Right To What?

This is a purely political post. Sort of. Maybe a bit philosophical. Anyway, you’re all sharp, you can figure it out.

I’m voting No on this proposition A thing. Right To Work.  For decades we’ve been seeing this pushed on us in Missouri and it always fails, but with the current climate of “throw everything out” that seems to dominate a lot of popular thinking, the proponents are wearing the rest of us down.

A simple fact: workers in right to work states make less on average.  This is not rocket science. They have a weaker collective bargaining base, the unions lack resources because non-members are often entitled to receiving the same representational benefits without having to contribute, and overall unions are simply less present in such states. Here is a good overview if you’re interested.

Now, when presented with the idea that we all have a “right to work” and should not have that right hindered by the requirements of union membership, it sounds pretty righteous to certain people. Yeah, just who do those guys think they are making me pay dues just to “allow” me to have a job? It sounds so reasonable.

You have to accept a couple of things for this to make any sense. The first, that Management has workers’ interests in mind. Ever. Some do, it’s true, but historically workers take close to a last place position in the priorities of employers, because they have all these fiscal details they have to take care of. And if the company is large enough to have shareholders, guess who’s first in line for consideration? Again, this is not rocket science.

If workers do not insist on fair treatment they will not get it. They will be treated as parts. And to insist on fair treatment without some kind of weight behind the insistence only results in unemployment.

The ethical or philosophical basis of “right to work” may have its positives, but the reality is that abandoning collective bargaining and legislating against it and stripping unions of their ability to function effectively benefits only one group. Because “fairness” aside, it ought to be obvious that for the last 50 years the erosion of unions has resulted in our current antagonistic relationship between corporations and employees to the detriment of employees.

It’s not just pay, either. Without collective bargaining and contract law setting the terms, businesses can fire at will for any reason. That’s what they’re trying for.

It should also be put to rest that corporations are “struggling” to meet payrolls. There are many examples of companies that pay well for similar work and do better than their penurious competitors (Costco for one).  When you see annual reports from companies that see profits going ever upward, often at the expense of their employees, the lie should be obvious.

Now, what is reasonable is the notion that some kind of reform needs to take place in this relationship, but meaningful reform will not happen if you give all the power to just one side. Whether we like it or not, profits drive decision-making, and shareholder benefits will always outweigh workers’ rights unless there is the force of contract law brought to bear. You cannot do that without viable union involvement, and things like Proposition A are nothing but an attempt to render harmless union power.

But for a moment, let’s look at that phrase, Right To Work. Rarely has there been a better example of doublespeak. Firstly, while such a right may be argued to exist, it’s a meaningless right when all the other factors are brought into play.  Like qualifications. You may well have a right to work but if there is no work available that you can do, it doesn’t mean much. By phrasing it as a “right” it sounds like it should be in the constitution—but if it were, more likely than not we would have a federal workers union at a national level, because securing rights has always—always—been a matter of forcing someone to concede them. The average employee at a nine-to-five job is not, much as some might wish to construe it, an independent contractor. No company negotiates individual contracts with its hires. No company would unless forced to.  And it’s not as if the people this is targeted at are not employed. Many, probably most, are.

There is no “right” to work. There is opportunity. But no right. Not unless it is made. Because of the nature of work and business and employment in this country, if there were such a right it would obligate the very people who want to strip it from you to provide employment regardless of circumstance.  The proponents of Proposition A know this perfectly well, so their arguments in support of it are lies.  This is not about your rights but their privileges.  This about securing companies a right to reduce payroll, lay off with impunity, and require longer hours and provide fewer benefits. Period. At best, this would be a right to do the same work for less pay.

This is of a piece with all the other moves in recent times to simply secure larger pay-outs to shareholders, which is what has already happened with the new tax cuts. We keep getting told this will allow companies to invest more and hire more people—and it rarely happens. Most job growth comes from start-ups or from major refocusing by existing companies changing what they do. For the most part, none of these companies need more employees. There are exceptions. Construction right now has a shortfall of available workers, but again there are other factors involved in that than union meddling.  Instead, what we see, time and time again, is pay-outs to shareholders instead of that much predicted and rarely delivered reinvestment.

