Art is complicated.  And damned hard.  A lot of factors come together to keep the artist from any kind of success.  Life is difficult enough without the mediocrities of the world ganging up on someone toiling in the mines of self-expression.  We all know most of us do not get paid enough for the work and all too often the work gets ignored—the vagaries of the marketplace—and all the other noise and bother that goes into trying to be an artist that to then be told to shut up about the human experience, in all its forms, is neither reasonable nor decent.

For some people, there is no “appropriate time and place” to hear truth from someone who will tell them things about the world they live in that they would rather ignore.

But it doesn’t matter.  Her award, her night, her time, her place.  You have a problem with it, be aware—it’s your problem.

And just in case anyone is wondering—the award?  She earned it.

Right To What?

This is a purely political post. Sort of. Maybe a bit philosophical. Anyway, you’re all sharp, you can figure it out.

I’m voting No on this proposition A thing. Right To Work.  For decades we’ve been seeing this pushed on us in Missouri and it always fails, but with the current climate of “throw everything out” that seems to dominate a lot of popular thinking, the proponents are wearing the rest of us down.

A simple fact: workers in right to work states make less on average.  This is not rocket science. They have a weaker collective bargaining base, the unions lack resources because non-members are often entitled to receiving the same representational benefits without having to contribute, and overall unions are simply less present in such states. Here is a good overview if you’re interested.

Now, when presented with the idea that we all have a “right to work” and should not have that right hindered by the requirements of union membership, it sounds pretty righteous to certain people. Yeah, just who do those guys think they are making me pay dues just to “allow” me to have a job? It sounds so reasonable.

You have to accept a couple of things for this to make any sense. The first, that Management has workers’ interests in mind. Ever. Some do, it’s true, but historically workers take close to a last place position in the priorities of employers, because they have all these fiscal details they have to take care of. And if the company is large enough to have shareholders, guess who’s first in line for consideration? Again, this is not rocket science.

If workers do not insist on fair treatment they will not get it. They will be treated as parts. And to insist on fair treatment without some kind of weight behind the insistence only results in unemployment.

The ethical or philosophical basis of “right to work” may have its positives, but the reality is that abandoning collective bargaining and legislating against it and stripping unions of their ability to function effectively benefits only one group. Because “fairness” aside, it ought to be obvious that for the last 50 years the erosion of unions has resulted in our current antagonistic relationship between corporations and employees to the detriment of employees.

It’s not just pay, either. Without collective bargaining and contract law setting the terms, businesses can fire at will for any reason. That’s what they’re trying for.

It should also be put to rest that corporations are “struggling” to meet payrolls. There are many examples of companies that pay well for similar work and do better than their penurious competitors (Costco for one).  When you see annual reports from companies that see profits going ever upward, often at the expense of their employees, the lie should be obvious.

Now, what is reasonable is the notion that some kind of reform needs to take place in this relationship, but meaningful reform will not happen if you give all the power to just one side. Whether we like it or not, profits drive decision-making, and shareholder benefits will always outweigh workers’ rights unless there is the force of contract law brought to bear. You cannot do that without viable union involvement, and things like Proposition A are nothing but an attempt to render harmless union power.

But for a moment, let’s look at that phrase, Right To Work. Rarely has there been a better example of doublespeak. Firstly, while such a right may be argued to exist, it’s a meaningless right when all the other factors are brought into play.  Like qualifications. You may well have a right to work but if there is no work available that you can do, it doesn’t mean much. By phrasing it as a “right” it sounds like it should be in the constitution—but if it were, more likely than not we would have a federal workers union at a national level, because securing rights has always—always—been a matter of forcing someone to concede them. The average employee at a nine-to-five job is not, much as some might wish to construe it, an independent contractor. No company negotiates individual contracts with its hires. No company would unless forced to.  And it’s not as if the people this is targeted at are not employed. Many, probably most, are.

There is no “right” to work. There is opportunity. But no right. Not unless it is made. Because of the nature of work and business and employment in this country, if there were such a right it would obligate the very people who want to strip it from you to provide employment regardless of circumstance.  The proponents of Proposition A know this perfectly well, so their arguments in support of it are lies.  This is not about your rights but their privileges.  This about securing companies a right to reduce payroll, lay off with impunity, and require longer hours and provide fewer benefits. Period. At best, this would be a right to do the same work for less pay.

