Denial of Agency and Being Off Base

Recently I participated in a brief exchange on Shelfari that annoyed me.  On a science fiction thread a commenter said he (or she) had recently read Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and had enjoyed it even though the fictional conceit was off base.  I asked why and the response was  “His worldview is off-base because it is humanistic – it excludes God.”

That annoyed me.  Actually, it pissed me off.  The exchange ran a little while and then I suggested it be moved or abandoned.  The admin allowed that it was a troublesome thread and it would be better to just stop it.  I withdrew (except for one more exchange about why it had troubled me since as it continued it turned into a typical “does god exist” thread.  My annoyance was with the assumption that stories can be judged automatically off-base because they don’t take into account a particular belief.

When pressed, the original commenter admitted that it was Asimov’s world view in general that was the problem—which means that the beliefs (or disbeliefs) of the author were used a priori to judge the quality of the stories.

Here’s the problem with that:  fiction is about the human condition and the writer is responsible for getting the character and interactions within a story right.  In other words, to tell the truth about people, how they feel, what they do, why they think or act certain ways.  To do this, the writer must imaginatively assume the viewpoint of the characters (to greater or lesser degrees) in order to treat them honestly so what is then written about them is a true picture.

To do that, the writer must be an observer, a very accurate observer, a student of people, of humanity, even of civilization and culture.

To claim that a writer cannot write truthfully about the human condition unless he/she already holds a particular world view is sheer, slanderous nonsense.  At its most basic, it suggests that to hold a particular world view might guarantee that a writer not only can but will write the truth, and that simply doesn’t follow.

But further, it suggests that the truth of human beings is hidden from a writer who doesn’t believe a particular way.  Extend that, and you can take the position that a writer of any other religious view must be incapable of writing accurately and truthfully about people as compared to  a writer who holds a preferred view.  You are immediately immersed in the unsolvable debate over which view is the Truth (capital T) and which false.  Or, furthermore, you would have to accept that a believer would be incapable of writing as honestly about atheist characters, since that is a world view not shared.

We would, very simply, be unable to speak honestly and truthfully to each other.

One would have to accept that stories written (truthfully, honestly) by a believer would somehow be different than stories written (honestly, truthfully) by an unbeliever.  But that would deny the universality of human experience.

On a meaner level, this is a denial of agency.  It’s very much like the argument put forth by those who think Shakespeare is a pseudonym for another author, one of which is the Earl of Oxford.  The argument says that “William Shakespeare” lacked the education and aristocratic sensibility to have penned works of such insight about nobility.  This completely discounts the richness of imagination writers must apply to any subject of which they lack first-hand knowledge.  It says I, if I were Shakespeare, could not possibly have imagined what I wrote and told the truth so accurately because I didn’t possess the proper “world view.”  You can see this argument used against any author or group of authors another group (usually not authors) seek to deny validation.

(I suggest finding a copy of the late, great Joanna Russ’s How To Suppress Womens Writing  for a detailed examination of this process.)

It suggests two things that are false—one, that there are human experiences to which only select groups are privy and that no one on the outside can possibly know about, and two, that human experience is not universal on some basic level that underlays all successive experiential additions.

If a religious writer wrote truthfully about two people falling in love and an atheist wrote about the same two people, and both told the truth of what they observed and described the experience of those two characters honestly, how might they differ?  For either of them to make the case, within the story, that their world view mattered in the telling of human truth, the author would have to intrude and, to greater or lesser degrees, proselytize.  You would end up with a bad story at best, propaganda at worst.

Throw a dozen or two dozen stories on a desk without attribution.  No one knows who the writers are.  Tell me what the beliefs are of the author of each story.  (This presumes excellent stories, truthful stories.)  The idea that an atheist, a humanist, would write “off base” stories because of their world view is a denial of agency.  What that says is that no writer not a believer could write a truthful story about believers, or that a believing writer could not possibly write a story about atheists.


