ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

General discussions of interest to readers and fans of Harlan Ellison.

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ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

Postby Moderator » Sat Sep 21, 2013 9:04 am

Okay, kids. Time for a new one. As most of you know, my father was a publisher. One of the magazines he published had a monthly column entitled "Nobody Asked Me, But..." in which field professionals expressed at-times controversial opinions but in a forum of freedom. Hence this new thread.

In the column, people who had serious credentials could, and often would, run afoul of the military leadership by expressing opinions that were not the norm, not the mainstream. But here's the thing: the essays had to be self-defending. It could not be an officer saying "I don't agree with the policy" and running away, the essay had to have merit and content. It had to be specific. It had to be a sound, reasoned point of view, even if people disagreed with it profoundly they were forced to argue the points and not the person. In Dad's case there was an editorial board doing the selection, so it was easy to enforce those rules. No Board hereabouts, so I will be policing things instead.

This is a forum for longer form essays and thoughts on topics that might be controversial elsewhere, or even controversial here. The caveats -- and I will be without ruth -- are no "shorthand responses" (take them elsewhere, maybe we can put up a "letters to the editor" page next) and only long-form contributions. A minimum of five paragraphs on a single topic. No cutting and pasting of other people's comments to flesh out your word count. This has to be entirely original content. If you choose to respond long-hand to someone else's post your response cannot be a personal attack and must address the content of that post alone. No wide ranging ruminating on a variety of things, and no short, pithy posts.

We can, if there's interest, establish a "counterpoint" thread to discuss things in a much more shorthand format. This thread is to allow single thoughts to be fleshed out and made whole, and a place to put them.

I post an example below to get things started. Again, remember, I will delete any but long form essays in response to the posts.
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Re: ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

Postby Moderator » Sat Sep 21, 2013 9:08 am

Thoughts on American Exceptionalism from One American's Point of View

I am, as a life-long American, lover of this country, patriot (though I don't like the meaning of the term in the last decade), and student of American history, deeply concerned that Americans have lost sight of what it means to be an exceptional nation. An exceptional people. They claim, by birthright alone, to be an Exceptional person. That Americans are Exceptional because we were birthed inside of our borders.

In the last few days -- as a result of an editorial written by the Russian President -- much has been made, on angry, hate-spewing cable news talk shows in particular, of what has been termed "American Exceptionalism". The phrase, a self-serving pat on our own collective backs, has been used to justify many things -- virtually all of them coming at the expense of another country or people.

As I just noted, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man for whom I have little respect and regard as a modern day dictator, has decried our intervention in affairs across the world. He decried our claim to American Exceptionalism. And there is a smidgeon of truth to what he says, no matter how badly we want to argue (and John McCain has done just that in the Russian press). He noted that America, now, is not exceptional. And it's hard to argue that it is on anything other than wishful philosophical terms.

I do not deny that our ancestors were exceptional. We, as a nation, can be proud of their achievements and nod towards those truly exceptional Americans and say "I want to be like them".

But we, you and I, are not them. We have yet to prove our exceptionalism to ourselves and to our planet. You cannot be exceptional simply by claiming to be so. In fact, the more you insist you ARE something, the more you should be asking yourself why you need to keep pointing it out.

(I am reminded of the television character Sheldon Cooper, a brilliant physicist on the program The Big Bang Theory. Cooper -- he would insist I refer to him as "Doctor Cooper" -- does indeed have potential as an exceptional American. Born in Texas, trained at CalTech, and (reportedly) a Hawking-esque intellect.

(His downfall is that he is also an arrogant, self-interested jackass a good deal of the time.)

In many ways, America is the Sheldon Cooper of the world. We, the current generations of Americans, have the potential to be exceptional. We could be, as a society, as exceptional as our ancestors, as the country that drew together in World War II, picked up the national economy and did a great thing.

Or our ancestors who followed John F. Kennedy to the Moon.

Or build the Empire State Building in the midst of the Great Depression.

