Retrenchment

The new abortion laws being enacted across the country should come as no surprise. This was going to happen. This has been in the cards since Reagan. Reliance on the courts to defend the right to choose was as much an indication of how much we underestimated the threat as it was any kind of faith in our institutions.

Right after Roe was passed, amendments to state constitutions should have been passed to nail it down. Other laws should have been written and passed to nail it down. One of the inherent problems with a federal solution is that it’s a one-time solution that can be reversed the next time across the board. Roe should have been the start of a long series of embedding legislation which should have been taken up on the assumption that Roe could be overturned.

It didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. One, I believe, is that too much support for the right to choose is tepid. It is too often circumstantial, waffling, and uncomfortable.

Now we’ll find out. Penalties are being attached. Some have already been enacted. This means one thing that has traditionally scared the anti-choice movement off—it will now be in the courts all the time.

Let me say here that in my opinion, as a male, I should have no say in this. At all. I was never at risk in this issue. I could never get pregnant. I was never going to suffer consequences from being denied the right to an abortion. This should not be something I have any stake in.

That said, it has become politicized to the point that having an opinion is unavoidable because now it is a civil rights issue, and civil rights affect all of us.

And no, as far as I’m concerned, a fetus has no civil rights. A fetus is not a person. At best, a fetus is a manifestation of an idea, and it only becomes a person if all the parties involve follow through. All the moralistic posturing about when life begins and what constitutes a human are just that—posturing. By taking the position that a fetus—now, in some cases, a zygote—is a human being with a full suite of rights, you automatically strip rights of personhood from the one carrying it. Personhood is an aspect of autonomy. Autonomy at the very least is a matter of self-determination. By declaring that a collection of cells has greater claim to state protection than the one carrying them is by definition declaring that woman less than everyone else. You can’t have it any other way.

Until we stop waffling about that, this issue will not be resolved.

Resolution, however, entails several other issues that are hanging upon the thread of ongoing discomfort. Like equality, for instance, and not just for women.

Education for another. The rationalization of sex. Not to mention the ongoing squirming about gender, orientation, and identity. All of this is tangled up and therefore it is difficult to know just what some people are objecting to when they go on a jeremiad about abortion. We may believe our response is exclusively aimed at the words coming out of their mouths, but then when their next response comes, laden with contradiction and vehement rejection, we sense that we did not know just what we were arguing about.

This is simple:  if the goal is to reduce and/or eliminate abortions, then a sensible solution is to substantially invest in meaningful sex education and the wide availability of contraception. Attack the causes of unwanted pregnancy and empower individuals to protect themselves. How hard is that?

Apparently, very. Almost no anti-choice group does not also include a ban on contraception as a stated goal. One of the justifications touted for this stance is the notion that contraception is simply abortion by other means. Pre-emptive abortion, if you will. That contraception inculcates a lax attitude toward the value of life. That contraception leads to an acceptance of abortion.

This facile excuse-making masks a very simple reality:  that the real issue is not abortion but sex. Sex practiced outside the bounds of what is hoped to be strict social parameters that will control behaviors said advocates find unacceptable. (A recent declaration by Alabama Republican state Senator and sponsor of the bill Clyde Chambliss, responded that, “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” That’s about as clear as it can be made—he and probably his supporters are not interested in the “facts of life” regarding fertilized egg—they are concerned with pregnant women and making sure they stay pregnant.)  This is a direct assault on a woman’s right to be her own agent.  It is punitive and it is a curtailment of her civil rights. This has nothing to do with fetuses except as a means of control.

Until we largely get past the traditional views that linger like mold that sex is somehow bad and that women who try to live their lives according to the same privileged sensibilities men do are “unnatural”; until we get to a place where we can accept that sex as an act of communication is separate and distinct in intent and outcome from sex as procreation and that all of us have a right to manage our own aspirations free of outside interference, we will continue to have this problem.

It is the start of a chain, though.  If you can dictate pregnancy this way, you can dictate all the rest of the privacy concerns adhering to questions of free association and identity. This can be enlarged for purposes of a resurgent legal challenge to homosexual rights, transgender rights, adoption rights, marriage rights, and so on.  Not that it necessarily would go there but by accepting the legitimacy of such limitations on one group for purposes having nothing to do with their innate and autonomous desires, you can construe a challenge to any group failing to fit an arbitrary social “norm.”

That is not a society I care to live in.

Until we quite clearly and loudly start dealing with the underlying (and not so well hidden) issues involved, we are destined to keep fighting these back-and-forth legal wars.  Despite the distance traveled since the 1950s and all its suffocating social restrictions, people still seem reluctant to defend their right to have healthy sex.  Indeed, we still have too many people who do not believe sex is healthy. Too many people who excuse their desires and passions by making babies and therefore proving a legitimate reason for having such a good time was there all along.

It sounds silly, doesn’t it?

When you disassemble the challenges and look at the arguments and then look at the policies advocated, it doesn’t sound so silly.  The anti-choice movement has depended on the tepidness, the discomfort, of too many people in order to build the momentum they have. They have relied on our collective ill-ease with the whole subject.

