Assessing Ramble

You’re never done with a book. In many ways it’s like a relative you haven’t seen in years come to visit. Indefinitely. At first, it’s great, it’s like meeting someone brand new, you have stories to tell each other, catching up. You go out, you party, you show them around.

But time passes, they don’t leave, you still have to deal with them. Not that it’s exactly unpleasant or unwelcome, but the longer it takes for them to get to the point of actually going to visit someone else the less tolerant you are of having to deal with them every single day.

It’s an imprecise simile at best, but it gives an idea.

I’ll be finished today with the penultimate draft of my new novel. That’s right, penultimate. I know I will have one more draft to do before I can send it to my agent, something I had wanted to do last year. This one is taking much longer than I first anticipated. But, as I waste time writing these very words, my other computer has the new scene I realized last night I needed up on the screen, needing to be finished. It’s a short scene, maybe a thousand words, but crucial. And final. When I am done, the book will be largely in its finished form. All that follows will be the picking of nits, necessary and aggravating, like cleaning the house thoroughly after that relative has left.

Of course, you can shut the door on the relative—might be a cold thing to do, but really you can. It just takes resolve and you can cut them off. There is no law that says you must put up with anyone that way, not even a relative.

A book is different, though. You’re never really done with it, even after you get it published.

The question came up in conversation with a friend last night, Do I Like It?

I always reach a point in a big project like this where I can’t stand it anymore. Another day, another paragraph, another revision—bah! I want it done, I want it ready, I want it out the door! My brain is anxious to start something new, I’m tired of this, I’m starting to second-and-third-guess myself, doubt that it’s worth a damn…

But yeah, I like it. It now has a shape and a cohesion, I know what it’s about, I know the characters, I know what I want it to do. My friend asked if it could be considered a thriller and I had to answer, cautiously, that no, it’s not really paced that way. Besides, thrillers seem by definition to contain many highly improbable plot twists—which is like unto a dangerous road full of switchbacks and sharp curves. As long as you’re driving along at top speed and just paying attention to getting to the end alive, it’s exhilarating. But does it make sense?

No, this is more staid in the sense that I went for maximum plausibility. There is one unlikelihood at the center of the plot, which I figure you can always get away with (one that is), but I proceeded on the assumption that I was writing to match both historical veracity and human truth. So I’m hoping it plays well to the mystery, historical crowds.

This will be the first time I actually finished this stage of a book on New Year’s Eve, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a bit of a recap.

In many ways 2007 sucked. But it sucked less than 2006 and it was frankly magnificent compared to 2005, so I figure as long as you can count the year an improvement overall, you had a good year. We had a good year.

The major success was in my Missouri Center for the Book efforts. I joined this board in 2002, started organizing programming for them, and in 2005 they made me president. I shan’t go into detail, but the MCB was in something of a shambles. No money, no direction, talk had begun of shutting it down, people were depressed, etc. There were many problems. I had absolutely no idea how to fix it. I decided my job was to stand in the middle of the room and throw spaghetti. See what stuck. After a lot of work, MCB is on the cusp of being a major player in the arts in Missouri. This has been made possible largely by the decision of our governor to establish a state poet laureate and name us as the organization responsible for the program. Everything we’ve done in the last two and a half years suddenly clicked into place and we’re off. Instead of walking out in 2008 like I’d considered, I’ll serve another full year as president to make sure everything hangs together. (I still, frankly, don’t quite know what I’m doing. It’s like writing a novel, though…you just make things up along the way and then see to it they fit with everything else.)

Second thing for me personally this year was actually finishing this book. I now believe in it. I think it will be okay.

Third thing, I did my first teaching gig in a workshop, during a Missouri Writers Guild conference, and discovered that I loved it. A couple of my students actually went on to sell their first short stories this past year and that really made me feel good. I find I would like to do that again.

However.

What has till this year been a source of amusement for me is becoming an annoyance.

The shock many people experience after they get to know me initially (more than a little, that is, deeper than casual superficiality) comes when they learn that I have no college. (One friend of my opined that I must have at least a masters degree. When I said no, he jumped straight to Ph.D. Such assessment warms my heart, but…)

For many reasons I did not—ever—attend college. The closest I came was the six weeks I spent at Clarion in 1988. Some of the reasons for this are principled, but in all honesty I just didn’t want to. I hated school. Disliked just about all of it. Most of my education took place in spite of my teachers, and a lot of it outside the confines of the classroom. At the time (I graduated high school in 1973) my attitude was, Why would I voluntarily submit myself to four more years of something I’m ecstatic to get away from?

