Officialness

It’s official.  The new Missouri State Poet Laureate is Walter Bargen, who hails from Ashland, Missouri, and who is also an acquaintance of mine.  The official announcement is here.

Yesterday I was online constantly waiting for the press announcement.  Of course, as such things go, I had to close up and go to work.  When I got home, there were messages on the phone, a score of emails…everyone knew about it before I did, it seemed.

No matter.  This is the culmination of years of effort on the part of certain members of the Missouri Center for the Book and two and half years of that during my tenure as president, and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

Walter is, according to those I know who know such things, a first-rate poet.  I can say with confidence that he is a decent, intelligent man who will do the office proud.  This is a  major cool event and I am delighted.

The Better Parts of ’07

I’ve seen a number of “Best of 2007” posts here and there, so I thought, after my last, rather depressing, post, I’d put something up about what I really jazzed on in 2007.

Top of the list has to be a few books. What else could you expect?

I didn’t read as much science fiction in 2007 as in the past. A great deal of my time is taken up, more and more, with research for whatever project occupies me, so I’ve spent a lot of hours reading early American history. Among a few favorites, that I would have been glad to have read at any time, are Michael Stephenson’s Patriot Battles; William Hogeland’s The Whiskey Rebellion; and Alan Taylor’s The Divided Ground. The first and last concern periods during the Revolution, the last two overlap for the period just after.

Patriot Battles is an honest, bare bones look at how the Revolutionary War got fought—the tools, the people, what it cost, the logistics, and the endless headaches. War, apart from its violent aspects, is a massive pain to undertake. Expensive, mind-bogglingly complex, frustrating…why anyone would want to bother with it, just for the bureaucratic aspects, is beyond me. But all wars tend to acquire a gloss of glamour and glory over time, our own most of all, and the Revolution probably eclipses only by WWII in flag-waving hagiographic excess of praise. Stephenson did a brave thing stripping away the myth and examining the actualities. It was valuable to me in the details of battle field mechanics and the parts about quartermastering. Plus, well written and occasionally funny.

The Whiskey Rebellion relates the tale of our nation’s first major act of repression. There are one or two aspects of the economics Hogeland seems to have overlooked (for instance, that Western Pennsylvania was denied actual currency by Congress during this period, which made what Hamilton was doing all the more criminal), but by and large he makes sensible the incomprehensible, namely why George Washington saw fit to send a massive army to Pittsburgh to crush a local rebellion that was founded on exactly the principles of unrepresented taxation he had led his country to war nearly two decades earlier.

The Divided Ground is about the process by which the native American nations got royally and thoroughly screwed by the United States. This is an account of the immediate post Revolution period, and concentrates mainly on the Iroquios Confederation in New York and Pennsylvania, and it is worthwhile perhaps to read this just after another book I very thoroughly enjoyed, which is Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, which deals with the very beginnings of this unfortunate process.

(I have to admit that while I deplore what happened to the American Indian, I do not feel personally responsible for any of it, and I do not think anything could have been done to stop it. Nor do I find it remarkable. The conquest and displacement of people from land goes back to prehistory, I’m sure–the Hebrews tossing the poor Canaanites out of the so-called Promised Land is an early example, amounting to one event in an endless line of neighbor pillaging neighbor. It’s what people do. That’s not an excuse, not forgiveness, not, heaven forbid, vindication. But I tire of people indulging self-castigation over something like this as if it were somehow unique and “we” should be thoroughly ashamed in some special way. Nonsense. We shouldn’t have done it. But then, neither should any group do it to any other group. I—me, myself, alone, in this skin—didn’t do it.)

I spent a good deal of time reading Laurie R. King’s really great Mary Russell novels. The conceit here is simple and radical—Mary Russell meets Sherlock Holmes during his semi retirement, becomes his apprentice, and by the end of the second novel is his wife.

Heresy! you say. But she sells it so well and she is such a good writer, they are an immense joy. There are eight of them so far and I have read all but the last one. I’m saving it till I know a ninth is coming out. Anyone who likes Holmes (who isn’t fanatical about canonical purity) will love these.

I also started an ambitious program of reading Thomas Pynchon. The man was such an influence in 20th Century letters, and the only thing I’d ever read before was Gravity’s Rainbow and that at a time when I really couldn’t comprehend it. That is not to say I comprehend it now, but…

Anyway, I started dutifully with V and continued on through The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, and just finished Vineland. I’d thought I might make it through Mason & Dixon and Against The Day, but alas I did not. Those two tomes I’ll deal with this year.

