Quotables

What Had Long Been Forsaken

In the future, when our children and grandchildren ask just what the hell happened to us, this is a pretty good summary:

COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken. As the crisis unfolded, with another American dying every minute of every day, a country that once turned out fighter planes by the hour could not manage to produce the paper masks or cotton swabs essential for tracking the disease. The nation that defeated smallpox and polio, and led the world for generations in medical innovation and discovery, was reduced to a laughing stock as a buffoon of a president advocated the use of household disinfectants as a treatment for a disease that intellectually he could not begin to understand.

As a number of countries moved expeditiously to contain the virus, the United States stumbled along in denial, as if willfully blind. With less than four percent of the global population, the U.S. soon accounted for more than a fifth of COVID deaths. The percentage of American victims of the disease who died was six times the global average. Achieving the world’s highest rate of morbidity and mortality provoked not shame, but only further lies, scapegoating, and boasts of miracle cures as dubious as the claims of a carnival barker, a grifter on the make.

As the United States responded to the crisis like a corrupt tin pot dictatorship, the actual tin pot dictators of the world took the opportunity to seize the high ground, relishing a rare sense of moral superiority, especially in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The autocratic leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, chastised America for “maliciously violating ordinary citizens’ rights.” North Korean newspapers objected to “police brutality” in America. Quoted in the Iranian press, Ayatollah Khomeini gloated, “America has begun the process of its own destruction.”

Trump’s performance and America’s crisis deflected attention from China’s own mishandling of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, not to mention its move to crush democracy in Hong Kong. When an American official raised the issue of human rights on Twitter, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, invoking the killing of George Floyd, responded with one short phrase, “I can’t breathe.”

These politically motivated remarks may be easy to dismiss. But Americans have not done themselves any favors. Their political process made possible the ascendancy to the highest office in the land a national disgrace, a demagogue as morally and ethically compromised as a person can be. As a British writer quipped, “there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid”.

As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. The republic that defined the free flow of information as the life blood of democracy, today ranks 45th among nations when it comes to press freedom. In a land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today favor building a wall along the southern border than supporting health care and protection for the undocumented mothers and children arriving in desperation at its doors. In a complete abandonment of the collective good, U.S. laws define freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of weaponry, a natural entitlement that trumps even the safety of children; in the past decade alone 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school grounds.

The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.

How can the rest of the world expect America to lead on global threats — climate change, the extinction crisis, pandemics — when the country no longer has a sense of benign purpose, or collective well-being, even within its own national community? Flag-wrapped patriotism is no substitute for compassion; anger and hostility no match for love. Those who flock to beaches, bars, and political rallies, putting their fellow citizens at risk, are not exercising freedom; they are displaying, as one commentator has noted, the weakness of a people who lack both the stoicism to endure the pandemic and the fortitude to defeat it.

— Wade Davis, “The Unraveling of America,” Rolling Stone, August 6, 2020

I’ve been saying for years that 9/11 — or rather our panicky response to it, when we willingly started surrendering our personal liberties in the name of “safety” and declared war on a country that had not attacked us — put the lie to our national self-image as “the home of the brave.” That was the first of our myths to crumble. Now it seems like all of them are crumbling, all at once. COVID-19 has exposed every crack in the shaky foundation of our society, every weakness of the no-holds-barred capitalist system and the every-man-for-himself philosophy that have defined this nation, at least during my lifetime. And although I’m perfectly cool with those concepts getting thrown in the bin, the way it’s happening — our national humiliation on the world stage — is agonizing. And infuriating. I think I finally understand the anger so many right-wingers have felt for so many years, their impotent rage at the notion that the country they thought they knew is dissolving before their very eyes. Of course, they attribute the dissolution to an entirely different set of causes, and they have an entirely different set of solutions. But the basic emotional stew of anger, sorrow, shame, and utter powerlessness… yeah, I get that now.

I’m really hating this year.

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Justice for All Is the Duty of All

“It remains a shocking failure that many African Americans, especially young African American men, are harassed and threatened in their own country. It is a strength when protesters, protected by responsible law enforcement, march for a better future. This tragedy — in a long series of similar tragedies — raises a long overdue question: How do we end systemic racism in our society? The only way to see ourselves in a true light is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving. Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America — or how it becomes a better place.

“America’s greatest challenge has long been to unite people of very different backgrounds into a single nation of justice and opportunity. The doctrine and habits of racial superiority, which once nearly split our country, still threaten our Union. The answers to American problems are found by living up to American ideals — to the fundamental truth that all human beings are created equal and endowed by God with certain rights. We have often underestimated how radical that quest really is, and how our cherished principles challenge systems of intended or assumed injustice. The heroes of America — from Frederick Douglass, to Harriet Tubman, to Abraham Lincoln, to Martin Luther King, Jr. — are heroes of unity. Their calling has never been for the fainthearted. They often revealed the nation’s disturbing bigotry and exploitation — stains on our character sometimes difficult for the American majority to examine. We can only see the reality of America’s need by seeing it through the eyes of the threatened, oppressed, and disenfranchised.