In all honesty, at the time I thought my career would be in photography—which my high school supported not at all. I was self-taught, I got a job in the business right out of school, and ended up working in one end of the industry or another since. Had I not rediscovered my love of writing, I probably would be running my own studio or something today. I did not, in my view, need any college to do what I already knew how to do.

Such is the linear, face-value assessment of a teen-ager who doesn’t understand the Way The World Works. (Several years ago a friend’s oldest son was arguing with him about the need to go to college. He thought it was a waste of time, and did little to prepare one for the “real world”. He dragged me into it as an example of someone who had done all right without. But I was changing my attitude by then and I told him “You’re absolutely right. There’s nothing you can learn in college that you can’t learn on your own. But the fact is, unless you go to college, They won’t let you play with the cool toys.” It’s all about the game. I know degreed people pulling in sixty-plus Gs a year who can’t read one of my books. Doesn’t matter—they have the day pass.)

Anyway, I now am looking at the fact that unless I do something extraordinarily clever or impressive, I’m not able to get a job at a university teaching what I know how to do. I checked into the requirements for the basics, and the cost and time are prohibitive— even if I had the interest to sustain me through two years of classes I don’t think I need.

Which leads to the clever and extraordinary part. Okay, I have spent the last few years actually Doing Something that will look very cool on a resume. So be it. I’ll use it. Plus, I’m still writing books. Not publishing right now, but…

When I’m in the midst of a book project, my mind is in many ways slush. If it doesn’t concern the book, it gets short notice. It’s hard to do career planning when you are fatally distracted. But my mind is clearing now that I see the end in sight. I have ideas. Stay tuned.

What’s that you ask? The photography? Yes, go to the Art link here and you’ll see a number of my photographs. Yes, I should be doing something with them. I’m on it.

The thing is—and the reason all this is becoming acute just now—is that the Old Way of doing photography, at least commercially, is disappearing. I’m an analogue practitioner, not digital. I work barely 20 hours a week in my day job at a lab, doing multiple tasks, because 80 to 90% of our business is now digital.

I do not own a digital camera.

This coming year, this will change. I intend to learn (again) and start doing Something with my images. Again, stay tuned.

The books? Well, don’t be sad, folks, really, when I tell you that when I deliver this one—called, by the way, The Spanish Bride—I’m not starting another novel. Not till one of the three that will then be circulating sells. I’m going to try to remember how to write short stories, but I need to do something that actually makes money. And for whatever reason, my work, while respected, is not seen as something profitable. At least, apparently. I don’t really believe that, but it doesn’t matter what I believe, it’s what the publishers believe. So…I’ve written three novels in the last four years now. (Three and half, really, but that’s another matter.) I’m tired and none of them have sold. I need to rest from this, let the batteries recharge.

(We’ll see if this actually happens. I’ve declared such down periods in the past, only to find that a month or so later I was itching to start a new book.)

I’m toying with doing a web-based novel. I’m about to start doing book reviews for our local major newspaper. I’m looking into a gallery to show some photographs.

And we’ve planned our first real vacation(s) in a long time! We’re going to visit friends, nothing really new, but we’ll be Out Of Town, doing cool things. Donna especially badly needs this. Her job…well, the short of it is, she finally landed in the job of her dreams, but the workload is oppressive. She loves the work, but there’s too damn much of it. She has, as well, become the major breadwinner here. But she needs a break. We’re getting it.

More domestically, we’ve started finishing projects around the house which have waited too long. A few years ago, we paid this thing off. We are debt free. Given the current banking situation, we’re thrilled not to owe any money. We do without quite a lot of fun things, but in the long run no one has any claims on us. We own our cars, our house, our lives are not in the hands of some junior bank executive who has to increase this month’s bottom line or lose his or her job. But after fifteen years, there are still things we haven’t finished. We began this past year. We have a couple things to do this coming year. The two rooms which have been perpetually in disarray practically since we moved in are scheduled for rehabilitation. Once done, and everything here fits like an outer skin should, well…

Donna and I will be celebrating 28 years together in April.