Well. Be that as it may. Sad to say, the pro-choice movement is likely going to lose this one. Having lost it, we will regroup, and maybe next time do the necessary trench-warfare in the state legislatures, and school boards, and town halls to instantiate this right in too many places, too deeply to be effectively challenged.

We need to. I am not willing to live in a Calvinist dystopia. I don’t think the Fifties were all that wonderful. I don’t want my friends to suffer a retreat from the dream of equity.

This has been a fight with ignorance. The depth of that ignorance is on display now across the country. People who don’t know—and who don’t want to know, because knowing confuses them, makes them doubt. They want a pure, righteous cause by which to feel virtuous.

For the life of me, I’ve never understood why genuine equality doesn’t fill that bill.

Equality? For the ignorant—that a woman can be shackled by a condition and have her entire life twisted and reshaped through no choice of her own and that men can never be so trapped automatically makes this an equity issue. That is reality. And I have no doubt that many if not all the architects of the so-called pro-life cause know that perfectly well and they are glad of it, because they think that’s as it should be.

 

 

Reality vs Not

The image of Trump that says all one needs to know about him came during the so-called Million MAGA March, when his SUV drove through the crowds that had assembled in D.C. on his behalf. We see him pressed against the window, hand raised, grinning, and scooting on by to their cheers. He did not stop. They came for him but he did not stop. He knew they were coming, so something could have been prepared for him to at least give a short speech. But he did not stop. He hurried through, grinning at them. Where was he going that he could not stop to give something back to his supporters?

He was going to golf.

Jokes have been made about a lot of presidents and their golf, but in this case it long ago ceased to be funny. He may or may not have spent more time on the golf course than any other president, but his personal jaunts have cost the taxpayer more than any other.

And the fact that this makes no difference to his supporters speaks to the more cultish aspects surrounding him.

Disclaimer: I have never found anything appealing or even mildly amusing about Donald Trump. He struck me as a fraud back in the Seventies and his string of mismanaged endeavors since has done nothing to convince me otherwise. The best I can figure, he’s one of those people who has financial support because he owes too much to too many and letting him go to live in a trailer park would be too costly. I tried to read his book, The Art of the Deal back when it came out and found it a kind of secular version of an occult magic text based on illusion and bad psychology. I didn’t finish it.

So when it appeared he was going to have a shot at being elected president, I, along with many others, thought, well this is the end of the Republican Party. They’ve put a shyster in the running.

A shyster who has managed to pull the same trick politically as he did financially—too much rides on him to just let him sink, too many careers, too much political capital.  Not because he’s such a great politician but because he has managed to make too many people dependent on him in unhealthy and frankly undemocrtatic ways.

I have been told to look at his accomplishments. To be fair, there are a few that aren’t all that bad.

But it doesn’t matter. Consider Nixon. It can be unapologetically argued that he did quite a lot that was good for the country. The EPA for one. And one might be excused for arguing that had he been left alone, even better things might have emerged. And while that may be true, it is also true that he subverted the institutions he swore an oath to uphold, created a shadow government, bypassed Congress, and committed crimes.

Nothing excuses that.

We do not here rely on cults of personality and because we have tried to be a nation of laws it is implausible to excuse someone who did so much damage on the basis of a few “good” things he may have done.

Because for one thing those good things were not and could never be all of one person’s making.

Nixon damaged our democracy. Trump has possibly broken it.

I don’t care what he might have done that in the next several years we might find laudable. Those things could have been done by anyone and he could not have done them alone in any case.  We have to ask, at what cost?

Suggestions of a sharp intellect behind the clownish veneer are frivolous.  The result of four years of this administration are in the streets. Discord, distrust, confusion, and distortions of right and wrong.

We could go down a list of the campaign promises he failed to deliver on, but why bother? The Trump Cult will excuse them in any of a dozen ways.

The frightening thing is, without the COVID pandemic we might have re-elected him, because he has managed to call so much into question that we are second-guessing ourselves about who we are. But 200,000 deaths from a mishandled public health emergency are impossible to ignore. His claim that they had no playbook for this has been shown to be false. Obama’s people left a detailed playbook behind. His people were smart, they knew what might happen, and they fulfilled their civic duty by trying to prepare the country.  Trump did nothing but shut down clinics that gathered data because he wanted the numbers to be different, which he stated, up front, in public.

I have been challenged to see positives in this.  Sorry.  Even in the broad policy strokes that in some wayu I might agree with, the management of them was so hamfisted and sophomoric that it has made things worse.

Trump has made the world a more dangerous place.

I am not exaggerating.

One might argue that pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords was questionable, but that was largely symbolic.  But pulling out of the WHO was criminal.

For a long time it has been clear that the GOP has become the party of wishful thinking, of appearances, of denial. The moderates are mostly gone, the base isn’t interested in rights so much as privileges, and too many people just want the country to look a certain way and to hell with social responsibility, demographic reality, and evolution of technical change. These are people who want people in church praying to Jesus and no one else, women to stay home and be mothers, men to be straight (and white), and business to lead the way. They want America to be at the forefront of everything but refuse to fund education or support labor in any meaningful way. They think Trump exemplifies their vision of America. A draft-deferred, womanizing, tax evading, subliterate conman who knows one thing—appearances are all that matter.

