Moral Values Redux

It’s the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Endless words and pain and earnest concern have been, will be, spun out about this. A few years ago, I wrote the following piece. It bears reposting. I’ve modified it in a few spots to bring it up to date with new thoughts I’ve had, but I can’t find much that doesn’t bear a re-airing. So.

In 2004, George Bush was reelected. We can debate endlessly over whether or not he stole that election, but it’s beside the point for this rant. Besides, four million popular votes seems like a big wad to steal.

What we need to figure out if we want to have any possibility of turning this misdirected ship around is WHY SO MANY PEOPLE VOTED FOR THE REPUBLICAN RIGHT? Not even just Republicans–there are decent Republicans that I would support (Arlan Spector comes to mind, as does a pre-2004 John McCain)–but the rabid fundie far right wing of the party, the wing that is destroying it and trying to turn this country into something like a theocracy.

So what was it?

The factor listed by most exit polls in Middle America was–is–Moral Values. Not in California or the Northeast corridor, but in the Heartland.
Moral Values.

I had thought for a long time that the issues driving Bush supporters floated between abortion, school prayer, and taxes. I’m now not so sure tax cuts are that important–these people have got to realize that if Bush continues his policies, at some point a huge bill is going to come due.

The furor over gay marriage in the last months of the campaign underscores the exit polls. Moral Values.

If I thought the votes were driven by the deep morality stemming from a Kantian apprehension of the nature of the right, the good, and the universalizable as determined by a focused application of the categorical imperative, I wouldn’t be so concerned. If I thought people had given due attention to a reasoned examination of a sound set of moral principles and voted accordingly, I wouldn’t be upset. Unfortunately, I seriously doubt that to be the case.

Perhaps I’m being unfair–I’m sure there are individuals out there who did indeed make such a study and still voted for the Republican Right–but collectively, this whole Moral Values thing is a shuck. It’s more about appearances than anything truly moral.
Look what the sentiments are:

1: The anti-abortion movement is a powerful centerpiece for this voter block. The overturning of Roe v. Wade is core. They wish to outlaw abortion.

2: Prayer as a public function. Prayer in school, Christian associational material in government facilities, a national embrace of religion in public life. They do not like a secular state.

3: A clear aversion to homosexuality.

4: A strong censorship movement to ban or diminish the presence of what they deem pornographic. This extends to literature in schools that seems to promote a serious re-evaluation of “traditional” morays or deals in subjects which make them uncomfortable–adolescent sexuality, racism, anti-authoritarianism, and extends to secular subjects such as biology, history, and philosophy.

5: A rejection of biological science, specifically Evolution as the determined mechanism of the development of life–most especially a rejection of the evolutionary given that human beings are part and parcel of that life and have come about in the same way as all other life.

6: A promotion of so-called Family Values, which is a catch phrase for a desire to return–as they put it–to a traditional set of relational codes defining the roles of men and women and children in society. Monogamy, procreation, and a hierarchical family structure are part of this, with the male as head of household.

7: A rejection of so-called affirmative action principles. Along with this comes an aversion to a suite of programs they label socialist. Anti-socialism is the center of their fear of government systems.

8: A stated desire to eliminate entitlements. “People who do not work should not get money,” is a phrase I have heard in relation to this for several years now.

9: The desire for a strong military and, by extension, an aggressively patriotic international diplomatic posture.

Too bad I can’t come up with a tenth. The Ten Commandments of the Political Religious Right. There would be some symmetry to this, ironic symmetry. But I do not wish to get too ridiculous. I could find a tenth, but why bother? These nine do nicely to define the so-called Moral Values of Bush’s core supporters.

In as brief an argument as I can muster, the legitimacy of calling this program the product of moral values can be questioned easily enough by a simple test. Take the first principle–abortion. They claim they are Right To Life advocates–that life is sacred. Ask each their stand on the Death Penalty. As a group, the various factions that come together under this banner supports the Death Penalty. The basis of their aversion to abortion, then, is bogus. Life is life. It is sacred or it is not. A moral value must be consistent if anything, and this is not in this case. (Likely you will find support among them for Bush’s military policies–more killing. But to them, that’s okay, in fact necessary, because They are the Enemy.)

Since the avowed dedication to the sanctity of life is undermined by a willingness to enact the death penalty, the claim that this is a moral principle is rendered untenable. The one should follow from the other–life in the womb can be no more sacred than a twenty-year-old murderer. Sacred is sacred. You may not kill.

By extension, the rest of the list can fall. None of them stands as a solid moral value.
So what are they?

Behavioral restrictions. Class alignments. Sentiment. Prejudice disguised as morality. Expressions of fear, resentment, uncertainty.

These are people who do not like the way their country seems to be. It doesn’t look good to them. They don’t like the choices their children might make. They are uncomfortable with how things seem to be evolving. For them, a moral value is something that comforts and freezes in time a way of life they see threatened or vanishing.

