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.

 

Appearances

We’re raised by certain aphorisms. Rules of thumb. Heuristics.

You shouldn’t judge by appearances.

Well and good. A sound policy.

And yet, so many of us just…can’t…not.

A black man jogging through an affluent white neighborhood is chased down, confronted, and then shot to death. They did not see a man jogging, did not notice that, despite their claim they thought he was a burglar, there was nothing on him (bag, tools, stolen good, notebook), nothing about him suggested someone fleeing after illegal activity. He was jogging.  Video before the fatality shows someone running as a jogger would run. At this point, it is fair to say, unequivocally, had he been white, no one would have given him a second look.

It is, then, fair to ask—what went through the minds of those who killed him? The 911 call specifically said “a black man running through the neighborhood.”

Appearances.

Is turnabout fair play?

I’m looking at some of the lock-down protesters, the ones who showed up armed to rallies, and one in particular where the subject is stating to those filming him that he will not live in fear.

Well.

Look at the mugshots of the two men responsible for that jogger’s death and look at some of these protesters.  Let us play the same game.

I see round-headed, puffy man/boys with beards grown and groomed to resemble an abstraction of an Old West mountain man.  Or possibly some modern exemplar of a Biblical prophet. (It’s amazing how often the two are conflated, if not overtly then by association through signage.) There is a puffiness to the visage, a line-less youth that is not a matter of age so much as void. I see a face masking a mind waiting for something to fill it.  And below that?  I dressed like that at age ten, playing in the neighborhood with my buddies, who likewise assumed the garb of G.I. Joe and chased around killing imaginary enemies. That was all pretend.  And so is this.

Showing up in military drag, armed, and being a spectacle is all show. But look at that presentation. Is this an adult?

“I will not live in fear!”  But everything about him is a scream of just how afraid he is. Frightened of just about anything he doesn’t understand and has neither the intention or the ability to understand.

Just going by appearances, this is a round, soft white child of privilege.  Not the kind of privilege of the 1%, no, but it has always been a distraction to point out their privilege as if it’s the only kind that exists or matters.  This, before us, in full display, is the more common and less examined.  This is the privilege of someone who has never missed a meal. Who has never been denied admission to anything because of appearances. The privilege of knowing that nothing stands in his way except his own disinterest, disinclination, or distraction.

The privilege of knowing he can show up in public that way and not be arrested, harassed by authorities, or shot.

Because, looking at that face, you know if he thought there was any real danger, he wouldn’t be there.  He has never faced an actual challenge in his life. By that I mean a challenge to his very existence.  This posturing is in response to abstractions, not realities.  And his method of choice is insincere and lazy.  He has probably never had to really labor at anything in his life, either.  Things have been provided for him.  Money, certainly, nothing he’s wearing is cheap, especially not the arms, and if he has the disposable resources to equip himself thus, he has no concerns about rent or food or medicine.  This is not the costume of someone who has ever had to make those choices.

This is also not someone who has ever been faced with death because he happened to be in the wrong neighborhood.  He didn’t think twice about loading up and marching on city hall (literally) and assumes that an idea (the Constitution) will protect him.  And based on the sloganeering around him and his own verbiage, he has very little understanding what that idea actually means.  He seems—he appears—to feel it means that he has the right to do whatever he wants and the very state he is claiming is oppressive will defend that right. A contradiction? Not to him. Paradox requires some nuance, some experience, some grasp of cause and consequence to parse intelligently. (We all hold contradictory ideas at one time or another, we live with paradox, but it is a manageable condition given a studied sense of the appropriate and the self-reflective acknowledgement of the tension between duty and desire, responsibility and license, reality and fantasy.)

Quite likely some combination of tantrum, cleverness, and guileless insouciance has gotten him whatever he wanted his whole life. (That what he may have wanted was acquirable suggests he lacked the imagination to want what he could not by dint of circumstance have.  But that’s consistent—a lack of imagination is one of the deficits that have put him where he presently is.)

Am I being harsh? I am judging by appearance, certainly.  As I said, turnabout is fair play.  I could very well be wrong.  He could be a budding Constitutional scholar, with an interest in quantum physics, and a hobbyist’s knowledge of philately. It may be he can cite chapter and verse of Kantian ethics or the minutiae of Egyptian pharaonic history.  He could be in the running for a chess championship or a fine sculptor. I could be entirely wrong about him.

But judging by appearances, I can only conclude what I have outlined.

How does that feel?  Two (or three, depending on how things pan out) of his phenotypical brethren judged by appearance and killed a man. They were demonstrably wrong about him.  (I don’t care that Arbrey stepped into a construction site and had a look around. A call to the police about that was sufficient and then leave it alone. Let the professionals handle it, that’s what they do. But I wonder if that call would have been made had he been white. In either case, there is no justification for going vigilante)

How serious am I about that young man (and he may not be all that young, but he looks young, which is another prima facie conclusion based on appearances) playing at militiaman? Well, you have to ask if I would stop at my assessment.  He’s making a statement, though. The two instances are not the same. Arbrey was jogging, not making a statement.  Our G.I. Joe Wannabe is claiming a purpose in his appearance.  He put all that on with the intent to be judged.

But I’m more than willing to believe there is more to him than that.  You have to ask, does he even care if we are willing to see past the message?

See, if he doesn’t, if all that matters to him is the message, the symbol, the expression of personal opinion, then it is perfectly fine to judge him by appearances. He has to ask himself at some point if what he thinks he is conveying is actually what he is conveying.

Because, despite his claims, all I see is a frightened, shallow, play-acting child desperately wanting to be something he has no hope of being: relevant.

Really, he shouldn’t be surprised if we “get the wrong idea” about him. After all, people who appear very like him get the wrong idea about everyone they’re afraid of all the time.

 

March (the Ides of)

And I haven’t posted anything substantial since the beginning of February. February turned out to be a difficult month. I came down with some species of flu-like yuck and ended up home in bed for a week. I’m still getting over it, whatever it was, but I am managing to get back to the gym and work on new stories and all.

So I thought I would do an update.

The Ides of March will be here soon.

The current issue of Analog has a new story by me. I’m rather pleased with it. I think I managed to do some things I’ve always wanted to do and never felt quite good enough to pull off.

I’ve been working my way through a few stories that are proving reluctant to complete. I’ll get there.

I’m behind on finishing the last couple of batches of photographs. But that will keep for now.

Donna and I are coming up on an anniversary. Forty years since our first date. I took her to see 2001: A Space Odyssey and to a Chinese restaurant afterward, both of which were new experiences for her. The theater and the restaurant are long gone, but we try to watch that movie and eat that cuisine every year. (We might change up the movie to 2010 this year.) I’m working on my thoughts and feelings about four decades with her. I can’t imagine anyone else being there with me through what has been a long, strange trip.

We’re making upgrades. A couple of new windows going in, some other details in need of tweaking. We probably won’t be going on any major trips this year. Might be a good year for review and reassessments.

So…

 

…what with the chaos and instability of the last year and a vague set of possibilities for the next, I thought I’d make a couple of observations about—well, about us. Humans.

It has brought me up short to discover that certain people whom I hold in considerable esteem and respect support the current administration. As has been my wont through most of my life, whenever confronted with something like this, I do a long, deep diving analysis of my world views to see if I’ve missed something. Perhaps things are not as I perceive them. Perhaps I haven’t recognized the “big picture.”  My reflexive reaction to our president has been consistent since before the election and I’ve gotten used to certain attitudes which, maybe, I should rethink.

I’ve been doing that for a couple of months now.