This is of a piece with all the other moves in recent times to simply secure larger pay-outs to shareholders, which is what has already happened with the new tax cuts. We keep getting told this will allow companies to invest more and hire more people—and it rarely happens. Most job growth comes from start-ups or from major refocusing by existing companies changing what they do. For the most part, none of these companies need more employees. There are exceptions. Construction right now has a shortfall of available workers, but again there are other factors involved in that than union meddling.  Instead, what we see, time and time again, is pay-outs to shareholders instead of that much predicted and rarely delivered reinvestment.

Stop believing they have your interests at heart. Some might well feel an obligation, but the nature of business in this country makes such people vulnerable to  all manner of piranha-like behavior on the part of their competition. What they would have you believe is something like this: “Let us take away your ability to force us to pay a fair wage and provide benefits and as a reward we will pay you even more!” There is no reality where that is remotely plausible. What is needed is a reassessment of how we do business with an eye toward reducing some of the predatory models that force us into these narrow defiles of limited-resource thinking.

Now, a personal disclaimer. I have never worked for a company as a union member. I’ve worked for one large company that had no union and was very aggressive at preventing unionizing. The history of that company is instructive. It began as a local business and grew to have a number of outlets. They paid a reasonable salary and provided commissions on high-dollar items. The sales force was happy. The local owner got old and sold the whole thing to a national company, which promptly cut wages in half and eliminated commissions. Most of the seasoned staff left and the company then took to hiring younger workers they knew would only be there for a short time because of the low pay. They saw no benefit in nurturing a staff. They didn’t care. After working for them for 14 months, I got a .10 an hour raise—and my hours were limited to 37 a week so there was never a possibility of overtime. The new company was based in Texas, which had been a right to work state since 1947.

To wrap up, I’m voting no. I might sympathize with some of the philosophical notions underlying the idea, but as far as I’m concerned a whole lot else has to change to constrain corporations before I’ll believe any good will come out handing over power through legal fiat and trusting the other side will play fair.

Shibboleths, Canards, and Popular Myths

At this point, a couple of things should be obvious to anyone with a functioning intellect.

(Please note that I make a distinction here between a brain and the intellect, which, while they depend on each other to be useful, are not the same things.)

A popular American myth we all absorbed osmotically just by breathing the air here: Anyone can grow up to be president.

Obviously, at this point, nonsense, though in an absolutely literal sense it seems to be true enough. After all, consider the present reality. But like all such euphemisms, there are too many assumptions packed in there that too many people take too little time unpacking to realize that what this means and what it can result in are worlds apart. While technically true, it leaves unspoken the basic assumption that in order to become president, first one has to grow up. While there is an age limit in the Constitution, this is obviously not what we mean by Grown Up. And while it is true that anyone, given opportunity, can certainly “grow up,” clearly not everyone does.

The other unspoken element of that is the question, begged this last time, of whether or not anyone (or everyone) should be president—or even have a shot at it. Clearly this question gets raised over some issues, but not, it seems, enough, and in the case of providing young minds with a working idea of the possibilities of their futures, maybe not even the primary one.

Till now, we have relied upon a vast and complex, rather organic system to cull out the genuinely unsuited, but obviously it didn’t work this time.

Which leads to the other common notion that ought really to be questioned a bit more thoroughly, that we should rely on Common Sense.

Something about this label has always bothered me. I’m reminded back in the Seventies and Eighties the answer to the Moral Majority was They Are Neither. (A throwback to the statement that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire.)  I know what it’s supposed to mean—common sense. What everybody knows. What a child can figure out through basic ratiocination. That things which are too complicated only require a simple approach to unravel. That the “average” person has the capacity to understand things, often in the absence of detail and facts. Things aren’t logical, common sense will tell you the problem.

Well, frankly, piffle. I think the term Common Sense is actually a derogation. Because if common sense has handed us our current situation, it clearly doesn’t do what we seem to think it does.  I think Common Sense is something we should take as a warning that not a lot of comprehension or sophistication is going on in its deployment. It seems clear to me, and not only in politics, that Good Sense is not very common. And that what passes for Common Sense will get you in trouble faster than anything else. There is no substitute for finding out how things actually work and lately there doesn’t seem to be a lot of that going on. Instead, calling upon Common Sense seems to indicate someone who will obstinately not find out how things work.

