We Have Toys

Finally, after two trips into the wilds of computer land, I have my new scanner, all set up and ready to go. Below it my first scanned image.

 

I will get better at this, once I learn the various buttons on the new ‘chine. This is an old image, a 4 X 5 negative. To my pleasant amazement, the detail is still astounding in these things.

So in the space of a week, I have the ability now to once more make use of my (huge) library of negatives (only 50 + years of photography), and I have sold a new story—a novella, no less—to Analog. Not a bad start of a year that could have turned out a lot worse.

The Day After The Rebellion

Mark Twain (presumably)* said that if one does not wish to appear foolish, it is best to keep silent rather than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. Sound political advice as well.  Advice far too many Republicans failed to take.

I say “failed” but really, they didn’t fail in this—to fail at something implies you tried to do something but just couldn’t make it work. No, they never intended to do anything else.  They’ve been riding high on a rhetorical wave assuming their quasi-populist Everyman shtick would stand them in good stead with the voter, who they clearly believe is an idiot.

Trump appeared to be a godsend to a category of charlatan that believes the voter should be ignorant, unaware, preferably stupid, so that the voter will never interfere with what the charlatan intends to do.  In this case, conduct business that excludes the average voter from any say whatsoever. Partly, this is a species of elitism, assuming the average person cannot possibly understand the things done at a high level. Mostly, this is a desire to act without oversight, rule without criticism, and enjoy power without accountability. Behind the screen Trump supplied, the GOP has become a party of clerics tending to the mysteries of the temple, jealous of their access to the secrets of state and success.

The average American, if I may speak generally, wants very simple things—security, a feeling of place, and access to degree of self-determination.  It is, I think fair to say, a slate of expectations neither party has been adept at supplying, because the one thing that underlies all of this is a recognition of human equity and the rights incumbent thereto. Equity and rights, in the simplest terms, are power. And power is the one thing the powerful will not willingly share.

But we’ve been trying to move in that direction.

Since shortly after World War II, the powerful have been trying to maintain their privilege. They found a method and have been applying it consistently, basically fomenting resentments between groups of people in order to create the conditions whereby their mouthpieces could win elections and achieve positions from which to serve the powerful. Too abstract? Let me put it this way: the Koch Brothers and their associates have seeded resentments and aggravated disparities (many of which they themselves created) in order to achieve their tax agenda. They finally produced a block of Americans who consistently voted against their own best interests because they were convinced they were voting to preserve their “values” and their “country” and their “heritage.” All the powerful (i.e. the rich) wanted was lower taxes.

Which translates into power.

They probably did not wish to foment a rebellion.  Rebellions are fickle things and as likely to get the powerful killed as anything else. No, they wanted to keep the country at a simmer, disrupting coalitions that might become effective counters to their agenda.

Now, this does not require conspiracy.  All it requires is a set of common interests and goals. No secret meetings to lay out complex plans, just dinner and conversation and tacit agreement among equals, as it were. We tend to overcomplicate such things here as a matter of narrative consequence, that things which can unfold of their own accord must necessarily be done by the machinations of a cabal.  The reality is more banal and harder to manage, which is the nature of institutional predisposition. This is the basis of institutional racism. Institutional sexism. Institutional classism.

They were managing. Since Reagan, the flow of wealth has gone pretty much in one direction, till today it is, without exaggeration, obscenely uni-directional.

But then it went a step too far.  The simmer went to a boil and now we have a mess.

What we witnessed in the Capitol is the result of finally losing control of that narrative. In recent years we have seen a number of the primary movers pull back, deny they wanted this. Trump was supposed to be their puppet, but once off the leash, so to speak, he was anything but. And he fed the beast till it came to our political doorstep and demanded meat.

There are those who argue that this is all a matter of style—look at what he has accomplished rather than at the façade. Fair enough. But then we must take the next step and ask:  have these accomplishments happened uniquely because of him? Would they have happened under anyone else? The hallmarks—his brag points—have been the Wall (failed), Muslim ban (mostly failed), the tariffs (not complete failures but hardly raging successes), and the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East. Did any of these depend wholly on him?

A response to China has been in the works for a long time. The hammer blow he brought down did as much harm as good. But any president with congressional support could have begun this. He started a trade war which has had, at best, mixed results. The Wall was one of the most ill-advised acts in recent memory and served nothing but to feed the resentments and prejudices of his base, at exorbitant costs, diverting moneys in possibly illegal ways from other projects that would have had more efficacy. It will fall down of its own (sections of it already have) and overall fail to address a problem that has been allowed to fester because of the optics and campaign material. Withdrawing from the Middle East has become fraught with ethical and moral peril, but again, the draw-down was begun by Obama. The ban on Muslims….well, that was simply pandering.

Everything else, most of which goes on beneath the surface of the public gaze—not because it is secret but because it is complicated and not very sexy and only bores people—in any administration, depended on a civil service that he has decimated by categorical firings, departmental closures, and the appointment of sycophants who have no clue how to run the bureaus they have been charged with overseeing.  Betsy De Vos?  Her entire purpose was to hamstring the Department of Education and lay the groundwork for private education for profit.  Why is this bad? Because the one place where some kind of egalitarian recompense can start and possibly succeed is public education. Private education doesn’t care about that, whether admitted or not.  It cares about who can afford it, which is by definition anti-egalitarian.

In summary, the only thing that has made Trump unique is his vitriol and his “populist” cheerleading of the worst aspects of our culture. The proof is in what has happened in the Capitol. He egged them on with false claims of voter fraud (the most debunked lie of recent times) and when it got out of hand he urged them to go home with a familial “We love you.” We love you? Who, may I ask, is this “we” of which he speaks?

Trump has always been about the brand, the optics, the soundbite, and the ratings.  He has run his office like the set of a reality television show and as long as the news was covering something that was consequent upon his actions, this was success. It didn’t even have to be favorable coverage, in line with the old adage that even bad press is good. Armchair diagnoses abound regarding his personal problems—sociopath, narcissist, what have you—but it all comes down to someone who cannot abide being ignored. The price we’re paying for his insatiable need for attention is an unstable union, an endangered democracy, the humiliation of the country in the eyes of the world, and the highest debt in history.