My conclusion is that no, I haven’t missed a thing. The fact is, I want something different than those who support him. My expectations are distinctly other than theirs. That’s fine, people are welcome to their viewpoints. If the problems were mostly a matter of style, I could even live with the differences.

But they are not. They are matters of, to me, moral judgment.

The first problem is the least tractable. The election which put him into office was deeply problematic on several levels. Fifty-three percent of the electorate turned out to vote and he in fact lost the popular election, which means that he, as has been the case for many years now for most of the so-called Right, is in office based on at most a quarter of the adult population’s support. I say “least tractable” because the only solution to this is higher voter turnout and I do not know how to achieve that. Some have said it would have been higher had any other candidate opposed him but Hillary Clinton, but I don’t buy that. This is not the first time low turnout has been an issue and it does not excuse the indifference exhibited at state and local elections. You don’t like the presidential candidates, fine, don’t vote for them, but show up and vote for your senator, your representative, your state offices. If this had been the first or only one a few elections with this problem, I might be inclined to agree with the “wrong candidate” excuse, but it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.  Americans seem to be lazy. They don’t want to be bothered. Then, when things turn out badly, they complain. Loudly.

A partial solution to this would be to make election days holidays. Mandatory. Even state and local elections. That might take care of part of it. Add to that making voter registration automatic upon one’s 18th birthday and tie it to your social security number, so this nonsense of lacking an address no longer can be used to deny a basic right. You’re the voter, not your house. With modern databases, it would be easy to track your voting record and see that you vote once.

But inspiring people to actually vote? I like Australia’s system, where voting is required by law, but I rather doubt it would work here. We’re too punitive at the best of times.

When we had a pool of educated, semi-responsible people in government, this wasn’t as big a deal. The country would run along regardless. We didn’t have people in congress conducting a guerilla war with each other.

Where did that come from?

Many places*, but the chief one seems to be that our sense of national character has been weaponized and turned into a do-or-die cause. The chief problem with that is, no one can actually define what is or isn’t our “national character.” It changes. The genius of our system up to this point has been its ability to adapt so efficiently to that changing landscape that from generation to generation there seemed to be widespread coherence and agreement about what that character was, with the illusion that it is at any given moment what it has always been. With the loss of rationality in our representative offices, the revelations that we have from time to time been less than faithful to our assumed ideals has scraped nerve-endings raw.

We hear that the country, the nation, the People, need a new narrative. Why? Because left to our own individual devices we can’t seem to find one that works? Evidence would suggest such a factor, but I’m not convinced. We had a pretty good narrative. The problem hasn’t been the story we tell about ourselves, but in living up to its requirements. If we throw up our collective hands and say “Well, we can’t do that,” it doesn’t mean the narrative is a bad one, as if to say “That’s too hard, so let’s get a new one that’s easier.” For one thing, swapping out national narratives is not so easy, and anticipating outcomes is even dicier.

But no, I don’t believe the narrative we had was so bad. What happened somewhere along the way was the additional thread that told people that if they didn’t like it, they could opt out.

Or blame someone else.

There has always been a degree of this all along, people who don’t like the way things are feeling that they can just pick up and leave. Once upon a time, there was something to this, but it meant actually leaving, heading west, risking oblivion if you failed. Interestingly enough, every time enough people migrated and settled, they dragged along all the community-based accoutrements the first bunch supposedly fled in the first place. The Great Westward Migration was never primarily the individuality exercise our fiction made it out to be.

With the closing of the frontiers, though, the “opting out” became considerably more complex and usually a matter of antisocial resistance to group standards all the way up to actual criminality. Today it manifests chiefly in debates over not who leaves but who gets let in. (It, in fact, always was this debate, but the inclusion narratives are not universal nor as pleasant as we like to think.) Right now there is a flurry of voting poll closings in Texas ahead of the coming elections. Minorities, mostly. One part of the community trying to deny another part a say in how the community will operate by attempting to exclude their vote.

In its simplest terms, this is a toxic combination of NIMBY and “I don’t wanna pay for them.”

Or look like them. Or sound like them. Or eat, think, act like them.

In Strangers In Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild lays out another component of this, namely the notion of “keeping one’s place in line.” In other words, many of the constituency who put Trump in office have felt for a long time that undeserving people have been “placed” in line ahead of them.

“Like some others I spoke with in Louisiana, Jackie felt she had hold of an American Dream—but maybe just for now. Gesturing around her large living room, she says ‘This could all vanish tomorrow!’ She had worked hard. She had waited in line. She’d seen others ‘cut ahead,’ and this had galled her and estranged her from the government.”

What this has led to is the election of representatives who seem to feel it is their duty to interrupt as much of the federal government’s operations as possible in order to prevent a perceived Leftist takeover. On behalf of people clamoring for justice, at least as they see it. Combined with the erosion of trust in anything “knowable,” this has led to a situation in which the optimal condition is a free-for-all wherein no one idea can gain ascendance over any other. This is, naturally, untenable. Some ideas will rise out of the chaos, but with no reasonable discourse it will likely be the less nuanced, most emotion-laden, immediate kind of ideas that can solve little (or nothing) but “feel good” to those who think they’re defending “balance.” What results is anything complex gets shouted down or barred from consideration, especially if it seems to run counter to a preferred narrative.

In congress, Mitch McConnell is sitting on around 400 House bills and has stated categorically he won’t allow them on the floor for a vote. Same thing only at a higher, more organized and potent level.

I don’t care how you try to spin this, it is immoral. It is a denial of voice to people who are legally guaranteed to have a say. It is saying “My mind is made up, so fuck you.”

That’s all.

Very simply, whether that representative is yours or not, this is wrong. It is immoral.

McConnell has been rubberstamping Trump’s policies all along. Why? Because Trump is disassembling the regulatory apparatus that stands between powerful people and the rest of us. He has been taking apart the machinery that is designed to keep the predators from feeding on the body of the nation.

Look at the list of things that have come under the axe in this administration and, whether you agree with how they function or not, it is impossible not to see that the only things being attacked are protections.

Now, some people will loudly declare “I don’t want your protections! I can take care of myself!”

This is a flamboyant, boastful, egotistical bit of self-aggrandizing nonsense. You live in a community, which provides many things you may not, perhaps, even notice. Without them, you could not live the life you may think you’ve earned. But what I have observed among those who often make this claim is a contradiction: they do not pick up, move to the wilderness, live off the grid, and “take care of themselves.” If they did, we would never hear from them. They would have no means to participate in this dialogue. Instead, the statements masks the fact that these are people who either assume the services they use exist in nature (so to speak) and if everyone withdrew from supporting them they would continue uninterrupted or they are people who feel they have achieved a level of self-sufficiency that will allow them to isolate themselves from those parts of the community they don’t like, even while continuing to live in that community and availing themselves of the services.

Or they think they’re just denying these services to others of whom they disapprove.

Somewhere along the way they lost the thread of the actual narrative, the one that says “We are all in this together.”

Even so, hoarding is immoral. When you look at billionaires, you are looking at a species of hoarding.

Not that any of them keep all that money in a safe buried beneath (one) of their houses. No, they’re hoarding influence. The landscape shaped by economics. Their decisions affect people’s lives and those people—you and me, presumably, living on salaries (and that covers a wider range than a lot of folks seem to realize)—have virtually no say in how that manifests.

Again, we are muted, almost voiceless.

“But the Market!”

