Please, Pale Person, Please Stop

Only because it is so omnipresent am I aware of the new raging over Ariel in The Little Mermaid and its casting of a Not White actor in the role. I would rather have not had this in my range of consciousness. I cannot convey the depth of weariness at this nonsense. You do this kind of stuff with the expectation that I, based on melanin content, will agree and share your rage.

Skin color is not intelligence. Nor is it a sign, frankly, of any kind of kinship above the purely coincidental.

Stop. Just…stop. I realize you think this of moment, important in some fundamental way, and might possibly be the last ground on which you might take a stand that is no longer acceptable as any definition of civilized, but all you are doing is embarrassing yourself and annoying me.

I know you are probably innumerate, but recently I was reminded of a statistic that sheds a stark light on the thinness of skin your railing against inclusiveness reveals. In a documentary on women in Hollywood, This Changes Everything, which examines the underrepresentation of women in filmmaking, it was striking to me that the percentage of directors who are women has yet to rise much higher than 15%. That figure has usually been lower, a couple of times briefly higher. Coupled with a kind of pervasive cluelessness on the part of men, it reminded me of a statistic related to what we once called (and may still) White Flight, which is the phenomenon of white Americans picking up and moving almost en masse once a certain level of minority presence in a given neighborhood is perceived. It turns out that the average is 12%. One in eight houses in a neighborhood are African-American (and presumably other racial minorities, but the study was done with regards to blacks) and suddenly all the white people seem to say “My god, they’re everywhere!” Twelve percent is far from any kind of majority, or even approaching parity, yet that seemed to be the point at which many white folks felt the need to flee to the counties.

“My god, they’re everywhere!”

I suppose if your default position is that 95% of everyone around should be white, then the upwelling of nonwhite in your area would be quite noticeable. If your default assumption is that only white people are—what?—“safe” to be around, then alarm bells must go off, just by the sighting of a few more nonwhite faces.

Of course, property values play into this, and for no better reasons.

But look, this is simply ridiculous at its base. Time and again, the superiority of ethnic type has been shot down and made odious, so that now all you have to complain about is—fictional characters.

And the now incessant appellation of Wokeness, which you somehow seem to think is some kind of corruption. You seem not even to have the wit to realize how ironic that is.

I no longer care what your excuses are. This has gotten absurd. If some day someone made a new version of Winnie-the-Pooh and instead of a classic  Teddy Bear they cast a Sun Bear or, heaven forbid, a Panda, I suppose you’ll rage against the Woke Left and its anti-Teddy Bear agenda.

What this says to me loudly is that along with everything else, you have no understanding of art (small “a” as a practice of symbolic communication through aesthetic reimaginings and visualizations). So you underline your aversion to being Woke by being decidedly asleep and studiously ignorant.

But please, stop claiming these things in the name of White People. All you’re expressing is a deep fear that you are losing power, which you don’t have in the first place. And you’d know you don’t have it if you were just a teensy bit…woke.

But to be clear, I am not on your side. You do not speak for me. I’m not even getting angry at it any more, just sad and weary. You don’t get it, and you expect me to not get it either, and be angry about it.

Please. Stop.

Where’s Mine?

People complaining about student loan forgiveness seem to feel there’s a fairness issue at stake. My experience suggests that about 90% of the people who lead with an “It’s not fair!” argument (as opposed to something based on justice) are disingenuous. They tend to see everything as a competition, a race, and any perceived advantage that they don’t get affects their position in the race. Forgiving student debt just means “those people” will be advanced closer to them or maybe even ahead of them and there’s no compensatory bribe on offer to put them back where they think they belong.

What never occurs to them is that the whole thing was rigged in the first place and that maybe they were screwed, too. Or maybe they know they were screwed, but can’t seem to grasp that the thing to be gotten rid of is the screwing, simply because.

I don’t know, but it’s nothing new.

To be clear, I’ve seen a lot of people who knew very well that the game was rigged who are quite pleased with even a little redress for other people. So we’re dealing with a handful (maybe) of people who are so invested in the rigged system that they can’t see their way past a sense of being unfairly handicapped and would prefer the rigging remain in place, so they have a shot at winning.

Winning what?

I don’t know. Frankly, I never did know. Life is not a race.

