Boycotts and Bully Boys

I’m not going to the theater to see Ender’s Game, not because I’m boycotting it or Mr. Card, but because I don’t care enough about it to spend coin on it.  Of course, that can be said of 99% of the movies released in the last couple of decades—we don’t go to the movies anymore.  It’s a habit we got out of shortly after buying a house.  Priorities, y’know?

Not that I don’t eventually see them.  (We finally saw The Time Traveler’s Wife this past weekend, long after it’s theatrical release.  A couple of weeks back we saw Cloud Atlas at a friend’s house.)  We get there, eventually, but we aren’t driven by the mass energy of the zeitgeist.  It has benefits.  Seeing things well after the initial hype and scurry allows for a calmer, less media-driven appreciation.  We see it when we’re ready.

I doubt I’ll ever be “ready” to see Ender’s Game in that for decades now I’ve encountered a low-level of discussion about the novel and, more recently, its author, that “distance” is not something achievable in the sense of seeing it when controversy is not hanging in the air, like the smoke from a dozen cigars shortly after their users have left the room.  Ender’s Game is one of those novels that have acquired a kind of cultural mass, a displacement quotient, around which debate, reaction, argument, and controversy orbit.  Dune is one of those, but for different reasons.  (Outside the genre examples of this abound—think Catcher In The Rye, Ulysses, Atlas Shrugged.)  The mention of them in the right group triggers what eventually become standard, predictable set-piece conversations, and one counts status points and self-defines socially/politically/culturally by one’s stance vis á vis how one feels about the subject.  They take on lives of their own.  You could almost put them down on guest lists or schedule them as part of the entertainment over dinner.

I read Ender’s Game in the early 1980s, I don’t remember exactly when.  I remembered the novelette from which it was expanded as being one of the better stories in Analog in the Seventies.  My reaction?  I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It was a good ride.  I went on to read several more Orson Scott Card novels, eventually losing interest in him.  I felt the sequel to Ender’s Game—Speaker For The Dead—was a superior novel, much more substantive than the first.  I did not then nor do I now think either was Card’s best work.  I went through a phase of OSC and moved on.  (He wrote a series of superb short stories early in his career, which are still, some of them, masterpieces.)

Now the movie is coming out and so has Mr. Card, apparently, and guess what?  He’s become a lightning rod of controversy because he is not much like his landmark stories.  He is a very openly homophobic man and apparently one of those who talks blithely about governmental overthrow if the country doesn’t go the way he thinks it should.

(I say “blithely” because we hear this all the time and often from people who are so engaged with things as they are that it is difficult if not impossible to take them seriously.  It has all the significance of a child threatening to run away from home or stop breathing if things don’t conform to expectations.  It’s a way of attracting a certain kind of attention.  Someday the rest of us may learn that the best way to deal with this is to ignore them.)

How many other people does this sound like?  We may personally know someone who thinks and talks this way.

And most of the time it never comes up.  The plumber might be a Tea Party idiot, but since we never talk politics with him, we never know, and hell, he does good work.  If someone else informs us that he is a political idiot, do we automatically stop using his services?

Boycotts are being called for with regard to OSC.  In one instance, pains have been taken to distinguish between this and any kind of censorship.  It’s not his ideas being boycotted but the man himself, by denying economic support.  A fine line, that, and there is a difference, because ideas can’t be so constrained according to the moral calculus of our political standards, but we can always choose freely what we do or do not spend our money on.  The difference is real, of course, but so is the fact that in public action ideas tenaciously refuse to be teased free of their purveyors, so to attack the one (economically) is to impact the other (dialectically).

I won’t be joining any boycotts.  To my mind, a boycott is personal.  I choose what to spend my money on and that makes it personal.  By joining an organized boycott, it no longer is personal, not in the same way.  It’s political, and mass political movements have a tendency to lose the kind of finesse and nuance the personal necessitates.  Because your personal viewpoint necessarily becomes subsumed in the politics of a movement and dissension from the movement aut0matically becomes suspect by the larger group.  Conformity evolves, individualism becomes confused then lost, and what began as a specific protest of a specific thing becomes a cookie cutter that divides the public from the private in a regrettably destructive way.

Further, this is coming painfully close to book banning.  I know, no one is calling for that, in fact so far everyone is very carefully denying that is what is going on.  But it’s not very many steps between boycotting one movie, one book, one author and boycotting a body of work and then arguing that said body of work should not be “supported” (available) and removing it from…

So it goes.  Suddenly the socially conscious, liberal minded, civil rights oriented boycotters morph into thought police.

How likely do I think that is to happen here?  Not very.  But that’s not argument against refusing to participate in the boycott.  Just because in this instance it won’t happen doesn’t make the process any less odious.

This is a purely personal viewpoint.   I won’t join or support a popular boycott like the one being called for against Orson Scott Card because by doing so I lose a certain amount of control over what I might mean by not spending coin on him or his work.

And besides, Card himself stated it—such protests put more money in his pocket, because controversy attracts profits in this game.  Catcher In The Rye might never have become the phenomenon it did had it not been banned.  The wrong kind of attention was paid it and boom! it’s a cultural icon.  Regardless the quality of the book.

My personal opinion about Ender’s Game has been consistent since a few years after originally reading it when I realized that it was—is—manipulative, button-pushing, and fundamentally flawed.  It depicts scenarios of responses to bullying that are devastatingly gratifying and wholly implausible and unsupportable.  It is a well-written rollercoaster ride that I enjoyed at the time of reading that later left a bitter aftertaste.  I thought it only worth praising because of its sequel, which is a novel of redemption and expiation, a startling portrayal of guilt and responsibility and an argument for tolerance.

Which is ironic, since the work portrays a level of empathy and compassion the public statements of the author belies.  The man who wrote Speaker For The Dead is not the same as the one who seems bent on revolution in order to prevent gays from being able to live as equals in a human society.

Unless…and this is a wicked thought, but not inconsistent with some of the great monsters of religious thought down through the ages…unless the whole purpose of Speaker For The Dead  is to argue that such redemption is the whole point of the series.  That Ender is not sorry for what he (unknowingly) did to the Formics so much as willingly embracing his rôle as a Shiva Christ.  His fate, his destiny is to shoulder that responsibility, not avoid it—not wish he had never done it—but to immerse himself in the total package of destroyer and mourner.

And one cannot mourn what is not lost.  So the Formic had to perish so he, Ender, could be St. Stephen.

Which makes it not so much an argument for tolerance, belated or otherwise, but an argument that the goal of human enlightenment is to wallow in the shame of unbridled destruction.

(In a way, this is much like the many cults of the Native American the United States has embraced in the last century and a half, cults that romanticize and eulogize the vanished Indian, appraisals that could not exist the way they do without the very destruction of the Indian they seem to mourn.  The Indian had to die in order for this peculiarly American form of self-flagellation to be enjoyed and enshrined in film.)