We could do great things. That is the mark of American Exceptionalism.

It is not lowering my taxes. It is not squabbling amongst ourselves and calling each other names. It is not holding the nation and the economy hostage to one particular ideology or another. It is getting together, seeing a common goal -- one that is beyond the reach of anyone else -- and grasping at it. To better ourselves and our world. Feathering our own individual pockets at the expense of others is not exceptionalism. The opposite, in fact.

Americans are no longer exceptional, as a people. There, I've said it. We are capable of being exceptional, we are simply, you and I, choosing not to be. President Bush announced plans to go to Mars, a truly exceptional goal. America yawned.

President Obama embraced Republican concepts of medical insurance and practices. Republicans balked at their own plans, and when it became the law of the land, now threaten to destroy the economy unless it is torn down. Scorched Earth to destroy what they, themselves, proposed only a handful of years ago. That is not exceptional.

We, are not exceptional. We do not deserve the label. Our ancestors did. Many times throughout our proud history Americans have proven ourselves to be exceptional.

There are Americans who are Exceptional Americans. Right now. People who, whether you agree with them politically or socially, are revolutionizing something. Exceptionalism is not political, it is action-based. Exceptionalism is not about decrying others, vilifying them or demonizing them, it is about lifting us all up, every one of us across the planet. Making us better.

We are not doing that, you and I.

Americans do not look to the skies any longer. We look to our wallets, That is not exceptionalism. Exceptional is not giving tax breaks to the wealthy by cutting back on services to the poor.

Putin was right when he said we're not exceptional. You are not exceptional until you behave in an exceptional manner. Self-interest is not exceptionalism. Greed is not exceptionalism. Arrogance is not exceptionalism.

Exceptionalism is about changing society. Exceptionalism is elevating the Human Race. Making us better, as people and as a society. Exceptionalism is about being a role model for the rest of the world. It is about building bigger, soaring higher and reaching out our hands to pull the rest along with us.

It is about being exceptional, ourselves. Individually. And until we do something exceptional we cannot claim Americans are a privileged Exceptional lot. Our ancestors were. They looked to the sky and built the tallest buildings, launched rockets to explore the deepest space, traveled to the bottom of the ocean, and volunteered to free the world of territory-hungry tyrants. Our ancestors created things. They took care of each other. They reached out to others and opened our wallets. We asked the wealthy to pay back -- and the wealthy did their part.

(Yes, there are horrific parts of our history we all lament, but as I am apt to say: "That was not me. I did not do that and we as Americans are working to change that. Change ourselves" THAT is exceptionalism.)

I desperately want us to be exceptional. I want America to be as great as we are capable of being. But we as Americans must be exceptional ourselves to merit the label "American Exceptionalism". That means that we must rise above our differences, rise above our own self-interest and seek to help others…seek to rise to new heights and not be afraid to dream big. Bigger than anyone else on the planet. Dream of a world in which poverty is gone, war is gone. Where voters vote, and the government respects the message that vote sends. Where government works to better us all, not just a small constituency.

We must rise above our own petty self-interest and do what is right for the country regardless of what it might do to your own wallet. Exceptional is what you accomplish when you DON'T have the resources and yet rise to accomplish great things. THAT is exceptional.

Ask ourselves, individually and in the mirror, John F Kennedy's question: "My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

And then do it.

We are not exceptional, this current generation of Americans. Our sights are not on the sky. Our dreams are small, like our buildings and our accomplishments. Our hands are not outstretched. Our hands are thrust into our pockets, checking to make sure our wallet in there.

We did many, many great things that I am proud of, as an American.

We're just not doing them now.
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Re: ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

Postby reddragon70 » Mon Sep 23, 2013 7:18 pm

Mr Barber,

What an exceptional article. And one that is true of not just America but seems to be one that is true of my own country too.

Great Britain? Well once maybe... Now, all I can see is an archaic tourist attraction. A has been that has much to be proud of in its past, and an equal amount to be utterly ashamed of.

