Mark W. Tiedemann's Blog
March 12, 2018
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.
March 7, 2018
To some, this may sound petty, but others will know what I mean.
Back when I worked in photography, one of the things that separated the amateurs from the pros had to do with Finish. I did lab work most of my career, what was referred to as “finishing.” Now, at its most basic, this was simply processing the film and printing the pictures, but there was so much more to it than that simple description suggests. Because we weren’t just supposed to print someone’s photographs—we were supposed to make them look good.
And that required a lot of practice, more than a little experience, a bit of expertise, and, most importantly, what that idea meant. Often the difference between a snapshot of Long’s Peak and a photograph of it was largely a matter of how the image was presented. How it was processed, printed, was it then mounted and framed, had care been given to the balance of values across the range of tones, had anyone retouched (this is more to do with printing from negatives where the advent of dust could play havoc with an image and required a patient hand with a fine brush to repair) it, and finally had the printer treated the image with the respect and imagination it merited. As much as the original image itself is a work of art, the production of the print is itself a matter of artistic accomplishment.
What does this have to do with writing and publishing?
I’m glad you asked that question. In its own way, just as much.
The other day I was handed a self-published book and started reading. I stopped less than two pages in. (Before you wonder, this had nothing to do with my job, this was a book sent me by a friend.) Why did I stop? Was the story horrible?
I have no idea. Because the “finishing” was bad. Poor typography, the page layout was not good, and there were transfer artifacts evident throughout. By that I mean the thing was not proofed after it was set up and so paragraphs that should have been indented were not, italics that should have been there was not, special characters were replaced with some kind of word processor code. Correctable mistakes having to do with appearance remained in the product to mangle the reading experience. In short, it was physically unpleasant.
But the writing was not good either. Not so much that the sentences were poor, but many of them were in the wrong place, paragraphs were crammed with whatever the author thought of to put down next in line, and later did not go back to put them in the right place. Jumbles of sentences and ideas that may or may not have been necessary to the story but in the configuration on the page did nothing but cause bafflement and headache trying to do the editing that ought to have been long before the cover art was even considered.
Which was actually pretty good, that cover art. As if a pretty wrapper could compensate for the amateur mess inside.
The book had been released into the wild too soon. It needed more work. It needed “finishing.”
This is an aspect of the whole self-publishing phenomenon I do not understand. When I worked in photography there were many people I knew who were gleeful amateurs who did their own processing. They had fun. They derived pleasure from printing their own pictures. None of them would have dreamed of putting what they did in their basement up in a gallery to pass off as professional work.
But there are authors who think nothing of assuming, because they can now get their work between covers and find a way to distribute it, that this somehow makes them equal to professionals who publish through traditional houses. There is a false equivalency based on poorly understood standards. It is one of the things I find most depressing about the self-publishing industry. Through this mechanism there is little to require the wanna-bes to do the work necessary to make a good product.
Am I nitpicking? Michelangelo said “Trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle.” Nits are like dust spots and they spoil the finish.
And it’s not like this is hard to see. Go into a bookstore and pull a book off the shelf, something published by Harper or FSG or Putnam, Macmillan, Simon & Shuster, and open it up and look at the page. Look. Does what you just paid money to produce match what you see in terms of font, layout, pagination? And it is not like this should be that difficult to correct anymore.
Time-consuming, yes. Just like rewriting and editing are time-consuming.
You can’t rush good finishing. If you do, it will show, and people will be put off by your work. And if they’re put off, they won’t read it, and then all the work you have put into it will be for nothing.
I needed to get that off my chest. Thank you for your patience.
March 2, 2018
Growing up, one of the places I used to go regularly, with my mother and grandmother, was Cherokee Street. That was where the Dime Stores were, the Woolworths, shoes stores, jewelers, a place called Western Auto, which would be like today’s AutoZone (they sold Western Flyer wagons, imagine that), and assorted clothing stores (like Fairchild’s). As you walked further east toward Jefferson Avenue, it grew less kid-friendly, less polished, less…I’m not sure. We rarely went that far, restricting ourselves to the four blocks that contained the old Cinderella Theater building. I never attended it when it was still a functioning movie house, but they kept the facade. It’s famous locally, for a fire in the middle off a brutal winter so cold the water froze in curtains as it hit the building.
Time works on all things. A lot has changed. I haven’t been on Cherokee Street in over twenty years. The other night I worked an event at what is now 2720 Cherokee, an event space which appears to be two of the older stores (one I think was the old S.S. Kresge five-and-dime), and had a chance to look around a bit. It has changed. But it’s still pretty vibrant and amazing. It will require a leisurely walk-around some weekend. The traces of what I remember as a child are there, easy to find. But the new looks fascinating.
February 26, 2018
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.
January 28, 2018
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 eight 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 it 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.
January 24, 2018
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.
January 1, 2018
Later I’ll post my favorite posts of the year. For now, it’s too damn cold in my office for that kind of cut-and-paste indulgence.
So let me just wax nostalgic about the year just past.
The things I love are still with me. Top of the list, Donna. We’ve been moving through some changes, dealing with stuff and nonsense, and have finally gotten to a place where life can be simply enjoyed again, rather than wrestled with.