Not something, to my mind, which should be shoved off the stage, boycotted into oblivion.  That is something that needs to be discussed, at length, so we can recognize it when we encounter it.

Where Is Found A Soulful Mind?

Roger Ebert, the film critic, recently wrote a piece about the possible death of the Liberal Arts.  It’s disturbing, not so much for the dire forecast of a nation of business majors and software geeks who know nothing of Montaigne, Sontag, or Charlie Chaplin, but because of what it implies about those who keep track of Culture.

We are university-centric in our appraisal of where the Culture lies, where it is going, and what value we produce of what may be called a national geist.  Ebert talks about the days in which writers were celebrities and the universities, if not the actual mothers of such luminaries, were at least their midwives.  If there is one thing we have all learned in the last half century, though, it is that such institutions—and their products—are expensive.

Blame for the death of the Liberal Arts is lain at the feet of conservatives, but here is where I would like to start teasing these definitions apart.  Genuine conservatives, those with whom I grew up and became most familiar, were the champions of the Liberal Arts.  This was before the term “Liberal” became inextricably tangled with the concepts of “permissiveness” and “socialism.”  Because of the constant hammering both liberalism and conservatism have taken in recent years from a class of philistine whose twin deities are money and conformity, we have lost sight of what both of those labels originally meant and, worse yet, the kind of country they informed.

William F. Buckley jr. may have been many things, but poorly-read was never one of them, nor was he an advocate for the kind of close-minded censoriousness that has poisoned the Right today.  Presently, George Will carries the torch of a conservatism fast vanishing in the flood of a reactionary myopia that passes for conservative but is nothing but avaricious opportunism dressed up in an ill-fitting suit of Victorianesque disapproval.

But then Ebert goes on to remark on his comment log and how refreshingly well-read, educated, and enthusiastic his readers seem to be.  The Liberal Arts is not dead or even dying.

But it may no longer have a comfortable place in universities, which charge a small fortune for an education with which the buyer not only wants but needs to cash in.  Degrees in philosophy, except for a rare few, pay poorly in a job market grown increasingly cutthroat by dint of the exclusion of the kind of broad outlook once supplied by a Liberal Arts education.  Why bother with Thomas Paine when he died poor, a loser?  Or Herman Melville, who had to quit writing because it didn’t pay well enough to support him?  One could go down the list.

And yet.

People read.  Widely.  Minds rove over as broad a range of interests as at any time in the past—more, as there is more to learn, to see, to experience.  It would seem the Liberal Arts is far from dying.  It has only moved out on its own.

I’ve encountered students who refuse to read.  They want to know only those things that will garner them good salaries and all that this implies.  Success.  Goodies.  “Why read F. Scott Fitzgerald?  Hell, I read Ayn Rand in high school.  That’s my kinda culture. ”

I have no time for them.  Were I a teacher in a college, I’d flunk them and send them from the hall.  They are as clueless and feckless as they think others are who pay attention to the contents of the mind.

Tell me this—once you have the six-figure salary and the 2200 square foot condo and the BMW, what are you going to do with yourself in those moments when you’re the only one to keep you company?  Other than winning a footrace, what have you done?  When you look around for something to Do, how will you recognize what is of value, of worth, of substance?

I know, most people like this could care less.  If they don’t have any culture now, they think, if they think about it at all, that they can always buy some later, when they’re “secure” or ready to retire.

Unfortunately, by then they may only be able to recognize “value” as the price tag on the frame rather than the world that’s on the canvas.

It Was Fifty Years Ago, Mr. Bond

“Do you expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!

The exchange between Bond and Goldfinger may sum up the attitude of many who are tired, offended, or otherwise ambivalent or disinterested in the absurdly long career of the improbable James Bond, 007.  Even those of us who have been more or less unable to let go our adolescent attachment to the character have doubtless wondered why he hasn’t just died.

He should have, certainly after the criminal treatment he endured toward the middle and end of the Roger Moore years.  All due respect to Mr. Moore (he didn’t write the films, he had probably less control than most leading men), I for one never quite accepted him as Bond.  He was always a bit too pretty, a bit too sophisticated, a bit too…light.

But the movies were popular, he kept signing on, and we endured, waiting for the next incarnation of Sean Connery.

The iconic Bond image of Connery with the long-barreled Walther (yes, that thing was a Walther, but it was an air gun because the actual prop hadn’t arrived for the photo shoot) which was never seen in any of the Bond films is not the one that summed up the character for me.  Rather it was this one:

The first real good look at Bond, at the L’Circle club at the beginning of Doctor No.  This is the image that made me want to be Bond— utterly unconcerned, cool, detached, and completely confident within himself.  He’s playing a fairly expensive game of bacarat and he obviously could care less whether he wins or loses.  (Of course, this is not true—Bond always cared about that, but not over trivial things.  The trivial things simple fell in line when he walked into the room, and this was another characteristic that made him, to a clumsy, hormone-laced adolescent, such an enviable figure.  How badly I wanted to simply not give a damn and how thoroughly I gave a damn about not being able to do that.)

I saw that first Bond film on first release. I was eight at the time and it wasn’t the women that got me, it was that dangerous cool he had at his disposal.  Later, as I reached puberty, the women became important, but till then it was being lethal—and not using it—that was the thing.

And dressing well and talking well and comporting yourself as if you knew why you were there and what you were doing.  It was a total package that was the only viable replacement for the stoic gunslinger in the westerns.  In the scope of a kid’s imagination, Bond was doable.

I wrote an essay for one of the BenBella Smartpop anthologies, James Bond In The 21st Century riffing on an imaginary history of the films, with a departure from Sean Connery.  It could have happened, Fleming was not taken with Connery at first, and there were others who could have filled the role.  (Fleming’s choice was David Niven, which, given the physicality of the character, is kind of absurd.  But it explains the subsequent choices, I think, of actors.)  It was also an alternate history of the franchise had it not been the hit that it was.  It was a fun piece to write, but it addressed a serious question.

Why did a franchise that became, for a time, so massively ridiculous continue to be such a big deal?

I think the answer is in the new manifestation.  Daniel Craig (and the writers) has gone back to the source in many ways and given us a Bond more in line with Fleming’s original conception of someone who is genuinely dangerous who wears a veneer of polish, culture, and civilization.

Once again, though, we harken back to that first on-screen look at Bond and see its reemergence in Craig’s portrayal.  Detached, completely in control, cool, and competent.

But with a difference for the films.

He’s vulnerable.

The last time Bond was vulnerable was in On Her Majestie’s Secret Service and Tracy Bond.  After that, he was in all but the Kryptonian origin, Superman.  It became the trademark.  Nothing got through, not really.  He had his empathy boxed up and set to one side, to be taken out on special occasions.

And there’s an appeal to that, to be sure.  We have all been undone by our notoriously fickle and sabotaging emotions, made fools of, acted stupidly.  What would we give to be able to avoid all that?

Well, the price is too high, but we have fantasy characters through which to pretend.

