Space

I must confess, I am conflicted about this.

Richard Branson made a suborbital flight in his own spaceship. Elon Musk is talking about going further. Together with Jeff Bezos, private space flight is a real thing and it’s getting realer.

Make all the jokes you want about wealthy people spending absurd amounts of money to book passage on one of these in the near future, but the fact that it’s happening at all leaves me a bit gobsmacked. Would I rather this had been achieved by the government? Probably. But would I rather have not seen it achieved at all? Absolutely not.

I’m going to be fairly unapologetic about this. Going to space was the one thing I have been consistently dreaming about since I can remember. (And no, I don’t personally feel the need to Go There myself, just so long as We get there.) As a kid being unable to get enough science fiction, aware eventually that the Real World was lagging behind the dreams I held dear, any endeavor that came along to advance that purpose I welcomed. I thought the whole moonshot thing in the Sixties was conceptually cool but awkward and dull in execution. The X-15 project was well on its way to building an actual spaceship, but that would have required considerably more funding which Congress was unwilling to dole out, but we definitely needed missiles (we thought) to counter Russia and Kennedy was (we forget) a fervent Cold Warrior. But we Got There.

And then turned our back on it.  Even then the detractors were hammering away at the perceived waste of spending money to send people to the moon instead of feeding the hungry. That tension is still at hand and it is certainly based on legitimate concerns.

My problem with it has always been, Why is this an either/or question?  We should have been doing something about poverty, yes, but we should also go to the moon.  And Mars and the Jovians and onward.

Because without Big Dreams, the rest is just…

Not pointless, but once we have solved the problems of poverty and fed everyone and seen to social justice, what next?

This is not a First World question. Every vital culture has a Big Dream, a set of stories if nothing else that inject transcendence into their lives.

The problem is, solving problems never happens in a logical order.

So while I understand the cries of frustration (why are these Billionaires doing this instead of—?) I can’t quite condemn the quest. As far as I’m concerned, this may be the one truly legitimate thing any of them could do with all that money (that they would do). As long  as we have billionaires, I would rather they build a significant part of the future with it. Going to space is the Big Dream of my childhood, and if we can’t elect representatives who will fund it, then let’s not stop these guys. It’s not like the things they achieve will be one-shots that no one else will ever get to do. The point of all this is to open that so-called Final Frontier, which will produce jobs, sure, but will also feed the need for Big Dreams and Wider Vistas and, ridiculous as it may sound to some, we ain’t gonna create the Star Trek world unless we Get There.

So, yeah. I’m conflicted.  I hate that it’s These Guys, but I don’t hate that they’re doing it. When I watched that single-stage rocket actually land, my ten-year-old heart pounded in excitement.  Yes! Yes! Yes! And that tech and those tools, they’ll remain when Musk is dust.

But let us get over this binary nonsense of either/or.  There is no reason we can’t have both. There are plenty of reasons we have to have both. Tax them, for pity’s sake. Even a hefty tax will leave them with the resources to do this thing. Impose a community profit-share on them. There are ways of achieving that.

But I’m not going to beat up on them for doing something ultimately very cool for the time being.

That’s how I feel.

Coolth

Weather patterns are insane. It’s over a 100 in the Pacific Northwest and here in Missouri this morning it’s 70. It’s July.  Our civilization is lurching toward solving what may be the greatest civil engineering project in history and hopefully reversing the last century (or more) of human-contributed climate change.  (You know, I used to have arguments about this back in my 20s and the counterargument was always “The planet is huge! Do you know how much pollution goes into the atmosphere when a big volcano erupts? How can we possibly add so much that things could change?” On its face, a certain logic, but you have to leave out key obvious factors, like the constant production of the greenhouse gases, and the fact that the planet, if we assume a certain homeostasis with natural systems, was already at an optimal point of balance.  So how much extra does there really need to be added to what was already being produce to tip it over the edge?  Not a lot.  In fact, about what we’ve added. Anyway.)

That all said, I have nothing much more to say. So, something to assist with cool thoughts.  Have a good weekend.

 

Sifting Babel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should I Or Shouldn’t I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You just can’t be bothered.

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

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

Still Reaching, Still Dreaming

Everywhere else there is news of calamity, sadness, tension, idiocy. It’s Sunday, a beautiful morning.  Something else, then. Something reaffirming, that there is still space for dreams, room for better, and the substance of higher aspirations.

 

(Image courtesy of Linda Overton)

Post Ides

A departure from the trend of political screeds. The COVID19 pandemic.

People are nervous, uncertain, many frightened.  I’ve always dealt with that kind of thing by finding things out. Information. The more you know, you know.  So here is a link to a very handy, graphically interesting page of data about the thing itself.

