Doors, Handles, Other Things

Some controversy has erupted around the Hugo Awards. Again.

I have two memories that relate.  One was an early memory of one of the Oscar presentations wherein someone—an actor—took the opportunity to make statements of a controversial nature.  I was young, I didn’t entirely understand why all the adults around became so…resentful.

Yes, that’s the word.  They resented the intrusion of controversial matter into what they seemed to feel was something meant for them.  It was on their television, it was supposed to be there to entertain them, it was not supposed to make them think about things outside the movie that was being honored.

“That’s not the appropriate place for that,” was a phrase I first heard then and later heard a great deal in situations like this.

The second memory involves a concert wherein the performer took a few minutes to say something about oppressed people and political will and so forth.  Its matters less here what he said than the reaction of some of my acquaintances.  “I hate it when they do that.  They shouldn’t put politics in the show. It’s not the proper place for that shit.”

Well, that struck me wrong at the time.  It was rock, which in my mind had till then always been political. Remember the Counter Culture?  Hippies? The Free Speech Movement?  Vietnam?  Country Joe and the Fish?  Rock had a history of being political, so this seemed…revisionist?

 

 

Not the proper place.  Not the appropriate venue. The wrong stage.

Well what is?  And by what criteria?

And who exactly is breaking any kind of contract here?

Nora Jemisin won her third Best Novel Hugo in a row.  Her brief, pointed acceptance speech spoke to the work she had to do and some of the barriers she had to overcome to get to this point.  It is, or should be, no secret that her being on that stage has been a matter of some consternation to some people who have not exactly been circumspect about their feelings.

Some folks thought it was “inappropriate” for her to interject comments aimed at those who have quite vocally wished her ill.

“Not the proper place.”

Well, frankly, fuck that.  If not at your own award ceremony, when? Some time and place where the easily offended won’t hear it?  At a place and occasion where it won’t be noticed?  When she does not have such a platform and can say these things without anyone having to be confronted by it?

Art is complicated.  And damned hard.  A lot of factors come together to keep the artist from any kind of success.  Life is difficult enough without the mediocrities of the world ganging up on someone toiling in the mines of self-expression.  We all know most of us do not get paid enough for the work and all too often the work gets ignored—the vagaries of the marketplace—and all the other noise and bother that goes into trying to be an artist that to then be told to shut up about the human experience, in all its forms, is neither reasonable nor decent.

For some people, there is no “appropriate time and place” to hear truth from someone who will tell them things about the world they live in that they would rather ignore.

But it doesn’t matter.  Her award, her night, her time, her place.  You have a problem with it, be aware—it’s your problem.

And just in case anyone is wondering—the award?  She earned it.

Right To What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Papers, Please

Something that seems to get overlooked in all this sturm und drang over immigration is the visceral reaction those of us who oppose current policy experience over seemingly innocuous terms. “Undocumented” being chief among them. This one causes a chill to run down my spine almost every time I hear it. And it does not stop with illegal immigrants but goes directly to such things as voter registration and ID requirements. The idea that someone who has been living in a community all their life and simply lacks this month’s card can be denied a fundamental right appalls me.

While I understand the perfectly reasonable rationale behind much of this, I am, as an American, opposed to it on principle.

It took me a little while to figure out why. I grew up with the Hollywood and television state villain who, at some point in all such melodramas, walked up to someone and snaps “Papers!” I had it drilled into me that this was a tool of oppression. That having or not having “proper” documents could get you killed. That, in fact, your entire identity and therefore the safety of you and your family hung on the possession of the appropriate documents. Most of these villains wore a particular uniform, but it was clear that all totalitarian states used this as a means of controlling their populations. And that losing your papers meant losing any legitimacy in the eyes of the state.

And we all know where that leads.

This is not an entirely rational reaction on my part, but it nevertheless connects well with certain principles. As an American I reserve the right to be secure in my person without having to prove to some apparatchit that I “belong” here.  It’s up to you to accommodate me.

Of course, in my case that’s relatively easy. I’m the right color, I speak without an accent (mostly), and I have history.

Undocumented is a term that I react to with the same loathing as I would to Goebbels, Himmler, Eichmann, Stalin, Mao, Pinochet, Stroessner, Pol Pot, Kim Jung Un. It suggests that you are not a person without state-sanctioned proof, and I grew up believing that was not American.

It’s difficult to walk that line between necessary documentation—for credit, for benefits, for licenses to operate specific things—and a card asserting you have a right to Be. It makes it too easy to strip away everything by simply losing or having stolen from you that bit of identification, that seal of approval.

We need to rethink where we’re heading with this. We have, collectively, a too-easy tendency to indulge our tribal affiliations by sorting people into categories. When the state is indifferent or benevolent, such things don’t become toxic. But a change in the weather, and what may have been a convenience last year is now a threat. I do not appreciate the idea that we will be the ones walking into a room snapping “Papers!” as if that alone represented the totality of what it means to be a person.  That’s not who we used to be.  That’s not who I want us to be.

Middle Interim

Primary season has begun. Eight states have already held them and the numbers are beginning to come in.

November is going to be significant, no matter what the outcome, because it may tell us something about who we think we are. Midterms are notorious for low voter turn-out. That has to change. After a year and a half of incompetence (actually much more than that, but I’m addressing the current manifestation of mediocrity) we cannot afford to be our usual “oh, who cares about midterms, it’s not like they’re important” attitude that usually seems to dominate at them.

A few things to keep in mind. Midterms have traditionally been decided by far less than half of eligible voters. Which means that the winning party usually wins by virtue of less than a quarter of the voters. The rest of us then spend the next two years complaining about the idiots in congress etc, but rarely do the people who blew off their civic responsibility (and who are often the loudest complainers) own up to the mess they allowed to occur. Well, to those of you who fail to vote, two things: you have basically permitted yourselves to be irrelevant; and you will probably be bypassed by the generation coming up. Until that happens, though, the rest of us have to suffer the consequences of your voicelessness.  You did a number on the country this last election by sitting it out.  If you’re happy with the results, well, so be it. But if you’re one of the ones regularly complaining about the state of the country, all I can say is, either show up from now on or shut up.

Moving on.

I do not intend to write another thing about Trump after this. As far as I’m concerned, he is a giant ball of mediocrity. He is, however, being consistent according to his past. His “style” if you will is to dance around and take advantage of openings like a boxer and punch. He has no plan in the usual sense. His goal is to win the present argument and hope it comes out in his favor. The trail of bankruptcies, half-finished ventures, and lawsuits is a testament to this. He is not orderly, coherent, or conscientious. He is an improviser. It may well be that he is someone you might want on your negotiating team going into a difficult discussion, but he should never be the lead. There is no evidence that he has any longterm strategy. He is all about tactics. Example: note the photographs of the recently concluded G7. The roundtable, where every single person attending has a collection of papers, notebooks, reference material at their seat—except Trump. He did not prepare, he was not prepared. He was looking for a chance to “go with his gut” as he likes to say.

