3000 Words About Bad Faith

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

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

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

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

“My body, my choice.”

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

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

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

Until we can’t. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this important in the current climate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Of Words

My last post dealt with my principled opinions and feelings about book banning/burning. This one will be personal.

I realize it sounds clichéd when someone says reading saved their lives, but it shouldn’t. Our lives are saved by the people around us, those who are with us, relatives and friends and teachers, in an ever-widening circle of familiarity. That network is the reason we are alive and the people we are. I know it’s fashionable to try to claim island status, that we are ourselves by our own hand, but it’s nonsense, and even those most stridently dedicated to that bit of myth know better, unless they are so utterly isolated as to be clinically dysfunctional. That claim is made for a simple reason—certain people don’t wish to be beholden to those of whom they disapprove. 

As a result, at some boundary away from the center, as that circle of support expands, many reach a point where they stop knowing or caring about or accepting the next ring. The connection is too vague, from a place too unfamiliar, about people too unlike us.

Well, that’s where reading comes in. And it is absurd not to understand that books are part of that inner circle for many of us. They are our friends, with us, teaching. They are a refuge and a source of understanding. The moment we begin to read a book, it comes alive and is there. 

As I have written before, I did not have a particularly great time as a child. Not horrible. But I had trouble fitting in. Many of the daily fascinations of my “friends” baffled me. Once I got into school, these bafflements led to embarrassments which led to further disconnects which opened the door to bullying. 

Movies, tv, and books became my safe place. 

I had a small assortment of Golden Books, a couple of Dr. Seuss books, and a bizarre variety of comics. There were no bookstores near me at that time, so I don’t even know where they came from. We occasionally went to a big Drug Store called Katz (we called almost any store that had a pharmacy department a Drug Store, whether that was its primary business or not) and they had a magazine section where some of my comics came from. I got my first library card when I was six and there was the school library.

Unknowingly, my world was expanding.

I discovered “real” books around the age of 10. Real Books were books with no pictures. I admit the transition was difficult—I am primarily a visual person. What developed was a reading method that reached its peak around age 15 or so and has to some extent stayed with me. I loved movies. Upon starting a new novel, I would cast the characters and in my mind I ran a film of what I read, translating the words into scenes. By the end of high school, I was reading close to a 100 books a year (my senior year I read about 200, cutting class regularly to go to the public library for the day and sit reading). This fell off sharply when I got a job, but I have maintained a reading rate of between 50 and 100 books a year since. Although, as I got older I found myself reading more deeply, therefore slower, and so my average is somewhere between 60 and 80.

There may have been a year or two where my reading fell off close to nothing, but for 60 years I have never not read.

I had no idea reading could cause controversy until I was in seventh grade. The year before I had started bringing books to school, mass market paperbacks, most of which fit easily into a back pocket. I tried to find someplace to read during recess. I had little interest in going out to the playground. Eventually I found an unused room behind the stage in the gym where I could read for half an hour. I was smart enough not to disappear completely during recess, lest they try to come find me. I don’t know if that actually worked or if someone figured out what I was doing and decided to leave me alone. 

I did find my popularity with the girls rising. Many if not most of them were also readers. And they would borrow my books when I finished. In retrospect, I did bring some rather “inappropriate” books to school. Emmaus was a parochial school. Last Summer, The Master of Falconhurst, Flowers In The Attic…probably not what the parents of those girls would have considered suitable. And in hindsight, this was the reason they were borrowing my books and not getting their own. They couldn’t.

It didn’t become an issue until the principal, a dour older man named Adolph Oberman, caught me with a copy of Harold Robbins’  The Carpetbaggers. He took it, glowered, said nothing, and called my parents.

The Carpetbaggers is filled with quite explicit sex. For its day, quite explicit. 

The conference Mr. Oberman had with my mother and me was educational. (Yes, I was present. I think he expected a united front in making me ashamed of myself.) He handed the book to my mother and asked if she was aware that I was reading it.

“No,” she said. “Why?”

He was a bit dismayed. “Do you think this is appropriate for him?”

She shrugged. “If he can’t handle it, he’ll stop reading it. Or he’ll ask me about it. Either way, I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t censor what my son reads.”

Mr. Oberman was shaken. I was surprised, too, not because I had any sense of the book being a problem, but because I had come to expect that anything I did that resulted in this kind of a conference was automatically A Bad Thing. That my mother was putting the ball back in his court was unexpected. 

“I would prefer he not bring such things to school,” was about all he could manage.

On the way home she asked me where I had gotten it, but that was all. No lectures, not demands to see what else I owned, no impression of disapproval.

My mom is a hero to me.

It was around this time that I got my first bike and found the neighborhood bookstore. When my parents realized that I was spending my allowance on books, my allowance increased. They never questioned what I brought home.

Entering high school in the fall of 1968 was to walk into a maw of a cultural beast in full transformation. Till then I was marginally aware of “hippies” and the War and the Counterculture. Over the next few years I found out what it was all about and had a front row seat at the battle to control information. My favorite history teacher was reprimanded for allowing a debate over Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation to take place. I challenged the syllabus for its insipid choices and was finally told flat out that the books selected (for our school, which was traditional blue collar school) were chosen because they were short enough not to challenge our presumed attention spans. I read Fahrenheit 451 and learned about the history of censorship and suppression—

—which baffled me and angered me. These were my friends—the books—how dare anyone burn them?

And this is what nonreaders do not seem to get. Books are alive the moment a reader finds them. They are conversations. They are what remain of lives long gone yet through them still present. They are the Past, they are people, they are the future-maybes, they are the record of civilization, and they are the repository of the whole of human experience. When I could not talk to my peers, when they had nothing they wanted to say to me or know from me, I could open a book and be with people. 

For a long time I didn’t appreciate that aspect, but as I grew older I realized that the relationships on the pages I had attended to were, in their own way, as worthy and rich and supportive as those with flesh and blood on two legs and a whisper in my ear. Sometimes more so, because here these people, many long-dead, were explaining themselves to me, which most of the people around me never did. And because of these silent conversations via the word, eventually I understood the people around me, too.