But I have read enough now to know that Pynchon’s entire interest is in conspiracy, the nature and permutation thereof. All his books revolve around layers of intersecting, colliding, cross-purposed conspiracy, both real and imagined. He understands that people have the capacity to sense conspiracy, but usually do not have the equipment to figure out what exactly it is—so, people being what they are, they make something up to satisfy their innate need to understand. The result is a new branching of conspiracy.

What we get is what could be termed “conspiracy of effect”, only far more entertaining than such a mundane concept suggests. Pynchon is a comedian as well as a highly literate observer. The tangles may not be to everyone’s taste (I doubt I’ll reread any of these) but just seeing where he goes with them is a Lewis Carrol-on-a-roller-coaster adventure.

I want to recommend again Julie Phillips’ biography of James Tiptree, jr. Superb. Excellent. Amazing, tragic, and extremely well-written and perceptive.

Nicola Griffith published the third Aud Torvingen novel in 2007, Always. She’s a friend, so what? If you can’t brag on your friends, what good is the internet? I’m really liking what Nicola is doing with this character. She has created a unique kind of outsider—Aud is, I have come to realize, a sexy, competent nerd. She does not understand so much of what she passes through effortlessly, but her own profoundly centered Self, instead of stuttering, stumbling, and screwing up like any other nerd/geek, is like a force of nature. People just assume she’s disinterested rather than clueless. And she’s really not clueless. Don’t get me wrong—she understands a lot about human nature, especially the dark side, but she seems utterly innocent of what it means to be “normal.” In this novel, that gap in knowledge and experience leads to some truly amusing, occasionally hilarious moments. Aside from being a first rate thriller, Always is genuinely insightful.

Which leads to the other friend who published this year. Kelley Eskridge wrote one of the best near-future SF novels in the last decade, Solitaire. It’s being developed into a film and I can’t wait. Kelley herself is working on the screenplay.

But Kelley is also a damn good short story writer. Her first collection came out in 2007, Dangerous Space, and I urge you all to go get it. The title novella is one of the best music stories I’ve ever read. I posted a review of it on my blog on MySpace, so go there for more, but I repeat, this is great stuff.

Another friend of mine published a novel in 2007. Allen Steele’s Spindrift is a first-rate SF thriller in the tradition of…

Well, Allen spent a lot of his career being called the Next Heinlein. That’s an overworked comparison and I actually think it’s inaccurate in Allen’s case. He’s much closer to Gordon R. Dickson than Heinlein, but even closer, I think, to Mack Reynolds. (I’d even say he’s closer still to Poul Anderson except he doesn’t indulge Anderson flare for Errol Flynn-type characters and improbable plot twists, but take something like Anderson’s Star Fox or The Enemy Stars or Tales of the Flying Mountains and the comparison makes sense.) People, however, will know who Gordie Dickson was quicker than they will Mack, and I hasten to add that I mean Mack Reynolds at his best.

Spindrift is a slice of his Coyote universe, which is shaping up into a nice body of work for Allen. It’s more faceted with more possibilities, the kind of Swiss Army Knife concept writers envy. It’s a first contact novel and has at its core a couple of variations on the idea that provide a nice fresh sensation.

Music-wise this past year, I’m not sure how to characterize it. My favorite new discovery is the East Village Opera Company. I hate opera. I love this. It is tremendous, over-the-top, pompous, and musically ambitious. But otherwise, it’s hard to say what I found that’s new. I haven’t been buying much new music, and what I’ve gotten has been given to me. There’s a vendor that shows up every year at the local convention who sells small-label electronica. He has the works broken down into comparisons with various periods of Tangerine Dream and I have only ever bought one disc from him I didn’t like, but I use it as wall paper for when I’m working. I can’t write to vocals, so it’s jazz, classical, or this. A smattering of titles includes the artists Roedelius, Navigator, Max van Richter, Under the Dome, Steve Joliffe, Lightwave, and Anon.

Movies, similar problem. We don’t go to the movies anymore. Habit born out of long stretches of poverty. But we’ve been borrowing dvds like crazy. Among the television shows I’m most impressed with, we’ve found Bones, House, Battlestar Galactica and I have fallen in love with the new Doctor Who and especially the spin-off Torchwood. The latter is like MIB meets the X-Files. But it’s like British, y’know, but the star is an American, but the main female lead is…hmm…uh….yes, well, I think she’s just amazing.

What impresses me most about both these shows is the level of writing. It’s rarely less than Good, often Damn Good, and occasionally Great.

