Nothing’s Going To Be The Way It Was

Drive-thru coronavirus testing, Massachusetts

As we all struggle to comprehend what’s happening with our current situation, it might seem impossible to consider what happens once this is over. It will end, of course. Not soon, which I think people (well, most people) are starting to understand. Still, the shelter in place orders, the business closings, the school closings, the travel bans, all of it will end. The question will become, “What now?”

We are in the midst of one of those events that will mark a “before” and an “after”. Like the Civil War, the Depression/World War II, and Vietnam, people living today will measure things “before the coronavirus pandemic” and “after the pandemic”. The great unknown is how all that might look. Unlike the Spanish flu epidemic 100 years ago, we have means to slow the progress of the disease through the population. While coronavirus’s mortality rate is about the same as the Spanish flu’s (3%-4%), with the measures in place right now both the number of cases and the number of deaths can either be reduced or spread out over a much longer time period. Also, unlike 100 years ago, we haven’t (yet?) so succumbed to fear that we’ve become murderous. During the Spanish flu, lynchings, attacks on communities of color and other minority groups soared; it helped fuel the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan as people sought a scapegoat for their misery. One can hope we don’t descend to that kind of social madness.

Particularly since this is an election year, we need to consider “what comes after” more clearly than we might otherwise. While our electoral choices are always urgent and important, rarely do we face such matters in the midst of a national election. We did in 1920 as the flu epidemic continued to sputter; Warren Harding’s weird call for “a return to normalcy” after two decades of rapid social change, efforts for reform, the urgency of war followed swiftly by a plague that killed as many across the globe as died in the war, a vote for “normalcy” had a great deal of appeal. The thing was, of course, was there was nothing “normal” about what followed. The 1920’s were a decade of forgetfulness. People sought to forget reform, forget the needs of the poor, become deaf to the cries of the farmers, forget war and death, indulging in a kind of glorious, childlike excess that had no attachment to reality. When the stock market, whose rise through the decade became as much a sensation as the jazz music, bathtub gin, kids racing their Stutz’s, and moving pictures, crumbled under the reality that nothing kept it propped up, it all came to an end. The wreckage was worldwide.

So do we choose forgetfulness? We’ve been struggling between a kind of excess that ignores our realities of massive impoverishment, our many broken infrastructures (from roads to healthcare delivery), and a kind of radical focus on precisely these matters. This latter certainly brings about passion among those most committed to changing the parts of our society that are broken; there is just enough privilege, however, to create an array of virtual realities that allow even more the escape to a place where the worries aren’t real, the fears aren’t immediate, and death is something that’s overcome by restarting a level. There’s little doubt this latter is so tempting precisely because it provides an illusion of control

Except, of course, we are currently learning we have no control. Not really. Oh, there are measures we can take to reduce risk, to control the spread of contagions and panic. At the end of the day, however, a little virus has done more to alter the world’s economy and social and civic structures than all the cries for revolution, or the opposite demand for decadence, could have imagined. We are experiencing new ways of work. We are coming to appreciate those workers whom we so recently derided as undeserving. People who couldn’t imagine being laid off are suddenly experiencing joblessness. School is happening in new ways, ways from which we can’t return but perhaps can integrate into what happens next.

So the question remains: What happens after? We need to ignore those who insist that things will “go back to normal” because we can’t “go back”. We can try to forget, overindulging in the rapid series of distractions that will no doubt demand our attention. Except we now know their unreality for what it is; reality is much more harsh, much more in need of attention than ever before. We are, all of us, regardless of where we live, our race, our class, our religion facing reality in all its starkness and danger. Holding one another up, getting through together will not be enough. On the other side, we need to fix the many broken things that have worsened our current situation. Those things over which we can assert some measure of control – how we prepare for crises; to whom we listen in the midst of ongoing fear and uncertainty; how we as a society distribute our vaunted wealth and many resources to ensure that everyone is safe.

We have much to consider. Fortunately, we seem to have plenty of time.

An Observation

An actual Queen. Most woman aren’t

Usually when I see something on the Internet that shocks me, I grumble then move on. There is far too much out there that’s bothersome in one way or another to worry over anything in particular. Except when I run across something that just makes my jaw drop. Like a meme I saw earlier this week that said the following;

Guys need to be spoiled and told how handsome they are on a daily basis. How do you expect to be treated like a Queen if you treat him like a servant?

Where do I begin? Quite apart from the obvious passive-aggressive language, I keep wondering who wants to be treated like an (actual) queen. Or king for that matter. Are these things actual people expect out of relationships? I mean, I know I’m old. I haven’t dated since the early 1990’s, when I married a woman I couldn’t imagine wanting to be treated like a queen. Nor have I ever thought, “Geez, why isn’t she treating me like a king? Bring me my slippers!”

I do know, however, there are people, men and women both, who really do think this way. That women should be considered a “queen”. I’m never quite sure what this means, because traditionally queens are doted upon yet always at a remove from others. Does a man really want a woman who accepts being put on a pedestal, accepting whatever material offerings are made, but rarely connects with him?

And why would any man want to be treated like a king? Traditionally, kings are spoiled not by their wives, but their concubines and mistresses. I’m pretty sure that’s not what the meme refers to. So I guess I’m at a loss. Unless such a man really wants a subservient woman, I’m not sure how that works out.