The Will of the People…

Sad to say, this is one that we have to be very careful about. Lately it seems to apply only in discussions about who won. And not a lot of discussion about how the winning was done or what winning means or why nothing seems to go the way we expected it to go after the winning.

When less than half the eligible population casts a ballot, and the numbers or so close that the “winner” is there only by virtue of a quarter of the People, just how much of the popular will is being represented?

Which leads me to my last one for now. “Well, they must know what they’re doing! After all, they’re the government!”

Yeah, about that. Here’s where that much-vaunted Common Sense shows its flaws in a serious way. I’m reminded of Deep Throat’s words to Woodward.  “Look, forget the myths the media’s created about the White House–the truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

All sorts of things get tangled up in the symbols of office and the power of the office and who’s in office. The President is not a king, not a savior, not anything but this: he’s an employee. At the end of the day, he works for us (for me, for you) and as such he’s beholden to us. We don’t anoint him, we elect him to fill a job vacancy. Granted, it’s a hell of a job, and that means we really ought to be more careful when going over the resumés.  But it also means that when the president is screwing up and draws criticism, it is not anti-American, we are not criticizing the country, we are not being “disloyal” (which shouldn’t even be on the table). He’s an employee—we’re the country.

We need to look very closely at the catch-phrases by which we express our sentiment. Accept them at peril.

Not everyone can grow up to be president. More importantly, very few people really should be president. It’s a very specialized job, calling for such a wide range of expertise. We don’t do the necessary groundwork to come anywhere close to the reality than “anyone” can be president.

Because while anyone could conceivably win the election—being the president is another matter entirely.

I hope we have all learned that this time.

Now, go vote.

Papers, Please

Something that seems to get overlooked in all this sturm und drang over immigration is the visceral reaction those of us who oppose current policy experience over seemingly innocuous terms. “Undocumented” being chief among them. This one causes a chill to run down my spine almost every time I hear it. And it does not stop with illegal immigrants but goes directly to such things as voter registration and ID requirements. The idea that someone who has been living in a community all their life and simply lacks this month’s card can be denied a fundamental right appalls me.

While I understand the perfectly reasonable rationale behind much of this, I am, as an American, opposed to it on principle.

It took me a little while to figure out why. I grew up with the Hollywood and television state villain who, at some point in all such melodramas, walked up to someone and snaps “Papers!” I had it drilled into me that this was a tool of oppression. That having or not having “proper” documents could get you killed. That, in fact, your entire identity and therefore the safety of you and your family hung on the possession of the appropriate documents. Most of these villains wore a particular uniform, but it was clear that all totalitarian states used this as a means of controlling their populations. And that losing your papers meant losing any legitimacy in the eyes of the state.

And we all know where that leads.

This is not an entirely rational reaction on my part, but it nevertheless connects well with certain principles. As an American I reserve the right to be secure in my person without having to prove to some apparatchit that I “belong” here.  It’s up to you to accommodate me.

Of course, in my case that’s relatively easy. I’m the right color, I speak without an accent (mostly), and I have history.

Undocumented is a term that I react to with the same loathing as I would to Goebbels, Himmler, Eichmann, Stalin, Mao, Pinochet, Stroessner, Pol Pot, Kim Jung Un. It suggests that you are not a person without state-sanctioned proof, and I grew up believing that was not American.

It’s difficult to walk that line between necessary documentation—for credit, for benefits, for licenses to operate specific things—and a card asserting you have a right to Be. It makes it too easy to strip away everything by simply losing or having stolen from you that bit of identification, that seal of approval.

We need to rethink where we’re heading with this. We have, collectively, a too-easy tendency to indulge our tribal affiliations by sorting people into categories. When the state is indifferent or benevolent, such things don’t become toxic. But a change in the weather, and what may have been a convenience last year is now a threat. I do not appreciate the idea that we will be the ones walking into a room snapping “Papers!” as if that alone represented the totality of what it means to be a person.  That’s not who we used to be.  That’s not who I want us to be.