No doubt people who have done business with him have made money. He’s in that game, stirring the pot, and just by the law of averages certain people will know how to play, and will make out well. Some of his ventures have been “rescued” by people who then turned them around and made them work. Let me be clear—there’s nothing especially wrong with that. If everyone at the table is there to play the same game and they all know the rules and are willing to take the risks, fine. That’s a species of American business. You improvise, you deal, you roll with the punches, you look for some way to land on your feet, and sometimes things align and it looks like you came out okay. A survey among those with whom he has done business in the past reveals a very mixed assessment, but mostly he is regarded by some of our more consistently successful entrepreneurs as a rogue factor at best, a rank amateur, or a lucky incompetent at worst. Even so, that’s a game and he plays it. It’s questionable if he ever gets the result he started out wanting, but the definition of a win in this case is fluid. If he walks away able to play the next round—and can find people willing to play it with him—that counts as a win.

You can’t lead a country that way. You have to know what the end result is supposed to be and thus far there is no blueprint.

This would not be as great a problem as it is if we had a congress that possessed collective competence. The problem is, congress is filled with people who are either cut from the same cloth or are just as mediocre. The majority in control seem incapable of accepting that whatever vision they may have carried into the job is not working out and maybe, just maybe they have to compromise on some things in order to do the People’s Business. Many of them are looking at Trump in alarm, but those who might be in positions to do something are caught by the fact that large parts of Trump’s tactics align with what they’ve been trying to do for years, namely destroy the safety net, establish (often unstated) class hegemonies, and hand over as much power and resources to those they believe will work to the benefit of the country as a whole from the private sector. They have done this under the guise of “getting the government out of people’s lives” but then turn around and enact laws that allow private corporations to get very deeply into people’s lives. They see no contradiction in this. Since those corporations are dependent on government assistance to do what they intend to do, it ought to be obvious that taking one hand off so the other can replace it is little more than a shell game wherein the only difference is who gets scammed.

Trump has been the beneficiary of a long trend in this direction. He did instinctively understand that about the Republican Party, so that just about everything he said, including the way he said it, conformed to the deep desires of the GOP, its funders, and its base. His crudity exposed it to the glaring light of day and he managed to turn that into a positive for his campaign. He parlayed what we mistake as “plain speaking” and honesty into a slogan-driven campaign that eschewed nuance, comprehension, and decency and embraced vulgarity, bluntness, and condescension on behalf of a strain of impatience, intolerance, and frankly ignorance parading as common sense.

A few words about that. Judging by the evidence, what he tapped into can be called a collapse of caring capacity among a certain strain of self-identified American Firsters. Some decades ago the lid came off of a Pandora’s Box of vileness in the American collective culture—racism, misogyny, greed, all supported on a deep loam of myth that extols a readiness to do violence, ignore what is shown to be weakness, and an assumption that the successful American is somehow the product of an elemental “natural man” model of human nature, that if left alone we are all basically successful, entrepreneurial, independent, and highly competent. This is where all the arguments about “level playing fields” come in.  One faction of our culture assumes we already have that and people complaining that the system, however you define it, is stacked against them are only seeking unfair advantage. Admitting this latter to be true opens the possibility that our renowned self reliance is also a fable and that there is no such thing as an Independent American, not in the sense intended. It attacks a self image we have used to push ourselves up various ladders since we claimed national independence. The idea that we all rely on others and on advantages not of our creation to do anything runs counter to that myth.

Most of us know better. Some of us know better but have found advantage in perpetuating that myth.  Some people really don’t seem to get it. They don’t want to accept that their skin color, at a minimum, can be an advantage or a disadvantage. We want to believe that ability and merit are all that matter.

Trump’s hardcore supporters not only don’t want to believe it, they are willing to reject the idea with prejudice, and use Trump as their poster boy. They see all criticisms of America, his boorishness (and by extension theirs), charges of sexism and racism, as nothing but barriers intentionally placed to prevent them from being recognized for their innate greatness.

More, they seem to believe that all the people they see as taking unfair advantage have only done so by virtue of certain elected officials who were “on their side” in opposition to them. Now they have “their guy” in charge and so advantage will accrue to them.

Never mind the people who came to depend on certain progressive social policies who are now losing them and can’t understand why. Let’s just look at business. These tariffs are punitive. But they will likely not hurt the countries they are ostensibly leveled at nearly as badly as they will hurt home industries. Yet this has been one of the demands of a certain mindset for a long time—why aren’t we charging tariffs on those imports? Can’t those people in Washington see that “unfair competition” is destroying American business?

But the costs of tariffs will fall massively upon the very businesses they’re supposedly meant to protect.

Why? Because the world is more complex than such simply thinking.

It might not even be a bad idea, to adjust import duties, but not this way.  This is where his mediocrity manifests destructively. Instead of using a scalpel, he used a hammer.  (Perhaps understandably so, since his “expertise” is overwhelming in real estate.  He even compared his recent agreement with North Korea to a real estate deal. Pay attention—this is going to cause serious problems.  On the one hand, real estate is seen as a longterm, tangible commodity, but the deals surrounding it are almost always short term, high profit affairs that seek a quick agreement so the parties involved can take their money and walk away as quickly as possible. Any longterm benefit goes to banks, and we’ve seen how well they manage such things.)

The average American has been under the idea that the last forty or fifty years of international trade dealings have been in favor of the rest of the world to our detriment. The basis of this belief is a holdover from the post-World War II period when we were actively trying to help rebuild a devastated world. We understood in our bones that if the imbalances of the 19th Century and the injustices of the post World War I era continued, we would be facing another calamitous war in the near future. In order to do avoid that calamity, certain international conditions had to change.

When engaging in this resulted in the economy of the 1950s and 1960s, no one complained. We had the technology, the labor pool, and the financial resources and it put millions to work at high paying jobs which many people came to believe would be the way things were going to be from now on. In reality, the perceived “loss” of American hegemony has been the result of our success. The world is today as it is because we were tremendously successful. But obviously that meant our relative status would change. As the world recovered and the global economy took shape, industries grew in places where they previously did not exist and in those places where they had, things became more efficient and productive. The novelty of imported automobiles in the 1960s, which were the brunt of jokes then, have now become part of the accepted, normal landscape, including factories for such cars being built and operated on American soil. For better or worse, the world is catching up, and consequently the American worker has been complaining about those “lost” jobs when by the end of the 1970s the proverbial writing was on many walls.