The game, however, is given away in the whiny, passive-aggressive tone of the whole thing. “Why do women want to be treated well if they’re not willing to do what I want?” This meme isn’t about love or relationships. Not really. This isn’t about finding a real partner. This is about capitalist exchange. “You give me what I want, I’ll give you what you want.” There need be no emotional content here. It’s all about negotiating an exchange. With an implied threat that if the man’s needs aren’t met in a manner he expects, he will either withhold affection or, perhaps, worse.

The thing is, most people, most of the time, are quite happy being treated like a human being. Not someone’s idea of who he or she is or might be. Certainly not royalty! In relationships, we should shield ourselves from market forces that looks for any kind of exchange of goods and services. Intimacy is about openness, which means being oneself with another in a way that risks emotional pain, but also rewards with a shared togetherness tat is beyond the grotesquery of the market. Being a real person with another real person is far more difficult, challenging, and ultimately satisfying than being a “king” and “queen”.

Before anyone suggests that the meme exaggerates to make a point, I want to know what point that might be. Are men in relationships with women who care nothing for them? Then they’re not in a relationship, and should probably find the nearest exit. That women won’t return physical or emotional affection in a way men want? Then try talking about things. Don’t throw a tantrum because you’re not being treated the way you believe you deserve. Particularly if you’ve never made those expectations clear. And don’t go into a relationship believing you “deserve” anything from the other person beyond what they’re willing to offer. If you’re in it for the long haul, these things change over time, and deepening intimacy and emotional openness creates opportunities for all sorts of wonders.

What I’m saying is: Men, you don’t deserve anything from another person. Give without a thought to what you might get. This is how relationships work in the long haul. You’re not entitled to anything. And insisting that you treat her like a “queen” in order to be treated like a “king” might bring about an unpleasant surprise. Settle for being a person figuring things out together with another person and things might well work out in far more surprising ways than you could have imagined.

Finding by Maria Popova

Maria Popova, author of Figuring and curator of brainpickings.org

Along with my oft-mentioned experience reading about Voyager 1’s encounter with Saturn as reported in National Geographic, my desire to learn more about more things was excited by reading Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain. Subtitled, “Reflections On The Romance of Science”, the book is a series of essays that explore everything from the biographies of some of Sagan’s heroes, the weird attractions of pseudo-science, the promise and hope of space exploration, and the limits of science fiction. Written for any average reader, it is an invitation not only to wonder, but to discovery about the interconnectedness of awe, beauty, and understanding, and to contemplate a different perspective of our life here on Earth.

Having recently felt lost, wondering if it were possible to recapture some of that wonder I felt as a teenager when I considered the possibilities Sagan offered up, I decided to pick up my battered, yellowed copy and read it again for the first time in decades. I discovered, to my sadness, that I knew each word so well, each image Sagan’s writing brought to mind, that even after – what? 30 years? More? – this book was so ingrained inside me that I realized there was nothing left to discover. Rather than offer an fresh opportunity at wonder, it was like returning to my hometown and discovering how sad I was it was no longer the little village I knew.

Then my wife gifted me Finding for Christmas.

I subscribe to brainpickings.org, enjoying the wonderful essays its curator, Maria Popova, offers up as fresh takes on matters scientific and cultural. I had seen the book announcement she made, which is how I ended up with a copy last Wednesday. What I knew about the books content was the ad copy she offered up. That and she would cover a wide variety of topics through looking at the people whose lives embodied them.

After an introductory chapter entitled “0”, she begins with a sketch of Johannes Kepler’s struggles during the last years of his life both to complete and publish the first science fiction book (written to present the Copernican system to a non-scientific audience) and clear his mother of charges of witchcraft. That he succeeded in the latter but not the former is a tragedy of the times.

Now, Kepler received chapter-length attention in another of Carl Sagan’s works – Cosmos – and I found myself thinking, I know this story.

But, surprise!surprise!, I didn’t know this story. Not at all. For Sagan, Kepler’s story is one of the victory of patient observation overcoming the ideological blinders of a kind of Platonic Idealism that was still regnant among so much of early-modern science. Popova, however, saw in Kepler’s story – his work with Tycho Brahe, the development of the laws of planetary motion, his struggles against a legal apparatus that still considered “witchcraft” a thing to be punished – a whole. Particularly his efforts to offer the world an accessible view of the still-controversial Copernican system (Galileo’s conviction by the Church caused Kepler much angst), brought together many of the themes Popova would explore throughout the rest of her work: how chance and choice, the surrounding mores and and social rules, biography, and the inexorable pull of new ideas create individuals whose findings have changed our world for the better.

Much the rest of the book offers up a series, mostly, of women whose work may or may not have been heralded, whose lives may or may not have been forgotten, whose legacies might or might not have been distorted by those too afraid of the possibilities these women offered the world. Most of them lived in the 19th century, when the social etiquette of the “woman’s sphere” (hearth, home, raising children) was often violently enforced against many women. Many of the women lived outside the simplistic binaries of conventional gender and sexual ideologies. To live as such, to work as such, to create beauty whether in science or art or culture, in the midst of so much that would prevent them from doing so testifies to the courage these women live out in their work-lives.