The Coronovirus Data Pack.

Study it, absorb it, then—

Reasonable precaution, much of which consists of habits we should already have (but probably don’t).  And if it is your inclination to dismiss it, blow it off, assume it’s either exaggerated or too late, well, so be it, but keep one thing in mind: it’s not about you.

This is the time to adopt those habits and take those precautions whether you believe in them or not because the idea is to reassure those around you. You do this for your friends, neighbors, community.  You do this to lower the level of ambient anxiety.

It hurts nothing to be a bit extra careful, circumspect, considerate.  And on the chance that such precautions really do work, you can save a life or two.

Because honestly, we’ve all been pretty on edge and often nasty to each other the last few years.  Not, perhaps, unprovoked, but still, this is one instance where such an attitude will do no one any good and relearning some manners may do a lot of good.

So be careful.  Be considerate.  Be a good citizen and community member.

Thank you.

March (the Ides of)

And I haven’t posted anything substantial since the beginning of February. February turned out to be a difficult month. I came down with some species of flu-like yuck and ended up home in bed for a week. I’m still getting over it, whatever it was, but I am managing to get back to the gym and work on new stories and all.

So I thought I would do an update.

The Ides of March will be here soon.

The current issue of Analog has a new story by me. I’m rather pleased with it. I think I managed to do some things I’ve always wanted to do and never felt quite good enough to pull off.

I’ve been working my way through a few stories that are proving reluctant to complete. I’ll get there.

I’m behind on finishing the last couple of batches of photographs. But that will keep for now.

Donna and I are coming up on an anniversary. Forty years since our first date. I took her to see 2001: A Space Odyssey and to a Chinese restaurant afterward, both of which were new experiences for her. The theater and the restaurant are long gone, but we try to watch that movie and eat that cuisine every year. (We might change up the movie to 2010 this year.) I’m working on my thoughts and feelings about four decades with her. I can’t imagine anyone else being there with me through what has been a long, strange trip.

We’re making upgrades. A couple of new windows going in, some other details in need of tweaking. We probably won’t be going on any major trips this year. Might be a good year for review and reassessments.

So…

 

…what with the chaos and instability of the last year and a vague set of possibilities for the next, I thought I’d make a couple of observations about—well, about us. Humans.

It has brought me up short to discover that certain people whom I hold in considerable esteem and respect support the current administration. As has been my wont through most of my life, whenever confronted with something like this, I do a long, deep diving analysis of my world views to see if I’ve missed something. Perhaps things are not as I perceive them. Perhaps I haven’t recognized the “big picture.”  My reflexive reaction to our president has been consistent since before the election and I’ve gotten used to certain attitudes which, maybe, I should rethink.

I’ve been doing that for a couple of months now.

My conclusion is that no, I haven’t missed a thing. The fact is, I want something different than those who support him. My expectations are distinctly other than theirs. That’s fine, people are welcome to their viewpoints. If the problems were mostly a matter of style, I could even live with the differences.

But they are not. They are matters of, to me, moral judgment.

The first problem is the least tractable. The election which put him into office was deeply problematic on several levels. Fifty-three percent of the electorate turned out to vote and he in fact lost the popular election, which means that he, as has been the case for many years now for most of the so-called Right, is in office based on at most a quarter of the adult population’s support. I say “least tractable” because the only solution to this is higher voter turnout and I do not know how to achieve that. Some have said it would have been higher had any other candidate opposed him but Hillary Clinton, but I don’t buy that. This is not the first time low turnout has been an issue and it does not excuse the indifference exhibited at state and local elections. You don’t like the presidential candidates, fine, don’t vote for them, but show up and vote for your senator, your representative, your state offices. If this had been the first or only one a few elections with this problem, I might be inclined to agree with the “wrong candidate” excuse, but it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.  Americans seem to be lazy. They don’t want to be bothered. Then, when things turn out badly, they complain. Loudly.

A partial solution to this would be to make election days holidays. Mandatory. Even state and local elections. That might take care of part of it. Add to that making voter registration automatic upon one’s 18th birthday and tie it to your social security number, so this nonsense of lacking an address no longer can be used to deny a basic right. You’re the voter, not your house. With modern databases, it would be easy to track your voting record and see that you vote once.

But inspiring people to actually vote? I like Australia’s system, where voting is required by law, but I rather doubt it would work here. We’re too punitive at the best of times.

When we had a pool of educated, semi-responsible people in government, this wasn’t as big a deal. The country would run along regardless. We didn’t have people in congress conducting a guerilla war with each other.

Where did that come from?