Biggest disappointment has to be the SciFi Channel’s lame attempt at retooling Flash Gordon. Look, folks, a word. If you’re gonna do something from the 30s, either take a page from Tim Burton’s playbook, or be bloody faithful to the original. Trying to make it contemporary and current and somehow more “plausible” (in this context I’m not even sure what that means) usually leads to boring if not embarrassing. I feel sorry for the woman playing Dale Arden—she’s got some talent and boy is she hot, but this is not something for her resume.

The biggest surprise movie-wise for me in the past year has been Casino Royale. Yes, the new Bond—Daniel Craig—is very good, and this movie is very good, and it leads me to hope that they will continue in this vein, relying on good storytelling and genuine emotional truth, rather than gimmicks and gadgets. It’s hard to see that this came out of the same production company, it’s so different. (Maybe this movie didn’t come out in ’07, but I didn’t see it till this year.)

I am certainly missing a few things. When I remember them, I’ll mention them. But this is a fairly full list of what I found worth doing in the arts this past year. I’m looking forward to seeing what 2008 has to offer.

Back now to your regularly scheduled programming.

Assessing Ramble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do not own a digital camera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Relevance and Robert Heinlein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm. In order, then.

Was he sexist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was he a fascist?

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

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

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

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

Narcissistic?

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

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

Which leads to the last charge. Pedantic?

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

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

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

Gender Reading

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

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

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

The first question is: why Male Female?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Zeppelin Flies Again

Led Zeppelin have returned.

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

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

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

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

Other people seem to be able to ignore them.

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

Am I being too picky?  Maybe.

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

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

Romney’s Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, we know what he is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devil In Memphis and the Idiocy of Our Times

I received the following from a friend of mine, who sent it to his local paper as well. I’ve asked his permission to post it here, in its entirety. It concerns an issue which, while we may hope represents an unfortunate part of our history long outgrown, still rears its viperous and virulent heads in the present day.

Why are the West Memphis Three Still in Prison?
by Brooks Caruthers

Fourteen years ago Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, the notorious West Memphis Three, were convicted of murdering three eight year old boys: Michael Moore, Steve Branch, and Christopher Byers.

Almost immediately, the case against Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley was exposed as a hollow sham, a travesty of justice. But after numerous appeals, careful examinations of evidence old and new, and international attention brought about by hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, two documentary films, and at least one very well-researched book, the West Memphis Three are still in prison. Why?

I’ve only heard vague answers. Third hand rumors. (My friend says there’s stuff that wasn’t reported, stuff that wasn’t in the trial…My friend knows someone who has seen things…My brother knows someone who heard things…my sister knows someone who was there, who knows things, who is positive Echols and them are guilty.)

What “things”? I have yet to hear one. So far the only tangible “thing” I’ve heard was, “I know a lawyer who says the bite marks on the body matched their teeth.”

Which is interesting because the exact opposite is true. The teeth marks found on the bodies DO NOT match the teeth of Miskelley, Echols, or Baldwin. That’s been known since 1998.

Now, in 2007, as announced in a press conference given by Damien Echols’s defense team, it has been shown that the teeth marks found on the bodies were not even human. This is the opinion of more than a half dozen forensic pathologists and forensic odontologists. In their opinion, almost all of the horrible wounds found on the three victims, including the genital mutilations, were the result of post-mortem animal predation, i.e., animals trying to eat the dead bodies. Furthermore, it is the opinion of the experts that none of the wounds on the bodies was caused by a knife. This is important, because in the original case the prosecution tried very hard to convince the jury that the body wounds were made by a serrated knife…a knife just like one found in the watery area behind Jason Baldwin’s house.

Three of the forensic consultants were at the November 2nd press conference. The odontologist, Dr. Richard Souviron and the pathologist, Dr. Werner Spitz, stated clearly that none of the marks on the bodies were made by a serrated knife and that none of the wounds were consistent with any kind of knife. (There was also no evidence of sodomy or forced oral sex, another part of the prosecution’s narrative that has been disproven for some time.)

New DNA evidence was also revealed at the press conference. Forensic serologist Thomas Fedor stated that none of the DNA found at the crime scene matches the DNA of Baldwin, Echols or Misskelley. However, the DNA of a hair found in one of the ligatures that bound Michael Moore roughly matches DNA of Steven Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs. Another hair found on the crime scene matches a friend that had been hanging around with Hobbs on the day of the murder.

It may not be Hobbs’s hair. And even if it is, that doesn’t mean he’s the murderer. But even back in 1993, without the DNA evidence, Hobbs, a family member, would have been a far more likely suspect than three teenage strangers.