The market is a wide, wild river. It goes where it will and is only ever controlled grossly by those people hoarding the influence who build dams and levies. And they only build them to direct the flow into preferred channels and those channels may not be to anyone’s advantage but their own. Get over this idea that the Market means leaving those people alone. We labor under the myth of the Free Market. There is no such thing. All markets are at least nominally “owned” by someone and that ownership manifests in exclusions. (What most people likely mean by Free Market is Open Access Market, which is not the same thing. An Open Access Market is one that is inclusive, but in order to achieve that we need a system of wardens to keep the gates open.  Once in the market, freedom may be expressed at what we then can do inside, but even that is not the complete absence of rules some seem to believe should maintain.) We have been sold this myth along with several others by those with the most to gain from our accepting less in the presumption that eventually there will be more. So far, that has not been the case other than for specific groups here and there (not always the same ones consistently); never for the kind of universal improvement supposedly on offer.

There are over seven billion of us on this rock. It is not flat, we are inextricably part of its biosphere (nature), and our collective impact has progressively changed over the centuries and we cannot blithely go on behaving as if nothing we do has any consequences on the world we inhabit. Size matters and while you as an individual would like very much to be released from any responsibility to people you don’t know (including what they do to our environment), no one can absolve you from that. You are part of your species and we—WE—have responsibilities that extend beyond your backyard. Whether you like it or not, you are as much a part of the human race as someone in Guatemala or Indonesia or Chad or Norway and pretending you are either separate from them as an organism or superior to them as a member of a given polity is a surrender of conscience. The problem is, that conscience you’re so willfully trying to deny does not go away into oblivion but remains extant for someone else to pick up and co-opt and use as part of their argument. So you can either be part of the dialogue or a witless tool. but you cannot be apart from it all.

Among the things that have been allowed to drift into the control of those who do not have your best interests at heart:

1: Climate change is real. Stop for a moment and just look at it this way—in order to live, we burn things. It does not take much to understand that the more we burn, the more residue is released. When there were only a few million of us, this was negligible. There are over seven billion now. It adds up. It is the height of wishful thinking and willful ignorance not to understand this.

2: Vaccines have been the most effective weapon against disease ever invented and a refusal to vaccinate your children is criminal negligence. The only reason you might think otherwise is because you have no direct experience of uncontrolled diseases like measles. The only reason you lack that experience is because of vaccines. This nonsense is self-entitled, trendy, pop-culture propaganda and it will kill people.

3: Evolution is real. If it were not, vaccines would not work. Modern medicine would not work. We would not, ever, find new species, anywhere, and quite possibly there would be no life on this planet at all. The only reason to deny evolution is so you can maintain a privileged view of yourself as somehow apart from and above Nature. Which view allows all those corporations to feed you lies about how pesticides are safe, climate change is a hoax, and Democrats are evil. You have put gullibility on like a bad suit and it will kill you some day.

4:  Economic systems are just that—systems. We built them, we run them, they do not exist in Nature, and consequently we can control them, modify them, tweak them, and revise them to suit circumstances. Labels have no actual valence, so calling something by a label you do not understand because you’ve been told it is evil and will inevitably lead to dire consequences, you contribute to the lobotomization of our collective intellect. Ayn Rand aside, Capitalism is neither a philosophy nor an ideal and in the hands of those who see it as a game of one-upsmanship, it can be used to hurt you. Stop assuming all controls and regulations are there to hurt you. Haven’t a lot of us been hurt by their absence? (The answer to that is Yes.)

5:  The Civil War was fought over slavery and slaves. This is not up for debate, despite the continual and continuing attempts to rewrite history into something more noble or innocuous, like States’ Rights. Most of the articles of secession published by the Confederate States list the preservation of slavery as the number one issue and if that were not enough, Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech (he was vice president of the Confederacy) made it about as clear as it could be that it was about maintaining white supremacy. A great deal of our subsequent history has been maligned, ignored, disputed, and twisted over this and whether you like it or not, the facts are not in question. (Why this is an issue now is complex but the fact of the matter is we have a resurgent white supremacist problem, much of which hinges on this issue as a matter of patriotic nostalgia.) The Confederacy was illegal, the instigators were essentially traitors, and no one should use this as an excuse to be either a bigot or a nationalist.

6:  Presidents are not messiahs. Resumés matter. Being inspiring is nice, being competent is vital. We are not crowning a king, we are hiring a manager. Policy is at issue, not endorphins. Stop voting with your amygdala.

7:  Following upon that last, stop thinking the only election that matters is for the president. Congress matters more. I don’t care if you’re bored, staying home because you can’t be bothered to vote is, especially today, inexcusable. (There are reasons for not voting that are, voter suppression being one.)  We have been ruled by quarter-population mandates for too long.

I suppose I could on, but you get the idea. I felt the need to get that off my chest.

I have been told that confronting people with accusations of idiocy, stupidity, venality, and so forth do no good, that it just makes more enemies. That may be. But the soft-touch approach has been used against us for too long. I don’t believe in shaming, but I am tired of living with the consequences of people who probably should be ashamed.  Ashamed of their feckless disregard for what we euphemistically term “common sense.”  (I believe there is no such thing. I know what it’s supposed to connote, but that kind of acuity and wisdom has never, in my experience, been common.)

Because ultimately it is a result of a refusal to trust. Perhaps an inability. But when you look at the decisions of some people, especially with regard to who they elect, the only common factor seems to be that such choices leave one free of having to think about what to do next. The bombast, the denials, the questioning of every single inconvenient fact, is designed to allow some of us to posture over “balance” and retreat from considered argument because “both sides are just as bad,” which leaves us off the hook morally. It’s a refusal to take the kind of steps to find out and be informed and then make decisions that are not just masked motions designed to wash our hands of a situation we don’t understand.

Corporations did not want to pay for their messes or admit to culpability or even float the costs of changing the way they did things, and so embarked on a campaign barely dreamt of by postmodern onanists.  Evangelical churches wanted to maintain their lock on our consciences and so embarked on a similar series of campaigns to convince people that science was just another religion and nothing could be known but “god.” Politicians wanted to get re-elected and maybe get rich by appealing to both these sectors and so abandoned their civic responsibility to hold themselves and the nation accountable to reality and principle.

November is approaching. I’m not as concerned about who ends up in the White House as I am who becomes the next Senate Majority Leader. In order to preserve our democracy, we have to actually use it.

These are the kinds of thoughts occupying me. Thank you for your time and attention.

___________________________________________________________

*For those who wish to lay actual blame as a matter of first causes, you can blame this on the corporate actions to undermine legitimate science in order to avoid the costs of cleaning up messes. What began as a fairly simple tactic to call into question facts which pointed to the need to change certain practices in order to prevent enactment of new regulations (and later undo existing regulations) got away from them and became an evangelical movement to deny any fact that did not fit a particular view. It has led to the discrediting of any kind of authority, valid or otherwise, and hamstrung us when collective action is necessary. The method has become a politic position.

Sometimes Wrong Is Wrong

During my lifetime I have witnessed what some people call “revisionist history” overturn cherished myths and traditions among people who, in my experience, when questioned lack the solid understanding of history in the first place and the role played by cultural propaganda, appropriation, and the narrative of conquest.  I grew up being mindlessly expected to laud the Pilgrims, draw inspiration from the Opening of the West, mourn the deaths of Custer and his cavalry, and uncritically praise the martial adventures of our various periods whether they were legitimate or not. Sifting through all this, you find that occasionally there’s something of value in the narratives, but more often than not it’s all just cheering from the grandstands for the winner, as if history is nothing but a football game and the heroes are the ones who make the most touchdowns.

This is not to say I am unhappy about where I am personally in all this, but that is largely an accident. I had no part in all the occurrences that have led to here and now. Which leaves me really only with the responsibility and obligation to have some perspective and not blindly accept the epic triumphs I’ve been told I should just because things might have gone otherwise, and “then where would you be?”  Which is beside the point.