Many places*, but the chief one seems to be that our sense of national character has been weaponized and turned into a do-or-die cause. The chief problem with that is, no one can actually define what is or isn’t our “national character.” It changes. The genius of our system up to this point has been its ability to adapt so efficiently to that changing landscape that from generation to generation there seemed to be widespread coherence and agreement about what that character was, with the illusion that it is at any given moment what it has always been. With the loss of rationality in our representative offices, the revelations that we have from time to time been less than faithful to our assumed ideals has scraped nerve-endings raw.

We hear that the country, the nation, the People, need a new narrative. Why? Because left to our own individual devices we can’t seem to find one that works? Evidence would suggest such a factor, but I’m not convinced. We had a pretty good narrative. The problem hasn’t been the story we tell about ourselves, but in living up to its requirements. If we throw up our collective hands and say “Well, we can’t do that,” it doesn’t mean the narrative is a bad one, as if to say “That’s too hard, so let’s get a new one that’s easier.” For one thing, swapping out national narratives is not so easy, and anticipating outcomes is even dicier.

But no, I don’t believe the narrative we had was so bad. What happened somewhere along the way was the additional thread that told people that if they didn’t like it, they could opt out.

Or blame someone else.

There has always been a degree of this all along, people who don’t like the way things are feeling that they can just pick up and leave. Once upon a time, there was something to this, but it meant actually leaving, heading west, risking oblivion if you failed. Interestingly enough, every time enough people migrated and settled, they dragged along all the community-based accoutrements the first bunch supposedly fled in the first place. The Great Westward Migration was never primarily the individuality exercise our fiction made it out to be.

With the closing of the frontiers, though, the “opting out” became considerably more complex and usually a matter of antisocial resistance to group standards all the way up to actual criminality. Today it manifests chiefly in debates over not who leaves but who gets let in. (It, in fact, always was this debate, but the inclusion narratives are not universal nor as pleasant as we like to think.) Right now there is a flurry of voting poll closings in Texas ahead of the coming elections. Minorities, mostly. One part of the community trying to deny another part a say in how the community will operate by attempting to exclude their vote.

In its simplest terms, this is a toxic combination of NIMBY and “I don’t wanna pay for them.”

Or look like them. Or sound like them. Or eat, think, act like them.

In Strangers In Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild lays out another component of this, namely the notion of “keeping one’s place in line.” In other words, many of the constituency who put Trump in office have felt for a long time that undeserving people have been “placed” in line ahead of them.

“Like some others I spoke with in Louisiana, Jackie felt she had hold of an American Dream—but maybe just for now. Gesturing around her large living room, she says ‘This could all vanish tomorrow!’ She had worked hard. She had waited in line. She’d seen others ‘cut ahead,’ and this had galled her and estranged her from the government.”

What this has led to is the election of representatives who seem to feel it is their duty to interrupt as much of the federal government’s operations as possible in order to prevent a perceived Leftist takeover. On behalf of people clamoring for justice, at least as they see it. Combined with the erosion of trust in anything “knowable,” this has led to a situation in which the optimal condition is a free-for-all wherein no one idea can gain ascendance over any other. This is, naturally, untenable. Some ideas will rise out of the chaos, but with no reasonable discourse it will likely be the less nuanced, most emotion-laden, immediate kind of ideas that can solve little (or nothing) but “feel good” to those who think they’re defending “balance.” What results is anything complex gets shouted down or barred from consideration, especially if it seems to run counter to a preferred narrative.

In congress, Mitch McConnell is sitting on around 400 House bills and has stated categorically he won’t allow them on the floor for a vote. Same thing only at a higher, more organized and potent level.

I don’t care how you try to spin this, it is immoral. It is a denial of voice to people who are legally guaranteed to have a say. It is saying “My mind is made up, so fuck you.”

That’s all.

Very simply, whether that representative is yours or not, this is wrong. It is immoral.

McConnell has been rubberstamping Trump’s policies all along. Why? Because Trump is disassembling the regulatory apparatus that stands between powerful people and the rest of us. He has been taking apart the machinery that is designed to keep the predators from feeding on the body of the nation.

Look at the list of things that have come under the axe in this administration and, whether you agree with how they function or not, it is impossible not to see that the only things being attacked are protections.

Now, some people will loudly declare “I don’t want your protections! I can take care of myself!”

This is a flamboyant, boastful, egotistical bit of self-aggrandizing nonsense. You live in a community, which provides many things you may not, perhaps, even notice. Without them, you could not live the life you may think you’ve earned. But what I have observed among those who often make this claim is a contradiction: they do not pick up, move to the wilderness, live off the grid, and “take care of themselves.” If they did, we would never hear from them. They would have no means to participate in this dialogue. Instead, the statements masks the fact that these are people who either assume the services they use exist in nature (so to speak) and if everyone withdrew from supporting them they would continue uninterrupted or they are people who feel they have achieved a level of self-sufficiency that will allow them to isolate themselves from those parts of the community they don’t like, even while continuing to live in that community and availing themselves of the services.