But rather than just dismiss them for frightened people struggling to impose their view of what they think the world should look like on everyone, let’s go further and examine the grounding of each of these arguments. We need to understand these things if we are to get out from under the growing tyranny of what is not a Moral Values program but an Ideological Imposition program.

Let’s take the top issue. Abortion.

Since Roe v. Wade, we have watched a growing faction of sincere, highly religious people banding together to condemn what they regard as murder. The termination of a pregnancy to them is on par with the cold blooded killing of a person who can stand before us, talk, express ideas, laugh, cry, and have relationships. Biological science, no matter what it says, is not persuasive. These folks will not accept any definition of a fetus that denies its essential status as a human being.

The arguments that led to Roe v. Wade are equally unpersuasive–that a woman has a right to determine when or if she will bear children. The economic stranglehold men have traditionally had over women, especially in a marital relationship, does not seem to matter in this debate. That women have until the last half century little say over their role in life is inconsequential.

Why? Is it that they don’t believe these arguments? I think for many, this is true. They may hear the stories of what it used to be like and either judge those stories as myth or outright fabrication. They judge them according to the life they currently have, without the least idea that history was ever different. Partly, too, there is a lack of understanding about the mechanisms of dominance and oppression. If a woman is in a bad relationship, she should leave.

Or just be a good christian and put up with it. I’ve heard that echoed throughout society, from Tammy Wynette’s pathetic “Stand By Your Man” anthem to religious isolationists who flat out deny their women the possibility of either having a say in how they live or leaving when circumstances become intolerable. This is not the past. This is the present. These groups exist. But it doesn’t have to be a group–there are many people who simply live in circumstances so restricted that it might as well be 1890 all over again.

And the anchor that binds these women, the Damocletian Sword dangling over their heads, is their children. The ones they already have and the ones they will inevitably have because, along with everything else, they are denied contraception as well. (The argument that contraception is available at any drug store makes no real difference—if a person does not know about it, does not furthermore feel free to use something, it might as well be on the moon or nonexistent. The good and decent middle class people who fail to comprehend this aspect of psychology simply can’t conceive of an instance in which they personally would be denied anything they thought they needed. Time in a woman’s shelter would be instructive.)
Not having sex for these women is not an option. This is hard to believe for people who either would never think of denying their mate sex or have simply never been in a situation where they could not say no. It is dangerous and politically irresponsible to regard one’s personal circumstance as the universal condition in which everyone else lives–or should live.

It was not that long ago–a generation, and in some states it may still be the case–that denial of conjugal “rights” was solid grounds for a man to divorce his wife. He did not have to prove it. How could you? And the courts would favor him in the settlements. This is recent history! Yes, it has changed–one of the things so-called No Fault Divorce ushered in along with other reforms. But the sentiment has not gone away for many people.

Consider the practical for just a moment–if you want to get away from someone, you should be prepared to leave with as little as possible. The more you have tying you to a place and a circumstance, the less ability you have to change your life. Children are insurmountable obstacles to a woman leaving undesirable circumstances. It can be done, certainly, but they complicate the process tremendously.

Roe v. Wade took away the power of threat men had over women in these regards. At least in principle. It accorded to the woman the right to determine the use of her body in matters of procreation–which naturally leads directly to matters of recreation. It made a case for women “owning” their sexuality, something that has been the source of debate and divisiveness for centuries if not millennia.

Roe was based substantially on an earlier Supreme Court case, Griswold v. Connecticut, which was concerned with a woman’s right to avail herself of the means to control procreation. In Griswold the Court struck down state laws that dictated matters of private conduct. The basis of the law so challenged seems to have been that it is the man, not the woman, who has the say in if and when there will be more children. Needless to say, this implied responsible relationships—marital––and by extension denied that unmarried women had any rights in the matter whatsoever, since the law concerned the availability of contraception. The Court decided Griswold 7-2 to strike down the Connecticut law (in the words of Justice Potter Steward an “uncommonly silly law”) and thereby staked out an area of privacy and self-determination upon which women then based several arguments in the coming decade regarding their role in society as free agents and whole persons.

To my mind, what both Griswold and Roe established is a principle which states that a woman has the right to make determinations about procreation and the use of her body, exclusively unto herself as a free and responsible agent, i.e. a citizen. By definition, this means that she has a right not to be pregnant. It is absurd to argue a determination principle if the thing being determined is not also implicitly argued in the course of definition. A woman gets to say when or if she will bear children––pregnancy being the necessary pre-condition for childbearing, she gets to say when or if she will be pregnant.

You may not establish a principle that then disappears when context changes. In other words, if a woman has the right not to be pregnant, that right does not vanish because she becomes pregnant.

To make this as explicit as possible, this would mean that if we hold in principle that a person has a right not to be a slave, that right cannot disappear if someone binds that individual and makes him or her a slave. The principle holds, regardless. As a free and responsible agent, the principle pertains even in changed contexts.