On the question of whether the universe would be depicted differently, well now that is a bit more interesting, but the fact is that the universe is how it is and both atheist and believing scientists see it, measure it, explain it pretty much the same way.  They may argue over first causes, but in the advent of thirteen billion years since that event, both see the cosmos essentially the same way.  Atoms operate the same way for both, gravity is the same for both, the life and death of stars…

But in fact, it was not the stories that prompted that initial remark, but a knowledge of the author’s world view that colored the perception.  (Of course this is one more reason I tend to tell people that if they really love an artist’s work, see, hear, read as much of the work as possible before finding out anything about them.  The personal facts of an artist’s life can ruin the appreciation for the work.)  This is a dishonest gage.  It sidesteps the only valid metric, which is, does this story say true things about people?

I won’t go so far as to say that a writer’s world view doesn’t affect the work.  The whole point of doing art is to express personal opinions about subjects.  But at the level of good art, all authors’ work must hold up in the court of truth, and to suggest that certain world views de facto  prevent someone from telling the truth about the subject at hand is overreaching at best.  You can certainly say of certain writers “his/her beliefs so color their work that it is skewed from truth” but it is not correct to say “these beliefs guarantee that their work will be skewed from truth.”

It also suggests that personal experience can be disingenuous at its core if it leads to conclusions inconsistent with a preferred world view.

Denial of agency indeed.



It’s Not About Sex

Rick Santorum answered a question put to him by a serving gay soldier about what he would as president do with the new policy and Santorum did not go off-script. But he did make two mistakes that seem to be endemic in this kind of thing.

Here’s the video:

Firstly, he makes it sound like gays have been asking for “special privileges” in this. Why is this so difficult for people to understand? They have not been asking for special privileges, they have been asking for the same privileges. Of course, there’s a secondary problem in even that—we aren’t talking about privileges, but rights, and I hate it when politicians so smoothly degrade rights into privileges for the purposes of making points with constituents. Gays have been asking for the right to serve their country in the military, openly, as themselves, the exact same way straights do.

The second problem with his answer is the profound naivete he exhibits—as if you can keep sex out of anything. It’s possible he can be excused for not understanding what a barracks is like, he never served in the military, but he could ask! Like any locker room, military barracks’ drip with sex and sexual conversation. It’s a given. You may not like it, but it’s reality. (And in combat, it’s even more so—threat of death ramps up the sexual consciousness of human beings, Darwin telling you that you’re being an idiot for putting yourself in danger and the first thing you need to do if you survive is go reproduce.) The daily, quite normal discourse in military units is something gays have simply not been able to participate in unless they lied about who they were.

Santorum then trots out the old mantra that the military is no place for social experimentation, demonstrating ignorance of our history—which has been a hallmark of this crop of Republican presidential candidates, either because they genuinely don’t know or they willfully distort it to validate the myths their constituents wish to believe. The United States military has been a testbed for social experimentation almost since the beginning, because it does not function as a democracy (although it did that, too, till after the Civil War—direct election of officers by the men they would lead was common). Just for one example was Truman’s desegregation of the army and navy, which came with similar prophecies of doom and chaos.

Of course, this was necessary because the military had already been desegregated in the wake of the Civil War, as was the federal government, until Wilson re segregated it. (Yes, good ol’ Woodrow Wilson was a righteous racist—we forget that, among other things.) The military was used as a testbed for coed service and is still wrestling with the idea of women in combat (they have been there all along, unacknowledged). The military has always been used to test run social ideas.

I don’t like Rick Santorum. I think he’s a hypocrite of the first water, like many of his GOP colleagues, and I’ve written about why I think he’s a hypocrite. But he’s only one of the most extreme examples of an endemic problem in the GOP, which is that they seem incapable of acknowledging the validity of rights for people they don’t like. They hammer on about the constitutionality of this or that and then strip away those rights from people who don’t fit their description of Americans. This has been their problem for a long, long time, but it’s growing to overwhelm them philosophically.

I once characterized the difference between Democrats and Republicans thus: Republicans believe citizens are those who own property while Democrats believe anyone who lives here legally is a citizen. It’s a rough metric, but damn if the GOP doesn’t keep trying to make it true in all instances. They have taken on a version of stakeholder politics that demands they protect the rights of a shrinking constituency in the face of a growing pool of people who don’t fit that profile. But in this instance they’re going a step further and stating that people who do not fit a standard issue description of the ideal American ought not to expect the same rights—which in this formulation they insist on calling privileges.