But boy we sure like to see it that way. Getting ahead, keeping up with the Joneses, beating the system, coming out on top, moving up in the world, winning the rat race, catching the brass ring, climbing the ladder…this is how we’ve been trained to see things and it infects every attitude we have. Some of us get over it at some point and realize that we’re being played. Some people seem to like being played. Others want to be the players. Anything that suggests leveling the playing field (another sports/competition analogy) is hateful because it looks like cheating.

Justice never enters into this except as a word used to cover the reality.

I did not go to college. There were many reasons for this, not least of them disinterest. I didn’t like school all that much and couldn’t see much value in another four years of jumping through hoops. The fields in which I have made my living, I managed to learn without higher education and all the rest I was able to indulge all on my own. Cost dissuaded me to some extent, and this was back when you weren’t likely to go into lifelong servitude to pay it off.

But society changed—our economy changed—and suddenly college was more a requirement than an add-on. The growing fields, the needs of employers, all these things necessitated more education than high school offered. In order to operate the country, we required more. Given that, it has always seemed fundamentally unfair to me that we then made people pay through the nose for the privilege of filling someone else’s requirements. (I have a very perverse attitude about this kind of thing. My first job out of high school was at a place with a dress code. I literally did not own a tie. They demanded one. I told them they could pay for it. Of course they did not. But, I argued, this is your requirement, why shouldn’t you pay for it? I won’t use the damn thing anywhere else! I met the minimum requirement by acquiring one tie and never taking it home. I left it at work and never washed it. When i left their employ, I left it behind. Petty, certainly, but still—their requirement, they should provide.)

But there are scholarships, grants, all kinds of things to offset the requirements and cover the costs. I don’t care. Because it’s not just employment involved, but class, social interaction. (I was turned down for a date once because I lacked a degree. Yes, this is probably rare, or it was then, but—is it? And why should that matter? We put too much, almost everything on that piece of paper, explicitly and implicitly, and then make it as hard as can be to get one. And the cost now suggests that many people who have managed to get one are in some way undeserving, so they will not be allowed to benefit, in even the most basic way, by being able to “get ahead” as expected.)

I have minimal problems with certain schools charging exorbitant rates—the Ivy Leagues, as they may be—as long as the basic requirements are not rendered punishingly out-of-reach. You want a Harvard education, fine, it costs more. But you just want a degree from a college to meet the requirements of society in given professions? No charge. It’s “our” requirement, after all. The individual does the learning, the name of the school has little to do with that (with certain exceptions). But then we have to be honest about the whole thing and hire according to qualification, not according to association.

The whole thing has become a money-making game that reinforces class distinctions—which we here are not supposed to have.

Damn right I’m fine with debt relief.

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Addendum 8/27/22:  When it became clear after WWII that the whole educational program being offered through things like the G.I. Bill was intended to provide for people in general (and later when racial barriers were being dismantled that barred minorities from access) there was a panic among the self-assumed Elites that the unwashed, the plebes, the commoners were about to share the same benefits and acquire the same functional credentials as the Chosen Children of the wealthy, the entire thing began to be undermined. We should remember that Governor Reagan dismantled the free university system in California, which had been working fine, but which displeased the powers that be. When the laws changed to prevent overt barriers, the only thing left to do was attack it financially and so the rise in costs, in lock-step with the diminishment in state funding, began. Characterize this any way you wish, the effect has been to erect a different set of barriers to those certain people and forces in our society feel should not be allowed to compete or share in that which presumably sets them apart. At every junction in history where a previous unquestioned assumption of inferiority or unsuitability was overturned that had kept certain people out, new “standards” were erected. One of the saddest consequences has been the debasement of the Humanities, because they do not as a rule lead to gold-plated incomes. You want to be a philosopher, fine, but if you come from a working class background and have to pay for it out of your own pocket, you will be crushed by debt for the rest of your life. In any individual instance, we can find many excuses for why what has become a global disgrace, but the aggregate effect is simply that only the few are “supposed” to get the rewards and the people in the “gutter” should stay there.

(Reagan’s ilk identified the rising sector of educated students as the source of a major pain in their collective asses because these kids knew better than to accept the bullshit and demanded change. Therefore, their opportunities to learn enough to challenge the Establishment had to be curtailed.)