But as a country we adapted to the new conditions and the path forward has been made obvious—we will live in a global economy.

(An aside here. I write science fiction. One of the main conceits of SF for decades has been a global government and economy. Borders would become lines on maps, movement relat8vely unrestricted. We saw some of what this would look like in the EU. But in order to achieve that, some things must change, and one of them is the idea that any one country gets to be “in charge.” I think the erosion of that myth has been one of the drivers of the reaction that put Trump in office. Some Americans want to believe in American Exceptionalism. The idea that we might be just one of the club seems a step down, nationally. What they see in Trump—and what his performance at the G7 supports—is someone who is willing to validate their perceptions. The whole “Make American Great Again” appeal is far broader than the racial aspect (make America White again), which is part of it. It’s born out of an impression that there was a time we could do what we wanted and the rest of the world listened to us. Well, that was never fully or legitimately the case, and by the end of the 1970s everyone should have realized it. But comforting illusions are difficult to dismiss and when someone comes along willing to tell us that they aren’t illusions, that we can be that way, again or otherwise, reason takes a back seat to national pride.)

Unfortunately, most of our problems cannot be laid at the feet of international trade. Our problems are internal and Trump is doing nothing to address them. By now that should be clear. And these tariffs and his juvenile exhibition at the G7 will do far more harm than such fantasies of a Triumphant America cherished by our own strain of authoritarian absolutists could possibly be worth.

But the reason I intend to stop writing about Trump (and I admit I may have occasion to do so regardless) is that Trump is not the problem. He is representative of a point of view that is, intentionally or otherwise, wrongheaded and in many ways toxic. When arguing about him with his supporters, a curious thing happens. The conversation ends with the first criticism. Even in instances where the facts underlying the criticism are inarguable, the Trump supporter shuts down and will concede nothing. (If you could argue about the issue without ever naming him, you might find a different reception.) This has become the flip-side of Obama Derangement Syndrome. When you criticize Trump to a supporter (just as when you tried to defend Obama to a detractor), you really aren’t talking about Trump anymore—you’re talking about your conversant. At the first volley, they think they know who and what you are, walls descend, the conversation is over, because now it is tribal. You aren’t criticizing Trump in their minds, you’re criticizing them.

Trump is stomping on and tearing up agreements and damaging relationships which have taken, in some instances, 70 years to build, acting as he assumes his supporters want him to act. There is no regard for consequence because, after all, how will this hurt him? He has billions, he’ll be fine. He can shit all over our allies and throw hissy fits about trade and never miss a meal.

His cheerleaders with considerably less reserves will pay for all this.

But just consider one aspect of this performance. The idea that America is supposed to come out of this more respected, or more feared, is a pitiful ambition when by acting this way he is proving that America cannot be trusted. When we have to go to our allies (or former allies) and say “This needs to be done” they can, and probably will, say “Maybe, but not with you. We can’t depend on your keeping your word.”

There may have been ways to renegotiate some of these agreements to gain a bit. But not this way. These are playground tactics. All he is doing is destroying the confidence we really did once command from others.

But this isn’t really about Trump.  This is about the walking wounded who put him in office and still think he’s doing a great job, even as they lose what health care they had and see their last remaining jobs disappear because local companies go under, broken by the burden of higher costs for imports they can’t function without.  They put their faith in a Pied Piper and he’s leading them all to a cave which is about to collapse.

We will survive. America is a big place and there is much good here. In some very important ways, we are great and never stopped being so, just not in the blunt-force-trauma ways Trump supporters seem to want. But it should never have been this hard or this costly to get to the new condition we will have to embrace in order to live on this planet and do all the worthwhile things. It’s not 1955 anymore and it never will be again.

I hope we will be better.  We can be. But maybe we just have to molt, get rid of the old skin, and leave this nonsense behind.

In the meantime—vote. Help others to vote. If you don’t vote, you surrender you voice. None of this will work without participation. Vote.

 

Ol’ Time Deaf & Blind

Recently I had one of those exchanges which can be intensely frustrating, more so for the thoughtful participant than the antagonist, who often seems to feel that ramping up the frustration of the deponent constitutes a “win.” Never mind the substance of the argument.

It was over the question, now almost continually asked, “How can those self-proclaimed christians support Trump now that_____?”  Fill in the blank. Of course, most of these are rhetorical, “gotcha” memes that do not seem to really want an answer.  The answer is not all that complicated. A few weeks ago a friend of mine relieved me of the burden of trying to over-analyze the question by pointing out, in a marvelous example of applying Occam’s Razor, that the question assumes all the wrong things. They support him for the same reason anyone supports “their guy.”  They’re partisan.  There’s no mystery, it’s not rocket science, and we who might legitimately wonder about the conflation of theological militancy and dubious standard-bearers often jump down rabbit holes of historical, theological, and psychological analysis.  Much to the mirth, I imagine, of those we seek to understand.

For the majority of evangelical and/or fundamentalist supporters of our current president, this answer is more than sufficient. We who lean a bit more to the left do the same thing, albeit perhaps less dramatically, excusing lapses we may decry in our elected officials when they aren’t “our guys.” The simple fact is, purity of ideology and private life are chimeras not to be found. No one, on either side, will ever meet that standard and we are wasting our time and energy hoping for one.

(I’m not altogether sure I would trust someone who appeared to meet those criteria. I want my leaders human, thank you very much, warts and all. Saints tend to have or develop agendas that are eventually at odds with human needs and, if convinced of their specialness by undue popular acclaim, stop listening when they start acting on such beliefs.)

But there are a couple of instances where the question has ancillary aspects that drift back into the office of the analyst. One, the biggest possibly, has to do with the leaders of such groups who loudly conjoin a biblical spin with support. Of course, they’re ridiculous, but the problem is, people listen to them, and here we do see the source of the original question.  The answer remains the same—they are partisan and they have agendas, usually along the lines of condemning homosexuality, ending abortion, and bringing back some kind of Mosaic aesthetic to apply to civic and private life. This is as political as you can get, but they wrap it in the sugarcoating of “god’s will”and sell it along with the hundred dollar bibles. There’s no way to tell how many of their adherents actually act on their preachments and I believe they are in the minority, just very, very loud, but it cannot be denied that there is an element of perhaps very cynical theological redaction going on. How can they support this guy out of one side of their mouths when they claim to be christians out of the other? More to the point, when they make the argument that this is wrapped up with supporting their guy. As I said, like anyone else, they’re partisan and, like most people. they compartmentalize. How can they preach that this guy was chosen by the lord to do whatever it is he’s going to (presumably what they hope he will do) and gloss over the incompatibilities over things they would never hesitate to condemn someone who is not their guy for doing? Because they are opportunistic shams who are more worried about their own power an influence than anything genuinely christian.