Or they think they’re just denying these services to others of whom they disapprove.

Somewhere along the way they lost the thread of the actual narrative, the one that says “We are all in this together.”

Even so, hoarding is immoral. When you look at billionaires, you are looking at a species of hoarding.

Not that any of them keep all that money in a safe buried beneath (one) of their houses. No, they’re hoarding influence. The landscape shaped by economics. Their decisions affect people’s lives and those people—you and me, presumably, living on salaries (and that covers a wider range than a lot of folks seem to realize)—have virtually no say in how that manifests.

Again, we are muted, almost voiceless.

“But the Market!”

The market is a wide, wild river. It goes where it will and is only ever controlled grossly by those people hoarding the influence who build dams and levies. And they only build them to direct the flow into preferred channels and those channels may not be to anyone’s advantage but their own. Get over this idea that the Market means leaving those people alone. We labor under the myth of the Free Market. There is no such thing. All markets are at least nominally “owned” by someone and that ownership manifests in exclusions. (What most people likely mean by Free Market is Open Access Market, which is not the same thing. An Open Access Market is one that is inclusive, but in order to achieve that we need a system of wardens to keep the gates open.  Once in the market, freedom may be expressed at what we then can do inside, but even that is not the complete absence of rules some seem to believe should maintain.) We have been sold this myth along with several others by those with the most to gain from our accepting less in the presumption that eventually there will be more. So far, that has not been the case other than for specific groups here and there (not always the same ones consistently); never for the kind of universal improvement supposedly on offer.

There are over seven billion of us on this rock. It is not flat, we are inextricably part of its biosphere (nature), and our collective impact has progressively changed over the centuries and we cannot blithely go on behaving as if nothing we do has any consequences on the world we inhabit. Size matters and while you as an individual would like very much to be released from any responsibility to people you don’t know (including what they do to our environment), no one can absolve you from that. You are part of your species and we—WE—have responsibilities that extend beyond your backyard. Whether you like it or not, you are as much a part of the human race as someone in Guatemala or Indonesia or Chad or Norway and pretending you are either separate from them as an organism or superior to them as a member of a given polity is a surrender of conscience. The problem is, that conscience you’re so willfully trying to deny does not go away into oblivion but remains extant for someone else to pick up and co-opt and use as part of their argument. So you can either be part of the dialogue or a witless tool. but you cannot be apart from it all.

Among the things that have been allowed to drift into the control of those who do not have your best interests at heart:

1: Climate change is real. Stop for a moment and just look at it this way—in order to live, we burn things. It does not take much to understand that the more we burn, the more residue is released. When there were only a few million of us, this was negligible. There are over seven billion now. It adds up. It is the height of wishful thinking and willful ignorance not to understand this.

2: Vaccines have been the most effective weapon against disease ever invented and a refusal to vaccinate your children is criminal negligence. The only reason you might think otherwise is because you have no direct experience of uncontrolled diseases like measles. The only reason you lack that experience is because of vaccines. This nonsense is self-entitled, trendy, pop-culture propaganda and it will kill people.

3: Evolution is real. If it were not, vaccines would not work. Modern medicine would not work. We would not, ever, find new species, anywhere, and quite possibly there would be no life on this planet at all. The only reason to deny evolution is so you can maintain a privileged view of yourself as somehow apart from and above Nature. Which view allows all those corporations to feed you lies about how pesticides are safe, climate change is a hoax, and Democrats are evil. You have put gullibility on like a bad suit and it will kill you some day.

4:  Economic systems are just that—systems. We built them, we run them, they do not exist in Nature, and consequently we can control them, modify them, tweak them, and revise them to suit circumstances. Labels have no actual valence, so calling something by a label you do not understand because you’ve been told it is evil and will inevitably lead to dire consequences, you contribute to the lobotomization of our collective intellect. Ayn Rand aside, Capitalism is neither a philosophy nor an ideal and in the hands of those who see it as a game of one-upsmanship, it can be used to hurt you. Stop assuming all controls and regulations are there to hurt you. Haven’t a lot of us been hurt by their absence? (The answer to that is Yes.)