The Chains Of Normal

Over my lifetime, one concept has popped again and again to tangle things in a web of pseudo-logic. It seems to go unexamined most of the time, until it emerges as the fulcrum of issues over systemic change. Normal. We seem ever in search of Normal. To be Normal, to return to Normal, to stop deviations from Normal.

But we have a damnable time defining what that is. I mean, really, just exactly what is Normal?

Normal has changed steadily over my lifetime. And with every major realignment, a new Normal becomes established and accepted and soon enough we find ourselves contending again over that which is Not Normal. It’s understandable that some people get confused and frustrated. I keep remembering poor Tevye from Fiddler On The Roof, striving to find a way to see the changes and accept them, always declaring his fidelity to Tradition.

It doesn’t help that we all have a different idea about what Normal is. Not necessarily wildly divergent ideas, but if the topic is pursued long enough, these small variations can emerge that throw the whole notion of Common Ground into question.

What is Normal?

More to the point, why should we always try to assert a common definition as if anything else will doom us to chaos and agony?

I see two concepts of Normal in conflict. They overlap, but are not the same. The first might be something like “that which supports a common and consensual equilibrium throughout a community.” Normal, in this case, might be construed as that much-acknowledged but hard to achieve “level playing field” we hear so much about.

That it is so difficult to achieve may be due to the other concept of Normal: “that which allows me to feel secure in my expectations and opinions.”

In my teens, men with long hair were seen as violators of Normal. You could point to pictures of Wild Bill Hickock all you wanted, and Society refused to accept that boys walking around with hair to their shoulders was in any way Normal. It wasn’t done. And while it may seem trivial today (because that background concept of Normal has changed) it created an ugly atmosphere in the country. (My freshman year in high school saw the football team assault the handful of “hippies” that attended my school and forcibly cut their hair off. Of course, three years later, some of those with the longest hair in the school were on the varsity team.)

Why should these things conflict? Well, that should not be difficult to understand. If you have an idea of what is Normal and then the community around you exhibits changes that cause you ill-ease, requires you to question your assumptions, or even, at some point, shift your politics or moral assessment, what we see most often is an aggressive denial of those changes, and at some point a reliance on a presumed set of standards called Normal.

“That’s not Normal!”

We can go down the list of things in the last 60 years that were opposed because they were not Normal. Civil Rights. Homosexuality. Women’s Equality. Opposition to these things often enlisted language and philosophies that seemed more involved and sophisticated than merely saying they were not Normal, but when you dig down you can see that, for many people, these were violations of personal desires to feel secure in their expectations and opinions. We know this because over time, all of this has become accepted—become Normal—for most of us. It turned out none of these things were actually dangerous to the community.

Opposing them was.

The perversity of these conflicting concepts of Normal can be seen in cases of those who engage in behaviors which they personally pursue but then hide because they realize this may not be Normal. The awareness of community standards drives the given behavior into hiding. Sometimes these behaviors are inimical, both personally and publicly. But attempting to be seen as Normal overrides even the logic of coming to terms with the deviation.

How to tell the difference? How, in other words, to “normalize” something and how to know when such normalization is not acceptable?

Start with a simple question: does this hurt anyone? (One should include one’s self in that question, but for practical purposes, look beyond.)

Help for certain problems is avoided by the overwhelming urge to appear Normal.

But we don’t actually have a good idea of what that really is. To each their own only goes so far, because the community had to be considered.

So perhaps a definition of Normal might be: “that which allows for a mutuality of conditions sustaining both community equilibrium and personal fulfillment in private choices.”

Ah, but what might this mean in practice?

Obviously, this would entail a recognition that personal concepts of Normal have limits. As would community concepts. (There was a time unwed pregnant girls were put in “homes” so they wouldn’t be seen out in public. A girl in my high school sued the public school system when it tried to kick her out for being pregnant—and won. Of course, many people expressed outrage that a pregnant girl would be attending classes with all of us “innocent” students. But this was what passed for Normal back then. And it changed.) So obviously some notion of harm would have to be better codified on both sides.