It might be argued that such a principle, when applied to parenthood, could be taken to mean that a person has a right not to be a parent, therefore that person has the right to kill any child that puts that person into that circumstance. That would be absurd, of course, since we do have such a right, and there are systems in place for removing the child into foster care or adoption by others. Besides, the child is in itself a recognized individual entity––a free agent, if you will––and all other protections that apply to the “parent” apply to the child. You can’t murder the child. (Aha! But if a fetus is a child, you might say, then abortion becomes automatically murder. But a child, out of the womb, extant, is not contributing anyone’s condition of pregnancy. The woman in question is not pregnant and cannot kill the child to defend the right not to be pregnant. Further, there is an underlying statement of attribution involved, in which at some point the women decided that the fetus was, to her, a person. That unspoken statement of attribution defines the situation. But without that statement, that acknowledgment, the fetus remains, to her, no such thing as a person. In fact, the three trimester test in Roe implicitly acknowledges this statement.)
Of course, here is where the pro-life movement has made its most incisive critique of abortion rights. They argue simply that a fertilized egg is a person.

In practical terms this is moot. There is no person since there is no personality. But I’m not going to settle this debate here. We enter now into the realm of sentiment, and sentiment does not lend itself to logic or principle. The basic fact of the matter is, the issue to be resolved concerns pregnancy. You might well argue that an individual has a right to own a particular object, but such a right does not grant permission for that individual to steal it from someone else––the granting of a right by violation of another right is unsustainable and fundamentally corrupt.

But the movement to outlaw abortion lacks the cogency of a moral issue because of the corollary issues infusing it. We can see by examining the suite of demands of the pro-life movement that it is not abortion as such that offends them.

Europe––at least what we know as Western Europe––has less than one tenth the abortions as America. Why? Are they having less sex? Obviously not. The difference is in their approach to contraception education and availability and a certain nuance with regard to the entire question of sexuality. I make this point because clearly abortion can be reduced without a hegemonic legal revolution which would necessarily challenge what have become fundamental principles of free agency in this country, namely the right to mutual associations.

The overwhelming majority of pro-life movements refuse to discuss a rationalization of sex education and contraceptive access that would most likely drastically reduce the need and demand for abortion. Most of them include in their activist programs curtailments of such things. Their blunt and uncompromising advocacy of Abstinence Only sex education shows a clear agenda that is at least equally if not primarily concerned with the issue of Sexuality. (The founder and former head of Operation Rescue, Randall Terry, stated explicitly in many interviews that he believes all forms of contraception are abortion in one form or another and all of them should be outlawed.)
They do not, in the long run, wish to dictate abortion rights so much as they wish to dictate private behavior. To them, there are only a few acceptable circumstances for sexual activity, and they seem to think they can determine people’s proclivities by reducing their options.

Essentially, this is not a moral issue, since its presentation is misleading, and its goal is a fundamental denial of free agency.

This is a behavioral issue, or, if you will, an issue of taste, of sentiment, of intolerance. These are people who do not like certain behaviors and wish to mandate their elimination.

Moral Value number one–not.

What about the next one? The embrace–or, as some would phrase it, a return–of public religiosity.

The chief argument made by its proponents is that because god is absent from our public institutions, the country has slipped morally.

I will challenge this assertion by two arguments–first, one can reasonably assume that the majority of people who comprise our institutions are religious. Why this fact would vanish from their consciousness because they “clock in” at their jobs is difficult to understand. True, the format, the rules, the guidelines of a job apply certain restrictions on action, but with, as Kant would put it, a good will the uses to which the tools available may be put will be informed by the conscience of the person using them.

Secondly, let us look at the history of those institutions and see if this holds true.

The Supreme Court took up the modern argument over the Establishment Clause, as it is known, in 1947 in a small case involving public funding of school buses to parochial schools. A series of cases followed, culminating in 1971 in Lemon v. Kurtzman , a case involving public support of salaries of teachers who taught secular subjects in parochial schools. Laws in both Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were in question and the court found such public funding a violation of the Establishment Clause because it engendered “undue entanglements” of public into private institutions. This resulted in what is known as The Lemon Test, an unfortunate name.

Under the Lemon Test, for a law to be constitutional it must pass three standards. 1: it must have a secular legislative purpose; 2: its principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and 3: it must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.

Needless to say, this has engendered tremendous controversy and dissent on the Court itself. It is vague, but not incomprehensible, and requires that one set aside ambitions of agenda to apply it fairly.

However, it has not eliminated god from our public institutions entirely. Congress still opens session with a prayer. The president––many of them even up to the present––have had prayer breakfasts. Our courts still swear witnesses in with bible and oath to god.

Granted, the presence of christianity was greater in the nineteenth century. No argument was seriously leveled against the massive entanglement of religious sentiment in political matters because most people who had any voice whatsoever were on the same page. It was agreed among the actors in our national policy that we were a christian nation and that god was on our side.
So let’s look at the record.

