Sunday, May 31, 2020

Life as a River

River rapids

The river as a metaphor for human life is one of the oldest clichés.1 But sometimes life imitates metaphor, and this time may be one of them.

When you’re traveling on a river that is broad, flat, and smooth, sometimes you hear a distant roaring, the sound of rapids and maybe even a waterfall ahead. You can’t turn around, you can’t stop the flow—either of the river or of time itself. All you can do is move forward in hope and confidence, knowing that your skills and courage might let you survive whatever drop in elevation and resulting rapids and rocks the river ahead throws at you. Or not, and then you will be beyond caring, because you are drowned and dead.

And if you could find a way off the river—pull to shore and abandon the water and its currents, stop time itself—all you would be doing is either placing yourself in limbo or joining another river. And there you might not even hear the falls before you went over them.

When I was growing up, my parents taught a severe form of bravery that was in one sense pure fatalism. Some bad things are just going to happen, so you might as well face them and get it over with. Or, as my mother would say when we had to clean up certain messes, “If that’s the worst thing you ever have to put your hands into, consider yourself lucky.” Life is hard, and there’s no use in cowering, because whatever lies ahead will come to you anyway.

But these were people who, despite having been raised in loving and relatively well-to-do families, graduated from high school into the start of the Great Depression, then graduated from college at its depths, and finally moved forward into World War II. In those days, if you weren’t strong, capable, flexible, and emotionally resilient, you collapsed under the weight of your own fear and despair.

I’ve experienced a similar fatalism—and written about it elsewhere—while riding a motorcycle.2 Sometimes you are faced with a difficult, declining-radius curve, or you take a bad line through any curve, or you suddenly discover an obstacle lying in the road around a corner. Or sometimes another driver cuts you off and suddenly truncates your path to safety. There is no way, on a motorcycle, to stop time, to reconsider, to take measurements, and then to lay out, analyze, and choose among all the available options. You just have to deal with what’s coming in real time, relying on all your learned skills and reflexes, hope for the best, and choose to have no regrets.

Twenty-twenty has proven to be a time something like the decade my parents faced. We started off in January with a hugely successful economic environment, low unemployment, and bright prospects. Then a novel virus with unknown but frightening prospects for transmissibility and lethality—and with remarkable differences of public and professional opinion, as well as quoted statistics, even among scientific and political experts, regarding its actual effects, even extending to its origins and possible human development—took the country, the world, and the global markets into economic standstill, if not freefall. In this country we were already in the midst of political turmoil, with one party declaring every “resistance” to a legally elected president, even challenging that election itself because, as sometimes happens, the popular and electoral votes did not coincide.

In the midst of what is shaping up to be another Great Recession, if not an economic malaise worse than the Great Depression, we are headed into a national election that is sure to be contested. If President Trump is elected with another minority popular vote, or valid claims of voter suppression, or any whiff of foreign collusion and interference, then the Democratic, progressive left will explode. If the prospective Democratic candidate Joe Biden, who appears to labor under some obvious mental handicaps, is elected along with a vice president largely chosen by the party to serve out the four-year term in the event of his incapacity, and with any hint of vote fraud or “ballot harvesting,” then the Republican, conservative right will explode. In any event, the strictures of the pandemic may lead some to call for the election itself to be postponed or delayed indefinitely—and then everyone’s head will explode.

These are difficult times. We are exposed to medical, political, and economic stresses that I have not experienced in my long years as a politically conscious adult. And as I have expressed recently, I don’t know what the future will bring. I never thought, as I was entering the placid delta of my life, with the beckoning, anonymous sea and its promise of dissolution just ahead, that I would hear the roar of rapids in front of me. At this point, all I can do is lighten my load, tighten my straps, firm up my grip on the paddle, and get ready to ride the river.