And at the end of the day, he is the de facto leader of a cult that has no point. The mob broke into the Capitol, drove congress out, did some pillaging, and then…what? They had no plan, no goal, no end game.  Nothing but the clichéd rantings of the self-afflicted burdened with illusions of oppression. Like their idol, all they seem to want is to be noticed.

I knew a man once who before our eyes became a Nazi. He had stepped onto the path of conspiracy-driven alternate-history myth and little by little it ate into him. He could not seem to grasp where the lies and reality parted. He was not unintelligent. In fact, he had gifts and had he applied himself in more productive pursuits he could have been a success at life. But he chose a path that for some reason fed his insecurities, teased his suspicions, and made him feel, however absurdly, that he Knew The Truth. It empowered him in a way he could not reject, like a drug addiction. Going any other way would have meant…I was never sure, but perhaps dealing constructively with reality was simply too mundane. It would not have made him feel special.  Finally, his wife left him, took the children, he lost his home, and the last I saw of him he was handing out Nazi pamphlets outside a Steak’n’Shake poorly-dressed and wearing an armband with a swastika.

Such delusions eventually empty the soul. Like a narcotic, they seem to make the user feel wonderful, in control, superior. Then slowly it becomes apparent there is nothing to sustain the user and little by little vacancy supplants substance, stupor replaces awareness, and decay overcomes growth.

Listening to the “protestors” it is clear they have nothing but the moment.

It would be easy to see them as victims, but we should not. Victims have no choice, their circumstances overwhelm their will. These people chose this path.

False comparisons abound. Blame is being heaped on Antifa, BLM, all the social justice movements. This will not stand scrutiny.

But scrutiny is being assiduously avoided.

We have tolerated a condition wherein legitimate authority has been conflated with demagoguery, disinformation, and jingoism, to the point where we see that a significant part of our society has simply been allowed to reject reality in the name of their well-nurtured grievances and unexamined prejudices. We have seen idiocy and delusion take the stage with reason and responsibility as if they are equal. We have primed ourselves for this moment, perhaps thinking that somehow in the contest, that which is worthy of trust will somehow emerge, like a boxer from the ring. Well, it doesn’t work that way. Left to its own, idiocy and delusion can outpace and overwhelm reason and, for a time, displace reality, unless we choose the latter and confront the former.

Finally, Trump, in my view, represent—embodies—everything we must stop admiring and see for the destructive perversion of American values he is.

With that said, I believe he should be forthwith removed from office and his enablers stripped of their powers and charges of insurrection and sedition be made against the perpetrators of the four year fraud we have lived through.

And those who turned out in record numbers to vote this election cycle, do not ever fail to show up again.  This has been enabled as much by the apathy of the voter as by anything else.

Have a better 2021.

____________________________________________________________

  • My mistake. Abraham Lincoln said this. But I will leave the original as an example of what to do when one misspeaks.

 

Some Thoughts and A Photograph or Two

I’ve been on vacation this week. I intended to use the time to do a lot of cleaning up. It’s not like there are many places to go lately. And I have a basement in dire need of cleaning.

Well, I did some cleaning—more than I probably expected to—and took care of a couple of necessary chores and generally slept more than I usually do. I wish I had gotten more done, but I’m not beating myself up about it.

Oh, here’s a picture:

Something nice, pleasant. I’m not sure all of this post will be, so I’m offering “refreshment” along the way.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. I listened to some of the Barrett hearings and I heard pretty much what I expected to hear. She ducked questions adroitly, presented a façade of judicial competence (knowing all the right terms, etc), and did nothing to outrage the “wrong” people, namely the Republicans who are going to rubber-stamp her appointment. For better or worse, she’s it.

But it occurred to me that Congress really ought to stop asking technical questions. It’s unlikely a nominee will get this far and be unable to spar over legalistic questions. I think a more fundamental set of questions ought to be asked.  Do you believe the Earth is round? How old is the universe? Do you believe miracles are more efficacious than science? Is climate change real? Do you believe there are innately inferior groups of human beings? Do you believe there is evidence supporting evolution?  I would like to hear answers to those kinds of questions. We aren’t going to get the kind of answers on which to base a valid judgment on someone’s suitability to be appointed in the legal realm. One reason is, we test assumptions all the time in courts, that what a trial is. So asking someone how they’ll rule on this or that is kind of ridiculous.

But seeing how someone responds to questions about the world and reality, now, that would be more telling.  It’s possible a Flat-Earther might make a perfectly fine jurist, but the odds are that someone who is that disconnected from the real world has some serious disconnects that would render their judgments…well, a bit questionable, simply because they do not on a very fundamental level share a common perception and understanding of the world in which we live.

Amy Coney Barrett doesn’t accept anthropogenic climate change. Either because of political biases or because she doesn’t pay attention to what’s happening on the planet or she believes it doesn’t matter because the Rapture is coming soon so why waste time understanding something that will disappear with everything else in short order. I’m being a bit facetious, but only a bit.

My point is, I would prefer to know how these nominees see the world. A big question would be Do you believe men and women are equal as human beings or do you believe they have distinct rôles that require them to be treated differently? Never mind what the law says, what do you believe?

Another picture:

 

Over 20 million people have cast ballots already. It would gratify me greatly if this proved to be a record turnout. I am still convinced that turnout is essential.

We’re going to go to the polls on November 3rd. I feel it is important. I want to see what there is to see. I doubt we’ll have any armed partisans at our polling place, but you never know. I’m seeing this nonsense in Idaho and elsewhere, with these dystopically-inclined post adolescent conspiracy addicts threatening vigilantism should things not go the way they want. It is my belief—just a belief, mind you, but not based on nothing—that less will come of all that bluster than promised or feared. I don’t think much of people who isolate in the hills, come to town expecting Thunderdome, posing in Starbucks like a bad movie promotion, and rejecting anything that might take their Moment away, liked facts and ethics and community well-being. They have been imbibing a brew of Fifties-era SF movies, Mad Max, Bircher pseudo-science, and Talk Radio Newspeak for too long. They do not, I feel, understand the world, but they’ve figured out how to make that ignorance a virtue. They thrive on disappointment and I suspect they will continue to so thrive.

