Trekness

I sometimes marvel at my own inability to apprehend the cluelessness of my fellow beings. Some positions come out of the zeitgeist that leave me gobsmacked at the utter feckless density of people.

And then I recover and reconsider and realize, no, I’ve been hearing this kind of nonsense my entire life. One just never expects it from those one considers allies. It calls into question all assumptions, then, about what one considers an ally, and the realization (which has always been there, really) clarifies that it’s all surface.

There are fans of Star Trek who have apparently only ever cared about the ship, the uniforms, the phasers, and the astronomy (such as it is). When it comes to the message? Not so much. They groove on the coolness of the æsthetics and manage never to quite grasp the underlying themes. Their favorite episodes, no doubt, are those with the maximum number of phaser blasts. Stand-offs between the Federation and the Klingons/Romulans/Cardasians/etc are held up as the whole point of the show. Somehow, they have reduced the entirety of the universe to a military SF genre.*

Fair enough. There has been a great deal of that. It’s exciting, it pulls in eyeballs, it offers a kind of astropolitical board game view of the future interstellar gestalt. But after 50-plus years of an expanding milieu, I can’t say that those have been the episodes or arcs that have stayed with me or had the deepest impact or resonance with me.

I do not see those as the soul of Trek.

They’re aberrations. They are presented as the thing to be solved so they stop happening. And the thing being defended is the vast, peaceful diversity of a polity steeped in nurturing the best of what is possible. The motto that started the whole thing and continues to be the basis for each new series—seek out new life and new civilizations—is the heart and soul of it, but that seeking and finding comes with a commitment to learn, grow, adapt, and remake ourselves in the face of the new.

In other words, it’s not about conquest, it’s about mutuality.

To be perfectly clear, Star Trek has been “woke” since the very beginning, when that multi-ethnic bridge crew appeared in living rooms all across a white-dominated United States. Equality and diversity have been the underlying given throughout the whole franchise. Poorly handled at times, muffled at others, occasionally embarrassingly unaware, but all through it.

Here’s the thing about aliens in science fiction. They have always, for the most part, been stand-ins for humans who are different. They have always been there as something against which to react and learn about differences. They have always been there as challenges to assumptions.

The conflicts? In the best and most memorable examples, breakdowns in communications, understanding, or intolerance unmitigated.

Oh, sure, there has been a great deal of war-fueled SF born out of recasting our own conflicts. More than a few based on WWII, the Cold War, Vietnam. But even among the best of these, there is the message, to be read if willing, that the whole thing is a mindless, stupid mistake that brings all parties down in the end. “Winning” is a lesson in irony.

The lesser material revels in the glory of conflict and the “honor” of coming out on top.

I can see no instance of Star Trek in which this has ever been a laudable scenario. Even Kirk, cowboy that he was, almost always did everything he could to avoid conflict. His worst moments were those in which he gave in to the easy solutions and wore the mantle of revenge.

For the rest of it, everywhere you looked the show extolled the virtues of cooperation, of dignity, of equality, of diversity. It was just there.

So the complainers, those who have somehow been taken by surprise that there is a core of empathy and acceptance and tolerance and an examination of difference and an exaltation of plurality and discussions of what it means to live in a society where everyone by right is accorded the agency of self-worth and the benefits of choice and that, yes, these are the bases of political discourse, have frankly not been paying attention.

Maybe their filters have been set too high and now that we have a few recent examples where the continual, ever-present message has been a bit more foregrounded than in past examples, they are shocked that what they saw as one thing, is actually much, much more. Star Trek has not become Woke (and I find it fascinating that a term intended to signify a state of awareness, of people paying attention, of recognizing what is around you has been repurposed as a pejorative by those who clearly would rather not be challenged by any of that, much the same as all past slurs of the anti-intellectual, the empathetically-stunted, the self-satisfied, the privileged ignorant) it has always been.

Just what do you think all the controversy over Kirk and Uhura kissing was about if not a bunch of unself-conscious racists reacting against an example of what we term miscegenation? Maybe go look up Loving v Virginia for a bit of then-current background. This was Trek saying “this should not be an issue!” But it was and it offended and had the term been current then, people would have been calling the show Woke.

Certain people have a deep investment in not seeing what they find challenging to attitudes with which they are comfortable. In this case, I’m quite pleased they are being unsettled. Squirm.

What I challenge here is the a-historical nonsense being touted that SF has never been political. SF by suggesting the future will be different is fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that change is essential is  fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that we still do not know what Being Human means is fundamentally political.

And SF that actively seeks to deny all this and puts forth a philosophy that such matters are settled and all that remains is for us to assert an end to self-discovery…well, that kind of SF comes in two forms: dystopia and crap. (The dystopic form is aware that this is merely an assertion of power and is basically wrong. The other form is philosophical onanism and is essentially anti-science fiction.)

I find it sad that these things need to be said. I grew up with Star Trek and from the very beginning it was the most positive piece of science fiction on television. It offered a future free of things like poverty, the KKK, anti-intellectualism, tribalism. Those are the aspects of it that sank in, made it a narrative that could not be denied, and has led to what it became today. Not the guns, not the wars—the aspirations of a future worth living in, for everyone.

If that’s being Woke, I’ll take it. Better than staggering through life asleep and destructive.

 

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*”But I don’t wanna see stuff about LGBTQ+ or compromise or learning about alien life forms so I can live with them or about empathy or how flawed humans are or any of that gooey touchy-feelie let’s-all-love-each-other shit!” Then all I can ask is, “Why in the Verse are you reading or watching science fiction in the first place? Just for the SFX? How sad.”

Is Scrooge Merely A misunderstood Businessman?

It was a tradition in our family for many years that at Christmastime we get together, eat, drink, make jokes, and endure the Yule Season with a skeptical resolve to give unto Santa what is Santa’s. We appreciate the spirit but the actual mechanism leaves us a bit chilly. In rejecting the corporate gloss of Xmas, though, we’ve sort of recovered some of what the holiday is supposed to mean, at least according to all the armchair philosophes.

My mother is more enamored of the childlike aspects of Christmas than my father ever was, and he indulged her. She still holds to that in her small way, even as circumstances have changed. We still try to get together around this time, though it has long been a loose calendrical event. 

However, one ritual had worn on me for a long time. I write about it now because the entire country seems in the grip of ethical and moral contests which echo this seemingly minor one and it may be that exploring the small might illuminate the large in some useful way. 

My father, who should be a charter member of the great Curmudgeon’s Club, picks bones as a hobby. He’s good at it. He can find something to carp about with almost any topic. He can be fun to listen to and more often than not we find ourselves nodding with sympathy at some sage formulation from his mouth. 

Except this one. He thinks Ebeneezer Scrooge is a maligned and misunderstood character.