Now I see my country emulating America, not just in policy but in cultural values. Kids seem to all want to be Gansta Rappers. Something I find surreal. Everyone seems to want to follow the get rich quick ethos, yet dont want to put in hard work and effort to get it.

If asked about the great and good this country has produced they have no clue, yet can easily tell you who Kim Kardashian is, though not what she is actually famous for. The cult of "celebrity" seems to be the goal for a generation. Not building dreams, not realising wonders.... They want to be "FAMOUS".

I fear for the future. In times past being a train driver was regarded as a job every little boy aspired to. Now even working seems beyond the younger ones. Why work when they can live off the state? Why get an education when you can live on hand-outs. Why aspire to anything?

Well I for one still aspire to better things. Not just for myself or my children, but for the world as a whole. Humanity can be noble. It just needs the right push and inspiration. I hope we all find it.

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Re: ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

Postby Ezra Lb. » Fri Nov 22, 2013 12:26 am

Fifty years ago today. Where were you? I clearly remember the Kennedy assassination even though I was only three years old. I absorbed the experience mostly through the obvious and genuine grief of my parents even though they had voted for Nixon because JFK was a Catholic. The Kennedy assassination has become an iconic event; many folks date the real beginning of the “Sixties” to this date and many feel that the assassination was when everything started going bad in America.

What really initiated these comments was that our VP John Kerry, in an interview with Tom Brokaw, expressed the opinion that he has “serious doubts” that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of John F Kennedy. Kerry said that while he doesn’t think there was another shooter present in Dealey Plaza that day (what most conspiracy “theorists” mean when they say Oswald didn’t act alone) he thinks that Oswald was “influenced” by others in some undefined way. Kerry is quick to point out he doesn’t suspect the CIA, one of the usual bogies in the affair.

This is not a radical position of course. Polls show that many millions of Americans believe that there was some sort of conspiracy involved in JFK’s death. But while Kerry and other Americans have their suspicions what they don’t have is… evidence. None whatsoever. Conspiracy buffs will regale you for days about magic bullet trajectories and umbrella men and the Grassy Knoll but if you bother to trace any of these threads to their sources you quickly find much less than meets the eye. And the motive? Kennedy was going to withdraw from Vietnam and the powers that be wanted a war. Castro’s revenge for Kennedy administration attempts to assassinate him. Kennedy pissed off the CIA by not providing support at the Bay of Pigs. The Mafia killed him to stop Brother Bobby’s anti-racketeering investigations. Some or none or all of the above!

I think to the dispassionate observer it’s clear Oswald acted alone simply because there is no real evidence otherwise. So why do these conspiracy theories persist?

To believe that Oswald acted alone is to accept the fact that the most powerful man in the world can be killed, and the course of the entire history of the world altered, by a sniveling nobody who just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time (or the wrong place at the right time).

It simply couldn’t be as pointless and meaningless as that. No, better to think that there were dark forces at work behind the scenes. Call it the difference between the Conspiracy View of History and the Contingent View of History. These mysterious forces give the moment meaning. Better evil at work than nothing. How crushing would it be to truly realize how much our lives depend on chance? Who can stare for long into that abyss? We crave pattern and purpose and meaning and events like the Kennedy assassination force us to confront the fact that this universe offers none. (It follows from this of course that religion is simply the greatest of all conspiracy theories.)

So Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories will always persist. We need it to be true.
“We must not always talk in the marketplace,” Hester Prynne said, “of what happens to us in the forest.”
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Re: ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

Postby Chuck Messer » Fri Nov 22, 2013 9:16 am

Lee Harvey Oswald: proof that one man can indeed make a difference.
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Re: ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

Postby Moderator » Tue Dec 17, 2013 9:01 am

Okay, posting a portion of my Thumbnail Traveler's Ten Basic Travel Rules...for Pinheads here. The entire blog entry can be read at

Here are -- for those miscreants who insist upon treating the airline industry as their own transportation system and the rest of us unfortunate fellow travelers as inconveniences along for the voyage -- a set of Very Direct Rules for Pinheads to follow. Ten of them. I wanted to do more, but am not sure these folks can count higher than ten, so we need to keep it simple.