Women did not get the vote till 1921. Legally, most women were regarded as “chattel” in the biblical sense–property, under command of their husbands. In matters of divorce, the man could throw them out of the house with nothing but the clothes they were wearing at the time, cutting them off from children, shelter, food, any kind of support, and this could be done legally. These were christian times.

We had to fight a horrific civil war to end slavery in 1865. Good christians all, the secessionists maintained that slavery was a responsibility handed them by god, for what would these poor souls do if they were freed? Thomas Jefferson worried over it and his argument was that the two races could not co-exist as political equals. Prejudices were so deeply rooted that “ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained––new provocations––the real distinctions that nature has made, and many other circumstances which divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which would never end but with the extermination of one or the other race.” Andrew Jackson, in congress during the debates over the issue, suggested that perhaps northern Quakers approved of racial mixing and wouldn’t mind “giving their daughters to negro sons, and receiving negro daughters for their sons.” William Laughton Smith, a South Carolinian senator, put it this way: “If the blacks did not intermarry with the whites, they would remain black until the end of Time; for it was not contended that liberating them would whitewash them; if they did intermarry with the whites, then the white race would be extinct, and the American people would all be of the mulatto breed. In whatever light therefore the subject is viewed, the folly of emancipation is manifest.”

I quote these at length because this was during a time and these were men of America as a profoundly christian nation. God’s presence did not do much to enlighten them and cause them to do the right thing.

While all this was going on, the Marshall supreme court was fast demolishing the Jeffersonian republicanism that sought to guarantee some level of personal sinecure to families, in favor or a market driven embrace of capitalism which resulted in the impoverishment of hundreds of thousands and spurred the westward expansion which led to the decimation of the native American tribes. The principle of Manifest Destiny. “Our manifest destiny,” according to John Lewis O’Sullivan, in the pages of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review of 1845, “is to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Never mind the people already living there, god had given this land to us––we just have to take it. Very christian. The death, disease, and penury the American Indian was reduced to in the course of a number of campaigns to wrest the land from them is a litany of abuse worthy of fascism, all conducted by god-fearing christian people who prayed daily and welcomed religion into our public institutions.

Those three alone should suffice to demonstrate that an active presence of religion did nothing to ameliorate the wrongs embraced by our leaders and supported by our forebears. God-directed imperialism, with concomitant missionary work, did massive damage in the Philippines, the Hawaiian Islands, the Sandwich Islands. Good christian legislators turned away ships laden with Jews escaping Hitler’s Germany, all based on the wrong-headed eugenics of Robert M. Yerkes––not that I think they understood his arguments so much as they welcomed something that looked like science to underpin their basic intolerance as christians.

Time and again you can look at segments of American history wherein self-proclaimed christians did immoral things in the name of the christian god. The KKK was obsessed with a protestant christianity that embraced the concept of an Elect. The various white supremacy groups sprinkled throughout the country today all espouse a christian orthodoxy that, they claim, mandates aggressive approaches to “problems” like race or other faiths or secularism.

So it can be seen clearly that a high profile and public inclusion of religion has not made us more moral in our political or cultural pursuits. The argument that we are less moral because we have shoved the two things apart––particularly in schools––holds no water. (As a personal anecdote, I attended a parochial grade school. The daily doses of Jesus did nothing to dissuade my school mates from indulging in racial bigotry, bullying, lying, cheating on tests, or any other form of childhood malfeasance. Not that they were worse, only that god’s presence did nothing to make them any better.) In fact, it could be argued that since an aggressive secularization of government and public discourse, we have been on a road to moral improvement, since we bring no such unquestioned preconceptions to problem solving.

So what drives this desire to see “god back in the classroom and in our public institutions”?

We do not see any discussion among the various fundamentalist groups for a more inclusive definition of god. We don’t see demands that in schools there are periods of meditation in honor of Buddha or inclusion during the day of the various rakats of Islam. No, what we see is a demand for an exclusively christian practice and observance.

Even if this were accomplished, what is the expected result? Enlightenment? Doubtful. If that were the case, those so devoutly arguing for this would already have found enlightenment and would cease the political struggle, realizing that it is founded on false assumptions. No, this too is a quest for behavioral control. The imposition of a standard of behavior on those with whom they disagree, not so much to change the minds of those who do not agree, but to prevent exposure of their children to alternative ideas. If there is no dissent, there is no problem, no disagreement. This is the conceit of despotism throughout history.

The motive for their desire is therefore selfish and without reflection for consequence. Prayer has never made us a better country. The acknowledgment of problems and their nature and the conscious decision to solve them has made us better.

But on a more fundamental level, it is this urgency to impose a christian aspect that reveals a basic insecurity and desire for a kind of one-size-fits-all solution to perceived problems. The idea that faith transforms infuses this movement with an evangelistic momentum that can allow no debate. And here we must look into the underpinnings of the movement to see what they actually want.