Now a couple of things happen when I say something like that. The first is a lot of people assume I’m talking about them when I’m not.  The label has an unfortunate effect of categorizing people of many different philosophical and personal attributes into a single group. Just as terms like “conservative” or “liberal” do. We use these labels to define what we’re talking about at the moment, unfortunately casting too wide a net and causing defenses to rise where none are needed. One consequence of this is a lot of people will start making the “well, they’re not real christians” argument, distancing themselves. Since what we’re talking about has far more to do with political partisanship than actual religion, this is unfortunate, because it’s just one more wall between people.

What to do? If someone insists on self-identifying that way and then claiming they vote in accordance with that identity, how does one deal with it without acknowledging the problematic aspects of the issue?

If you start engaging with someone over these questions by delving into what the bible actually says and how it might not be what they think it is, you discover a couple of things right off the bat that makes it either a very short or a very frustrating encounter. Firstly, your conversant may not know thing one about what you’re talking about. They have not read the bible. Not all of it, not nearly enough of of it. (I am speaking now of averages; there will always be someone who does not fill this description.) At best they have studied the parts they’ve introduced to in church. After all, those are the “important” parts. Secondly, you run into the problem that this person probably, maybe, did not come to his or her belief by a reasoned process. Which is why when you start examining the bases of their belief, they are completely at sea, and react as if threatened. Because you are threatening them.

However and for whatever reason they have come to this place, they have staked their identity on this ground and to suggest it might be sand is very, very, very threatening.

It’s not your place to tell them they’re wrong.

The best you can do is offer—not impose—more information. Or walk away.

However, when someone steps up to willingly engage with you over this and makes a show of being open to dialogue, things change.

In the encounter I mentioned above, two things were thrown at me that I found no way to deal with effectively because they represent a mindset that a priori rejected my arguments. The first that I am “misguided” and the second that I am “rebelling against god,” which is the sole reason I fail to swallow his counterarguments.

I’ve written before about how I feel that those gentle busybodies who knock on your door to bring you the good word, without intending to, are very insulting. Because in order to presume to do that they have to make certain assumptions, one of which is that you must be stupid. That something  this important just never occurred to you to think about ever before. No, they do not consciously think this, but when confronted by someone who informs them that, no, I have considered all this and chosen a different path, they conclude that you either misunderstood something or you’re in league with the devil. The discourse runs aground on the shoals of mutual incomprehension because the places you’re arguing from are wildly divergent. If you stand your ground, I suspect they think you think they’re stupid. But at some level where space for being able to acknowledge the possibility of a different view should be, something else has filled it and communication is subsequently made far more difficult.

But the judgment that I am stupid is wrapped up in that “misguided.” Clearly, I am not getting something, which is so simple and so self-evidently true a child ought to pick up on it. Because, conversely, I can’t possibly have a worthwhile point. No, of course not. That would be impossible, since it appears to  contradict the convictions of your conversant. He didn’t seem to even register those points where I agreed with him (and there were) because I kept insisting, I suppose, that there were doctrinal problems with some of this. So I’m misguided.

And I am misguided because I’m rebelling against god. I have to be. The only reason I would argue along the lines I do is if I were angrily rejecting a god I know in my heart is really there. Because that’s the only way you can rebel against something, is by rejecting the authority of something real.

This is a fallback assumption, which is one of the reasons we see the logical absurdity that atheists worship Satan.  This is flung at us with no hint of irony.

The existence or nonexistence of god aside, this is a human inability to consider the possibility of Other Views. Even to dismiss them.

But I made the observation that, no, I am not in rebellion against god. If anything, I am in rebellion against people who insist that I’m misguided. I suppose this was ignored because, on some level, the notion that people and god can be separate in the sense that I meant is inconceivable. To be in rebellion against god’s messengers must de facto mean I’m rebelling against god.

Loops within loops.

So extract god from the core question and we come back to—they’re partisan.

(This is not, in fact, inconsistent with this brand of christianity. They are stuck in the Old Testament with all its punitive constraints and vengeance and parochial judgment. You can tell because they go all Levitical on you to defend their presumed moral superiority. Yahweh is a partisan god. Look at the jeremiads against “foreigners” and the instructions on how many of another people the Israelites ought to slaughter. He is a blood-soaked deity who has chosen a Side and promised to bless these people if they do what he says. This is partisanship.  It is not at all inconsistent, given the rhetoric about building walls, reinstating intolerances, banning programs that award benefits to people Yahweh would have had put to death. He’s their guy the way David was.)

I uttered two words that sent my opponent into eloquent condemnation—doubt and skepticism. Since he felt I was misguided, I realized he saw no utility in either of these, at least not when it came to religion.

This is not confined to religion. I want to stress this. The kind of filters in place I perceived are by no means an exclusive attribute of this view. Many people simply do not want or cannot manage to think everything through. It is perfectly human to want something, some core of philosophical reliability that goes without saying and need not be questioned. To believe is held up as a virtue. Whether it is or not, it seems to be a very human necessity. When that core is called into question…

But I would like to say this: you cannot be misguided if you are open to differing opinions and always on the hunt for questions that need answers. You can certainly wander down side roads, into cul-d-sacs, blind alleys, but if you’re still looking, it doesn’t trap you. You can only be misguided by a guide who does not have your interests in mind. Gurus, prophets, stump preachers, pseudoscientists, psychics, charlatans of all stripes who all share one thing—the desire to capture you into their scam (whether they feel it’s a scam or not) and make themselves feel “right” by the headcount in the hall.

And, really—you can’t be in rebellion against something you don’t believe exists. But then a lot of people find it difficult to separate out an idea from an actuality.

But as to how all those “good christians” can support Trump? Partisanship. They may or may not be good christians, but they are definitely dedicated partisans.

That Sense of Threat

This will be brief. We are having another round of debate about gun control. On its face, this should not be controversial. We control everything else that presents a potential for harm from pets to automobile safety to drugs to large gatherings. You may nitpick over the efficacy of any or all of these, but the fact remains that with a very few exceptions such controls are not controversial and as an average seem to work fairly well. It is only when the discussion moves to firearms that an apparent innate irrationality rises to obliterate the possibility of reasonable discourse.

