On Symbols and Fair Use

When you have a dream about an argument, maybe it has some weight and should be written about.  Recently, I posted a photograph on my Google + page.  This one, in fact:


My caption for it was “What more is there to say?”  Partly this was just to have a caption, but also to prompt potential discussion.  As symbol, the photograph serves a number of functions, from melancholy to condemnation.

It did prompt a discussion, between two friends of mine who do not know each other, the core of which centers on the divergent meanings of such symbols for them and a question of sensitivity.  I won’t reproduce the exchange here, because as far as I’m concerned the question that it prompted for me was one of the idea of “sacredness” and the appropriate use of symbols.

Which immediately sent me down a rabbit hole about the private versus public use of symbols.

Essentially, we all have proprietary relationships with certain symbols.  Since I already posted the image, the sign of the cross is one, and not just for Christians.  As a symbol it has achieved that universality advertisers dream of.  It is instantly recognizable as the sign for a faith movement just about everywhere.  It’s possible some aboriginal tribes in the beclouded valleys of New Zealand don’t know what it is, but on the level of international discourse it carries across all lines.

The public meaning is also fairly clear—it represents an idea and an institution.  The entire apparatus of the Christian faith is symbolized by it, the buildings, the books, the robes, the songs, the defining mythologies, and the philosophical ideas.  Publicly it is by and large regarded as a force for good.  Publicly, the ideas embodied suggest if not entirely represent a fundamental tendency toward morality and a stated ambition to achieve peace, love, and the concomitant positives associated with a redemptive philosophy.

But the private meanings are wildly divergent and stem from  both personal experience and long intellectual examination.  In some instances it is difficult to see how certain conclusions can possibly be based on the same thing.

So the question in my mind is, which is more valid?  Which should be protected?  The public meaning or the private?  And should they be kept separate?

In other words, in relation to the photograph above, does the “sacredness” of the symbol allow for not only a condemnation of the obvious vandalism that broke the stone cross in the first place but also a refusal to countenance sympathetic commentary for the breakage?  For those who find the symbol personally important, such assaults are seen as insensitive.  A violation.  Such sympathetic comments also yield a judgment of the person making the comments.  Obviously, this an antagonistic situation.  But what concerns me here is not so much the antagonism but the mutual rights of the antagonists to use that symbol each in their own way.

Let’s take something more secular.  Flag burning.  Obviously the symbol of the flag is a potent one, and with powerful public meaning.  Just as clearly, there is powerful private meaning and again this personal meaning can be wildly divergent.  And again, the question is, which meaning takes precedence?

More to the point, which meaning should take precedence?

If as some believe the image of the flag should be protected, rendering its use subject to specific prohibitions and allowable uses, does it still have utility as a symbol or have we reduced its capacity to represent ideas?  Or have we simply declared certain ideas related to it illegitimate?

Which goes directly to the question, can an idea ever be “illegitimate” as an idea?

Historically it’s clear that when a state attempts to bar the public dissemination of an idea, depending on the idea in question, an underground almost automatically springs up and suddenly the state has a problem it may not have had before—namely, a resistance movement.  One of the things that made early Christianity so powerful was its official banning by Rome.  The state drove it underground where it could not be observed or tracked and it grew on its own until the movement was so powerful that one day it emerged and became the state.

Like all such movements, it was then faced with exactly the same problem its predecessor faced—ideas it could not tolerate that needed banning.  And like most such movements, it fell right into the trap of political expedience and suppressed the free exchange of ideas.

It didn’t even keep the same symbol.  Originally the fish, the Ichthys, was the primary symbol, and we’ve seen it resurgence today as an alternative to the cross.  (The other prominent symbol came under Constantine, the Chi Rho, which includes a cross as an X overlain on a P, and enjoyed almost continual use as a subordinate Christian symbol up the present.)  But by the early 3rd Century, the cross had become so identified with Christianity that Clement of Alexandria could call it the Lord’s Sign.

