People Who Have No Money Should Have Nothing

I’m a tad upset.  The House just voted (all the Republicans and ten Democrats) to de-fund Planned Parenthood.

Why?

Planned Parenthood has been the target for the Right since it was founded in the 1920s—during a time, it should be stressed, when you could go to jail for distributing information about contraception.  Jail.  Because such information was seen as destructive of public morals.

Again, why?  This should be a no-brainer for Conservatives.  Privacy.  The ability to control your own person.  The responsible management of your own life.  But time and again we keep running up against this perverse negative reaction to anything that smacks of responsible sexuality.  I have said this before, but I think it bears repeating, that the right wing jeremiad against abortion has little to do with abortion—it is a war on sex.

Planned Parenthood is the number one provider of gynecological services for poor women, under and uninsured women, women with few other options if any.  The fact is that no federal dollars have been spent on abortion since the Hyde amendment was passed in 1976, and yet—and yet—this persecution continues.  It only makes sense if we stop thinking that this has anything to do with fetuses.

There is a very silly movie from 1964 called Kisses For My President.  It starred Polly Bergen as the first woman president of the United States and Fred MacMurray as her hapless husband.  You can imagine what the bulk of it is about—he has to fill the role of First Lady.  It’s a comedy.  Ostensibly.  As the frustrations of his position mount (I choose my words carefully) he clearly resents his position and decides to do something about it.  His solution?  He gets his wife pregnant.

Now, for some reason which today would be head-scratchable, she has to resign as president.  On this occasion, she yields to the inevitable and MacMurray is beaming like a man once more in charge.

Does anyone not see the horror in that scenario?

In 1964 businesses were still firing women who became pregnant.  There were no laws to prevent this.  The idea that a woman might want some say over her own life was still bizarre.  The sexual revolution was just underway and most Americans didn’t like it so much—not because they minded the idea of more sex so much as they hated the idea that their kids would be doing it.  Once it was well underway, though, it became far clearer that underlying all the cheesy jokes and Playboy aesthetics was the very serious issue of providing half the population with the ability to manage their own lives, their own dreams, their own futures.  Roe v. Wade was the capstone of this movement because—

This must be stressed today because we have generations that have grown up not knowing this history, not having to live under these conditions.

—because the inability of women to say no in matters of personal sexuality and to control their own fertility trapped many of them in cycles of dependence and poverty.  The fruits of the sexual revolution were not that boys got to get laid a lot more but that women have the final say in whether, when, if, how, and with whom any laying was going to take place.

For women who yearn for a baby and live in circumstances in which such an advent is welcome, wanted, and cherished and is not a crushing weight and a drain on small resources, it may be difficult to understand what a calamity an unwanted pregnancy might be.  But for any woman who wants to have a say in her own procreative decisions, there should be no question today that the Right, through the instrument of the Republican Party, is trying to turn this country back to a time when the movie cited above makes perfect sense and offers a welcome message.

What it really means is that if you don’t have the means in hand, and you’re a woman, these people want you to be silent, subservient, and second-class.

The reality is that women with money have always had access to abortion.  The euphemistic “time in the country” mentioned in so many mauve novels meant just that.  If you were poor, you went to a butcher in a dirty room and took your chances whether it was successful or you ended up with an infection that would kill you or a hemorrhage that wouldn’t stop.

The Republican Party is tied to a constituency of moneyed interests and moral morons who care nothing for average people.  Why we continue to vote them into power is a testament to a propaganda machine that has worked tirelessly to convince us that our interests are best served by having all protections stripped from us if we live below a certain income level.  They are marching us forward in our goal to become the wealthiest third world nation on the planet.