It could be worked out. We do it anyway, but it’s such a messy process that often leaves casualties behind. Those chains of Normal are loud when they get rattled. I think it’s an innocuous idea that becomes pernicious too easily. We’ve traditionally been too willing to censure, incarcerate, punish things that in the end only make certain people uncomfortable. Their efforts to suppress behaviors that ruffle their delicate sensibilities (or their power base) harm far more than not.

Just now we’re seeing that conflict play out over competing notions of Normal. Not to make light of it, but really, the outraged sensitivities of one group trying to reassert a standard of Normal that was revealed as inadequate decades ago is causing enormous harm.

Normal is a monster. I’ve had that cudgel waved over my head a good deal of my life, for one thing or another, most of it relatively innocuous in itself. “Why don’t you be normal?” And ultimately, the question had little meaning, because all it meant was “why don’t you be like the rest of us and not make us feel uncomfortable around you?” Well, in the end, their discomfort was not my problem, though they tried to lay it on me. And this was over things like hobbies or aesthetic preferences (my love of science fiction at one time). What might it have been like if the issues had been more life-threatening?

I would welcome a community-wide reassessment of what constitutes Normal. We have a heuristic appreciation of it and in some instances it works well enough, but given that the only constant is change, we need to have a clearer idea about it.

Fascism, after all, is the ultimate insistence by one group on everyone else about what is Normal. We’ve seen what that costs.

 

 

School Prayer

Over the years, I have modified my opinion on this many times. For a long time I believed it was a non-issue—how do you prevent it? If a student is intent on praying, what would prevent it?

Nothing. Which leads to the next realization that the people complaining about, demanding it, leading the charge against a prohibition that does not, in fact, exist are not interested in prayer in school: they’re interest in School Prayer, which requires public demonstration. What they want is openly-led prayer, as a group, with full participation.

This is not prayer, this is indoctrination. This is taking a position and directing the students to attend to what is being advocated. One major problem with this is that those students who decline to participate will be singled out and self-identified. What, one may ask, is wrong with that? Did you never go to school in the United States? Any deviation from a presumed “norm” is an excuse for bullying.

What is desired is an imposition of conformity.

Well, one might ask again, what is wrong with that? Isn’t that part of the point of attending school?

To which I must concede, yes, it is. We wish our people to have a common grasp of what it means to be a citizen and for that a certain degree of conformity is required.

Which is why this is such an intractable issue for many people.

How do I feel about it now?

Well. I believe the problem is not so much with a relative dispositions of a required set of conformist doctrines so much as that this is not supposed to be what school should be about in the first place. School—ideally—is where we should be sending children to learn how to apply skepticism. We should teach them how to think, how to examine the world, take things apart and put them together again. We should be allowing them to discover, in lightly directed ways, how the world works, what it means to develop understanding, and how to approach life critically. We should be teaching them, in short, how to avoid being duped.

While there may be schools where that level of actual learning takes place, for the most part it doesn’t happen other than by accident. I’ve always felt, at least after reaching an age and a level of understanding that allowed it, that public schools are not there to teach but to produce Citizens—consumers, workers, voters, patriots, parrots. Therefore, School Prayer is just another aspect of this and would be consistent with the programmatic inculcation of the conformity too many people prefer to the possibility of having a population of critical individuals questioning every damn thing and maybe challenging the status quo regularly.

So (again) how do I feel about it now?

Absolutely not. Religious instruction of any kind, unless done within the context of history classes, should be kept out of school, because it is by definition antithetical to skepticism. Which is of course why some people want it in there.

Somehow, some way, many students manage to acquire the tools of critical thinking even through the often mind-numbing “instruction” that passes for learning. They emerge as questioners, as independent thinkers. Apparently enough of them that the proselytes of conformity want to throw this in to the mix to see if something can be done to shut it down. So in the name of giving actual freedom of thought a chance, I must declare that I prefer religiosity of any kind kept out of public education. The fact is, religion depends on faith, which is incompatible in concept with skepticism. Mature believers certainly do find ways to balance them, but it seems unfair to expect kids to find that balance before they are even acquainted with the power of their intellects.

The day comes when we actually teach critical thinking as a matter of course, then by all means, admit prayer. Until then, I say leave it out. We do too much already to instill a stifling conformity.

Trekness

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

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

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

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

I do not see those as the soul of Trek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Choosing

Given my previous post, this is not what you may think. But it’s related. Intimately.