Stop believing they have your interests at heart. Some might well feel an obligation, but the nature of business in this country makes such people vulnerable to  all manner of piranha-like behavior on the part of their competition. What they would have you believe is something like this: “Let us take away your ability to force us to pay a fair wage and provide benefits and as a reward we will pay you even more!” There is no reality where that is remotely plausible. What is needed is a reassessment of how we do business with an eye toward reducing some of the predatory models that force us into these narrow defiles of limited-resource thinking.

Now, a personal disclaimer. I have never worked for a company as a union member. I’ve worked for one large company that had no union and was very aggressive at preventing unionizing. The history of that company is instructive. It began as a local business and grew to have a number of outlets. They paid a reasonable salary and provided commissions on high-dollar items. The sales force was happy. The local owner got old and sold the whole thing to a national company, which promptly cut wages in half and eliminated commissions. Most of the seasoned staff left and the company then took to hiring younger workers they knew would only be there for a short time because of the low pay. They saw no benefit in nurturing a staff. They didn’t care. After working for them for 14 months, I got a .10 an hour raise—and my hours were limited to 37 a week so there was never a possibility of overtime. The new company was based in Texas, which had been a right to work state since 1947.

To wrap up, I’m voting no. I might sympathize with some of the philosophical notions underlying the idea, but as far as I’m concerned a whole lot else has to change to constrain corporations before I’ll believe any good will come out handing over power through legal fiat and trusting the other side will play fair.

Shibboleths, Canards, and Popular Myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Will of the People…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope we have all learned that this time.

Now, go vote.

Harlan

Some people just get in.

In this instance, though, the process was years at work.

Harlan Ellison died on June 28th, 2018, and I have been off-balance, riled, and melancholy ever since I saw the first notice, at work, doing something else on-line. It had been coming for a while. He was not well. He was never going to “recover” from the last few years. A stroke had wreaked havoc with him, although it had left him with access to all his faculties. This was expected. Nevertheless, it came as a shock, if not a total surprise, and the aftershocks have been working through me ever since. This one hurts. Deeply.

How, exactly, did this happen? I did not know the man so well. If I had to guess, I would say we had spent less than a week of actual face-to-face time together. We had spoken on the phone a total of maybe twenty hours in a number of years. I’d written him a few letters and he had written back. And yet, at least on my part, I counted him as a friend. I know that can happen, that people can know each other a very short time and somehow create a connection which, with other people, would ordinarily take years to build. It may well be only on my part, but I don’t think so.

How, I ask again, did this happen?

Well, there was this review I wrote about the documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth. But it didn’t really start there.

Back in my youth, I used to read all the SF magazines. From time to time I’d come across a story that stood out. Zelazny, Silverberg, Tiptree. Those kind of stories. Among them were fey pieces by this guy Harlan Ellison that troubled me. They troubled me because while I read them eagerly and felt moved by some of them, I suspected I didn’t really “get” them. These were not like most of the other stories. In fact, they weren’t like any of them, really. And they bothered me. So much so that at about age 15 or 16 I swore off them. If I stumbled across a Harlan Ellison story, I avoided it. I was uncomfortable with them, they disturbed me in ways no one else’s work did.

And I more or less forgot about him.

I was unaware of scenarists back then. When the credits rolled on a tv show or movie, I never paid much attention to the Written By. Or much else other than who was acting in it. I was dimly aware that the Star Trek episode which has subsequently come to be regarded as the best of the original series was different. For one thing, when I saw it the first time I was startled by a curse word. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Kirk says. That was practically unheard of on television then. That “hell” stood out.

But what did it mean? The rest of the episode stuck with me more clearly than most of the other episodes, but then time passed and everything else piled on top, and I forgot.

I had no knowledge of Fandom then. I was ignorant of that world, so the controversies being generated by this guy who had written stories that bothered me enough that I avoided them were unknown to me. The next time his name crossed my awareness was in the pages of OMNI when I read two things. One was a short story, called On The Slab and the other was a profile of an attempt to turn Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot into a film, and Harlan Ellison was going to adapt it. Harlan Ellison. I remembered that name. Why did I know that name? Oh, yeah, he wrote those weird, unclassifiable things that bothered me. Huh.