Classic conservative business-speak: “What the hell, he’s employing Cratchit! And Cratchit has a house! A house! How poor can he be if he has a house? As for Tiny Tim, what could Scrooge actually do to save his life? The kid’s a cripple, they didn’t have the medical technology back then. Would just paying Cratchit more help save his life? Everybody beats up on Scrooge and in all honesty, just what can he do?”

It was an aggravating rant because the rest of us knew there’s something he fundamentally missed, yet, like many arguments from specific points, it’s difficult to counter. My mother attempted to explain that the story isn’t about what Scrooge can do for others but what he needs to do for himself. He’s got a lot of money but he’s poor in spirit, and I imagine most people see it that way.

But I grew impatient with it after years and did a little digging.

Dickens wrote four Christmas tales, A Christmas Carol being the most famous. Each was intended to be edifying about some aspect of the Christmas Spirit and they were hugely popular in their day, and A Christmas Carol has remained so, through many reprintings and several dramatic adaptations. If all one is familiar with are the movies and television versions, it might be understood that certain aspects of the story are misapprehended, but I always found this particular view stubbornly obtuse. 

Firstly, you must credit Charles Dickens for his powers of observation. Read any of his other novels and you find a severe critic who was engaged in the close inspection of the world around him. He put down in detail the ills and failures of the society in which he lived and when considering a work such as Oliver Twist or Bleak House one would be hard pressed to complain that he had gotten anything wrong. His chief power as a writer in 19th Century England was as a social critic. So, given that he was not one to complain about something just to complain and was unlikely to abandon truth and fact just to make a point (since his points were all pointedly about truth and fact), why gainsay him in this tale?

Oh, well, we have ghosts and flights of supernatural fancy! Obviously he didn’t mean it to be read at face value in those passages concerning the “real” world. 

Nonsense. Credit him with keen observational skills.

Scrooge paid Cratchit 15 shillings a week. “Fifteen bob” as it says in the book. It’s difficult to be precise, but rough equivalencies can be found. The story takes place in 1841 (or thereabouts). Fifteen shillings then would be the equivalent of approximately 56 lbs today, or about $90.00. 

Now, it is unlikely Cratchit owned that house. He likely rented it. A great deal of housing in London at the time was owned by people who may have kept a townhouse but more than likely lived elsewhere. Rental fees ranged between 2 lbs annually to over 300 lbs. Dickens doesn’t discuss that, but just the cost of food, clothing, and heat—heat especially, which was from coal, and not cheap—would have eaten up most of Cratchit’s weekly salary. Anyway one looks at it, taking care of a family of eight on less than $90.00 a week would be a challenge. 

The goose was likely from a club in which funds would be pooled, paid in advance and over time, so geese could be purchased in bulk (reducing the price somewhat) and then made available to the subscribers at Christmastime. Cratchit was hardly buying such things on a weekly or even monthly basis.

As to what Scrooge might have done for Tiny Tim, well, that is difficult to say. Medicine was not advanced, causes of diseases were only vaguely understood, and many ills befell people simply from living in squalid conditions. The onset of the industrial revolution had drawn people into the cities from the farms by the thousands and they ended up shoved into tenements where the normal barriers that kept disease proliferation in check broke down. Poor hygiene, close quarters, bad water.

Patent medicines were big business. Some of them actually had palliative effects, like Turlington’s Balsam of Life, which sold for between 2 and 5 shillings a bottle (about 12 oz.). That would have been between 8% and 33% of Cratchit’s salary to treat Tiny Tim on a regular basis.

But treat him for what?

There wasn’t much accurate diagnosis of disease in 1841, but Dickens assumes in the story that Tiny Tim’s condition can be alleviated by Scrooge “loosening up” his wallet. Certain diseases Tiny Tim might have had, granted, there would have been no cure. The best that might have been done might have been to make him comfortable. But if we allow for Dickens’ accurate powers of observation, then this wasn’t one of the guaranteed fatal ones.

Tiny Tim might have had rickets. They were rampant in London at that time. The coal used to heat homes, run factories, drive boats up the Thames had filled the air with a dense soot that effectively cut down on sunshine, which would have cut down on vitamin D manufacture, and, subsequently, rickets. A better diet would help—better diet from maybe a raise by Scrooge. But rickets, even untreated, was rarely fatal.

There is a disease that fits the description. Renal Tubular Acidosis. It’s a failure of the kidneys to properly process urine and acid builds up in the blood stream. Enough of it, and it begins to attack the bones. Untreated in children, it is often fatal.

But the treatment was available at the time as a patent medicine, mainly an alkali solution like sodium bicarbonate.

Scrooge’s penny-pinching didn’t just hurt himself and his miserliness could cost Tiny Tim his life.

But it’s also true that Dickens was talking about a wider problem. The tight-fistedness of society was costing England—indeed the world—in spiritual capital. Interestingly, Dickens never, in any of his novels, suggested legislative or government intervention in poverty. He always extolled wealthy individuals to give. He thought the problem could be solved by people being true to a generous nature. It’s interesting in a man so perceptive that he recognized a problem as systemic but then suggested no systemic remedies.

In any event, on the basis of the information at hand and a couple of shrewd guesses, we can see that Dickens was not just telling us a ghost story. The consequences for Scrooge and company were quite real.

There is at the center of the Christmas Spirit, so I have been told and taught from childhood, a benefit to abandoning questions of profit and cost. That generosity should be its own reward. That mutual care is balm to the pains of society as a whole. Scrooge is a Type, one that is with us magnified in ways perhaps Dickens could not have imagined possible, a constricted soul who sees everything in terms of costs, returns on investment, labor, and balance-sheets. Everything. The point of Dickens’ story is that such people not only poison their own spiritual pond but can spread that harm to others simply by never seeing things any other way. The stubborn money-soaked impoverishment in which Scrooge lives does no one any good and the point of Christmas is to at one time a year stopping living that way. 

But Dickens was not all of the spirit. He was a materialist and for him the costs were very real, in terms of hunger and disease and crippling disorder and agonizing despair, and that a man like Scrooge has real, destructive impact on the people around him, whether he knows them or not. The potential for him to Make A Difference was not some sentimental concept bound up in airy essences of fellow-feeling, but in the actual material well-being of people and, by extension, society.

I must here explain that my dad, curmudgeonly as he was in such debates, was in no way a selfish or stingy man. His response to need—need that he saw, that was tangible to him—was axiomatic and without strings. He never was a Scrooge.*

But I think it behooves us to stop paying lip service to the very old and too-oft repeated idea that “there’s nothing to be done.” We may not as individuals be able to fix everything, but we can fix something. We start by fixing ourselves.

The last word here I leave to Tiny Tim

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*To be clear, my dad is still alive, but circumstances have changed somewhat, and certain traditions have had to be modified to suit.

Another Note On Whiteness

The last session of the Witnessing Whiteness workshop is coming up. We’ve read the last chapter in the book. While I have been somewhat ambivalent about much of this, I came across points in this final section that resonated strongly.