We have a pluralistic society. This means several ideologies, world views, faiths, aesthetics, customs––the building blocks of personal foundations––rub up against each other constantly. Dealing with all these things leads to a certain amount of confusion and, occasionally, frustration. Much simpler if we were all alike in some way. But in a country where you can have disagreement over a given issue between two supposedly similar sects––christians disagreeing over abortion or homosexuality––how can we possibly find a single solution?

We can’t. It’s that simple. As my father used to say, grow up and get over it. People are different. Even when they seem the same, dig deep enough you find differences.

The goal, therefore, as I stated above, of the more rabid christian sects is to eradicate all public expression of those differences. They ask how it can be expected of them to raise their children “properly” when the people around them, in the communities they must live, won’t raise their children according to the same standards. What they want is a guarantee of provenance, a contract with society that tells them they are right and no one will publicly differ with their choices. An examination of their institutions shows a marked tendency to establish nonporous ideological boundaries. Certain ideas, certain music, books, clothing, certain attitudes are kept out by restrictive codes in their schools and, when possible, in their communities. This fear of alternative ideas is an old American disease we have yet to deal with. We are a mongrel nation with no pedigree and a brief history (though getting less brief; one would think we should be getting over our insecurity) and we want to guarantee the rightness of our vision, our choices. Rather than deal with new ideas, learn about and from them, and put them in a perspective that benefits us, we keep them out. I repeat, this is nothing new. This is, in fact, a very christian way of dealing with strange ideas. Christian policy has always been to burn heretical writings and, occasionally, the heretics espousing them. Kill the message and the messenger and keep these crazy notions away from our kids so they don’t grow up asking uncomfortable questions. (Yes, many other religions also adhere to this kind of policy, but as it is the christian Right I’m discussing here, let me point out how Not Different they truly are.)
While for some this may be a desirable condition, a goal worth fighting for, it does not constitute on any grounds a Moral Value, as it necessarily disenfranchises dissent and enshrines intolerance. It is a sanctification of ignorance, and one cannot be a sound moral agent without knowledge. You must understand the world and the way it is and what it throws at you, and you must understand yourself. Ignorance is a basic evil when it is enforced. Religion has a history, for better or worse, of defining good and evil as a practical matter and then issuing restrictions. Thomas Aquinas himself defined what he called “cultivated ignorance” which is a self-perpetuating condition useful for its perceived protective utility. But in the end, ignorance kills––it kills the spirit, the mind, and, eventually, the person.

As a Moral Value, public prayer is a mask for a desired goal of behavioral control and the expulsion of inconvenient acknowledgments of pluralism. Neither is realistic nor moral.

What about the issue of homosexuality? This is not a question of morality but of prejudice. Views held out of prejudice cannot be moral, since prejudice itself precludes any reasoned assessment or objective analysis. It is also a vendetta against people who are different who live according a set of principles which the bigot may well share. Rights and freedoms of association (for me, the bigot, not for you); a desire for companionship (only in certain ways and not in others, which is behavioral control); a desire/need for sex with a mutually consenting partner (the heterosexual may, with certain provisions, indulge, but not the homosexual since indulgence represents an offensive behavior to me).

If it is good and moral for a married couple (heterosexual) to have sexual relations for pleasure, then the only issue at hand in this debate is the gender. If we take as given that sex is not limited to procreation––and, in fact, for any given individual may be completely irrelevant to the issue––then to assert that recreational sex may only be conducted between individuals of opposite sex is absurd, since eroticism is not limited to either gender considerations, or numerical considerations. In fact, auto-eroticism extends the argument that a partner of the opposite sex or at all is not necessary for recreational sexual activity.

Of course, the stance of the fundamentalist will be that sex is for procreation and that it is god mandated as such. This is no more than the assertion of personal preference as moral law. It cannot be effectively––or even desirably––universalized, therefore it does not support itself as a Moral Value.

Marriage issues are another matter. But this is a legal matter, not a moral matter. The debate over gay marriage is over entitlements and legal protections as much if not more than any moral concerns.
The question of censorship should be a non-starter. But it is there. In questions concerning children, it is argued by no one that the introduction of certain ideas, images, or theories requires care and timeliness. This, however, is not amenable to the one-size-fits-all standard of the religious fundamentalist. If you cannot universally apply a principle without stumbling over numerous and insurmountable objections or exceptions, it is not a Moral Value. This is a question of taste, sensitivity, and character, not morality in the public sense. (Half-facetiously, let me argue here that I might have some sympathy for the removal of bill boards advertising sex clubs, but only because I would argue for the removal of ALL bill boards, including those advertising JESUS or a particular church. In this case, it is the bill board concept itself I find offensive, regardless of the particular message. I would not go so far as to assert my position as a moral value, though.)

Censorship serves no good purpose. As a matter of practical policy, it is a fickle thing. If it is established as an accepted principle, then the object being censor can change with political whim. Those demanding censorship of pornography this year could, based on precedent, see their own message censored next year simply because a different faction is in power. The only defense against demagoguery and deceit is the absolute freedom of expression in public forums. The only defense against the demise of a vital civil discourse is the absolute discretion of the individual of what to see, hear, read, or think in private. Censorship promotes neither condition.