1. You are born in a spring that seeps from a hillside, far above the plains; spend your youth tumbling over rocks and rills, suffering the pains of early childhood and adolescent development as a physical and social being; enter the broad stream of experience, skills, and achievements as a competent adult; sometimes become trapped in a lake, where the stream no longer carries you forward, so that you must paddle hard to get anywhere; end up in the still, sluggish waters of the delta in late age, with all your forces spent; and finally get flushed out to dissolution in the great and anonymous sea. It’s a metaphor that ultimately tells you nothing new about life.

2. Much of this also applies while driving a car, but inside the steel cage you are a little more distanced from cold, hard reality, and your knees are a bit farther from the hard, unforgiving pavement.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Most Stable Government

Double eagle

I hate to say it—and I mean this line of thinking offends me as a “little-D democrat”—but the most stable form of government in human history is hereditary monarchy. Hands down, it wins the race as the longest-running, most often chosen, quickest-to-revert-to form of political organization. It would seem to be the natural way for human beings to govern themselves, the hierarchical imperative.

I do not say it is the best form of government. Or that it’s the fairest, most efficient, or most rational form. Just that it is the most stable—although it’s not exactly that in the short term, either. It’s the form that every society keeps coming back to.

Ancient Rome from its founding had seven kings,1 and they were deposed in favor of a democratically based republican form of government that lasted almost 400 years. The Republic was a system of meritocratic personal advancement through a course of political, military, and religious offices, culminating in election to a shared executive function, the consulship, that a man might hold only once in ten years. The Romans were deeply allergic to the idea of kingship, so much so that when they had to resort to a single leader holding extraordinary powers during a crisis, they instead used the term dictator. (This was simply Latin for “speaker.”) And yet, after a series of politically powerful men, having run the “course of honors” and already served their terms as consul, fought for ultimate power using their own armies in the Civil Wars of the first century B.C., they adopted a virtual king in the person of the Caesarian imperator, or “field marshal.” (From this we get our term “emperor,” now generally intended to mean a supreme ruler above any number of petty kings and chiefs—of which the Roman Empire had many.)

The Athenian Greeks, the progenitors of our earliest ideas about democracy, veered between elected officials and power-holding “tyrants” for most of what we think of as their ancient Golden Age in the sixth to the fourth centuries BC. But before they had democracy, they had the basileus, or “king.” And the Spartans never had much of a democracy, retaining a king who ruled alongside a council of “ephors,” or magistrates. After Athens lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta, and then the whole country was subsumed into Macedonia under Philip II and his son Alexander, rule by hereditary kingship remained with the Greeks and what remained of the Alexandrian empire until its eventual takeover by Rome.

At the beginning of the 20th century, most of Europe was nominally ruled by local kings (of the Spanish, Greeks, Danes, Swedes, and English, to name a few), or a Kaiser in Germany, or Tsar in Russia.2 Being an enlightened age, most of these kings’ powers were either overseen by or shared with some form of parliament, or diet in imperial Germany and Japan, or duma in imperial Russia. Some kings, like those in England and Sweden, were more social figureheads than persons of power. Some, like those in Germany and Russia, ruled as virtual autocrats—or tried to. Two world wars swept away the actual power of even the most autocratic sovereigns, but in the case of Russia and Germany the forces that took over quickly devolved into a new form of ruler—the Secretary General of the Communist Party in Russia and the Reich chancellor, or simply Der Führer, in Germany, who were kings in all but name. And if either Stalin or Hitler had left children capable in time of succeeding him, there’s little doubt those titles would have become hereditary.

Of course, most of the rest of the world in antiquity and up to modern times has been ruled by kings under one name or another: Pharaoh in Egypt, Sultan among the Turks, Great King in Persia, Emperor in China, and chiefs among the many native tribes of North America or full kings among the urbanized native cultures of Central and South America. When Europeans conquered and attempted to colonize and “civilize” these lands, they eventually tried to bring in some form of parliamentary democracy or Western bureaucracy. But it seldom took hold, except perhaps in India. And China in the 20th century quickly went from the last imperial dynasty to a republic, and then to government by the Communist Party under Mao Zedong, who was the new “Red Emperor” in all but name.