My ambivalence has to do with the idea of defining White Culture as a starting point for recognizing—and then witnessing—racism. Knowing who “we” are and where we come from sounds reasonable, but when you start trying to put that into concrete terms you realize that “culture” is such a slippery thing that getting a handle on it is tricky and can be exhausting. Like other subjects, we come face to face with the distinctions between tropes and foundations. So much of what we might casually name as aspects of culture are often little more than ephemeral occasions of fashion. What the fashions are built on, that’s another matter, and requires that we look more deeply than perhaps we know how. Or wish to.

Take, for instance, the naming of sports teams. On the surface, this is shallow ground. It’s a sports franchise, a game, an excuse to have a party. Fashion. Who cares what the team is called? (From my perspective, personally, this has always been the case because sports itself has always been, to me, ephemeral and trivial—my hometown baseball teams is the Cardinals. Named for a bird. How is that important to anything other than having a cute handle to identify a local club that plays a game which feeds a desire for public distraction? I am in the minority in this, recognizing that for many people this can be profoundly significant.) The name of a team is a handle. But we discover, sometimes to our surprise, how important such handles are to many people, especially when there is a move to change it. The reasons for the change matter. The backstory of the name, the associations, the pervasive impression made by the name…all these factors spring from underlying structures that usually go unremarked and unrecognized by most people, until challenged.

Knowing those deeper structures—the foundations of Culture—would seem necessary to, at a minimum, prevent difficult and often painful misunderstandings over what seem to be trivial matters. Why would anyone get violently upset over such things? Perhaps having the buried nerves of a less than pleasant past rubbed raw suggests that the upset is less to do with the name than with the historic details of what that name means to people outside the dominant culture—and what those inside that culture wish forgotten.

One argument in defense of offensive emblems—Indigenous mascots, in this instance—holds that these emblems are ideas attached to the subject and in no way are intended to imply anything about actual indigenous people.  They’re caricatures, based on (in this case) archaisms that no longer apply meaningfully to persons currently alive, intended to evoke nostalgia or media representations or isolated virtues associated with. It begins to sound silly. The idea that they are intended to honor the subjects also has sharp limits when you ask What about them is being honored? Basically, when you start questioning the whys of the emblems, you get to a point of diminishing defense and are left with the simple fact of appropriation. That at some point we felt entitled to appropriate those emblems for our own purposes, without meaningful consent, never occurs to the audiences at which they’re directed until the questions are raised.

And then you have what seems like an absurd debate. Absurd partly because the defenders of the emblems refuse to admit that there had never been any reason to do that other than the only thing of value in the emblem to them is that is was safely rendered powerless to be used to mean anything they felt like using it for.

An aspect of White Culture comes into play here:  white people are quite used to relegating to themselves the status of distinct individuals, but even in casual discourse tend to assign all members of any other ethnicity to a blanket definition and stripping the members of that group of their individuality.  Which means that the use of such emblems automatically defines the entire group according to the prejudices of the appropriators. Bluntly, all American Indians are the same and can be signified by a single emblem and no further effort need be taken to understand them as people.

We see this again and again. Pick any minority. All Jews are like this, the Irish are that, Blacks do this, Asians are—you get the idea.

It may be asked, with seeming reasonableness, why would any member of these groups agree to be so defined? They don’t have to participate in such categorization. Again, to put it bluntly, fair enough perhaps until a member of said group walks into a bank to do business the way anyone might expect business to be done, and the question has to be asked—how much of those emblematic definitions are in play on the part of the bank officer who will be determining the value and character of that person, whether or not they will allow business to be done according to the standards and rules that attach to the dealings they would have with a white customer?

Some definitions will not allow people to escape the preconceptions that follow them through the door by virtue of those caricatures so ardently defended by people who never have to worry about such things.

We know that by and large people think with heuristics. Rules of thumb, algorithms encapsulating complex ideas in largely automated responses, semi-conscious conceptual models that allow us to quickly move through life without having to stop and apply critical thinking to every decision. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman has presented findings that not only do people operate largely unselfconsciously, but that we can’t not operate that way. Our brains, evolved in conditions requiring responses to environments that will kill us for a moment’s inattention, are not actually capable of supporting fully conscious thought for more than a handful of minutes at a time. (Recently it has been determined that this period of conscious presence increases dramatically—when we’re in dialogue with someone else. The isolated individual suffers a deficit in this instance, something that will concern us later in this essay.) As we mature, the number of heuristics increases, and we rely on them to make quick judgments, respond to situations in minimal time, and navigate through a world of ritual, routine, and repetition.

But what it also means is that beliefs, points-of-view, prejudices, “received wisdom” and the like tend to operate on us the same way. We go with the “givens” rather than reconsider things with each situation. Such things reside just behind consciousness, often as part of our sense of self, and we tend to be unaware of them until challenged. This makes changing one’s mind difficult at best and changing other people’s minds Sisyphean. What does this mean with regards to racism? It is simply easier to treat members of out groups as all one thing rather than do the work of individuating them. And if that single group definition is negative, well.

(I have listened to racists try to redefine a black individual they happen to like in such a way as to preserve the group definition while recognizing there is something different about “this one.” The definition that always got to me was “He’s a white man in a black man’s body.”)

But wouldn’t white people represent All One Thing in the same way? Yes and no. This is where Witnessing Whiteness enters with an observation that triggered this entire line of thought.

…the individualistic perspective depends upon the conception of the self as autonomous, independent, self-determining, unique, separate, and free. Remember that this orientation matches the modern worldview, which is also associated with being Western and white for many people. 

The shift in self-identity which occurred during the Enlightenment and which enabled people to develop a sense of self-worth apart from institutions, many of which sought to oppress them, is reflected in this passage. The Western ideal of the Individual allows for the concepts of personal autonomy and freedom to acquire real meaning. But in the fraught reality of a frontier world alá the 18th Century North American landscape, it acquired the germ of a pathology which today has flowered into a number of toxic blooms.

Unfortunately, the suggestion that we need to challenge individualism can be easily misunderstood and resisted. This occurs because many confuse individualism with the job of becoming an individual. These are two completely different ways of relating to the world. The modern self who subscribes to rugged individualism risks becoming isolated, disconnected, and competitive. 

This problem—Individualism—is a pervasive issue bound up with our national myths as much as it is with the psychology of self-reliance.  And both those issues are bound up with what I am calling Pathological Ownership. The whole question of Individualism is problematic here, because it is in the end unachievable. No one can do everything in the claimed isolation of a bootstrapping autonomy. We have been having this argument for decades now with regards to big business and taxes and community obligations, but it begins with individuals who wish to see themselves as wholly independent, self-contained, and unalloyed in their will to be. You might ask, where did this idea come from? Among other sources, this flows from the fount of pseudo-wisdom penned by Ayn Rand, who has become a touchstone for the self-described indispensable man. There is no such thing, really, but there seems to be many people who wish to be, or at least be seen that way. The one trait that seems to bind them all together is a desire to be free of any obligation not entirely of their own choosing. To do that, however, one would have to cut oneself off from almost everyone else.