The point is, having that perspective, knowing a little bit more about what happened—and why—contributes to how we behave today.  Some things you really do not want to repeat. Some things you might want to do again, only differently.  And some things edify simply by showing us how we got here and what we should be about.

But for a lot of people that is no easy thing, sorting out the great stories from the real history, and when often reality fails to support the good feelings we may have gleaned from the Stories, some might choose to believe the actual history is either irrelevant or itself a lie. Because the only response of which they are capable is either helpless shame or absolute denial. There seems to be no spectrum that contains learning, improvement, and a sense of justice.

I was a kid during the heyday of “America, Love It Or Leave It.” I confess I never accepted that as anything but a ridiculous attempt to silence criticism, criticism which we desperately needed. It never meant what it said. It always meant “Shut Up.”

We can talk about context, circumstances, try to explain it this way or that, but sometimes wrong is just wrong.

But some people really do not handle criticism well. They want things to be fine. They do not want to feel responsible and the fact is that when confronted by the revelations of the past, it is legitimate the ask “What the hell can I do about it?” Because if one has any kind of a conscience, that question is natural, because when confronted with a wrong, if we have any sense of decency, we want to try to help, try to fix it. But some things cannot be addressed effectively by one person overwhelmed with the problems of just getting by. And when the revelations keep coming, it becomes such a burden that one response is to seek a place where the hammering of truth stops, at least for a little while. A little distance, a little peace, and maybe we can find something to do that’s helps.

Others, however, never get to that point. All they see and hear is the continual march of new facts telling them that everything they believe about something is wrong or at least only a half truth. They reach a point where telling the voices to Shut Up is very appealing.

Clapping hands over ears and squeezing eyes shut changes nothing. Wrongs do not go away because we refuse to look at them.

They can, however, get worse.  Bigger. More perverse.

The attraction of a great many people to Donald Trump has been his continual attempt to shut people up. His entire campaign was basically “Vote for me and I’ll say ‘Shut Up’ on your behalf.” Shut Up to the voices of justice, to the historians who tell us we come from not very nice people, to the scientists who tell us that we have large problems that need attention, to the proponents of economic and social equality who tell us that our system is broken and the poor are being used to scare the rest of us into giving all our resources to the few.  Because these problems are complex and often rooted in pasts we thought we knew but really had never been taught about, it is all too much, and the surcease of just shutting them all up would be so very welcome. Trump does that. He has tried to undo everything that has been put forward to try to redress these problems with the promise that America Will Be Great Again, but meaning that you may all sit back and enjoy your John Wayne view of who we are unchallenged by reality.

In exchange, he gets to try to be king of the world.

Well, it may be more complicated than that, but at base that’s about it. He’s pretending to be Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, bullying the world, and promising people they can relax and be who they wish to think they are. In so doing, of course, he’s been ruining a lot, wrecking the machinery that might actually do some good, and reducing our capacity to do good in the world, all in the name of shutting up the critics, who are too often quite correct.

We can explain this, make excuses, try to find something in the rubble to justify it, but some things are just wrong.

His people are, apparently, seeking to threaten Colonel Vindman’s family to get him to shut up. You can question Vindman’s patriotism if you want, but that’s kind of beside the point.  Some things are just wrong.

This man was never fit to be president. He’s not even doing what people elected him to do. He can’t even manage his avarice properly. He fundamentally misunderstands his position.

But it’s like football, isn’t it? The one that makes the most touchdowns wins? And isn’t winning the only thing that matters?

Well, no. Or at least, if you accept that Trump is representative of your values, then I have to say, you don’t even know what winning means. For you, perhaps, it really is just getting the other guy to Shut Up.

It never works, by the way. Here is some of that inconvenient history. In 1856, Senator Preston Brooks attacked and beat Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate. He used a walking stick and horribly injured Sumner, who damn near died. Brooks was pro-slavery, from South Carolina. Sumner was an abolitionist and had given a speed critical of slaveholders, among whom he mentioned Brooks’ cousin. The “code of honor” of the Southerner empowered Brooks to seek physical retribution for the perceived slight.

It was not, however, an answer. Sumner challenged slavery on moral grounds. All Brooks could bring to the debate was a cane and the demand that Sumner Shut Up.

Sometimes wrong is wrong. In this case, the wrongs compounded. Sumner’s arguments were correct and his position morally sound. Nothing any slaveholder could say could counter it, argument for argument. Four years later, Lincoln was elected, the South seceded, and people like Brooks lost their argument anyway. Of course, recently we have seen the old justifications re-emerge and an attempt to recast the Civil War as something other than what it was.

My point being, if you have no cogent answer to a criticism, getting the critic to Shut Up is merely an admission that you have nothing.

Three years in, it is clearer than ever that Trump has nothing. Nor do his supporters.

Of course, I’m told occasionally not to be so categorical about them, that there are reasons for their support, that circumstances are not quite so cut and dried, etc etc.  Yes, surely.

But sometimes wrong is just wrong.

 

 

(Of course, you might say I’m wrong, because, well, look at the economy. And what about North Korea? Yeah, well. The virtues of those may be debatable, but we could have done those things without turning into world-class dicks. As I say, sometimes wrong is wrong.)

A Road Forward?

Impeachment now seems likely. I understood Nancy Pelosi’s reluctance. In this, timing is extremely important. Pull the trigger too soon and you run the risk of handing him more power. By the same token, wait too long and you risk normalizing this situation by implying that while it has been unpleasant, nothing seriously destructive happened, which everyone knows is not true.

And by Everyone, I mean everyone, even his supporters. After all, destruction is what they signed on for. If they had not wanted him to rip things apart, they would have backed someone else they knew wouldn’t. But pretty much from the beginning the point of this presidency has been destruction. His supporters have long been convinced that the republic is off the rails and very drastic measures must be taken to “fix” it, which include destroying institutions they have come to hate because they’ve been told by their chosen spokesmen that this is so. The republic is in peril because of policies leading us to the brink of losing our special identity, our place in history. It has gone on too long to be ameliorated by simple “adjustments.” Something has to be broken.

For those now opposed to him, the destruction is plain to see and it is a bad thing. But the fundamental belief in the corrective genius of our institutions has kept many of us from pulling the trigger on impeachment because that, too, will be a tearing.

Arguably, it’s past time.

But it’s been past time now for 40 years. Longer, probably. The danger just now is that we reduce all our troubles to a pinpoint named Donald J. Trump and, once successfully dealt with, march blithely forward on the assumption that we have Solved Our Problems.

A significant segment of the American public has been persuaded over the last four decades that in order to maintain our position in the world, our wealthy class must be made secure. Not just secure, but virtually sacrosanct, because our enemies have all struck at their own wealthy people. The Soviet Union, the Peoples’ Republic of China, their satellites, all stripped away individual wealth as an essential part of their program for world domination. Obviously there must be something about individual wealth that is threatening to them. Not only that, but something about it that keeps countries from becoming just like them.  Therefore we must render all aid and assistance to our wealthy class in order to preserve our unique status as savior of civilization. Within that has been the implicit promise that anyone or all of us may one day join that class. There have been examples, especially in the tech industries. We see this in newish fields, where people migrate between economic strata because the rules are temporarily in flux. Otherwise, economic migration most dramatically happens when someone wins the lottery. Not a particularly reliable way of upward mobility and a scam that sucks even more wealth from those who can least afford it. (Let’s face it, the Lottery is gambling, and as we should all know, the House always wins.)