Of course, not just women appear in these pages. Emerson, because of the central part he played in the life of some of these women as well as our developing sense of “American” culture, is woven throughout the chapters. Whitman, too, one of our marvelous mythologists, shows up more than occasionally. His own life and work offers further testimony to the power of following one’s muse, even if that muse is often a person of the same gender. There’s even a beautiful excurses on Carl Sagan, his partner and love Anne Druyan, and the creation of the “Golden Records” attached to the Voyager spacecraft, labors far outside simple-minded science, but rather a testament of love for humanity at a time when such was scarce.

I rest much easier now, knowing that such a work as Finding exists. There are ample opportunities for another young person to become excited about the possibilities life can offer should we make our way through the vagaries of chance and choice with a modicum of wisdom, courage, and most of all – Love. For Popova, love as portrayed through this book is not an emotion. It is, rather, an approach to life, with ourselves, with others, with the world in which we live, that bundles it all together and creates the possibility for finding . . . all that one can in the meager moments of human existence. It is love for understanding, for discovering, for offering to the world these understandings and discoveries, for those we hold most dear that drives people as different as Maria (pronounced like my daughter’s name, Moriah) Mitchell, Emily Dickinson (some of whose mysterious life is revealed in Popova’s beautiful portrait), Rachel Carson, and Lise Meitner to be the people who accomplished the things they did.

Finding is a book so desperately needed right now. It offers hope, and humanity, and most of all wonder at what may yet be possible should there still be people willing not only to find, but to passionately love finding all the ways there are to wrest meaning from the meaningless of our small blip of life.

Now Is That Time

For years the politics of both Left and Right have been informed by a political consensus that reflects the interests not of the American middle, but of a powerful upper class and their cosmopolitan priorities.

This class lives in the United States, but they identify as “citizens of the world.” They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community.

And they subscribe to a set of values held by similar elites in other places: things like the importance of global integration and the danger of national loyalties; the priority of social change over tradition, career over community, and achievement and merit and progress.

MO Sen. Josh Hawley, quoted in “Sen. Josh Hawley Reaches Out To The Neglected American Herrenvolk:, Doktor Zoom, Wonkette, July 19, 2019
Obergruppenfu . . . I mean Republican Senator Josh Hawley, MO

Many remember thinking to ourselves, “If fascism were to come to America, I’d know and I’d speak out!” Wasn’t that part of our education, after all? Being taught to recognize the signs of the civic illness beginning to sprout, and asked, “What would you do?”

Of course, we’re well down that right-turn road now, aren’t we? I personally don’t see Trump as leading any such movement; I actually understand him to be far more a symptom of our decline than any cause.

What, however, do we do with the speech Freshman Senator Josh Hawley gave recently? Do we write it off as just another over-enthusiastic presentation of right-wing talking points? Perhaps we could, were it not for repeated renditions of National Socialist rhetoric recognizable to any high school history student. Words like “cosmopolitan”, which is just another way of saying “Jew” and “Jewish”. Perhaps the following quote might ring a familiar bell:

Since the days of the city-state, the republican tradition has always viewed self-government as a project bound to a particular place, practiced by citizens loyal to that place andloyal to the way of life they share together. [Emphasis added]

As Wonkette’s Dr Zoom writes below this blockquote in the above-linked article, ” You might even say they’re bound by blood and soil, we suppose.”

This young, fresh-faced lawmaker has moved far beyond the simple-minded rhetoric of patriotism and a watered-down Christianity of much of our recent Republican politicians. Hawley has opened himself to the Goebbels Manual of Style, and allowed himself to speak quite openly words that drip with the blood of millions. “You’re being alarmist!” people will no doubt say.

They said much the same of some of the earliest refugees from Hitler’s Germany.

This Trumpjungen has no business in any polite or educated or human society. Let alone the United States Senate. When you start sounding just a bit too much like the unlamented Reichfuhrer, without apology, it is time to be very clear where we stand: Either we call Hawley the American National Socialist he is or we surrender now any claim to resistance down the road.

Why Bring God Into It? (TW: Murder, Sexual Assault, Violent Incel Fantasies)

I do believe that God weeps for us

Right. I think I’ll puke. How in the fuck do you fall this far?

I’m actually, physically sick thinking about this. If there is a God, I need to seriously question him when we meet.

dammit-David, r/IncelTears, “Incel tracks down mother of recently murdered [girl] & sends her pictures of himself masturbating to gory leaked crime scene photos of her daughter’s body”

In the midst of the horrors of our historical moment, I read something this morning that shocked me far more than I imagined. It was a gut punch in a way even concentration camps, our crumbling civic infrastructure, and our horrible man-boy President have yet to hit me. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the violation. I’m not sure. The headline above is from the IncelTears subreddit, and describes the event in question succinctly. I first saw the story, however, at We Hunted The Mammoth, and at first I refused to believe what I was reading.

Sunday morning, a young man named Brandon Clark allegedly murdered 17-year-old Instagram “e-girl” Bianca Devins, apparently a friend of his, brutally slashing her throat and then slashing his own in an attempt to kill himself. Sometime between the murder and the attempted suicide, he took a photo of her bloody body and uploaded it to 4chan.

The photo quickly spread across social media, including the Incels.co forum, where it was evidently found by a commenter calling himself canino1997, who reacted to the horrific tragedy by masturbating to the picture of Devins’ lifeless body and sending a picture of the resulting “cum tribute” to the girl’s mother (or perhaps her stepmother) as a sort of ‘”lesson” for her.