As such, it was the banner for the emergent and often militant quasi-secular institution that was the Roman Church.  The fact that it was a Roman form of execution is possibly relevant for this aspect as early on it would have had dual meanings—for many as a sign of punishment more than of sacrifice.  (Interestingly, there is a historical quibble with the cross as symbol based on Jesus’ execution as the Greek word in scripture is stauros, meaning an upright stake, without the cross-beam.  This is a quibble, since it was the Romans who crucified Jesus and the term was crucifixion.  But even in this we see the process of abstracting out meanings for different uses, since the emphasis is placed by Christians on sacrifice and, later, resurrection through the same symbol.)

The symbol has been retasked over the centuries.  As such it demonstrates the natural process by which the free use of symbols serves preferred purposes.  Once the meaning becomes fixed and institutional protections are put in place to guarantee one and only one meaning (publicly) you begin to see a gradual loss of vitality once you step outside the precincts of an agreed-upon iconographic definition.  It is then that institutional problems creep in and a breakdown of original meaning can occur.  If one is using the symbol to define something into existence without regard for what it may mean to others, then you produce a situation in which only two responses to the symbol are possible.  Complete acceptance or complete rejection.

To make arguments of fine distinction becomes a sisyphean task.  To say, for instance, that practices defended by the symbol are not really consistent with that symbol, to those on the outside take on the appearance of special pleading and even self-selected blindness.

Easier to dismiss the symbols and talk about the thing itself.  It is possible for a symbol to obstruct this kind of discourse by insisting on its own unity and, if you will, sacredness.  To criticize the point of contention is then to criticize the entire edifice, good and bad, and this is counterproductive.  For example, return to the whole flag burning question.  When the United States is engaging is actions that citizens regard as antithetical to their idea of “America”, wrapping these actions in the cloak of the flag binds them in with everything that is acceptable, even admirable, about America and makes it difficult to argue that the actions in question are not American—or, as happened during Vietnam, that the people leveling criticism are themselves patriots when they are seen to be criticizing the entirety of America rather than just one set of bad choices, since the choices have been “blessed” by the symbol of the country.  At some point it became necessary to shove aside the symbol since its use in the debate had become obfuscatory and divisive.  The dialogue that needed to happen was hamstrung because instead of being about an immoral war it became about the morality of the whole country, as symbolized by the flag.  Because the flag was held by many to be “inviolate” it became almost impossible for the opposition to use it to effect.  It had been taken out of its own utility because the public meaning had become fixed and ran counter to the private meaning of many of the citizens.

If this sounds like a great deal of abstract nonsense, take another example of the misuse of a protected symbol.

The Swastika, as symbol of the Nazis, was given legal protection by the Nazi regime.  It became illegal to desecrate it in any fashion.  It was applied to all official documents.  It was applied to published speeches, laws, passports, even scientific papers.  it became the absolute public identity of the German people and any dissent or attempts to set aside Naziism and its symbols in a debate over private meaning and public policy was prosecutable.  True, once an outlaw, the law didn’t apply to you, but in order to argue with the symbol and what it stood for, you had to become an outlaw.  It fixed the meaning of Naziism and rendered all dissent illegal.  Documents lacking the symbol were designated illicit.

There is, you see, great danger in “sacrilizing” symbols.

So what has this to do with an argument over sensitivities and judgments?  Since private meaning is exactly that, private, it would seem incumbent upon us to respect that each of us may have experiences and come to conclusions that are entirely at odds with public meanings.  If an expression of that dissension can be labeled insensitive, it can only be valid in the matter of other private meanings.  To claim the public symbol as one and the same with your private meaning as a way of preventing or invalidating critical remarks of the public symbol and its public meaning—by leveling the charge that the critic is being insensitive—can be seen as an attempt to remove the public symbol from the free exchange of ideas, to “fix” its meaning as inviolate even for those who see it as wholly otherwise.  This is hardly fair use since so often a return conclusion is offered about the nature of the critic—a conclusion which may be accurate or may be completely beside the point.  In either case, it is not an invitation to dialogue but a wall built to protect against the possible erosion of private meaning by means of critical examination of public symbols—and their public meanings.