But I think it goes too far and they become so unlikely—not in their actions, the plots that give them a showcase, but in their emotional lives—that we cannot identify with them at all.  All we have then are the toys, the lifestyle, the fashions, and the rollercoaster ride of an action sequence.

Craig has been allowed to open Bond up so we can reconnect, albeit in a small way, with the pathetic human being caged behind the armor.  The fact that Craig is a first-rate actor (possibly better than Connery even in his prime) doesn’t hurt.

Bond has survived, though, because at his base he still represents a level of competence in a fickle, dangerous world we would all like to tap into.  Bond is always centered, he always knows what he’s about and how to act on that knowledge, and that is a very attractive ideal.  When you look at the first three Bond films, you can see that and a slightly vulnerable man, one who doesn’t always get it right, who can become involved, and can therefore be hurt. After Thunderball they became all about the gadgets and some surreal good vs evil drama that actually gave a good shadow-theater representation of the world at large.

The other thing that has carried us through so many really awful Bond films, though, is the myth of the uninvolved sybarite.  He comes in, takes his pleasure, kills the bad guy, and leaves unscathed.  He’s a moral avenger who gets to party occasionally.  His reward for doing the right thing was good food, fast cars, fine clothes, and great sex.  Bond never got fat, never caught a ticket or the clap, never left behind a single mom, and always looked good.  In return, he saved the world.  There was no sacrifice, really—he was a mercenary.

Except that’s not what Fleming wrote.  And when they rebooted the franchise and chose to do Casino Royale, they put that in there.  It may be ignored in subsequent films (I hope not, it’s what elevates Bond above the common), but it was there—Bond is sacrificing his soul.

That first novel, Casino Royale, was about that.  Bond was a new agent, freshly-minted with a 007 license, and fully a third of the book is him in hospital, working through the emotional and moral calculus of continuing to do this ugly, brutal job.  To their credit, the makers of the first Craig film kept that in.  We were even, dimly, shown its conclusion in Quantum of Solace, where at the end Bond has made his choice, and put on the armor.

It will be interesting to see if they continue to keep him human, if only slightly, or if they’ll do what they did before and turn him into the Road Runner getting one over on all the coyotes on the planet.

Happy birthday, Mr. Bond.

The Golden (Silver?) Good Ol’ Days

I just finished skimming through a fascinating little bit of fannish history, Earl Kemp’s Who Killed Science Fiction?  Fannish in the sense of science fiction fandom.  It has a rich and varied history and the concerns within the genre are as fraught with angst, ennui, and ambition as any literature.

I am always a bit bemused when I read about this sort of thing, because I came into science fiction through the rotary rack at my local drug store.  (Literally—Leuken’s Pharmacy, on the corner of Shenendoah and Compton, a good old fashioned drug store with a soda fountain, a magazine stand, and two circular racks for paperbacks, two blocks from my house.)  I had no idea about where these books came from, who wrote them, how, not to mention the whole publishing industry and its workings.  I used to think authors were “gray eminences” who occasionally deigned to write a new book and “gift” it to the public.  The notion that they did it for money or to meet a contract deadline or anything so mundane never occurred to me.  It was a wholly mysterious process, with arcane rituals and secret rites.

Nor were all books created equal in my mind.  For some reason—purely aesthetic—I early on decided that the best science fiction, the stuff with true weight and merit, was all published by Avon.  They did Asimov’s magisterial Foundation Trilogy, after all, and that was Significant Literature!  They put out a lot of Zelazny and some Silverberg.

But I knew nothing about fandom.  Occasionally I’d see a notice in the back of one of the magazines I read—If, Galaxy, Amazing, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vertex, Venture—for a convention somewhere, usually a “World Science Fiction Convention” (!), but I thought they would necessarily be by invitation only (where all the gray eminences met to determine the future offerings, etc) and I’d never go to one.

Kemp’s little tome is the result of a survey he sent out around 1960, asking the title question, among others.  Damn.  I started reading the magazines regularly around 1963 or ’64, so if already in 1960 there was concern over SF being dead, then…

Most of the seventy-odd respondents thought SF was not dead at all, but was in the doldrums.  This was right after the so-called Golden Age has ended (roughly between 1938 and 1954 or so) and there was apparently a sense that the Next New Thing hadn’t arrived yet and maybe it wouldn’t.  It was right on the cusp of New Wave and a few years before Campbell changed the name of Astounding to Analog.  There’s the sense of people sort of milling around, waiting for Something To Happen.

Well, it was five years before Dune and seven years before Dangerous Visions, two books that arguably changed the field.  In a way they represent two extremes, the last great epic of traditional SF and the compendium of All The Wild Shit coming down the pike.  (Both books are almost continually in print to this day, and while Dune has become more a media and franchise phenomenon, Dangerous Visions and its sequel is still a touchstone for serious literary study and the taking-off point for the changes in approach and trajectory that drove everything until Gibson, Sterling, and Cyberpunk worked another set of changes on a field that has always been as good as its most recent thing.)

The general consensus throughout the responses was that magazine SF was not dead (and there did seem to be an over-emphasis on the magazines, which at the time were still seen as the major outlet for SF.  Book publishers had not yet really crowded into the field as they did by the end of the decade, although some were putting out quite a lot, like ACE) but it was sick as hell.  I’ve sat in on similar conversations over the last three decades of my own involvement in fandom and I was struck reading this by the similarity in tone and even in content of the arguments.  (Horace Gold, editor of Galaxy, thought everything was fine except for too much psi.)

Kurt Vonnegut chimed in with a particularly venomous assault, that not only was it dead but he would be glad to help find the corpse so it could be properly buried.  He wrote a note to Kemp later apologizing and blaming his attitude on his isolation from the field.  Vonnegut made his bones in SF and took many opportunities to diss it because he didn’t want to be regarded by the critics—and therefore his potential audience—as a hack.  Fair enough, but sometimes I wonder if something else was going on there.  He could have distanced himself without pissing all over the whole genre.  Or maybe not.  I have to bear in mind that the critical arena is not what it was then.

The last section of the book contains revisitations some 20 years later, when science fiction was going through an enormous boom.  Some of the pessimism of the earlier responses had to be explained.

A lot of of them credited Star  Trek  with the “revival” of science fiction.  It did bring a much larger audience into the field.  It did open the door for many of those new readers to discover that, as good as they thought Star Trek was, the stuff between two covers was much better.

That all changed again in the 80s with the massive upsurge of Fantasy, all, in my opinion, in the wake of Star Wars, which did something very similar—brought many tens of thousands of new fans eagerly into the field.  But in this instance, a different realization occurred that led to a collapse of science fiction.  Instead of discovering that the material in the books they were now buying was better than Star Wars, they found that it was utterly different—and that they really didn’t like it.