Falling into line under the leadership of one man—or more rarely a woman—and obeying his or her orders seems to be in our human genes, going back to the hierarchical organization of the monkey troupe. In moments of crisis—and there is always a crisis, sometime, somewhere—we rely on the proven or probable skills and knowledge of a military, political, or spiritual leader, or whatever the tribe needs. This is rule of the fittest by common consensus. But once that person has tasted power, it’s difficult not to succumb to the temptation of continuing the crisis to stay in power. And this tendency is exacerbated by the leader’s naturally surrounding himself—and sometimes herself—with a cadre of lieutenants, counselors, or acolytes, to whom he or she owes favors and delegates powers in their own right, and from whom he or she exacts loyalty and support in the face of all challengers.

Sometimes, as in the Native American cultures, a tribe might rally around a war leader in times of military struggle and then a political or diplomatic leader or elder in times of peace and negotiation. The tribe’s leadership would be fluid and flexible. But those arrangements would occur in small groups, an extended clan or village, where almost everyone knew every member of the tribe. In larger groups, or groups that have grown larger by conquest, the person of the king becomes isolated, distant, and cloaked in ceremony and privilege. Then the functions of military, political, and sometimes even spiritual leader become blended in a single person. And because people have an innate respect for genes and heredity, it’s easy for a king to promote his eldest or most capable son as heir to the throne. Even if the king dies while the heir is still a child, that cadre of lieutenants and counselors will close ranks around the throne and defend the child’s rights, or promote a regent to serve in power until the child reaches maturity.

This is all very old stuff, going back to patterns laid down in human prehistory. And it works for most people, because democracy as practiced in its ideal form is hard. People have to take time out of their daily lives to take note of and learn about the major issues confronting the tribe or the nation. They have to exercise the vote and make what they believe or hope to be an intelligent choice. Then they have to take responsibility when their candidate wins the election but ultimately fails in action and creates more crisis. They have to get and stay involved. They have to care. In a busy life with not much free time, people get tired of grappling with national priorities and making decisions—especially when most of the time they have to compromise in their views or hold their tongues when the opposite party wins an election and exercises its own version of power.

A king surrounded by appointed counselors and people of rank, who have superior knowledge and together can make decisions for the good of the country, becomes an acceptable form of government. Their decisions might not be the best, or what the average citizen would choose for him- or herself, but they are usually good enough. The system is stable enough to be allowed to continue. And when the country reaches a crisis, when the decisions are bad, then the king’s royal but non-ruling relatives and chief counselors stage a coup, hold an internal war within the capital, and create a new king whom everyone can trust to sort out the mess and get the country back on a good enough footing. The situation is stable—not permanently so, because there are always the occasional coups and interregnums—but stable enough. It soon becomes time-honored tradition.

The current political situation in America calls into question our long-standing traditions under a democratically elected republican form of government. Our constitutional government is now under attack in favor of rule by technical experts appointed to administrative bureaucracies under the Executive Branch. The majority of the rules we now live by are written by cabinet-level functionaries, rather than by elected legislators. The legislators, instead of framing laws we can all read and understand, instead write loose and sometimes hypothetical “wish lists” or desired “end states,” granting powers to those bureaucracies to then write the actual, detailed rules. When the laws that people are supposed to live by are no longer simple, obvious, and readily available, the republic is in danger.

And then the legislators themselves are no longer citizen candidates serving one or two terms as their civic duty. Instead, they have become lifelong officeholders insulated by their extensive staffs and their stronger connections with one party or the other. Their constituencies are defined by incomprehensible district lines engineered to yield a predictable party superiority, called “gerrymandering.” And when that fails, they achieve superiority by the threat or actual practice of voter suppression and ballot fraud. When the average citizen’s vote is no longer equally counted or is rendered meaningless, democracy is in danger.