The Nebs

The Nebula Awards are voted on, and presented by, active members of SFWA. The awards will be announced at the Nebula Awards Banquet (http://www.sfwa.org/nebula-weekend/) on Saturday evening, May 21, 2011 in the Washington Hilton, in Washington, D.C. Other awards to be presented are the Andre Norton Award for Excellence in Science Fiction or Fantasy for Young Adults, the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation and the Solstice Award for outstanding contribution to the field.
Short Story

  • ‘‘Arvies’’, Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine 8/10)
  • ‘‘How Interesting: A Tiny Man’’, Harlan Ellison® (Realms of Fantasy 2/10)
  • ‘‘Ponies’’, Kij Johnson (Tor.com 1/17/10)
  • ‘‘I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno’’, Vylar Kaftan (Lightspeed Magazine 6/10)
  • ‘‘The Green Book’’, Amal El-Mohtar (Apex Magazine 11/1/10)
  • ‘‘Ghosts of New York’’, Jennifer Pelland (Dark Faith)
  • ‘‘Conditional Love’’, Felicity Shoulders (Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine 1/10)

Novelette

  • ‘‘Map of Seventeen’’, Christopher Barzak (The Beastly Bride)
  • ‘‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow’’, Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine 7/10)
  • ‘‘The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oost and Oludara’’, Christopher Kastensmidt (Realms of Fantasy 4/10)
  • “Plus or Minus’’, James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine12/10)
  • ‘‘Pishaach’’, Shweta Narayan (The Beastly Bride)
  • ‘‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made’’, Eric James Stone (Analog Science Fiction and Fact 9/10)
  • ‘‘Stone Wall Truth’’, Caroline M. Yoachim (Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine 2/10)

Novella

  • The Alchemist, Paolo Bacigalupi (AudibleSubterranean)
  • ‘‘Iron Shoes’’, J. Kathleen Cheney (Alembical 2)
  • The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
  • ‘‘The Sultan of the Clouds’’, Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine 9/10)
  • ‘‘Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance’’, Paul Park (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 1-2/10)
  • ‘‘The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window’’, Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine Summer ’10)

Novel

  • The Native Star, M.K. Hobson (Spectra)
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit UK; Orbit US)
  • Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
  • Echo, Jack McDevitt (Ace)
  • Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor (DAW)
  • Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis (Spectra)

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

  • Despicable Me, Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud (directors), Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul (screenplay), Sergio Pablos (story) (Illumination Entertainment)
  • Doctor Who: ‘‘Vincent and the Doctor’’, Richard Curtis (writer), Jonny Campbell (director)
  • How to Train Your Dragon, Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders (directors), William Davies, Dean DeBlois, & Chris Sanders (screenplay) (DreamWorks Animation)
  • Inception, Christopher Nolan (director), Christopher Nolan (screenplay) (Warner)
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright (director), Michael Bacall & Edgar Wright (screenplay) (Universal)
  • Toy Story 3, Lee Unkrich (director), Michael Arndt (screenplay), John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, & Lee Unkrich (story) (Pixar/Disney)

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

  • Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi (Little, Brown)
  • White Cat, Holly Black (McElderry)
  • Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press; Scholastic UK)
  • Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, Barry Deutsch (Amulet)
  • The Boy from Ilysies, Pearl North (Tor Teen)
  • I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett (Gollancz; Harper)
  • A Conspiracy of Kings, Megan Whalen Turner (Greenwillow)
  • Behemoth, Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse; Simon & Schuster UK)

I’ve actually read a couple things on this list, but for the most part, as usual, the nominations serve mostly as a shopping list for me.  These and the Hugos tell me what I ought to be looking at, at least in SF.

But what is more dismaying about this one is how many of these names I don’t recognize at all!  I am woefully out of touch.  Granted, I’ve never been one to keep up with what is current, my reading habits mitigate against it (the reason I like to own my books is because I just never know when I’m going to feel like picking one up and, you know, reading it), but I at least used to know who the players were.

I’m not going to sweat it, though.  Too much work.  I have the new Gene Wolfe, Home Fires, which I’m seriously looking forward to.  Also the newest Iain M. Banks, not to mention the second half of Connie Willis’s giant two-parter, Blackout/All Clear.

Anyway, I thought I’d post these for those who may be interested.

Me?  No, I never made a final ballot.  Preliminary once.

Wake Up! We Are Not Parts!

I’ll admit up front that I’m shooting from the hip here.  There are many aspects to what is happening in Wisconsin right now with parallels to several past instances in the country in the fight over workers’ rights, unions, and moneyed interests, but I frankly don’t have the time to research them all right now and get something up before it all comes to a head.