Star Wars—and I’ve said this before, often—is not science fiction (even though Lucas rather hamfistedly and stupidly tried to retrofit it as science fiction in the “first” three movies) but heroic quest fantasy in space.  Or, simply, Fantasy in Skiffy drag.  Audiences went from this to the less reifying work of writers like Brin, Bear, Clarke, Benford, Cherryh, et al and it must have been like a cold shower.  Science fiction requires thought, analysis, its virtue is in the explication and championing of reason, logic, and science, and while there are heroes aplenty in SF there’s not a lot of destiny or “born to the throne” heroes who just Are.

As fast as they blew up the SF bubble, they left it for all the Tolkein clones that began to dominate the publishing field by the late 80s and still command a hefty market share.

Science fiction, it seems to me, has always been a minority taste.  It appeals to people who also find science appealing.  It has always had a fairly solid core of supporters and as a percentage of the publishing market has remained fairly constant, with certain boom times punctuating a more or less steady, dependable foundation.  Science fiction offers marvels, of course, but they are, the best of them, marvels still grounded in an idea of reality.  And reality is tough.  It takes work to survive and thrive.  A good sword arm won’t do you much good when a meteor has holed your ship and all the air is leaking out and you have to figure out how to fix it.  Orbital mechanics couldn’t care less that you’re of the House Royal as your ship starts spiraling down to a nasty end because you didn’t do the math right for re-entry into atmosphere.  Science fiction says “Yes, the future can be wonderful—but it will still be Real and you’ll have to deal with it the same way you deal with what’s real now.”

So, who killed science fiction in my opinion?

Lot of assumptions in that question with which I do not agree.

The Last One

The last motion picture theater of my youth is gone.

For several years, The Avalon, sitting on Kingshighway, across the street from a mortuary that has now become a church, has been shuttered and slowly decaying and finally has met its inevitable fate.

In a way, good.  It has been an eyesore for some time, a constant reminder of neglect and a ruin of a bygone era.

Hyperbole? Indeed, yes, but true nonetheless.  As you can tell by what remained, it was an elegant, simple building, with a lovely facade.  A symbol of an age thoroughly gone—the single-screen, stand-alone movie theater.

The last film I saw there was back in 1986 or ’87—The Last Temptation of Christ.  The theater had passed into the hands of a single owner who was a bit of an eccentric, and he tried everything to keep it going.  He had a bit of a windfall with that film because of the timidity of every other movie theater in the city and county.  They all refused to show Scorcese’s flawed depiction of Jesus’ final days.  The Avalon announced it would screen it and it was no doubt the last time it had sell-out audiences for several days.

By then, the wear and tear was already very apparent.  One of the speakers had been busted for years, generating an annoying buzz off to stage left, and he had never, evidently, made enough money to fix it or replace it.  For ordinary dialogue it was fine, the buzz only became noticeable during very loud sequences.  Probably a torn cone.

But the air conditioning worked, the concession stand still operated, and the seats were kept in repair.

After that, we never went back.  When the doors closed, I expected someone to buy it and try to restore it, but I always thought that during the ’80s and ’90s, when so many of these disappeared one way or the other.

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s film Radio Days that shows the family Going To The Movies during the 1930s.  In Allen’s handling, it is a reverential scene, like people going to church, slow, a processional, and while I never quite felt that way, there is certainly something of that in my memory.  Nostalgia often becomes a frame for reverence.  Going to the movies for us was a Big Deal and our major entertainment, up till the age of VCRs.  I have vivid memories of a childhood with many options for movie-going.  St. Louis was full of them.

A few of the buildings remain.  The ultra-modernist Martin Cinerama is still there, but it serves as a church now, which pains me.  It was the most expensive theater to go to, but it was the only Cinemascope screen in town.  I remember seeing Grand Prix there.  I also saw 2001: A Space Odyssey there four times.  But not much else.  We may have seen How the West Was Won there, but my more vivid memory of that was seeing it in our local theater, The Shenendoah, and being annoyed at the peculiar warp in the center of the screen where the wide Cinemascope picture had been compressed.

The Melvin is still there, but it, too, is a church, one of those little revival things that can barely support itself.

And of course The Fox is still there, majestic centerpiece of our threater district, and up the street a little bit is Powell Hall, which was once The American, a movie house of the grand tradition.

The rest?  All the stand-alone neighborhood theaters are pretty much gone.

The ones I spent my adolescence in were within walking distance, albeit long walks:  The Shenendoah, The Ritz, The Washington, and The Columbia.  I saw Gone With The Wind in The Columbia.  To be fair, that one is somewhat still there.  The building is, anyway.  After the theater closed, it was converted into a sports facility for a while, with handball courts.  It burned.  Now it is a private home, a showcase bit of architectural bravura owned by the architect.  I sometimes wonder how many people anymore know what it once was.

But the others are just gone, torn down.  Parking lots.  That’s also what became of The Granada, another of my favorites.  I remember when it was demolished, standing in the remaining space and trying to fit the immense theater of my memory into the claustrophobic area of the empty lot.  That’s another one I recall the last picture I saw in—Star Crash.  It rained hard that night, too.

The Granada in particular galls.  I knew a bunch of people, my age, who had formed a company to try to buy it so they could turn it into a revival theater.  The owner, for reasons that escaped us all, refused to sell, delayed and delayed, until one year the roof fell in and the building became a hazard.  The cost of renovation at that point was too high and soon after it fell to the wrecking ball.

The Ritz…yes, I remember the last picture I saw there, as well.  The owners had tried to convert it into a multi-screen venue, which sort of worked, but the crowd had deteriorated into a Roman mob and I was threatened with a knife in the hands of a ten-year-old I told to shut up.  The film?  Airplane II.

Not sure about all the others.

The litany is long, like absent friends.  The Crest, the Crestwood, the Ambassador,  all the Loews theaters, Midtown, State, another one that eludes memory just now, the Mark Twain, the Creve Coeur…

I remember the first time I went to a multiplex.  I didn’t know then that it was the wave of the future.  My dad took me to The Des Peres to see 2001, on a screen not much larger than a widescreen LCD you can put in your home now.  They were known as “Jerry Lewis Intimate Theaters” and we thought they were a joke.  Well.

Movie houses, as they were once affectionately called, suffered, I think, the demise of the B Picture more than anything else.  In an era where the cheapest Hollywood production can only be done for close to ten million, the need for box office returns simply will not support the way theaters used to operate.  Oh, there are certainly B pictures, but they go direct to television (cable) or direct to DVD.  No one is going to pay the cost of an evening at the theater for less than a major motion picture, so the bread-and-butter of the former age is gone.

I can understand, intellectually, what happened, and if I had been a businessman in the movie house business back then I probably would have taken the same series of decisions that has resulted in the current loss of what for many decades was an American institution.

Going to the movies is a social activity.  It’s not like gathering a couple friends at your home to watch a DVD.  It is a civilizing activity when conducted the way it once was.