It did save a lot of time and grief.

Granted, it can put one at odds with the people around you. For a time, as many devoted readers know, you are the odd one, the weirdo, the bookworm, the nerd, the dork. For a people who seem to value Experience, I always found it curious—and unfortunate—that they never realized that reading, close reading, is experience.

But some seem to sense, even understand in a clever and sly way, that it is, and that experience brings change.

I grew up able to read anything I came across. Did I read inappropriate material? First, define that for me. Secondly, I would hope so. You don’t expand your self by playing it safe and staying within arbitrarily defined “appropriate boundaries.” And, really, reading a book is about the most risk-free exposure to inappropriate there is.

Back at Emmaus, another incident occurred which I did not know about at the time, at least not the full story. That stolid, conservative principal, Mr. Oberman, decided, some time between my sixth and seventh grade, to try to bring into the school a sex education program. He found one that had been designed by christians, constructed with a concern about religious sensibilities while still dealing factually and fully with the world of chaos about to fall upon students of our age. There was a presentation at a PTA meeting, which my mother attended. (At the time my dad worked nights, which left mom to deal with this sort of thing.) According to my mother, it was a beautiful course, tasteful, knowledgeable, pitched to just the right level. She thought it would have been terrific. Only one other parent and she voted to approve it. Every other parent there said no. One, according to mom, even said “I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”

I get the idea—if you don’t tell them, they won’t know to indulge it. It’s a stupid idea, but it’s as common as hydrogen. Because we were being told about it. Only not properly and not factually and not within any kind of framework that would allow us to understand it as it should be understood. We were getting it from older kids, from magazines that “showed up” and were passed around, from the age-old osmotic passage of “forbidden” knowledge that is the font of superstition, trash history, racism, and conspiracy-driven nonsense that somehow Everyone seems to know and no one bothers to verify. We were learning how french kissing could get a girl pregnant, how masturbation will cause cognitive degradation, how sex would cause hair growth, how a thousand other false “everybody knows” bits were true and a science-based course on human sexuality was a sin. All because parents—most of them in that place and time—could not handle the idea of sex education. 

For myself, by then I had acquired the priceless habit of Looking Things Up. I was made to feel stupid a couple of times about sex by my peers. What did I do? I rode my bike to that bookstore and bought a book about it. Love and Sex in Plain Language by Eric Johnson. A slim book, barely 110 pages, with illustrations. That was another book that got passed around to some of the girls. But it was the first time I ever had proof that what my classmates were telling me was empty nonsense.

But the nonsense was being passed around. That sex education course would have been as much damage control as anything else. 

“I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”

Given that, what might they have felt about other topics? Like slavery or religious bigotry or Manifest Destiny or evolution or—? And we want people like that to determine what everyone else’s children can have access to why? Because believe me, they aren’t trying to keep those books out of their children’s hands for the benefit of the kids.

I imagine it’s possible, even likely, that some people consider me untrustworthy. Unreliable. Corrupt. A Bad Influence. Unpatriotic. I read all those books (somewhere close to 4000 by now) and filled my head with all those things nobody needed to know. 

But having read all those books—and living the kind of life such reading helped give me access to—I also know exactly what such opinions are worth.

Dear Pope

A consistently baffling phenomenon in life is how people with zero actual experience in something and with a stated ideological reason for not and never having that experience find it in themselves to advise, recommend, insist, dictate, and judge people who likewise choose not to have that experience—but for completely different reasons.

Life is full of this kind of thing. “Experts” with all kinds of advice for other people about things they’ve never done and have no intention of doing. One of the most egregious is all the “friendly” encouragement to have kids. (And yes, many of these people do have kids, but it’s surprising how many who don’t will join in.) For a certain period of time in one’s life, this becomes a thing when you’re in a relationship. People coaxing, prodding, dropping hints, suggesting. Propagandizing, essentially. “It’s different when they’re your own.” I’m sure that’s true.

And utterly beside the point.

The part they haven’t done? They haven’t lived your life or dreamed your dreams. They’re telling you where you should go with all that based on an unbridgeable ignorance of who you are.

It’s bad enough when this is the behavior of acquaintances, but when the leader of one of the major religions of the world does it, it strikes me as downright unethical, especially when the vow that leader has taken excuses him from ever having to participate in it himself.

There is a moral principle at work here. The edgy one, which is the distinction between telling people to do the right thing and telling them to remake themselves in order to accommodate your formula of the right thing. The pope has made a sweeping generalization about what human beings should be without bothering with the thorny question of what may be morally right for individuals. That, of course, is complicated and difficult to manage.

How many unhappy families must follow the traditional line before there is an acknowledgment that we are not all suited to one definition of correct behavior?

Before the cherrypickers pipe up with examples of killers and molesters and sociopaths of every stripe as being those who are doing what may be suited to them, let me say that there is a moral principle that negates those arguments, which is that one is obliged not to harm others in the exercise of one’s proclivities. You can name any of the varied acts of transgression as being unsupported by moral fiat and they all entail doing harm to others.

At what point do we add the thoughtlessness of making children without regard to our ability to properly parent?

I know, this is supposed to be one of those areas uncovered by reason or forethought, that is simply supposed to just happen as a consequence of love. That we should, according to the model handed down by the propagandists of human idealism, simply feel “blessed” and look forward to the joy of raising a child. When that is the case—and it is for many, many people—it is a wonderful thing. But it is not true for many others.

To define this as a simple-minded instance of selfishness is itself a species of prejudice.

(Especially when we do not acknowledge the selfishness of people who have children the way they collect knick-knacks and pay them no more mind than how they add to the family reputation.)

And insisting that people conform to your idea of what should make them more human is the sort of arrogance which has been costing churches membership for decades, and rightly so.

Pope John XXIII instigated the Vatican II reforms. Unfinished at his death was his attempt to revamp the Church’s attitude toward sex, especially concerning birth control. It was—would have been—a tacit acknowledgment that people have a right to decide for themselves whether or not to procreate. Further, it was an implicit recognition that sex and procreation are two different things, and that human beings have a right to express themselves in an act of physical love without further justification, which is what procreation has become in this instance. John XXIII died before seeing that through and his successor balked.