But almost from very start of the investigation, the Crittenden county authorities were convinced they were looking at some sort of ritual Satanic human sacrifice. All the evidence they found was viewed through that filter. If any promising lead or piece of evidence didn’t fit the narrative of Satanists doing evil in our midst, it was ignored.

The local media fueled this frenzy, reporting damn near any crazed, unsubstantiated rumor. Then the coerced and contradictory “confession” of Jessie Misskelley was made public, and newspapers fell all over each other to report all the lurid details of Satanic ritual sodomy and murder.

Misskelley was a borderline retarded teenager who had been a casual friend of Echols and Baldwin. His confession was the result of hours upon hours of abusive interrogation by Crittenden County’s finest. The full text of his two “confessions” is riddled with contradictions and factual errors that reveal his story to be a complete fabrication. But the media didn’t report any of that. They only reported the “good” parts. (For an in depth look at how the “Satanic Ritual” theory was developed and how the Misskelley “confession” was created, see Mara Leveritt’s book THE DEVIL’S KNOT.)

This brings us to another revelation of the November 2nd press conference: the discovery of private notes by jury members indicating that Misskelley’s “confession” was a major consideration in their guilty verdict. That’s a problem because the confession was never officially entered as evidence. Jurors never got to see the whole thing in all its absurd contradictory glory. Instead, they were considering only the lurid confession highlights presented in the media.

Sound like a fair trial to you?

The focus of all this attention was the alarmingly named Damien Echols. He looked and acted like everyone’s ultimate nightmare of a teenager. He was the perfect villain for a “satanic panic”. It was easy to sentence him to death and lock him away where the sun doesn’t shine.

I mean that quite literally. Since 2004, when Echols was moved to Varner SuperMax, he has not seen the sun.

I’ve never met Echols. I’ve met his wife, Lorri Davis, and I know people who have corresponded with him and and even visited him in person. If you knew the things I knew, if you’d heard the things I’ve heard…you might decide he’s a pretty nice guy. Smart. Quiet. Buddhist.

Still, I was a bit reluctant when my wife handed me a book called ALMOST HOME: MY LIFE STORY, VOL. 1 by Damien Echols and told me I should read it. I mean, I still had the mental image of the teenage heavy metal villain in my head. And the book was printed by iUniverse…which means that it’s self published.

To my surprise, I read the whole thing in one day. Dude can write! His style is clean and matter-of-fact, with a nice undercurrent of ironic humor and occasional poetic turns of phrase that lightly ornament his prose but never become overbearing. Echols has lived a life of dirt-poor poverty with long periods of dead end despair, but he never wallows in it. Instead he gives us a series of vivid, emotional snapshots: some dark, some light, some funny, some strangely ecstatic.

Now here you might argue that the fact that Echols can write doesn’t mean that he’s innocent. And you’d be right.

And you might argue just because celebrities like Margaret Cho and Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines think that the West Memphis Three are innocent, that doesn’t make it so.

And you’d be right.

And you might mention that the out-of-town producers of the PARADISE LOST documentaries had an agenda, and part of that agenda was making us look like a bunch of redneck idiots.

And I’d say, “Point well taken.”

But none of this changes the fact that the West Memphis Three were convicted on little more than an arbitrarily concocted story about a Satanic sacrifice, and that now we have evidence that directly contradicts this story, exposing it as a lie.

The official reason for the November 2nd press conference was to announce that on October 29th Damien Echols’s defense team filed a Second Amended Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus. In plain English, the team is asking, in light of all the new evidence, for a federal court to either overturn Echols’s conviction or give him a new trial.

The presentation made by the lawyers was very powerful. You can watch it online at the Free the West Memphis Three website: wm3.org. (A site well worth exploring.) Or, if you read this in time, you can watch the press conference on a big screen at Market Street Cinema, along with 20 minutes of highlights from from the first PARADISE LOST movie. This event will take place on December 11th, at 7:00 PM. It is presented by the WM3 support group Arkansas Take Action!, which will also host a live Q & A.

And if you want to demonstrate that freeing the West Memphis Three is something that native Arkansans believe in, as opposed to all them crazy out-of-town Hollywood types, write letters to Governor Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel asking them to overturn the conviction of Damien Echols and expedite the exonerations of Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley. If you write the letters before December 15th and send them to Arkansas Take Action!, P.O. Box 17788, Little Rock, AR 72222-7788, they will be presented en masse to the Governor and the Attorney General on December 18th.

So far McDaniel’s response to the writ has been: “…we can say with confidence that these three men are, in fact, guilty…”

Good. Let us hear why, openly, in court if necessary.