In fact, I would argue that it’s this “lottery mentality” that has put us here. A single winning ticket, one roll of the dice, lightning strikes, and we’re all winners. Elect the Right One and all our problems (more or less) can be solved. Except this is politics and the future of the country, not a gaming table and the loss of a week’s wages.

The people who chose to stay home in 2016 succumbed to some version of this, I believe. Whatever their thinking, clearly they felt the only election that mattered was for the presidency. Which meant they refrained from congressional, state, and whatever local elections may have been on the ballot. It seemed not to have occurred to them that they could have simply not voted for the top slot but then run down the rest of the ticket and maybe—maybe—have done something worthwhile in congress or in state legislatures. Believing that electing a president may solve all problems shows a serious lack of understanding, certainly no attention to the larger picture, and zero foresight.

But that election is over. We now see the consequences of apathy and desperation in starker terms than ever before.

Talk of impeachment has been growing. It has been there practically since the election, and for a long time it has been put off, first because the Republicans held majorities in both houses, then because Nanci Pelosi was playing a cautious game, knowing that moving prematurely could backfire.

There are two major factors in this. The first is his hardcore supporters, who exhibit all the surface credulity of dedicated cultists. Reason seems to have no purchase among them. The second is the core ideologues of the Republican Party, who are well-versed in the gamesmanship of party politics, who see the president as their last opportunity to see their program into being. If they abandon him, they lose.

Between these two groups there is the potential for even more breaking of our institutions. A premature move to impeach might have strengthened the resolve of both groups and combined them into an extralegal effort to preserve the president out of fear of losing the gains presumably made by his election, gains which on their face are contradictory, confused, and contrary to our stated principles as a nation.

What has been important all along is to make sure the culpability of all the players is as clear as the incompetence and malice of the figure at the center. If all the blame is centered on the president, as if he alone is responsible for the wreckage, the problems that allowed him to sit in the oval office could conceivably be overlooked. We like single-issue politics, we prefer neat packages of blame, and we relish monolithic solutions.  None of these traits must be allowed to dominate the process. Our current situation has been over four decades in the making and is comprised of the efforts of many people for many ends. We have at hand a conspiracy of effect more than anything else, simply because all these players have come together for different reasons and have taken advantage of a moment of confluence to get all the various things they want. Performing prophylaxis so this sort of mess cannot happen again will require that we hold all the various elements up for judgment and enact laws to hobble those who would butcher our ideals in the name of personal achievement.

The difficulty for some is that at the locus is a serious misreading of our national identity and a profound failure to understand our operating assumptions.

(Ironically, an old prejudice has resurfaced in the form of the proper electorate. The Founders famously—or perhaps not—distrusted democracy because many of them believed the hoi polloi incapable of the proper judgment to actively participate via the vote in our government. The very people they may have had in mind at the time are the ones who have demonstrated, to greater or lesser extent, an apparent inability to exercise responsible judgment and it is this group more than any other that has been used to spearhead an assault on the very institutions the Founders believed they should not be allowed to access.)

I think it not unreasonable to say that in no way was Donald Trump ever going to be a reliable advocate for the country. He is, depending on the given day, a poor advocate even for himself. We knew this. We could see it. It didn’t seem to matter.

I will not here rehearse all the reasons to want him removed from office. Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, he has reduced this country to a joke internationally and he has come perilously close to destroying the very idea of the rule of law.

One example: the recently collapsed talks with the Taliban.  The central flaw was that they had left the legitimate government of Afghanistan out. How do you conduct peace talks with an aggressor without even apprising the people who would be most affected by any outcome that might be reached? This is an example—one of many—of his self-assumed deal-making ability, which any perusal of his career shows to be a virtual total failure. More than that, the arrogance and complete lack of regard for anyone is apparent. This was a bad idea—even his own advisors thought so—pitifully attempted and poorly handled.

His entire administration thus far has been one of these after another.

What must be decided—by what mechanism, I’m not sure—is who we believe ourselves to be and what steps must be taken to become that. Because right now we are adrift. In such circumstances, an impeachment proceeding has the potential to be a disaster because of the lack of common identity.

That said, I no longer believe we have much choice. The wrack and ruin of our institutions is reaching such a point that we must move to stop it. But it must not be isolated to a single point. Trump remains a symptom more than cause. If he is to go, his enablers must also go. But along with them must be a recognition that we have slid into a quagmire of paralyzing doubt in so many ways.

Symptom? I argued before that he was ineffectively opposed by the GOP because he did not represent any significant departure from anything in their program. He added a level of obnoxious nakedness to the basic message, which had by then become “anything the federal government does that it not tied directly to military preparedness and tax relief for the wealthy is anathema.”  It appears they have concluded that a successful country is one that makes its self-appointed “champions” rich.

There is, obviously, a deeper problem, and it has to do with a self-impression of Americanness that is almost comic when simply described. It is, as best I can determine, the notion that tough guys never complain, never criticize, and never let anyone tell them what to do or show them they are wrong. Which translates to a profound aversion to be told anything that does not conform to already-held beliefs and opinions and seeing the teller as some kind of enemy of Americanism. Hence, climate change is a challenge to our self-image, not because it’s wrong so much but that it’s a complaint. Social justice issues are derided because they are criticisms and fail to take into account how “wonderful” we are as as nation. Worst of all, those who are, essentially, “victims” who doing the criticizing and complaining have simply decided to take advantage of “our” good offices and won’t do the necessary work to climb out of their situation. Like the “rest” of us.

(Of course, the people who believe this are themselves the worst kind of complainers.)

Being told that all these attitudes rest upon myth, bad information, and a failure to understand how systems work to thwart personal or group goals and efforts is a species of Intellectualism, which has always abraded a significant element of America, which has been deeply anti-intellectual almost since the Founding, and proudly so. In the past they have managed to foul the works to some extent, but with the advent of social media and the proliferation of alternative narrative sources (cable, satellite, podcasts) this characteristic has swollen to hazardous proportions.

Trump took advantage of a deep conviction, generally unstated and almost always unexamined, that a “true American” is somehow born perfect and all modifications are foreign contaminants. Which is why it seems not to bother his supporters when he reaches out to people like Putin to assist him, because they do not see it so much as Trump allowing foreign involvement as Trump “making” the Russians (or whoever) do what he wants.

As an American should.

This has to be dealt with.  There is no good way to do it other than constructing a new narrative. Because this is a narrative in the first place. A story.

The question is, what is that story?

Well, basically, that Americans are innately good and wise and anyone criticizing us simply knows no better or is actively opposed to us. And that the enterprise of tolerance and inclusiveness has sapped our strength and mocked our principles by diluting those qualities of innate goodness and wisdom.  As a corollary, anything not innate—that is, learned, especially from “outside” sources—is to be viewed with suspicion and people who advocate such learning are not to be trusted.

In this case, it manifests very simply but with complex consequences as: Do Not Make Me Question Myself. I am an American and I am organically complete. Make me question others, question nature, question life even, but do not make me question myself. Only god has the right to do that and he’s not here.

A current example of how this plays out is the absurd reaction among certain people to Greta Thunberg. A sixteen-year-old girl challenges the world to fix itself before it is consumed by its own greed and in this country there are people who hang her effigy, attempt to “put her in her place” because she is young and female, dig up all manner of ridiculous comparisons in history to discredit her and undermine any legitimacy she has or that her message contains. Smear her, tease her, insult her, try to force her back into some box they think she belongs. Why? Because her message requires that we question ourselves and the reasons we reject her message.

But instead of challenging the message they attack her. Because it doesn’t matter whether she is right or wrong, she is requiring that we question ourselves and maybe, just maybe, re-evaluate what it is we’re doing, what we’re supporting. A certain kind of American is very bad at that kind of self-examination.