“That is exactly where we now stand. Many doubt the justice of our country, and with good reason. Black people see the repeated violation of their rights without an urgent and adequate response from American institutions. We know that lasting justice will only come by peaceful means. Looting is not liberation, and destruction is not progress. But we also know that lasting peace in our communities requires truly equal justice. The rule of law ultimately depends on the fairness and legitimacy of the legal system. And achieving justice for all is the duty of all.”

— George W Bush, statement on the nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd

I never thought there would come a day when I’d be posting a quotation from Dubya, of all people, let alone nodding in agreement with it, but here we are. Strange times.

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Gerrold on Gehry

From a Facebook post by David Gerrold, science-fiction writer of some note and resident of Los Angeles:

If there is one architect I dislike more than Frank Lloyd Wright, it is Frank Gehry, the designer of the Walt Disney Concert Hall and other curlicued atrocities.

The man doesn’t care about how his buildings will fit into the space, how they will relate to their surroundings — which is why the concave mirrors on the Disney Hall had to be toned down because they were focusing the sun’s rays on surrounding buildings and causing serious heating problems.

His buildings make no sense to the eye. They’re like a dropped pile of saucepan covers. And once inside the Disney Hall, it’s a beautiful maze. It’s too easy to get lost and forget which exit will get you to where you parked your car. You can’t find the exit and you always come out on the wrong side of the maze.

The first priority of a concert all is to have great sound. After that you design around that space.

A building should be more than a monument to the architect.

The jibe at Frank Lloyd Wright aside — I quite like Wright’s work myself, although I recognize that a place like Fallingwater is very impractical for the way most people actually live — Gerrold perfectly articulates my own feelings about Gehry. His work offends me in some deep, admittedly irrational way. I’m so glad that Gehry project proposed for just a few miles down the road from my house appears to have fallen through…

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Better Government in Charity than Indifference

“Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

— President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (one of my personal heroes) in a speech accepting renomination for the presidency, June 27, 1936

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Heinlein on Whether It Could Happen Here

As for … the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past.

“It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-libertarian.

“It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or Holy-Rollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.

“Nevertheless this business of legislating religious beliefs into law has never been more than sporadically successful in this country — Sunday closing laws here and there, birth control legislation in spots, the Prohibition experiment, temporary enclaves of theocracy such as Voliva’s Zion, Smith’s Nauvoo, and a few others. The country is split up into such a variety of faiths and sects that a degree of uneasy tolerance now exists from expedient compromise; the minorities constitute a majority of opposition against each other.

“Could it be otherwise here? Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not — but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck.

“Throw in a Depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negrosim, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home, and the result might be something quite frightening — particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington.”

— Robert A. Heinlein,
“Concerning Stories Never Written” (the afterword to Revolt in 2100)

It is worth noting that Heinlein wrote those words in the 1950s. And also that in his “Future History” cycle of science fiction stories, which includes Revolt in 2100, he pegged the late 20th century and much of the 21st as “The Crazy Years” when America becomes a puritanical theocracy, and spaceflight and other technological and scientific advancement all but ceases.  With today’s Supreme Court decision not to put a stop to partisan gerrymandering, anti-abortion and “freedom of religion” laws springing up all over the place, Mitch McConnell’s heavy-handed and nakedly obvious power plays, and of course a president who has made it plain he’d rather rule as a dictator than govern as an elected official bound by rules and procedure, I fear we are living through the early phase of The Crazy Years right now…

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Being Human

We are sensual beings. We are sexual beings. We are joyous beings, if we let ourselves be. Being gay is just one way to be human. Based on the evidence, LGBTQ+ people are a useful and important part of the human species. [Gay people’s] experience is valuable — not just for ourselves, but because we are a way for others to learn more about what it means to be truly awake and aware and human.

David Gerrold, science-fiction writer, commenting on Pride Month

For the record, I am not gay myself. I’m about as cis-hetero as they come, aside from a teeny little man-crush on Chris Hemsworth. Once upon a time, as shameful as it is to admit this, I probably would’ve qualified as a homophobe. Back in the Awesome ’80s, when I was a painfully insecure teenage boy, I routinely used the word “fag” as an insult and pronounced things as “gay” when I meant “uncool,” the same as all the other insecure teen boys of that era. But here’s the thing: I didn’t actually know any gay people then, at least none that I realized were gay. (Even now, I have a fairly wonky sense of “gaydar.” Often, I just can’t tell until someone does something really gay.) I don’t think I even fully understood what “gay” meant. I was speaking and acting from a place of ignorance.

The first time I was aware of being in a gay man’s company was… uncomfortable. Especially when he remarked how well I filled out a pair of jeans. But you know what? It wasn’t that uncomfortable, and I later realized he wasn’t hitting on me as I’d initially believed, he was just giving me a compliment, and what was so terrible about that? I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t terrible at all; it was flattering. As the years went by, I had more experiences with gay people, and a few trans people as well, and none of those experiences were terrible either. I worked with them, I friended them, I shopped in their stores, and I went to parties at their homes. I became a fan of Armistead Maupin and his very gay Tales of the City books. I saw Brokeback Mountain and Milk and was deeply moved by both. In 2008, Anne and I had an incredible vacation in San Francisco, and you want to know what our favorite neighborhood was? The Castro… the notorious gay neighborhood, the one where we were the exception, the token straight couple. And in 2015, I cheered when gay people finally won the right to marry those they love.