Open up everything. Let Damien Echols see the sun again.

Can you guess the issue to which I allude?

Person in the back row, there, with both hands raised, yes? Modern witch hunts! Right on the first try.

Since the Salem Affair, we’ve wrestled with an uneasy accommodation with religious perceptions in our public life, specifically in regard to law and jurisprudence. Not that we need the presence of Satan in order to make boneheaded mistakes—sometimes all you need is a media frenzy. Combine the two, though, and we have cause number one for keeping religion out of our politics, our law, our government.

Once someone makes the claim that Satanism is involved and the general public accepts it, reason goes out the window. The explanation? Well, how can anyone rely on rules of evidence when the devil is involved, with his supernatural (or, as Ann Druyan is currently insisting, subnatural) ability to deceive? What? The maze of tunnels supposed to exist beneath the pre-school couldn’t be found when authorities dug it up? What can you expect when Satan probably filled them all in! What? The perpetrators can prove they were nowhere near the scene of the crime when it occurred? What can you expect when Satan can instantly transport them from point A to point B and erase memories? Once Satan gets involved, all our highly-regarded investigatory capacities mean nothing!

This is foolishness of a high order. But we fall for it from time to time, in various places. No one is immune, it seems, and those who insist that law enforcement is somehow violating its own rules and denying its own abilities are cast as witting or unwitting collaborators with the Master of Lies. How dare anyone suggest the police would deceive us? That district attorneys would hide evidence or misrepresent a case? Surely that never happens!

Unless Satan is involved.

Curious that no one ever seems to suggest that Satan might be working his wiles from the other end, by duping law enforcement and corrupting our own system so that we end up sending innocent people to prison. That the deception has to do with manipulating our own fears rather than causing someone to commit a crime. Better, isn’t it, that we be made to attack ourselves from a misplaced sense of righteousness, born out of terror at the boogie man we have not quite managed to deny? Why is it that no one steps forward to suggest that Satan may be working through children (who, in these instances, we are told NEVER lie) to cast a pall over the perfectly innocent adults around them, setting us at each others’ throats using the tools of our own legal system to do damage to our sense of security, our faith in reason, and disrupt the equitable flow of justice? How come Satan only ever can be seen present in the form of the accused?

We’ve been going though another one of those absurd “They’re trying to destroy Christmas!” things, with that issue in Fort Collins. We just can’t bring ourselves to draw a hard and fast line. And it does seem ridiculous when it comes to a holiday. What’s wrong with a little nod to an informing cultural myth? What harm can it do to make a small accommodation to a traditional belief?

We ask this question legitimately, and perhaps some people do go too far in their quest to be rid of the religious in our public lives. These zealots seem like crackpots to most people. Grinches.

But then something like this happens. This is the flip side of that same coin.

It’s not the subject of the belief that’s the problem—it’s that we don’t seem able to defend ourselves from the insanity of our own embrace of that belief.

Admitting to this, though, means that maybe there’s a very good reason to separate out the religious from the civic. And if there’s a very good reason for that, maybe there’s a very good reason to rethink the whole thing.

Being rid of Christmas decorations in state buildings and so forth may mean a little less holiday cheer for a lot of people, and that’s curmudgeonly.

On the other hand, it might also mean we never let Satan be a cause for wrongly imprisoning innocent people. Hmm. I’m having a hard time seeing that as a bad thing.

On Values And Victims

Listening to a talk show at work yesterday, I heard some fall-out from the recent suicide of the young girl who had been “duped” on MySpace.  When I first learned of this tragedy, I ran through a series of thoughts about the dangers posed by the interfaces we use these days, which put us often too early and unprepared into contact with things in another era we would simply have had no opportunity to encounter.  This girl was a casualty of the wavefront of experience that comes now in new forms and through media that never before existed.

I never once thought it was her fault.

How could you?  She’d been deceived.  Inexperienced, unwitting, she invested a bit too much, and it put her over the edge to discover that what she thought was “real” was in fact a deception.

History is full of examples of people committing suicide over things with only marginal reality.  Especially among adolescents.  We’ve learned in the last decade a great deal more about brain development than ever before, and one of those things is that adolescence is the time of some of the most intricate and fragile growth–physically–within the brain.  The hormone storm that is unleashed at the onset of puberty, the growth spurts visible in every other part of the body, the physiological changes of emergent sexuality and secondary sexual characteristics, all have their equivalent in cognitive development.  It makes perfect sense after the fact, but for a long, long time we blithely assumed that adolescents were more or less just like adults.  Instead we find that, because of the rapid and complex changes they are going through, teen-agers who appear out-of-control, impulsive, overly-sensitive, clueless, clumsy–in short, borderline insane–really are all those things and it is the responsibility of the adults around them to set guidelines and provide aid to get them through this period to the other side and (hopefully) “normality” and sanity.  (When this fails, we have all manner of screwed up adult.)