Rand is not really the problem. She wrote stories. The problem would seem to be in the American apprehension of Story.

There was a clue to this in the chapter under discussion, where Tochluk  makes an observation about a movie which I did not expect. Minority Report, the Steven Spielberg film based on a Philip K. Dick story, pops up, and she describes a scene concerned with a possible future in which everyone is watched, identified, and targeted for advertising. She claimed to be “horrified” by the very notion. How this related to her topic struck me as less important than her reaction, which is not new to me. I write science fiction and one of the things that always dismays me with people who are not especially familiar with it as a genre is how they see it as predictive—that the futures described are how the authors either think they are going to happen or, worse yet, what the author wishes to see happen.

Which led me to an observation about how Americans—some Americans—treat (or mistreat) stories. Science fiction quite didactically and all other genres less so presents scenarios of possibilities, for our entertainment certainly, but also, depending on the book, for discussion. The dialogue is what matters, not the prescriptive element, which with few exceptions is nonexistent. But I’m not at all sure Americans take stories this way. Many of us don’t seek the dialogue. We don’t want to learn from stories, we want to be the stories. Or at least the hero.

Now, this is a perfectly normal kind of process—for children. Role-playing, trying on different personas, looking for models. But this is learning. If we look at this in concert with the process of Individualism described above and in the book, this can lead some to very surreal and often destructive places. (I am minded here of conversations I’ve had over a movie like The Searchers. I’ve known people who identified John Wayne’s character, Ethan, as the Hero and even wished to be like him. When I pointed out that Ethan was a seriously flawed, even sociopathic character, they were dismayed, even angry. They did not see his character as instructive in the sense that “this is something you should not become” but as a role model to emulate. Because it was John Wayne. Because he was the Hero.)

We are raised with stories—nothing unique, all cultures have stories—but here the stories are taken as in some way biblical, certainly nationalistic. We can see part of this in the perennial argument over banned books. This is nothing more than an attempt to privilege “sacred” texts over those that may lead to other conclusions.

Look at the current state of politics and you can see how the three things are combining destructively. Individualism, Pathological Ownership, and Story As Law. (We hear analysts talking about seizing the Narrative. We should pay closer attention to that entire process.)

Now consider these things in relation to race.

The Individualist eschews recognition of community as something on which he or she is dependent, because that would obligate the individual; ignoring the internal elements of Being Human, a set of traits taken perhaps from stories is adopted in lieu of an openness of genuine self-knowledge and an embrace of what is common; and an assertion of primacy of possession so that these things are claimed as Owned, because sharing is seen as a zero-sum game. Other Individuals may also own things and be in some sense equal (but what does that actually mean in this formulation? Equal to what. since we are all unique?), but since all Individuals by definition are “like us” then those not like us cannot be Individuals and therefore can claim no privileges.

If we believe that racism is, in Shelly Tochluk’s phrasing, a dis-ease, a pathology, then it is by definition irrational. But the irrational is not causeless. It has components, attributes, defining features. Granted, these are perversions, and the things from which they spring may not be in themselves perverse. If we are going to examine Culture as a source, then we need to look at those aspects of it which have become distorted. I am here offering my conclusions on what the elements of White Culture are that have brought us here.

One more observation. It is not necessary that everyone or even a majority of a group believe a thing in order for that thing to affect the entire population. Beliefs can acquire momentum, and like gravity can bend the whole along an orbit even a majority may not approve. What can make it extremely difficult to correct is when those toxic elements are founded in things we all more or less approve, and which may have no intrinsically toxic effects.

 

Papers, Please

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

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

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

And we all know where that leads.

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Moves

A bit rough in the beginning…that’s what happens when you aren’t quite sure where it’s going…but then, maybe, it picks up.

Just fooling around a bit.

A Long Time Ago…

Yesterday, in fact.

Somehow, seeing the new Star Wars film on January 1st was the perfect thing to do. We went to the Moolah Theater on Lindell and had popcorn and sat back and became 12-year-olds for over two hours and it was…wonderful.

I have seen much back-and-forthing over this film the last few weeks, including some ill-advised and unwelcome splenetic blathering from George Lucas himself over how he disliked the direction J.J. Abrams has taken.  I have also seen for myself the new action figure set at Target which failed to include the key character in what must be considered one of the most blatant examples of denial in industry marketing since…I don’t know.  What?  You really don’t think little girls will buy these even with such a full-on kick-ass role model as Rey?  Or are you afraid they will buy them and we’ll have another round of how de-feminized the character is and how she’s a bad example for little girls who might opt out of the whole cute-girl-whose-brains-are-secondary track of socialization?

To get this out of the way right now, I think Rey is possibly the best thing about the new Star Wars.  Vertently  or otherwise, something significant has been achieved in her and I applaud it.  Take note, ye unwitting crafters of the female entity for screen and page, this is how you do it.  Simply put, she is her own self.  She does not define herself by the men in her life, she not trade herself for favors, she does not bow to fashion conventions that depend on genitalia.  She has her own concerns, her own goals, and runs her life on her own, the only constraints on any of that being the same exact constraints put on every other being in the world she inhabits.

And she is a deeply, deeply ethical and empathetic person.  One who is not afraid to act on her own judgment, consequences be damned.

And she pays for it with doubt and fear and the agon of the compassionate.

As if she were a real person.

Person.

(Why does he go on about this?  Why is he getting loud?  What’s the deal?)

The deal is, so seldom in something like this do we get to see a woman as Person First, self-consistent, competent, and heroic, who does the rescuing, fights (and wins) against the bad guy, and can remain herself as a human being.  She also has friendships.  Not lovers, there’s no suggestion of that, not even as foreshadowing. Friends.  They didn’t even try to dress her up in some form-accentuating bit of impractical gauzy revealing nonsense so we’d all see that while she’s running around kicking ass and being amazing she has cleavage and nice thigh.  She’s dressed for work, for survival, for movement, for function.  Her hair is even done practically.

By accident or intent, they did Rey right.

So how come she’s not in the action figure collection?

I have my opinions and they are not charitable.  But it may turn out to be beside the point.