But over time, people have, more and more, assumed that right for themselves.

For myself, I realized that I would not have been a willing parent. Oh, I probably would have done a fairly good job, no doubt I would have loved my children, but that is not where I wanted my energies to go, and I believe the resentment would have shown through. Every child deserves a family that accepts it and loves it without reservation. I doubted I could have done that. You tell me if that would have been fair to any child. I was unwilling to gamble on sentiments I did not already possess. Does that make me selfish? You might construe it that way. Or you might step back and realize that I had made a moral choice not to risk another human being’s welfare on the chance that “it would be different with my own.”

And of course there is the absurdity of a committed celibate dictating such things to people who he does not—cannot—know. This is of a kind with all those males who see fit to dictate to women what they should do procreatively. Telling them how to live when they themselves will never have to face the decision with their own bodies.

You might also consider that you have mischaracterized uncounted pet owners. Most probably did not adopt a pet in place of having a child. Most adopted a pet in order to have a pet.

In summation, this is just more of the same old patriarchal arrogance that has rendered chaotic situations that perhaps might not have been with a simple freedom to choose. The guilt innate to this position is an ongoing nightmare for too many people. You might have been a bit more sympathetic for people whose situations you do not, cannot, and, frankly, by virtue of the vows you took to get where you are, will not know.

The Look

We’ve all seen this, or something like it. There’s a look you get from someone who has expressed an opinion contrary to your view that you have countered. As the discussion continues and you keep presenting new facts and new formulations to show that what he/she is asserting is in error, occasionally you receive this Look. Almost a smile, a barely repressed glint of mischief in the eyes, a kind of smugness that says, “You just don’t get it, do you? You just can’t see that none of that matters and that I’m right.”

It is an infuriating look. But it is also the look of a true believer, perhaps a zealot, someone who has learned to rewrite reality so well that all the facts, truths, and ideas in the world fail to persuade.

What then becomes more infuriating is when you ask them to explain themselves, offer the whys and whereofs of their position, and tell you how what you have said is so wrong—they refuse. Perhaps it is because they believe the evidence for their position is so strong, so obvious that they do not need to explain it.

More likely, it is a combination of two primary factors: one, that what they believe is to them so right that evidence to the contrary, regardless how fact-based it may be, is by definition irrelevant, and two, like any faith-based assertion, explaining it is always a reduction.

Personally, I think a third factor renders the first two less important—a refusal to entertain the idea that you might have a point.

Because that would admit doubt. And doubt is kryptonite to zealotry.

We saw that look recently, on the face of Congressman Matt Gaetz when being schooled by the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff on the utility of learning, of understanding. Gaetz, smiling and slightly shaking his head, was trying to convey his astonishment at the general for holding opinions which Gaetz found incomprehensible. There is truth in this—Gaetz did find them incomprehensible, because he likely did not comprehend them. He certainly did not expect them. Rather than draw back and reconsider, that expression on his face suggests he would simply double-down on his expectations and disregard what he had heard. Given a little time, he will regroup and proceed as if the general had said nothing.

The philosopher David Hume established the groundwork for our apprehension of fact. It seems obvious today, but till Hume it was not, which is that all that we know or can know comes through our senses, and therefore absolute knowledge—about anything—is mediated by filters which are utterly subjective and by degrees unreliable. In other words, while we can make any number of accurate statements about the world, and can over time refine our observations so that they more and more accurately approximate reality, we can never know absolutely and with the kind of certainty which obliterates error. Because we are sensate creatures and our sense are tied to desires and a host of responses that mitigate objectivity to one degree or another, our conclusions must always be conditional.

This is not to say we cannot “know” anything in such a way that we cannot rely on our knowledge to navigate the world and even understand it to a very large degree. Those same senses tell us we’re on the right track and allow us to perceive the consequences of our learning in action in such away that we are justified in a high degree of confidence. Rather, it means we can never reach a final state of knowing anything, not to the extent that we can claim absolute comprehension.

We get along quite well with the margin left us. To claim that we can know nothing at all is the same error as claiming absolute certainty in anything. Knowledge, like experience, turns out to have a statistical valence, even as we may be caught up in the kind of illusion of certainty of which zealots dream.

We can even be certain at times. For the purposes of making the next decision, for choosing among options, for planning, we can rely on certainty. At least for a short while. It’s an impression, necessary for moving reliably through the world.

The problem is when we take hold of certainty and declare it absolute and never allow it to pass into the probabilistic stew from which our actions are determined. When we stop allowing for the possibility of error or misjudgment or change.

“Why would I doubt something I know to be true?”

For the sake of argument, let’s set that aside for a moment. It’s not so much the thing invested with absolute confidence that can be a problem, but the array of secondary ideas and next-steps that evolve from it. If you are so convinced of a then obviously b must follow. You can construct a causal chain of decisions which can lead to a profoundly dysfunctional place (the Crusades, anyone? Flat Earth? 6000 year-old-Earth?) Doubt is the necessary ingredient to keep our options open to the possibility of getting the logical conclusions of an idea wrong. Doubt, to return to my kryptonite statement, may not stop the zealot, but it may stop us from following him.  (The zealot may have several motivations and bases for belief and action apart from the immediate subject, most not amenable to reason.)

But if Hume is correct—and I believe he is—it doesn’t matter which part of the chain you look at, doubt is essential at every link because the source of knowledge can only ever be grasped by way of the senses, which are by no means open to all aspects of any subject.  (Knowing god, for instance, can only be an assertion of will on our part, because even according to our descriptions of god, it is an impossible thing to “know” because it exceeds the limits of our senses. We ought, if we’re going to adhere to that path, recognize that we can only ever know an idea of god, and that the doubt comes into play when attempting to determine right or wrong based on that incomplete knowledge, because a large part of that claim to “know” god is Expectation.)