Which is why holding a teenager responsible for not behaving like an adult is absurd on its face.

And consequences of this journey can run the gamut from perpetual clumsiness to neuroses to schizophrenia to manic-depression to suicide.

It is one of the challenges of our new awareness of these things to take actions to mitigate the worst effects and to do what we can to ensure a healthy mind in the emergent adult.

Something like this tragic suicide occurs, though, and when we listen to what comes after we discover how unlikely that is for some people.  Many people emailed this talk show to express their opinion that the dead girl “got what was coming to her.”  It was somehow her fault.

When we tease through this senseless reaction, we come to the bottom line opinion that what she was doing on MySpace was something she shouldn’t have been doing, something that is to some people Bad.  In fact immoral.  Evil.  That she reaped the rewards of an inappropriate indulgence.

This is pathetic.  But rather than condemn it outright, maybe we ought to take a look at this and see where it comes from.  This echoes similar responses to other events, like rape.  “She shouldn’t have been out that late, she shouldn’t have been with Those People, she shouldn’t have been dressed Like That.”  We’ve heard all this.  After enough of it, you’d think the poor rapist had absolutely no choice but to attack That Female.  It was all her fault, she brought it on herself.

Blaming the victim.

This happens to men, too, but in less obvious ways.  Job situations, traffic incidents, fights in school or elsewhere…if a negative consequence results, somehow, for some people, it is the victim’s fault.  (One of the most frustrating comments I used to hear during the heyday of student demonstrations in the Sixties and Seventies was, in the aftermath of police crackdowns, “if they’d all been in class studying where they were supposed to be, none of them would have been hurt.”)

Take this line of reasoning far enough and the perpetrators of crimes should get off scott free, since they themselves were the dupes of the seductive and taunting actions of morally suspect victims.

Partly, this kind of thinking seems to come from the way in which our public discourse is driven by value judgments.  Nothing seems to be value-null, that is without a moral aspect.   Back in the Fifties there were people who condemned hoola-hoops because they were immoral.  That hip-movement, especially in young girls, was licentious.

But especially when bad results.  MySpace must be immoral because its use by this girl resulted in her suicide.  We don’t seem to know how to just take things at face value in the “Shit Happens” mode of value judgment.

A meteor falls out of the sky and crushes the house of someone certain people don’t like.  Judgment from god?  How dare the man put his house right there.  He had it coming.

Silly?  Perhaps, but we probably all know people who would pass such judgments.

The other aspect of this is that we humans, even when we don’t know how to do it, try to find reasons for everything.  Things don’t “just happen.”  There must be a reason.  The entire Why Me? ethic is based on this quest for causality.  As if at some point along the way we might have done something to avoid the tragedy.

What complicates this is that in some instances it’s true.  Prophylactic living is not a stupid idea.  If she had stopped smoking she might not have gotten cancer.  If he had stopped drinking he might still have a liver.  If they had kept up their insurance premiums, when the meteor hit the house it might not have cost them all they had.

But there are things that go beyond the power of anyone.  If he hadn’t driven down that street at  that hour, he might have missed being hit by that bus.

Reason, as much as I value it, only extends so far.  Sometimes bad things just happen.

And it is never the victim’s fault.

A woman should be able to walk naked down any street anywhere and be free of the threat of molestation.  Anyone ought be able to park their expensive new car in any neighborhood and not worry about it being stolen.  We should be able to leave our doors unlocked and windows open and not be victim to unwanted invasion, robbery.  If we suffer harm as a consequence of any of these things, it is not our fault.

However.  If you goad the dog behind the fence with the Beware sign on it and it bites you when you stick your hand in, that’s on you.  The owner of the dog should not be made to compensate you for your stupidity (or cupidity).  If you make that upcoming curve at 20 or 30 miles over the recommended speed limit and total your vehicle and maybe kill someone, that’s on you.  If you break into someone’s home to rob it and get shot by the owner, that’s on you.  The owner should not be made to compensate you for your hospital time or be sued by your family should you die.

Between those two sets of examples, however, is a whole range of actions which do not lend themselves easily to value judgments, and the only thing that can be done is to perhaps pay more attention to each other and what we do and how we respond.  Especially kids, who are still learning about the cruelties and senseless perversity of the world.