As to all the other dross being spake about how it stacks up to the rest of the films…

Sure, it’s a broad retread of the very first film.  So what?  This is myth, which is cyclic, and the value is in reaffirmation and validation.  It is a Hero’s Journey and going all the way back to Gilgamesh certain forms remain constant.  There are tests and trials and the plot matters much less than the manner of challenge and the quality of its confrontation.  George Lucas forgot that when he made episodes 1, 2, and 3.  He tried to turn a quest fantasy into science fiction, he tried to interject politics, he tried to justify things in a way that didn’t so much subvert what he had done before as crack the road in front of the calabash.  J.J. Abrams, or whoever was principally responsible for the storyline here, went back to the Campbellian mythic underpinnings (Joseph not John W.) and brought back what mattered and made the first couple so compelling.  Certain mythic forms reoccur, time and again, and Joseph Campbell understood this and Lucas sort of did, we think, at least in the beginning, but it went off the rails when a certain gravitic pull to compete with Star Trek seemed to drag everything off in an inauspicious direction.  In spite of the superb craft of those later films, the genuinely well-executed action, and even the plot logic of much of it, they were curiously empty.  One thing after another, with only a few moments of transcendence that failed to rescue them from essentially tales about bureaucratic failure.  Lucas can be as snarky as he likes, but Episode VII has gone back to what made the first three films work.

And did it very well.

Episode IV and V were all about Becoming.  Episode VI was about coming to terms with what you have Become.

Episodes I, II, and III were all about breaking things.

Episode VII is about Becoming.

And Rey?  Pay attention, fellas.  This is how it’s done. This is what a human being looks like.  This is a hero.

We Prospered: Leonard Nimoy, 1931 to 2015

He was, ultimately, the heart and soul of the whole thing.  The core and moral conscience of the congeries that was Star Trek.  Mr. Spock was what the entire thing was about.  That’s why they could never leave him alone, set him aside, get beyond him. Even when he wasn’t on screen and really could be nowhere near the given story, there was something of him.  They kept trying to duplicate him—Data, Seven-of-Nine, Dax, others—but the best they could do was borrow from the character.

I Am Not Spock came out in 1975.  It was an attempt to explain the differences between the character and the actor portraying him.  It engendered another memoir later entitled I Am Spock which addressed some of the misconceptions created by the first.  The point, really, was that the character Spock was a creation of many, but the fact is that character would not exist without the one ingredient more important than the rest—Leonard Nimoy.

Spock IDIC

I was 12 when Star Trek appeared on the air.  It is very difficult now to convey to people who have subsequently only seen the show in syndication what it meant to someone like me.  I was a proto-SF geek.  I loved the stuff, read what I could, but not in any rigorous way, and my material was opportunistic at best.  I was pretty much alone in my fascination.  My parents worried over my “obsessions” with it and doubtless expected the worst.  I really had no one with whom to share it.  I got teased at school about it, no one else read it, even my comics of choice ran counter to the main.  All there was on television were movie re-runs and sophomoric kids’ shows.  Yes, I watched Lost In Space, but probably like so many others I did so out of desperation, because there wasn’t anything else on!  Oh, we had The Twilight Zone and then The Outer Limits, but, in spite of the excellence of individual episodes, they just weren’t quite sufficient.  Too much of it was set in the mundane world, the world you could step out your front door and see for yourself.  Rarely did it Go Boldly Where No One Had Gone Before in the way that Star Trek did.

Presentation can be everything.  It had little to do with the internal logic of the show or the plots or the science, even.  It had to do with the serious treatment given to the idea of it.  The adult treatment.  Attitude.  Star Trek possessed and exuded attitude consistent with the wishes of the people who watched it and became devoted to it.  We rarely saw “The Federation” it was just a label for something which that attitude convinced us was real, for the duration of the show.  The expanding hegemony of human colonies, the expanse of alien cultures—the rather threadbare appearance of some of the artifacts of these things on their own would have been insufficient to carry the conviction that these things were really there.  It was the approach, the aesthetic tone, the underlying investment of the actors in what they were portraying that did that.  No, it didn’t hurt that they boasted some of the best special effects on television at that time, but even those couldn’t have done what the life-force of the people making it managed.

And Spock was the one consistent on-going absolutely essential aspect that weekly brought the reality of all that unseen background to the fore and made it real.  There’s a reason Leonard Nimoy started getting more fan mail than Shatner.  Spock was the one element that carried the fictional truth of everything Star Trek was trying to do.

And Spock would have been nothing without the talent, the humanity, the skill, the insight, and the sympathy Leonard Nimoy brought to the character.  It was, in the end, and more by accident than design, a perfect bit of casting and an excellent deployment of the possibilities of the symbol Spock came to represent.

Of all the characters from the original series, Spock has reappeared more than any other.  There’s a good reason for that.

Spock was the character that got to represent the ideals being touted by the show.  Spock was finally able to be the moral center of the entire thing simply by being simultaneously on the outside—he was not human—and deeply in the middle of it all—science officer, Starfleet officer, with his own often troublesome human aspect.  But before all that, he was alien and he was treated respectfully and given the opportunity to be Other and show that this was something vital to our own humanity.

Take one thing, the IDIC.  Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.  It came up only a couple of times in the series, yet what a concept.  Spock embodied the implications even in his trademark comment “Fascinating.”  He was almost always at first fascinated.  He wanted before anything else to understand. He never reacted out of blind terror.  Sometimes he was on the other side of everyone else in defense of something no one seemed interested in understanding, only killing.

I’m going on about Spock because I know him.  I didn’t know Mr. Nimoy, despite how much he gave of himself.  I knew his work, which was always exemplary, and I can assume certain things about him by his continued affiliation with a character which, had he no sympathy for, would have left him behind to be portrayed by others long since.  Instead, he kept reprising the role, and it was remarkably consistent.  Spock was, throughout, a positive conscience.

On the side of science.  I can think of no other character who so thoroughly exemplified rational morality.  Spock had no gods, only ideals.  He lived by no commandments, only morality.  His ongoing championing of logic as the highest goal is telling.  Logic was the common agon between Spock and McCoy, and sometimes between Spock and Kirk.  I suspect most people made the same mistake, that logic needs must be shorn of emotion.  Logic, however, is about “sound reasoning and the rules which govern it.” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)  This is one reason it is so tied to mathematics.  But consider the character and then consider the philosophy.  Spock is the one who seeks to understand first.  Logic dictates this.  Emotion is reactive and can muddy the ability to reason.  Logic does not preclude emotion—obviously, since Spock has deep and committed friendships—it only sets it aside for reason to have a chance at comprehension before action.  How often did Spock’s insistence on understanding prove essential to solving some problem in the show?

I suspect Leonard Nimoy himself would have been the first to argue that Spock’s devotion to logic was simply a very human ideal in the struggle to understand.

Leonard Nimoy informed the last 4 decades of the 20th Century through a science fictional representation that transcended the form.  It is, I believe, a testament to his talent and intellect that the character grew, became a centerpiece for identifying the aesthetic aspects of what SF means for the culture, and by so doing became a signal element of the culture of the 21st Century.