5:  The Civil War was fought over slavery and slaves. This is not up for debate, despite the continual and continuing attempts to rewrite history into something more noble or innocuous, like States’ Rights. Most of the articles of secession published by the Confederate States list the preservation of slavery as the number one issue and if that were not enough, Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech (he was vice president of the Confederacy) made it about as clear as it could be that it was about maintaining white supremacy. A great deal of our subsequent history has been maligned, ignored, disputed, and twisted over this and whether you like it or not, the facts are not in question. (Why this is an issue now is complex but the fact of the matter is we have a resurgent white supremacist problem, much of which hinges on this issue as a matter of patriotic nostalgia.) The Confederacy was illegal, the instigators were essentially traitors, and no one should use this as an excuse to be either a bigot or a nationalist.

6:  Presidents are not messiahs. Resumés matter. Being inspiring is nice, being competent is vital. We are not crowning a king, we are hiring a manager. Policy is at issue, not endorphins. Stop voting with your amygdala.

7:  Following upon that last, stop thinking the only election that matters is for the president. Congress matters more. I don’t care if you’re bored, staying home because you can’t be bothered to vote is, especially today, inexcusable. (There are reasons for not voting that are, voter suppression being one.)  We have been ruled by quarter-population mandates for too long.

I suppose I could on, but you get the idea. I felt the need to get that off my chest.

I have been told that confronting people with accusations of idiocy, stupidity, venality, and so forth do no good, that it just makes more enemies. That may be. But the soft-touch approach has been used against us for too long. I don’t believe in shaming, but I am tired of living with the consequences of people who probably should be ashamed.  Ashamed of their feckless disregard for what we euphemistically term “common sense.”  (I believe there is no such thing. I know what it’s supposed to connote, but that kind of acuity and wisdom has never, in my experience, been common.)

Because ultimately it is a result of a refusal to trust. Perhaps an inability. But when you look at the decisions of some people, especially with regard to who they elect, the only common factor seems to be that such choices leave one free of having to think about what to do next. The bombast, the denials, the questioning of every single inconvenient fact, is designed to allow some of us to posture over “balance” and retreat from considered argument because “both sides are just as bad,” which leaves us off the hook morally. It’s a refusal to take the kind of steps to find out and be informed and then make decisions that are not just masked motions designed to wash our hands of a situation we don’t understand.

Corporations did not want to pay for their messes or admit to culpability or even float the costs of changing the way they did things, and so embarked on a campaign barely dreamt of by postmodern onanists.  Evangelical churches wanted to maintain their lock on our consciences and so embarked on a similar series of campaigns to convince people that science was just another religion and nothing could be known but “god.” Politicians wanted to get re-elected and maybe get rich by appealing to both these sectors and so abandoned their civic responsibility to hold themselves and the nation accountable to reality and principle.

November is approaching. I’m not as concerned about who ends up in the White House as I am who becomes the next Senate Majority Leader. In order to preserve our democracy, we have to actually use it.

These are the kinds of thoughts occupying me. Thank you for your time and attention.

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*For those who wish to lay actual blame as a matter of first causes, you can blame this on the corporate actions to undermine legitimate science in order to avoid the costs of cleaning up messes. What began as a fairly simple tactic to call into question facts which pointed to the need to change certain practices in order to prevent enactment of new regulations (and later undo existing regulations) got away from them and became an evangelical movement to deny any fact that did not fit a particular view. It has led to the discrediting of any kind of authority, valid or otherwise, and hamstrung us when collective action is necessary. The method has become a politic position.

Confessions of a Weekend Nerd

Apollo. Fifty years.

We landed on the moon. I look back on it now and I am amazed. I understand some of what went into it, how challenging it was, the amazing level of commitment and dedication, and how unlikely it all might have been. As my sense of history developed, long after high school, I began to see all the incredible things people do, especially here, as sort of willed accidents. By that I mean, someone or a group of someones come up with an idea of something to do, a big something, and put it out there. Others sign on and they all move in that direction. The fact of the matter is, any of a thousand things can derail it and the idea never gets off the ground. So many things have to come together to clear the way, to maintain support, to collect the resources, that the notion that anything actually happens becomes a kind of miracle. Often, it is just timing. The idea gets all the funding and commitment and talent collected before any of the myriad roadblocks effectively arise.

The space program is one of those. When you look back at everything we could and intended that did not happen, it becomes obvious that it was an unlikely thing. By the end of the Sixties, and into the Seventies, large groups had begun challenging the whole project as a pointless, expensive, wasteful vanity project. There were more important things to do here on the ground, why are we spending so much on this when there are hungry people, when there are infrastructure projects going begging, when this or that or the other thing are so much more important. And it mounted and finally, like the nibbling of ducks, dragged the behemoth down and nearly stopped it. Nixon made his fateful choice for a shuttle rather a Mars mission and we seemed to “settle” for a considerably more modest off-world presence. Then, of course, all the funding arguments about the shuttle reduced its range and capacity and while still a remarkable instrument it was far less than the dreams of the Kennedy-era enthusiast wanted.