When campaign season is in full flower and the claims and counterclaims of politicians mingle in the air like pollen or murmurations or dogfights, it can be understandably difficult to know how to choose. Trying to sort them by policy is occasionally maddeningly fraught. What is best for the country as opposed to what is best for you personally; what may have long term consequences which in the short-run may seem perfectly fine but ten or thirty years down the road leads to disaster; how to tease through the statistics and understand how they relate to anything that might be addressable. To be sure, it is possible to wend a path through all this and fine merit in the various positions, but often reliable information is think on the ground and the epic nature of some issues can make you feel insignificant.

What can be most difficult is choices made on ideology. Having a set of abstract convictions about national identity tied to a fixed notion of civic morality can become problematic when faced with circumstances requiring a change in approach that seems to run counter to those convictions. (Capitalism in its present form produces this disconnect all the time.)

People wish to have a heuristic by which to make a choice in as clear and uncomplicated a manner as possible. But how do you know? Listening to the blind mouths and talking heads, how can you tell the candidates apart in any meaningful way?

For myself, the devil is in the details. Knowing the issues, understanding history, and having at least a passing acquaintance with moral philosophy are my most useful tools. Admittedly, they do not always work. Politicians lie. There is little defense against that unless they lie about demonstrable fact. Lying about intent, principles, lying about their platform…difficult to parse. For people with little time and insufficient training in how to not be fooled, the emotions lead the way. Probably for most people this is the case. Emotions need to be tempered.

So I offer for these heady times a simple rule-of-thumb that in the last several elections has served better than others.

If a candidate says (basically) vote for me and I’ll do something about those people over there, the ones you believe are a problem—that’s toxic from the get-go. That politician is betting on your intolerance, your fear, your ignorance, and giving you something to hate. I will not vote for that candidate (even if they have ideas I might otherwise support—good ideas do not depend on individual candidates).

If a candidate says (again, basically) we have challenges to face, problems to solve, and we must do so together—I will listen and, quite possibly, vote for them.

The first is divisive and creates more problems than it can possibly solve.  The second is healing, and if followed through will solve more problems than it will create. That’s fairly clear. Especially today, in this raging pool of fingerpointing and frustration.  Don’t vote for the dividers. (Now, you may think the one asking that we work together is a divider because they won’t acknowledge what you consider a problem with Those People Over There, but what you really need to do is examine your premises. Even if there might be a real issue, why would you support anyone who would gain political traction by making it worse? There is no solution in that.)

For those continually claiming that there is no real difference between the sides, well, in this instance there is a huge difference.

Something to consider. Hope it helps.

Post Pandemic?

Our governor, Mike Parsons, has announced that, for Missouri, the pandemic is over. It’s been demoted to “endemic.” Which means, in case anyone is wondering, that it’s not gone, it has “settled in” as a constant, like the flu or colds or mosquitoes. He’s more or less following the trend. People are abandoning their masks and it appears to have reached a point where he might as well give it the seal of approval or look like a stick in the mud. Or a Democrat.

I’m still masking. Depending on where I am, this is becoming a minority practice. I’m waiting for the notices of a new spike, but who knows? Maybe the Omicron variant isn’t as nasty in its consequences. Serendipity may make this look like a smart call.

But if it’s true that the virus is entering a less fatal phase, that evolution is doing what it does and making the changes from a killer to a nuisance, what does that say about the last two plus years of our collective reaction? Politicians can only do so much. If people are unwilling to go along with the recommendations—the rules—there’s not much they can do. Usually, only a minority of people in a given community resist the imposition of new requirements. What makes this last couple of years so frustrating is the nature of the requirements in the face of the kind of emergency that has made many of us look like fools.

This is not new. During the savage Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918, people across the United States resisted health regulations to isolate, quarantine, take basic prophylactic measures. Here in St. Louis, Dr. Max Starkloff, the city director of public health, went so far as to have people arrested who refused to stay home. That pandemic was in some ways worse than the present one. When restrictions relaxed, people got sick and died dramatically. But people bristled at being told what to do. Some thought their position in society was protection, others thought prayer would work, still more simply refused to believe they could catch it based on the centuries-old canard that illness was a sign of moral failings.  That last may have some credibility, but not the way people meant it. God was not going to protect them, but their willingness to be good citizens made a difference.