David Futrelle, ” Incel jerks off to a grisly photo of a murdered girl, claims he sent the resulting “cum tribute” to the girl’s mother”, July 15, 2019

Canino1997 was helpful enough to include a screenshot of the messages he sent to Bianca’s mother along with the photo.

If possible, let us set to one side what is obvious: Bianca’s murderer is a disturbed, entitled individual who, after playing a few online games with a young woman thought he was betrayed because Bianca was living her life. So he killed her, because that seems to be the thing one does. Such entitlement we call male privilege. It is endorsed and supported by men across the political spectrum. It consists of the very simple idea that men, believing themselves the bearers of the work of western society, deserve any woman they so choose to be theirs. No human agency is ascribed to women; they are nothing more than the passive recipients of men’s attention, that thing that drives all women’s behavior. Whether it’s Joe Biden getting a bit too touchy-feely with women without once realizing it is inappropriate, Brett Kavanaugh raping a young woman at a party then bragging about it in his HS yearbook, or our current President assaulting women left and right without any sense of remorse, male privilege is a very real thing, both insidious and dangerous.

When men believing themselves to be so privileged, feel themselves ignored or otherwise scorned by women who should by rights submit to them simply because they’re men, they seethe with bitterness, rage, and a hatred that has been and continues to be murderous. These men call themselves “Incels”, a term originally coined by advocates for the physically disabled to talk describe the “involuntary celibacy” far too many such persons live with. Like all good things, this term has been hijacked by a group of angry, spiteful garbage-people and it has reached something of a nadir with this latest event.

As most people are normal, we are disgusted and enraged by this particular bit of “Incel” action. As if something could be worse than the murder, or the act of the man sending Bianca’s mother those words and photo, there are people who applaud the act and the person who committed it.

What, we wonder, is happening?

As we normal folks look on in horror, it is not at all surprising that a few folks wonder where God is in the midst of all this. After all, God’s supposed to be all powerful, benevolent, yadda-yadda. People all over the place claim God’s blessing for all sorts of good things that happen in their lives. It would seem that if God is willing to bless some few folks with material and social wealth and power, the least God could also do is protect 17-year-old girls from murderous psychopaths. Barring that, perhaps God could prevent sick individuals from continuing to victimize the girl’s family, particularly in this horrible way. Thus the quoted epigram. It is, I think, given so much blather about blessings and such, a fair question to ask.

One would think that our collective history over the past 105 years, from the roughly the beginning of the First World War, might give us pause in our discussions about Divine blessing; might offer us a more sober and realistic view of Divine and human justice, and a tempered understanding of human capacity for radical evil. Whether it is collective or individual, the past century has opened our eyes to the fact that, despite the many vaunted and very real steps we humans have made in making society and our interpersonal relationships more decent, there lies within each of us and all of us the potential to commit acts of violence and hatred that horrify us when we see them played out by others. The only thing more horrible than canino1997 actions is the deep understanding that he is, at heart, no different than any of us.

Except we have built far too many walls – psychological, historical, political – around our century of radical evil to be able to grasp this simple reality. The horrors we see and hear and read about offend us in their cruelty. We call those who commit such acts “monsters”, denying to them the one thing we must never release: these are men and women no different than we. The only difference is such persons grasp the essential reality of the modern age: We are truly free, and that freedom includes the freedom to allow our most basic instincts to run wild. While the rest of us cling to ideas of morality and law, our sense of the need for our common life to be decent and safe, there are those who rightly understand these things to be nothing more than human constructs and habits of mind of recent vintage. Violating them does no violence to some immutable human or divine order; it is the expression of the extent of human freedom.

Such radical evil isn’t only the provenance of our era of mass death. In the late Renaissance, Christian ministers and theologians justified the mass enslavement of subject populations in the Americas and Africa with as little thought to these people’s humanity as they did the slaughter of animals for food. In North America, ministers like Increase and Cotton Mather justified the deliberate murder of surrounding native tribes through a kind of biological warfare by the simple (to them) notion that as the local Indian peoples existed outside Christendom, they weren’t to be of any concern to the colonists whose survival these same Indians has helped sustain.

Around the time of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Sade wrote a series of novels in which he spelled out in gruesome detail his belief, bolstered by a rigorously rational series of arguments that other people exist solely for our use and pleasure. Men, women, and children only exist to satisfy us. The powerful are entitled to do whatever they would wish to do, up to and including murdering them once their usefulness has been exhausted. We sentimental moderns flinch and blanch at such things, yet not only from disgust; we also understand that such events and their justifications are not at all inhuman. They are, to use Nietzsche’s felicitous and ironic phrase, “Human. All Too Human”.

Which brings me to the whole matter of the role of God in all this. The so-called cri de coeur, the keen to the heavens for an answer in the midst of human suffering, is often noted to be followed by silence. Thus do many reject a God who would claim both Divine forbearance for human beings, and a species of justice meted out in time and history toward those deserving it. The repeated failure of God at the most crucial – that is to say, most painful – moments of our individual and collective lives seems in and for itself enough reason to state what seems obvious: God doesn’t exist.