This is not Trump’s problem.  It is ours.  We bought into that image, enough of us that he actually made it into the White House. Like George W. Bush said almost 20 years ago, “I don’t do nuance.” But the world is nothing but nuance and those who refuse to deal with that will always make a mess.

Messes are costly.  We have one now.  And this obdurate refusal to concede the election, even when every reliable institution says it is legitimate, is the final evidence we need to see that this mess, one of our own making, is all Trump was ever going to provide.

Enough. It is time for him to go and it is time for his supporters to sit down and shut up about it. If I may remind them of their reaction four years ago, “He lost, get over it.”  And finally, “Fuck your Feelings.”

Fine legacy, that. I hope they’re proud.  Oh, wait. They are.

And that’s our problem.

Over?

The temptation to gloat is immense. After four years of living in the land of the cognitively dissonant, we have managed to displace a major symptom of national dysfunction.

Gloating would be a huge mistake.

The senate is still in the hands of the Party of Enablers who have for 12 years stood in the way of national amity. Mitch McConnell is for the moment still the majority leader there and he has already made it clear he intends to do the same to Biden that he did to Obama. I don’t care what your opinion may be of a specific policy, this is petty, vindictive, and destructive obstructionism and a palsy on our democracy.

That Biden/Harris seemed not to have sufficient coattails to turn over the Senate (and even lost a few seats in the House) does not surprise me so much as depress me.

Look: whatever side you’re on, we cannot solve problems by refusing to consider solutions, and the place for consideration nationally is in Congress. That can’t happen if someone keeps preventing bills and people from even being considered on the floor. The question is, what are they so afraid of? Because the only reason to keep ideas and proposals from being aired is because you are afraid your own ideas are weak or useless.

I cannot tell you how many times in the last four years encounters with self-professed conservatives (mainly on social media) have come down to name-calling and superior-sounding dismissals when all that was asked was for sources for factually dubious claims. I cannot tell you how many times insult came forth when all that was asked was an explanation and the chance for engagement. I also cannot tell you how many times it felt as if two alien languages were being spoken, even though the words and sentences were in English.

But we cannot begin to heal until some basic understanding happens. Whether we who have opposed Trump and his enablers like it or not, the fact of this election shows that we have a massive ideological divide that will not magically go away because a new president will be in the White House. We will war over this until we figure out how to resolve it or end it.

First suggestion: we must stop confusing tolerance and mollification. We have to find ways to tolerate the spreaders of nonsense without appeasement to the nonsense. People have the freedom to believe anything they wish, but that does not mean nonsense must be accepted as part of legitimate discourse or forms some kind of valid argument. I am speaking now to those who style themselves as liberals or on the Left.  We do this.  A lot. In the name of getting along, of “finding common ground,” of civility even, we have let things pass that ought never to have gained traction.  Saying out loud that something is bullshit is not a bad thing. But we can’t dismiss the people themselves. Trust me, those on the Right clearly have no problem expelling those with whom they disagree or dismissing arguments they either do not understand and refuse to accept.

Secondly, I believe we must deal with the underlying disconnects where they live, namely in the narratives that inform our apposite perceptions. One of those, I’ve come to think, has to do with the nature of property.  This nation has been built on an idea of property that runs through our history, elevating the very substance of it to the level of holy writ.  But I don’t believe we have a very good grasp of what property is.  Or, more relevantly, what it is not.

In 50 years of discussions, casual conversations, articles, op-eds, business, political, and cultural tracts, I’ve come to the conclusion that people on opposite sides of the so-called conservative/liberal divide have fundamentally different apprehensions of property. For liberals, loosely put, property is a by-product of living. For conservatives, it seems, property is the whole point of living. The real problem is what gets defined as property. For a conservative, again loosely put, everything is property, including rights. This is basic capitalism, which seeks to commodify everything.  And as capitalism has been practiced for two plus centuries, commodities are always limited. Capitalism is founded on scarcity.  Sometimes the scarcity is real—there’s only so much nickel, titanium, and aluminum is expensive to make, and arable land is finite. But today, recently, those scarcities have become manufactured,  Even so, some things cannot be so except by law—like human rights.

The conservative/capitalist playbook tells us that in order for someone to have something they haven’t got, someone else has to give something up. The zero sum game.  What we have to come to terms with is that to some people, when you talk about expanding rights or services, they automatically hear that they will have to give something up.  It is counter-intuitive to them to state that such is not the case.

Even in operant capitalism.

We must also begin to grapple with the fact that problems are never of a single facet. And when we get down to the individual level, the complexities multiply.

So relegating groups to single-diagnoses categories will always backfire.  They are not all stupid, ignorant, venal, or obsessed.  Seventy million of us voted to keep in play the guerrilla war for the culture.  Effectively, we might be able to deal with broad issues, but ultimately that means there are seventy million unique perspectives that do not match up with the seventy-five million who have rejected their choice for president.