28 years. Boggles my mind. And I still think she’s the finest woman on the planet. Out of all the aspects that might explain this minor miracle, I think it’s fair to say that, all other things notwithstanding, we travel well together. When we go on a trip, we’re a fine pair of companions for the road. That’s always been true. Even when we’ve had bad patches, once we got in the car or boarded the plane, Something Clicked, and we traveled well. As metaphors go, one could get sappy, but there it is. Drop us naked in Afghanistan and we have absolute confidence in each other that together we’d find our way out and home.

The dog is at my elbow, wanting something. I need to wrap this up anyway and actually finish the scene I said I was going to.

So Happy New Year, any of you who might read this. No excuses, now. Have one. We will.

On Relevance and Robert Heinlein

One of my favorite stories from the creative arts came from an interview of Richard Burton discussing his early career. He’d been in a stage play in London and the Sunday Times came out with a review that apparently trashed his performance, as well as the play in general. Miffed, seething, confidence shaken, Burton took the review to Laurence Olivier’s house to get some sympathy.

Olivier dutifully read the review while Burton fidgeted. Finally, Olivier put it down, nodded, and said “That’s a very good review.”

“Good!” Burton exploded. “What do you mean, ‘good’? Look what he said about me! He says I’m terrible, I’m amateur, I’m this, I’m that!”

“Oh, yes,” drawled Olivier urbanely, “he does say all that. But look how long he takes to say it.”

It’s a lesson in impact, in relevance. In other words, Olivier meant, he couldn’t ignore Burton. Just because he didn’t like what Burton did, that didn’t mean what Burton was without considerable merit.

Sometimes we find something we just don’t like. We’d like to find a good reason not to like it, but the bottom line is, we just don’t like it.

That seems to be the case with Robert A. Heinlein, who has been getting soundly trashed, and at great length, for decades now, with no end to the verbiage in sight. On the occasion of his Centennial, for example, there is this screed in the L.A. Times.

Fading impact? How many column inches get devoted to a supposed has-been?

This is absurd. To me, Heinlein will always have a warm place in my memory. What he did, despite the attempts of so many to discredit that work, was show me how to think things through. That I came eventually to disagree with much of what he proposed I think would have pleased him. The one thing that is consistently present in Heinlein’s work, beginning to end, is his loathing of apathy and ignorance.

One of the pitfalls of judging writers of the past is applying present-day standards. It might be useful to occasionally perform that kind of exercise on our own works, to imagine how they’ll fall short to readers fifty years from now. A lot of our current politics will doubtless appear laughable, even tragic, but certainly among many will elicit a “how could they possibly have thought that?” reaction.

People bash Hemingway all the time for his sexism and his awkward handling of certain homoerotic characters and themes. But he was a major author, read by millions, who did groundbreaking work in his day. There is something of value in the work, evidenced if only by virtue of the fact that we’re still talking about it today. We advanced from then to now, built upon what he did, do things today which he–among others–made possible to do. To turn around and take a dump on him because he wasn’t as self-aware and sophisticated about it as we think we are is petty.

But let’s look at the major charges against Heinlein. Chief among them are: he was sexist, a fascist, narcissistic, and pedantic.

Hmm. In order, then.

Was he sexist?

This was a man who had had three wives and probably any number of lovers. He practiced nudism and for a time, with his second wife (apparently), indulged in polyamory–what we call alternately, depending on era and attitude, “swinging” or “an open marriage.” While one may certainly (and legitimately) suggest a degree of selfishness about this, one cannot alternately accuse him of being a possessive, classic chauvinist, since to live that way requires that one respect one’s partner’s freedom. But that’s using the personal to validate the fiction, the reverse of what is usually a major pitfall in literary criticism, namely using the fiction to analyze the personal—which happens to Heinlein all the time.

So what about the fiction? Where’s the sexism? Growing up reading Heinlein in the Sixties, I gotta tell you it came across as anything but. His women are generally independent, smart (often smarter than the men), with careers of their own, ambitions, and enough self-confidence for Emma Peel. For an adolescent male, that’s enough to provide a model and framework to sheer away from most culturally reinforced stereotypes that render women “objects.”

But wait! Most all of them become utterly devoted to a male and want to have babies. In some instances, they defer to male judgment. (I’m thinking of Wyoming Knot in The Moon In A Harsh Mistress as a glaring example.) Well, I suppose that’s a closet sexist wanting to dominate his females…except for one thing: these women choose. And they do not, generally, lose their brains in the process.