The ability to usefully deploy doubt, though, is the flip side of the problem. Disciplined skepticism is a skill and requires learning. Otherwise you end up as ineffective as the zealot, doubting so automatically and universally that decisions can never be made, or at least not constructively.  Consequently, doubt can scare people. If they think by doubting everything they stand on is sand, their lives will be buffeted by a world in which they find no purchase. It would only be sensible for them to grab hold of the first certainty they feel they can rely on.

Those are two anchors of the curve. Most people utilize a combination. Investing their faith in certain things while dealing with everything else out of a utilitarian skepticism.

Unfortunately, there will be times their skepticism fails them simply because something appears to be part of the area of certainty in which they invest.

But about that “look” I mentioned at the beginning. That’s the look you get very often from someone who has decided on a posture of absolute certainty not because of any survey of options or counterarguments, but because a decision has been taken to ignore everything else, and then turn the responsibility for error on everyone else.

What seems to have been decided is that anyone speaking doubt to this person is engaging in either duplicity or is, in fact, unintelligent. (A third possibility is that they are holding said certainty in bad faith, because what they are actually after is control and power.) In either case, they’re regarding you with a self-satisfied smugness born of “knowing” they know better than you. They have to believe, on some level, that you’re stupid.  And if you ask them to explain it to you, to show you what you’re missing, often they won’t. They’ll give some version of “you wouldn’t understand” and move on.

The reason they do this is that they can’t explain it. Not in such a way to show you how you’ve erred. In order to do that, they would have to understand it themselves, deeply, in such a way that would allow them to engage in a dialogue about it. That willingness to engage indicates humility. Humility and absolute certainty have an uneasy relationship.

Now, let me state here that this is not always the case. Many people who live in certainty, especially about matters of faith, are genuinely humble. You can tell them from the zealots because they will engage. They’ll do their best to explain, they’ll discuss it. You may find yourselves in a bog eventually where the limits of engagement butt against that certainty, but there will be dialogue.

But you won’t ever get That Look from them.

That Look denotes someone who has finally substituted Absolute Certainty for the kind of openness that leads to understanding. The next step will be to silence criticism, denounce alternatives, and snuff out inquiry.

That look Matt Gaetz gave General Mark Milley. Gaetz possibly knows very well that Milley is right, but acknowledging that will not aid Gaetz in his agenda. So Milley has to be wrong or stupid. Regardless, Gaetz can’t explain.  He can only offer The Look.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pathological Ownership

Beth Moore has left the Southern Baptist Conference. If you are unaware of her and what this means, you should look into it. Beth Moore has for many years occupied a special place within that community—a preacher without portfolio, one might say, as the SBC does not permit women to hold the title “pastor.” The straight-up “pure quill” fundamentalism they espouse holds the inferred Biblical injunctions inviolable in this instance, but she has been such a forceful speaker and operates such a large organization that they are loathe to relegate her to silence. So she held that special position.

Till now.

She has split with them over Trump. The schism is instructive. Ms. Moore cannot find common ground with the majority of her colleagues over Trump.

“He became the banner, the poster child for the great white hope of evangelicalism, the salvation of the church in America,” she said. “Nothing could have prepared me for that.”

Since 2016 she has been on the outside of the SBC over this issue. She identified Trump as an exemplar of everything they should stand against, and yet she was met with silence, then disapproval, then warnings, and finally with the loss of her publisher. She could not understand the attitude of her (male) colleagues in their support for this man she saw as a walking “poster child” for evil.

To be sure, this has puzzled those outside the evangelical camp all along. The slogans and protestations over perceived moral lapses in Democrats would seem to support a no-holds-barred moralism that should have found Trump utterly unacceptable. And yet we have been witness to very public campaigns of image rehabilitation all along. It has been with mixed incomprehension and horror that we have seen people who flew into paroxysms of condemnation over Clinton’s behavior make showings of almost servile support (bordering on worship) for a man who bragged about pussy-grabbing and attempted to pay off a porn star to keep her from talking about her paid services to him. The very public ridicule he heaped on anyone who did not fit a shallow model of Americanism that combined a host of clichés and segregated anyone who didn’t meet the standard—essentially the acts of a bully picking on the weak—seemed to gain favor with the very people who claim Jesus as their exemplar. Beth Moore saw this for what it was and tried to convince the SBC to abandon its support for him, and instead found herself more and more at odds with them, more and more isolated.

It is fair to ask what is going on with this enormous contradiction. How could the self-professed moral arbiters of the country, the Christian Right, support this?

Beth Moore’s ambiguous status holds much of the answer.

It is by now a convention that in many religions women are relegated to secondary (or lesser) status. One may puzzle about how this can still pertain in a time when the evidence for any rational justification for it has been shown to be nonexistent. Certainly it is an aspect of male privilege, but that does not satisfactorily explain the complicit acquiescence of so many women. Moore is a good example of the conundrum. (Just as with people like Michele Bachman, who espouses a paradoxical belief that women should be subservient yet she herself sees no problem with holding leadership positions.) In Moore’s case, she has been in accord with the evangelical attitudes toward women and accepted a lesser status even while she has risen to a commanding position in her community. She felt the larger message important and, no doubt, felt protected within the larger community.

But when Trump’s very public attitudes toward women became a very public issue, and she protested, that community seemed to withdraw its protection.

In my opinion, this apparent betrayal is due to a basic misunderstanding which is not only endemic to communities like the SBC, but to our society as a whole, and it has to do with Ownership.

The only reason to deny equality to women and then justify it, you have to understand who thinks who owns what.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Dispossessed, there is a scene early on which strikes the issue squarely. It is a flashback of the protagonist, Shevek, as a child in, basically, preschool:

…the fat infant was at this moment coming towards the knobby one rapidly…he approached out of boredom or sociability, but once in the square of sunlight he discovered it was warm there. He sat down heavily beside the knobby one, crowding him into the shade.

The knobby one’s blank rapture gave place at once to a scowl of rage. He pushed the fat one, shouting “Go ‘way!”