Something more pleasant again:

 

On a personal note, I intend—I always intend—to get a bit more disciplined about certain things. The writing, for one. I’ve done little enough in the last few months. This past week, I did almost none. Yesterday I went back to work on a novella I’ve been teasing at, and today, obviously, I’m doing this.

But I also need to get on the self-promotion schtick for my photographs. They’ve been available for purchase for almost two years now and I’ve sold—nothing. I don’t know if it’s because they just aren’t very good or because no one thinks I’m serious about this. I plan to buy a new scanner sometime in the next few months and start transferring my old negatives into digital files. I have five decades of images to go through and it would not be a pleasant thought to see them all just go in the rubbish when I die.

No, that’s not an issue. Not at present, anyway. I’ve been dealing more and more with my parents on that topic, but I am fine. Again—I Am Fine. I went to the gym this morning and even impressed myself.

But, as they say, I have less life ahead of me than behind. I would like to see some of my visual work out there, adorning walls, and so forth. Yes, you will have to buy it. But I need to find some avenues for getting it in front of people.

Which brings me to a statement of being. I am fine. Physically, mentally. Emotionally? Hey, we all have things we need to work on, and the world right now isn’t exactly a cuddly place (but then when is it ever?), but I have some optimism. I intend to be here for a while. I have things to do.

So, I ask you all, whoever you may be, to share with me a few moments of possibility. That things will get better. As long as we don’t give up. I know, that sounds a bit cliché and a touch Pollyanna-ish, but it also happens to be true. Years ago I learned in the fiction business that those who guaranteed will fail are those who give up and go away. Chance may be fickle, but you can’t benefit from it if you aren’t there. It’s not much, but sometimes it’s all you need.

It’s the follow-through that really matters, and for that you really have Be There.

Anyway, enough babbling. One last pleasant image to go out on. Be well.

Say That Again Maybe Better Next Time

This is a mini-rant.

I have no idea how much this influences the times we are living through now, but—allow me to set the stage first—part of my job (day-job) is reading books for possible inclusion in inventory. These are generally self-published. In spite of everything, I have become…an editor.

As a youth, I experienced impatience with what have become known as Grammar Nazis. As with so many elements of good writing, I didn’t care that much as long as meaning was conveyed and the story moved along. Event was my drug of choice, character not so much. The elegance of the prose…well, sure, but it wasn’t necessary.

So I thought.

Years later, having labored at my own fiction, I found myself pitying that young idiot. Event means nothing unless character conveys impact. The elegance of the prose is primarily a property of the kind of writing that allows a reader the full range of experience through a story. Style, substance, character, plot. Take any one away, the text falters. Make them work together and you get something worth reading, perhaps even memorable.

And now I see the downside of haste and the ease of Getting The Book Into Print regardless of its quality. Or qualities.

And then I listen to the speech of our public figures and can’t help but wonder if we are in a state of communicative disarray because they (not all, but some, perhaps many) never learned how to write or speak well.

Once upon a time, Rhetoric was taught as one of the primary Arts.

There are many reasons we should revisit that.  I will say here that Grammar (as it was taught to me in school and probably as it is still taught) is no substitute for a full course on the Reason To Learn To Write Well.

If we cannot speak to each other intelligibly, how can we ever hope to solve problems?

Regarding the books I read for my job, most of them, usually, are written in what I would say is serviceable prose. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, subjects, objects, all those elements are mainly in their proper places and meaning comes across.

But sometimes, where it matters most, a significant handful of hopefuls write in what I can only assume is a manner (mannered), a style they think is “literary.” Convoluted constructions, run-on sentences, what Mark Twain called “second cousin words” instead of the right ones. And attempts at conveying…something…of which the writer has no real understanding and covering that lack by piling on Important Sounding Verbiage.

Primarily, the problem is the writer does not actually have a grasp of what they are trying to convey. Secondarily—and fatally—they haven’t taken the time to find out how to do the craft.

Likewise with so many second-rate pundits and politicians.

We live at a time of unprecedented access to public dissemination. In the past, you couldn’t get your words published unless they could get past an editor. Now we can put out any damn set of sentences we want with no one to tell us we shouldn’t.  Self-publishing has created a glut of bad prose and an entitled generation of self-important blatherers who think their words are worth the same time and attention as someone who has worked hard to learn the craft and—most importantly—understood what is important to say.

And I’m not talking about paper books or even ebooks. Multiple platforms exist to allow access to people for anything they feel moved to say. In the sense of it being a forum, all the social media outlets are functionally publishers and too many people think they’re worth reading by putting something on them.

The result of which is a degradation of public discourse. Hitting Enter has become the sinecure of too many empty minds, vacuous ideas, and poorly reasoned diatribes.

Something about seeing bad prose on a page between the covers of a physical book makes it more obvious.

Years ago I became aware of a subset of wannabe writers who felt they could be writers while eschewing reading. This baffled me no end. To begin with, why would you conceive of the desire to be a writer if you did not already love reading. Of course, the truth is, they do not want to be writers. They have no idea what that would be.  What they want is to be Important. Noticed. They want a stage. They assume the desire is sufficient to the purpose.

Likewise for people who wish to be Thinkers without troubling themselves to learn how to think. But of course, they don’t really want to be Thinkers. They want to tell others what to think. They want to be Important. Noticed.

We have given them a stage. Many stages. And since the price of admission to the show is usually free, well, as they used to say (and may still) you get what you pay for.

Please. Communication is not a trait like hair color, height, or eye color. It has to be learned. You have to work at it.  And just because you learned how to talk does not mean you automatically know how to speak.