There are basic moral issues at stake.  But mingled with those are people who think they will lose something in this outcome.

The one thing we cannot afford to do this time is think we have won and can now go home. This is only the latest battle.

So breathe, enjoy a bit of relief. Then do not fail to show up. You can’t win if you’re not on the court.  Nothing is over.

Reason and Intelligence

This will be brief.

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

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

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

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

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

Certainty.

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

We are dealing with a question of Reason.

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

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

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

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

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

Something to consider.

 

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

Dangerous Games

One of the difficulties of living in an open society is the unspoken requirement to be tolerant of stupidity. Giving others respect for opinions and beliefs that run counter to civility, reason, or the consideration of shared rights can nurture the false impression that such beliefs and opinions are valid and acceptable, not only to hold but to act upon.  While certainly one can entertain any idea, to go beyond contemplation and moving toward instantiating certain notions as if they were somehow justified across community lines is a different thing altogether.

The people involved in the kidnapping plot of Governor Whitmer of Michigan have too long accepted that their notions of legitimate action, based on opinions and beliefs which have gone unchallenged for them for long enough to constitute a functional break with reality, are exemplars of the downside of tolerance. Because it has become unacceptable for too long to simply call certain ideas out for the nonsense they are—because one is “entitled” to one’s opinion—we have seen grow pockets of cultish beliefs incommensurable with the very open society that says we should tolerate the widest possible range of opinion, hypotheses, personal choice, and credos.

This is the paradox at the heart of what we wish to see as our endeavor. This country. This planet.

But right there, the paradox emerges. Do we want to see the same things?

Broadly speaking, these little gatherings of white pseudo-militia groups embrace a Libertarian æsthetic. Not so much the philosophy. They may have a member or two who know a bit more about their stated philosophy and preferred political stance, but I suspect for the most part these folks have matriculated from the Hollywood school of American Myth. Combined with what appears to be a constrained ability to interact with people who are not just like them, they have mixed a cocktail of old westerns, McCarthy-era Red Baiting, and hate-filled commentary from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones to come up with something which “feels” like True American Virtue.

This has always been around, though. What is different now is that we have an administration which, for a variety of reasons, seems to be encouraging them. What began as cheerleading during the campaign to garner votes from the pool of chronically disaffected heirs of an American Dream that was never real or available to them the way they had become convinced it was is now a dangerous game of electoral chicken. Combined with his continual and too-often arbitrary interference with institutions and systems that until now worked well enough to afford us the space and luxury of indulging fancies and arguing over the furnishings as if they were the real substance of our republic, we have a situation now where too many people believe they have leave to act on their niche paranoias and dreams of a new revolution. It has now risen to the level of significant threat and it is time to recognized that, fun as this may all be for those who dislike liberal democracy and the actualities of genuine tolerance and inclusion, we live in a period balanced on a knife-edge and for no other reason than the refusal to recognize hate when it stands before us.

I have listened to the spinmasters of his campaign try to cast all this in a different light and the one consistent aspect of all their rhetoric is a persistent refusal to address what he has said and what has happened.  That for a huge portion of this country little or none of this has touched them directly, the fact is what happens on the surface and why can be used to make or break law, custom, and the connections that keep us whole. How many people in any organization does it take to wreck things? Very few.  Actual Nazis in Germany in the 1930s numbered in the minority, vastly dwarfed by the majority who were not, and yet that group, that slice, came to speak for and represent the whole of Germany and take it into a darkness we here believe couldn’t take us.  We see the Proud Boys and their like and we hear what the president says and while we may feel some comfort that “most of us” do not approve or would accept that in our communities, the reality is we are witnessing an erosion of our civic virtue and our national well-being.

He speaks nonsense. His followers seem to believe it. It would be an indictment on our past and legacy if somehow the majority of us who realize this cannot meet it as it should be met and he is re-elected. Our institutions and principles will not have failed us—we will have failed them.

We have to attend not to what we might lose but to what we are losing. We have to reclaim the authentic dream,  We have to become ourselves and remembering that while tolerating the freedom to think what we want, we are not obligated to accord stupidity, ignorance, and lies equal time at the podium.

This is not a game.

 

Detritus

Things pile up.

In 27-some years of living in my house, debris accumulates. Not dust, that can be swept up, wiped away—redistributed—but Stuff. Books, papers, nick-knacks, unquantifiable objets-d’art. A long list of “do you know what this is, where we got it, do we want/need/feel impotent to discard it?”

In my case, books, music, movies. Media. I am an art packrat. A “pack-art” or an art rat or some such. My shelves are full, the stacks are growing, and I find myself unwilling to part with any of it, because it all means something. I have a three foot shelf of books about the Napoleonic Age I am loathe to be rid of because they are research for a trilogy I have written but not sold and on the off-chance I need to do further work on that trilogy, I do not want to lose the books. (I have another, seven foot shelf, of books about the Civil War and Reconstruction Era for a novel which never got out of the note stage, but which I very much want to write, so I’m hanging on to the books.) I have piles of books I want to read, but have no idea when I’ll get to them, and some of them will be rather beside-the-point if I don’t get to them soon.