Isn’t it interesting, though, that we are collectively cheering what is happening in the Middle East right now and something similar is happening right here and people don’t seem to be paying attention to what’s at stake?

Oh, come on, Tiedemann, how can you make a comparison!  I grant you, it’s a stretch.  But on principles, not so much.  We’re talking about who has the right to speak to power and over what.  The protesters in Madison aren’t having their internet access and phone service pulled and it’s doubtful the military will be called in, but on the other hand the Wisconsin state police are being asked to go get the now-labeled Wisconsin 14 and bring them back to the state capitol to vote on something that is clearly a stripping of the right of petition and assembly.  So this can become very quickly a constitutional issue and that’s scary, because right now the Supreme Court has been decidedly against workers’ rights.

Governor Scott is at least being clear.  I’ll give him credit, he’s not ducking questions about what he’s trying to do.  Wisconsin, like many states, has a budget crisis.  He’s already gotten concessions from the unions, a lot of money.  The unions have not balked at doing their civic duty in terms of agreeing to pay cuts, freezes on raises, and some concessions on benefits to help the state meet its budgetary responsibilities.  But he’s going further and asking that all these unions be stripped of their collective bargaining abilities in order to make sure they never again demand something from the state that the legislature or the governor believes they don’t deserve.  In other words, Governor Scott doesn’t ever want to have to sit down and ask them for concessions ever again—he wants to be able to just take what he wants.

No one can argue that the budget problems are a fabrication.  In the past, unions have flexed their muscle over similar problems and occasionally been their own worst enemies, resulting in lay-offs, closing down of programs, and so forth.  I myself can certainly see how unions abuse their power.  They have a position to maintain, which is to stand in opposition to management.  Management is concerned with bottom lines, not people, so unions are the enemy. For their part, unions could care less about individual needs and will jettison, ostracize, or bully individuals who aren’t acting in lock-step with unions policies.  A union will roll over an individual in pursuit of its collective agenda just as readily as management will.  Neither side has a lock on enlightened behavior.

This is one of those times when management has the more ethical argument over the money matters.  States are facing bankruptcy.  They don’t have the money to maintain status quo.  In this, the dreams of the Grover Norquist’s have been realized—the beast, government, is being starved.

But that’s not what is currently at stake.  The unions have met with the governor and agreed to help.  But Scott wants to end the practice of having to sit down with unions and negotiate over this.  He’s made some Right To Work noises as well—individuals should not be “forced” to pay union dues if they don’t want to.  On an abstract moral level, I can even agree with that, but we don’t live in an abstract world where moral principle trumps bottom line thinking and the practice of power.  We live in a world of zero-sum games and abusive relationships between management and labor.  The reality is that the rights everyone, union or otherwise, have come to enjoy since the end of the Great Depression have been won by unions who stood up to management and said “We are not parts.”

I mention constitutional issues.  What I mean by that is that we have, under the Constitution, the right to peaceably assemble and we have the right of redress of grievances.  Those are the key components of all union organization.  The Constitution does not say how we are to exercise those freedoms, only that we have them.  Stripping unions of the right of collective bargaining is an assault on both those freedoms and Scott knows very well what it is he’s handing future administrations, which is a muzzled work force.

Like other freedoms people take for granted today, working conditions and fair pay scales were wrested from those in power, often in bloody contests argued in the streets with axe handles and sometimes bullets.  We are in a period of retrenchment by those who have never been pleased with that loss of authority.  It’s not just in this instance, but in every instances.  Those who rail against womens rights, affirmative action, students’ rights, health care, and any and all regulation of industry, be it financial or manufacturing, are people who either do not understand what came before or are working hand-in-glove with those who wish to take those rights away and establish a plutocracy in which money is all that matters and access to a middle class is a prize to be won by being a good servant.

The unions conceded to Scott’s demands to help balance his budget.  Taking away their ability to bargain collectively is an attempt to set those concessions in stone and prevent workers from ever again petitioning for progress in the treatment of employees.  This is over and above anything he should have a right to ask. Money right now is being used as a boogeyman to scare people into obeisance.