Except, of course, this ignores the one elephant in the room we choose to refuse to acknowledge: Ourselves. We think far too highly of ourselves, both as individuals and as a species, to acknowledge that the depths of depravity we too often see and hear and read about are not only very real, but very real human possibilities. You want to blame God? Blame God for allowing us the freedom to act even upon the most base thoughts that lie deep inside. Blame God for loving us enough to offer us responsibility for our own actions. Blame God for our ability to study and analyze and consider the depths of evil without ever once seeing it as fully human, in no need of outside instigation or influence. Whether it’s the slaughter bench of history, as Hegel called it, the daily assault of human indignities we see around us, or the increasingly visible acts of human depravity available to the human gaze through the Internet, we see and hear and read these things with our only reaction being, “this isn’t human.”

It is, though. It was human beings who believed the old woman living in the falling down house was somehow an agent of a supernatural evil, deserving of torture, strangulation, and burning. It was human beings who thought nothing of executing hundreds of other human beings, placing their twisted bodies on cross-trees along the sides of well-traveled roads as a message regarding the fate of political rebels. It was human beings who thought it a Christian duty to poison whole populations with disease to clear the land for its possession by the righteous. It was human beings who considered the simple act of the existence of human difference an affront to human society, deserving of death on an industrial scale never seen before.

It was a human being who thought it was justified to sexualize the death of a young girl, taunting that girl’s family with words and deeds to further their pain and suffering.

Where was God in all this, we ask?

God was right there. allowing human beings to act on their freedom, including the freedom for depravity. It was and continues to be human beings who allow these things to happen. We claim we know better. We claim we understand the lessons of history, that “never again” will we allow the dehumanization of others lead to mass death. We claim we understand the capacity for evil such that we seek to prevent it before it claims others. These comforting lies we tell ourselves, proved false again and again by things that actually happen, show that it is not God who stands not only accused but convicted of complicity for such things.

It’s us. All of us. Each of us. We allow these things to happen. We excuse ourselves through claims of powerlessness, through a kind of just-desserts appeal that some victims of human evil receive whatever is their due. We appeal to some made-up “right” to speech and expression, as if we even understood what any of those words might mean in the real world. We purposely blind ourselves to our complicity in events far too shocking to accept as the simple expression of human freedom over and against all restraints we claim exist to prevent them. When the restraints are shed, which they are each and every day, turning and blaming God is a bit like yelling at the river for flooding after too much rain. We could prevent such flooding, of course, but we don’t. So, too, we could prevent much of the monstrous evil we encounter each day, but we don’t do so precisely because we’ve rationalized that such evil is actually outside the possibility of human action; thus responsibility for such evil lies outside human agency. It is either the result of some supernatural being whose existence is evil; or it is the responsibility of a negligent God who has surrendered Divine responsibility for the creation that wails in agony.

Why is it necessary to drag God into discussions of evil? We human being, really, are all that’s needed for evil to exist and, occasionally, triumph.

A Moment Of Light

Our prophetic first Commander-In-Chief

Was it Trump going off-script again, trying to ad lib even though he is incapable of doing so? Was it a misreading of “ports” on blurry teleprompters brought about by heavy rain? Was it an ignorant – or perhaps playful – speechwriter? Regardless of the circumstances, Trump’s mangled attempt to portray the honor and bravery of our revolutionary forbears is now the stuff of Internet legend. Searching the hashtag #RevolutionaryWarAirports on Twitter offers up a view of creative ridicule that should stand the test of time.

It is fitting that, over the past couple days, I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s Men In Dark Times, a series of essays on men (and two women, Rosa Luxemborg and Isaak Dinesen) who let their light shine, even if only dimly, in the midst of the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. One of the many benefits of the essays is to see how different people responded to the catastrophes of the years 1914-1945 in ways that allowed even a tiny bit of light to shine. Even Walter Benjamin, perhaps the darkest portrait (because the most beset character) in the collection, comes off as the true prophet sine qua non of an era whose legacy we still struggle to comprehend. Precisely because Benjamin saw himself, as described so beautifully by Arendt, as a collector of the detritus of a tradition once-for-all smashed to bits by the excesses of War, Revolution, Anti-Semitism, and Barbarism, he lived wholly in and of the historical moment, taking its darkness upon himself in order to keep it from obscuring the light of his insights and kritik.

We who are living in our own Dark Times search for some bit of light to keep from being overwhelmed. It is hardly just the political situation in which we find ourselves; the climate crisis presses itself all around us, not just as Americans but around the world. Wars and injustice rooted in our rapidly changing climate, creating refugees seeking nothing more than a quiet life are creating conditions in which a spreading fascism becomes ever-more a viable alternative. Precisely because there is, now perhaps too late, a sense of the limits we as a species face, there also appears (far too easily among a vocal few) a willingness to offer those most vulnerable as a sacrifice for the salvation of the rest of us.

With an American President attempting a self-aggrandizing military parade on our Day of Independence was insulting enough. Coming as it does amidst a daily assault on every attempt to make our land somewhat more livable, more humane, it seemed another step on a march toward a peculiarly American fascism. Lucky for us, however, as he did recently in his canceled attack on Iran, Trump demonstrated he is not so much to be feared as he is to be ridiculed. A master of no plans, his inability to lead only overshadowed by his ineptitude at even the most basic civic functions, Trump’s attempt to offer stunning visuals of himself surrounded by American military might turned into a rain-soaked farce that was topped with a series of misstatements that have become a source for much entertainment.