Be that as it may, the experience has left me a bit more cynical as to the dependability of my fellow citizens. Yes, wearing a mask has been annoying. Yes, using hand sanitizer ten times more often than usual is irritating. Yes, having to be aware of how close one is to anyone else requires more thought than we’re used to. I’m sure some people chafe at being required to wear shirt and shoes in restaurants or other stores (and personally I’ve always wondered why in designated areas men can go topless but not women). It’s been a while, but I’ve been turned away from certain restaurants for being underdressed, i.e. no shirt and tie—t-shirt and tennis shoes didn’t cut it. But they were rules of engagement and for the most part no one questions them. Mainly because the minority that complains is so small as to be ignorable.

It has been instructive. In science fiction from time to time we’ve had depictions of mass reactions consistent with what we just saw. It is a truth largely to be accepted that when people gather together in sufficient numbers, behavior changes. To paraphrase K from Men In Black, “a person is smart, but people are dumb, panicky, and dangerous.” Add a dose of partisan politics to the mix and we can have the full display of social discontent over what amounts to fashion.

The flip side of this is the amazing resilience and adaptive genius of so many people. While the intransigence and childishness of loud clots of obsessive complainers garnered headlines and news spots, the shear brilliance of others has been a balm to cynicism. Of course, many of those who have stepped up have been worked to the bone, and burn-out is the next epidemic we’ll have to deal with, but those who have just dealt with the situation and continued to serve is the stuff of inspiration. Without them, far more people would be dead, incapacitated, and unable to manage from day to day, and we certainly would not be having the recovery we seem to be experiencing. I have no doubt a lot of the self-styled “true patriots” who have been nothing but embarrassments with their refusal to simply be polite through all this will try to take credit when the smoke clears, claiming that they knew all along and so forth, but they will only be able to stand up and make those claims because of all the people who simply went to work to deal with the situation.

It’s been harder perhaps than it should have been because too many of our civil servants have opted to follow the winds of social reaction instead of taking the lead and allowed themselves to set policy according to the petulant mewling of a perceived constituency whose basic political position is “I don’t want to be bothered.” Had we all simply accepted that we faced a novel problem that required an extraordinary response, we might not have so many dead or, of lesser but not insignificant importance, divided ourselves even more than we have been.

To me, one of the saddest aspects of the lessons to be learned is just how self-involved so many of us are. Whether you agreed with assessed efficacy of the measures suggested or not, the fact is wearing a mask, social distancing, curtailing your usual social meanderings was for the benefit of others. You wear the mask to protect other people from your germs, not you from theirs. How hard is this to understand? The bleating of the imposed-upon marks a low point in basic civility and politeness. You don’t be polite only when it’s your idea. That’s not politeness. That’s not consideration. That’s showing off.

Be that as it may, I feel like I’ve been living in a very large zoo with restless animals set to stampede at any moment. The degree of skill on the part of those who have managed to impose some semblance of common decency among us is an achievement to be marveled at. My hat is off to those who have seen us through.

Thank you.

Life Of Words

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

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

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

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

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

Movies, tv, and books became my safe place. 

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

Unknowingly, my world was expanding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” she said. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

My mom is a hero to me.

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

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

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

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

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

It did save a lot of time and grief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banning

To my mind, there are few acts more pernicious than book banning. It goes to a fundamental failure in us that usually manifests in several other ways that sometimes seem unrelated.

Firstly, it is a direct admission that the proponents care little and likely understand nothing about freedom.

All we finally have, all that allows us to be present in the world, known to each other, and recognized as ourselves is our voice. Take that away and you erase us. Any examination of the history of conquest and oppression shows that this is the primary tool of the conquerors and oppressors. Silence the subjugated, muzzle their allies, expunge them from history, ban their voices from being heard. Ever, if possible. It is nothing more than an attempt to declare only one view, one vision, one value. By denying a voice to others, you show the world what you are—a coward, a bully, a parasite. It is admitting that you cannot abide a world in which others matter. Being surrounded by those saying the same things you do is not proof that others matter, but that they would only matter if they said anything contrary to what you perceive as reality, at which point you must suppress them. You only exist by the acclamation of sycophants, whose words mean nothing.