One of the primary factors driving the debate is the perception of crime. The problem here is that we are generally pretty poor at accepting reality-based fact in lieu of feelings fed by what we see—mainly on the news, online, even in our own cities. One murder, under the right circumstances, can be made to look like a raging killing spree. We react rather than try to put it in any kind of perspective. Blame evolution if you want, we are predisposed to fight-or-flight response to perceived threat. Dealing with the perception becomes our primary response, whether or not what we do to deal with it results in anything efficacious at all.

Here is a page of explanations.  Please read it—twice or three times if you’re confused—then come back here:   http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/30/5-facts-about-crime-in-the-u-s/

By any metric, we are a safer society than we were 30 years ago. Reasons for this vary. Some people think it’s because more people are armed. That clearly has had no effect on domestic murders. It has had no effect on suicides, either. A little common sense will tell you that for the armed citizen to be an actual consistent deterrent—and I am not saying this is not something that happens—requires a congruence of circumstance that renders it a statistical novelty more than anything.  One has to happen to be somewhere and happen to be prepared and, also, happen to be skilled enough to be effective, which includes a willingness to take a life.

Be that as it may, all of this points up the absurdity of calling for more arms, when clearly there is less violence, but also violence of a sort that such self-arming has no general utility in preventing. The shooter in Las Vegas, to move this away from schools for a moment, would not have been stopped.

It is those mass shootings that are relatively new and for the time being intractable. You having a weapon in your home a hundred or a thousand miles away from the event that prompted you to go arm yourself will have zero impact on these things.

People do not like to feel helpless.

But lately it seems some people do not feel community-based solutions will do anything.

It is now fairly clear that the shooter in Florida was going to do what he did regardless who had a weapon besides him. He might even have relished the challenge. The only thing that would have prevented it would have been his inability to obtain a rifle. Anything else would have resulted in perhaps a few less deaths but more likely more deaths, and the incident would be about 10 fatalities or 20, but the unacceptability of it would remain.

Talk of mental illness is a distraction. In some instances, there may well be something to it, but I suspect that most of these people are not clinically ill at all.  They are what once were termed social frustrates. They have acquired the means to avenge perceived slights and make ego-exaggerated statements of self-importance because they have accepted a worldview that allows them to act out, violently and senselessly.

We could go into a long discourse over the why and wherefore of all this, but the supercharged political and pseudo-moralizing rhetoric of the past four or five decades that cast people into Us and Them camps cannot have helped.

The fact that we pay no attention to the underlying reality that quite often runs counter to the channeled screeds on narrowband cultural commentary venues is another factor.

This is not, before anyone suggests it, a call for censorship. This is a call for more information, more speech, but above all a call for accountable speech.

I actually believe there is a groundswell of public movement for exactly that. I am sanguine.

But we have to stop reacting out of a mindset that no longer applies.

It is human nature to go through the day applying heuristics. It’s simpler, easier, and frankly comfortable and comforting. But when those heuristics are based on bad information, poor thinking, and a refusal to acknowledge errors, we compound the difficulty of making sound, rational choices by doubling down on being wrong.

I am not here advocating any kind of confiscation.  For one, I doubt it could be done. This is one of those instances where the solution should come before the object in question is acquired. Once acquired, it becomes a personal property issue as much as any kind of stand on perceived political rights. Once you start trying to collect something, people will hide it, refuse, dig in, and then it becomes a different issue altogether.

Short of that, sensible regulations in place before a weapon is purchased should not be controversial.

But pay attention. Violent crime has gone down. In most ways, we are safer today than ever before.

The problem seems to be, for unrelated reasons, we are angrier and more fearful than we have been in recent memory.

This is called cognitive dissonance and it’s a Sisyphean Labor to make rational decisions when immersed in such a state.

But might I suggest that if in fact your neighborhood, your community, is in a violent state, then maybe instead of adopting a siege mentality, you could actually do something constructive and make it a better place to live. It can be done. Apparently, it’s being done in many places.

 

 

A Few Thoughts In Advance of the State of the Union

A year in and it is about as clear as it will ever be that we have a president both unequipped and disinterested in the job to which a quarter of the eligible population voted him into. The flailing in congress is now centered on second guessing him, improvising constantly with each revision that looks like policy, and trying to find a viable position in which to be when the final bill comes due and he is either impeached or resigns. By now, I imagine, most of them are hoping one of those happen, because the third course is trying to manage a complex, expensive nation through three more years and fearing the possibility of another four (plus possibly his vice presidential successor) should he be reelected.

I am quite serious about that, for the following reasons.

There was no way to reasonably expect him to win in the first place, but he did. All the flaws in our system came into play in a perfect storm to hand the wrong person the job. Between 40 and 47% of eligible voters did not vote. Even so, the popular vote totaled to give his opponent more. Had a mere five percent higher turnout happened…

The electoral college did its job as the representative bulwark to defend the smaller states from the larger, who in a straight popular election could swamp the Montanas and Wyomings and Alaskas all the time. If you do not understand why this is bad, just look at the consequences of gerrymandering on the state level which favors concentrations of one population group over others. Size matters. But in this case, it also failed because it does have the power to change its decision based on results that may be questionable. (A solution to this problem could be as simple as delaying the announcement of the E.C. results by a few days or a week. Unless I am mistaken, there is no law that says they must announce at the same time as the popular vote.)

Unless the Democratic Party fields a candidate that can stand apart from past problems and rally the base, Trump represents a focal point that may attract enough support to do it again.

The Republican Party misread its base as badly as the Democratic Party misread its base. The difference was, the GOP had fostered the base it then misunderstood, while the Democratic Party simply ignored its traditional base in favor of a base it represents rather well, but speaks to as if it were something else. The result was, that while the argument between the two frontrunners of the Democratic Party was, when broken down side by side, almost negligible, the difference between the final Republican candidate and those he ran against was as profound as can be even as the distinctions on policy were practically nonexistent. You might think I’m saying style over substance, but I’m not. Something worse—our president accepted the rhetoric of the GOP as if it were gospel while none of the rest of the slate did. Trump understood that a significant portion of the GOP base supported the rhetorical stances of the party in the most literal way, while the others thought they could conduct politics as usual and ignore the means by which they had gained power.

As for the electorate, the Trump supporters wanted what they got. (They probably didn’t understand what they were asking for and for some of them, maybe most of them, probably expected the changes they demanded to affect Other People and not them.) The Democrats created a chasm between their two candidates where none existed. Bernie Sanders was not going to run his administration significantly differently than Hillary Clinton. But the 24-hours news cycles, FaceBook, and the Talk Radio chaos fed the small differences between them and turned Hillary into a monster.