I’m not recounting all of this to make myself look good. I know that I’m no hero. I am, by my own admission, a guy who used to be a bit of a jerk, if never a truly malignant one. But I also know that I’ve become a better person, a better human, because of my interactions with LGBTQ people and a growing understanding of their struggles. (I still have a long way to go on that front, but I am trying.) I’m a bigger, more compassionate person than I used to be, I’m a lot more comfortable with myself, and I find that my world has more colors in it than it used to.

In other words, I am what Mr. Gerrold is talking about in the final sentence of that quote at the top of this post. A quote that resonates strongly with this old Star Trek fan, and not just because Gerrold wrote a popular episode of that show. At its core, Star Trek — true Star Trek, not the watered-down action-oriented product that it’s become — was about the way fear and prejudice disappears when you get to know other people. About human beings evolving beyond their petty, childish fears of “the other.” Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

I believe in that slogan more now than at any other point in my life. It’s a shame there are still so many who don’t.

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The Kind of Fiction We Need Right Now

I’ve never read David Foster Wallace and have only peripheral awareness of who he even is, but based on this quote (from a book called Conversations with David Foster Wallace), I like the cut of his jib:

Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

(Thanks to my friend Karen for this little ray of light against the grimdark… )
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“Let Me Tell You What I Believe”

“We now stand at a crossroads — a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world. Two different stories, two different narratives about who we are and who we should be. How should we respond?

“Should we see that wave of hope that we felt with [Nelson Mandela’s] release from prison, from the Berlin Wall coming down — should we see that hope that we had as naïve and misguided? Should we understand the last 25 years of global integration as nothing more than a detour from the previous inevitable cycle of history — where might makes right, and politics is a hostile competition between tribes and races and religions, and nations compete in a zero-sum game, constantly teetering on the edge of conflict until full-blown war breaks out? Is that what we think?

“Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good. That’s what I believe.

And I believe we have no choice but to move forward; that those of us who believe in democracy and civil rights and a common humanity have a better story to tell. And I believe this not just based on sentiment, I believe it based on hard evidence.

“The fact that the world’s most prosperous and successful societies, the ones with the highest living standards and the highest levels of satisfaction among their people, happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal, progressive ideal that we talk about and have nurtured the talents and contributions of all their citizens.

“The fact that authoritarian governments have been shown time and time again to breed corruption, because they’re not accountable; to repress their people; to lose touch eventually with reality; to engage in bigger and bigger lies that ultimately result in economic and political and cultural and scientific stagnation. Look at history. Look at the facts.

“The fact that countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial or religious superiority as their main organizing principle, the thing that holds people together — eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or external war. Check the history books.

“The fact that technology cannot be put back in a bottle, so we’re stuck with the fact that we now live close together and populations are going to be moving, and environmental challenges are not going to go away on their own, so that the only way to effectively address problems like climate change or mass migration or pandemic disease will be to develop systems for more international cooperation, not less.

“We have a better story to tell. But to say that our vision for the future is better is not to say that it will inevitably win. Because history also shows the power of fear. History shows the lasting hold of greed and the desire to dominate others in the minds of men. Especially men. History shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on those who look different, or worship God in a different way. So if we’re truly to continue [Mandela’s] long walk towards freedom, we’re going to have to work harder and we’re going to have to be smarter. We’re going to have to learn from the mistakes of the recent past. … ”

— Barack Obama, speaking in Johannesburg, South Africa, to honor the late Nelson Mandela, July 17, 2018

(italics mine; complete transcript here)

This was President Obama’s first major speech since leaving office. As usual, he articulated the same vision of the world and of the future that I have, the one that I’m trying very hard not to lose faith in.

I really miss this man.

 

 

 

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Pity The Nation

One of the blog entries that got obliviated last week was simply a poem that I’d run across and appreciated. I’ve decided to put it up again because, if anything, it’s even more relevant now than when I first posted it a couple weeks ago. Alas.

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
And whose shepherds mislead them
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars
Whose sages are silenced
And whose bigots haunt the airwaves
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
Except  to praise conquerers
And acclaim the bully as hero
And aims to rule the world
By force and by torture
Pity the nation that knows
No other language but its own
And no other culture but its own
Pity the nation whose breath is money
And sleeps the sleep of the too well fed
Pity the nation oh pity the people
who allow their rights to  erode
and their freedoms to be washed away
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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The Point of Star Wars

This just reminded me of something I said myself not too long ago…

The point of Star Wars isn’t exactly to turn your brain off, but it is to turn your heart on, and let that organ be the shepherd that guides you through all the stars and all the wars.

— Chuck Wendig

 

 

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