This is not a Moral Value, since as one of its consequences it would undermine moral discourse. (If you cannot talk about a subject because it is censored, you cannot determine the suitability of its use or censorship. You establish a doctrinal tautology that permits of no re-examination, which cannot even look to substantiating its own validity.)

The railing of the religious right against evolution is one of the saddest spectacles in history. Because they accept as a given that the truth of evolution would render all morality moot, they cannot accept any notion that morality is a human endeavor and can be both achieved and applied based on any standard other than divine grace. They de facto banish ethics as insufficient and bind us to a creation myth that privileges human beings over and above their environment and paradoxically emphasizes our powerlessness to affect our own affairs. It is, in fact, a plea for exemption from moral casuistry, since it relies on the principle of divine forgiveness as escape clause from immediate responsibilities. The war against evolution is no more than a tactical maneuver to evade a more functional code of moral responsiveness. As such it can claim no status as a Moral Value on any level.

Family Values has been the catch-all phrase for a suite of changes demanded by religious activists centered on the notion that all of the above-mentioned criteria must be dealt with or we risk seeing the family destroyed. One must ask the basic question––is this even possible? The Soviet Union made a concerted effort to do just that over three or four generations, and found it to be impossible. This is something so geared into what people are––thanks to the very evolution fundamentalists are opposed to––that we just do it. Constantly. We form families. We can’t help it.

So what is it the Moral Values/Family Values crowd really want?

They have adopted a Norman Rockwell model of what a family is and wish to ban anything that does not fit that formula. In particular, they want to reduce or eliminate single parent families; bar alternative arrangements like line families or group marriages; curtail divorce; and generally see a conformity of family life with a stable community model that recalls an idyllic time in history when…

When such things never existed. Not in the way the model is presented. We had a brief period when the so-called nuclear family held sway, and even then it was probably not a majority reality, and that was the post-WWII generation that gave birth to the Baby Boom. Economic realities and the social conscience movements of the Sixties and Seventies have battered that model into unworkability except in rare instances. Two incomes are necessary for most families now, and even if not a requirement the idea of socially enforcing a stay-at-home mom is repugnant along ethical and political lines.

But the nuclear family is a modern manifestation of the patriarchal clan model of the late 18th-early 19th centuries, wherein the head of the house––male––was absolute ruler in a minor fiefdom. In the Fifties, we saw this as one of the proud claims––”a man’s home is his castle”––and there were “educational” films made enforcing the idea that the wife and kids were to be subservient to dad. This has all but vanished and justly so since such formulas disenfranchise individuality (the wife cannot make decisions, think, or challenge bad ideas because it is not her “place” and the children must suffer any abuse because they are not competent to challenge authority).

The lack of such central authority in the household has led to certain unpleasant consequences. But also to some very good ones. It’s a mixed bag and we’re still working through it. But to claim that the way things have transpired is due to a collapse of moral values is absurd. What is being demanded here is a return of privilege, and with it a subsequent “simplification” of living arrangements. Of course, this necessarily entails the surrender of certain personal privileges on the part of certain members of the community within the privacy of the household.

An assertion of a principle cannot be called moral if in its application it violates other pre-existing moral principles. Suppression of autonomy as a principle is prima facie amoral at best, immoral in most general practice. In the course of political action or in the interests of the community, such suppression can be seen as a practical matter in the interest of decision-making and necessary action for best interests of the community. But it must always be a temporary condition. In the instance of interpersonal relationships, a principle of deferment may be established, again as a matter of practicality, and certainly in instances where age, experience, or education trump willfulness–but again, this must be a temporary manifestation, to be alleviated as time and circumstance permit. As a permanent feature of any set of relationships, it is perhaps expedient, but never moral.

But a good deal of Family Value rhetoric concerns itself with the following ideas, which are number seven, eight, and nine in the listed platform demands of the religious right–the Moral Value Faction, if you will. And these are all social issues which on their face have dubious relations with anything that might be labeled a moral value.

Number seven and eight can be dealt with together, since they are based on the same issue––”people who do not work should not get money.”

This is a notion born from the transformation of American society in the 1820s through 1840s when all hope of Jeffersonian agrarianism was lost in the overwhelming surge of market capitalism. It is arguable, certainly, whether Jefferson’s vision would have worked. It seems, ultimately, utopian and unsustainable. Population growth alone spurred its demise, in favor of something more aggressively opportunistic.

But the ethical transformation that went along with the embrace of the market fostered a number of pernicious myths which were only bearable while they could be ignored. Poverty as symptom of moral corruption being chief among them, that a person’s misfortune, economically, was always and everywhere his fault. (I can say “his” in this context since this emerged at a time when women were kept out of the market economy by law and custom and were merely “victims”.) Before the advent of modern economic theories and the models they produced, it was assumed, ala Adam Smith, that a healthy growing market would absorb anyone willing to participate. Therefore, those who failed were somehow culpable.