Then there are the sheaves of notes. Story ideas, phone numbers, websites, research comments, scribbles. Some of it goes back 30 years and I can look at the words and wonder just what that was all about.

The music and videos are another matter. I listen to music a lot. I love movies and television shows. But we now have Netflix, which adds to the obvious impossibility of “catching up.” I’m beginning to think about that during retirement, but then there are all the books…

It is my past and I am unwilling to bury it.

A bit of morbid darkness creeps in sometimes, looking at all this. Leaving it all behind for others to pick through, assuming they will. More likely it all just goes out the door. No one in particular will know the history of acquisition behind it all.

Which for the most part doesn’t bother me.

But I am an artist. I don’t mean that in any egoistical sense, only in that I have spent my waking life creating things, ostensibly beautiful things, for the pleasure of others. I have spent almost as long puzzled that no one really gets to see much of it. I am—have been, remain—terrible at self-marketing. I have tens of thousands of photographs going back to my adolescence. Most of it unremarkable, journeyman work, forgettable if not just bad. But there are some good images.

I have nothing in place to secure the future of that body of work.

The writing is different. I’ve managed to get it out there, in front of people, and I am modestly able to claim some kind of imprint on the public. Not much, but it won’t all just vanish.

My music is yet another matter still.

But it is there. All of it. Sitting beneath the surface of a life.

I wonder how other people anticipate the evidence of a life lived. I had every intention of being more or less orderly, with a place and a context for each important object. The filing system of my experience should have been like a gallery, through which one might stroll and see everything. Instead, it’s more or less a mess. A comfortable one, for the most part, but sometimes I see the need to impose order, just so it doesn’t look like it needs throwing out.

Purges can be therapeutic, though, never mind the freeing up of space.  There is the mental drag of always being reminded of what you haven’t done yet.

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I wonder about the workers tasked with throwing things out of suddenly vacated houses or apartments. Are they aware that they are excavating lives? Not curating, though. That’s what concerns me now.

I had other plans for my ecology.

I think “ecology” is a useful way to look at one’s life, the furnishings, the rituals, the care. Healthy ecologies extend across the entire spectrum of possibility and desire. We assemble them over life. Early on, it’s a matter of adding things in, then arranging them, and finally some weeding becomes necessary.

But there’s some comfort in all that surround. Familiarity, at least. And throwing things out can sometimes feel like self-surgery.

It is true, though, that sentimentality can become a trap. It can feel better than the here and now, especially since it is so malleable. Sentiment (as well as a constantly reshuffled memory) rewrites history for us.  Not only pain, but everything acquires a temporal gloss. Like the speed of light, the closer we approach precision, the harder it becomes, and we can never quite get there. We assume record-keeping, memorabilia, scrapbooks, and the components we build to represent our lives (to us as well as to others) will make it easier.

I’m not sure what that means, though. As the past recedes, faster and faster, dopplering out of reach sometimes, the objects meant to remind become in themselves the thing of which we are reminded. Not the event or the people or the place, but the thing. At which point we have to question if it is worth keeping. If the memento no longer memorializes but, perhaps, just takes up space for something more valuable…

These are certainly personal considerations. But it may be that the same applies to larger matters. How much do we keep as a community? As a city? As a nation? At what point do the things meant to memorialize take on a self-importance that supplants the legitimate memory and thus become blockages, impediments, worse than useless? What might we learn or discover in their absence? What might we become if no longer encumbered by the distorted memorials of a past which may have no real relationship to what we were and certainly not to who we are?

If I finally get rid of that pile of old notes, will it change who I am? Probably not. But it might let me be who I am with a little more clarity.

Something to think about.

 

Truths

I have rarely watched party conventions. They are filled with hyperbole, grandstanding, speech-making excess. All the emotion-laden hucksterism we usually joke about at other times. I distrust decision-making based on limbic response to blatant attempts to “inspire” me. Inspiration, to my mind, should be an emergent property of action, of character in service to sound ideas, to a self-evident moral response to circumstance. I am inspired by what someone does, is doing, not by the particular rhetoric of promises and assertions that I should believe in something as embodied by the speaker when I have not seen that speaker doing any embodying.

In this, I suspect I am in a minority. People seem largely to prefer cheering to deliberation.

In any event, I have usually made up my mind well before the convention, so unless a dark horse comes riding onto the floor, there are no compelling reasons for me to subject myself to what amounts to four days of self-congratulatory back-slapping, bragging, and crowd-rallying, the last of which I deeply mistrust. Too often, large crowds end up displaying the least dependable aspects of human nature. The momentum of large groups can overwhelm reason and restraint and end in riot. And by riot I do not necessarily mean the physical kind. There are many types and they are all destructive.

But conventions are instructive at a distance. You can tell a lot about the people in attendance, supporting them. This year the difference could not be more stark, and on a very simple metric.

The crowd component I mention above…

The Democratic convention this year was held online, virtually, in order to handle the pandemic in as responsible a way as possible.

The Republican convention was held in the traditional way, bringing crowds together, regardless of the pandemic and its potential consequences.