This is not the way to solve these problems.  And if anyone believes it will stop there, all you have to do is look around at the renewed Right To Work efforts across the country.  These are union-busting efforts and will result in workers losing pay and benefits in the long run.

I feel like slapping people who vote Republican and shouting  “Wake up!  They are not on your side!  They’re trying to fuck you and your children!”  The only things they want to spend money on are weapons and corporate welfare.  The only reason to continually cut education funding is to procure a populace too stupid to look out for its own good.  Everything else follows from there.

Wake up, people!

Dust Motes

Cleaning my office, which serves double duty as a guest room.  We have company coming in this weekend and that’s always a good excuse to clean up.

So while I’m moving things around, listening to very loud music (Deep Purple, Who Do We Think We Are? which I think is one of the great underappreciated rock’n’roll albums of all time), thoughts are buzzing around my head.

Already this morning I posted a response to someone on a group discussing Science vs Religion—a topic fraught with the potential for all kinds of angsty in-your-face defensiveness—wherein I once more found myself in the position of turning an argument around on someone who had decided that I had insulted him by insisting on evidence and common sense and the practice of looking at alternative explanations that might undercut a cherished experience.  In this case, we were discussing ghosts.  When I pointed out that the described experience fit well with what is known as hypnogogic hallucination, I was summarily told that if I said that to the experiencer’s face, I’d likely get a kick in the groin.  Hardly a mature response.

But then it went on to question why someone like me—a materialist—can’t just stop being insulting by insisting that what people experience is explicable in material terms.  It never seems to occur to some people that every time they tell me that I need Jesus or that I’m bound for hell or that my life must be empty and meaningless because I don’t believe in god, that they are being insulting to me.  Built into this level of religiosity is the automatic assumption that they’re right and I’m wrong and that’s the end of it.  They don’t see this as hubris or arrogance because it comes from, they believe, an outside source—god or whatever—and that all they’re doing is conveying the message.

Well, sorry.  We can all be arrogant on someone else’s behalf and beg off the charge of arrogance because we’re just the messenger.  Displacing responsibility for being rude and offensive is a handy dodge—oh, it’s not me, it’s The Lord’s word!—but the fact remains, you choose to hand out the insult.  That you don’t see it that way is forgivable until it has been pointed out to you how it’s insulting.  After that, you’re just being an ass about it.

This is not to say people can’t discuss this without being insulting.  I have a few friends who are devout believers and we often bandy the philosophy without ever getting personal or insulting.  I have to say, though, that without those few people who are demonstrably intelligent about the subject, I would probably categorize all such folks as raving loonies with poor social skills.

To be fair, I know some atheists who are just as offensive.  And while I can understand where it comes from, it never wins any points.

I try—and I’m only human, so lapses occur—ardently to deal with the subject, not the individual.  There does come a point when the question arises “Why do you believe this stuff?” and it does veer off into the personal.  But it’s the ideas I criticize, not the people.

Unless by acting upon their beliefs they cause harm.  Then I get personal.  Boy, do I get personal!

Insulated religious communities, such as some of the splinter Mormon sects who practice polygamy, as far as I’m concerned, are deluded.  Not because they believe in god, but because they feel that belief gives them leave to treat certain people like shit.  Mainly women, whom they view as property.  These little pockets are, for all intents and purposes, little feudal kingdoms with one or a few men at the top dictating to the rest.  I understand the leaders well enough—no matter how they couch their justifications, they are power-hungry bigots who’ve figured out how to feed their addictions.  What I fail repeatedly to understand are all the others who follow them.  What drives someone to surrender their conscience, their will, their choices to be ruled over by a self-serving tyrant?  Unless they like the arrangement they have within the hierarchy, which then makes it just as self-serving to follow, and becomes collusive.  Because it’s a top down, tiered society, and there always seems to be somebody lower down, ending finally with the women and the children, who end up having no say.  The ties that bind are like electrical lines dispersing power.

We’re watching a wonderful thing happen in Egypt.  Democracy might break out in one of the most populous countries on the planet.  They have validated the dictum that people allow themselves to be ruled, that all the power a tyrant has is only what the people give him.  Ultimately, this is true.  The question is always, how abusive do things have to get before the people have had enough.