But there is a certain conventionality in the depictions of his love matches that is hard to square with the promise of progressive living suggested in most of Heinlein’s work. There is traditional marriage, traditional dewey-eyed romanticism, traditional…

Lazarus Long changes diapers, though. Minor thing, maybe, but in the context of the time just a bit revolutionary, especially in a genre that largely ignored that aspect of life. Maybe it’s not relevant.

But there is no question that, in his adult work, all Heinlein’s males and females really like to have sex, and there’s virtually no homosexuality in any of it. It’s a hetero universe, with but a few nods in the direction of gay existence. (One extremely embarrassing quote from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long attempts to make a case for homosexuality being spiritually abnormal and a subject for sympathy rather than condemnation. But the same charge of being uncomfortable and parochial about homosexuality can be laid at the grave of many a writer, male and female, of his era, even influential writers.)

Heinlein started something with regard to concepts of equality. Maybe he didn’t follow through as thoroughly as some might like, but given his position in the pantheon of SF writers, starting it should count more than the fact that he got a lot wrong.

Oh, yeah. I Will Fear No Evil…well, he blew it. In other respects, that’s not a great book. What? He doesn’t get to make a mistake? He gets condemned for not being able to actually think like woman? Feel like a woman? Understand the world like a woman?

Sexism, to my mind, is a habit of discounting the value of the opposite sex and relegating them continually, insistently, and perniciously to single roles. I do not see that habit exhibited in Heinlein. The one thing all his women have in common, as a ground rule, is the freedom and ability to Walk Away. And since he clearly sees that as one of the most valuable freedoms of individuals period, it forms the basis of his standard of equality.

No, I don’t think Heinlein was a sexist. I think he had a lot difficulty, like most people, in figuring out how relationships, both privately and socially, are supposed to work, and he talked about it. His conclusions may have been sophomoric, but…

Was he a fascist?

I open my Oxford Companion to Philosophy, turn to the appropriate entry, which reads:

Fascism. Political doctrine combining ethnic nationalism with the totalitarian view that the state should control all aspects of social life. Fascism is thus opposed to both liberalism–individual liberty and fulfillment being held to be relative to the nation’s, rather than vice-versa–and to communism–class identity and aspirations being held to threaten national unity…

Can’t see that in Heinlein with the single exception of Starship Trooper. Go back to a book like Beyond This Horizon and you see the resistance to state co-option of individual liberty, that such co-option is the enemy of all definitions of freedom. Go forward to a book like Time Enough For Love and you see the consistent, millennia-long rejection of the state’s right to control anything, including the individual right to die. (Another writer has thus been characterized by a single work, which suggested he was an absolutist and a supporter of despotism, even though the rest of his work–rarely read, never discussed–paints a completely different picture, that of someone seeking to find liberation from the authoritarianism of his day. Who? Machiavelli.)

One might reasonably argue that as time passed, Heinlein came to embody Libertarianism, but that, too, is utterly incompatible with fascism. This charge I think is more due to the modern misunderstanding of the term and its meaning than anything else. We’ve gotten into the unfortunate habit of identifying anyone with a pro-military attitude as a fascist, even while the cause for which such military advocacy may be liberal to its core. Conflating the willingness to fight with the machinery of autocratic tyranny is sloppy thinking at best.

Narcissistic?

That stems from a growing and unfortunate habit in Heinlein’s work to lecture from behind the mask of the characters. And this has merit. But it’s only a valid criticism of the field itself. Science fiction is didactic. One of the chief pleasures for decades was to be told something new, something revolutionary, something outre…at least something that appeared to be those things. Heinlein was a master at this, because, unlike others who tried it, many of his lectures were a pleasure to read. We wanted to agree with some of his characters as they heaped opprobrium on incompetence or provincialism or bigotry or superstition. We wanted them to be right because we sensed they were not fools and we didn’t want to be fools, either. And when he did it right, it was very instructional. As I said at the beginning of this, Heinlein gave lessons in how to think.

More and more as he grew older he did speak from the throne, as it were, and more and more we felt, we sensed, that his main characters–and many of his supporting characters—were stand-ins for him. (The ludicrous cloning arrangement in Time Enough For Love wherein Lazarus gets to, in essence, fuck himself has been the springboard for a Freudian love-fest of armchair analysis on this point.)