That’s pretty much all one needs to know about the difference between the two parties right now. Because the one is banking on its ideas and its embrace of common sense and a modicum of concern.  The other is banking on the momentum of the mob, and for that to be a factor, people have to be in the hall, in sufficient numbers for the excitement of the party to overwhelm reason.

Much has been said about the nature of our democracy. This has always been a topic, but it has grown into a major factor. Are we a democracy? If so, why do the parties make it hard for some people to vote? Shouldn’t the right to vote be axiomatic and unquestioned? “The Founding Fathers____!”

Fill in the blank.  It’s said they distrusted democracy, hence we have a republic, which is held up as some kind of anodine to democracy. it is said they loved democracy, hence humbled themselves before the dictates of The People. You can find quotes to support both positions. Like pulling quotes from the Bible, one can defend almost any assertion based on what the Founders said.

Some of which was unequivocal.  Much of it was implied. A good deal was personal opinion.

But it seems evident that they recognized a basic truth about human nature.

People do not live wholly by ideas.

People live where they are and by what they feel and in relationship to who and what they know. One way to put it is that people are less deliberative and more reactive.

For instance, you’re a colonial listening the the reading of the Declaration of Independence and you hear those words “All men are created equal.” How do you feel? Quite likely, if you are a patriot of the day, you hear that and think of King George and think “He’s no better than me, we are in fact created equal!” And that feels good, feels right.

What you do not do is turn around and say, “By god, that’s true, we should free our slaves and stop killing natives! We’re created equal!”

The idea has a limited range of effect. It may work in one direction, but not the other. Certainly, looking at history, this is a perfectly accurate reading. Ideas do not change prejudice, behavior, habit, or desire, not unless those ideas already in some aspect conform to one’s prejudices, habits, and desires. It is inarguable, based on the evidence of things done, that people ratified the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and then continued living as though none of it actually applied to them. In each period of our history, a struggle has occurred over what our principles say and what we wish to do.  All men are created equal, except some, whose situation we do not wish to change because it will cost us, and besides, those words only applied to me. Freedom of speech, of course, except for that newspaper publishing things with which I disagree, so I will burn it down. The franchise should come with equality, which is expressed in our Declaration, except for people I know who will vote against what I want to do, so no.

This is not a ridiculous idea. This is privilege, short-sightedness, and the consequence of people fearful of sharing something they only just now won, and not trusting that it means the same thing to others as it does to them.

And besides, life is competition, the struggle for advantage, cut-throat and dog-eat-dog, and abiding by lofty principles will erode gains made by one group in favor of other groups with no obvious affinity.

The Founders knew people were like this. It is why they created a system that worked against any one person or faction gaining and keeping power and also why they distrusted pure democracy. They took a very long view of how this might evolve, and some if not all of them knew it could get ugly.

But what choice did they have? They came very close to re-instituting a monarchical system they had just fought a war to be rid of. How to prevent that obvious desire? They heard from people who were happy and proud to be free who then wanted to turn right around and put themselves back in the same chains. No doubt they thought it would be different because they would be “our” chains. Then, too, they knew they could not simply overthrow the entire system already in place without releasing the jackals of civil war. We nearly had that anyway over the first decade or two. I think they knew it was inevitable as well, but had no idea how long it would take, and established a set of promises that gave legal pretext for suppression when it came.

The history of the Republic is underpinned by large segments of the populace acting on the assumption that certain rules did not apply to them. That to “do the right thing” according to those ideas would have meant not doing what they thought they had been given permission to do in the first place. Colonizing, settling, exploiting, intruding, and embracing intolerance when necessary in order to keep doing what they believed to be their right to do. What became the moneyed class, capitalists, assuming they could ignore the principles as long as business improved. And later, certain Citizens who assumed the law did not apply to them, because they were important and those pressing complaints against them were not.

Because ideas rarely trump that innate limbic response which can from time to time inform crowds and overwhelm reason.

When the charge “the Founders never intended” is leveled during times of disputatious turmoil, we should stop right there.

Yes, they did intend. Because they knew the ideas they sought to elevate as the foundation of a principled polity would take time, conflict, blood, and riot to instantiate. Yes, they did intend that we go to the mat over these things, because they knew it was the only way behavior changes across populations and even within families. They knew because they had just been through a class in exactly that. The arguments they made to Britain and the Crown over representation, taxation, treaties, self-government—arguments that were perfectly reasonable, even legally sound according to British law—had failed to move the king and Parliament, because that “august” body and George III simply did not feel their laws applied to Others. The entire war could have been avoided if ideas had immediate power as self-interest and pride and passion. The Founders had watched England squander the good will and potential of the North American colonies over questions of privilege and the assertion of authority.  In other words, they had watched human stupidity wreck a sound relationship.

So they knew what could and would happen when ideas—especially new ideas, ideas based in abstracts (albeit with profound real-world consequences) ran afoul of people being who and what they were.

And, yes, what they created took that into account. So what they “intended” was that we hash it out. They knew we going to fight about these things. All they did was set the ground rules and sprinkled some idea throughout to give us the right things to fight about.  Did they cover every contingency? Of course not. How could they anticipate what might change? Oh, wait—they did. The Ninth Amendment.