I see you nodding in understanding. Let's begin.


1) COURTESY: Be polite to the flight attendants. Listen to their instructions. They have flown a lot more than you have and seen things that would make you drop into a fetal position and suck your thumb. They also know karate. If they tell you to stop wrestling with your bag and check it, or sit down and let other people pass, do it. Now.

2) BEHAVIOR: Be professional and courteous at airports and on planes. Follow established travel protocols and be thoughtful of your fellow travelers. We outnumber you.

- BOARDING THE AIRCRAFT: Board in your group, not whenever you damned well feel like it. They announce these things for a reason. Listen to the announcements. All of them. Yes, you might be far more interested in watching Sarah Palin's learned Fox News exposition on shooting dolphins from a helicopter, but trust me, the gate attendant is going to have a much more immediate and profound impact on your short-term future.

- Don't take oversized baggage on the plane with the fanciful expectation no one will notice you trundling down the boarding tube with the equivalent of two fifty pound sacks of grain under each arm. Everyone sees you and it immediately brands you an amateur traveler. A pinhead.

- If, once you've pummeled your way onto the aircraft and down the aisle, neatly connecting with the arms or heads of everyone politely seated to both sides of the plane, you realize you're having trouble getting the bag to fit, guess what? That's your first clue you should have gate-checked the damn thing -- go back, offer your apologies as you connect again with the collective noggins and shoulders of First Class, take the bag back to the front -- or follow flight attendant instructions, whichever is the least likely to get you throttled. Don't try to smash it into the bin. Don't shove everyone else's luggage around in an attempt to get more room. Don't begin rearranging things as if you're the Head Interior Designer at Macy's New York. Even if YOU don't care about the condition of the, stuff, in your bag, crushing it into the bin may damage somebody else's property and genuinely angers the people who are losing patience in line behind you as you make a public spectacle of yourself.

- When you're finally on board -- and have put your properly-sized bag in the overhead compartment quickly and cleanly -- sit down. Let the 57 people you've kept waiting board the plane, find their seats and stow their stuff now that you're done.

- EXITING THE AIRCRAFT: Wait your turn. Don't leap out of your seat like a member of the Joffrey Ballet as soon as the seatbelt light is extinguished. There's a polite protocol in allowing rows ahead of you to get off the plane before you begin barreling for the exit. This sort of behavior makes other passengers silently vow that if they ever see you again you're not likely to make it to the exit in event of an emergency. Just sayin'. Lots of chaos in those situations and someone just might get body blocked by the Big Guy in row 10. See the comments above and below marked "amateur" and "spectacle". Big Guy doesn't look too happy at the moment.

3) SAFETY FIRST: Speaking of which, if the seat belt sign IS lit, at any time, sit your ass down. Don't get up. Don't move about the cabin. Don't suddenly remember your video game is in the overhead and get up to retrieve it. Doing so immediately confirms you're an amateur. Or a self-important idjit. And an annoyance. An amateur annoying self-important idjit. Is this what you want on your resume, or is it already there in sparkling red letters? Oh, you need a restroom break? Too bad. Siddown.

(An exception would be a small child. They rarely plan ahead. But you're a full grown adult. Why would you want to effectively announce to the entire plane that you can, or won't, control your own bladder? YOUR Mommy and Daddy always told you to go before leaving the house. Or the airport. Whichever.)

4) A REWARDING EXPERIENCE: Enjoy yourself. Being a royal pain in the ass does nobody any good, nor does it win you friends. And believe me, with the way Big Guy is glaring at you, the flight attendants are the best friends you've got on this plane. Rude people get rude service. If someone is arguing with you, perhaps you ought to consider that maybe it isn't that person who is being obtuse.