One benefit of this, probably unforeseen (I didn’t see it), is the revival of live theater.  If you’re going to pay a lot of money to go be entertained, the novelty and impact of the stage is the thing that draws the audience.  Not, perhaps, large audiences—many local theater groups struggle—but devoted audiences, and this, I think, is a good thing.  Live theater is about the story, the characters, not the special effects.  At live theater, you have to pay attention.

I miss going to the movies.  We stopped doing it years ago because, frankly, it was just more convenient to rent the video.  The “pause” button has spoiled us, weakening out bladders, giving us opportunity to replay what just happened because we don’t pay as close attention as we used to, and avoiding sitting in a hall with people who don’t know how to shut up during the film.  It became expensive and a bother.

Now it’s a special event, something we might do once or twice a year.  (I have every intention of going to see John Carter of Mars at the theater.)  And, yes, there are still theaters—multiplexes, often in shopping malls (although that peculiar institution itself is struggling, so who knows what may happen)—and they are expensive.  Now we have OMNIMAX theaters, which, impressive as they sometimes are, is nevertheless part of an ongoing tradition in film to try to coax people to leave their homes and go to the movies, like VistaVision, Todd-AO, Cinemascope and a dozen others, all trying to offer people what could not be had on television.  The current revival of 3-D is such a gimmick.

Anyway, I thought I’d take some space to lament the passing of yet another monument from my youth.  The intersection where The Avalon once stood was home once to a remarkable piece of urban architecture, a Famous-Barr department store that, when it was built, was shocking for its modernity.  That’s gone now, too, a strip mall in its place with a Walgreens and an Office Max.  Around the neighborhood you can see the architectural motifs on apartment buildings and private homes that speak of a more optimistic, confident time—and, perhaps, a more thoughtful time.

Or not.  Nostalgia is deceptive and memory a dangerously mutable realm.  But there is still some comfort there, to go along with the melancholy.


An Age of Wonder and Annoyance

I have two things to talk about that are related by the slenderest of threads. Bear with me.

First I’d like to say something about how marvelous is the age in which we live, at least from the perspective of someone who has now lived in a couple of “ages” since arriving on this planet in 1954.

A short while ago I had lunch. While having lunch I like to watch something, so I popped the DVD of The Right Stuff   into my player and settled back to my roast beef and movie.  While watching, it occurred to me how blase I’ve  become at this technology.

See, growing up, movies were a Big Deal.  My parents went every other week at least and took me.  Going To The Movies holds a special, nostalgic place in my memory.  It was a shared event, but more than that it was in fact An Event.  TV was there, sure, but it was crappy and even at age four I kind of recognized the difference.  Movies were Big, they were Special, they were Unique—and they went away.  Though it was dependable.  The first run theaters got the new films and ran them for a week, maybe two.  The next batch were due in and they swapped them out, so the films went to the cheaper neighborhood theaters, usually only for a week.  Plus, these were double features.  You sat in the theater for up to four and half hours to see two movies.  Before I was born, it would be two movies, plus—cartoons, a short subject, maybe a news reel.  Going to movies was a significant amount of time and a major outing.

We brought our own snacks.  Mom would make up some popcorn or put a brown bag of candy together, and we might—might—bring a bottle of soda to share.  The concession stand was more than we could afford usually.

And after the movies left the theaters, they were gone.  If you  hadn’t seen them when they came out, during the three or four weeks they were in town at one or another theater, you were s.o.l.  Some of the bigger hits might be rereleased a year or two later and a few films were perennially rereleased, but the vast majority did not come back.  You had to remember them.

Television changed that somewhat when networks started leasing movies to show at certain low-traffic times, and then in the late Sixites and early Seventies there were a variety of movie programs—Movie of the Week, Thursday Night At the Movies, A Picture For A Sunday Afternoon.  Suddenly all these old films started turning up again, and of course after ten P.M. local networks aired a lot of B pictures or films from the Thirties and Forties, but you had to stay up for them, and you never knew what you would get.  (Some of my favorite memories with my dad come from Friday nights, sitting up late, watching some of these movies, some of which were unintentional howlers at which we’d poke fun.)

A lot of people today probably don’t see the wonder in being able to go to a store or online and buy a film and watch it at home.  VCRs didn’t come in till the late Seventies (and the early models weren’t great), but it ushered in an age of comparative cultural wealth.  The idea, when I grew up, that I could actually own one of these movies, for myself, and watch it when I chose to…

You forget occasionally to sit back and appreciate what we now have.  It is amazing—the technology, yes, but the fact that I can drop a disc in a machine and watch The Maltese Falcon or  Gone With The Wind  or  The Right Stuff  whenever I please is…incredible.

That’s the good part.

The other amazing thing is this vast and complex online community—several communities, actually, some overlapping—that we have with more ease than it used to be to make a long distance phone call.  It’s amazing.  I can communicate with people I would never have known existed in one of those previous “ages” and talk about things only a rare handful of people I ever met face to face would even have been interested in before.  Like-minded, like-enthused, like-whatever people around the globe who can now “chat” online.

And with whom one can trip over an area of sensitivity so fast and so inexplicably that it makes your head spin.  I have recently had this shoved in my face just how easily some folks take offense and how impossible it can be to explain yourself or extricate yourself.  Unless you want to be an ass, it is often better to simply leave the group in question rather than see the crap continually stirred.

But because it is so easy to leave, not to mention remain anonymous, I think many people never learn the nuances of real interaction.  Distance used to serve a vital social function, namely keeping people apart by virtue of the difficulty of communicating.  Letter-writing requires thought—the trouble you have to go through to draft the letter, address it, go to the post office, etc. I think tends to make people more thoughtful and thorough.  It’s not like a casual conversation, which the ease of communication has sometimes turned the most serious conversations into because it is difficult to tell when it is time to stop cracking wise.

Further, though, once a foul has been made, it doesn’t go away.  It perpetuates, spreads, and suddenly people all over may know all about the reputation you have earned through misadventure.

Part of the problem—a big part, I think—is the fact of the words remaining behind after the conversation is over.  Spoken conversation has a half-life, very short, and events carry people past ill-considered phrasing or cliches, aided by the visuals, the body language and facial expression.  But when you write something down, it has weight, and online exchanges acquire significance never intended for a brief exchange.  You can consider the words, read them over again and again, and derive meaning and intent whether it’s there or not.

The wonderfulness of our enabling technologies render us lazy, allow us to take for granted things which in an earlier time, with less speed and availability, would not have been so poorly used.

So instead of a thoughtless sentence being immediately apologized for, brushed aside, and forgotten, the offending sentence lingers, a solid legacy that reminds and continues to irritate.  The down-side of modern ease.

Part of the pleasure of all these things should be from not taking them for granted, from a near conscious recognition of just how cool things are.  On the one hand, we maybe have to grow thicker skins—certainly we have to learn new interpretive skills—and on the other maybe let our skins thin a little so we can sense the amazing gift much of this world is.  Hard to know where to apply what and for a whole generation or two there is the perfectly understandable if annoying question, “What’s the big deal?”