Life and politics happened and NASA trudged on to do still amazing things, but at a much-reduced level of imaginative possibility. A lot of Americans lost interest.

Now the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing is upon us and many people over a certain age are indulging in the “where were you when” nostalgia, and probably rewriting a lot of personal history. By the enthusiastic remembrances on exhibit, one has to wonder, if that many people had been that thrilled at the time, how did the space program ever lose ground?

My friend and colleague Allen Steele is the only person I know close to my age who was at that level of enthusiasm back then. I have no doubt he stayed home from school to watch the reports on television. He saw things I never at the time even knew happened, exciting things which, if you weren’t paying close attention, you missed. My parents were excited. Some of my classmates were thrilled but they didn’t watch.

Where was I when Neil Armstrong stepped out of a very flimsy can to walk on another world? Home, because it was one of the rare times my parents decided to keep me out of school.+ Dad made me watch.

Yes, I said “made.” Because, to be perfectly honest, the whole thing by then bored me out of my skull. Tell me about it after it happened, thank you.

I felt guilty about that later, until I heard about Robert A. Heinlein’s testimony before Congress in which he chastised them for doing such a pitiful P.R. job with the space program. He saw what had happened, they had turned it into one of those incredibly lifeless, innocuous educational films we paid no attention to in school. Bad animation, endless hours of a cartoon capsule and “live” audio of back-and-forths between Gemini and Mission Control, and the oh-so-serious commentary of people like Walter Cronkite and Jules Bergman, with the occasional guest commentator like Arthur C. Clarke.

The truth is, this was a difference between the “how do we do this” crowd and the “what are we gonna do when we get there” crowd. I suspect the latter outnumbered the former, and when the answer was “collect some rocks and take some pictures” it must have rippled like a soporific grade-school lecture through us. They might have done better had they done more of the “what are we going to do next” sort of thing that popped up far too seldom, although when it did was made to sound as exciting as someone describing how they would lay new carpet.

Even back then I knew people who believed it was all fake. Challenging them about it, I sensed that really they wanted it to be fake. They didn’t want it to be real, because then they would have to pay attention to it, if only to complain about it. And then there are others who don’t want great things done. Their opinion of human beings is low, that we are more scourge than anything, and great things only sustain a set of illusions we don’t deserve to have. This is nothing new. This is a modern version of an ongoing sense that all the great things have already been done, far in the past, and that the modern world (pick your period) is a shadow of former greatness or a corruption of what we might have been. An Eclessiastical View, if you will. Then someone comes along to propose a new great thing and the struggle begins between the will to do it and those who just can’t bring themselves to let it happen.

Hence my opinion that great things are willed accidents.

But they happen. Often enough to give the rest of us aspirations, a sense of potential.

Growing up, you learn—presumably—that your desires and aspirations rise or fall on what has gone before. Why was I bored by the space program? Because it wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I wanted to be on the moon already, with the space stations already built and the mission to Mars already underway or done, and the whole space-centered future I’d been reading about since I was old enough to choose my own books in place. I was impatient. This stuff, because I was not an engineering nerd, didn’t affect me. I was the kid who was more interested in how the new cars looked rather than how they ran. I was a weekend space nerd.

But this was true about most things in my life and I have to wonder how many others were the same. I was always more interested in the next thing than in the thing in front of me. I was in a hurry to get on down the road, because—

Well, the future for me was always better than the present.

Now a curious phenomena has overtaken me and possibly thousands if not millions of others. The next thing is actually in the past. The next thing we should have done in the wake of Apollo and didn’t is now the future I was more interested in then and has now picked up where it should have left off in 1974. So Apollo has been resurrected in my imagination as a seriously amazing cool thing.

So I’ve seen the movies, have been reading the new books, and kind of glorying in this great thing that happened when I was a kid. Belatedly, I’m a fan. And NASA is building a new rocket, on par with the old Saturn V, and we have plans to return to the moon (which makes sense only in terms of rebuilding the network and infrastructure to do and maybe as a way of rallying the national imagination, but we really should be going to Mars), and suddenly we have a kind of post-Columbian* enthusiasm for doing the thing we walked away from in the Seventies. I’m studying the period now with the adult interest that might have made a difference back then and caused me to pay attention despite the mind-numbingly boring coverage.

Because if asked, back then, I would never have said it was not a desirable thing to do. I would have been thrilled that we had done it. And the suggestions at the time that maybe we shouldn’t struck me as absurd. Come the weekend, I was there. I just didn’t want to pay attention to the doing. Which is a mistake. Willed accidents do happen, in spite of the kind of ambivalence to which I refer, but that ambivalence can rob them of their full potential and sometimes derail them completely.