And why not laugh at the absurdity? The man himself, Donald Trump, is as absurd a figure as history has thought fit to toss our way. This Mini-Mart Mussolini doesn’t even have the wherewithal to understand how ludicrous he really is. Far better to laugh than to rage in any event; not for nothing do tyrants (even wannabes like Trump) fear laughter more than anything precisely because mockery exposes the reality of weakness and fear behind every autocrat. Even as we rage and sorrow over the treatment of children in our care (and do so, on both left and right, with a remarkable historical blindness to such treatment being part and parcel of American history); even as we witness the degradation and destruction of our institutions in the name of momentary political advantage; even as some actually get angry about a shoe company; why the hell not laugh when someone says that the Continental Army sought to control airports?

After all, I think that’s the reason for the reaction (perhaps overreaction?) so many on social media have had. Even as we worry about what might yet await us, there is at least the comforting thought our pretend President isn’t smart enough to know there were no airports in the 18th century. We can, for a moment or two, laugh at Trump’s absurdity. stupidity, and vacuousness before we return – as we always must – to the darkness of our present moment. Why begrudge our laughter at the expense of someone so well-suited to derision?

Things I Don’t Understand, Part 3 – The Golden Age of Space Exploration In An Anti-Scientific Society

Harvard University researchers led a team to create the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), combining and synchronizing eight radio telescopes around the planet to create an Earth-sized telescope. The result was the release today of this first photograph of a massive black hole’s shadow.

Along with the release of the above photograph, the International Business Times reports today that the Mars Rover Curiosity is about to test some Martian soil for evidence of biological activity. For any day, these are historic scientific achievements. That both are happening on the same day, to relatively little fanfare, shows just how accustomed we have become to amazing news from a variety of spacecraft exploring out solar system.

Just consider: Mars currently hosts a couple rovers, with little Opportunity ceasing to function last year; from 2004 to 2017, the Cassini Spacecraft explored the Saturn system; over the past few years, the New Horizons spacecraft executed a flyby of Pluto then, just this past January, an asteroid in the deep-space Kuiper Belt; the European Space Agency sent the Rosetta craft to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko; it’s lander crashed in a failed attempt at ground-based observation of the comet’s activity; the Japanese Hayabusa 2 spacecraft landed on the asteroid Ryugu, successfully obtaining a sample of the planetoid’s surface. Any of these, taken alone, would be remarkable achievements. That all have been happening together over just the past few years demonstrates we really are in a Golden Age of space exploration. While human exploration of space is still decades away, the number, variety, and sophistication of the robotic explorers demonstrates that space exploration can be done relatively cheaply, humans safe from the multiple hazards of space travel, and yield fantastic results.

Also in the news today, anti-vaxxers have taken to wearing yellow stars, comparing themselves to victims of the Holocaust. Even as the largest measles outbreak in the US in recent years – 465 reported cases as of yesterday – brings about declarations of emergencies, including restrictions on unvaccinated children in public spaces, a group of vocal people continue to insist that vaccinations do more harm than good, causing everything from autism to diminished intellectual capacity to death. These folks aren’t believers. They know they are quite right; that science is on their side; that the rest of us who receive vaccines and make sure our children receive them are fooled by a great conspiracy between large pharmaceutical companies and the American government. Six years ago, there were 11 reported cases of measles in the US; we were that close to eradicating it here. Now, it’s spread across the country and more cases will no doubt appear.

Back in March, it was announced that next year Flat Earthers will be sailing to Antarctica to find what they call “the ice wall” that surrounds the flattened disc of the planet. Like their kissing cousins the anti-vaxxers, Flat Earthers know that photos of a rounded globe taken from space are fake, part of a conspiracy to fool us into . . . well, I’m not quite sure what people get out of pretending the Earth is spherical object were it not true, but, hey.

Finally, there was a hearing yesterday before a committee in the House of Representatives to discuss the effects of rapid climate change, including recent massive flooding that damaged Offutt AFB in Nebraska, home to the US Strategic Air Command. Two of the witnesses included for Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry and former Senator and Secretary of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. It was remarkable, but not in a good way:

Rep. Thomas Massie questioned whether Kerry, who helped negotiate the 2015 Paris climate accords, was qualified to talk about climate science because he did not have a degree in the subject. It was “somewhat appropriate that somebody with a pseudoscience degree is here pushing pseudoscience in front of our committee today,” the Kentucky Republican said.

“Are you serious? I mean this is really, a serious, happening here?” Kerry replied, to laughter in the audience.

Even as we experience an enormous Low Pressure system sitting in the middle of the country, called a Bomb Cyclone, bringing blizzard conditions across our heartland; even as farmers in Nebraska and Iowa face financial ruin from late-winter flooding last month; even as the evidence for global warming, its impact on the planetary climate, and the central place of human industrial activity over the past two centuries as a leading factor in climate change continues to mount; even as all that happens, there are sitting members of Congress who either deny the existence of climate change, or deny the place of human activity in climate change. While I have no idea what these members of Congress believe or don’t believe – I’m cynical enough to assume they don’t care one way or another; they’re just doing this because they’re expected to bash people who insist it’s long past time to deal with climate change – I am quite sure there are those who know that climate change is not real; that the evidence is not actual evidence; that even if there is climate change, human activity is not part of the reason for that rapid change; that all of it is nothing more than attempts to destroy the American economy (why the Defense Department would want that, I’m still not sure. . .)