Taking away another’s voice is the ultimate murder.

Parents who insist that others keep books from their children have either forgotten their own childhood or have no interest in actual parenting. Going to libraries and schools and demanding certain books be withdrawn, kept from their children, they admit to a level of fear that is entirely self-involved. Religious leaders who advocate for the banning of certain books reveal an agenda based on faithlessness and a conviction that they have nothing to offer. Politicians who advocate on behalf of censors show themselves to be venal opportunists willing to take advantage of any fecklessness their constituency may exhibit in order to retain office.

The uncertainty of finding yourself without answers to questions prompted by reading can only legitimately be addressed by engaging in the discussion, reading the books yourself, and joining with others to understand the questions posed, Banning the books only means you don’t want to talk about it, which is no solution, only an abrogation of responsibility.

The only thing that makes life worthwhile is sharing it with other people, other minds, other views. There are few places safer and more reliable to find those other perspectives than books.

The impulse to bar someone from reading a book is the essence of denial. It is also laziness. Parents demanding schools do this simply want someone else to do part of the parenting for them. To a point, fair enough—parenting is hard work and it is true that it cannot be done in isolation. But this is beyond seeking assistance, as it affects more than one’s own children—it affects the community. It is an attempt to edit the psychology, the ethics, the awareness of the entire community. It is declaring that certain ideas, certain perspectives—certain voices—should not be considered.

Should not be considered.

Why?

Because some people do not want to be challenged. Not by society, not by their neighbors, and certainly not by their children. They do even want to think about being challenged.

I have never been afraid of the unknown. I have been afraid of what I don’t know. Which motivates me to find out. What parent genuinely concerned with their child’s ability to thrive in the world would handicap them by insisting on ignorance? The truth is, no such concerned parent would. Parents who are more concerned with maintaining their sense of control, their illusions, hiding their own ignorance, avoiding uncomfortable questions, holding any ideology as more important than truth…they would.

But they themselves are victims. Those who are invested in their ignorance for political gain or to accrue power or just to make more money who know there are people terrified of facing realities that contradict their unexamined premises know how to take advantage. The only defense is to be open to…the conversation.

We can debate truth, history, we can question hypotheses and theories, that’s not at issue. The freedom to do all that is basic. But shutting down the conversation, that takes away any choice, any possibility of discovery, of growth, even of survival. And when one group says “We don’t want that book available to our children” that is exactly what they are doing—shutting down the conversation.

“But I have a right to control what my child reads!” That is between you and your child. You do not have a right to control what the entire community reads, especially not other peoples’ children, and if that’s what you’re trying to do, then the issue is not the book, but your insecurity and anger and resentment and ignorance.

The cottage industry in this country of scaring parents and capitalizing on their panic over issues that, with a little perspective would never be issues (the kind of perspective acquired from wide and regular reading) has grown into a major problem. It has joined now with the programmatic rewriting of history and the suppression of  inconvenient facts and is emphatically anti-freedom. The distorted politics and faux moral outrage at the heart of this has little to nothing to do with “protecting” children. The books chosen, the rhetoric involved, all coalesce around the reality that this is simply a wish to avoid responsibility. This is not about the children, this is about you not wanting to be bothered with trying to answer questions you do not want asked. Children are resilient. What they need most is information, knowledge, trail markers for the development of their eventual mature selves, and the ability to deal with a mutable world. The world you may be trying to preserve at the expense of stripping voices out of the zeitgeist will not survive to their adulthood and if you were somehow to succeed in stifling those voices they will be less able to manage those changes, that world.

Of course, you know this. In your bones, you know this is wrong. You want to fix your world in place and not be challenged in your prejudices and assumptions.

Besides, honestly, you know this will have the opposite effect than what you desire. Successfully pulling those books off shelves in schools and public libraries will be the shallowest kind of mollification. Those of you with children inclined to read know they will find these books and even if they were disinclined to read them before, they will read them now. This will be the definition of a pyrrhic victory. All you are doing is feeding a demagogue who wishes only to achieve power. And your world will end no matter what.

To quote Henry Jones, why don’t you try reading books instead of burning them.

Why don’t you find out if you’re being played.

 

 

Dear Pope

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

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

And utterly beside the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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