Which leads to the last charge. Pedantic?

You bet. And annoyingly so. But rarely did he lecture from utterly irrelevance, and therein lies the problem people often have. His arguments cannot be ignored. This is not to say he wasn’t wrong, but that, Socratically, he knew what the essence of an argument was and how to phrase it in such a way that we have to wrestle with it.

The problem really stems from all those people who grew up reading Heinlein and never seem to have twigged to the idea that they were supposed to disagree with him! If anything must have caused him acid reflux, it was probably knowing that he had, indeed, become a guru, every word worshiped.

But irrelevant? Apparently not. We’re still trying to ignore him. It doesn’t seem we’ve made much progress in that direction.

Gender Reading

Over on John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, Sarah Monette has posted a piece on gender in science fiction and fantasy. It’s a sensible look at the problems of this discussion, but there are a couple of things about it that bother me a bit.

She goes over the problems of defining sex and gender. She breaks it down as: sex is biology and gender is culture. Immediately, she asserts that this is problematic, because biology itself is not a neat packaging device, and there are many people who simply don’t fit in one side or the other (male-female). Gender as cultural artifact has problems because such definitions begin with our apprehension of the biological aspect and proceed from there.

The question often begged in such discussions is why the wide variety of alternative sexual possibilities get shoved off the table when these definitions are formulated (usually in mists of ancient history). Perhaps answering that question would begin to unravel the seeming tangle of our concepts of so-called gender roles.

The first question is: why Male Female?

Certainly major anatomical differences play a part, what are termed secondary sexual characteristics. Penis, clitoris, lactating breasts, facial hair, pelvic variance. But recognizing these attributes does not, it seems to me, establish the basis for our millennial-old bias toward a single binary standard. (Monette cites this as an American thing, this insistence, but that doesn’t follow. Few cultures ever have had much tolerance for anything outside that binary definition, revisionist scenarios notwithstanding.)

Go back far enough–say the 19th century on back before the building of Uruk–and the basis is fairly clear, unambiguous, and overwhelming.

Sex roles are assigned on the basis of what it takes to make more people.

Period. Reproduction. The heterosexual act of intercourse that results in pregnancy and childbirth underlies all our subsequent categorizing of sex/gender metaphysics. In the extremes of what I’ll call subsistence sexual politics, this is all that matters, and the politics that forms around it always excludes anything that does not lead directly to this outcome–which includes all forms of homosexuality, bachelorhood or spinsterhood, or even what we today assume to be the individual prerogative of childlessness by choice. Which explains why in some cultures even today (fewer, vanishing, but nevertheless there) you find draconian attitudes toward any kind of deviance from an assumed norm, like birth defects.  (It also suggests interesting readings for self-selected celibate groups, who then extract themselves from other aspects of “normal” social intercourse, but that’s another topic.)

Anyone remotely familiar with evolutionary anthropology understands the possibilities latent in even the simplest of defining attributes over time.

Confusion enters into this with all the other aspects of a culture, chiefly affluence. Once a civilization arrives at a point that some of its members may separate their activities out from the requirements of a subsistence economy, you start getting moralizing and class warfare, part of which has resulted in our present-day mess of gender politics.

When the survival of your group depends on growing numbers, it is easy to see how tolerance for individual variation that might threaten that growth can shrink or, as is more likely, never occur in the first place.

Add to this, now, the argument made by some that gender is something unrelated to biology, and we start getting into the almost impossible area of determine “What’s normal?”

In my opinion, trying to separate gender like this from biology is absurd. Because ultimately we’re talking about what Turns People On, and that means physically, which has everything to do with biology–the hypothalumus, the limbic system, all tied together through the nervous system–because basically we’re looking at what provides individuals with meaningful pleasure. (Unless what is intended by this is a limiting of “biology” purely to reproductive strategies—but the “wetware” for this is still in place regardless of the strategy, which is biology…)

(A sidebar here for a moment–that word, pleasure, suffers in this debate because it doesn’t have the same connotation for everyone. For a large and very vocal group, to put it in its simplest terms, “pleasure” equals “evil.” It’s difficult to discuss the salubrious and often essential benefits of pleasure with someone who simply can’t hear the word without visions of Ezekial and Revelation flashing before their inner cinema screen. It is also difficult to impress upon people who think of pleasure as something inessential, to be had in one’s “spare” time like a hobby, but not important in the same way that providing food and shelter is important. Pleasure gets short-changed on most levels, by most people, most of the time. Consequently, a lot of what is done essentially for pleasure gets folded into things that can be seen–by the doer as well as any observer–as “necessary.” Interesting how that relates to, say, reading…)

The thing that makes another person someone with whom we “connect” sexually (or, conversely, what dictates what we will not do sexually with another person) cannot be separated from biology.