Unfortunately, if you have to ask…

Star Wars and Science Fiction

On Thursday, July 21st,  I gave a talk at the Daniel Boone Regional Library on the nature of science fiction.  I had a good turn-out, the room was almost full, and the talk was generally well-received.

I used a comparison I’ve grown used to deploying, comparing Star Wars to something else and pointing out how it is not science fiction but rather a quest fantasy dressed up like SF, which is not at all uncommon, but can be confusing when talking about the differences that make SF unique.  Normally, this point gets across without too much trouble and for that reason, perhaps, I’ve grown a bit complacent in how I present it.

One person in the audience kept coming back to it, arguing that my definition of what makes Star Wars a fantasy is not sufficiently differentiating to separate it from science fiction.  We went back a forth throughout the evening.  The exchange was fun, respectful, and illuminating, but I still think I failed to address the concerns made.  For one, I didn’t identify the direction from which the objection came well enough.

The question centered around the requirement that SF be about how humans deal with significant changes in the environment around them, causing them to see the universe fundamentally differently than before—requiring them to change.  As stated, all fiction of any worth makes this demand of characters.  No change, no drama.  I put the emphasis on the specifics of the environment—an environment that is changed out of our norm by advances in technology or encounters with aliens or one of the several other motifs SF has deployed in the past, like time travel, telepathy, advanced weapons, faster-than-light travel and so forth.

Well, Star Wars  has all that, so why doesn’t it qualify as SF?

I think I failed to get across that the changes elicited by such things must also be in accord with the nature of the new environment.  The fact is, Luke doesn’t meet that criteria, nor really does anyone else in Star Wars.  Nor do they have to, because the changed milieu in which they move is not acting upon them the way it would in a science fiction novel.

My questioner seemed to be taking the stance that Luke was going through a Hero’s Journey, ala Joseph Campbell’s thesis in The Hero With A Thousand Faces.  Everyone knows, or should know, that Campbell was a close adviser to George Lucas on the first two movies and they conform to Campbell’s  mythic analysis.  Why does this make Star Wars fantasy instead of science fiction?  Don’t  SF characters go through a Hero’s Journey?

Well, many do, certainly, but not all, and science fiction really isn’t concerned with reifying those kinds of myths.  And here’s where I fumbled.

Luke Skywalker’s entire journey is destined.  He walks the path he does to fulfill the potential left unfulfilled by his father, making this a story tied to a thick strand of myth that is the same in that film as it was in Aeschylus or Euripedes.  The universe through which Luke moves is functionally no different than the myth-strewn landscape through which Hercules, Theseus, or Perseus walked.  The aliens in Star Wars are not really aliens, but mythic archetypes and racial stereotypes.  Take the whole corpus of Star Wars and drop it  into any of the stories of the Age of Heroes and the only things you would have to change are the modes of transportation and the weapons.  Luke doesn’t have to change because who and what he is will not meet the changed conditions of the universe, but because the universe has a predetermined role for him to fulfill and he need only become what he can inevitably become.  The universe in this instance is almost a conscious enabler in a process that has nothing to do with what we know of nature.

Luke’s training is the same as that of any warrior monk of any period of history.  He’s a squire, an apprentice, Obi Wan is a knight, the Emperor is a wizard and Darth Vader his co-opted henchman.  Where have we seen these before?  The universe of Star Wars is a magic quest that sees no reason for anything to change simply because it is different.

Rather than compare it to what it is usually compared with—Star Trek—let’s compare it to something strikingly different.  Blade Runner.  Is there a Hero’s Journey in Blade Runner?  Sort of.  Deckard must go on a quest, meeting challenges, in order to become who he really is.  But the landscape has utterly changed, so when he gets to the end he has not triumphed.  All he has learned is that he was lied to all his life and that what he is has no place in the society he has just defended.  And what are the challenges he has faced?  Are they threats to society?  Perhaps, but not in any reifying way.  He has to kill beings like himself who are designed to a purpose and want only to be free of their destiny.  Very much like Deckard himself, who has at the beginning quit the service he finds damaging to himself.

The changed conditions of the environment require him to do what is not in his nature, so there is no fulfillment of potential, only a kind of indentured servitude with the elusive goal at the end of not having to do it anymore.  And at the end what he learns is that his prey is not what he thought it was, that in achieving the ends set for him by society he has perhaps committed a worse crime, a moral crime, and that the reward he sought was intended for someone he no longer believes he is—in fact, he will be hunted down by others now for having learned what he is.

Only another level, just as important, is an argument over the nature of slavery and what is human, deployed in a manner than sidesteps the arbitrariness of personal prejudice—the replicants are Made Objects rather than designated as such by those without empathy.  Like anything else humans make, are they not property?

This is not a scenario easily translated into fantasy—even the Urukai of Tolkein and the Orcs are undeniably evil by virtue of having been made, the idea being that any imitation of nature in such a process is by definition corrupted—because the replicants are individuals, not archetypes, and that’s where the dividing line is.

And finally there is the science thing.  Star Wars depicts a universe wherein science and technology are almost always inferior, usually corrupt, and complete failures at answering the questions posed by nature.  The Force overrides all—dark or light—rendering anything science might do pointless.

The whole point of science fiction from the beginning has been to establish that such ways of seeing the universe are invalid in terms of human potential.  The “nature” of Nature is not amenable to petitions based on—for lack of a better term—religious concepts of reality, which is ultimately what Star Wars is all about.

What would a genuinely SFnal Star Wars look like?  I’m not sure, but for one thing all those blasters would be laser-sited and no one would miss.  For another, there would likely be no robot slaves (which is what they are)—intelligences at that level would long since have acquired status equal if not superior to the organics life forms around them.  For still a third, there would likely not be an Empire with even the slimmest semblance of homogeneity.

One could go down the list.  The scope and scale of the civilization depicted wouldn’t fit within the narrow confines of the feudal system portrayed.  As for Luke and Leia? Well…

But as to the Hero’s Journey, there are two ways to look at it within this context.  There is the one the hero makes in order to fulfill expectations built into the universe around him—which is the journey Luke Skywalker makes—and this is mythic and religious.  The other is the struggle to find ourselves, our true natures, and fulfill or at least complete the personal journey to become our own selves.  The rest of the universe doesn’t give a damn about this, it is your journey and fulfills no one else’s expectations.  Doing so is its own reward—or, in some cases, punishment—and does not have world-changing consequences.  The former is a fantasy conceit, the latter…well, that’s reality, isn’t it?  And as it plays out in science fiction, it is part of a reality that shares little with fantasy.

Dead Stuff

This may be social suicide, but I’m going to say it anyway.

I don’t like zombies.

Not too thrilled with vampires, either.

I mean—hell, they’re dead.  Dead.  And motivating.  The contradiction alone is…

I am tired of zombies, though.  And vampires.