It went further, though. Prior to this explosion of entrepreneurial muscularity, subsistence economies, while certainly difficult and requiring hard work, spread the labor requirements out so that the work done by an entire family was what counted. Obsession was not required. But as the market displaced subsistence culture, a zealotry of enterprise arose requiring from each individual (male)––because this was the new model, it was all dependent on the Individual––a total commitment to “getting ahead” or, as they called it then, “betterment.” Communal methods fell by the wayside as individual entrepreneurial effort became the standard. (It is probably no coincidence that a sharp rise in mental illness accompanied this transformation and the first insane asylums were built at the same time Wall Street was becoming a power in the nation’s economy.)

One result was that those who could not, for whatever reason, successfully compete were relegated to the sidelines, poverty, and the derision and/or pity of society for being somehow unfit, morally or physically or psychically.

We now know that the Adam Smith model is a perpetual motion machine which cannot work at the efficiency level he assumed. We now know that no matter how efficient an economy becomes, there can never be 100% employment. (One thing that mitigates against this is that 100% employment would generate infinite upward pressure on wages, which would quickly spiral out of bounds and the entire system would collapse, burned up.)

Today, we also have the problem of increasing machine efficiency which is gradually displacing traditional labor requirements. People do not adapt as fast as machines can be built to displace them. There will inevitably be unemployables under such circumstances.

How this can be seen as the fault of the unemployed is inexplicable.

Yet the myth persists among the Right––people who do no work should not get money.

Which means they cannot live, they cannot support their families, they cannot survive.

“Then they should work harder.”

It becomes a tautology. A tautology cannot ever be deployed as a Moral Virtue, since its basis is a reliance on its own internal logic, divorced from any external checks. It’s absurd.

But what this really comes down to is a declaration of an unwillingness to be taxed for the benefit of those we do not see as “contributing” to the community. It is a money issue.

First and foremost, however, it is a systems issue, and we have seen in the traditional Right Wing view an intransigence toward accepting any description of the system in which we live that suggests it is inherently flawed and must be fixed. Capitalism––the Market––has taken its place next to the Church as a religious ideology unchallengeable by mortal effort. The religious fervor of Nineteenth Century capitalist reformation has become a sanctified precept of the modern age and while the mechanisms of the era that spawned it no longer pertain to modern circumstances, like all religious conviction the dogma persists. It is a way of separating the Elite from the Damned, a metric that says one group is better than another.

Membership in either group is largely chance, though. If you’re willing to accept things as they are on that basis and just admit that you aren’t willing to pay for public relief, fine. But you cannot define this position as moral in any way.

The war on entitlements, though, is based firmly on the wallet. When you get to the end of the debate, it’s a question of taxes. “Let private charity take care of the poor.” Which is a way of saying let someone else do it, leave me alone. And even if you contribute to those charities, charities by their nature are fickle and inconsistent and often reflect the prejudices of their institutional origins.

President Bush’s program to “reform” Social Security can be seen as part and parcel of this attitude–”it’s your money, you should be free to invest it.” This ignor

Sex, Sin, and Secrets

Last night I saw The Da Vinci Code for the first time.  I had read the first chapter of the book some time ago and frankly it so did not capture my imagination that I haven’t picked it up since.  Years before, I’d read Holy Blood Holy Grail, the book upon which most of Brown’s novel seems based, although the ideas in both have been around for a long, long time.

What did I think of the movie?  It was entertaining.  It moved well.  One might say it is almost (almost, not quite) a Thinking Person’s Indiana Jones.  The photography is gorgeous, the settings cool, and I am never disappointed by Ron Howard’s direction.  Tom Hanks character seems a bit too restrained at times, but this is a minor quibble.

I am frankly impressed that they had the nerve to follow the argument all the way through.  The whole notion of Jesus’ sex life drives many people into spasms of irrational anxiety and vehement denunciation.  It is not just that the early church—from the time of Constantine on—exhibited a profound and evolving misogyny, but that the very idea of sexual intercourse itself elicits a kind of systemic, reflexive revulsion I find baffling to say the least.  I mean, if it were only the subjugation of women at issue, then the notion that Jesus might have used them like kleenexes (much as most charismatic cult leaders have done and continue to do) should raise no passions.

No, it is beyond that.  It is a rejection of sex as a valid exercise between men and women.  Jesus and the Apostles become not just the ultimate He-Man Woman Haters Club, but a paradigm for an asceticism echoed down through time as some sort of ideal state for the true christian.

It falls apart, though, in the subsequent perversion of the Ideal in the very subjugation and profound misogyny that Jesus himself seems to have had no time or patience for.  Later generations of church leaders found that in order to reject sex, they had to demonize the very thing that kept pulling them away from that Ideal—the desirability of women.

(I’m speaking here in terms of heterosexuality, but the same applies to all forms of sexual intimacy.  If it was sinful for a man to lust after a woman, at least such lust was discussable, while homosexual lust brooked no dialogue whatsoever, just condemnation.)