(We can see this very clearly in the apparent contradiction of christians supporting Trump. It may be argued that he is completely contrary to a christian ethic, but in my opinion critics have it the wrong way around: in this mindset, Americans are by definition christian, so anything they countenance is, by definition, christian, actual theological dogma notwithstanding.)

It is, in my opinion, that kind of American that is exemplified by Trump.

There is absolutely nothing defensible about that kind of obdurate, proud ignorance.

As we move forward with impeachment, we must bear in mind the underlying problem that he is in office by virtue of fraud and the support of people who refuse to accept that things must change if we are to not only survive but thrive. He enjoys the support of people who cannot muster cogent arguments against the things they do not agree with so almost always default to attacking the characters of those advocating such positions, and—this should be undeniable—if you cannot address the message other than attacking the messenger, you have no counterargument and should, if you have any self-respect at all, either say that you simply do not like the facts being presented or recuse yourself from the debate until to you know something.

We are facing a moment in history wherein it may be that we will define human dignity for decades to come.  What it is and whether it merits defending.  If anyone doubts for a moment where Trump stands on that question, his recent abandonment of the Kurds in Syria should serve as demonstration. Even his steadfast congressional supporters are flinching at this. They know it’s wrong. Their problem is, they have hitched their politic fortunes to his coattails and know that as he falls, so will they. They have a choice to go out with a modicum of dignity or become part of the wreckage that will be their legacy.

I’ve watched, along with probably the majority of Americans, this unfolding calamity with deep bewilderment. While I can see what has happened, it baffles me that we have been so unwilling, collectively, to stop it.  Maybe one of our national characteristics is that we allow things to go until they are unendurable or broken before acting, and it’s possible there is some kind of utility in this. But this is not the America I grew up expecting. I was raised to be part of a country that valued fact as well as truth, did not flinch from self-examination, and willingly extended tolerance and the benefits of learning openly. Granted, none of this was as I thought when I was a child or even an adolescent, but these were the virtues, and that we continue to work toward them seemed to excuse much. In the last forty years I’ve watched us retreat from fact, become complacent with success, and jealous of our gains, to the point of repudiating some of our most important stated ideals.

We must keep in mind that Trump is not the cause of our divisions. He is the beneficiary of them and those divisions have been long in the making. When he is gone, we have rebuilding to do, and we must do so with the view that we are not the end product of civilization. We were never that. If the world is to survive, we must end the worship of the powerful and the fear of change.

Impeachment is only the beginning. We have some building to do.

 

 

 

 

 

Random Bits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I take my optimism where I can find it.

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

We’ll see what can be done with that.

Thank you for indulging me.

College Placement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For too many, it’s a violation.

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

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

Just some thoughts.

True Belief

For several years, we have seen shots across the bow from advocates of either pure capitalism or some form of socialism, and except for a few instances of informed theoretical discussions based on a thoroughly de-romanticized view of history, we are treated to schoolyard fights between factions that never seem to care for reasoned discourse, only for planting flags and claiming loyalty.

This is not religion, but for so many people it gets taken as such, and the results are rarely edifying. What is amusing (in a tortured way) is the assumption by such advocates that any move toward the reviled system will somehow strip us of our intellect and render us stupid, incapable of managing things to our benefit. That, for example, “socialism never works” must be based on the same assumptions made during the Cold War that communism somehow turned its followers into mindless robots. Of course, the inference here is that Capitalism does not.

“Look at Venezuela!”

As if that is the only indictment necessary to discredit what is essentially an economic theory that in no way demands to be taken as an all-or-nothing proposition.  Look at Norway. Or Sweden. Or any of the other modern states that have taken socialism and applied it as needed to alter a social contract between the state and its citizens to the benefit of both.

Venezuela is suffering the consequences of decades of corruption and elite pillage, which can happen in any system. The reason we here are not facing a similar meltdown is more a tribute to the sheer size of our economy and the fact that we have adapted certain mechanisms which, depending on the decade, have been decried as “socialist.” But in fact, we are experiencing pillage and have been since we shifted Right in the 1980s. Systematic, legal, well-sold pillage. Every time a tax cut goes to the benefit of the upper 10%, it has to be paid for, either by a commensurate decrease in services we all use, or by borrowing against future securities the cost of which comes out of everyone’s pocket. In time, the effects should be obvious, and they are, but we are still so big and in many parts so comfortable, that we can’t seem to muster sufficient, useful outrage to do anything about.

Right now, because so many of us think the alternative is Socialism, which has been made to appear the end of any kind of civilization we consider good.

This is religion. “You can’t credit Them with a just argument because they are the forces of evil!” Why? “Because they are not like us!”

To which, the question must be asked, “And what are we?”

But to my original point: the assumption seems to be that A System is pernicious, that it has a mind of its own, and once engaged it has certain inevitable consequences that our only defense is to reject it. Utterly.

If true of Socialism, why isn’t it true of Capitalism?

It’s an absurd argument not because it’s so wrong but because it’s so ignorant. I mean “ignorant” in the precise meaning of the word, which is not, in spite of a century of misuse, “stupid.” Ignorance is a condition of lack of knowledge, information. Being ignorant is a curable condition, entirely addressable by becoming informed.

But I do not believe on the level of individual citizens the debate has much of anything to do with the efficacy of systems. In order for that to be the case, a fairly solid grasp of those system would be required, and economics is not amenable to casual understanding, not at this level. Instead, it is entirely personal. it is born out an apprehension of threat and a promise of salvation. Examples are given to bolster shallow arguments, but examples with considerable apparent weight, which would require equal study to see as anything but mythic constructs arrayed in battle for the soul of civilization.

In short, religion.

Now, I use the term Religion in the sense of a system.  (Again, systems.) Religion, questions of deities aside, are systems of organization designed to bring people together in an aesthetic cohesion around a statement of rightness. Rituals, arcane texts, sophisticated propaganda feed into a broad community-based set of practices that identify people to each other as sharing beliefs and preferences in behavior. Once you extend past the village level, it becomes a System. People can sign on to participation by agreeing to acknowledge the forms and refrain from questioning the underlying premises. This has benefits to the group primarily, but for the individual as well.

What it does not require to operate is broad understanding of the components, justifications, or origins. It is designed to operate without that. A hierarchy is in charge of the “mysteries” and the actual decisions on how to apply it all, but the populace in general need understand little.

Economic systems are similar.

And the results are very much the same—average people, admittedly or not, treat the system as if it were some kind of natural phenomena, correct and good. Who in their right mind would question it?

The chief beneficiaries of such a system prefer people feel that way.

The question, though, is why such persistent dedication when there is no justification for it? I refer now to people who benefit little from maintaining a system that they understand poorly at best. Not that they couldn’t understand it, but seem unwilling to even crack a book to check whether the barbed euphemisms handed to them by politicians and pundits hold any value.

According to Edward O. Wilson, in his recent book, Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies, it’s tribal:

For most of history, organized religions have claimed sovereignty over the meaning of human existence. For their founders and leaders the enigma has been relatively easy to solve. The gods put us on Earth, then they told us how to behave. Why should people around the world continue to believe one fantasy over another out of the more than four thousand that exist on Earth? The answer is tribalism…Each of the organized or otherwise public religions as well as scores of religion-like ideologies defines a tribe, a tightly knit group of people joined by a particular story….The members of the tribe are inspired by the special status the story gives them.