Thank you for your time and attention. I’m going to go read some more books now.

Big Green Bow Tie

Trying to make sense of the argument raging back and forth in this country over civic duty, social courtesy, politics, and the evident incommensurability of conflicting “lived experience” among the various parties reminded me of something the other day. I laughed and shrugged it off and thought well, yeah, that’s apt but silly.

Then I thought, if we filter out the presumed topics and just look at the behavior, maybe it’s not so silly, Because, really, it is silly.

When I was in first or second grade (yes, that far back, that deep down), I was beginning to learn how much I didn’t fit. I didn’t know that was the issue then, just that I kept looking at my “friends” and the teachers and the whole thing like some foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. Spring came around, and we were going to do a Maypole Dance.

Why? Beats me. I mean, seriously, a Maypole Dance? For grade schoolers? Obviously, we didn’t know what it meant. As for the teachers, it was just this neat thing they could use to teach…well, I assume cooperation, group unity, and make us feel pleased with an accomplishment. I have no idea.

But I was excited as everybody else.

We learned the steps, practiced, got good at it. It would take place in the gymnasium and it was an early evening event. Parents and interested parties would be present. A Big Deal.

I remember being informed that the boys would wear green bow ties and the girls would wear pink ribbons. (The streamers around the pole matched.) Well, I owned a green bow tie, so that was fine. I showed up prepared.

Only to find out that my bow tie wasn’t good enough. Wasn’t allowed. No, we were to be fitted with these great big paper things, way oversized, and, frankly, to my eye, stupid things made of green tissue paper. I took one look and thought Nope, ain’t gonna happen, I’m not wearing one of those.

Whereupon I proceeded to Make A Scene. I made things difficult for the teachers. I even hid under a desk rather than be subjected to the indignity of being forced to wear one of those silly, stupid, childish Things, especially when I already had a perfectly good, normal bow tie. The argument that I would look like everyone else did not impress me. Why would I want to do that? The argument that this was a group thing and we had to conform for it to look right bounced right off.

In the end, I was made to yield. I endured being fitted with one of those idiotic (I thought) kiddy ties.

Then the Dance happened and I forgot all about it.

The people stamping their feet and getting all huffed over wearing face masks remind me of that intractable seven-year-old. “I ain’t gonna do it! It’s silly! I don’t wanna!”

I am extending it, though, to a whole range of social issues, and watching the reactions of those who refuse. Try as I might, I cannot find it in myself to sympathize, not with the screaming, red-faced, intransigent self-centered, entitled drama addicts who think because of this or that or the other requirement they are somehow being so unduly imposed upon that civilization is about to fall.

I am willing to discuss the issues in reasonable tones, with facts at hand, and logic and rational consideration on tap. But the comparisons are absurd. No, your constitutional rights are not disappearing because of a public health measure. The Constitution does not afford you the “right” to live any damn way you please if others are put at risk.

But those who are stoking this fire with fuel know that very well. They know their audience. They know they’re dealing with people who can’t tell the difference between inconvenience and moral necessity.

I Want and I Don’t Want are the only two positions that get any traction, it seems.

I recall my unreasoning and unreasonable seven-year-old self because that seems to me the exact parallel. Things have gone a certain way for so long that this would seem a perfectly reasonable reaction.

The good news, though, is this: I was the only one in my class chafing at the requirement to wear the same green bow tie as everyone else. In the same way, the red-faced, distraught, petulant dissenters over face masks, I believe, are also a small minority. They only seem like more than their numbers because they’re making a scene, hiding under their desks, and everyone else is staring at them.

Amplified tantrums.

We seem incapable of looking away, of ignoring the traffic accident, the class clown, the guy with the End Of The World sign screaming at the pigeons in the park. The attention feeds the fit and he seems like a multitude.

In the meantime, the rest of us are respectfully doing what needs to be done to have a successful dance.

Sit down and put your bow tie on. It’s not the end of the world.

Axiomatic Civic Responsibility

I’m looking at the “protesters” in Michigan and ruminating on the nature of civil disobedience versus civic aphasia.

By that latter term I mean a condition wherein a blank space exists within the psyché where one would expect an appropriate recognition of responsible behavior ought to live.  A condition which seems to allow certain people to feel empowered to simply ignore—or fail to recognize—the point at which a reflexive rejection of authority should yield to a recognition of community responsibility.  That moment when the impulse to challenge, dismiss, or simply ignore what one is being told enlarges to the point of defiance and what ordinarily would be a responsible acceptance of correct behavior in the face of a public duty.

It could be about anything from recycling to voting regularly to paying taxes to obeying directives meant to protect entire populations.

Fairly basic exercises in logic should suffice to define the difference between legitimate civil disobedience and civic aphasia. Questions like: “Who does this serve?” And if the answer is anything other than the community at large, discussion should occur to determine the next step.  The protesters in Michigan probably asked, if they asked at all, a related question that falls short of useful answer:  “How does this serve me?”  Depending on how much information they have in the first place, the answer to that question will be of limited utility, especially in cases of public health.

Another way to look at the difference is this:  is the action taken to defend privilege or to extend it? And to whom?

One factor involved in the current expression of misplaced disobedience has to do with weighing consequences. The governor of the state issues a lockdown in order to stem the rate of infection, person to person. It will last a limited time. When the emergency is over (and it will be over), what rights have been lost except a presumed right to be free of any restraint on personal whim?

There is no right to be free of inconvenience.  At best, we have a right to try to avoid it, diminish it, work around it.  Certainly be angry at it.  But there is no law, no agency, no institution that can enforce a freedom from inconvenience.  For one, it could never be made universal.  For another, “inconvenience” is a rather vague definition which is dependent on context.

And then there is the fact that some inconveniences simply have to be accepted and managed.