It’s the next stage that’s worrisome.  The Muslim Brotherhood is waiting in the wings, no doubt, for an opportunity to establish Sha’ria law.  Once that happens, democracy is done.  Sha’ria is autocratic, brooks no debate, and is not amenable to differences of opinion that stray too far—like, for instance, equal rights for women.

Yet to oppress the Muslim Brotherhood is also wrong.  That’s part of what has ultimately undone Mubarak.  It’s hard.  Even here we have to relearn that lesson periodically, that just because we disagree with someone and that someone is disagreeable, we don’t have the right to suppress or oppress them.  It’s more detrimental in the long run to force someone to shut up than any damage they can do by speaking their piece.

If Egypt transforms in the next year into a genuine secular democracy, then we may begin to see the entire Middle East take the same steps.  Iran would likely be the next one, and in that instance it would be a transformation 30 years overdue, since after ousting the Shah that’s where they were heading.  Within a year, the clerics assumed full authority and democracy in any practical sense was gone.  They were able to do this because no one wanted to defy people speaking for god.  Once you hoist that banner, people get chary of challenging your authority, because they might be challenging god.

That is the harm in such beliefs.  I won’t deny much good comes from religion, but in so many instances the tenets of religions have predisposed people to support autocracy, tyranny, and act counter to their own best interests.  The assumption that a given leader is speaking for god and therefore must be telling the truth or could not do anything against the good is naive.  By the time everyone figures out that he’s just using the people’s credulity to gain power, it can be too late.

None of which has any bearing on the truth of the basic assertions.  Whether there is a god or not has absolutely nothing to do with what I’m describing.  What it does have to do with is whether or not one is willing to set that aside in matters of public policy, wherein any use of religion often ends up being a cynical ploy to obtain power or enact laws that may not be for the best.

Anyway, such are the kinds of things that flit through my mind while I’m cleaning up.  Dust motes dancing over synapses. Time for another side of rock’n’roll.

Scene From A Frozen Moment

Winter is not my favorite time of year.  When I was a kid it was different.  Snow was fun (and we had a lot of it then—global warming deniers notwithstanding, a “normal” St. Louis winter used to begin with snow in mid December, between ten inches and two feet of it on the ground pretty much continually through the end of January, sometimes well into February; the last time we had something approximating a traditional St. Louis winter was maybe 1986) and I built snow forts and had snowball fights with the best of them.

Then I started driving and got a job.  Not so much fun anymore.

But despite my curmudgeonly resentment of precipitate winters like this one, I am forced to admit that there is great beauty to be found and the eponymous Winter Wonderland has marvels to offer.

ice-on-japanese-maple.jpg

Now, if only it didn’t last so long…

Because Things Are Forgotten

This is a completely personal anecdote, so take it for what it’s worth.  This is about a defining moment for me in my education as an egalitarian.

Equality is something we talk about, we assume to be the case for everyone, and never really question.  Here, it’s the air we breathe.  It’s not true.  We are not all equal.  And in spite of our all our lip service to the idea of equality under the law or the equality of opportunity, we all know, if we’re honest, that we’re still trying to get to that level.  Probably it’s a function of how well we think our lives are at any given moment.  “If I’m doing all right, there’s no problem.  What are those people over there complaining about?  I don’t see anything wrong with my life.”

Well.

This is about gender equality.  It’s one of the most under-considered things in our present world. When I say that, what I mean is that here, in the West, where we have all but won that particular war, where it is normal to see women in roles that 50 years ago would have caused near-scandal, we have so normalized it that it has become a political topic for talking heads instead of a heartbreaking reality of barriers and stigma and sometimes death, as it is in many places still throughout the globe.

I saw a PBS special last week about early television and on it Angie Dickinson was talking about her series Police Woman.  Breakthrough television.  It had been the first dramatic tv show since the mid-60s to be headed by a female in prime time.  It was shortly before Charlie’s Angels and a decade after both Honey West and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.  During the interview, Dickinson commented that the feminists had been angry with her because she hadn’t used the show as a statement for the cause.  She defended herself by declaring that she was feminine not a feminist—as if being a feminist were somehow a bad thing, a dirty word, a slur.