It is probably true that had Sanders gotten the nomination, more Democrats would have come out to vote. He probably would have beaten Trump on the simple basis that he did not suffer under an onslaught of unsubstantiated hatred. (That would have come, though, had he gotten the nomination. Still, I think he would have won, which is not to say he was going to be any better at the job than Clinton, only that the public perception of him might have allowed for more people to set aside biases they thought vital and participate. This begs the question of how such biases could have been such that the very act of participation could be seen as pointless given the choices.) He would have won because those who supported Hillary would have, while being disappointed, understood that a larger issue was at stake, put aside their disappointments, and voted for him. In spite of Sanders pleading with his supporters to do the same for Clinton, they stood by their shallow principles and allowed the country to be handed over to a real problem. In this way, they were no different than their rightwing counterparts who vote single issue even when that issue is based entirely on falsehoods and a complete misunderstanding of the issues involved.

Both parties, either by omission or direct action, have a share in the situation. Both are badly compromised by an overdependence on money. Both are hampered by a lack of focus on solutions. Both have accepted the diminishment of dreams and are fighting over fenceposts.

This is not to say that there is not now a clear moral difference between them. By default if nothing else the Democratic Party has become, if not a champion exactly, the advocate for ethical policy.

The electorate, on both sides of the divide, have been aware for decades that they are not being represented. They are also tired of the continual blaming that substitutes for cooperation and sound policy.

Both sides expected their candidate to make a thorough housecleaning of Washington D.C.

It may not have occurred to either side that a great deal of the mechanism they have been taught to mistrust and even hate actually works fairly well when you consider what it is tasked to do.

But that doesn’t fit a narrative of righteous rage.

At present we have a collection of apparent contradictions before us, some telling us things are better than they were, others quite the opposite. Prevarication, dissembling, and mendacity have always attended any political period, but to these we must add incompetence of a possibly dangerous level. With his supporters, all this passes muster because they see it as the hallmark of “their guy” being assailed by entrenched interests and having to fight back with the available tools. They are sure the apparent contradictions are more aspects of the hall of mirrors they believe D.C. to be than any flaw in his character. Again, this is familiar to any group of supporters of almost any candidate in a spotlight. He’s saying what he needs to say to stay in power and do the job.

The reduction to a form is a useful way to make sense of what can be a baffling complexity, but one which, if not tempered by sound judgment, can overwhelm our ability to recognize a real difference in kind. In this case, the usual dance of politics that supporters believe him to be performing does not explain what is clearly someone incompetent to the task.

One example is the recent attempt to bully a publisher into canceling publication of a book. Never mind what the book is about, whether it is factual or fair, this was an action taken out of petty spite and in clear violation of everything we are supposed to be about. I do not risk hyperbole in this—blatant censorship, of the kind we have always criticized in the worst dictatorships, is involved, in writing. That his lawyers had to explain to him why he could not do this should be enough to show that he is ill-suited to the job.

This has occurred several times already, the necessity of someone to explain the president the limits of his office. It remains to be seen if such discussions encompassed actual principle, that it would be unconstitutional. The continual and ongoing tussle over immigration is typical.

Then there is the pandering over American jobs. The recent tariff imposed on solar panels shows a profound disconnect over what he is supposed to be good at, namely business. Two plus years of pledges to secure jobs inside the country, and thus far he has demonstrated a lack of clear understanding. This tariff will eventually cause the loss of over twenty thousand jobs in a till now growing industry. An industry, by the way, that supplies a need but also fulfills the promise of a more environmentally friendly industry. Trump’s pandering to worker sympathies vis-a-vís the coal industry is the basest kind of cynical posturing. Environmental concerns aside, coal is a dying industry. It costs too much for too little gain. This is an example of the law of diminishing returns. Of course, this also demonstrates the skewed priorities of the party to which he is attached, in that public outrage over the lost livelihoods of coal workers is met not with any kind of sinecure for the workers but with protectionist legislation for the companies. It would never occur to them to simply pension these workers with full benefits and let the companies die the way companies do. Protect the people working the mines rather than hold them hostage to guaranteed profits for people who will even in the aftermath lose nothing but a bit of power.

Point being, there were ways to approach this that would have been capitalist-friendly and environmentally sound and progressive, but there is a burden of cronyism attached that makes sensible action incommensurable with most of those choices.

One benefit, an unintended one, to be sure, of this presidency is that the stage-managed mendacity of the last twenty years is being undone. Immigration reform, of the kind that would have resolved all the current issues, was proposed by, of all people, Bush. His own party refused to cooperate. Bush, at one time the darling of the GOP, could not get it done. Like other such issues, including abortion, the pattern has been clear and not always party-specific: certain issues make irreplaceable campaign topics. Votes can be garnered by stirring the base with the right rhetoric. Solve these issues, you take those away, and candidates would have to rely on other things, less visceral, on which to campaign. Now there is a president demanding action and threatening to topple the house of cards.

On immigration, the charade has been two-fold. Certainly it is easy to frighten certain groups with images of foreigners flooding the country and threatening our “americanness.” But it has also been a standard tool to make the economic argument that these immigrants, especially the illegal ones, are the reason wages are stagnant. (Of course, there are two elements to this, which coexist jaggedly if one cared to give it any thought: jobs being shipped overseas to take advantage of labor costs as well as immigrants coming in to threaten wages by lowering labor costs. There is something amiss with the calculus here, but people who are anxious or frightened think badly. The primary purpose of these issues is to maintain that condition. Consider just one factor: those coming here are coming here for jobs. Those jobs, obviously, have not been “shipped overseas” and require someone to do them. If actual labor costs were addressed to make wages fair, it wouldn’t matter who fills them, cost would not be the deciding factor. Similarly, jobs shipped overseas to take advantage of lower costs include regulatory costs here, bypassed by building plant in countries where such regulations do not exist. A simple solution would be to impose a reimportation tariff to essentially nullify that benefit and take away the justification for exporting plant.)

Mitch McConnell and his gang are running in panic because Trump is threatening their job security. If he were doing so intentionally, with some kind of purpose, it might be a good thing, but he has yet to follow through on any of this. It has all been a matter of unintended consequences.

People are pointing to the upsurge in economic activity as some kind of sign that his “policies” are working. Of course, these same people would deny other presidents credit on the basis that what we see happening has far more to do with the outgoing administration, because what can a president do in one year to cause this kind of surge all on his own? And that argument would be correct. A new administration’s policies take two, sometimes three years to show up all on their own. But in this instance, there is a bit of anticipatory greed at work, waiting for the gates of the city to be thrown open for the pillage to begin. We have actually fixed nothing in the wake of 2008 and are vulnerable to another meltdown because the political will is absent in D.C. to reimpose the kinds of regulations that would work to prevent it. In both parties, frankly. This is the one area where Sanders may well have been more effective. Be that as it may, there is no coherent policy to explain it in terms of the current administration. The tax reform bill came after the stock market surge, so they are not causally connected.