We seem to be in a time when the actions of a not insignificant number of our citizens are informed not so much by reasonable acceptance of fact but by narratives based more on X-Files story lines, the pseudo-journalistic structures of conspiracy theories, and the desire not to be seen as uninformed or out of touch.  The black helicopters of secret U.N. operatives swooping in to do who knows what to stolidly independent individualists who represent threats to hidden systems run behind the scenes by Machiavellian apparatchiks have a certain attraction for the imaginations of those who have become at least partially convinced that the world is not as it seems and the “truth” is a commodity hoarded to their detriment.  Some variation on these thriller-esque left-overs of the Cold War, nurtured by the same charm that appealed to the occult fascinations of alchemists in an earlier age, seem to underlay the frustrated responses to the unfolding requirements of a world that really ought not be so alien given a little actual ratiocination based on available information.

But hold on a minute. That assumption itself may be an expression of privilege. It may be relatively easy for some people to discern “reliable” information from the noise that fills our lives, but that doesn’t mean it is either simple or even the same set of metrics for everyone.

Falling down a rabbit hole is easy—sometimes easier—than following a legitimate path.

Pause. Is there judgment in that? Of course. Judgement is at the center of this whole thing.  Your own and all those around you.

A simple mental (and moral) exercise.  Gather a group of a 100 people in a single space. You are now told that, statistically speaking, two to four people in that gathering will die. Soon, maybe in a week. Do you have any responsibility as a result? Now add one bit: out of that gathering, two to four people are going to die because you have all gathered in that space.  What now?  Does that make a difference? Is there now a personal responsibility element you recognize?

Judgment is required.  Judgment based on information.  But first, your reaction to the basic proposition matters.

Because if you think Well, no, I have no responsibility in either situation, then quite likely new information, or better information, won’t make any difference.

Which is why we as a community assign authority for decision-making in those circumstances to a person or persons equipped to make such judgments, thereby reflecting the general will and tending to the well-being of the entire group. Because there will always be a certain percentage of any population that will go against the best interests of the group.  Either out of ignorance, arrogance, ambivalence, or avarice.

We have, however, been through over seven decades of concerted efforts to undermine public confidence in the systems designed to do that job.  It began with the tobacco industry deliberately paying to have the science around smoking questioned in such a way that the general public would mistrust the data enough that sales of tobacco products could continue.  Combined with the growth of the corporate lobby system which made such efforts one with political advantage, other industries and interests employed the method.  The result has been a society permeated with enough mistrust, doubt, and poorly-considered sense of entitlement that we are now all in danger because too few will cede authority to those who are charged with deciding matters individuals are ill-equipped to deal with.

It’s not as if there aren’t real concerns with such authority. Governments do all sorts of things inimical to individual rights and liberties and should be called on them. But we have an ecology of reaction which elevates every concern to the same level of presumed legitimacy, which makes a mockery of so-called judgment.  It puts people in danger for no other reason than privileged posturing.

The question at the base of this is: who benefits?

What we are seeing are, if the images are to be believed, crowds of white people, predominately Trump supporters, many of them clearly 2nd Amendment fetishists, crowding into public spaces in camo, armed, along with cavalcades of suburbanite-ish middle class (white) people demanding an end to social distancing and lockdown orders. Among this main group are many subgroups (including some people taking advantage of the opportunity to voice their anti-semitism) who all share an apparent rejection of the state’s right to set public policy that infringes on the presumed freedoms of people to do what they want regardless of potential consequences.

Focusing for the moment on the most visible of these, the militia wannabes, their demonstration or armed resistance to a public health measure is, to put it mildly, extreme.

Unless, of course, you take into account that they are not demonstrating against public health measures, or at least not only.  Reading the various signage, the aggressive body language, the evident displays of camaraderie, and the accoutrements involved, this is not a “demonstration”—as in a protest—at all, but an exercise in power optics.

Again, who does this benefit? Not, in any practical sense, the demonstrators. They’re indulging in the equivalent of a sports rally. Coming out for the home team.  They have been inconvenienced, as we all have, for a reason they have decided for themselves to reject. Denial has become the hallmark of this sort of response.  The automatic dismissal of “official” information followed by an assumed “principled” resistance to perceived limits on individual autonomy.

Where is the reasoned acknowledgment of extraordinary necessity that informs the responsible care of society?

And again, who benefits? And how?

The only purpose in these outbursts that makes sense is to assert privilege. It is saying, firstly, that they have no regard for authority, whether responsibly asserted or not. And secondly that one’s presumed lifestyle is more important than public safety.  It is a feature of a consistent denigration of government which has been an ongoing process for decades.  If it is taken as given that nothing the government says is ever the truth, this then is a consequence of that assumption.  Combined with a belief that The Government is always and in every way set to strip us of our “rights” then it may even appear reasonable to reject the restrictions.

Except in this case people are getting sick, people are dying, and it isn’t just The Government saying this. At some point, reality should prompt a different response.

But reality, it seems, has been replaced. The common, consensual matrix of interactions that constitute Real Life, for some has been moved aside or coopted with a schema of conspiracy, resentment, and an assumed elevation of personal experience and political prejudice that allows for no possibility that things are other than the preferred viewpoint.

After accepting a given narrative (false one) that seems to conform to a certain set of conditions, life becomes an attempt to make that narrative true in the face of counterexample of better information.  The result, after long enough, is a mindset that is triggered by anything that narrative suggests is confirmation of the most inimical aspects of that view. The Government has ordered a stay-at-home decree. Obviously, according to a certain narrative, this is overreach and a blatant attempt to isolate and incarcerate certain people. It is a targeted shut down, because certain services and businesses are deemed essential and allowed to continuye to operate.  Therefore this is the first step in an authoritarian take-over and the COVID-19 pandemic is just an excuse. It may, in fact, be a made up thing. After all, no one in “my” sphere has gotten sick.  And even if they do, it’s not what is claimed, but a lab-grown plague released by The Government to achieve the subjugation of the people.

The People, in this case, being those like you.

It is difficult to know where to start to unravel this. It has been nurtured and grown for decades.

The question, again, is: if that narrative is not true, then who does it benefit?