5) FRUGAL IS AS FRUGAL DOES: If you're on a short duration flight and have paid economy rates, don't expect a full meal. You may not even get peanuts. Sip your cola and understand that if you're in the main cabin you've already traded economy for service.

6) CONVERSING WITH THE LOCALS: When you're boarding, and you approach your designated row to take the middle seat, if you find the two people on the window and aisle are already engaged in friendly chatter, do not sit down and cut off the conversation. Smile, excuse yourself and at the very least offer to exchange seats if you're not interested in talking.

On the same note, if you're doing 90% of the talking in a given row it might be a clue that the other passengers don't need to see every single photograph of your grandchildren all through the duration of the flight.

7) WHIPLASH ARISING: If the coast is clear, the seatbelt light is dark, and you want to get up from your seat, DO NOT grab the back of the seat in front of you and use it to haul yourself to your feet. The person in front of you suddenly feels their seat slip away and it's a disconcerting experience at the very least. Gravity tends to work, even at 33,000 feet -- so while you're casually leveraging yourself into the aisle, your unfortunate fellow passenger is enduring a roller coaster ride of backwards and forwards motion ideally suited to spill their coffee, the contents of their last meal, or disrupt a particularly pleasant dream.


For ANKLEBITERS: Control your children. Please. If you do nothing else. Control your children. This does not mean letting your four year old play in the aisle, nor does it mean it's cute when they kick at the seatback in front of them. Control your children, or at least have the courtesy to gate-check them.

For ADULTS -- WATCH THE LANGUAGE: And you, adults: control your language. I've heard pretty coarse words coming from seats next to and directly behind young ears. Not from guys, usually and somewhat startlingly, but from younger women traveling together and snickering not so quietly about some poor girl who's evidently not near enough to defend herself. Even if someone IS a bitch (or worse), don't announce it where little ears can hear and little mouths repeat. (You may find this amusing, but trust me you're in the minority opinion.)

9) LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: If you're in the first two groups boarding, put your damned right-sized luggage in an overhead near your seat. Don't put it in the bins over the first ten rows, figuring you'll just grab it on the way out. Use the one you're supposed to use, not the first one you run across.

(If you're in the latter groups boarding you're on your own, unfortunately, because some pinhead in row 28 popped their bag into row 10's bin. Also unfortunately, your bag is now over Row 28 and you need to wait out the debarkation to be able to get back and grab your bag. In the other hand, if you recognize the pinhead from row 28 grabbing his bag from the bin over your head, it's an ideal time to Accidentally head-butt them in the gizzard. Or the groin, whichever is handier.)

(Big hint for both of you: if it's bigger than a briefcase or computer bag, gate check it. Seriously, you're an idiot if you don't. A rude idiot. See rule #1 above. Yes, I'm being repetitive.)

10) GROUP THERAPY: Accept that this is a group experience, not an individual one. Under no circumstances should you ever -- ever -- have cause to stand on your seat. At the gate. In flight. While taxiing. Are you kidding? Ask a taller person for help, sure, but stand on your own chair? I rarely pray for turbulence, but you can bet your ass this is one of those times.
- I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

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Re: ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

Postby Tim Raven » Wed Aug 13, 2014 1:37 pm

It happened again this past Sunday morning at 2:30 AM. I woke up dying.

Have you ever played football and got crushed beneath a pile of people and couldn't breathe? Have you ever almost drowned? How about this, have you ever stood on top of something really high and walked to the edge and looked down? That’s the feeling, except weak in strength. Keep that desperate feeling of panic and helpless despair in your mind. How long did it last for you when it happened? Ten seconds? Fifteen?