In the last several months, I have picked up at least two novels I was very much looking forward to reading because their premises looked really cool.  I put both down because zombies got dragged into them, and I thought unnecessarily.  Zombies are cool right now, though, and apparently a lot of people like reading about corpses shambling around trying to eat the neighbors.  Never mind that they don’t seem to move very fast and an octagenarian with a hip replacement could outrun one, but…

Now, I liked Michael Jackson’s  Thriller.  I even liked the zombie dance in it.  I thought it was a neat twist on an old theme.  But it’s an old theme and while even I wrote a story that sort of dwelt on the possibilities of vampirism explaining certain religious rituals, it was a short story and I didn’t make a career out of it.

To be fair, I have never been much of a horror fan.  I don’t find having the crap scared out of me particularly fun.  Some do.  Certainly a lot of people in my life have had fun scaring the crap out of me, but that’s another story.  So I was never a wolfman fan or a mummy fan or a Dracula fan or any of that.  I could appreciate these things as one time motifs for a specific work of fiction, but to turn them into cottage industries…

I even liked Buffy, but not really because of the vampires and such.  I thought it was funny.  (And Willow was hot.)  Angel not so much.

I find the fannish obsession with dead things a bit disturbing.  Necrophilia is not healthy.  But each to his or her own, I say.  Not for me to judge.

But I do dislike it ruining otherwise good fiction because it’s, you know, trendy.

I wouldn’t mind having a good explanation for it.  I like to understand things.  Knowledge is power, after all, and even for the purposes of self defense…

Anyway, there.  I’ve said it.  I don’t like zombies.  And I would really like them not in what appear to be otherwise perfectly good steampunk novels that I would otherwise read with delight.

I do wonder how many others feel the same way…

My Obligatory Piece About Ayn Rand

From time to time, here and there, someone brings Ayn Rand up as some kind of role model.  Lately it’s even in the national news, thanks to the Tea Party and an apparently not very good film of Rand’s seminal masterwork, Atlas Shrugged.  The uber conservatives now crowding reason out of the halls of congress with their bizarro legislation and their lectures from the floor and on committees about how their toilets don’t flush right so why should regulations on light bulbs be passed are the children of the Dragon’s Teeth cast randomly by Ms. Rand and her philosophical cult followers.  It amazes how people who profess to believe in a philosophy of independent thought can sublimate themselves so thoroughly to the dogmas of that philosophy and claim with a straight face that they are free thinkers on any level.  The phrase “more Catholic than the pope” comes to mind sometimes when crossing verbal swords with these folks, who seem perfectly blind to the contradictions inherent in their own efforts.  Rand laid out a My Way or the Highway ethic that demanded of her followers that they be true to themselves—as long as they did as she directed.

Ayn Rand’s novels, of which there were three (plus a novella/parable I don’t intend to discuss here), moved by giant leaps from promising to fanciful to pathetic.  There are some paragraphs in any one of them that are just fine.  Occasionally a secondary character is nicely drawn (Eddie Willers is possibly her most sympathetic and true-to-life creation) and from time to time there is even a moment of genuine drama.  But such bits are embedded in tar pits of philosophically over-determined panegyric that drowns any art there might be.

But then, her devoted fans never read them for the art.


What Rand delivers in both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged is a balm to the misunderstood and underappreciated Great Man buried in the shambling, inarticulate assemblage that is disaffected high I.Q. youth.

The give-aways in both novels involve laughter.  The opening scene in The Fountainhead characterizes Howard Roark for the entire novel, prefiguring the final scene in the novel, which translated to film perfectly in the weird 1947 Gary Cooper thing.

Howard Roark laughed.

He stood naked at the edge of a cliff….He laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning and at the things which now lay ahead.

Of course, the thing that had happened to him that morning was his expulsion from university for not completing his assignments.  You can pretty it up with philosophical dross, but basically he didn’t do what he was required to do, instead opting for self-expression in the face of everything else.  Hence the misunderstood genius aspect, the wholly-formed sense of mission, the conviction of personal rightness, and the adolescent disdain for authority no matter what.

But his reaction?  To laugh.

Any other kid in the same situation generally goes skulking off, bitter and resentful, harboring ill thoughts and maybe an “I’ll show you” attitude that may or may not lead to anything useful.

But not a Rand character.  They laugh.  It’s Byronic in its isolated disdain for rules or logic or anything casually human.  It’s a statement of separation.

It’s also just a bit psychotic.

The other scene is from Atlas Shrugged in which Dagny Taggart falls into bed with Henry Reardon.  Both are depicted as mental giants, geniuses, and industrial rebels.  They are self-contained polymaths who make their own rules.  And one of the rules they now make for themselves is that adultery is the only sensible choice for two such kindred beings.

And as they’re tumbling into an embrace?

When he threw her down on the bed, their bodies met like the two sounds that broke against each other in the air of the room: the sound of his tortured moan and of her laughter.

Of course, this most poignant moment is preceded by a long paragraph of Dagny explaining to Hank Reardon that she was going to sleep with him because it would be her proudest moment, because she had earned it.  It’s really rather ridiculous.  It’s the kind of thing that, if done at all, would most likely occur at the end of an affair, when both parties are trying to justify what they’d done, which is basically commit adultery because, you know, they wanted to.

But it’s the laughter that characterizes these two people in these moments.  Crossroads for them both, turning points, and what do they do?  They laugh.  You can’t help but read contempt into it, no matter how much explanation Rand attempts to depict them as somehow above it all.  For her it’s the laughter of victory, but in neither case is there any kind of victory, but a surrender.

Later in Atlas Shrugged Reardon gives her a bracelet made of his miracle metal and upon snapping it closed on her wrist, she kisses his hand, and it is nothing short of a moment from Gor.  Dagny gets traded around through the novel until she ends up with John Galt, and no matter how much Rand tries to explain it, the scenarios she sets up for each transition turn Dagny into a groupie.  She becomes by the end of the novel the prize each of them men gets when they’ve done a particularly impressive trick.

Rand attempts to portray their interactions (if you can call them that—really, they’re more contract negotiations, which means Rand owes an implicit debt to Rousseau) as strenuously righteous achievements.  No one just has a conversation if they’re a Rand hero, they declaim, they negotiate, the issue position statements.  They are continually setting ground rules for the experience at hand, and while maybe there’s something to this (we all indulge this sort of thing, from earliest childhood on, but if we tried to do it with the kind of self-conscious clarity of these people nothing would ever happen), it serves to isolate them further.  They are the antithesis of John Donne’s assertion and by personal fiat.

Only it isn’t really like that.

The problem with being a nerd is that certain social interactions appear alien and impenetrable and the nerd feels inexplicably on the outside of every desirable interpersonal contact.  People like Rand attempt to portray the group to which the nerd feels isolated from as deliberately antagonistic to the nerd because they sense the nerd’s innate superiority.  This is overcomplicating what’s really going on and doing so in an artificially philosophical way which Rand pretends is an outgrowth of a natural condition.  The messiness of living is something she seeks to tame by virtue of imposing a kind of corporate paradigm in which all the worthwhile people are CEOs.