A telling phrase in that is “religion-like ideologies.” This would include all nationalistic creeds as well as less politically determined programs that serve to tell us who we should be in order to find conformable situations within a group. Economic systems, for instance, which is relatively new on the scene. Marx arguably set the terms of this new ideological initiation by making everyone aware that such systems not only serve to enable trade along rational lines and distribute goods and services in more or less efficient ways, but come to define us in terms of class and status and, eventually, popular philosophical disposition.

Whether or not a given system “works” better than others has become less important currently than our allegiance to it, which serves to separate us into easily-identifiable subgroups. The battle is not now over what might work “better” but over identity. We here saw this as a flaw in the soviet system, because so much of it failed to work to the benefit of the people, but recognizing the apparent blindness in others has not allowed us to see it in ourselves.

Because it aligns with another oft-unacknowledged blindness, which is the need to feel superior. Or, at least, not feel inferior.

We could certainly adapt aspects of Socialism to our system and make it work for us. We already have. It was called the New Deal. It worked well enough and the only reason to tear it down was that it threatened someone’s sense of importance and security of power. So we already have evidence that it will not eat us alive like some cancer and there is evidence available from all around the world. What we see when we look at it is a mixed bag, ranging from very workable to a shambles. But usually the broken examples are broken from a multiplicity of problems not necessarily inherent in Socialism. Any such system can be made to work badly.

But then we have to ask what we mean by that. Work badly for whom? It can be argued that certain groups in such systems may benefit tremendously by the apparent failures to work as advertised. It’s interesting that we assume a system fails when it injures the general population. The application of it certainly fails a large demographic, but I think it is an error to see this as a failure. Someone got just exactly what they wanted and for them it was a raging success. It’s more interesting when we fail to recognize the same kind of “success” going on here.

Every time the argument is made that communism “never” works, it is fair to ask where and when communism has ever been honestly applied. If the state in question ends up with an autocratic governing body or even a dictator, then it is equally fair to say that is not communism. So the “failure” of communism, in my opinion, has yet to be demonstrated because I have yet to see a single example of it at the state level that was little more than a set of promises to allow a new king to take the throne. That’s not communism.

But I’m not here to argue in favor of it. I’m more interested in urging people to stop giving blind allegiance to what amounts to a set of recommendations that require tweaking as circumstance dictates. Adapting an economic system whole (which is another assumption that requires examination, that any country could just adapt a system wholesale and wake up tomorrow with it in place) is not likely to work any better than denying the possible benefits of mixing and matching multiple systems. It depends on what you think you want done.

What we do have, because we operate tribally, is a set of prejudices that predetermine not what system would be best for people, but what kind of people would best suit a system. We aren’t, apparently, interested in economic justice or community care or rational monetary policies—we’re interested in sorting people into groups and shutting out those we feel do not conform to what we believe. Too many people don’t want to hear arguments about universal health because some of them think there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to have it. Same thing with fair housing practices, education, and even universal franchise. Finding the best system which is the most inclusive may be what we claim to want but in practice a lot of people want the opposite.

Since it’s illegal these days to discriminate on traditional bases, we use financial status to do so. Changes in that system which might lead to closer equity and broader civil rights threaten the status of enough of us to trigger irrational arguments over things poorly understood.  For the time being, a large segment seems quite content to see the upper 1% get more of the pie as long as it keeps the supposedly less deserving from getting anything at all.

For what it’s worth, in my opinion those folks are going to lose in the long run. But until they do, this is going to be frustrating, bitter fight, one made harder by tribal pride and a kind of sacred ignorance.

 

On Writing

I enjoyed a brief conversation yesterday on the subject of writing. The act of it, the discipline, the challenge. The prompt was “writing every day.” Somewhere along the way, we who do this as—well, as more than a hobby, but often less than a profession (even if we have pretensions in that direction)—receive that bit of advice: write every day. Even if it’s only a sentence.

Partly, this is a matter of discipline. Partly exercise, like working out. Mainly, though, it’s a combination of establishing a habit, so it becomes automatic, and creating a space in one’s psyche where this thing happens.

I know, that’s imprecise. Everyone has such a space, though. It’s where we store all the processes and associated tools for a task we do all the time but is in some ways apart from who we consciously are. We label it the Creative Process, among other things, but have no real handle on what exactly it is.

Where it comes from, though, is less ethereal. It comes from engagement. It comes from doing. It comes from repeatedly demanding of ourselves that something cool be produced and put into the world. As a kid hunched over a blank piece of paper, pencils and crayons at hand, trying to draw, maybe even make a comic, scrawling sometimes because there’s a shape you want to make but it just won’t appear. You don’t have the skills, not yet, just the urge (and the urgency) and some time. (Time, that intangible we have so much of at five that when we’re thirty-five has become naggingly scarce and at sixty-five is more precious than anything but love.) Some, maybe most, give up when it proves too difficult. They can’t control the pencil, they haven’t got a “knack” for it (which is a way of saying it may be a skill requiring far more time and attention than they’re willing to commit), or they can’t quite visualize what exactly they want to create. Others yield to distractions—games, media, friends who want to monopolize even that bit of time, chores, or the mine field of living a less than nurturing life—and some never feel the urge in the first place. Other things attract their obsessive attention.

When we’re children, we don’t recognize “practice” as an intentional effort to improve. We practice walking, but it doesn’t feel like that. We practice talking. We practice social intercourse. We practice reading. If we’re enjoying it, having fun, or simply doing something that seems like the thing to do, it doesn’t register as practice. Not until we consciously acknowledge that we’re trying to achieve a specific goal. Once walking and running become either sport or turn into dancing and we realize there are skill levels we need to achieve, then we understand the idea of practice.

It’s odd, then, to realize that so many people assume that when it comes to writing, expectations are different. The idea of practice comes as a shock. After all, they’ve been reading since they can remember and they’ve had to write papers through school (presumably) and all this, if done at all diligently, no longer seems like work. (Reading, especially. We don’t usually think about practice when it comes to reading, it’s something we just do, like breathing. At least some of us. And for those for whom it does not come easily, it seems never to occur to many of them that they could practice it and get better. It’s something we either do or get by without.) You see this surprise in people who attempt to write—a novel, a memoir, a history—without ever having undergone any of the preparatory work to learn how, and are then told “You don’t know to write.”

There is a point when all of us who want to be writers suffer this realization. Some less than others—there really does seem to be a “natural” facility in place for certain people, but it’s an illusion; dig deep enough you will likely find long periods when writing as practice was going on, either in journals and diaries or personal essays—but no one is born with a “gift” that allows us to produce masterful work at first attempt. We have to learn. We have to practice.

And carving out a regular space in which to do that is essential. Hence the “write every day” dictum. You do it till it becomes a habit. You get to a point where you don’t feel quite right if you don’t.

But then, once established, you practice.

When I announced my desire to become a photographer (at about age 15 or 16) my father bought me a lab, I acquired a decent camera, and then took it everywhere. What dad then did suggests he understood this concept of practice even as it applied to art: he bought me a case of film (about 250 rolls of film at that time) and told me to blaze away. When I worked my way through all that film, I knew something about photography beyond the mechanics.

Almost none of those pictures was worth a damn as art.

Ansel Adams once allowed that an artist is good in direct proportion to how much he or she has thrown away.

Learning to write is a long process where, having carved out the time and space to do so, you write. A million, two million words, which you then pretty much discard.

You can be taught grammar. You can be taught formatting (though, from some examples I’ve seen, this seems to be one of the hardest lessons to learn). You can learn many things having to do with craft (limiting adjectives, using an active voice, eliminating said-bookisms, point of view).

You cannot be taught the art, that is finding what it is you want to say and honing it to where it actually emerges from the words. This is the thing you bring to the endeavor that is yours. It cannot come from outside.