Most obviously, it benefits those who have been instrumental in constructing the narrative and then benefits those able to leverage participation in it to enhance their power and/or bottom line.  In other words, those who have a stake in seeing civic authority weakened or destroyed.  Those who chafe at being told no when in pursuit of goals focused almost exclusively on profit or power.

The next question, then, is: why would anyone not one of them believe that narrative and cooperate with it to their own detriment?

Obviously, they don’t believe it to be to their detriment. Counternarratives notwithstanding, there is a rejection of re-evaluation, especially if it might tear apart the operative beliefs under which such actions are taken.  They feel that supporting those beliefs is worth the risk.

It has to be asked, then, given the way events have transpired: what risks?

All the risks in this false confrontation are for other people. The demonstrators themselves are in no danger, at least not from the responses any other group trying the same thing would experience. (And in this instance, those are the only risks under consideration.)  This is obvious.  All one need do is point out that any other group, those with perhaps more legitimate complaints whose actions might force change in the system, would have been met with considerable armed official resistance. Police, even National Guard, would have been on hand to put down the demonstration.  (Which is also a good way to tell which protests have genuine weight behind them.)  In this instance, demonstrators have been allowed inside public buildings with their weapons. If there has been any police presence, it has been for the demonstrators’ protection.  The only reason for this absence of official discipline is that these people are, essentially, harmless. Their demands require no real change, their posturing is causing no one any real alarm, and the only people put at risk are themselves and their associates (from the very disease many of them believe to be a hoax).

This is a cynical bit of political theater, both on the part of the demonstrators and on (and for the benefit of) the part of the politicians supporting them.  Those politicians believe they will benefit from the displays. This is their “base,” if you will.  Treating them equally before the law would not serve their purposes.

That said, the increased transmission vectors provided by this entitled display will allow the greater spread of COVID-19 and doubtless people not directly involved in this act will suffer for it.  The sponsors of all this will pay no price because they have done nothing—literally.  And people, including an unknown number of demonstrators, will die.  They will die because of long, drawn-out process of destroying trust in civic authority and a concomitant decay in civil responsibility, promoted and perpetrated by people who seek personal benefit from the erosion of those elements which are essential to a functioning community.

The cries to reopen the country—for business—are the hallmark of people who lack empathy.  Accepting those cries as legitimate is the hallmark of people who have lost the ability to recognize legitimate authority in service to the common good.  It seems not to occur to them that there are other ways to deal with what they have been told will be dire consequences. Partly, they only see one set of dire consequence—the infringement of their personal lifestyle.  If “other people” die, so what?

There are fairly simple ways to see when one is being had. But those ways fail when one is at the center of a bubble lined with a mirror surface preventing any view but your own self.

What should not be overlooked here, however, is that lack of response by the authorities.  That says more about the displacement of civic responsibility than the shallow bluster of these demonstrators, who after all are behaving more like spoiled children than principled citizens.

 

 

Random Bits

No plan here, just thoughts. It’s Sunday as I begin writing this, second day for me of a four-day weekend. Timing.

Lack of attention bedevils me. I have things to do, a wide variety, and I get befuddled by which I should pay most attention. It matters because I end up scattering my attention widely and so get little done in each endeavor. Some of my friends understand this, but not all.

This morning I got out of bed (I hesitate to say “awoke” because I wouldn’t classify my condition that way) and stumbled through my morning routines. Making coffee is so embedded in my brain that I think if I sleep-walked that is one of the things I would do. Donna was already up, tending to the dog. To be honest, I felt like going back to bed, but I intuited that it would only waste time. Another hour or two would not improve my ability to feel whole, just delay it. Further honesty requires me to admit that mornings like this frighten me a little, because I feel so “off” that I think something must be wrong.

I’m just tired, really. An hour or two after getting out of bed I feel pretty much as I’ve always felt. Slow but present.

I’ve had a number of conversations of late about intelligence. Genius, even. I think a genius would be internally unaware of it. My father, I sometimes feel, was a genius. Is. (Yes, he’s still alive, but now so impaired by deafness and poor sight that interaction is virtually impossible.) He never believed so. He railed about how other people seemed so stupid, how they overlooked, missed, or never figured out things which seemed so obvious to him, and he blamed laziness or prejudice or ambivalence. How could they not see? When I pointed out to him that he himself was far from ordinary, he bridled. No, that couldn’t be it. He did not see himself as a particularly smart man. But he was dogged, possessed of a degree of focus and ability to concentrate I found unachievable. His own opinion would never allow recognition of his “gifts,” if gifts they were.

I’ve been accused—recently—of being “superior.” Not a compliment.

We live in a culture that prizes knowledge only when it’s somewhere else. It’s cool when it’s on tv or in a lecture hall or, most importantly, when it makes someone a lot of money. But when it lives next door to us we resent it. When we have to talk to it every day we hate it, because it feels like someone is showing off, trying to be better than everyone else, getting off on making others feel stupid. I’ve never understood that. It’s not like all the information isn’t there for everyone to access.

It’s a choice of what we find important. As far as I’m concerned, too many people are too invested in things that don’t matter. (Is that me being judgmental? Why, yes, it is. Unapologetically. You have to choose, you have to decide. Others, I realize, level their judgment at me to the same or greater degrees. What good is that novel you just read? Isn’t that a waste of time? Well, the same could said about the goal that player just made that you reacted to orgasmically. If you’re going to judge me for having no interest in your passion, I’m going to judge you for having none in mine. Let’s lay it out and compare worth some day and see how what stacks up.)

(I have noticed that this phenomenon is not limited to intellectual pursuits. I’ve been insulted in the past for being in good physical condition. I lift weights, it shows. I’ve been treated as somehow weird by people who…well, any deviation from an assumed norm will intimidate people who just can’t seem to bring themselves to do the work to achieve something they might actually want to do. It’s as if they think they should have been born with these characteristics and when it turns out they have to do some actual work, instead of embracing the opportunities, they turn to resentment of those who do.)

I didn’t intend to complain this morning. But I have some things on my mind. This is a free-flowing post. Read at your own peril.