It is a conundrum. We live in an age of scientific and engineering marvels. Our many missions to space captivate the world, with people following everything online. When Mars Rover Opportunity lost power last year, its last message, “It is getting dark”, seemed poignant and sad. As we expand our frontiers of worlds we’ve visited, photographed, studied, rumbled across, and mapped, we owe it all to everything from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics; high school trigonometry and mathematics so advanced few people understand it even as it demonstrates its reliability over and over.

But we, alas, are a people who no longer think science delivers the goods. It is a tool of the powerful, used to subjugate us for their own nefarious ends. Whether that’s actively poisoning the population through unnecessary vaccines; propagating the myth of the spherical earth; or the dangerous conspiracy of global warming and rapid climate change; we refuse to accept what science is and does. Not only that, we see science as some kind of trick being used to separate people from something, whether it’s money, their livelihoods, or something else.

I don’t understand how it is possible we can live through a time when space exploration is at a peak yet continue to deny science as a tool beneficial to human life and social survival. Never mind that humans worked for centuries to find preventatives for diseases that killed millions; having achieved that goal, it’s all written off as a lie perpetrated upon unquestioning herds of thoughtless millions. Even as climate change destroys more and more habitats, pushes thousands of species to extinction each year, and has become the leading national security threat facing the United States (that was the declaration of the Joint Chiefs of Staff years ago); let us toss that aside as a conspiracy of scientists looking to enrich themselves off government grant money while empowering anti-American forces seeking to undermine our economy and way of life from within. As for the flat earthers . . . I got nothing, really. They’re too far gone for me to understand. We should be celebrating our technological achievements, encouraging more research, more scientific education, a greater participation in an economy increasingly dependent upon sciences from microbiology, mathematics, and quantum mechanics as the driving force of economic growth. Instead, members of Congress undermine the very foundations of scientific understanding in an effort of partisan nonsense; diseases once near extinction return to ravage our people because people who understand neither science nor public health insist that the prevention of deadly diseases is worse than the diseases themselves.

I can’t comprehend it at all.

Things I Don’t Understand, Part 2 – Why Can’t We Criticize Police?

This iconic photo from Ferguson, MO is emblematic of the ridiculous lengths police departments go to in the face of minority protest.

One of the things I find most odd, and very troubling, is the insistence that police actions, no matter how extreme, unnecessary, and unlawful, are beyond criticism. My first thought is . . . really? Police exist in some bubble outside the scrutiny of the public and the law? Since when?

I could list a bunch of statistics on police-involved shootings, the arrest rates of minorities compared to whites, or just post all the police officers who’ve been found non-guilty, or haven’t even been indicted, for actions that seem to many people to be illegal. Those statistics are important, of course, because they paint an unflattering picture of the actions of police officers and whole departments across the country. Just this past week, the Dallas, TX police arrested a woman because she broke the back window of the vehicle used by the man who’d just beaten her up, a beating caught on video. They back-off, dropping charges after a social media uproar. This story and others like it can be multiplied ten-fold if we look at stories from across the country.

Even without those statistics, or the constant stream of stories of police misconduct of all sorts, the fact remains that police departments do not exist in some state of grace, exempt from public scrutiny, criticism, and yes – action. They are subject to laws, regulations, policies & procedures, and either they do their work within those bounds or they face accountability. I’m not even sure why this is thought to be some radical idea.

The notion that legitimate criticism of the many excesses of police across the country is tantamount to being “anti-police” is just silly. Do the people who think this way work in jobs without any accountability? Do they get to do whatever they want without consequence? I’d love to have a job like that!

Police work doesn’t exist in some ahistorical, asocial vacuum. For most of American history, police were looked upon with more than a jaundiced eye. They were perceived to be the tool of the ruling class to keep the poor and marginalized in their place. I shouldn’t have to mention the centuries-long criminalization of black life in America to demonstrate why minority communities don’t look with favor upon police departments. Mistrust is rampant for many good reasons.

And for those who think saying these things is an indictment of all police officers at all times and all circumstances is, like so much else, just silly. Most police officers are good people doing a very difficult job as best they can. Recognizing this reality doesn’t exempt police who act outside the law from being held to account; demanding accountability for police departments is no more “anti-cop” than insisting all people obey the laws, rules, and policies of their jobs is somehow “anti-retail” or “anti-professional.”

I think it’s important to hold police officers and departments up to the light and make sure they are doing their jobs properly. If there are police officers and others who disagree, I really want to know why you think that way. Because I don’t get it. There’s nothing radical or mean-spirited about holding people to account for their actions. It’s something everyone lives with in one way or another.

Things I Don’t Get But I’m Fine With, Part 1: Non-Binary, Gender-Fluid and Others

Non-binary people are changing the world for the better

For a while, I’ve thought about doing a series of posts about things in our current world I don’t understand. Being middle-aged, the world is less and less about me and people my age. Considering the mess we’ve made, this is a good thing. I welcome younger people pushing changes, even – especially! – those I don’t understand (and might even have a problem with). If we’re going to survive to the 22nd century, lots of things need to change. The best thing us older folks can do is step out of the way.