The flaw, if flaw it is, in the system is that with growing success materially our interest in participating intellectually tends to wax and wane. That’s why Jefferson stressed education. But even that is no guarantee that we might not come to a point where most of us could be willing to throw the whole thing out for the simple expedient of having Someone Else make all these difficult decisions. As well, the more complex the world becomes, the likelihood that enough of us might have the time, intellect, or interest in understanding these complexities well enough to make the kinds of judgments we elect representatives to do grows smaller. It’s not impossible, but look at where we are now.

But the fight goes on and out of the kicked-up dust and spit and broken teeth some kind of emergent property forms to take us to the next step. It almost never looks like we’ll make it, but at each one of these periods something comes about that carries us through.

Because ultimately we move against demagogues. Not because we disagree with their positions or dispute their ideas, but because we will not be dictated to. Persuaded, seduced, enlisted, certainly, all that, and at times we find ourselves with leadership taking us questionable directions because the program was presented with flowers and candy, but when the specter of bullying autocracy becomes evident, we bristle.

It’s not a method I am comfortable relying upon.

But to the point, we have an ongoing tension between who we want to be and who we are. Slowly, oh so slowly, over time, we have changed, becoming closer to an ideal which, itself, has changed. You could ask almost anyone if they agreed with that initial statement, All Men Are Created Equal, and for the most part find agreement. Of course, that’s what it means to be an American.

Then the other shoe falls. All men. And, in fact, all people, are created equal. All.

And then, if you press it, you find equivocation. When it becomes clear that you mean they should treat everyone equally.

Well, wait just a minute…

No, people don’t like that. For many reasons, not all of them as capricious as it might seem. For the most part, the discomfort is mild and usually unexpressed. But it’s there, and given the proper nourishment, erupts. But over time, we know the principle is better than the impulsive rejection.

Gradually we become who we wish to be. Sometimes it takes generations. And sometimes, there has to be a very public, very bitter contest over it. And if we’re lucky the reasons for embracing the ideas over the impulses show themselves starkly.  Then we have a choice. Who do we want to be?

Two conventions. Just the difference in the way they were handled is indicative of the choice.

As to the content…well, that’s been clear for a while now.

This is not, should anyone believe otherwise, a plug for one party or the other. Parties evolve, morph, turn into their opposites, encompass positions that are often far from ideal. No, I’m not shilling for one party or the other. I’m talking about where the human beings are right now. Where you find the clearest expression of human sentiment, ethics, and, yes, morality. I’m talking about people trying to be one thing or the other, but really I’m talking about people trying to be the best version of what our ideas have shown we can be. Where do they happen to align now? Where will we find the better angels of our nature? The room is not so important, although just now the nature of the room itself is telling, but who is in it.

 

 

 

 

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.

Should I Or Shouldn’t I?

The question came up recently among friends about answering the claim that, concerning the wearing of a mask these days, “I have freedom of choice. If I choose to risk getting sick, it’s still my choice.”

My reaction was basic, which I will reveal at the end of this.

Choice is one of those perennial topics that rises and falls with public fashion.  We link it to our ideas of liberty the way we link certain colors and seasonal clothing. At least until it really matters, but then we tend to dismiss it as a right and turn it into a species of moral determination that brooks no debate. We have it or we don’t. Period. Mitigating circumstances, point-of-view, necessity—and it is almost always the unaffected decrying the tragedy of permissiveness when someone whose situation is unknown, alien, or unfortunate seeks redress through choice which, all things being equal, most people never have. Or have to exercise.

Making a choice because the outcome is important means weighing options, reviewing evidence, considering multiple factors. It is a matter of consideration, not a reflex, or, worse, playing to a script because it sounds righteous. Denigrating people who have to make choices, who do that work, is done by people who probably have never been faced with a critical issue that requires thought, maybe sacrifice, and the knowledge that what choice is made affects others beside yourself.

I’m being categorical here because listening to and watching some of the protestations over the wearing of masks and seeing them “masked” as a matter of personal choice stirs my blood a bit. I’m sorry, but no, you are not making a choice based on reasoned consideration of viable options. You’re just saying you don’t want to be bothered. It’s too much trouble. It feels funny.  It’s inconvenient.

Because all the nonsense about this being a violation of rights is empty posturing. You’re just a selfish jerk who probably doesn’t obey traffic laws very well, either.

And if you add to that the excuse that your current fearless leader has given you permission to be a jerk, then I will add that you’re a moral coward as well.

Because this is on you, as an individual (which is what you’re claiming, after all), defending your right to choose. Offloading the responsibility onto the blind mouthings of that empty suit—well, that’s more of the same, isn’t it?

You just can’t be bothered.

So, no, this isn’t an example of choice in action.  This is an abandonment of all the factors that go into making choice a valuable right.  If you were actually exercising that right, then you would go somewhere and isolate yourself from human contact until a vaccine is available.  That would be the reasoned exercise of the right you’re claiming.  Putting others at risk just because you don’t want to be bothered…well, that’s just lazy self-centered blather.