Tuesday night is another State of the Union address, Trump’s first. He has some explaining to do. Polls suggest that thus far he has done nothing his supporters sent him to Washington to do. He has not heard them. They want healthcare, jobs, cost-of-living adjustments, variety of things he has spent his life working to get out of paying for as a businessman. The failure to address any of these, certainly, is not all on him, he heads a party that is more concerned with keeping power than solving problems.

(The drawback to solving problems is, as I indicated, that once solved they cease to be effective campaign issues. And to be fair, this is human nature. If things are running smoothly, then the necessity of maintaining the things that make them run smoothly loses valence, and people wonder why they still have to be concerned with it. You can survey history in many areas to see this, where the cost of maintenance becomes burdensome when the need for it seems to disappear in the absence of crises.)

The sad truth is, the people who voted for him who are beginning to realize that they were betrayed believed they were getting something else. But they in fact got what they asked for—a blustering egoist chanting “Make America Great Again” while offering nothing other than nativist pabulum as a plan. What they wanted was someone who would make changes that provide them security, in jobs, in healthcare, in education. Never mind that some of their judgments on what to do about this are questionable at best. This is not to say some of these issues are not real, only that their solutions require something this man does not possess—ability.

He also lacks any kind of depth, either of intellect or character, the kind needed to get outside his own head and see the world through other eyes. His conflicts with his staff demonstrate this clearly. (Even if only a quarter of Wolff’s book is true, it is frighteningly chaotic in the White House, with most of the staff trying to mollify an intemperate egotist rather than conducting the business of the people.)

We have fostered in this country a suspicion of expertise, of intellectualism, of sophistication. We have nurtured a disregard for nuance, a quality essential for diplomacy. We have fed on a spring of poisoned waters that called itself news and we have given in to short term fear. It may well be that Hillary Clinton was not the right candidate—that candidate may not have been in the race—but she would not have broken everything the way it’s being broken now. All because we have given in to fear.

It doesn’t matter what he promised to do. For the people who still support him, you should start realizing he can’t give those things to you. It may be too much to hope that you begin to realize that you wanted the wrong things. Some of them—a country for white people only, a country with an oil well on every plot of land, a country where everyone, even children, can go armed wherever they want—are things ultimately contrary to any sane American’s vision for where and how they want to live. Do I blame Trump for fostering this? No, he’s just the face of it. And the mouth.

You have been had. And we’re all paying the price of that rejection of Better.

Le Guin

Of all the things I thought I would be writing about today, this is not one of them.  Of course I knew she was unwell.  Of course I knew how old she was.  Of course I know all journeys end.

Still, the impact of such endings can dislodge and shock. Because it is difficult to envisage the world continuing with such an absence.

Unlike others, I have read relatively little of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work. The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, Wizard of Earthsea, The Word For World Is Forest, The Left Hand Of Darkness…a handful of others, short stories. Enough to start a long change in trajectory for my own work and, more importantly, in my apprehension of this thing we do called “science fiction.”

So I want to talk about that instead of reviewing a biography and a bibliography others will more ably do.

Le Guin never wrote the expected. She published in the magazines, her novels came out with the SF label on the spine, some of the covers suggested that a reader might find something like all the rest of the books around them inside. And indeed there was that—interstellar settings, outré physics, aliens, exotic locations. But then there were the bits that refused to sustain the standard pattern.

“I didn’t know Fomalhaut II had all those people besides the trogs,” said Kethro, the curator.

“I didn’t either. There are even some ‘Unconfirmed’ species listed here, that they never contacted. Sounds like time for a more thorough survey mission to the place. Well, now at least we know what she is.”

“I wish there were some way of knowing who she is…” 

Early in the pages of Rocannon’s World we read that exchange and it is a promise and warning that what will follow, for decades, was all about learning who we are. Le Guin took the potential of what we call science fiction to unbury the many selves of sentient life and hold not one but many mirrors up to us. To tell us, over and over again, that who we are is more important than what. That sounds banal, certainly, because after all, isn’t all fiction about that?

Of course, but not in ways that can delineate the artificial from the organic, the applied from the emergent, the structural from the holistic the way science fiction does. Too many things are too often taken for granted, left unexamined and therefore unquestioned, in most literature, and we’re left with portraits that, while often insightful and clear, go only so far in examining the limitations of selfhood, of identity, of the ramifications of social, biological, and technological fabrics that comprise context.

Read The Dispossessed and you see this potential in full flower.

But it is a constant throughout her work. It might be said that her work was always concerned with the problems of self-expression in relation to dynamic systems, be they natural, technological, political—in fact, all three as an amalgam. The interconnections between the self and the community drove her narratives, and intentionally or not she sought balance.  (I think intentionally, oh yes, fully.)

Much has been written and debated about the impact of the Sixties on, well, everything, but within SF in particular it seemed to have been a period of enormous ferment, regeneration, and experimentation. Most of it was ephemeral and soon vanished from memory, as with almost all SF in any given period. Le Guin entered the field with all the appearances of a writer of the Old School, but there was something going on in her work that, quietly and irresistibly, infected what came after. She exemplified, through her writing, the euphemism “the personal is political.”

Getting to know another, really knowing them, is a supremely political act.  It changes everything. Its changes you, them, the context in which this discovery occurs. Being open to such knowing is to be vulnerable, and that leads to unknown possibilities. If all we look for in others is what we already have, then we never know them, and so we preserve ourselves against the possibility of change, of growth, of the pleasures of otherness. That, too, is a deeply political act, the choice to not look, to not know.

To not see.

The Left Hand Of Darkness is entirely involved in this kind of seeing. It is a story of blindnesses and veils and the necessity of seeing anew.

After Le Guin, it is impossible to understand science fiction as less than the most deeply political of literary forms.

It is also impossible to dismiss it as nonliterary. In Le Guin, the range of possible ways of seeing others is expanded beyond any probable comfort zone. She expanded her vision so much that the boundaries that had kept SF neatly barracked cracked and fell open. Oh, certainly she was not the only one, but her assault on the limits of literary convention were all the more effective because they were so pleasurable to read, and once read, impossible to forget. Her work altered your perspective.

After Le Guin, there is no going back to previous standards.

After Le Guin, it is impossible to pretend that change can be forestalled, that the world is complete, that the self and the community can be kept apart to mutual benefit, that politics is ignorable, that others are not us.

After Le Guin, really, the universe is bigger, richer, livelier, more dangerous…and not at all what we might wish to expect.