The Democratic Party devised and used a system of “super delegates” to quash the nomination of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 convention and put in place as their chosen candidate Hillary Clinton. That is a failure of democracy, at least on the party level. In a backlash to the unpopular Clinton—and in part to her unfortunate “deplorables” comment—we saw the populist election of outsider and demagogue Donald Trump in 2016, which brought in a charismatic figure who volubly opposes “the Swamp” of bureaucratic politics. However these anti-democratic forces play out, through repeated soft coup attempts or eventual open warfare, it’s going to be bad for a nation of laws, civility, and the traditional practice of peacefully relinquishing power after losing an election. And when the democratic structure supporting a republic collapses, whether through political crisis or civil war, the likely result is the surviving party establishing some kind of leader figure who is king in all but name.

After the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, someone asked Benjamin Franklin what the group had created. His reply was, “A republic, if you can keep it.” These days, we may be very close to losing it.

1. Or that’s the tradition. It turns out that those legendary seven covered a span of about 300 years, from the city’s founding on seven hills in a bend of the Tiber around 700 BC. to the expulsion of the last king and creation of the republic about 400 BC. That’s a remarkable span, and the dating of the various kings is inexact, but each of them would have had to rule on average more than forty years apiece, in a primitive village founded around the margins of a great swamp. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but unlikely.

2. It’s a commonplace that “Kaiser” and “Tsar” are simply local linguistic forms of the original “Caesar,” showing how deeply the idea of emperorship and the name of Rome’s first incumbent marked European thinking.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

A Fly in Amber

Fly in amber

Right now, I’m stuck. I used to think this was a temporary condition, with my brain caught at top dead center.1 Now I feel like a fly in amber, with my brain trapped in a hopeless yellow fog.

The trouble started on Christmas Eve 2019, when I fell while walking the dog and broke three bones in my left hand and wrist. Aside from the pain, the inconvenience slowed my writing process, where my brain speaks directly to the keyboard and screen through my fingertips. One hand spider-typing interferes with this, and so I gave myself a break from the current book. And in January I got a helluva cold, or flu, or something—maybe an offshoot of the coronavirus, but probably not—which has resurfaced every couple of weeks since then. So I’ve had reason to delay my writing and give myself a longer break, extending into a dispiriting couple of months.

The truth is, to begin with, I’m not sure about the book I was working on at the time of the accident. I had just started outlining and doing initial drafts of the story about a young American army officer who gets punished for an international incident with reduced rank and a posting to Mars in the 22nd century, where he will head security at the nearly defunct U.S. embassy. Fortunately for him—or not—he arrives right when the various factions on the planet plan and pull off a revolution or a war for independence, and he has to deal with that in military fashion. Great stuff! Future stuff, with AIs, evolved politics, and a mysterious female! Except … as much as I know about Mars, I don’t know, or can’t imagine, much of anything new that any other writer hasn’t used before. And I’m not really sure I believe in colonizing Mars in the first place.

I mean, it’s a rock. The atmosphere is carbon dioxide with a surface pressure about one percent that of Earth. Open a window on a jet at 100,000 feet, and you’re dealing with the same pressure, except in a mix of unbreathable poisons.2 Because Mars has no magnetic field and such a thin atmosphere, solar wind and radiation are deadly on the surface without additional shielding. And if the planet has water, there’s not much of it, or not enough in any one place for human habitation to exploit casually. If you want some new land to colonize, go to Siberia, Patagonia, or Antarctica—they’re all a lot warmer and you can still breathe the atmosphere. It would be easier to build a five-star hotel with Olympic-sized swimming pool on the South Col of Mount Everest: the atmosphere is better and the logistics are much more manageable. Aside from the glory of the achievement, Mars is a really hard sell. For that matter, the Moon’s logistics and travel times are better than those of Mars, and the atmosphere is just a little bit harder vacuum.3

But in my mind, the soldier’s story was set in space, on Mars, from the beginning. And the more I planned and wrote, the hollower—more facile and silly—the story became. At a certain point, I just didn’t believe or trust in my own imagination. And so the writing process just … stopped.