Which seems to be the case these days among a certain segment of women, many of them too young to remember what it was like when women couldn’t do anything they wanted to.

Here’s my belief—any system that works to stifle an individual’s dreams and goals and sense of self simply because of a biological condition of being (gender, race, etc) is a system in need of reform at best, overturning at worst.  If you say to someone “You may not do this or that because you’re (a) a girl, (b) the wrong color, or (c) differently abled that an assumed norm” then you are being a bigot.

Back in high school, I took a fancy one year to the idea of becoming an architect.  I took mechanical drawing one year, then the next architectural drawing.  I ended up dropping it.  But both classes were entirely male.  This was 1971 and 1972.  I didn’t question it.  Probably like a lot of boys then, I kinda sorta had the notion that girls didn’t do certain things because they didn’t want to.  I don’t know where I got that idea, but to my unformed mind it was the only thing that actually made sense to me.  The only reason I didn’t do things was because I had no interest in them.  All the cultural referents supported this rather passive belief and I didn’t question it.  Not really.  I’d already dismissed the idea that girls were incapable of doing the same things as boys because I’d been reading Heinlein and Schmitz, but that was science fiction and the future.  I hadn’t made the connections yet.

I said both those classes were entirely male.  That’s not quite true.  My architectural drawing class had one girl.  But I didn’t know about her for nearly half of the first semester.

The classroom was a long room with four ranks of drafting tables, all facing the front and the chalkboard.  At the rear was a small room that probably had been a cloak room at one time but now acted as a supply room for the class and was also where the blueprint machine was set up.  Our class was taught by a Mr. Hoppe, who was a short, energetic man with an almost comic stentorian delivery that reminded me a bit of Don Adams.  He liked to roam the aisles, lecturing us about having something when we left high school that would “put folding money in your pocket!”  I liked him.  Everybody liked him.  He was about five-foot-four, dark hair, cleanshaven, with bifocals.

What I did not know was that he was teaching a female.  He had her set up in that utility room with her own drafting table.  I thought this was odd.  What, she didn’t want to hang out with the rest of us?  Was she stuck up or something?

Then one evening I had to go to his classroom to drop off some paperwork, after school hours.  Mr. Hoppe wasn’t there, but three other guys from the class were.  I heard them laughing from the utility room.  I went back and there they were, with this girl’s work spread out.  One of them was sitting at the drafting table reworking some of the drawings while the other two were laughing at what he was doing.

What was he doing?  He was ruining her work.  This wasn’t the equivalent of drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.  No, he was meticulously redoing her drawings and inserting mistakes.

Let me say right here that her work was superb.  I have a talent for drawing and a good imagination and I thought I would make a good architect, but there were some things that just made that unlikely.  One was neatness.  My drawings were generally a mess—smudged, bad lines.  The other was lack of patience, but that’s a problem I have with everything.  But her work was pure art.  Clean, easy to read, detailed, just….beautiful.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I blurted out.

Two of them just stared at me, but the one doing the reworking said, “Teaching the bitch a lesson.”

“You’re gonna get her a bad grade,” I said.  I still didn’t get it.

“Yeah, well, she’s got no business doing this.”

And I still didn’t get it.  I left and the next day I reported it to Mr. Hoppe.  All hell broke loose.  The three guys were booted from his class.  One of them—the one who’d been messing with her work—vowed to get even.  (He tried later, it didn’t work.  It cost him a black eye and a sprained ankle.  This was during my physically fearless period and he frankly never saw what was coming when he called me out.)

This went on all the time, I found out.  Mr. Hoppe was delighted that someone had finally said something, because he told us all, that day, that this girl was his best student, he knew she wasn’t making those boneheaded mistakes, but he’d never been able to catch the vandals.

He actually gave us a feminist lecture.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect it was.  Not because he was a feminist, I don’t think, but because he respected ability above all else.  And she had it, he said, and we should be ashamed of ourselves if we thought it was right to stand in her way just because she was a girl.  He’d been forced to keep her out of the regular class room because time again she would not be left alone to do her work.  The “guys” always sabotaged what she did, either by flirting or by making fun of her or by insulting her.