She was amazing. She amazed.

 

Immorality Sweeps The Land!

Roy Moore lost. In a state so Red it could be on Mars, Doug Jones squeaked into the win by 1.5%.

Moore is refusing to concede. In some quarters, this is seen as principle. In the civilized world, sour grapes. But delusional.

“Immorality is sweeping the land!”

Says a man who allegedly hit on teenagers when in his thirties, and then relies on a biblical defense, something about Mary only being 13 or some such nonsense, and the fact that he asked their parents.  Forgive me if I find that whole scenario simultaneously dubious AND extra-creepy.  (But there is in the South, and presumably other places, a whole cult of True Believers who groom their prepubescents for marriage by parading them in adult drag in front of potential husbands, so maybe. If that’s the crowd he’s drawing from, you have to ask what standard of morality he actually subscribes to, because it isn’t that of anyone I know, even among my conservative friends.)

His issues are, in no particular order, The Bible, homosexuality as national threat, and abortion.  As far as I could tell, he had no stance of his own on education (unless it relates to the Bible), economic growth (unless that remark about slavery counts), foreign policy, the budget, or anything else that may be relevant to actual people living today.

Now, if you want to discuss morality, we can start with that: the complete apparent disregard for any issue that might have any real impact on his potential constituency. Irresponsible?  Surely. But in one of the reddest of the red states, where economic conditions still lag and poverty is a profound problem, concentrating on non-issues and counting on that to win the day, with nothing in his tool box with which to address the present realities, strikes me as a sign of someone who has a badly skewed moral compass.  Added to that the allegations of sexual misconduct, his blatant bigotry, and his disregard for law (he was a state supreme court judge and somehow did not care that he was in violation of federal law over the decor on state property)—this is not someone I would trust to tell anyone what is or is not moral.

That he relied on the entrenched aversion of the voters to anything labeled Democrat to see him into office is also blatantly arrogant, especially knowing full well that his state is one of the most problematic in terms of voter suppression.

I am not well pleased that it seems to have been the sexual misconduct allegations that lost it for him.  Maybe it wasn’t, but I would be happier if I thought people had finally decided to look at the issues and judged him an inferior candidate on the merits.  It is telling that while it appears white women voted for him in a majority, when you tease apart evangelicals from a more secular group, only evangelical white women voted for him as a majority.  White women who are not all caught up in the religious balderdash that passes for political value voted predominantly against him.

While it is true that one should not equate intelligence with religious affiliation, it is difficult to avoid when you see this sort of thing. Blindness, of course, afflicts different people in different areas, but damn, we have to stop pandering to the evangelical vote this way.  This is not 4 B.C. and this country is not, despite the aggressive wishing of many people, a christian nation, not the way they mean it.

But have it your way.  I’ll take a little honest immorality over willfully ignorant moral posturing any day.

But that’s not what we’re seeing.  Every single issue Moore saw fit to blather about, at base, was about stripping away civil rights.  Period. Dress it up any way you like, he longs for the days of the mint julep on the veranda as the master gazes out upon his plantation-fiefdom. He wants people “in their proper place.”  He wants an aristocracy.  I find it telling that people like him believe the way to achieve it is through the religious beliefs of people are afraid of the future.

Moral leadership my ass.

The Persistence of Civilization

I wanted to get this down before the thoughts and feelings of yesterday fade and I start to over-intellectualize everything.

Civilization did not end yesterday. Just in case anyone failed to notice. Nibiru did not slam into the Earth as some predicted. We did not throw down to North Korea (yet). And there remains football.

And though here in my hometown, the local politics have of late been strained, to say the least, we are not descending into mindless brutality.

Let me offer the picture of two throngs of people gathered to make cultural statements.

Yesterday the first of what we all hope will be an annual event occurred in the Central West End of St. Louis.  Bookfest.  A section of one street was closed off, there were vendors on the street, a stage where live music was performed all day, and author events held in a number of local establishments. The whole thing got started Friday night with a presentation by Sherman Alexie at the Sheldon Theater in our theater district. It continued then with events for kids, teens, and adults of all ages, featuring over forty of the best writers currently working. Poets, novelists, essayists, we had them all.

And people came.

Hundreds. Venues were filled to listen, to partake, to soak in the rarefied and uplifting gestalt of written arts, performance, and conversation.

We unveiled a new commemorative statue in front of Left Bank Books to William S. Burroughs, completing the four-star authors corner which already included Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, and T.S. Eliot.

People came to hear writers talk about craft and content, tell stories, read from their work, engage in the carpentry of culture.

In other words, Making Civilization.

It was amazing.

In other parts of the metropolitan area, others gathered, as they have been gathering since last week, to protest injustice. The response has been considerably different, and some people see this as evidence of the end of our civilization. Maybe not totally, but protest to them is viewed as cracks in the dam, as if civilization is a pool that must be contained by thick walls and held in place, immobile. Immaculate.

I humbly suggest that the protests and our gathering to celebrate the literary arts are manifestations of the same work—making civilization.

Gathering decorously to listen to speakers and then sagely nod, basking in the gloaming of nuanced cultural expression is fundamentally part of angry protest condemning abuse of power and a demand for justice. You cannot, ultimately, have one without the other—that is, Civilization without Justice—and you can have neither of those if people will not show up to build them.

I participated in yesterday’s festivities, I was on the agenda as a writer, but I also work for Left Bank Books and spent a good part of the day doing the business of facilitating the events.  I am now adding what I can to the holism that must be felt and recognized in order for our civilization to grow and become better and richer.

It is easy to watch the news and perhaps think maybe fleeing to the country, stockpiling for the coming Dark Age, fearing the people two blocks over who we’ve never met are all rational responses to a process of inevitable decay.  It’s a very myopic response.  Because while the one goes on, the other things continue and grow and make us better. We are not one thing, even if  we are all in this together, and when someone says we have a right to assemble to buy books, listen to music, and enjoy the arts but not to condemn injustice, then a major truth is being overlooked.

Or never recognized in the first place.

I was part of the discussion on science fiction.  My copanelists—Charlies Jane Anders, Ann Leckie, Annalee Newitz—all spoke to the life-affirming, onward-building, ever-optimistic nature of science fiction, which says tomorrow Will Be and more often than not Will Be Better.  But it’s not just SF—it’s the fact that people came to drink from the font of art all day long. That people showed up who not only knew who Sherman Alexie is but also who William S. Burroughs was and who responded to the resonance we all create by the work we do.

The world is not going to end.  We’re in an awkward, in many ways ugly and incomprehensible period right now, but in the mix we have light and joy and deep connection.

Celebrate.