When I woke up dying last Sunday that feeling lasted for three and a half hours. It’s happened regularly to me before, but never this strong. I guess it gets worse with age. And the fact that I keep going off of the medications. Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, all of these things are considered weakness by many who have never experienced it. But wait, you have experienced it...that feeling that we discussed, that feeling that lasted ten seconds for you? Now you know what it’s like, just magnify it by one hundred and stretch that feeling out for hours and have it randomly occur day and night, in front of people, at work, while shopping in the grocery store. For the rest of your life. The alternative? Depression meds that turn you into an eraserhead, that is my personal experience.

On the outside, you are not immersed in water or crushed beneath a great weight so people naturally don’t understand why you are feeling the way you do.

Robin Williams was a strong man. To survive for sixty-three years with this malady is a story to be told. Every time that it happens, with experience, you know that you can ride it out. Eat something, drink some water, exercise, walk around the block, watch a stupid TV program, do anything to kick start those brain chemicals into another direction. Drink a shitload of alcohol, get as fucking high as possible, because passing out is a gift. However, knowing that you can ride it out one more time makes you even more weary of the whole thing and despair is king. You just want it to stop. Year after year. Some people, like Robin, take action one day.

You’re not exempt from this, even if you’re wealthy and have every creature comfort available. You can’t buy your way out of it.

I don’t know the answer.

Robin Williams is an impressive, accomplished man. I wish I could have met him personally.

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Re: ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

Postby Chuck Messer » Thu Nov 06, 2014 8:51 am

I wrote this last night and posted it to Facebook this morning. I thought it would go well here.

Ready, aim...

Well, the 'midterm' elections of 2014 are over.

Midterm election. Sounds like a midterm exam, doesn't it? Guess what? We flunked.

I don't mean the election results. To all those who voted and their candidate won, congratulations! You participated, you made use of your franchise. You showed at least SOME dedication and made use of a valuable and precious gift. A right, a privilege, a duty. You were all stand-up citizens and made your voice heard. To those whose candidates didn't win, you nevertheless made use of a still-powerful tool that millions of people in this world are denied. The nations that allow no voice for their people, no elections, are man-made corners of hell that none of us privileged Americans would want to live in. Kudos to you all.

There will be a lot of analysis of this election, soul-searching and there are those who will say, “We was robbed!” There are legitimate concerns about efforts on the part of sharp-toothed little political trolls to disenfranchise voters, to buy elections, not to mention a Supreme Court that seems downright eager to sell us out. But although they are concerns that need to be addressed, here's what really bugs me, what really has me worried for the polyglot Democratic Republic I love.

Only 33.3 percent of the electorate voted. 33.3 percent. TWO THIRDS of the eligible voters did nothing. They stayed at home and did not use that tool that people are being shot and imprisoned for wanting in China and North Korea to name just a couple of the worst offenders.

And that's just the national average. California's participation was a dismal 21 percent. That's pathetic. California is one of the richest states in the union, with a GDP far greater than the vast majority of nations on Earth. What possible reason, what excuse is there that so many people, far more privileged than those in many states in our union, sat on their hands during this election?

There are those who rationalize that the so-called midterms are unimportant, as if they can make it up in the finals or get extra credit. No, you buttheads, you inert lumps of matter, you can't make it up and you don't want there to ever be a final exam, because that is the end, the fall, Th-th-th-that's all, folks!

There are those who play the world-weary cynic, who complain about the corrupt, clay-footed nature of our elected officials, who want to pretend they are above it all. No, you little shit weasels, our elected officials are not perfect, not by a long shot. Neither are you. Neither am I. We can all stub our toes with the best of them. 'Twas ever thus. That's no excuse to whiz your franchise down your leg and let whoever is left to do the heavy lifting. Have you seen the backward-ass mouth breathers that help make the decisions that we all have to live by? YOU helped elect them, because YOU did nothing.

EVERY election matters. It's YOUR voice, YOUR franchise, YOUR duty to participate. Important decisions, ones that can determine the fate of the USA, depend on our republic's citizens bestirring themselves and taking part.