In 1980 I met my partner, who read the rather malformed things I’d written and encouraged me to try to publish them, and suddenly I was fully invested in this science fiction thing. Friends told us about conventions and we started going. We began meeting people. Joe Haldeman, Phyllis Eisenstein, George R.R. Martin, Rob Chilson, Vic Milan, C.J. Cherryh. I started submitting stories and I began paying closer attention to the magazines again, trying to divine the secrets of writing this stuff. The first convention we went to was Archon 6 and we heard stories about the one and only world science fiction convention that had been held here and Harlan Ellison figured prominently in relation to it. We listened to these stories and wondered, “Who is this guy?”

In the 1980s a new publishing line came out, Bluejay Books, and they reissued Ellison’s work with marvelous new covers, and I bought them and started reading them.

And suddenly they were not off-putting. Maybe I had grown into them. Maybe it required more of me than I had at 12 or 14 or 16. Maybe I was paying attention to Other Things. Whatever the reason, I tore through them, unable to get enough, amazed and awed and startled and terrified and intimidated and thrilled. I wrote a review of them (which never got published) which involved dinner of crow. Harlan Ellison’s work suddenly ranked alongside Bradbury, Sturgeon, Zelazny. I’d missed this way back when, I hadn’t understood, but it filled me up then. It might have been that I was in the process of trying to do this thing and was open to influences in a way I had never been before.

During this time, we’d become friends with another writer, Ed Bryant, who was one of Harlan’s best friends, and we heard more stories. At our first worldcon we got our first look at the man himself when, at L.A.Con II he made a surprise appearance in order to honor his first editor on stage during the Hugo ceremony. We picked up some of his nonfiction there and I became acquainted with that side of him.

Gradually, almost glacially, we became Aware. We found out about the Enemies Of Ellison (what?) and his involvement with Clarion (the workshop) and started hearing about his public contentiousness, the dispute with Roddenberry, the activism, the rumors, the extremes he generated in people. No other writer seemed to do these things or spark this kind of response. Piece by piece, a portrait assembled, but how could you trust it.

It’s fascinating sometimes to realize how much information one can accrue by means, vectors, and sources one is often completely unaware of. We saw him again in 1986, in Atlanta, and spent about four hours in an auditorium listening to him, both solo and then, when he ran over, in a panel which had been physically moved to that auditorium in order to have Harlan on it. We had had an exchange of dialogue that day over a book I’d bought in the dealers room (the only time a writer told me I should get my money back for a book with his name on it), and somehow we knew that he had found his soulmate, Susan, and she was with him, and Donna opined that it seemed she had calmed him somewhat.

How did we know that?

I applied for Clarion the next year and was accepted into the 1988 class. I had a book, Phoenix Without Ashes, by Ed Bryant and Harlan Ellison. Ed had signed it for me years before. Ed happened to be in town one weekend to help a mutual friend of ours move. He lifted that book and sent it to Harlan for his half of the autograph. (Ed was a wonderful, kind man.)

And somewhere during that time, he had become Harlan.  Just Harlan. To my knowledge, he’s the only writer I know of who is recognizable by his first name, at least the only writer of fantastic fiction so known. But how did that happen, that somehow a certain presumption of intimacy had occurred? Except for that one occasion in Atlanta, we never never met, did not know each other. (Not that unusual, though, many people who have never laid eyes on him call him “Harlan” as if they know him.)

More stories, more essays. He was by then a regular part of my reading.

Clarion happened. I began publishing. I rarely thought about “Harlan Ellison” unless I came across a new story or new collection, but Harlan had become part of a gestalt associated with my writing, a background presence.

We heard about the heart attack.

Then in 1999, Allen Steele suggested we come to Massachusetts for Readercon. Harlan was going to be guest of honor. He and Allen were buddies. We could finally meet.

We went. It was an incredible weekend. I had a chance to sit and talk to Harlan, to watch him, to see what all the fuss was about. And to hear him read aloud. That was a treat. Few writers are good public readers, but Harlan was incredible.