…The knobby one stood up. His face was a glare of sunlight and anger. His diapers were about to fall off. “Mine!” he said in a high, ringing voice. “Mine sun!”

“It is not yours,” the one-eyed woman said with the mildness of utter certainty. “Nothing is yours. It is to use.  It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.” And she picked the knobby baby up with gentle inexorable hands and set him aside, out of the square of sunlight.

The knobby one shook all over, screamed, “Mine sun!” and burst into tears of rage.

Baby Shevek has determined that things belong to him. Personally. Perfectly natural, to a degree. The world is centered on him, he feels he has a right to the patch of sunlight, that he can, in fact, own it. We read the passage with a mix of amusement and enlightenment. We recognize this to be an infant’s response to the reality of the world.

But.

Our culture is based, largely if not wholly, on an idea of ownership that was in the beginning a redress of imbalance. The idea that anyone, regardless of “station”, could own property was radical, especially in its unremarked egalitarianism. Communal ownership was more common, but this was not the aspect of ownership that captured the imagination—rather, it was the sole ownership, the possibility the individual, any individual, could own outright the equivalent of a kingdom that became the unquestioned ethos of the American experiment. This idea—so powerful, so very American in its expression if not its origins—fueled the growth of the United States and rocketed us to heights unparalleled in history.

And it underlies everything that is currently wrong with the republic. It has always had its dark side, it has never been free of abuse, but it has gone through cycles during which it was tempered—by circumstance, by public morality, by the very excesses of those most adept at acquisition. Boom and Bust cycles are the product of poorly controlled acquisition. Theodore Roosevelt knew it and attacked it. His relative, FDR, went further.

But it’s very difficult to regulate that which is an outgrowth of a cultural feature, part of our own mythology, our identity—our psychology. Any attempt to regulate it feels like theft.

This is not new, by any means, but it has become so dominant in our culture as to be like the very air we breathe, at least for some. Ownership has come to possess us as the only worthwhile aspect of anything and everything. If looked at from this perspective, all our present ethical and social conundrums clarify, from taxes to fashion, gun ownership to healthcare, voting rights to marriage, property to opinions, abortion to minimum wage.

What Trump has done for the membership of the SBC that puts them at odds with Beth Moore and seems so perverse to many of us is to reaffirm for them what they feel proprietary about, what they believe they rightfully own, that their claims of possession are legitimate. Beth Moore does not, for them, have a right to be shocked and repulsed by Trump because she is not an owner. They are. To put it as bluntly as possible, while perhaps most of them are dismayed and censorious about Trump’s pussy-grabbing, it remains a fact for them that the pussy is there for him to grab. His grabbing it makes it his, because the woman does not own it. Women’s sexuality is not theirs.

Beth Moore does not even have a right to her own voice—they have tried to take that away from her—but only has use of it because it serves the self-presumed owners.

Absurd? When you look back at the history of personal rights over the centuries, one thing becomes clear—it always revolves around some formulation of ownership. As the franchise expanded, those opposed railed against it out of a sense of privilege, that they are losing something which they act as if they owned. What we are seeing right now across the country is exactly that—people trying to limit voting rights, reduce them, take them away from those they see as a threat. (Because the consequences of such expanded voting might impinge on other things that self-styled elites feel are theirs.) Many reasons are given, but the presumption that such restrictions are even considered is based on a notion of proprietary civic ownership that goes back centuries.

Plato discussed communal space, where everyone in a polis “owned” things in common. Aristotle thought this was a bad idea since in his view (to simplify) common ownership like that would dis-incentivize care, that without the added encouragement of private ownership, no one would feel obligated to preserve, maintain, or build. Aristotle was the one “good pagan” that the Catholic Church used to build its own social ethics and so this idea came into the mainstream of thought through the dominant religions of the modern era. Plato and Aristotle approved of limited forms of democracy, but felt that not everyone was suited to participate equally and Aristotle made no bones about believing only elite males had a natural right to ownership, which meant the ability to participate in the politics of the polis. Hence the franchise came down to us from ideas of suitability and because so much history, property, conquest, and nation-building has accrued around these ideas since, it is difficult to tease them apart. They are the air we breathe, as I said.

There has always been a cycle of balances set against this. Simple ability to enforce, the reach of government and church, the situation on the ground at any given place and time—all have made a pure form of this hard to achieve and there has always been some push-back. But we cannot seem to be rid of it. One would have thought that by the Enlightenment, the categorical denials of agency necessary would have fallen by the wayside, and yet…

Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696 – 1792) was a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, a patron of David Hume and Adam Smith, among others. He, with others, established the Philosophical Society of Scotland. A precursor to the much more influential work of Adam Smith, he was concerned about the importance of property to society. The economics aside, when it came to the franchise, he wrote:

“Those who depend for food on bodily labor, are totally void of taste, of such taste at least as can be of use in the fine arts. This consideration bars the greater part of mankind; and for the remaining part, many by a corrupted taste are unqualified for voting.”

With some allowance for the passage of much history, this would have fit rather well with Aristotle (and even Plato). Specific justifications aside, the idea that it is not only permissible but desirable to exclude certain people from participation is clear.

The rest of the 18th Century, in terms of Enlightenment thinkers, wrestled with questions of nature, merit, innate value. Property emerged as a key concern and with the creation of the United States, the momentum of such concerns barreled on with increasing force until, today, property has become everything.

The United States, however, has an in-built conflict. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are neither one based on such blatant exclusions and form the basis of a tension that has grown along with the self-conception of the country. Property, as it turns out, is only valuable when made exclusive. Politics, however, always intrudes on the uses of property, which brings in the concerns of those excluded. Rights occupy a special space that seem beholden to the ephemeral even as the exercise of Rights inevitably impacts the temporal. Because we have a love-hate relationship with ideas of property that transcend mere material objects, the inextricable dependence of one on the other creates a conception of property that seems to encompass Rights and treats them as a species of Things Which Can Be Owned. My Rights, My Land, My Freedom, My Things, My Self.

