Archive for August, 2015

The “NO” Vote: Hugos and Presidential Primaries

Last week I attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, Washington, where I was on a few panels, signed books, met and talked with fans, editors, and other authors, and attended the Hugo ceremony, where awards in various categories were presented – or not. Over the course of the past year, there has been a great controversy over who was nominated for these awards and by whom. The “puppy” crew claimed that the voters in recent years had become more and more fixated on race, diversity, and social justice and nominated only works with those underlying settings and themes while ignoring basic story-telling. The “new traditionalists” claimed that the puppies only wanted works by white male authors, or the equivalent, and urged that all those who cared about science fiction and fantasy vote “no award” in any category dominated by “puppy” nominees.

The resulting kerfuffle ended up creating the most votes in Hugo history, and ostensibly the “new traditionalists” won. When the vote totals were finally released, essentially all of the areas where the “puppy” nominees dominated ended up with the winner being “no award,” even in the case for best editor, where the top nominee – Toni Weisskopf – received a record number of votes for an editor. In addition, last year, she placed second, but because she was considered as “puppy nominee” this year, she was denied that honor by 2496 votes for no award – more than three times the number of votes for any winning nominee ever.

I’m not so sure that everyone didn’t lose, because the real winner was the “NO” vote. It became a question not of what was the best work or writer/artist of those nominated, but of what works or people were acceptable or “not acceptable” because of the reputed philosophical/gender stance of those who nominated them.

As a side note, though, I’d have to ask all those male authors who were “no awarded” because of gender perceptions, many of them inaccurate, how it feels to be marginalized the way women and minorities have been for years. I’d also like to ask all the “new traditionalists” who drummed up the overwhelming “no award” votes how it feels to be just like the old-style chauvinists who marginalize on the basis of color and gender, because they just marginalized a number of good writers and editors on the basis of who nominated them, rather than on the basis of how good they were, although I have to admit that a number of the “puppy” nominees weren’t close to the best.

In any case, as I’ve noted earlier, this same current of negativity underlies the current contest for presidential party nominees, with candidates such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders effectively representing a vote against the current political structure.

In both F&SF and national politics, ideas and concepts are not being evaluated on their individual merits, but upon who happens to be proposing what, rather than on what is good and workable. The cults of blind belief and personality are becoming ever more dominant, and that’s anything but a good sign for either politics or literature… or for society as a whole.


I was reading the other day about what might be called “antipathy gaps,” as measured by a series of sociological surveys, which revealed that there is a greater and stronger divide in terms of antipathy between Republicans and Democrats than there is between races… for the first time in decades, and probably ever, although there aren’t any studies that go back that far.

As someone who was active in politics for roughly twenty years, I can certainly attest to the growth of the divide between parties. When I began my career as a political staffer on the national level, there were numerous friendships across party lines, and there were even a great number of issues on which both parties worked and reached agreement. That began to change in the 1970s, and by the early 1980s existing friendships were often fraying, and very few cross-party friendships were formed between newcomers to the U.S. House and Senate. This process appears to have continued, and I suspect any politicians who are friends with their peers in the other party appear to be keeping any such friendships under wraps – assuming more than a handful of such friendships even exist.

I’ve noticed the same among politically active acquaintances, and it’s very clear that almost any discussion of political issues almost invariably degenerates into party-line positions among the vast majority of them. So far, at least, we’ve remained on good terms with friends who have other political leanings, if at the cost of never discussing certain issues with them in any depth. This “social” polarization is also reflected in the letters to the editor in the local and regional newspapers, but I suspect part of that reflects an editorial predisposition to fan the flames in order to generate controversy and, thus, sales.

As a nation, we’re faced with incredibly complex issues, all of which have arisen from the conflict of multiple factors, and none of which can be resolved by the simplistic rhetoric and “solutions” of either party’s current political stance on the “hot-button” issues because both parties have developed positions reflecting the views of their activists, and those views are seen as extreme, not only by the opposing party, but also by a significant number of Americans. Neither set of so-called solutions will work, either, because they ignore social and economic realities in favor of comforting “common sense” bromides that ignore unpleasant and inconvenient facts.

Yet, increasingly, the so-called dialogue has come to consist of both sides shouting past each other, and with the shouting getting louder every year, those seeking common ground have less say and less input… and the only change I’m seeing is a hardening of position on both sides.

It’s past time both sides looked at the facts – ALL the facts, and not just those that support each side’s position, but then, that’s not likely to happen because there’s far too much money for the media in fomenting conflict and far too much profit for the gun-makers and military industrial complex in arming everyone for the coming disaster… and the financial community doesn’t care so long as they can keep increasing their share of the national wealth.

Deadly Perception

There’s more unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and the “black lives matter” movement certainly hasn’t gone away as more and more people, especially African Americans, are demanding that the “justice system” be fixed. I agree that it needs fixing, but I’m not so sure that the most necessary fixes are the ones the protesters are demanding.

I got to thinking about this as the result of reading about two events. One was the fatal shooting of a young unarmed black man who apparently attacked an automobile dealership with his car, finally driving through a showroom window. The other was about a Utah county commissioner who has been convicted on misdemeanor charges and faces up to one year in jail, $100,000 in fines and possibly large restitution awards for damage he and other protesters caused to the archaeological resources on federal lands by leading a mass ATV ride through an area where motorized vehicles were prohibited. The state legislature attempted to pass a bill to pay the fines and restitution awards, and when that failed, the governor contributed $10,000 from his campaign war chest toward legal fees. Then I got to thinking about Cliven Bundy, the rancher who has failed to pay federal grazing fees for over twenty years and who threatened armed resistance to BLM agents who attempted to confiscate his cattle to pay those fees. The BLM backed down, over a year ago, and Bundy still hasn’t paid up, and nothing has been done about the fact that he and his supporters offered armed resistance to federal officials.