And, yes, since you ask, that’s really how I feel.

The Only Thing We Have To Fear

We received one of those chain e-mails detailing in exhaustive hyperbole how all our current woes stem from the Left’s plot to “hurt” the president. It was filled with blaming, with tortured reconstructions of history, with the logic of the obsessively fearful. On the one hand, it made no sense. On the other, its message could not be clearer. The sender is terrified.

Of what, I am not exactly sure. But it encapsulates a raw, undifferentiating fear that first and foremost just wants everything to stand still.  Everything. And maybe back up a few steps, history-wise, to an imagined time that never was.

It was altogether depressing, not just because it was so laden with bad history and worse reasoning, but because someone felt it necessary to construct such a thing in the first place. And because of the efforts of others who provided the groundwork for such a thing to become accepted truth for too many people.

The truth is not difficult to find, only difficult to embrace, because mingled with any truth is a certain amount of ambiguity.  We usually confuse truth and fact, but what we’re seeing is not a confusion of them, but a rejection. There’s little in these things that demonstrate any investment in reality, of any kind. It’s pseudoscience and alternate history, an imitation of comprehension.

And yet, somehow, it feels real.

The reality of the cage.

The reality of the gated community, the narrow selection of news sources, the country club exclusions, the property tax impediments. The reality of purged voter rolls, underfunded schools, privatized healthcare that excludes by price. The reality of assuming everyone should be like you, and if they are not then they deserve no regard.

The reality of looking at a man designated their leader standing in front of a church holding a bible while calling for stronger police action and not noticing that he had his path cleared to that church by law enforcement and tear gas. This perfectly embodies the mentality of his core supporters, who are terrified. They are not angry.  They are not in dudgeon over the state of the union. They are in vehement disagreement with the direction of the country, but not based on a reasoned examination of what is and what could be.  That assumes cause and a reasoned response to issues.  There is none of that.  You can tell by what they excuse in the name of getting their way. Because, above all else, they are terrified.

It is difficult for someone who is not terrified to deal with someone who is. All the usual connections are buried under layers of reaction and adrenaline and doubt so profound Dante wrote an epic about it. That level of fear is itself terrifying and infectious. Walking it back, extracting the poison, that kind of work takes time and a degree of patience itself damaged in the confrontation.

The sad part is, those who are that fearful, that terrified of losing…something…seem unaware that they have already lost it. Because what they most want is to stop being afraid.

So they channel it into anger. They take a position, set up a perimeter, defend it with all the vitriol at their command, not realizing that the tiny space they have boxed themselves into holds almost nothing. Worse, while in that state of self-erected rage, they have become so easily manipulated by those who have figured out how to benefit from their inattention.  All someone has to do is point.

We seem too often to feel we are apart from or above history. We understand on some level that one of the chief tools of the autocrat is to single out a group that is in some way identifiably distinct from an ill-defined “majority” and start pointing at them whenever problems mount to the level of public agitation. Time and again we have watched dictators, strongmen, juntas, tyrants direct the frustrations and anger of their people at a target. We even seem to understand that this is done to distract that presumed majority from the actions of the one in charge and to gain the power to direct the fortunes of a country for his own ends.

But we don’t think it can happen to us.

This after decades of being whipsawed in exactly that way. Civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, social justice, immigration reform.  Each one of these causes has been marked by an antagonism far outweighing the actual difficulties of achieving what ought not to be controversial in the least. Every single one of these instances have been amenable to straightforward solutions which became mired in factional disputes over—

Over what? Questions of whether the people at the heart of these issues were deserving? On what basis were they not? The resentment was fueled by someone, some group, pointing a finger and frightening people with possibilities that upon examination were baseless, cruel, silly, and ultimately illusory.  Like an experienced gambler, they parlayed our feelings of discomfort into nightmare fears of calamity, and in the end they accrued more power to stir that brew again and again, until among certain of us the reaction has been axiomatic. The finger is raised, no more prodding is required, we are ready to do battle to defend Our Values.

Which are what, exactly, in this construction? Hatred? Oppression? Denial of agency? The solution of the gulag, the concentration camp, debtors’ prison, or state sanctioned murder?

It is difficult individually to see how the structures at play feed into this. We live with them, for the most part they serve us, and if we are never abused by them it is hard to accept that they can be abusive to others.  But it isn’t that complex.  Things like lending practices, insurance risk-evaluation, investment strategies all can be used to target and exclude.  Jobs? Look at shareholder reports to see how those are affected. Even something as simple as refusing to acknowledge a word or a fact or a change in how a detail is used in a report can produce inimical consequences for some group with which we may have no direct connection.

Reagan blocked the CDC from talking about gays during the AIDS crisis. The deaths mounted. Something as simple as a refusal to look at a detail can kill.

The only reason this happens is because people are terrified. Sadly, they often don’t even know what it is that frightens them, they only know that they’re frightened.

And someone is right there to use that to take power from them and keep it for themselves.

If this country, this experiment, this idea perishes, it will be because too many of us are too afraid to be who we want to be.  Who we intended to be.  Who we can be.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it.