As I said, it’s attractive to certain disaffected adolescent mindset.

But it ain’t real life.

I have intentionally neglected the third novel, which was her first one—We The Living.  I find this book interesting on a number of levels, one of the most fascinating being that among the hardcore Randites it is almost never mentioned, and often not read.  The reasons for this are many, but I suspect the chief one being that it doesn’t fit easily with the two iconic tomes.  Mainly because it’s a tragedy.

We The Living is about Kira Argounova, a teenager from a family of minor nobility who comes back to Moscow after the Revolution with the intention of going to the new “classless” university and becoming an engineer.  She wants to build things and she knows that now is her chance.  Prior to the revolution, she would never have been allowed by her family or social convention—her destiny was to have been married off.  That’s gone now.  We never really learn what has become of the rest of her family, but we can guess.  And Kira is intent on pursuing her dream.

But she can’t.  Because she is from minor nobility, she soon runs afoul of the self-appointed guardians of the Revolution, who oust her from the university just because.

She ends up a prostitute, then a black market dealer.  She becomes the lover of an NKVD agent and uses him.  She is already the lover of a wannabe counter-revolutionary who can’t get his game on and ends up in self-immolation.  The NKVD agent self-destructs because of the contradictions she forces him to see in the new state and Kira goes from bad to worse and finally makes an attempt to escape Russia itself and ends up shot by a hapless border guard at the Finnish border.  She dies just inside Finland.

It is a strikingly different kind of novel and it offers a glimpse of where Rand might have gone had she stuck to this path.  Sure, you can see some of the seeds of her later pedantry and polemic, but the bulk of the novel is heartfelt, an honest portrayal of the tragedy of dreams caught in systemic ambivalence.

One can understand the source of Rand’s fanatic love of the United States—she grew up under the early Soviets, and there’s no denying that this was a dreadful system for a bright, talented, intellectually-bent young woman—or anyone else, for that matter—to endure.  The freedom of the United States must have been narcotic to her.

But she fundamentally misunderstood the American landscape and identified with the glitzy, large-scale, and rather despotic “captains of industry” aspect rather than the common citizens, the groundseed of cooperation and generosity and familial observance and openness that her chosen idols took advantage of rather than provided for.  She drew the wrong lessons and over time, ensconced within her own air-born castles, she became obsessively convinced that the world was her enemy and The People were irredeemable.

Sad, really.  Sadder still that so many people bought into her lopsided philosophy.

She made the mistake so many people seem to make in not understanding that capitalism is not a natural system but an artifice, a tool.  It is not a state of being but a set of applications for a purpose.  It should serve, not dictate.  She set out a playbook which gave capitalism the kind of quasi-legitimate gloss of a religion and we are suffering the consequences of its acolytes.

However, it would seem the only antidote to it is to let people grow out of it.  There’s a point in life where this is attractive—I read all these novels when I was 15 and 16 and I was convinced of my own misunderstood specialness.  But like the adolescent conviction that rock’n’roll is the only music worth listening to and that the right clothes are more important than the content of your mind, we grow out of it.

Some don’t, though.  And occasionally they achieve their goals.  Alan Greenspan, for instance.

And even he has now admitted that he was wrong.  Too bad he didn’t realize that when he was 21.

People Who Have No Money Should Have Nothing

I’m a tad upset.  The House just voted (all the Republicans and ten Democrats) to de-fund Planned Parenthood.


Planned Parenthood has been the target for the Right since it was founded in the 1920s—during a time, it should be stressed, when you could go to jail for distributing information about contraception.  Jail.  Because such information was seen as destructive of public morals.

Again, why?  This should be a no-brainer for Conservatives.  Privacy.  The ability to control your own person.  The responsible management of your own life.  But time and again we keep running up against this perverse negative reaction to anything that smacks of responsible sexuality.  I have said this before, but I think it bears repeating, that the right wing jeremiad against abortion has little to do with abortion—it is a war on sex.

Planned Parenthood is the number one provider of gynecological services for poor women, under and uninsured women, women with few other options if any.  The fact is that no federal dollars have been spent on abortion since the Hyde amendment was passed in 1976, and yet—and yet—this persecution continues.  It only makes sense if we stop thinking that this has anything to do with fetuses.

There is a very silly movie from 1964 called Kisses For My President.  It starred Polly Bergen as the first woman president of the United States and Fred MacMurray as her hapless husband.  You can imagine what the bulk of it is about—he has to fill the role of First Lady.  It’s a comedy.  Ostensibly.  As the frustrations of his position mount (I choose my words carefully) he clearly resents his position and decides to do something about it.  His solution?  He gets his wife pregnant.

Now, for some reason which today would be head-scratchable, she has to resign as president.  On this occasion, she yields to the inevitable and MacMurray is beaming like a man once more in charge.

Does anyone not see the horror in that scenario?

In 1964 businesses were still firing women who became pregnant.  There were no laws to prevent this.  The idea that a woman might want some say over her own life was still bizarre.  The sexual revolution was just underway and most Americans didn’t like it so much—not because they minded the idea of more sex so much as they hated the idea that their kids would be doing it.  Once it was well underway, though, it became far clearer that underlying all the cheesy jokes and Playboy aesthetics was the very serious issue of providing half the population with the ability to manage their own lives, their own dreams, their own futures.  Roe v. Wade was the capstone of this movement because—

This must be stressed today because we have generations that have grown up not knowing this history, not having to live under these conditions.

—because the inability of women to say no in matters of personal sexuality and to control their own fertility trapped many of them in cycles of dependence and poverty.  The fruits of the sexual revolution were not that boys got to get laid a lot more but that women have the final say in whether, when, if, how, and with whom any laying was going to take place.

For women who yearn for a baby and live in circumstances in which such an advent is welcome, wanted, and cherished and is not a crushing weight and a drain on small resources, it may be difficult to understand what a calamity an unwanted pregnancy might be.  But for any woman who wants to have a say in her own procreative decisions, there should be no question today that the Right, through the instrument of the Republican Party, is trying to turn this country back to a time when the movie cited above makes perfect sense and offers a welcome message.

What it really means is that if you don’t have the means in hand, and you’re a woman, these people want you to be silent, subservient, and second-class.

The reality is that women with money have always had access to abortion.  The euphemistic “time in the country” mentioned in so many mauve novels meant just that.  If you were poor, you went to a butcher in a dirty room and took your chances whether it was successful or you ended up with an infection that would kill you or a hemorrhage that wouldn’t stop.

The Republican Party is tied to a constituency of moneyed interests and moral morons who care nothing for average people.  Why we continue to vote them into power is a testament to a propaganda machine that has worked tirelessly to convince us that our interests are best served by having all protections stripped from us if we live below a certain income level.  They are marching us forward in our goal to become the wealthiest third world nation on the planet.