I made myself go to the gym this morning. I halfway expected to be unable to finish a workout. Instead, as often happens, about half to two-thirds through, I felt better. Blood flowing, I came awake.

And on the drive home I started having conversations in my head.

Yes, I talk to myself. I always have. My interactions with my fellow creatures have often been frustrating to me. Things I miss, don’t get, say wrong, hear wrong, respond inappropriately. A good deal of what people see today is a carefully constructed façade designed to offer an interface that works in group settings. Not fake, no, but selective and practiced. At one time I did try putting a fake front up and it never worked. It took a long time for me to realize that, though, because part of the front was a very selective filter that kept useful interaction out.

(That annoying piece of advice, so often given, to just “be yourself” used to infuriate me. Firstly, how the hell does one do that? I mean, really. First it assumes you know who you are. Second it assumes that you have a choice about how you come across to other people. You do, as it turns out, but it rarely comes automatically. And thirdly, it fails to take into account whether or not you like who you may be as “yourself.” Don’t people realize that “being yourself” may well be the last thing you want to be because you find whatever that is to be…wanting? Of course they do, they’ve been having the same struggle, but probably don’t realize it. All those “popular” people, do we really believe that’s who they really are? If you could look inside to see, would it be what you see on the outside? No. So, stupid advice, well-meant, but as often as not self-defensive.)

I’m sitting here in my office, trying to rework a short story that has resisted conclusion for months. Like most of my short stories in the last several years, it seemed promising because I had a very cool idea. The idea remains cool. Getting it across as a compelling story is another matter. And, as usual, I am procrastinating by working on this post instead.

I’m listening to Walter Piston. He was an American composer, mid-20th Century. I stumbled on him during one of my periods of exploring obscure classical music. You can listen to him and hear a bit less experimental version of Barber and Copland and maybe Hanson. (Again, who? Yeah.) I’ve got a few CDs of his symphonies. They make excellent background for writing, but when you really listen to them you hear a familiar strain of anxiety that seems a part of most American neoclassical. You listen to Copland and the others and you can hear a boldness, a brashness that seems distinctly American. But along the way, especially in the symphonies, comes a stretch of uncertainty. I call it anxiety. The anxiety of not being so sure of yourself, perhaps, or the anxiety of knowing you have a lot of responsibility and can’t really carry it. (I sometimes think Ives, whom I cannot really stand, was about nothing but that uncertainty.)

The best science fiction carries that anxiety in its guts. We’re boldly going where we don’t belong and nervous about it, but eager. so eager to see the next neat thing.

So I get home, muscles still humming from a decent workout, brain filled with a silent conversation about an unresolved issue, and Donna is still doing landscaping in the back yard.  I help by moving some heavy stones, then retreat inside, eventually migrate down to the office, and start riffing on these stray thoughts.

Most days, lately, I write a few sentences, correct some errors, tweak. Then I scoot to the other computer and cruise. Yesterday I listened to a report on “downgrading” humans, which talked about how the information explosion has been coopted by the so-called Attention Economy to the detriment of actual intellection.

Downgrading Humans. According to the report, our brains are not equipped to deal with the information deluge constantly poured through them. We get overwhelmed, the tools we have to sort wheat from chaff are inadequate, we can’t tell noise from signal after a while, and soon we’re just clicking through from one bit to the next in a parody of research. The limitation offends, I’m sure. I’m resentful of my inabilities, especially when it comes to knowledge. But it’s an academic kind of resentment now that rarely obtrudes into the kind of seething animosity a teenager might feel when being told no. It’s more frustration now when I run against my own lack of information and ignorance when I’m in the middle of a project or a conversation.

The problem I imagine with what is being described as “downgrading” is that indulging the immersion in click-throughs can come to feel like genuine learning.

Plus, there’s something addictive about. The dazzle of bright, shiny objects.

There’s a big market for self-help books. A lot of them are practical, how to do things, but a lot of them are about changing your life, becoming a new or different or better person. Many border on genuine psychology, but most seem to be manuals for self-improvement that only glance off the deeper aspects of who we are. Years ago, groping toward some kind of self-knowledge, I read a lot of them. Fritz Perls, Leo Buscaglia, Eric Fromm, others. I gleaned useful things from them all, but it seemed as I grew older, less and less of what I read in these books offered anything truly useful. Reality never conforms to neat paragraphs of “if this, then do that.” But occasionally there was genuine insight. I stopped reading them after I shifted into philosophy. But there’s a huge market. You would think we live in a world of remarkably healthy self-actualized people. I have no idea, but I have come to believe that most of these books sell to people who believe that all they have to do is read them and that is sufficient. Acting on the advice? Well.

I’ve taken a hard look at my own habits. I’ve become craggier in some ways. The state of the world has a bit to do with this, but in general I’ve been dissatisfied with my own progress along various fronts. I wondered, after hearing about this phenomenon, if I were a victim of this. Turning to the very thing that is largely the source of the problem is an irony past stating, but it is true that even though an overwhelming amount of dross permeates the internet, there is much that is worthwhile. A degree of ordinary scepticism is required and some robust filters, but you can find out useful things. So I did a bit of research on internet trends and realized quickly that I am a weekend tourist at worst. This thing distracts me, but I spend far more time reading books than ever I spend online.

But the distraction is enough to derail my concentration. It’s worse when I’m not working on a specific project. The discipline of the project keeps me focused.

Of course, then there are the days when my hindbrain cries out for relaxation. For what Donna calls “vegging.” One of the things my parents, worrying all through my upbringing that they would fail to implant it, managed to instill is an ethic that demands I waste no time. So even the things I do for “relaxation” seem to require a practical reason, a purpose. I’ve invented a number of excuses to fool my subconscious so it will leave me alone when I’m indulging the “frivolous.” I wish I could just…

I listen to music to put me in moods. Moods to write, to read sometimes, to work out. Music is a deep pool of inspiration and replenishment for my soul. We live in an age where the available sounds are greater than at any time. The possibilities are amazing. I hear better performances, more intriguing compositions, wilder explorations today than ever before, in just about any genre of music you care to name. You would think we could find a common soundtrack with all this to choose from, but the click-through ethic renders too many too impatient to sit and truly listen.