Just as the things that can then go on to ruin our lives cannot be seen as deviant, in this instance incompatibility, either physically, emotionally, or intellectually.

But I digress.

Monette’s argument takes off on the ongoing discussing of supposedly diminished or underappreciated roles of females in science fiction, both written and visual. The trend is moving for more and better representation for women, has been for a good long while now. True, SF, like so much other fiction, has a history of male dominance. Why? Because for a long time, the public lives of males were more interesting. Men got to be detectives and soldiers, scientists and politicians, explorers and engineers. And–very important–men got to choose their sex partners. The absurdities of this arrangement spring from the culture, which publicly had decided that women’s most important role was still tied to that founding definition about making more people, and became clearer and clearer with the emergence of the Super Male–James Bond, et al. Firstly, he wasn’t “making more people” with all these women, which led to the obvious revelation (duh!) that neither were all those women.

This debate is important, because we have reached a point in history in which making more people is verging on immoral. There are too many and it’s damaging the planet. Furthermore, it’s important because the pitch of the argument in some quarters is becoming shrill, because a several-millennia-old way of assigning social roles is being pushed aside. (Do all those people who think traditional marriage is sacred and should be barred to Out Groups actually believe women are inferior or gays somehow evil? No, of course not. On an individual level, many of them would never dream of making A woman subserviant or stoning a homosexual–though, of course, some would, so we have to be careful about making too-sweeping a statement. No, it’s like killing Santa Claus. Before we knew what we were supposed to be and do, even if we didn’t actually live up to that. Now…?) So the question on the table is, what now?

A good place to start is by deciding that everyone, regardless of so-called orientation, has an interesting life that can be made the subject of compelling drama. And that seems to be what’s happening. Men (and not all males, by any means) got center stage for so long because they were seen to have the interesting lives. Of course, you could extend that statement and see where I’m going with this—for a long time, stories were only about aristocrats and warriors because they were seen to have the only interesting lives.

What about all those other people? The ones off-stage?

Well, it has become clear that they, too, had interesting lives–just not in the same way as those who complained because they were no longer center stage. As a result, they show up more and more in our stories about ourselves.

What has made this discussion compelling–why it has, really, always been compelling–is that we have passed out of the time when the primary defining need has shifted from “Making More” to “Making Something of It.”

The Zeppelin Flies Again

Led Zeppelin have returned.

I saw the Page & Plant Tour several years ago and I admit I was impressed.  I had seen Led Zeppelin back in, oh, ’71 or ’72, and while I confess to admiring the thundering power of their live show, I thought they were sloppy.  (I’ve come to realize that this is more an artifact of the evolution of live rock concert technique than any lack of talent or ability–compared to a modern show, the YES of the early Seventies played well but not always smoothly, and it took time to get to where their on-stage chops equaled or surpassed what happened in the studio.)  Page-Plant not only rewrote a bunch of the tunes, the musicianship on stage was far superior to what I remember way back when.

So no doubt this incarnation is drop-dead marvelous.  Filling in for Bonham is his son, Jason.

Is a new album perhaps coming out?  An American tour?

I gotta say, frankly, my days of attending concerts on this scale are behind me.  I just don’t like my fellow beings enough to be jammed into an arena with several thousand of them, pushing and shoving to get in and get out, and competing with taller heads to see the stage.  I know there are now video screens, but though I find myself watching them I hate them.  They do not…belong.  Personal sentiment.  I tend to be drawn, mothlike, to television screens.  In restaurants, bars, concerts, other people’s houses, if a screen is on I tend to watch it.  I seem to have little control.  Either turn it off or let’s just stop pretending it’s background.

Other people seem to be able to ignore them.