Others can talk about his career.  He worked consistently and brought the same credibility to many other roles.  (I always found it interesting that one his next roles after Star Trek was on Mission: Impossible, taking the place of Martin Landau as the IM team’s master of disguise.  As if to suggest that no one would pin him down into a single thing.)  I watched him in many different shows, tv movies, and have caught up on some of his work prior to Star Trek (he did a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode in which he played opposite William Shatner) and in my opinion he was a fine actor.  He seems to have chosen his parts carefully, especially after he gained success and the control over his own career that came with it.  But, as I say, others can talk about that.  For me, it is Spock.

I feel a light has gone out of the world.  Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but…still, some people bring something into the world while they’re here that has the power to change us and make us better.  Leonard Nimoy had an opportunity to do that and he did not squander it.  He made a difference.  We have prospered by his gifts.

I will miss him.

 

Obsession Point

I have a friend who likes to engage me on our points of departure.  He’s a self-admitted conservative, I am not.  He’s a sincere Christian, I’m an atheist.  Looking around at the current culture, you would think that should make any conversation we might have problematic at best, impossible at worst.

Yet we carry on the occasional hour, two-hour, sometimes three hour conversation and never once descend into anger or dismissive rhetoric.  And yes, we talk about religion regularly.  We talk about politics.  We talk about meaningful living.  It’s the kind of exchange of ideas from different perspectives that seems both rare and uniquely pleasurable.  Would that we taught kids growing up how to appreciate this kind of conversation as, at the very least, an æsthetic pleasure.

Consequently, when he questions me on priorities, I tend to listen.

A couple weeks ago, after the monthly jam session (he runs a church basement coffeehouse to which I’ve been going and participating for more than a few years now) we hung around and started talking about current subjects.  My opening statement concerned the new movie Noah and the absurd fact that the studio has decided to put a disclaimer on it to appease religious reactionaries who are bothered by “historical inaccuracies.”  I expected a laugh over the ridiculousness of this—these are not people who have much patience for that kind of shallow literalism—but instead what followed was a discussion of my obsessive attention to people like Ken Ham and the anti-evolution crowd and biblical literalists in general.

“Why do you pay any attention to them?”

Well, I replied, somewhat glibly, stupidity is fascinating.

Patiently, though, my friend worked at that.  Really?  Aren’t there better things to focus your attention on than the obdurate intractability of intellectual ostriches?  Don’t you have, like, books to write?

At the end of the conversation (which is not to say that it’s over) I had to concede that I spent far too much time and mental energy worrying over the misreadings, misinterpretations, manglings, and malignancies of what is a minority example of entrenched ignorance.  Like watching a neighbor gradually destroy his property (and being unable to do much about it), or watching a slow-motion train wreck, or even repeatedly viewing and complaining about a very expensive yet utterly brainless film, it is both attractive and repellant to observe this particular bit of cultural shadow-play.

The answer to the question has occupied me now since.  Why do I give them so much of myself?

The glib answer is that they draw attention to themselves in such a way as to seem important and relevant.  Paying attention to them feels, on a shallow level, like being engaged.  Noticing them, knowing what they’ve been saying and seeing what they’re doing, seems like being a responsible agent in my own culture.  Every time they manage to censor discussions in schools about evolution or try to force prayer into the classroom or some other culture-war battleground is pushed into the news, being aware of it just seems the thing to do.

A somewhat less glib answer is that the very real political power such groups seem to enjoy worries me.  I don’t want to live in a country designed by biblical literalists.  And determining how they’re wrong and why is basic to any kind of pushback.

And of course, since this conversation took place, we have the incident of the FOX television affiliate in Oklahoma blocking fifteen seconds of the new Cosmos program, the 15 seconds dealing with evolution, and my blood boils.  I react.  I become insensed.   And I immediately go to write a new blog post about how stupid this is and how malevolent this kind of nonsense is and how—

Which is, actually, a waste of my time.  Really, there are better-qualified people doing exactly that.  You can find links to some of them on the sidebar over to the right.  You want to read a better-informed and more current tirade against this kind of thing, go to Freethought Pharyngula—P. Z. Myer is an evolutionary biologist and apparently has more time, energy, and inclination than I do to keep abreast of all this nonsense—or check the science blogs to which I maintain links.

I don’t have to do this.

And yet…and yet…I keep doing it.  Even here,  in addressing a different kind of question, I’m thrashing about and striking back.  Willful ignorance, asserted as if it is a positive attribute, with an insistence that it is Right and Truth and we should all bow to its inevitable godlines MAKES—ME—CRAZY.

Why?

Because, at base, I loathe my own ignorance.  I loathe that part of me that desperately wants to be right, whether I am or not.  Because I am aware of my ignorance and strive to correct it and because I see that as an important fight it disturbs me—more, it frightens me—when others not only don’t see the worth in that fight but are dedicated to preventing the triumph of knowledge.

So, I suppose the simple answer to my friend’s question is—fear.  Those people scare me.  They are the ideological descendents of Inquisitors, witchfinders, book-burners, imperialists of dogma, stone-throwers, and censors.  Because I read Lest Darkness Fall and Fahrenheit 451 and my imagination is such that I can see what a victory for them would mean for people like me.

And because I honestly lack any kind of faith in those who are my intellectual and cultural kindred that we will win this fight.

But that still doesn’t fully address the challenge he laid at me feet.  Why do I  pay so much attention to all this when I could better serve my own purpose and the purpose of the civilization I support in so many other ways?

Because, when combined with all of the above, this has become a rut.  It is easy.  And it feeds my sense of relevance.  But really it’s a paltry diet.  There are richer meals to be had, that would be more beneficial, to me and to others.  So it is an itch which has become easy and habitual for me to scratch.  And in certain company, it’s a sign that I am part of a certain group of like-minded.

It’s a poor excuse.  I could be doing better things with my time and frankly getting more out of my intellectual life.  Because at the end of the day, I’m not going to change their minds, and those who nod along with me when I dive into one of my tirades don’t need me to tell them about this.

I think it is worth paying attention to when tax money goes to something like Ken Ham’s Creation Museum.  That’s an abuse of public trust and a violation of the law, frankly, and should be made public and stopped.

But I don’t need to go on about Ken Ham’s idiocy.

The spot that itches has grown raw and inflamed from repeated scratching and no salve is in sight.  I need to leave it alone.  I have a book on mathematics to hand, another about the history of science fiction, and still another about World War I.  Yes, I have a couple of books dealing with the assault of reason, which is not only from a religious reactionary quarter—reason is under assault from many quarters—but I’m a fiction writer.  My job is to tell stories about the world and because I write science fiction I can do a little prognosticating.  I have to stop pissing away time on pointless subjects.

Besides, I really do think they’ll fade.  When I sit myself down and really examine it, the world view we define as that of Reason will maintain and eventually the nattering naysayers will diminish.  It’s just difficult to see that day to day and believe it when there are people worrying over the “historical” inaccuracies in a Hollywood film about a mythical event.