Or does it? That same volume of data may just serve to lend cover to large groups of people who do exactly that—sit and listen. They don’t answer surveys, they don’t buy in predictable manners, they don’t feed the pop machinery. It may be that we’re about to hear from them in a Big Way. I have noticed a lot of young people buying more books, books you might not predict they would buy. And of course the books being published…I can’t say that they are “downgraded.” No more than they ever were. And the best is better than ever before.

I take my optimism where I can find it.

Among the things I want to do before I’m gone: publish a dozen more books, record and release an album of original music, mount a couple of exhibits and possibly publish a monograph of my photographs, and maybe start drawing and painting again. State like that it would seem I need another lifetime. One thing I’ve come to appreciate (though perhaps not experienced yet) is that a lifetime doesn’t have a specific time limit and you can have more than one, overlapping or contiguously.

We’ll see what can be done with that.

Thank you for indulging me.

College Placement

Growing up, I had an ongoing war with education. Not the content of it so much as the method of transmission. I hated school. Hated being there, hated being held accountable for failing to meet its requirements, hated the monumental waste of time I considered it. My continual demand was to know “what is this for?”

As for the content…well, judge for yourself how I may have felt about that. Clearly I have suffered from the inattention I paid my classes.

This recent scandal about celebrities bribing admissions officials to get their kids into pricey schools underscores something I came to believe and explains one of the reasons I never got an answer to that “what is this for?” question. It also explains—demonstrates—how the American class system operates.  (What, you really bought that stuff about this being a classless society? I bet you did well in school, too.)

Teachers seldom give answers to that question because they suspect, if not outright know, that what it is for is nothing but a lottery to see where you place upon exit in the hierarchy of society. The content of the lessons is less important than the status bestowed by matriculation from certain institutions which can grant a Good Housekeeping seal on students that says “These are acceptable.”

It’s hard to see it in the chaos of social interaction, but for anyone on the receiving end of the snobbery and elitism endemic to the process, you can’t help but know this is how it works.

Usually we’re aware of it with regards to athletes who get special treatment in order to keep them playing for the school. (I suspect it happens far less than advertised, but it doesn’t take but a few to stain a whole system.) Now we have the evidence that something has been going on in general, all tied to money.

A couple of things may be inferred from the two big-name actresses who got caught trying to buy into the system and cheat for their offspring. One is, what does this say about the kids in question? Did they fail just to get into these schools or did they not come up to scratch anywhere? (One wonders if they asked for this “but my best friend is going there!” begging.) Or is it just that mommy knew that the prestige of the school was far more important than any actual education being offered. That a degree from that school would open more doors than one from this school.  (For all the less well-off kids who simply never have that kind of choice and have to make do with what they can get, this must seriously grate.) And what does this say about our (shopworn but not altogether ragged) pride in merit and ability?

In grade school, around fifth or sixth grade, we started playing a game at lunchtime. I don’t know if it has any other name, we called it “Initials.” The rules were simple: name a category, give the first or/and second initial, and then guess the thing being named. It started with movies and tv shows, but over a few months it grew into a rather elaborate thing that included historical figures, geography, ships, cities, cars. Four of us became very involved. We were going home and doing research for this game.

The principle stopped it. Just shut it down. He thought we were spending far more time and energy on it than on our “studies.” Well, we were. It was fun, but more than that, we were learning. He didn’t see that. He stopped it in order to preserve the form of education, which was not fun.

I mention that because later, when I looked back on it, I found it supported my view that education is only tangentially related to the content of a subject. The purpose it to make citizens. Failing that, it is to enforce conformity.

Which, by the time you get to the college and university level, is a game of associations. You go to these schools to make these connections which will serve you far more effectively in work life than what you might actually learn along the way.

No, I do not believe that is all there is to it, and I do believe actual learning takes places, otherwise all those “associations” would do nothing but show us who to blame when nothing works anymore. But clearly that part of it is far more important than we may be willing to admit and obviously Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman believed that.

And whether we want to accept it or not, the flip side of this is demonstrated by those parents with no money who are doing serious jail time just for slipping their kids into different school districts for a presumably better education. (Even if you accept my premise, that association matters more in this system, then the disparity is clearer still.) Who am I talking about? Kelley Williams-Bolar in Ohio and Tracey McDowell in Connecticut. There are probably others.

In any case, when wondering about privilege, well, here’s another example. And it damages far more than just the reputations of a couple of entitled celebrities and a couple of school admissions officials. It erodes trust that often finds definition difficult. The whole notion, never true or at least true enough, that all anyone needs is hard work to get anywhere desired, is corrupted by this kind of thing.

I am not surprised this happened. It has doubtless been happening for centuries to some degree. Gentry have always tried to smooth their descendants’ paths through life and if they had the money, they used that, regardless of what talents and abilities the beneficiaries brought to the game. For them, it is a game.

For too many, it’s a violation.

Elizabeth Warren is calling for the blanket forgiveness of student loans. She wants college to be free. I have some quibbles about this, but in principle I support it. If the road ahead is to be navigated by those with the knowledge, charging a toll for that knowledge would seem the opposite of any democratic sentiment. And since college enrollment has risen in the last four decades precipitously, obviously a lot of the “wrong” people are getting in. The best way to shut the out of any advantage is to keep charging them more for the ticket. Forgiving the debt might be the right thing to do, but then the upper crust would have to actually compete for those choice positions and the perks that attend them. Free college would not level the playing field, but it would at least make the game more honest by allowing for genuine ability to compete.

And if college is free, how could anyone bribe their way in? (Well, there will always be ways, but it would be harder—and over time, maybe pointless.)

Just some thoughts.

Poll-Less

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only poll that matters is the election.

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

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

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

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

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

And please—vote.