Last year, when I finished The Divina in the Troupe, which is the sequel to The Children of Possibility and completed that three-book mini-series, I was casting around for what story in my imagined lineup to work on next. The young soldier on Mars was neck-and-neck with a third book in the ME group, which would address not two but three copies of the program and deal with some crisis in the network. But that story is still undeveloped in my mind, and I’m not sure the world really needs another dose of a smart-aleck AI who first endangers and then saves the world.

I have other book ideas, but they are even less developed, just glimpses of an idea without plot or characters. And frankly, with the way sales have been going on my previous books, my sense of urgency—if not my dedication to the writing craft—has begun to wane.

But through all that I was still able to write and post my weekly blog on this website. Except … the coronavirus shutdown has me heartsick over both the growing death rate and the effects on the economy, as I wrote in my last blog. My own life situation hasn’t changed all that much: get up, walk the dog, eat breakfast, clear my emails, check the web, do a bit of writing—or, these days, not—then walk the dog, eat lunch, check the stock market, read or nap, do a bit more writing, walk the dog, eat dinner, binge-watch a few shows or a movie, walk the dog, then go to bed and read until it’s time to roll over and turn out the light. Once or twice a week I shop for groceries and go for a motorcycle ride. Once a month or so, I visit family—now in abeyance because of the quarantine. Otherwise, I was already pretty much locked in place.

But when the novel in hand died out, and the whole world went into quarantine and, well … amber, my impulse to write about politics and economics, science and religion, or various art forms just died out. My blogs usually start with some persistent thought that intrudes on my mind, usually related to one of those three topic areas, that I then need to sit down and write out in order to explore my thinking. But the word-generator in my brain that throws up these proto-discussions just … shut down. The closest I’ve come in months was a few nights back, when I woke up at two in the morning to list the various transfers of kingship in England through the War of the Roses and the reason why Henry VIII was so eager to get a male heir. And that’s a story anyone can read about without my help or insight.

I’m trying, charitably, to think of myself as being in a fallow period and not indulge the D-word, let alone the B-word.4 After all, since I was laid off at the biotech in 2010, I’ve been writing hard, producing approximately one novel and fifty blogs each year. So perhaps I’m due for a break. And perhaps, after I give my brain a rest, I will come back with a fresh view on Mars, or the ME character, or some other future war for that young soldier, or something even better and more exciting to write about.

Or that’s my hope.

1. “Top dead center” refers to an internal combustion engine that stops with the piston all the way up at the top of the cylinder—or down at the bottom, which also works—so that any pressure on it just pushes against the vertical connecting rod and bearing without forcing the crank to move one way or the other. Modern, multi-cylinder engines almost never get caught this way, because while one cylinder might be at top or bottom, others are at different positions in the cycle and can move the crank.

2. The atmosphere on Mars would pass for a pretty good laboratory vacuum on Earth. The “air” is too thin for any kind of airfoil or rotor to lift any appreciable mass. So traveling across the Martian surface would be by ground vehicle or some kind of short-hop rocket. This would make human travel and physical commerce between different sites difficult, time-consuming, and expensive—about equal to, say, going from Boston to New York or Philadelphia in colonial times by horseback and wagon or stagecoach.

3. However, the thin atmosphere on Mars—only a partial vacuum—might allay the problem of electrostatic dust precipitation that clings to every surface and plagued the astronauts on the Moon.

4. The “D” is for depression. I’ve never actually been diagnosed with or treated for it, but my late wife once suggested that I might be suffering from depression. And since her death I’ve certainly had my down periods—but those are situational and not clinical.
       The “B” is for writer’s block—which I don’t actually believe in. Supposedly, when this strikes, a writer has lots to say but is inhibited from saying it for some other reason. I’ve never felt that kind of stoppage. If I sit down at the keyboard and can’t write, it’s because my subconscious knows that my thinking on the subject is not yet complete or fully developed, and whatever I tried to write would be a waste of time and would have to get ripped up and rewritten anyway. And that may be what’s going on here: my subconscious isn’t happy with the books that my forebrain and my strength of will have put on the writing schedule, and so it wants me to do something new.