But at a concert, it’s curious to indulge what amounts to a second-had experience right in the presence of the primary experience!

Am I being too picky?  Maybe.

In any event, I would buy a new Zep album.  I’m thinking about getting the album Plant released with Alison Krause, who is definitely not my thing.  But I heard some of it and I have to say, it’s amazing.  Sure it’s got bluegrass in it.  But also the blues and some jazz and a lot of rock echoes and some fine fine musicianship—T-Bone Burnett produced and plays on it.

So what other groups are waiting in the dustbin of history to reemerge?  So many did in the 80s and 90s and ended up on the state fair circuit that it was depressing.  A few, though, really came through.  Some really ought to just remain in memory.

Romney’s Testament

Mitt Romney has made it clear that he intends to serve the law first, his religion second. That he feels he ought not to have to justify his religious beliefs in order to run for president of the United States. The parallels to John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech are dripping with relevance and poignancy.

As far as it goes, I agree with him. This question ought to be utterly irrelevant. What matters are policy positions, the ability to function under stress, a certain eloquence, all the quite Earth-bound concerns that, regardless of our spiritual dispositions, really do bind us all.

But after Reagan, religion has become more and more a policy issue. Little by little, until our current president, organized religions have become part and parcel of a president’s campaign stance and now inextricably linked to policy. Bush has breeched the assumed wall of separation. Hard to really blame him for it, he told us he would, and he made good on his promises in that respect. Reagan toyed with the religious right in order to gather votes, but for all the smoke and thunder he never really did anything toward giving them something concrete (other than recognition, which was bad enough). Once the alliance was made, though, it became harder and harder for a presidential candidate to sidestep questions of faith. Even the Democrats have to deal with the legacy of the what I call the Reagan Compact.

Up till Reagan, most fundamentalist groups eschewed politics. Most didn’t even vote. They saw it as pointless. Why be concerned about This World when it will soon pass away in the Second Coming? Why be bothered by petty politics when it is all mere vanity and could distract from the important work of praying to a god that can grant reward and punishment based on a scale that has nothing to do with nuclear disarmament, or farm bills, or social security, or…

But wait. The world must be in a particular condition before Jesus will return. It seems to be lurching in that direction (rough beast-wise) but it’s taking so damn long! Maybe politics can be used to move us along that path faster.

In fact, it becomes clear that all this effort to create a Palestinian state and get the Middle East settled peacefully and willing to accommodate Israel is, in fact, the precise opposite of what Must Be for the stage to be set for the Rapture. These politicians must be stopped!

There were many groups who bought this argument and brought it to the table when they supported Dubya, and even if he publicly thought it was stupid and claimed not to know anything about it, a lot of his campaign supporters knew all about it and pushed it into the debate that went on inside the White House. Not overtly–these folks are not so guileless–but couched in the language of policy decisions. Hence we’re in Iraq in a bad way. Hence we irritated a lot of Palestinians by rejecting the election of Hamas (making ourselves look once again like anti-democrats). Hence we never call Israel to task for boneheaded bad policies which exacerbate the rifts between them and, well, everyone else in the Middle East.

Belatedly, Bush seems to have realized that some of his earlier policy decisions have led to worse problems, not solutions.

But, aside from corporate interests, the people funneling advice and policy papers into his administration have been those interested in certain religious outcomes.

The questions aimed at Romney come from a growing discomfort on the part of the rest of us about overtly religious mindsets inhabiting the Oval Office. Which means that while the sentiment Romney espouses is perfectly correct (religion shouldn’t matter), he is expressing them at a time when his predecessors have made it matter.

There is a huge difference between what Kennedy said and what Romney is saying. Kennedy wanted to move religion off the table. Religion, he suggested, has no place in policy. That regardless of what one may wish the world to be like as dictated by a particular religious viewpoint, the world is what it is and needs to be dealt with based on the commonality of that experience–which is secular. Kennedy didn’t use that term, to be sure, but that’s what he meant. And he vowed to be a secular president. Romney isn’t saying that at all. He’s promising to be a religious president—just not of any particular stripe. In other words, he believes that religion has a place in politics and he intends bringing that viewpoint to the office.

Two things: the first is, everyone brings who they are to that office. I do not believe we ever elected an atheist president. Hard to know, really, but it’s a safe bet. In that sense, how can anyone not bring something so centrally important to their lives into the job they hold? It really is like trying to ban prayer in schools—you really can’t because you can never tell when someone is praying, unless they make a big show of it.