The most accessible way to conceive of all this is as property. Which means that when Rights are expanded, some people will see this as an encroachment because it depletes the value of their property. And so, the question at the center of modern conservatism, whether stated explicitly or not (or even acknowledged), is: What can I own? The next question, then, would have to be: how can I maintain the value of what I own?  This becomes the justification to deny ownership to others.

For most people, historically, the goal was autonomy. The freedom to be who you are, unapologetically, without having to justify yourself to authorities. But autonomy—agency—is not the same as ownership. Unlike property, agency should not be—cannot be—a contract or title to the claims of self possession. It must be a given, unbarterable, nonfungible, and universal. The American myth is that here, we have that. In practice, most of us do not. It is traded away every day by the fact that without money—the means of ownership—we have nothing anyone feels obligated to respect.

So alliances are made, groups are formed, coalitions emerge. Churches are ready-made for this, because by joining one the agency we seem unable to possess on our own can be “borrowed” from the cadre. But churches aren’t the only method for becoming something by allying with many. Political parties, certainly, but the principle works with businesses, charitable organizations, clubs, special interests, schools…

All these things, however, exist—here—within a framework that has promised agency.

But that’s a slippery idea to pin down. It’s the thing implicit in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in the enumeration of rights to be kept free of outside (government) interference (or any other), like speech, freedom of worship, privacy, assembly, legal redress, and equal access to public determination. Agency. Rather than that, we have come to regard ownership as primary, as established throughout our history by repeated referral to property as a qualification for common regard. As time marched on, the meaning of the franchise expanded, and in each expansion the issue has been centered on ownership. In the beginning, only property owners could vote. While not so explicit today, there is still a property qualification (permanent address).

In the advance toward a universal franchise, those opposed to the expansion have insisted on more and more qualifications—amounting to proof of ownership—to bear on the people they wish to exclude. After 250 years (here) of this, we have come to a point where almost everything has been, in some sense, transformed into a commodity.

Things that can be owned can be controlled.

How does this relate to the Religious Right’s support of Trump and their censure of Beth Moore?

Trump is all about ownership. His “brand” is everything. He is admired (by some) for having things. Having things is the hallmark of success in this country. Not “who you are” but “what you have” matters more to most people, because the former requires a sense of Self that is neither publicly evident or reliably fixed (people change).  (Also, who you are may be terrifying to other people, so it is easier to reduce the Self to a set of traits that you “have”—implying that you can trade them in, get new ones, swap them out, or just put them away.) Success at Having Things is understandable, accessible, universalizable. It also validates for others the presumed right to have things.

Trump is popular among certain groups because he does just that—he validates their view of what it means to be an American, which is entirely wrapped up in Having Things.

One of the things he “has” is the prerogative to deny agency to those he sees as inferiors or, at least, unworthy of consideration.

For evangelicals this includes many of the kinds of people of whom they disapprove. While Trump’s “manner” may offend their sensibilities, they do not find fault with his presumptions. In the case of the “pussygrabbing” it comes down to the fact that the pussies he is grabbing are attached to “fallen” women. After all, their wives would never be in a position to be so treated, because they are not “that kind” of woman. They know better than to put their pussies in such circumstances.

I phrase it that way because below all this, the reality for these men is that their wives’ pussies belong to them. Because this is a factor of our culture that underlies much of our disconnect over women’s rights and equity. For them, women don’t “own” their sexuality. They carry it around until a man claims it. Which is why so much of the anxiety and anger over gender equality remains a muddle for certain people.

And Beth Moore? She had the temerity to express the idea that Trump’s pussygrabbing was in all cases immoral, obscene, and deserving of censure. But she can only make that charge if women are their own persons, whole and worthy of regard as free agents.

And agency is the one thing evangelicals cannot grant outside the confining circle of their faith, which is a club of limited membership, very exclusive, and cannot admit to any kind of baseline equality. Doing so would require they change their message on so many fronts and accord respect to people and persons they a priori consider beyond the pale. Unredeemed. Damned.

Just the fact that Beth Moore has for all these years been disallowed from holding an equal position within her chosen conference demonstrates that the principle of ownership is in force to deny her agency, because she cannot own what her colleagues already claim for themselves. They see it as their prerogative to grant status and people outside their selective regard have no right to claim anything for themselves.

Consider their stance toward transgender persons: this is a threat to their purview because it is individuals taking possession of their Selves and claiming agency. That they would have to know that Self intimately enough to move beyond the reach of simple possession is a denial of the message of “salvation” through superior agency (Christ). And, on a more basic level, it frightens because gender orientation is one of those things that is “owned” and often regarded as a separate thing to be scorned (denial of the flesh). That it is fundamental to identity creates too many confusions and contradictions for the smooth apprehension of a theological proposition which is supposed to be Otherworldly.

But in practice it comes down to an ownership issue.

Consider an example outside of questions of Self. The rejection of government economic support for the poor. This would seem paradoxical. If the point is to alleviate poverty, what does it matter where the aide comes from?  But it matters if you consider the dispensation of that aid proprietary. They see it as charity and according to their own philosophy, charity comes from the heart. Governments render this moot, because it becomes a matter of economic systems. There is no “charity”—hence no Good Works, no affirmation of moral mission, no opportunity to demonstrate one’s christianity. Charity has become a wholly-owned trademark of religious expression and no one should take it away, least of all systems that might render the matter solved.

Beth Moore ran afoul of an unexamined aspect of American culture as expressed through a religious lens. Trump may be an immoral, foul, odious being, but he affirmed for them the basic right of ownership of so many issues, and hence condemning him and withdrawing support was not possible. It might have played out a little differently had a man in Beth Moore’s position done what she did, but it still would have intruded on the majority’s presumptive rights of ownership—in this case, the ownership of male privilege.

On an even more perverse level, Trump was also the proof of government corruption—he fit their idea of what the government already was. If the end game was to destroy the beast, why not support the one who best exemplifies everything they claim to hate? Putting a good man (or woman—unthinkable!) in that office would seem perverse, because what could a good man accomplish? It would only delay the advent of freedom from what they see as secular attempts at creating a baseline equality that denies their “right” to judge.