I admit I was innocent.  I didn’t understand this at all.  It completely overturned what I thought had been going on.  I mean, I knew a lot of girls who didn’t want to do “guy things” and made a show of it, so it just didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t their choice.  That it wasn’t always their choice.

What changed for me that day took years to fully manifest.  As I think back on it, there were a few other girls who had wanted to do certain things that girls “just didn’t do.”  I knew one who wanted to take shop. The whole school denied her access to the courses.  One girl I remember raging at the administration and then a week later announcing to us that she was transferring to a private school where she could pursue what she wanted.

Young women today have different experiences with the world, so often you find them raising their eyebrows at old-school feminists railing at some injustice.  An electric crawl goes up my back when I hear some young female proudly declare that she’s not a feminist and would never be.  I know on some level they’re equating it to fashion, that feminists don’t dress well and never use make-up.  The superficiality of their reaction is probably based on something not much deeper.

It does get tiresome to listen to some old fart going on about how things used to be.  But I hope the old farts never stop.  How else are we to remember what we’ve gained?

My feminism eventually became a marrow-deep belief that we must treat each other like PEOPLE first, male and female maybe not quite second, but never let the gender distinction override our common humanity, and likewise with every other distinction you can name that makes no difference.  We all have dreams and ambitions and no one has a right to tell us we can’t have them because we were born with the “wrong equipment.”

This personal reminiscence has been brought to you by a triggered memory.  Have a good day.

Blind Spots

It’s almost sacrilege to admit to disliking certain things.  People who regard themselves as culturally aware, artistically sensitive, aesthetically sophisticated must occasionally find themselves faced with work that has such apparent popular appeal among those they consider simpatico which they frankly do not care for or do not understand or both.  Uttering their honest opinion can be the equivalent of farting in church.

So they suppress that opinion, perhaps nod politely and even go so far as to find some pseudo-intellectual way of understanding the thing disliked so they can at least be seen as trustworthy within their circles.  It really is a case of the Emperor’s new suit.

I suppose what we’re talking about is a blind spot.  Sometimes you just have a kind of aesthetic aphasia, you really can’t see (or hear) what everyone else is so on about.  You could put it down to taste, but that’s a mild word, connoting a kind of passive difference of opinion.  It fails to describe your true reaction or, more tellingly, the possible sham going on around certain artists.

Years ago I had a conversation with the artist Rick Berry, whose work I both admire and occasionally love, about one of my blind spots—Jackson Pollack.  I gave him my opinion, that this is crap masquerading as art because by now a lot of reputations have been built upon the propagation of the idea that this is somehow Great Art.  I look at a Pollack and I see squiggles.  I watch films of Pollack working and I see advanced fingerpainting in action.  I realize this is a kind of heresy and I’ve often received looks ranging from pity to revulsion for expressing this feeling.

Berry nodded.  He said he’d felt the same way for years.  Then one day, walking through a museum, past a Pollack, he glimpsed something out of the corner of his eye and ended up sitting in front of the painting for a couple of hours.  Since then, he’s grown to love Pollack.  I asked him if he’d come to the conclusion that Pollack was, in fact, a great artist, and he said  “I don’t know, but I know I like it.”

That is unassailable.  It is absolutely personal, it is absolutely subjective, and has nothing to do with any universal qualities in a given piece of work or possessed by a particular artist.  I make a distinction myself between work I think is Good and work I simply like.  They are often the same, but occasionally I like something that I can in no way defend as good.

However, I sometimes wonder at the adulation poured on certain artists for work that is simply mediocre if not an outright scam.  Adulation that transcends the simple metric of “I like it” and goes on to become bodies of apologia, written by people who seem compelled to find a reason, a justification, for liking something that has little to recommend it except as an eccentric appeal.  These people start the avalanche that eventually becomes part of the liturgy of cultural in-group vetting.  To not think this or that is tremendous, brilliant, a work of genius is to be revealed as philistine, sub-par, suspect, common.