Doing it now seems to be acquiring a new kind of enthusiasm. But it would never happen if it had not already been done.

For the record, then, I want that future. Always did. I want us in space. I want bases on the moon, colonies on Mars, ships going hither and yon, and a striving toward the outer edge. For many reasons I want that, but first and foremost I want it because that’s where my imagination finds replenishment. Because I see that as the cool thing to do. And the doing will make us better.

Happy anniversary, Apollo. Ad astra.

 

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*In the sense that it was fully half a century to a century after Columbus made his first voyage before nations really got behind the whole effort to cross the Atlantic and establish colonies.  There does seem to be a timelag connected to these sorts of enterprises. Mind you, I make no comment here on the desirability of what happened in the wake of Columbus, but the exploratory impulse on its own is, in my opinion, an essential and basically good part of human society and character.

+ Since posting this, I have been reminded that the landing was at around 10:00 PM ET, so I would not have been kept out of school to watch. It may have been the splashdown for which I was kept home. This just goes to show how disconnected I was at the time and the way in which memory plays tricks on us.

True Belief

For several years, we have seen shots across the bow from advocates of either pure capitalism or some form of socialism, and except for a few instances of informed theoretical discussions based on a thoroughly de-romanticized view of history, we are treated to schoolyard fights between factions that never seem to care for reasoned discourse, only for planting flags and claiming loyalty.

This is not religion, but for so many people it gets taken as such, and the results are rarely edifying. What is amusing (in a tortured way) is the assumption by such advocates that any move toward the reviled system will somehow strip us of our intellect and render us stupid, incapable of managing things to our benefit. That, for example, “socialism never works” must be based on the same assumptions made during the Cold War that communism somehow turned its followers into mindless robots. Of course, the inference here is that Capitalism does not.

“Look at Venezuela!”

As if that is the only indictment necessary to discredit what is essentially an economic theory that in no way demands to be taken as an all-or-nothing proposition.  Look at Norway. Or Sweden. Or any of the other modern states that have taken socialism and applied it as needed to alter a social contract between the state and its citizens to the benefit of both.

Venezuela is suffering the consequences of decades of corruption and elite pillage, which can happen in any system. The reason we here are not facing a similar meltdown is more a tribute to the sheer size of our economy and the fact that we have adapted certain mechanisms which, depending on the decade, have been decried as “socialist.” But in fact, we are experiencing pillage and have been since we shifted Right in the 1980s. Systematic, legal, well-sold pillage. Every time a tax cut goes to the benefit of the upper 10%, it has to be paid for, either by a commensurate decrease in services we all use, or by borrowing against future securities the cost of which comes out of everyone’s pocket. In time, the effects should be obvious, and they are, but we are still so big and in many parts so comfortable, that we can’t seem to muster sufficient, useful outrage to do anything about.

Right now, because so many of us think the alternative is Socialism, which has been made to appear the end of any kind of civilization we consider good.

This is religion. “You can’t credit Them with a just argument because they are the forces of evil!” Why? “Because they are not like us!”

To which, the question must be asked, “And what are we?”

But to my original point: the assumption seems to be that A System is pernicious, that it has a mind of its own, and once engaged it has certain inevitable consequences that our only defense is to reject it. Utterly.

If true of Socialism, why isn’t it true of Capitalism?

It’s an absurd argument not because it’s so wrong but because it’s so ignorant. I mean “ignorant” in the precise meaning of the word, which is not, in spite of a century of misuse, “stupid.” Ignorance is a condition of lack of knowledge, information. Being ignorant is a curable condition, entirely addressable by becoming informed.

But I do not believe on the level of individual citizens the debate has much of anything to do with the efficacy of systems. In order for that to be the case, a fairly solid grasp of those system would be required, and economics is not amenable to casual understanding, not at this level. Instead, it is entirely personal. it is born out an apprehension of threat and a promise of salvation. Examples are given to bolster shallow arguments, but examples with considerable apparent weight, which would require equal study to see as anything but mythic constructs arrayed in battle for the soul of civilization.

In short, religion.

Now, I use the term Religion in the sense of a system.  (Again, systems.) Religion, questions of deities aside, are systems of organization designed to bring people together in an aesthetic cohesion around a statement of rightness. Rituals, arcane texts, sophisticated propaganda feed into a broad community-based set of practices that identify people to each other as sharing beliefs and preferences in behavior. Once you extend past the village level, it becomes a System. People can sign on to participation by agreeing to acknowledge the forms and refrain from questioning the underlying premises. This has benefits to the group primarily, but for the individual as well.

What it does not require to operate is broad understanding of the components, justifications, or origins. It is designed to operate without that. A hierarchy is in charge of the “mysteries” and the actual decisions on how to apply it all, but the populace in general need understand little.