Allen introduced us. Harlan was talking to Gene Wolfe, whom we know slightly, and Allen brought me up and said, “Hey, Harlan, I’d like you to meet my friend, Mark Tiedemann.” Allen then proceeded to recite a list of my publications.  I am perversely shy about that, more so then, and I cut him off with a self-effacing, “Yeah, I’ve all over.” Harlan, without missing a beat, said “Oh, yeah? What’s it like in Tuva?” My brain skipped a beat. One of the few times in my life under circumstances like that it caught up and somehow pulled an answer up. “Very flat and cold, but if you’re into monotoned nasal music, they’ve got a great scene.”

Harlan said nothing for about five seconds, then cracked up, stuck his hand out to shake mine, then said “When were you last there?”

But my powers of repartee deserted me then and I had no reply.

Saturday night that weekend, I was wandering the hotel late. About to give it up and go back to my room, I waited before the elevators. The doors opened and a crowd poured out, led by Harlan as they made a beeline for one of the function rooms, which the hotel opened up so they could continue the party which had gotten them booted from a room on the fifth floor. I was swept up in the throng, carried into the room, and ended up sitting two down from Harlan, who was regaling his audience still with jokes and stories. (Somewhere there exists a photograph of him that night and you can see me, sitting, I think, beside Warren Lapine, who is right next to Harlan.) It was one in the morning and after a grueling day Harlan was still On. He seemed to vibrate from the stress and tension, but he was delivering his 110%.

After that, we had no contact. I pursued (desperately) a career that never got off the ground and thought not at all about any relationship with Harlan Ellison.

Then the documentary came out. Dreams With Sharp Teeth is a singular work. It may not be very complete history but it certainly gives a vivid picture of the person. I wrote a review of it and posted it on a blog site I’d been guesting on for a few years.  (I put it on my blog, too, but I thought the film deserved a signal boost that might do some good, so it went to Dangerous Intersections.)  A month or so after it appearance, the webmaster emailed me to say that he had been contacted by someone claiming to be Harlan Ellison who wanted to talk to me, could he get either my phone number or let me know. My friend was suspicious so passed it by me without responding.

Well, it was from Harlan. His phone number was attached. I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me.

I called.

Harlan wanted to personally thank me for the review. He thought it was insightful.

From that point on, we called each other occasionally. Never a lot, a few times we spoke for over an hour. He offered once to intercede on my behalf with an editor. I thanked him but declined. I think he respected that.

And then came Madcon in 2010.  We spent a goodly amount of time with him there. I honestly did not know what he thought of me, but he made himself available, and during what was a very hectic weekend for him, he was generous with his time.

We thought we would never see him again.

Then came the stroke.

And then the whole Archon affair, of which I’ve already written about.

The last time I saw Harlan was the morning he was leaving for the airport from the Collinsville Doubletree. Donna and I had picked Susan and him up the previous Thursday, others of his friends were taking him back. He had been using our transport wheelchair all weekend (long story, never mind) and this was where he had to leave it. Donna hugged him, I hugged him, he got into the van. The door closed. He looked at me through the window and put his hand on the glass, splayed out. I was a little startled, but I reached up and pressed my hand to glass opposite. He smiled and gave a small nod.

We spoke on the phone a few more times after that. Short conversations. He said he had had a wonderful time at Archon. We needed to come out to see him, to see the house (the wonderful house, Ellison Wonderland). We had no other reason to go to L.A. though, so we prevaricated. Then it was announced that the Nebula Awards would be in L.A. in 2019. We could attend and see Harlan and Susan again. It would work. A bit pricey, but hey. I was planning to call him to tell him. I was going to.

I should have.

Somehow, between the stories (and the Stories) and the few encounters, and then the all-too-brief time when we actually knew each other, he got in. His passing hurts. It’s strange to miss someone you knew so short a time, even if in some ways it was a lifetime.

Harlan Ellison was a singular person. Enormously talented, voracious in his approach to life, generous, unpredictable. Harlan, I think I may say, was a friend.

I miss him.