So I wish to thank my friend for opening a door and pointing out that I’ve been perhaps wandering the wrong hallway for a time.

This is why we must cultivate relationships with people we disagree with.

Upgrading Myths

I saw Man of Steel this past weekend and while I enjoyed much of it, some of it was troubling, and I’ve been pondering ever since.  To be sure, taking up so much brain time with a cinematic version of a comic book seems absurd, but only until you realize how much this stuff means to us as a culture.

Superman is a 20th Century American Myth and it has, whether we like it or not, supplied a good deal of workaday philosophical grist for our collective mills.  We keep revisiting it (and revising it and rebooting it and returning to it) for reasons that have nothing to do with common sense and everything to do with how we see—or would like to see—the world.

Disclaimer:  I grew up watching George Reeves as Superman on tv.  I didn’t collect the comics so much.  Some, sure, but not like friends of mine who had stacks of them encompassing years, even decades.  As a kid, I was certainly enamored of the idea of being super strong.  (I was bullied, you bet I fantasized being able to fly, see through solid objects, and take a punch that might result in my attacker breaking his hand.)  But as I grew older I just couldn’t relate to the guy from Krypton as much as I could with Batman.  Superman was never top of the heap for me.  Just so you know.

I very much liked the Christopher Reeve film.  They hit that note perfect as far as I was concerned.  And should have left well enough alone as the subsequent films just got worse and worse.  (Superman Returns for me was an impressive-looking meh.)  I liked Lois & Clark a lot.  Not so much Superboy or Smallville.  The substance of the myth only goes so far, then it has a tendency to lend itself—badly—to soap opera (is Lois ever going to get this guy in the sack?  What about Lana? And Jimmy!), which even the estimable Lois & Clark fell into eventually.

But we’re talking about a 20th Century reboot of a Greek Myth—the god (or demigod) who comes to Earth, does amazing feats, and is wooed, sometimes seduced (or does the wooing, seducing, or, more commonly, just plain raping) by a mortal woman.  Resulting in…

Well, the thing about the Greek gods is, every time they came down from Olympus to meddle about with the mortals they left a mess behind.  They just didn’t know how to not break things.

I liked that Man of Steel went there.  When the film had been out for a time, I remember people complaining about how violent is was.  Well, yeah.  It would be, wouldn’t it?  Part of the implausibility of Superman is how tidily he fights crime.  Here, in this instance, he has to mix it up with his own kind, and to be true to its pretensions it was going to get ugly.

Where the film failed for me, thematically, was that it insisted that no new mythology could be concocted from these unlikely elements.  Christopher Nolan and company, who did a wonderful job with Batman, were clearly working toward dumping all the old stuff and coming up with a new approach, that is without changing the basic idea.  Kal-el is an alien.  He was sent here to avoid the fate of the rest of his people.  He grows up to become the ultimate Hero.  Obviously there are resonances to the Greeks and just about any other ancient pantheon you care to name.

Just as obviously, there’s no good reason to stick to the old template when trying to turn a fantasy construct into a piece of science fiction—which is what they tried to do.

Large doses of Factored Plausibility were injected into this film.  The scene of young Clark in grade school, suddenly having his X-Ray Vision come on line and c0mpletely freaking out was superb.  Yes, this would seem likely under these circumstances.  And the talk with Jonathan in the aftermath of his saving the bus of kids from the river.  This is not a Depression Era salt of the earth Jonathan Kent, but a man in the presence of something he can’t handle who is scared all the time.

And the whole backstory of Kryptonian exploration and outposts—it seems they were basing much of this on Imperial China, which was a civilization that at one time had a vast exploratory fleet and maybe even colonies and then decided not to bother with Outside and shut it all down. But of course, they left stuff all over the place.  This is good, solid extrapolitive retooling.  It made it all less Olympian and far more geopolitical.  Good, very good.

But then there is the Christ Imagery.

You know what I’m talking about.  Clark wandering the Earth, going out to the wildnerness, becoming Himself—for 33 years before coming out as an alien.  And if you didn’t get it with that, then the shot of him leaving the Kryptonian ship, arms extended, a human crucifix…

And Jor-el as the ephemeral father from heaven.

The battle with Zod and the others is obviously a war with demons—or perhaps only with those who would not give up an absolute adherence to tradition, the ultimate evangelists, that have to be tossed out of the temple.

The problem is, it was incomplete and mongrel.  They threw that stuff in there in order to play the audience, establish a mythic resonance with the familiar even as they were clearly trying to recast the myth into something more plausible in a science fiction context.  They didn’t actually do anything with those little bits.  And Jesus is really not the appropriate myth in the first place.  Moses was always the grounding myth of Superman, and they actually missed the boat on this one by severing his connection to “his people.”

It’s mix-and-match mythology, done slickly and cynically—the image will mean something, but we don’t actually have to have it inform the story with anything.  It’s just a hook.

And not a very satisfying one.

Part of the problem is that Superman is such an uncooperative idea with which to make good science fiction.  They tried mightily in this one, but they kept coming up against the parts that make no real sense other than as fantasy—or myth.  They tried for an upgrade but ended up with just a patch.  So it is neither the old familiar Superman (which Christopher Reeve portrayed so well) or a brand new, fully reimagined Superman that might suit the 21st Century.  This wouldn’t matter so much if not for the fact that Superman had been made and has always served to Mean Something.  We have long since realized he could never be A Savior, not in the sense perhaps implied by Nolan et al.  He’s one man, although incredibly gifted, and even he can’t be everywhere and do everything.  So overtly tying him to Christ is a cheat.  It’s also not what he was intended to represent.  Ever.

At best, Superman represented the idea that limits are intended to be superseded.

That’s my take, anyway.  What Man Of Steel was intended to mean, I’m not sure.  Maybe the makers weren’t, either.  But if they do another one, I would suggest trying to come up with new substance for new myths.  The old ones don’t work so good anymore.  If you’re going to upgrade something like this, leave the past behind.  At least that part of it that no longer answers any real needs.

Either that, or leave it as a comic book and don’t change anything.

Great special effects, though.  Cecil B. DeMille would be envious.

Mary Poppins

There was a hardcover copy of a Mary Poppins book in my grade school library.  I remember finding it and being very excited.  Naturally, I’d seen the movie and I was already discovering how much better the books from which films were made could be.  So I checked it out and took it home and that night opened it up and—

Took it back the next day, unfinished.  To say it was nothing like the film is beside the point.  To say I found no magic in it would be closer.  But frankly, the Mary Poppins of P.L. Travers—of which we now are so vigorously concerned of late—I found to be a cold, humorless drudge who was obsessed with discipline.  She was more like Mr. Banks from the film, who had to be saved from his stern, business-before-all attitude before he let all of life pass him by.  I grant you, I was quite young—ten—and not, perhaps, the most patient of readers or the most perceptive, but the contrast was so sharp and jarring that I’ve never gone back.  Travers’ Mary Poppins was no one I would have wanted anything to do with.  That Walt Disney found something magical in these stories amazed me at the time.