But what genuinely disturbs me is the audience reaction. The cheers of the crowd when Santorum spews this sanctimonious and inaccurate drivel. Those people frighten me. They’re the ones who would approve of the police in the dead of night coming for those they don’t like, completely unaware that a change of adjectives in the policy would make them just as vulnerable to this kind of censure. They really don’t seem to grasp the underlying issues. In this case, all they seem to grasp is that they think two men having sex or two women having sex is yucky and on that basis there should be a national policy to keep them from equal rights. They really don’t seem to understand that it’s not about sex. Not at all.

By the time they figure out what it is all about, I hope we have a country left for them to correct their mistakes. That may be a bit hyperbolic, but just listen to the cheers.

Time For A New Photograph

Long time ago, when I was but a teen, maybe right on the cusp, just getting interested in photography, my father and I sat up one evening to watch a PBS thing about Ansel Adams.  To this day I cannot find that film—it included a project of his photographing a Hispanic family living on a scrub farm, very rural, lots of kids.  He was working with both 4X5 and a Hasselblad.  It was a detailed film, taking the viewer through the whole process, from shutter-click to processing, to printing.  It had a substantial impact on me and I would like to find that film again, but I’ve even been to the Ansel Adams Museum in San Fransisco and they profess not to know what I’m talking about.  I doubt I dreamed it—until that point I had no idea who Ansel Adams was.

In any event, there was a tone and approach to the whole enterprise that impressed me.  The man was meticulous, an artist, and he said the word “Photograph” with a kind of reverence that has stuck with me.  They weren’t “pictures”, certainly not “snapshots”, but PHOTOGRAPHS, spoken with a breathy exhalation on first consonant.  I came to associate the word with the best work, the images that really seem to work.  By that token, I have made very few photographs in my life, at least according to the standards I maintain.

But I’ve reached a point where even the effort to make one merits the appellation, so I tend to call every image I make that is supposed to be serious art (whether it succeeds or not) a Photograph.  Vanity on my part.

For instance:


I’d like to flatter myself that this is the kind of image that merits the term.  It’s about the symmetry, the balance of the spaces, and the range of tones.  It takes something ordinary and attempts to transform into both a concrete record and an abstract.  Using black & white strips the image to its compositional elements while at the same time the tonal treatment yields nuance.

Lot of hyperbolic nonsense there.  The main thing is, I like it, it appeals to me, and I hope it’s the kind of thing that will reward multiple viewings.  Like any piece of art, the test is whether or not it exhausts itself after one exposure or if it will stand up to repeated inspection.  That I can’t answer.  Not yet.  A lot of my photographs I enjoy looking at still, many of the older black & whites especially.

Oh, that’s another thing.  I tend to think of a Photograph as black & white.  This is prejudice, pure and simple, and early programming.  I have to consciously regard color works as Photographs—and I do—but when I hear the word I immediately, automatically, think black & white.  Apologies to all the very fine color photographers out there.

Anyway, I thought I’d blow my trumpet this morning and indulge a little self-image fantasizing.  Now we can all return to what we were before.  Thank you for your attention and kind consideration.

The Final Solution

No, this isn’t about The Holocaust (capital H) but about something more gradual, systemic, and pernicious.

Georgia is about to execute Troy Davis.  He was convicted of killing a cop.  There are irregularities in the case, namely a majority of “witnesses” have since recanted their testimony.  The rest of the evidence is circumstantial at best, but the state of Georgia is going to kill him anyway.  He was tried, found guilty, sentenced, and his last appeal was denied.

I have a simple, unsentimental reason for opposing the death penalty.  You can’t take it back.

Here is a list of the people exonerated from Death Row since 1973.  From the late 80s on, DNA has become an important factor, but it is a relatively minor one.  Chief factors include witness recantation, capture of the “real” perpetrator, or review of the trial and findings that the State had done a shabby job.

I do not have a problem with the idea that some people may deserve to die.  Life, in and of itself, is not sacred to me.  It simply is.  And we make choices, some of them bad, and decisions get made that have consequences, and people should be held accountable for their actions.