Coffey is still full of puppy-ish enthusiasm. Slower, certainly, but for a 13-year-old dog remarkably spry. No arthritis or other impediments. She sleeps a bit more. Of course, some of this is stored energy from being by herself a goodly chunk of most days while the humans are at work. Coffey is a joy.
My friends are all reasonably well.
I have a good job. Some new faces came this year and we had a great year. Our first (annual) book festival came off magnificently and this year’s will be even better. I’ve settled, more or less, into my role as consignment buyer. Despite every intention to the contrary, I have become an acquisitions editor. It has been an education. I have been very pleasantly surprised by some of the books I’ve gotten for the store. I’ve also learned quite a bit about that world and the reasons behind the choices made.
I finished a new novel and turned it in to my agent in July. We wait. I think it may be the best thing I’ve ever done—it is certainly different than anything I’ve ever done, written at a level I don’t think I’ve ever achieved before. Of course, once again, I think I’ve written something that has no real category, is a bit off from the expected. My agent has been tremendous in her support.
I’m now working on the third book of my alternate history trilogy, which has taken far longer and traveled some much stranger roads than I expected. Once more I’m immersed in the Napoleonic Era, trying to get as many things “right” as I can. This is all but a straight historical in many ways. I’ve had some surprises with this one, in my research, but I will be glad to finish. Maybe a couple more months and I’ll have the first draft done.
After that I have some decisions to make. If things don’t change…
This is the first year in a long, long time that I’ve chosen to make resolutions. No, I won’t tell you what they are. I don’t need anyone else’s expectations to live up to, this will be hard enough. But check here in the next few months for an update on at least one of my decisions. We’ll see if I can pull it off.
I may be facing a hard time this year. My dad is not doing well. I’ll leave that as it stands for now.
I managed to get through 51 books this year, cover to cover. I’ll do a post about those over on the Proximal Eye in the next few weeks.
Healthwise, I seem to be doing okay. I’m more tired than I like, but everything works, and the other day at the gym some young guy guessed my age at 52. Heh. If I can be mistaken for 62 when I’m pushing 80 I will be pleased.
I don’t know if I’ve become more stoic and accepting of how things are or if I’m just too tired to give the same damn that I once did. Almost nothing has gone according to plan, which is to be expected, but enough went close enough to be a source of mixed satisfaction and frustration. One thing this past year that caused me to reassess my attitude came from a former coworker, a young writer whose first novel was released to considerable acclaim and a degree of commercial success I frankly envy. Talking about it, though, she suggested that she hoped to be as successful as I am. This baffled me. I do not consider myself successful at all. “How do you figure that?” I asked. “You have 12 books out,” she said. “Yeah, but they didn’t do very well.” “You have 12 books out.”
That was it. I had sustained a publishing career long enough and well enough to have put out a body of work she thought admirable. It forced me to reassess my own standards. What do I mean by success? I’d fallen into the usual, equating it with money. Well, that certainly is one measure of success, but not the only one.
I’d always aimed for the condition of sustaining myself materially by the work—that since what I wanted to do was to write, then the writing had to pay the bills. I never reached that point. Came close, but it has slipped further and further away from that moment. I’d gotten into the habit of thinking myself a failure.
But there are other metrics, and my coworker confronted me with one, and I realized that rejecting her assessment would have been cruel. To her, certainly, but to myself as well.
I’m still working through all the implications of that. I still want to be able to write for a living, but it has, for now, become less an issue.
With that in mind, 2018 awaits.
Of course we are now living in a shit show nationally. All the fights waged in youth seem in need to fighting again. I’ve been vocal here about that and will continue to be. But the fact is, I am a lucky, lucky man. I have so much, from great people, and I’ve had and will continue to have opportunities to do more. So many people never get the chance.
So may the coming year offer for us all the chance to realize the good life can hold and let us all have some of it. And be aware of what is good. And that we’ve experienced it.
Travel well, travel far.
December 29, 2017
Given the cold and dismal hue outside, I offer one final image for the year, a blaze of warmth.
Have a safe, joyous, hopeful New Year. See you all on the other side.
December 26, 2017
So it’s the 26th. Digesting, relaxing, contemplating.
Saw my parents. Wished good cheer to each other and others.
This morning, I went to the gym, paid taxes, other errands. Lunch. Then looked at some of the images from the last few days. It has been a hell of a year. We have come here, to the verge of 2018, unsure of some things, comforted by the people still with us and close, and at least willing to face what challenges may come. A mixed bag, as they say. (Whoever “they” are—I suspect different “they” for each saying.)
Per Mr. Gaiman’s sage advice, I made some art. Till I have something more to say, I will share it with you. Be well. See you on the other side of the sun.
December 22, 2017
It’s Christmas Weekend. That and several other seasonal celebrations. People want to celebrate. It doesn’t matter what the label says, it’s the same full-to-brim wish for mutual love and respect. Gift-giving is great, but the sharing of hope, dreams, soul-urge, and the commonality of human decency underlies and overarches it all.
So a kind of card for any who may stop by here. Be well, be safe, be loved, be amazed.