Now, I understand there are some who, though eligible, simply could not vote. Traveling, overseas, in the hospital, or some other legitimate reason. I, a mere lumpen human being, understand. If you were somehow disenfranchised, if you were deliberately prevented from voting, I not only understand, but encourage you to raise hell over this, for nothing can get done if your fellow citizens don't know what happened.

But, I think that the money (WAY too much being spent), the fast-shuffle three card monty tricks that some lowlifes are trying to play with the system are not what determined the outcome of this election. It's the vast majority of fellow citizens who couldn't be bothered to act like citizens. I find it offensive that it seems necessary to practically flog people into going out and voting. Or, simply filling out and sending a mail-in ballot.

To those who participated, whatever party you belong to, I thank you for your service.

To those lumps of inert matter who didn't, I say: Go fuck yourself.

And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
Some people are wedded to their ideology the way nuns are wed to God.

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Re: ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

Postby Mark Tiedemann » Tue Nov 25, 2014 9:47 am

I’m 60.

What this means for the purposes of this post is that I lived through the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King Jr. I watched the reactions of the nation on the news, listened to the discussions that went on constantly for weeks and months (and in many ways are still going on), and I saw my neighborhood change in anticipation of a kind of Armageddon. I remember the summer of 1968 seeing many of my neighbors sitting on front porches and steps holding shotguns and rifles, some with pistols strapped onto their waists, waiting for the wave of rioters to come charging down the street. St. Louis, it seemed, was ready. Why? Because we could see it on the national news, every night it seemed, that somewhere whole sections of some cities—Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, others—were burning. Troops patrolled the streets protecting first responders (we didn’t call them that then) from the occasional sniper who must have thought it “cool” to take potshots in the midst of the chaos. We could see what was happening and a lot of people had decided it would not happen here.

Very few people were talking about the why of it all. It was tragic enough that the assassinations had occurred, but I remember many people being baffled at the reaction.

Roll back the years to the civil rights coverage in the South and many middle class whites in other parts of the country were completely stunned by what the police were doing to poor blacks. We could see it, right there on television, and it was a shock.

But we were Doing Things to redress those inequities, weren’t we? Wasn’t that what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was all about? It was going to get better, so why all this violence? Couldn’t they see?

We didn’t ask, many of us, what it was we couldn’t see. All many people knew was that laws were being passed, things were being made to improve, we were addressing the problems. We saw that.

And then we saw the riots.

The gap between them was poorly filled if at all and most people, fearful, made so by the drumbeat of media coverage that concentrated on spectacular images and the sounds of outrage, reacted, often predictably, and many of them shut down their sympathy, barred the doors, and prepared to defend themselves and their property.

What was in that gap?

Everything of any consequence to the issues at hand.

Whole multiple histories of dysfunctional relations between segments of society that knew very little about each other beyond what was shown them by the media. The meaning of King, which was not the same for everyone. Simply the fact that his assassination and the subsequent explosions of civic unrest were not isolated incidents with no backstory, no connection, no justifications, no context.

Officer Darren Wilson, who was brought before a Grand Jury on the charge of killing an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, was acquitted by that grand jury. There are links to the transcripts. I suspect many people will not read them. They will get their information from the media, from friends, from hearsay, from the gestalt through which they move, osmotically and coincidentally usefully, and mostly what was said at the grand jury will be regarded as unimportant. Why? Because minds were made up within hours or days of the shooting and likely will not be swayed by post hoc explanations. Because there are two extremes, one of which says a cop can do no wrong in the line of duty and the other that says a cop is never to be trusted, and people fall along the spectrum between these two without bothering, often, to consider there might be a third set of determinants. But because, really, it doesn’t matter so much why one white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager compared to the larger question of why the situation leading to that existed, occurred, and is now being vigorously shoved to one side by the institutions upon which we rely to explain the world to us.

And it just got muddier in the wake of riots.

Riots. Why riots?