If I walk into my home and find someone there, uninvited, who is raping my wife, has killed my dog, and will likely kill my wife when he’s finished, and I can do so, I will kill him.  I have no moral qualms about that, nor any question about my right to do so.  (Yes, I will probably have to go to counseling afterward, because the taking of a life under any circumstances is a Big Deal.)

But if I come home and find my dog and wife dead already and a month later someone is arrested for it, tried, and convicted of the crime, I do not want him to receive the death penalty.  Maybe that sounds perverse, but it comes down to two simple caveats:  the State tries and convicts innocent people all the time and I do not have 100% confidence that they can do better and if I can’t be 100% sure, I don’t want someone being sure on my behalf, not in something as final as this.

But secondly, I don’t want the State to wield that power.  Certainly it can be argued that certain crimes are so bad that only death may be proper, but laws change and the crimes under which death is dealt can be determined by politics as much as by justice.  I want the State barred from applying that penalty in all cases because I do not trust that only those crimes with which I may have sympathy will receive it.

In short, basically, if I catch the son-of-a-bitch doing the crime and put him down, that’s fine.  After the fact, I will settle for incarceration because I do not want the State to have the power of life and death, especially since they do not use it fairly, nor is the system sufficient to guarantee they kill only the criminal.  Obviously they do not.

By the same token, I do not have the right to go on my own hunt for someone with the view to exact vengeance.  If the State can’t get it right, how can I?  If I miss the chance by not being there when it is done, I can’t recover it and acting on my own is as bad as the State screwing up.

There are countries where the death penalty is used for adultery or blasphemy.  No, we don’t do that here.  But we do have it for treason, and that, it seems to me, is rife for misapplication.  Society changes, politics is fickle.  We don’t kill people for having sex out of wedlock or cursing or suggesting certain ideas aren’t true.  Today.  I’d rather we begin to accept as a principle that the death penalty is never appropriate and find some other way to deal with our urge for vengeance—because that’s all it really is.  We’ve killed a lot of innocent people with it because we were angry.  Not just.  Angry.

And you can’t take it back if you find out you had the wrong guy.

Bouchercon 2011

So I have now attended a Bouchercon.

I’ve attended so many SF conventions that they’ve become, if not normal, at least comfortable.   I pretty much know what to expect.  Bouchercon, while in many ways similar to an SF convention, is different enough that I felt like a newbie and a bit like an outsider.  I don’t know the players, I don’t know all the rules, and I didn’t know what to expect.

There were no costumes, no gamers, no room parties (at least not open room parties), no art show, and an absence of what I like to think of secondary and tertiary effluvia in the dealers room—that is, tables of jewelry and fake weapons and action figures and the like.  The dealers room was almost all books.  There were a few DVDs and CDs, but 95% of it was books and magazines.

By Saturday I felt pretty comfortable.  These are people gathered together for the love of a genre and some of the conversation on the panels bridged the gap to SF, confirming that the critical divisions are not between genres but with an Academic snobbery that basically says if it isn’t James Joyce or Hemingway or Pynchon, it’s garbage.  I understood that and subsequently I could talk to these folks without a translator.

I got to chat (briefly but not frivolously) with Val McDermid and Laura Lippman.  I did attend one publisher’s party, but I ended up leaving soon after arriving because I simply couldn’t hear in the crowd.  An age thing, I think, I’m beginning to lose the ability to separate out voices in groups.

Bought too many books.  Again.  But then I brought more than twice as many as I bought home—there is a big publisher presence in the form of free copies.  I have stacks to go through.

As to that, I feel like I’m starting over.  I am profoundly under-read in mystery and thriller.  I recognized many names but then there were so many more I had no clue about.  But that makes it kind of exciting.  I really do have ideas for this kind of fiction.  It will be great to have a chance to write some of it.

As to whether or not I’ll go to another one…that depends on the status of the career.  Next year’s Bouchercon is in Cleveland.  The year after that, Albany, then Long Beach, and then Raleigh.  If I’m doing well enough, quite likely we’ll go to couple of them.  Wish me luck.