I thought I’d start this series with something that I not only don’t really understand, but actually have some problems with. In an effort to be honest, I can’t hide things I find problematic behind a facade of blind acceptance. That there are people who identify as non-binary and/or gender fluid is a fact; sitting around with a grumpy look on my face complaining about it won’t change anything. I see things on social media from my peers about issues of gender identification and I wonder if they understand that the issue, by and large, isn’t about them. No one is hurt by others identifying as neither male nor female.

Before I go further, however, I want to be clear about my personal issues with this movement. There are millions, perhaps billions, of people around the world struggling just to identify as fully human, as men and women. The desire to move oneself beyond these categories smacks of more than a little privilege.

At the same time, why make one group the enemy of another? One can work both for justice for those struggling just to identify as fully human and for those who wish to move beyond the often stifling contingencies of gender identity. As I wrote above, the matter isn’t about me at all. I don’t have to understand the intricacies of non-binary folks to stand behind them in their struggle for recognition. Precisely because they’re struggle doesn’t resonate with me, that’s all the more reason to shrug and make clear my full support for it.

Another reason my inability to understand and ideological qualms don’t stop me from supporting non-binary folks is as simple as this: how people wish to be known isn’t my business. If that’s how they wish to live their lives, good for them. Assholes and curmudgeons insisting gender-fluid’s existence is some kind of affront to their own is silly. The world isn’t about you. How others’ live their lives isn’t about you. You might even find some happiness and joy supporting people who ask nothing more than to be recognized for who they are.

The rules of the world are changing. It is incumbent upon us folks for whom some of those rules are strange just to say, “OK,” and get on with living our lives. We don’t have to understand or completely agree with those changes; we need to remember we’re not going to be around that much longer, and younger folks are making the world in their image. Despite common use, age doesn’t necessarily confer wisdom. A lot of the time, it confers nothing more than grumpiness and curmudgeonliness. Besides, there’s no reason to mourn the loss of some of our own “truths”. As they increasingly show themselves an impediment to the world that is coming into being, they weren’t truths to begin with. Much better to leave them behind and celebrate what’s coming.

What Is Toxic Masculinity?

There is nothing “toxic” about being a Navy Seal. There is, however, something toxic believing Navy Seals represent the essence of real manhood.

Gillette is a canny brand. They managed to begin a conversation, with occasionally results, on the question of “toxic masculinity”. All they’re really interested in is selling razors. By tying their brand to an image of men as strong, nurturing, supportive figures and role models, they hope to tap into changing social beliefs regarding what it means to be “a man”.

First, I want to make clear that there is no such thing as “a real man”, as if there was this thing, “manness”, that some males have and others don’t. The whole idea is silly. This isn’t about eternal essences; on the contrary, it’s a discussion about how hurtful, even destructive, such ideas can be in the lives of boys and young men. Pointing out that boys bullying other children isn’t “just boys being boys”, but a dangerous group of behaviors is hardly an attack on “real men”. Remarking that men harassing women isn’t “biology”, but annoying cultural norms that need to change, isn’t an attack on “real men”. Noting there really is such a thing as toxic masculinity isn’t an attack on real men. Posting pictures of soldiers in uniform and calling them “toxic men who have protected snowflakes” not only does a disservice to both men and women who serve in combat. It is an example of toxic masculinity: believing there is some real thing called manliness and soldiers somehow represent it.

There are, of course, scales and grades of toxicity. Being an annoying high school kid is kind of low-level toxicity, in part because the social rules of adolescents are pretty conservative and difficult to change. Learning to navigate those rules is part of the learning process.* Being a serially abusive stalker, on the other hand, certainly represents the other extreme of toxic behaviors in which too many men engage.

There are groups of men, gathering mostly online, who might seem sad and ridiculous. Nevertheless, their views are rooted in a kind of elemental rage. Part of it is internalized, with a disgust with themselves, their looks, their lack of social skills, and their inability to connect with women. They also externalize that hatred, however, sometimes fantasizing about murdering women and men, or celebrating those who do These links come from We Hunted The Mammoth, which chronicles the dangerous, pathetic activities of so-called involuntary celibates or “Incels” and “Men Going Their Own Way”, or MGTOW, men who have decided they will no long pursue women yet spend an inordinate amount of time denouncing women for everything from wearing yoga pants to declaring that women wearing makeup is part of the way women lie to men.

Despite their own self-definition as sad, physically unattractive losers whom society has relegated to “beta” status despite their many good qualities, these men are perhaps among the most toxic people around. Their views regarding women cross the line to pathologically horrifying. They blame women for their failed social lives, since it is women who make the social rules regarding who is and is not attractive. They believe women have sex all the time, with a variety of men. Sometimes, they also have sex with dogs. And fish. These are men who would benefit from someone offering them help, whether simple friendship or therapy.

I’m not suggesting that such men are representative of all varieties of toxic masculinity. On the contrary, as I noted above, it can simply be an obnoxious, entitled jerk behaving as such. Or it could be the person who tries to excuse his behavior by saying, “I’m a guy”, as if that was somehow an explanation. The whole point of this post, rather, is to make clear there is such a thing as toxic masculinity; that it appears in a wide variety of behaviors and attitudes. Most of all, it is to make clear that if the very mention of the concept upsets you, that might demonstrate the need for some introspection.

N.B.: As an aside, may I just ask everyone over the age, say, of 19, to get the fuck over high school?