And here it generates endlessly stranger ideas of what may have been going on.

But Beth Moore turned on the juggernaut and was trampled by the unstated assumptions of the inner circle. That evangelicals can show a history of their own indulging in all the things she condemned Trump for doing ought to have been a signal that she misunderstood just what she was dealing with.

Agency, as I assume it here, is something beyond ownership. But it’s personal, and it’s malleable, and it is uncontained by convention. It actually cannot be owned, so it becomes necessary to prevent its manifestation.

I do not here claim everyone is so ensconced in this morass of what I’ve termed Pathological Ownership—but then it never requires many people to subscribe to an idea to have an impact on how the culture responds. Because we have a rather nebulous set of alternate models, the idea of Having Things being a substitute rather than an expression of Self can distort all out of proportion to the numbers involved. It helps if we know what it is we’re talking about, identify the issue at hand, instead of stumbling on assuming a different set of values at play.

Just about everything in the divisive cultural and politic mess we’ve experienced for the last few decades can be explained by this idea. The GOP won’t cooperate with the Democrats? Why? Because they seek to own the issues. If they cooperate, then they must share, and sharing is the road to ruin, because no one can own what is shared. The moment you share something it is no longer exclusively yours,.

Too many people just want to own everything.

 

 

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.

Reason and Intelligence

This will be brief.

The other day during a particularly fine conversation with a coworker, the subject of “true believers” came up, specifically with regards to Amy Coney Barrett. It is often said people of a certain religiously-inclined mindset, on certain topics, are, well, not that bright. “How can they not see?”

I realized then—or at least finally codified—the basic problem with this.  It conflates intelligence with religious belief and not in a flattering way. Any cursory glance at history will show this to be erroneous. One cannot look at people like Aquinas or Augustine or even Erasmus or Calvin and make an argument that these were not intelligent, indeed brilliant, people.  In conversation with our contemporaries, we find the whole spectrum.  Yes, some folks aren’t very bright, but then others are quite bright, even near the brilliant end of the scale. The question confronting those of us who are puzzled at their adherence to ideas and creeds and conclusions which to us seem obviously dubious, even absurd, has of late been couched in the wrong terms. It’s not intelligence, not even learning.

The factor I conclude that separates one from the other—say, the credulous from the critical (and I’ll stipulate that even that formulation is freighted with certain biases that make it inaccurate)—is a question of certainty.

The one barrier I have come up against time and again in discussions with people who hold opinions of debatable integrity is Certainty.

They are certain. Absolutely so. They have staked out a patch of intellectual or ideological ground and named it inviolable because here, they claim, is absolute truth, absolute reliability, absolute morality. In the face of that certainty, there is no purchase. Unless and until one can move them to entertain the possibility that they are in error, the argument is pointless.*

Certainty.

So here’s my thesis. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Arguing that people (and here we can insert a wide, wide range of belief and opinion, much of which is not even religious, but has the appearance of religious conviction) who hold certain beliefs do so because they are “not that smart” creates a secondary problem, because now you have made a fundamental error in judgment. We are not dealing with intelligence.

We are dealing with a question of Reason.

And by reason, I mean the ability to apply critical analysis.

We have to ask about an ability to reason. And one’s ability to do so is contingent upon many things, but I think it viable to contend that one loses that ability in direct proportion to a failure to suppress certainty.

The unreasonable is a hallmark of a failure to suppress, even for just the space of the dialogue, certainty.

I find myself automatically mistrusting someone who has no doubts. Doubt is necessary to the useful application of reason. Doubt even as a tool of modeling.

I think it might be useful to shift our perceptions in this. Attacking intelligence only entrenches. Fostering a positive capacity to intentionally doubt is conducive to reason.

Something to consider.

 

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* I will also stipulate that they may still retain their opinion and that is fine, but they will have engaged in a process whereby reason has a chance to allow other viewpoints, other conclusions, and perhaps create a more productive ground of mutual respect and consideration.

Stone Cold Memory

I have always been a little perplexed by statues commemorating some historical figure. Public memorials to long dead people who may or may not have done what the memorials claim for them seem dubious at the outset. A form of idolatry, though not in a religious sense (not for me). The commemoration has less, it seems to me, to do with who these people were than what they represent for the people putting up the statues.

Abstract statues are different. The soldiers in certain war memorials, who, while perhaps based on living people, are not of said people. They embody All Who Were Concerned and go to the events memorialized.

Of course, certain statues of specific people over time become abstractions in much the same way. Enough time passes, few know who that person was, its place in public life changes and its meaning shifts. It stops being about the person, even about the history, and becomes decoration. At best a distillation of some collection of civic sentiments having virtually nothing to do with what it was intended to represent.

Along comes a sudden awakening of that same public consciousness and revelations emerge as to who and what that statue was all about when it was erected and now we are divided over what to do. Just as these monuments were almost never about the people depicted but about the sentiment of those creating the memorial, so too are our deliberations about what to do with them now that the underlying history has become very publicly visible. It’s less about the memorial than about current sentiment.

Now before anyone thinks I may be about to dismiss that current sentiment, let me put it to the forum: if the contemporary sentiment was valid enough at the time to serve as justification for erecting a memorial, why should present sentiment be in any way less valid as justification for removing them?

We’ve changed. Our values are expressed differently. It is completely understandable that what was held up as representative of who we were once should no longer represent what we are now. Statues to Confederate “heroes” should rightly be reassessed and dealt with accordingly, especially as the history of the memorials shows us that when and under what circumstances said memorials were erected had virtually nothing to do with the persons depicted. The vast majority were reimaginings, revisionist representations of glamorized if not outright false characterizations of actual history. In a very real sense, many of them are simply lies.

As are most such things, if we dig deeply enough.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of sanding off rough edges. Sometimes it’s a complete rehabilitation

But there are also those which have aged out of any relevance other than the æsthetic impact of the work itself.  (The outrage the world felt at the Taliban destroying the Buddhas in Afghanistan was driven not because of who or what Buddha may have been but because those statues had become a cultural touchstone as works of art.)