My apologies if this has become a bit abstruse, but it’s a difficult topic to deal with in less than precise language.  The ideal is to always keep in mind the distinction between an idea and the holder of the idea.  Since many people, on both sides of any issue, insist on identifying themselves personally with an idea, this can be a problematic stance.  As many Christians say, “hate the sin, love the sinner,” depending on how closely the sinner identifies with the sin in question this may simply not be possible.  But it’s a start at acknowledging that experience is important and may not be invalidated by simple recourse to symbols—especially symbols that enjoy special protection from criticism.

Anyway, this is offered as a basis for discussion.  It would be interesting to see what comes of it.

Necessary Notes

Couple of things.  One, as noted in the previous post, I’m going to Bouchercon, here in St. Louis this year.  The other event coming up—well, Archon, of course, the first weekend of October, but I always try to be there—will be the local independent bookstores bus tour on October 22nd, via St. Louis Alliance.  I’ll be at the Book House on Manchester Road from 11:00 AM on and then with readers for lunch.  Check the Alliance web page for details.

Today I spent doing some catch-up stuff.  Company left this morning, so I cleaned up a bit, walked the dog, then got together with Scott Phillips in U City for coffee.  Scott’s a great guy and I owe him for hooking me up with my new agent.  He has a new novel out and I urge you all to find it, buy it, read it.  The Adjustment  is prime Scott, quirky, disturbing, funny, and utterly unclassifiable.  (And although I have provided the Amazon link, please buy it from a local, preferably independent bookstore.  If you don’t, I’ll know, or I know people who will know, and once they know, well…)

After that, heading back home, I took a detour to visit a friend I don’t see enough of.  Vicky was home and we spent an hour or so visiting, something I need to do more often.  I’ve known Vicky for mumbles%handovermouth*muffle muffle years and, as with others, time has sort of slipped away and too much has gone by without enough contact.  Yeah, I’ve been busy (and sometimes just in no kinda mood to be friendly with anyone) and so has she, but friends are friends and there’s no real excuse.  If you delay and accept the excuses, one day you go back and find the place overgrown, abandoned, the windows busted, and the door boarded up.


After The Sale


Anyway, I’m back home now (obviously) and doing some more cleaning up and getting a bit annoyed at myself for being disorganized.  There’s more fiction to write, some music to do, and—at the moment perhaps most importantly—a nap that needs taking.  I can see it, right there, lying out in the open, unguarded.  All I need to do is reach out when no one is looking and take it.


Just Getting Up In The Morning

Really, I’ve been up since 5:20 already.  We have company coming into town, so most of the day so far has been taken up with cleaning the house and arranging the guest room—which is at all other times my office.

But I sometimes feel that just being able to get up in the morning and do anything constructive is a minor miracle.  Oh, nothing significant about that thought.  Usually it’s a matter of choosing among several options and then deciding whether I have either the imagination or the energy to tackle any of them.  I often have a period of enervation after completing a novel and the older I get the more intense they seem to be.

I didn’t go to the gym this morning as I normally would have because of the incoming company and other scheduling conflicts.  I’d decided that before I found out about the company, but now I wonder if I’ll manage it Wednesday.  It is too easy to get into a habit of blowing off certain tasks for later.  For instance, I keep meaning to write a new short story (started one yesterday, much to my dismay) or pull out the half dozen I have in rough draft and get them in shape.  As long as there is a novel in process, I can feel righteous about putting them off.  But I have no excuse now other than just not feeling like it.

Not to mention all the things around the house that need tending to.  I do a fair job of keeping up with the entropy, but some things slip by and when I get around to them they have grown in size to unmanageable proportions.  I have to work up to tackling them.  So far, I always do, but there may come a day…

I’m going to Bouchercon.  Since at least two of the projects I have under submission to my new agent (did I tell you about my new agent?  I’m sure I did) are mysteries—though in truth at least half my oeuvre to date has been a hybrid of SF and mystery (I mean, it even says so on the cover of Mirage, Chimera, and Aurora,  an Asimov Robot Mystery), and there are even some noirish aspects to Remains—it seemed sensible to bite the bullet and go to the mystery convention, especially since it’s going to be here, in St. Louis.  The plus also is I get to meet my new agent (did I tell you about my new agent?  Oh, yeah, I did) face to face.