Didn’t we expect them? Haven’t we been telling ourselves that this would occur for weeks now? Haven’t we been gearing up for some kind of O.K. Corral showdown pretty much since the announcement that there would be a grand jury? The new reports on people worrying over their businesses and homes, the governor calling out the National Guard, seeing businesses boarding up their storefronts in anticipation of the coming battle, acquaintances finding a way to leave town, the constant tension-building delays. Sure looked like we expected what we got.

And the rest of the story?

We had no social media back in the Sixties, just rumor and gossip, phone calls, kitchen table discussions. But it amounted to much the same thing—as soon as it became newsworthy that violence might occur, we primed ourselves for a fight.

Personally, I’m surprised it wasn’t worse, given the tempers and the artillery present in the streets and the weeks of stoking we’ve had.

And who actually rioted?

In my opinion, anything that constituted a “riot” occurred when the police began moving to shut down demonstrations which were till then peaceful when a few assholes decided it would be “fun” to brick some windows. It doesn’t take much to push a seething situation over the line.

The mistake always made by the police is to treat everyone then as one of those destroying property. A conceptual homogenization occurs, devolving to Us and Them, and everyone falls into one of two categories, and both sides feel justified in their actions. The “issue at hand” instantly transforms from where it started into something more primal, stops being about what everyone was there for to begin with. The protestors find themselves moved from “we’re here to protest a civil injustice” to “we have a right to be here and do this” and the police move from “we’re here to keep order” to “we have to shut this all down now.” The original message gets lost in the ensuing struggle over the new mandates.

And we have more footage for the evening circus of unruly people defying authority, etc etc.

We need to stop telling ourselves to get ready for fights that may not happen. We need to stop pumping ourselves up in anticipation of the worst possible outcome. We have to stop scaring ourselves. We have to stop giving airtime to alarmists who call out the national guard at the drop of a hint. We have to stop acting like the only solution to any problem is to shoot.

The lack of comparable media on the community and its problems is telling. Certainly there have been some stories about the history of Ferguson and the nature of the disconnect, but they are far outweighed by the rhetoric of pain and the ominous forecasting of worse to come. I’m encouraged in this instance by all the people and groups who are striving to put constructive information before the community, to promote dialogue, and address that all-important context, but people react most strongly when threatened, and there has been more than a little threat inherent in our media coverage.

St. Louis didn’t burn that summer of 1968. There was trouble, certainly, but not that. I don’t know why. I do know that after that things began to change, across the country. They changed sufficiently that I, as a not-particularly-observant white guy, thought we were getting past our national curse of racism. I can’t deny that things today are much better than they were then, but the things that linger, that cling like a rotting caul to our collective psyché, I admit have surprised me in the last ten years. Maybe it requires an oversized symbol to force these things into the open. I’m ashamed of my own past fears and prejudices. The nature of racist expression has changed somewhat and now seems to express itself more as economic distinctions than hatred of skin color, but the fear mongering we experience daily over questions of immigration and economic inequity and education and glass ceilings eventually eats away the camouflage hiding the real character of the problem. We put a thick coat of paint on a house that still needs major structural attention.

But it would really help if we stopped telling ourselves to shoot at each other.

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Re: ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

Postby FrankChurch » Tue Nov 25, 2014 12:30 pm

Mark has it right. Violence is not right but can be explained.

The prosecutor basically told all of us fuck off.

A Grand Jury should not pass judgement on Brown's guilt, just see if there is probable cause, which there is in spades. He tried Brown, not the cop. Rule of law is a lie.

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Re: ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

Postby Steve Barber » Tue Nov 25, 2014 12:52 pm

FrankChurch wrote:Mark has it right. Violence is not right but can be explained.

The prosecutor basically told all of us fuck off.

A Grand Jury should not pass judgement on Brown's guilt, just see if there is probable cause, which there is in spades. He tried Brown, not the cop. Rule of law is a lie.

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Re: ESSAYS ON LIFE: Nobody Asked Me, But...

Postby FrankChurch » Tue Nov 25, 2014 12:54 pm

Yes sir.

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