Economic systems are similar.

And the results are very much the same—average people, admittedly or not, treat the system as if it were some kind of natural phenomena, correct and good. Who in their right mind would question it?

The chief beneficiaries of such a system prefer people feel that way.

The question, though, is why such persistent dedication when there is no justification for it? I refer now to people who benefit little from maintaining a system that they understand poorly at best. Not that they couldn’t understand it, but seem unwilling to even crack a book to check whether the barbed euphemisms handed to them by politicians and pundits hold any value.

According to Edward O. Wilson, in his recent book, Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies, it’s tribal:

For most of history, organized religions have claimed sovereignty over the meaning of human existence. For their founders and leaders the enigma has been relatively easy to solve. The gods put us on Earth, then they told us how to behave. Why should people around the world continue to believe one fantasy over another out of the more than four thousand that exist on Earth? The answer is tribalism…Each of the organized or otherwise public religions as well as scores of religion-like ideologies defines a tribe, a tightly knit group of people joined by a particular story….The members of the tribe are inspired by the special status the story gives them.

A telling phrase in that is “religion-like ideologies.” This would include all nationalistic creeds as well as less politically determined programs that serve to tell us who we should be in order to find conformable situations within a group. Economic systems, for instance, which is relatively new on the scene. Marx arguably set the terms of this new ideological initiation by making everyone aware that such systems not only serve to enable trade along rational lines and distribute goods and services in more or less efficient ways, but come to define us in terms of class and status and, eventually, popular philosophical disposition.

Whether or not a given system “works” better than others has become less important currently than our allegiance to it, which serves to separate us into easily-identifiable subgroups. The battle is not now over what might work “better” but over identity. We here saw this as a flaw in the soviet system, because so much of it failed to work to the benefit of the people, but recognizing the apparent blindness in others has not allowed us to see it in ourselves.

Because it aligns with another oft-unacknowledged blindness, which is the need to feel superior. Or, at least, not feel inferior.

We could certainly adapt aspects of Socialism to our system and make it work for us. We already have. It was called the New Deal. It worked well enough and the only reason to tear it down was that it threatened someone’s sense of importance and security of power. So we already have evidence that it will not eat us alive like some cancer and there is evidence available from all around the world. What we see when we look at it is a mixed bag, ranging from very workable to a shambles. But usually the broken examples are broken from a multiplicity of problems not necessarily inherent in Socialism. Any such system can be made to work badly.

But then we have to ask what we mean by that. Work badly for whom? It can be argued that certain groups in such systems may benefit tremendously by the apparent failures to work as advertised. It’s interesting that we assume a system fails when it injures the general population. The application of it certainly fails a large demographic, but I think it is an error to see this as a failure. Someone got just exactly what they wanted and for them it was a raging success. It’s more interesting when we fail to recognize the same kind of “success” going on here.

Every time the argument is made that communism “never” works, it is fair to ask where and when communism has ever been honestly applied. If the state in question ends up with an autocratic governing body or even a dictator, then it is equally fair to say that is not communism. So the “failure” of communism, in my opinion, has yet to be demonstrated because I have yet to see a single example of it at the state level that was little more than a set of promises to allow a new king to take the throne. That’s not communism.

But I’m not here to argue in favor of it. I’m more interested in urging people to stop giving blind allegiance to what amounts to a set of recommendations that require tweaking as circumstance dictates. Adapting an economic system whole (which is another assumption that requires examination, that any country could just adapt a system wholesale and wake up tomorrow with it in place) is not likely to work any better than denying the possible benefits of mixing and matching multiple systems. It depends on what you think you want done.

What we do have, because we operate tribally, is a set of prejudices that predetermine not what system would be best for people, but what kind of people would best suit a system. We aren’t, apparently, interested in economic justice or community care or rational monetary policies—we’re interested in sorting people into groups and shutting out those we feel do not conform to what we believe. Too many people don’t want to hear arguments about universal health because some of them think there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to have it. Same thing with fair housing practices, education, and even universal franchise. Finding the best system which is the most inclusive may be what we claim to want but in practice a lot of people want the opposite.

Since it’s illegal these days to discriminate on traditional bases, we use financial status to do so. Changes in that system which might lead to closer equity and broader civil rights threaten the status of enough of us to trigger irrational arguments over things poorly understood.  For the time being, a large segment seems quite content to see the upper 1% get more of the pie as long as it keeps the supposedly less deserving from getting anything at all.

For what it’s worth, in my opinion those folks are going to lose in the long run. But until they do, this is going to be frustrating, bitter fight, one made harder by tribal pride and a kind of sacred ignorance.