It’s been feeling like this year a number of things are going to get fixed.  All this getting up in the morning has to count for something, right?  But one thing I’ve discovered for certain, and it’s something that had been bothering me—I still love to write.  Since March I have been working long days on two of my novels, both of which have received major revisions.  Hell, the first one was gutted like a fish and rebuilt almost from the bottom up.  But because it felt like it was going somewhere, that something was going to come of it, I dived in and had a ball.  This was important.  I needed to know this, thought I’d been putting off even asking the question.

So getting up in the morning, while still occasionally a pain, has renewed meaning for me.  There’s a point to all this effort and that makes a huge difference.  Good may yet come of all this.

I do need to make better use of my time.  But that’s always been true.  So for now, adieu.  I’m off to make time bleed a little and get some more done.

And The Winners Are…

The Hugo Awards for 2011 have been presented.  The winners are:


  • Best Novel: Blackout/All Clear, by Connie Willis
  • Best Novella: The Lifecycle of Software Objects, by Ted Chiang
  • Best Novelette: “The Emperor of Mars,” by Allen M. Steele
  • Best Short Story: “For Want of a Nail,” by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Best Related Work: Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who
    Love It
    , edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea
  • Best Graphic Story: Girl Genius, Volume 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse,
    written by Phil and Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Inception, written and directed by Christopher Nolan
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: Doctor Who: “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang,” written by Steven Moffat; directed by Toby Haynes
  • Best Editor Short Form: Sheila Williams
  • Best Editor Long Form: Lou Anders
  • Best Professional Artist: Shaun Tan
  • Best Semi Prozine: Clarkesworld, edited by Neil Clarke, Cheryl Morgan, Sean Wallace; podcast directed by Kate Baker
  • Best Fanzine: The Drink Tank, edited by Christopher J Garcia and James Bacon
  • Best Fan Writer: Claire Brialey
  • Best Fan artist: Brad W. Foster
  • John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer: Lev Grossman

Congratulations to all (and a special one to my buddy Allen—this is number three now, I believe).

Republicans, Rent Boys, and Rhetoric

Another outspoken advocate of Public Morals has been caught with a hand slipping into the cookie jar of Craig’s List sex.  Yes, he’s loudly anti-gay and, yes, he’s a Republican.

Now, I don’t for a second believe being a Republican has anything to do with this, any more than I believe being Catholic has anything to do with pedophilic priests.  I think we largely have the cart turned ’round the wrong way.  I think there is something about both organizations that attract such people, and while you can lay full blame on the Catholic Church for coddling these criminals, you can’t really blame them for creating them.  They came pre-flawed, as it were, and merely found a place to flourish.

There are theories.  Heavens, there are theories!

In this particular instance, I’ll go along with a combination of two.  One is the self-loathing of the deeply-closeted gay.  Publicly declaring it perversion, privately unable to keep it under control, and then doing the dumb bit of soliciting for sex via venues that have in the past proved their potential for public exposure.  It’s as if subconsciously they’re crying out “Help me!  Catch me so I can be humiliated into a cure!”  Of course, it doesn’t work that way, but who ever credited one’s subconscious with logic?

The other part is more sinister and has thousands of years of history to back it up and that has to do with the privileges of power.  The assumption that high status comes, automatically, with perks denied ordinary mortals.

Or should be denied them.  Which brings the perversion into it.  Not sexual perversion, but the perversion of presumed status.

See, the powerful have always had access to whatever they wanted, regardless of what the law says.  (Margaret Atwood chronicled this in The Handmaid’s Tale with the visit to the private party where the high mucky-mucks of Gilead get to party down with all the vices they have publicly denied everyone else.  Privilege.

Now I can get with the idea that status confers perks.  I can.  You work your ass off to achieve position, there should be some things open to you that ordinarily wouldn’t be.

But not of the illegal variety.  I’m talking about no waiting at the best restaurants, preferred seating at theaters, powerful people willing to take your call with no fuss, that sort of stuff.

Not crazy sex with rent boys or call girls, which (a) shouldn’t be illegal to begin with and (b) shouldn’t be denied as illicit and perverse.