But you have to practice until it emerges.

A million, two million, three million words. The muscles ache but build, the synapses interconnect, the hidden pathways become clearer.

It can’t be taught because what I’m talking about is personal. You can be guided. It can’t become something other people might want to read in complete isolation. You write, someone reads, hands it back puzzled. Questions. Try this. Better? No, that’s not what I’m trying to say.

A million, two million…

Observation. Most visual art is observation. Look closer. Stop being overwhelmed by the distractions, the colors, the shifting shapes, the preconceptions. We see what we expect to see most of the time. Learn to filter. The artist extracts from the expected what it actually there to be seen. (I often heard from people looking at my photographs “Damn, I would never have thought to take a picture of that.” Which usually meant they would never have seen that. And even then, it was not so much the thing but the way it is presented, so that it reveals. “But what are we revealing in writing that requires that much attention?” Everything that is important. “But how can I tell?” Look closer. Write more.)

Start by making that space.

I do not write every day. Not anymore. I try, I intend to, and when I don’t I feel uneasy. But I used to, sometimes necessitating being something of an ass to the people around me. (You can tell when people don’t understand the idea of practice when it comes to writing by how many will interrupt a writer with the assumption that they aren’t actually doing anything.) Over years, the words took on heft, weight, concrete meanings. The configurations did things to readers. The descriptions became windows or doorways rather than blueprints. It happens gradually, sometimes glacially, and before you get there it can be profoundly frustrating.

“I read this and that and tried to write that way and it still doesn’t come out the way I want it to.”

Practice.

The other benefit of that million or two of discarded and buried wordage is that obscure goal of Finding Your Own Voice. Like most aphorisms about writing, it’s a tantalizing idea that says too much and too little. Those dispensing it know what it means, but those needing wisdom might not get it.

Your Own Voice, on the page, is not the voice with which you speak in everyday exchanges. Like everything else on the page, it is entirely artificial. That does not mean fake, which too often is what we hear when discussing art. We place a premium on “honesty” and “sincerity” as if that’s all we require, unconsciously (and sometimes ostentatiously) rejecting artifice as somehow impure, when in reality learning the craft and honing our art—becoming good artificers—is the only way to reach the levels of truth we seek to convey. Finding your own voice is a consequence of learning how to say what we feel and observe, and that requires skills which are learned, practiced, and built over time.

Frank Lloyd Wright joked once, when he was in his eighties, that he had designed so many buildings that he could just “shake them out of my sleeve.” He meant, of course, that he had acquired a level of craft and skill which channeled his visions as a matter of course. He had become, over decades of work, so adept that when he imagined something he could just sit down and do the technical end almost by second-nature.

The first step in reaching that level is making that space wherein the practice occurs.

We practice all the time. (John Lennon said, speaking of their early years playing clubs, “We played so regularly we never needed to practice, we were practicing on stage.”)

Writing is one of those endeavors that we seem to require inspiration to do it. The thing is, when we teach our subconscious that it can have its own time and space in which to do this, eventually it will sync up, and when our Writing Time rolls around, our muse shows up. This is also a result of practice. We train our imagination and our subconscious to cooperate with our discipline.

Not always. We have wordless days. But over time, with diligence, those days become the exception.

One last thing before I conclude. Don’t believe that everything you write, even when you reach the point of reliably putting words down every day, is supposed to be epic. Editing is the other part of this process and that is a different process and a different set of expectations. And sometimes you throw out even good sentences, because they will not serve. The surest way to block yourself is to have unreasonable expectations. If you think after that million or two million words you should be producing Great Work every time you sit down to write, you will cripple yourself.

Just write.

Practice.

Shibboleths, Canards, and Popular Myths

At this point, a couple of things should be obvious to anyone with a functioning intellect.

(Please note that I make a distinction here between a brain and the intellect, which, while they depend on each other to be useful, are not the same things.)

A popular American myth we all absorbed osmotically just by breathing the air here: Anyone can grow up to be president.

Obviously, at this point, nonsense, though in an absolutely literal sense it seems to be true enough. After all, consider the present reality. But like all such euphemisms, there are too many assumptions packed in there that too many people take too little time unpacking to realize that what this means and what it can result in are worlds apart. While technically true, it leaves unspoken the basic assumption that in order to become president, first one has to grow up. While there is an age limit in the Constitution, this is obviously not what we mean by Grown Up. And while it is true that anyone, given opportunity, can certainly “grow up,” clearly not everyone does.

The other unspoken element of that is the question, begged this last time, of whether or not anyone (or everyone) should be president—or even have a shot at it. Clearly this question gets raised over some issues, but not, it seems, enough, and in the case of providing young minds with a working idea of the possibilities of their futures, maybe not even the primary one.

Till now, we have relied upon a vast and complex, rather organic system to cull out the genuinely unsuited, but obviously it didn’t work this time.

Which leads to the other common notion that ought really to be questioned a bit more thoroughly, that we should rely on Common Sense.

Something about this label has always bothered me. I’m reminded back in the Seventies and Eighties the answer to the Moral Majority was They Are Neither. (A throwback to the statement that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire.)  I know what it’s supposed to mean—common sense. What everybody knows. What a child can figure out through basic ratiocination. That things which are too complicated only require a simple approach to unravel. That the “average” person has the capacity to understand things, often in the absence of detail and facts. Things aren’t logical, common sense will tell you the problem.

Well, frankly, piffle. I think the term Common Sense is actually a derogation. Because if common sense has handed us our current situation, it clearly doesn’t do what we seem to think it does.  I think Common Sense is something we should take as a warning that not a lot of comprehension or sophistication is going on in its deployment. It seems clear to me, and not only in politics, that Good Sense is not very common. And that what passes for Common Sense will get you in trouble faster than anything else. There is no substitute for finding out how things actually work and lately there doesn’t seem to be a lot of that going on. Instead, calling upon Common Sense seems to indicate someone who will obstinately not find out how things work.

The Will of the People…

Sad to say, this is one that we have to be very careful about. Lately it seems to apply only in discussions about who won. And not a lot of discussion about how the winning was done or what winning means or why nothing seems to go the way we expected it to go after the winning.

When less than half the eligible population casts a ballot, and the numbers or so close that the “winner” is there only by virtue of a quarter of the People, just how much of the popular will is being represented?

Which leads me to my last one for now. “Well, they must know what they’re doing! After all, they’re the government!”

Yeah, about that. Here’s where that much-vaunted Common Sense shows its flaws in a serious way. I’m reminded of Deep Throat’s words to Woodward.  “Look, forget the myths the media’s created about the White House–the truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

All sorts of things get tangled up in the symbols of office and the power of the office and who’s in office. The President is not a king, not a savior, not anything but this: he’s an employee. At the end of the day, he works for us (for me, for you) and as such he’s beholden to us. We don’t anoint him, we elect him to fill a job vacancy. Granted, it’s a hell of a job, and that means we really ought to be more careful when going over the resumés.  But it also means that when the president is screwing up and draws criticism, it is not anti-American, we are not criticizing the country, we are not being “disloyal” (which shouldn’t even be on the table). He’s an employee—we’re the country.

We need to look very closely at the catch-phrases by which we express our sentiment. Accept them at peril.

Not everyone can grow up to be president. More importantly, very few people really should be president. It’s a very specialized job, calling for such a wide range of expertise. We don’t do the necessary groundwork to come anywhere close to the reality than “anyone” can be president.

Because while anyone could conceivably win the election—being the president is another matter entirely.

I hope we have all learned that this time.

Now, go vote.