The difficulty of this part of the standard operating procedure of christianity appears unique among the other ideals sought—honesty, humility, generosity, forgiveness.  Frankly, none of them are as difficult to achieve and live by as chastity.

The fact that sexual love can be so magnificent, so transcendent, so Other Worldly makes me wonder—has always made me wonder—if this were even an issue for Jesus.  I seriously doubt it was.  I seriously doubt it was part of his ethic.  He seems to have regularly chastised his disciples for being “boys” when it came to letting the women in as equals.  Doubtless there was a lot of competition among the Twelve for Jesus’s attention and approbation, and doubtless—because of the persistence of the aesthetic within Roman, Greek, and Hebrew cultures—there was more than a little resistance to letting women in on anything the boys did, so it would be natural, while the male competition was going on, to resent even more the intrusion of—ugh—females!

Like all oppression, misogyny on the systemic level is a control device.  The church learned early that it could control its followers best by instilling a constant state of anxiety over sin, by making them all feel guilty and requiring expiation through the intervention of priests.  If they could make you feel guilty during your most private and intimate moments, boy they had you.

Did they do this consciously?  Some probably knew very well what they were doing.  Most just followed orders.  They revered hermits and ascetics, set them up as standards—like St. Jerome, who castrated himself rather than be distracted by lust.  After a time, it becomes entrenched, and the cult of chastity becomes self-perpetuating.  It is always a mistake to think that psychological tyranny is a new thing, invented by the Bolsheviks, or that Back Then people weren’t good at it.  Nonsense.  Modern dictators study Caesar for more than mere military advice.

But was it based on Jesus’s teachings?  Likely not.  He was very much about freedom, about getting out from under the shadow of sin, about finding truth, and about people being equal.  The idea that he would somehow have found women lesser beings is not borne out in the texts, either canonical or apocryphal.

The idea that he was married is hardly the Big Deal the church makes of it.  All it would mean is that he lived life fully as a human being, eating, sleeping, working, talking…loving, in all the ways humans have of loving.  To claim, as the church does, that he was made human in order to live as us so that when he died he could die as one of us is undermined if you take away one of the most basic and powerful and intimate of human experiences.  All the rest of that list is barely more than survival.

I’ll leave the examination of why the decision was taken to subjugate women in the church to others.  It’s a lengthy topic.  Suffice it to say that they did and we’re paying the price of ridding ourselves of that condition, and have been for some time.

What interested me in the ideas behind The Da Vinci Code and it source material is the notion that the revelation of such a fact would overturn the church.  People are gullible, but stubborn.  It would do no such thing.  People would fight and cling to their faith and reject the new fact, just as they reject anything else, true or otherwise, that threatens them where they pin their hopes.  I see atheists all the time hoping for the day religion disappears (hoping, of which most faiths draw sustenance, hence an ironic condition for one who wishes faith to disappear) and thinking that this or that piece of science might dispel as if by magic the blindness of those who see the world otherwise.  Never happens.  Never will.

At best, people adapt and modify the new facts to fit with the old framework, and over time the whole thing gradually morphs into something new, even while appearing to be the same old schtick.

Therefore, I see the idea of the Priory of Scion not as a secret organization designed to guard a Great Secret until the time is right to reveal it, but as another church that has a different kind of icon at its center—a human one, but nevertheless just as potent a symbol as any other.  The bitterness of Ian McKellen’s character that when the first millennium rolled around and the Priory failed to reveal the heir misses the point.  They didn’t reveal the heir (fictionally, mind you) because it would have gotten them all killed, including the heir.  But more importantly, they would have lost their icon.  Their center.  They changed, became like the thing they sought to replace, and simply continued on, worshiping in their own idiosyncratic way.

I quite enjoyed the whole scene with The Last Supper.  Absurd in many ways, though.  While I liked the notion that the person on Jesus’s right is, in fact, Mary, it is a problematic conjecture.  The original was painted on a wall in a mess hall—the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan.  It did not fare well.  Even in 1556, one commentator described it as ‘a muddle of blots.’  It has been restored more often than any other painting by Da Vinci.  The church itself was hit by a bomb in 1943 and rubble covered the painting.  The current version is the nth restoration and no doubt a lot of it is guesswork.  It is not the only Last Supper with a beardless youth at Jesus’s side, but many have pointedly identified this person as John, his brother (another point of contention among those who find the idea that his mother had sex with Joseph offensive).  If Da Vinci had been so bold as to paint a woman, I think there would have been public controversy at the time.  But who can say?  It’s as concrete as any other aspect of this particular issue.

I think we are best left to the long and slow process of just growing up when it comes to this issue.  The supernatural elements of the church have less and less hold on more and more people.  The essential points of Jesus’s teachings do not require his deification or the intercession of divinity—except, perhaps, the divinity we ourselves possess simply as conscious beings capable of greatness.  Capable of wholeness.  Capable, finally, of love.

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.