But I think one of the things about power is this whole “access to the forbidden” aspect that makes what ought to be available to all something to be denied the general public, put in a box of legislative occlusion, and then indulged behind the most closed of doors, because getting away with it is half the thrill.

It seems the loudest proponents of so-called Family Values are the ones most often caught in such hypocrisies.  But if you look at it from the angle of privilege seeking to maintain something solely for itself, then you can look at all of history to make sense of it.  Popes and priests with mistresses, even while condemning the whole notion of adultery and fornication for the unwashed masses.  Aristocrats indulging their every whim, kings keeping courtesans, and let’s not even get into the misuse of young boys.

I do not say that such things never and do not continue to happen at every level of society, but no one pays attention to someone making minimum wage when they bitch about immorality even while they’re fucking their best friend’s wife or diddling their brother’s kids.  Except to put them in jail when they’re caught, at least in the latter instance.  Such people have no ability to effectively shield their behavior.

What to make of all these Republicans who keep getting caught in blatant hypocrisies?  Is it a Republican disease?  Surely not.  Democrats get outed in pecadilloes.  There is a significant difference, though, in the ideologies.  The Republicans have allied themselves to this whole puritanical anti-sex faction and it is often the worst of them in terms of oppressive legislation and rhetoric that get caught doing almost exactly what they condemn.  Not so much with the Democrats.  I don’t necessarily excuse the behavior, but there’s a considerable difference in the level of hypocrisy.

I think there is a fundamental pathology involved with people who so publicly seek to condemn sexual activities and an even deeper one in those who condemn what they themselves indulge.  There’s an obsession with sex that, contrary to the rhetoric, is far deeper than any norm one might acknowledge.  People who condemn it with such stridency are probably so obsessed with it that their public stance can only be seen as that of an addict who wants everyone else to take care of his problem for him.  If it is rendered unavailable to everyone, removed from access, then he (or she, but it seems a condition more of males than females—that may be just an aberration of reporting or maybe the women are more careful, and possibly less hypocritical) won’t be able to indulge, temptation removed.

This is making one’s incapacity to control one’s self everyone else’s problem.

Which is particularly annoying when it shouldn’t be a problem in the first place.

What I suspect some of these loudmouthed moralists would be should they be propositioned by a mature, healthy person who just wants a roll in the sack, is rendered impotent.  Normal consensual sex?  How dare you suggest such a thing!  I think without the flavor of the illicit (and how much better if it were also illegal) it would be…threatening.  There’s no power to wield, this person is here willingly, there’s no way to guarantee control.  And it would be done with a presumption that it’s—gasp!—okay.

I’m remembering Jim Bakker, whose impropriety now is fading into the mists of ancient history, but as head of the PTL indulged himself regularly, but (apparently, and at least in one instance) through the use of ruffies or their equivalent.  When Jessica Hahn, one of his parishioners, dropped the dime on him with the full story, two things happened that I found interesting.  First, all Bakker’s followers blamed Hahn, even though she had been drugged.  Secondly, Hahn apparently discovered that she couldn’t live with the hypocrisy—she liked sex and doing it under the cloak of sinful, illicit ignominy just didn’t play.  (What she subsequently did with her career may be of questionable taste, but she never apologized for it or tried to make herself out to be anything other than herself.)  But as a by-product of the first thing, Bakker was able to receive a public “cleansing” by admitting his sins and “being forgiven”, which I now believe added a layer of thrill.  You can’t experience that thrill if you don’t do anything wrong, so…

Run down the line of such preachers and you see the same pathology as I described with these moralizing politicians. The ultimate was Jimmy Swaggart, whose weeping performance before his followers was disturbing on so many levels—but if seen as part of the thrill may make perfect sense.

I’m not sure the genie will ever be put back in the bottle, and for that I’m glad.  But these folks keep trying.  Unless sex is dirty, I’m guessing, it just isn’t as much fun.

Nor is it a perk.  If everyone can do it, without guilt, freely and consensually, where’s the special privileges for becoming powerful?