I think it is safe to say that the unfortunate suicide of a young girl, triggered by the revelation of a deception against which she had no defense, was not the consequence of one thing.  For her to have been that fragile, that susceptible, other factors must have been involved, and the only tragedy there would be that she never told anyone she was having trouble, that she was confused or frustrated or in pain, and no one got the chance to intervene before the triggering event pushed her too far.

But it was not, in any formulation I can think of, justice.  She did not “have it coming” as some ignorant, intolerant–and probably frightened–people would claim.

The future is frightening.  But it is also inevitable.  It’s like the front line of a battle.  You can drop down and bury your head in the dirt if you want, but when you look up and find that the person next to you took a bullet, you can’t blame him or her for looking into that future.

In Charge

What if I were In Charge?

Dangerous idea, that.

If you were in charge–if you were King–what would do? What would you fix? What would you ignore?

The Socratic ideal is the philosopher king, whose first act upon accession to the throne is to abdicate. The idea being that a truly ethical thinker would refuse to accept the responsibility to rule a nation.

Pity the world doesn’t work that way.

The problem with such systems (though I use the term “system” lightly, since abdication implies there would be a lack of any system)–and there are many, including those proposed by certain self-proclaimed Libertarians–is that human nature refuses to cooperate. There’s a kind of Malthusian coefficient involved–population growth always outstrips the potential for ideal behavior. All such utopian systems are based on one fallacy that keeps gumming up all the works of any system anyone cares to name.

The fallacy is that We’re All Alike.

It’s a widely touted formula–the things that we have in common outnumber those that divide us; underneath we’re all the same; people are people. The Libertarians believe as an article of faith that if government got out of everybody’s way, we’d all be fine because people basically know what’s best for themselves and their immediate circle of intimates. Socialists believe (mostly) that without class structures, everyone would get along quite nicely. Communists like to assume avarice is an aberration that can somehow be bred out of the species.

If only.

The fact is, we come in all shapes, sizes, talents, capacities, points of view, prejudices, and predilections. The closest we get (for the purposes of this essay) to being alike is that we seem to be different in exactly the same ways. We’re not the same in precisely those areas that make such blue sky hopes for the self-responsible, self-actualized, self-controlling individual a reality. Government ends up becoming a default necessity to keep us from each others’ throats as much as keeping the whole thing working in something resembling order.

Do governments go too far? Sure, often. Government is an imprecise tool, a blunt instrument. It’s reactive more than proactive. It makes huge blunders, overlooks details, stumbles along an ill-perceived path. In frustration–or under the same illusion that people are all basically the same (or should be)–many governments become autocratic, despotic, fascistic, tyrannical, brutal. They squeeze tighter on the reins in the futile attempt to force a population to conform to certain standards. Combined with a fervent belief that only They know what’s best for their country, you have all the ingredients for classic botched jobs.

Then there are those times and places where someone–a Hussein, a Khaddafy, a Stalin, a Hitler–does end up In Charge and sets about actually remaking the country according to their ideas. From the outside, occasionally, things look like they’re working quite well.

There is Order.

Misery doesn’t have to be loud to be real.

But the hypothetical I put as the title applies to us all to some degree, because it is true that rulers rule by the consent of the ruled.

Ultimately, when people–the euphemistic, legendary, all-but-mythical The People–have had enough, a ruler or ruling class just can’t keep them on the farm no more. France boasted one of the most autocratic, absolute despotism in modern history and look what happened to poor Louis XVI. Bad haircut day, one where the barber missed by several inches.

So. If I were in charge, what would I do differently?

First off, being an American, I would declare one day a year in which all classified documents would be declassified. For a day. Let the free-for-all start. Get in there and find what you think is there (or not) and gloat over being right or crawl back into your niche when you find you’re wrong. Whatever slipped through the fingers of those hungry conspiracy theorists, the press, the general run-of-the-mill paranoiac–tough. Gotta wait till next year.

This would allow for release, for breathing space. Illegal, hidden things would still go on, but imagine the safety valve such a day would have! Miss your chance one year, just wait till next year. It would provide a format in which those who openly distrust the system would have their say. Of course, it could not be a cheat. It would have to be real. Otherwise it wouldn’t work. I give as an example–an outre one, to be sure, but classic–Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s program to deal with UFOs. A look at the history of it shows that they shot themselves perpetually in the foot by not declassifying everything. The fringe maniacs who really believed they were hiding something could continually point to the things not revealed and make a quasi-legitimate claim that there, indeed, were the relevant revealing documents. As it has turned out, there never was anything that actually threatened national security, but because of the habitual inability of government to let go, they created (or at least provided unlimited fuel for) the present day UFO frenzy–and its related groups, like those folks who believe the UN has a clandestine bunch of storm troopers who can kidnap people…

Anyway. That would be the first thing.