Fast-forward to my erstwhile attempts at being a writer and the slight knowledge I’ve garnered about property rights and adaptations and so forth, and many things make much more sense now.  The books were popular—not Harry Potter popular, not even close, but they sold—and there was presumably a market that could be exploited.  It must have appeared to Uncle Walt to be an opportunity to do a little payback toward England, where his Peter Pan  was barred by the tidy little trust Barrie had put together that guaranteed revenues for the orphanage to which the playwright was dedicated.  Disney had gamed international copyright to make the film without cutting them in for anything and they successfully kept the product out of British markets (until only recently, when a new deal was cut, paving the way for, among other things, the wonderful Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry novels about Peter and the Lost Boys).  Walt was snatching another British property and this time nothing would keep the film from English audiences.

And he saw something my ten-year-old self didn’t—a way to extract a Disney production from the elements of the stories.

But the result was so different from the source material, one must wonder why he didn’t just come up with something completely new on his own.

Well, at a guess, that name.  Mary Poppins.  (Especially the way Dick Van Dyke said it, in that exaggerated cockney accent.)  And the setting.  And the back story.  Safer, maybe, to grab something whole from a long siege than risk opprobrium by cutting out a new set of characters and then being accused of plagiarism.  Uncle Walt, after all, had an image to protect—his was part of an America trinity that included Abraham Lincoln and Santa Claus, honest, uncorrupted, generous, and pathologically well-meaning.  In his calculus it must have seemed worthwhile only if he could show that everyone, from the creator to the audience, approved.

And he bloody well paid Travers enough for her work.  Sixty thousand pounds, which would have worked out to roughly  one hundred two thousand dollars, which, adjusted for inflation etc etc would be worth about three-quarters of a million today.  Plus she got five percent of the box office gross.

She was, as they say, set.

Yet from all accounts the new film, Saving Mr. Banks, portrays Travers as just as difficult, odious, and perpetually disapproving as her signature character, granting Disney an aura of magnificent patience in dealing with this woman he seemed intent on making rich just by making Mary Poppins even more famous.

Why?

Because the fact is Travers went to her grave hating the film Disney made.  He turned her work inside out, cut away large portions of it to leave in the bin, and concocted a musical mish-mash of mind-numbing magical mush which she reportedly loathed.  The serious points she wanted to make in her stories got short-shrift, the “proper British household”(which she rather admired, especially being the daughter of a man who struggled for the position of Mr. Banks but lost it, only to die prematurely when Travers was six) was held up to ridicule, and Mary herself came off closer to an Edwardian jet-setter than the nanny who could fix anything Travers intended.

Mary Poppins was a creation from her childhood.  She had grown up with this character, it was part of her DNA, so to speak.  Disney worked at getting the rights to make the film for 20 years.  Can anyone fault Travers for being protective?  Indeed, obsessively so?  This is something most writers understand in their bones—it is their work, no, it is their being which is, depending how you view it, either being praised or raped.

The success of the film did not hurt.  She published more Mary Poppins books after it came out, among other things, but she never agreed to another Disney adaptation.  At a guess, at a minimum, she must have thought Disney had trivialized her character.

(To understand what must have gone through her mind, imagine for a moment the idea of telling, say, Ibsen that one of his plays was going to be made into a new production by Gilbert and Sullivan.)

Turning things over to someone else’s control is hard.  It can wrench to see your work treated differently, with apparent disregard for what you envisioned.  Even if no ill intent is on hand (and surely Walt Disney had nothing nefarious in mind—he was first and foremost an entertainer, he wanted to make magic that sold well) it can be galling to watch what you have done…altered.

I find it ironic that the film has been titled Saving Mr. Banks.  Disney as an institution has had more than a hefty dose of bad luck since Walt died and is often criticized for a variety of business practices which, while perfectly normal in the Hollywood milieu seem horrid and crass given the “Uncle Walt” persona the company wishes to put forward.  I realize it’s a play on the Banks family from the books and that part of the story Disney put on the screen concerns saving Mr. Banks’ soul from the creeping corporatism that is stealing him from his family.  But the film is about Walt Disney and his company.  Saving Mr. Banks, then, is about saving an image, saving a corporation, saving…Walt?

I have met no writer of books who was ever satisfied with the job a film did with his or her work.  Not one.  It is a very different medium from the printed page.  Those few films that have successfully (however one defines success) translated book to screen are the exceptions, not the rule.  The film maker very often finds it easier or more workable to just dump large parts of a written work and start over.  If everyone knows this is going on up front, then the results can be artistically fine.  Take for instance Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  There is maybe 15% of the book in the movie, but it is a brilliant film for all that it has departed from Dick’s original story.

Be that as it may, one wonders at the reasons behind putting together a hagiographic film about a relationship, while certainly important, probably few people really cared about so long after the events.  Why now?  Why this?  And what use is there in misrepresenting so much of what happened?  (Which films do all the time, this is nothing new, but for those who know better it is nevertheless aggravating.)  I wasn’t aware that Walt Disney’s image needed a new coat of varnish.

For the record, I liked the film Mary Poppins.  I’ve been a fan of Julie Andrews ever since.  I liked it.  I didn’t love it.  I disliked musicals then, rather intensely, and the story seemed somewhat removed, but there were moments, magic moments, that took me out of my young head and made me marvel.  Enough that I became excited when I found that book in the school library.  Enough that I was disappointed at what I found on the page.

And that’s a point.  It matters what we’re exposed to first.  It sets out expectations.  While it may not be cool to admit it among certain circles, if the film is the first thing to which we’re exposed, it sets a bar that the books then must meet or surpass, and that’s just as difficult if the relation is reversed.  For me, the film remains stubbornly primary, even though I “know” better.  In a time when copyright and corporate ownership of intellectual rights is coming under more and more sophisticated scrutiny, it might behoove Disney to put forth an additional bit of mythology suggesting that this primacy is the valid one, that through his almost saint-like patience and paternal good will Uncle Walt was the one with the preferred vision and Pamela Travers was just, you know, being difficult.

Even a cursory glance at Travers’ life belies this.  She was an unmarried woman who had been making her way in the world of the theater and publishing for some time, who was in no way the constitutional drudge apparently being portrayed.  To be successful in that kind of life at that time, she could not be without considerable experience and business savvy.  It’s likely she smelled snake oil in Disney’s wooing and she reflexively recoiled.  She knew well enough that such a project would make her material existence easier, even if her conscience bothered her.  To personify what was a pragmatic business decision as some kind of character defect—because she was repelled by the subsequent production—is unkind, unnecessary, and more than a bit nasty.

Something Disney is not supposed to be.