The question is, how long is long enough to distance a piece of art from the shortcomings of its source material.

When, in other words, does a monument lose its original intent and become a part of culture apart from that origin?

Take the latest debate in my hometown over a statue of Louis IX. St. Louis. It stands before the main entrance of the St.Louis Art Museum, a noble figure atop a horse, right arm raised bearing a sword. (The sword was stolen at one point and recovered after a much publicized hunt. I may be misremembering, but when it was put back, it was done so upside down, which made the sword over into a cross, but that could just be my faulty memory.)  There is now a debate about removing it because—

Well, because Louis IX was an anti-Semite and led two Crusades and burned books. (He is the only French monarch to ever be canonized, which suggests that all these traits were at the time seen as positives.)  He died in 1270. Because of his sainthood, place-naming in his “honor” became popular.

The town of St. Louis was founded in 1763, almost half-a-millennium after his death.

I doubt many of those first colonists knew the details of his actual life. Even less do I think my contemporaries know much about him or have even given him a second thought. The statue is cool in a kind of Victorian bronze-revivalist way. At the time of my hometown’s founding, Louis XV was on the throne, soon to be dead and succeeded by his son who would be beheaded by the revolutionaries in Paris. If anything, the naming was as much in his honor as the reigning French monarch with a nod to the Catholic Church through the only sainted king. In other words, purely political.

In what way is the life and opinions of a 750 year dead French king relevant to the current spate of monument removals?

Obviously, his life and deeds are in many ways odious to contemporary sensibilities.  But the fact is, he was completely one with his time and place. He exemplified mainstream European thought. Catholic Europe was almost entirely anti-Semitic and the Crusades were popular as ideas (if not as actual enterprises, since by Louis IX’s time they were beginning to show signs of stress). He expanded the Inquisition in France and he burned the Talmud. Few if any of those for whom he was a leader gainsayed any of this.

The same cannot be said of the Confederate leaders. The debate among those who clearly identified as mainstream was heated, public, and led to actions not supported unilaterally at the time, and constituted a repudiation of certain ideas and actions which were under question and which would soon lose to a groundswell of moral reaction. Monuments to the leaders of the rebellion are political statements in ways the statue of Louis IX simply isn’t, nor was when erected. In short, the statue of Louis IX is an abstraction as opposed to a statue to Robert E. Lee, which was not and is not today. Louis IX has become a malleable nonspecific symbol representing another abstraction, namely the place-name of a city which is itself become dissociated from its origins by virtue of changing hands thrice.

In case there is any doubt of my motives, I intend only to shed a light on causes and impulses. We’re caught up right now in a spate of trying to redress grievances.  A perfectly legitimate movement and in many cases long overdue. Personally, I never did understand the whole Christopher Columbus thing. He bumped into the Western Hemisphere expecting to land somewhere else and then set about acting the power-mad little tyrant until his titles were stripped. A good navigator who still got he actual size of the planet wrong and managed to not only unleash misery and desolation on the natives he found but got a lot of his own people killed as well. All in all, a serious screw-up. The continents weren’t named after him but after a mapmaker, so I always wondered, after learning a bit about him, why the veneration? His only significant legacy was the establishment and justification of trans-Atlantic chattel bondage and the introduction of syphilis to Europe. Why anyone put statues up to him in the first place (here) always baffled me. He hadn’t been the first one from over there to find this side of the world and he wouldn’t have been the last.  In my opinion, his idolization was a species of self-congratulatory holiday creation, an excuse for a celebration (of what?) and a propaganda tool to flense the past of dubious aspects in the name of making a “purer” set of founding myths. Motives should be questioned at all levels.

Perhaps it ought to be considered that hagiography ought not be allowed in public memorials. Abstract sculptures, idealized forms, universal archetypes, fine. We can argue over ideas and representational elements. But to cast a statue in the form of an individual for things which may be of dubious moral provenance is probably a bad idea, with very rare exceptions. (What is done privately, on private land, is another matter.)

But there is also the question of actual relevance, both pro and con, when it comes to revising our national ethos. Making snap decisions resulting in vandalism and arbitrarily lumping certain styles and periods into a one-size-fits-all reaction may not be the smartest thing. (Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee represent very different legacies, but if you don’t know history—and, lord, so many people don’t know history—then it might appear that tearing them both down for a single reason is justified.

For myself, I have serious problems with the whole idea of veneration. This country is not a theocracy, erecting statues to our presumptive “saints” is not a tradition I care to support. Famous for being famous does not merit a public monument on public grounds, especially given that what may actually be the reason for praise does not equal the sum or even much of a part of the individual.  (As I say, what is done privately, on private grounds, is different.)

And it is all propaganda. Consider: the Russians understand this very well, which is why after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. all the public monuments to “great” Soviet leaders were removed and stored in “graveyards.” They knew that in order to move on, they had to rid themselves of the visible instantiations of a past no longer valid for them. They couldn’t do that with all those dead ideologues watching them from every public building, park, and square.  Such things matter.

There will, however, be those instances where the object in question no longer has that function. It has become a work of art, apart from, severed, from what it may once have represented, and now is just a thing of beauty (depending on one’s taste).

We have the relative luxury of knowing the history and provenance of all those Confederate statues. We don’t have to guess at why they were made and placed where they are.  Remove them, by all means. They are propaganda of the most base sort.

Remove Louis IX  as well, if must be. But Europe didn’t even know this side of the world was here when he was a monarch and his policies, while in many ways repugnant, are not the stuff of current controversy. His statue symbolizes nothing (to me) beyond a naming protocol for a new town and his legacy…well, I suppose one could make an argument that he was one of a thousand years of ecclesiastical abuse and moral dubeity, but I can think of many closer to our time far more worthy of repudiation, none of whom (probably) took any inspiration from a 13th Century Crusader who died of dysentery.

He was a patron of the arts, though, and credited with revitalizing architecture in France and contributing to the Gothic school. Which is one reason his statue is in front of an art museum.

And it is a cool statue.

 

 

 

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.

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.