Second thing, I would feed people. America has always grown a surplus. Food prices are kept high artificially. We can sell to other countries, but Americans should eat. Give it to them. Not candy, but real food. (I would also make this a part of welfare–no food stamps and no exceptions for the junk people buy. You come into the supermarket with foodstamps and then produce cash for alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, and so forth, the food stamps are not to be accepted.) Give it to everyone, though, not just welfare recipients. The guy in the mansion should have access as well as the single mom laid off from her job and living hand-to-mouth. (I guarantee the guy in the mansion won’t use it–too embarrassing. That’s why you rarely see people from rich counties shopping at Save-A-Bunch–they prefer spending more at an upscale store because it keeps them apart from the scruffy and impoverished.)

Third thing, I would federally fund schools at the primary and secondary level and keep them open 24/7. Classes would go on all day long, all night, all week, all year, for students to attend when they chose. They would also be staffed in such a way as to provide safe havens for children. Yeah, you’re doing the physics class with Dr. So-N-So, the experiment will take three months, you can sleep over. They would also have clinics attached to provide everything from first-aid to birth control to psych counseling. School should be the place where you mature, get healthy, learn, become what you want to become.

Fourth, taxes would be changed from income tax to purchase (or sales) tax, with exemptions for food, clothing, medicine, and books. Property tax should be assessed purely on a square-foot basis, regardless what’s built on it. (Second floor, more square feet, and so on, but the “improvement” of the property would have no bearing.) Business taxes would be altered to an annual licensing fee–your business does X dollars per year gross income, this is how much the license is. Period. Adjustments could be made over time, but I really do agree with Libertarians on this–a tax just because you make a certain amount of income is unethical, probably immoral, and retrograde. Tax what people spend, that’s different–except for necessities.

And retired people should be exempt from taxes. You hit retirement, leave the work force, taxes end. Period.

Between high school and college, there will be a year to two year long program everyone will participate in of public service, what the courts now term community service.

Everyone. Rich, poor, whoever. If you want to avoid it, join the military, which will be exempt from conscription. Everyone will give a year or two to helping the poor, forest management, urban renewal, charity work. The time will count toward student loans to underwrite college. But for one or two years, everyone will be part of a Peace Corps type program, working in communities that need help, doing all the stuff that needs doing, learning what it means to be a part of the community at the most basic level. Essentially getting your face rubbed in the real world so we can begin to minimize the myths surrounding poverty and work which poison so much political discourse in this country.

I would issue stringent requirements for people wanting to get married. It should be hard to get married. People do it for all the wrong reasons, all the time, and make a mess of it, and all it does is make money for lawyers, courts, and, at a certain level, the yellow press/tabloid market. It should be hard to get married, easy to get divorced. (Certainly you can live together, but there would be no palimony suits allowed and whatever legal arrangements a couple–or more–would want would have to be done through a lawyer via legal instrument. Marriage is a whole ‘nother ballgame.)

No children except for those willing to go through the byzantine machinations of getting married.

Which leads me to possibly the most controversial program.

Upon puberty, all boys would have a quantity of sperm harvested, all girls would have eggs harvested upon menarche. Once banked and filed, boys and girls would be “fixed”. No more teen pregnancy, no more pregnancies to blackmail people into relationships, no more unwanted babies. Later, after maturity, if two people really want a child, they have to make a CONSCIOUS CHOICE TO DO SO–because it will be done not in the heat of sexual congress, but thoughtfully, with the aid of a councilor, at the clinic, when they sign off to withdraw sperm and egg and actually MAKE A BABY. I fervently believe that too many children are born unwanted, even if from the outside they seem to have good home lives. People do things for reasons having nothing to do with the requirements of the thing done and I’m sorry, but just “But I want it!” is insufficient reason to be allowed the opportunity to fuck up another human being’s life.

That’s some of what I’d do if I were In Charge. Doubtless everyone has a list, but I thought I’d offer mine just for the sake of discussion.

Probably a good thing I’m not In Charge. Or likely to be.

Still, it kinda makes you wonder.

Doesn’t it?

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The above is intended purely for the purposes of a Thought Experiment and are not intended to be taken as anything more than that.  I am not, nor would I ever wish to be, In Charge.