I think we would all do well to stop voting for people who run for office on any kind of sexual morality platform.  Public health is different, but these folks aren’t combining the two.  If anything they’re making it worse, with their jihad against contraception and this nonsensical abstinence only education, which has been repeatedly shown to not work.  They are doing the country a disservice.

Besides, it’s getting boring.  Utterly predictable, and as boring as the evolution/creationism debate.  Which, oddly enough, the same people seem to be involved in…


Our Dreams Are Sleeping

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is my favorite science pop star. He is right up there with Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan in terms of ability and scope and style when it comes to explaining science to the public. I’ve heard that a follow-up mini-series to Sagan’s superb Cosmos is in the works with Tyson as the narrator.

After this, I have to say, I love this guy:

Back in the Seventies, Robert A. Heinlein testified before congress about the benefits of the space program—the ones people don’t generally know about. Among some of them was the surprising fact that suicides among seniors was sharply down since the Gemini program and the announcement of the Apollo program. Years later I noted that suicides were back up after several cancellations.

We do not pay enough attention to dreams anymore. I don’t know what happened to us. Even in the dark days of McCarthyism we dreamed big dreams. What, have we suffered exhaustion? Possibly. But the more we gut the things that make people give a damn about getting up tomorrow, the worse everything is going to be. It is not all about money, as some would have us believe. Money is a tool. What are we doing with it? One part of our society seems bent on destroying the mechanisms of improvement for the average American while the other part seems unable to make a stand and say stop the carnage. One part has convinced another part that the problem is all about government redistribution of wealth and we should end entitlements and cut out all this useless spending and let private enterprise do everything. As far as I can see, right now, all private enterprise is interested in doing is building more casinos and feeding larger dividends to people who don’t want to pay taxes to support the dreams of the country.

It might help, though, if we actually had some dreams again. Time to wake them up and let them play. Before we forget how.

Textures and Other Ways

Marty Halpern has an anthology coming out, filled with alien contact stories.  I think it’s going to be a really cool book, not just because one of my stories will be in it, but because everyone else who is in it is a really good writer, and, well, Marty has been doing blog posts about each story.

Here’s the one for mine.  But check out the rest of them, too, and then plan on buying the anthology when it comes out.  It would make a great Christmas gift, a whole book full of bizarre, well-written, idea-rich alien contact stories.  Remember, too, you need to buy multiple copies—one for the office, one for your bedside, one for the bathroom, and one to carry with you, and one to give to a friend.

Oh, and the title of the anthology—ALIEN CONTACT—coming out from Nightshade Books.

Playing Jazz, part three

Steel-trap smiles made room on the stage, a shuffle of seats, a place where chances die or lives are made, all the welcome of the seen-it-befores and the willingly-impressed, squeezed into a need for the new, hope for discovery, and fear of not-good-enough.

The room itself prepared for betrayal, but the ears plugged back into the main artery, on the off that something might open a vein or just shut out the silence.

The Kid opened his case and took out a pair of hands.  Everyone gasped at the tendons and callouses, the length of the reach and the curl of long use.  He attached them and flexed them and came up to the group and sat down with a comfort way past his years.

Staves crossed, he danced over a brief history of composition, plainsong to Bach and right over romance he played straight into cool.  I heard chords buried under atonal cadences, squeezed between whole-tone and free jazz, unplayed references to Jellyroll, stride, Lester Brown, syncopated against voices lofted on solid riffs, the gifts of Bird found one long, strung-out night, reforming on Miles, scampering with Chick and Herbie, and soaring to Bop.


He told us: sevenths took me out of thirds and they expelled me from the nursery.  On the street a big smiling wind showed me how to flatten my fifths and from there it was only a bus ride to the Village and the Vanguard and Birdland.  In the lower shoals, all eddied with mist and restless listening, the minor blues found release in an augmented major cool that fused with a life beat ignored by the timid, scorned by the comfortable, and recovered by archaeologists of ancient sighs.  It talked to me, whispered secrets, and taught me how to read the palimpsests of harmonies down to the bare rock surface of the first language.  I can tell you this much, what I’ve gleaned from all those notes passed sub rosa between classes, that it’s nothing alone and everything together.

It’s the conversation that counts, the contact that matters, so talk to me now and let’s play some jazz.