This morning I was reading an introduction to a collection of short fiction and the writer listed a string of what he considered geniuses in their fields as a way to place the author of the collection.  Interestingly, I found myself nodding at every name listed—but one. And I thought, what the hell is HE doing in this group?  John Cage.

I know he is the darling of a kind of avant-garde set, but come on.  It’s noise.  He even admitted he was not very adept at actual music.  His “found” soundscapes, while occasionally interesting, lack, to my ear, even the virtue of clever arrangement.  It’s cacophony, chaos, crap.  That it’s frowned upon to point this out in certain groups does not make it less true.  I suspect that in this case it’s not so much that I am failing to “get it” but that there actually isn’t much there to get.

Other blind spots?  I already mentioned Pollack.  My opinion of Picasso has changed over the years.  He really was a very good, very talented artist, but frankly I think he became more a parody of himself over time and much of his work was a running joke, a game to see just how much the art world would take before it threw up its collective hands and declared the work garbage.  I find many of the abstract artists of the second half of the Twentieth Century tiresome.  Form has a function, after all, which is to make something comprehensible.  Breaking rules is all well and good but I think you should know the rules and be able to use them before telling the world that they should be dispensed with.

I’ve written about my aversion to certain musicians, but that really is a matter of taste—I just don’t like the sound of certain voices, but that’s not a criticism of what they’re attempting to do.  (But I draw the line at Tom Waits—the man cannot sing, period.)  I categorically loathe Country, especially C & W, but again, that’s taste.  I recognize ability, structure, form, etc, and can hear good musicianship—I just don’t care for the genre.

But there are composers I’ve frankly never understood the appeal—Charles Ives.  Certainly a great deal of educated command of his medium, but to what end?  A precursor to Cage?  Noise.

The sculptor Richard Serra.  Please.  Rusted plates of iron arranged in clumsy assemblages and purported to be art?  If nothing else, it all looks unfinished, like work begun and abandoned.  But mostly, the art, I suspect, is in the selling.

In my own field, I will never understand the praise heaped on Kurt Vonnegut Jr.  I find him tedious and, frankly, insulting.  I do not read at a fifth grade level and I have never been able to get past the intrinsic condescension in his choice of style, which is to pitch his tone and vocabulary at that level.  He managed the feat of becoming a best-selling writer while ridiculing (a) the genre in which he began (science fiction) and (b) telling his audience how stupid they were.  The brilliance of his vision, of his stories, I can see in the films made from his novels, but they are not so wonderful to justify, in my mind, his approach, which undermines what he tried to do.  At least for me.

The blind spot that has gotten me the most negative reaction is one that I have had since I first saw the work.  Can’t help it.  But when I say this, the reactions are often profound and sometimes horrified.  How can I say this?  How can I not see?  How can I fail to recognize the genius?  How can I not love that work?

Vincent Van Gogh.

To my eye, work done by a marginally talented four year old with fat crayons.  Sometimes the claimed brilliance of color looks flat and lifeless to me.  That he couldn’t sell any it in his lifetime surprises me not at all.

But the industry that has been built on the corpse of this unfortunate man since strikes me as nothing less than the perfect flower of aesthetic cannibalism.  A marvelous job of selling has been done in the 121 years since his death.

(I’ve seen his early work, and his sketchbooks, and what I see is a man whose mental condition slowly robbed him of the skill and ability to do the work he should have done.  I like some of his early canvasses and he clearly had the skill, but the late period work which everyone praises leaves me thoroughly unmoved.)

Blind spots.  Maybe.  My other big one is poetry, which by and large has no affect on me.  Once in a while I hear a piece that strikes me as clever or moving, but the vast majority of poetry does not speak to me.

The thing that intrigues me, though, is this: the social phenomenon of elevating matters of taste to measures of status and worth.  By this mechanism, people become trapped in conditions where they feel unable to express what they really feel if it runs counter to the current vogue.

It is true that art should be free to myriad forms of expression and we should be free to enjoy any and all of them.  That something like the Paris Salon of the mid-19th Century ought not condemn artists to a purgatory of exclusion because they do something different.

But we should also be free to call nonsense nonsense, crap crap, and declare the Emperor naked and defrauded.

The above has been an expression of personal opinion.