The other is, one’s religion obligates one to a certain code of conduct and colors the way they see the world. This is nothing revolutionary–any philosophy does that, including all the varieties of secular thinking. It only becomes a problem when a decision must be made based on information that runs counter to a religiously-held belief. (Evolution, stem cell research, peace in the Middle East, welfare…)

How serious of an issue is this? Well, let’s see. Kennedy does not seem to have made any decisions that could be defined as Catholic. Nixon was a Quaker, but you’d never have been able to tell from the way he conducted his presidency. Jimmy Carter was a self-professed Born Again Christian, but aside from an admission of secret lust and seeing a UFO there seemed to be no overtly fundamentalist decisions he made. Reagan…not sure what he was, but his use of the term Evil Empire had apocalyptic overtones, and his antipathy toward homosexuals vis-a-vis AIDS research and the funding of related CDC programs strongly suggest a religious take on the world. Bush the First is an unfortunate case. He was wedded to the Religious Right by virtue of Reagan’s election and I think he walked a fine line between lip-service and increasing pressure to radicalize policy. A shame, really, because without that monkey on his back he might have been a far better president. We’ll never know. But the about-face he made on social issues between his positions when in Congress and his ascension to the White House are clearly concessions to the religious wing of the party. Clinton is a Baptist, but he ran the most secularized administration possible. GWB is…

Well, we know what he is.

Romney’s smarter than Bush. I doubt his vice president will run anything, whoever it might be. And as far as it goes, his speech is based on a solid ground. He did make one statement that can be construed as religious partisanship, namely that religion and freedom go together or fall separately. What about secularists? Given that most fundamentalists and many fringe christians have tended to see secularism as a religion (albeit one they detest), I don’t think he intended to shut atheists or agnositics out. In the vocabulary of the religious, we secularists adhere to a faith, we serve a religion–a poor, headless, ignorant religion, according to them, but still–and therefore we can be included, too.

So where’s the problem? Most people, whether they admit it or not, already put a wall between their religion and the way they deal with the world at large. If they didn’t, frankly, they wouldn’t try to make things better in this life for anyone. It only follows that if the world is going to end or if the most important thing is the afterlife, then any effort put into making better homes, developing better health care, solving environmental problems, trying to get better educations for our children are all wastes of time and energy. But while many people claim to believe in the promises of their religions, they act as if the world isn’t going anywhere and that this life is the only one they’re going to get, so we better make it as good as we can.

A politician, though, has a higher responsibility–to reflect the concerns of a constituency. So who is Romney’s constituency?

Fundamentalists don’t trust Mormonism. It ain’t, to them, christian. So if he gets elected, will he have their support? Will he understand their needs? Do they even speak the same language?

(Just as a side issue, here. It’s easy to take potshots at Mormonism. Its beginnings are recent enough to be well-documented. Joseph Smith was a dowser who wasn’t very good at it and there were a number of clients who sued him for misrepresentations and failure to deliver. He “discovered” a new version of christianity, founded a movement, and left New York. To many people, it’s obvious he was a smooth-talking charlatan with a gimmick. In that regard, he was not at all unusual in that time or place. It is, however, difficult to understand why it took root the way it did. But success is attractive and, for better or worse, Mormonism survived and prospered. It’s much harder to poke holes in the founding of christianity, although one reading of the conversion of Paul–and it’s very clear in the text to modern eyes–is that he suffered an epileptic seizure and heard voices, a phenomenon well-documented today, but for some reason unpersuasive to Believers. Nevertheless, the same questions apply–why would anyone buy into either religious movement?)

At the end of the day, when we go to the polls to elect a new president, Romney is right—his religious should not be a barrier to his running or being elected. Other things should guide us. Policy things. And on that basis, I certainly won’t vote for him. If he holds these policy opinions because of his religion, so be it. My problem with him is that he indeed holds those opinions. It doesn’t matter why.

The question we really have to ask of people like Romney is this: if you discover that you were wrong in your policy decisions, will you–can you–change your mind?

Someone who is profoundly committed to a religious view of the world, and has declared that religion is to be part of his administration, may find that he cannot say Yes to that. And that is a far more serious problem than the specifics of whatever religious creed one might profess.