Somehow, I just can’t imagine a black rancher, assuming one could even obtain grazing rights, ever being allowed to offer armed resistance to the federal government without being gunned down post-haste.

The Justice Department has rightly condemned the town of Ferguson for operating a police system that preyed almost exclusively upon lower income blacks, and reports of other towns operating in exactly the same fashion have also come to light and have been condemned, but I don’t see the federal government doing much condemning of the billionaire finance types who nearly destroyed the U.S. economy. Nor do I see much support for those who protest illegal government leases and procurements unethically benefitting the corporate sector.

In fact, as an example, after Tim DeChristopher offered a fraudulent protest bid at a BLM mineral rights auction, he ended up serving 21 months in prison for that bid – despite the fact that his acts hurt no one and cost almost nothing and that the U.S. Attorney General declared the auction illegal and voided it – even before DeChristopher went to trial. No one was ever prosecuted, let alone tried, for attempting to illegally sell drilling rights to industry. When that happened in the Teapot Dome scandal in 1923, the Secretary of the Interior went to jail for accepting bribes, but, unsurprisingly, the official of Pan-American Petroleum who paid the bribes was acquitted. You can see how far we’ve come… or not.

There’s been a great focus on the police for a whole string of events which resulted in the deaths largely of black men. In a great percentage of cases, however, those black men had done something wrong, often illegal. The problem wasn’t, in my opinion, with the attempts to arrest them, but how those attempted arrests were carried out… and what happened after that. Yet no one shot Cliven Bundy or any number of white criminals.

Part of this is perception, a very deadly perception. Because of the amount of guns in American society, and because of the high level of violence and death in the majority of black communities, the police too often perceive any black man, especially one caught in a questionable or illegal act, as a deadly threat. Sometimes, those men are a deadly threat, but as recent events have shown, all too many times, the threat is not that deadly. And, at times, there has been no threat at all. But how are the police to tell?

As a supporting point to the critical role that perception plays, recently I wrote about a man fatally shot in a nearby town, a very white man. I’m convinced that one reason he was shot was because most of the police in the entire county knew that he was violent and dangerous when drunk. When he refused to drop his gun and aimed it at the investigating police officer, the officer believed that the man was a deadly threat, which he likely was, and fired in self-defense. I suspect, although we’ll never know, that had the officer been faced with the same situation with someone who had no record, he might have waited just a bit longer…but how that might have turned out is another question.

There are two deadly sides to the perception problem. First is the fact and the perception that, in general, whites get away with a lot more during and after being arrested, and the fact that often they don’t even get arrested, especially if the wrong-doing is large enough and financially related, no matter how many people it hurts. Second is the fact that, like it or not, black men doing things that look to be illegal are considered dangerous, and that perception can be all too deadly, usually to the black man.

“Community policing” can certainly help the problem in black communities, but a good part of the anger that has led to demonstrations and violence is simply because of the rather accurate perception that the justice system continues to show a double standard, particularly in the areas of drugs and theft. Blacks who use crack cocaine, for example, which is more prevalent in minority areas, face far harsher penalties under law than whites found with cocaine powder with the same amount of the drug itself. Likewise, a black man who commits comparatively small theft is likely to spend more time in jail than most of the white men who crashed the economy.

Interestingly enough, the white collar criminals who get the longest sentences aren’t the people who crashed the economy or tried to illegally auction off federal lands or drilling rights – they’re the ones convicted of “insider trading,” profiting from non-public knowledge to make money for themselves. But at whose expense are they profiting? You guessed it — the multibillion dollar investment firms. What makes this so fascinatingly hypocritical is that the high level executive can decide to make a decision or move that will impact stock prices, can then buy or sell stock, and then, weeks or months later, actually carry out the decision… and profit enormously… and that’s perfectly legal, just so long as he tells no one.

What bothers me, again, about the “black lives matter” movement is that all the debate over what has happened seems to be limited to black deaths alone – and continues to avoid the far larger questions of justice and fairness. And that means that, once the current furor dies down, and it will, no matter what anyone says, the underlying problems will largely remain. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I’m certainly not betting on it.


August sixth, last week, was the seventieth anniversary of the destruction of the Japanese city of Nagasaki with the second, and last, atomic bomb used in warfare. The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan killed almost 130,000 people immediately, and the eventual death toll was estimated at close to a quarter million people, of whom only about 20,000 were military personnel.

In ceremonies memorializing the event, at least one speaker asked for the abolition of atomic weapons as “inhumane.” That got me to thinking. While there’s no doubt that an atomic weapon is “inhumane,” is there any effective weapon used in war that is “humane”?

The allied firebombing of Dresden in February of 1945 killed 25,000 civilians. The Japanese attack on the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937, known popularly as “the rape of Nanking” resulted in 200,000 civilian deaths, according to the International Military Tribunal, largely inflicted by rifles, grenades, and bayonets. Arrows, swords, and trampling by horses resulted in the death of over 200,000 civilians when the Mongols sacked Bagdad in 1258. If my sources are correct, there have been at least seventy wars in the last 2000 years with death tolls exceeding 100,000 people, and almost thirty with death tolls exceeding a million people.

So why are atomic weapons any more inhumane than any other weapons? Given all these wars and deaths, all of these wars that were waged by people, human beings attacking other human beings, what do we mean when someone talks about atomic weapons being especially inhumane?

The word “inhumane” and its linguistic roots mean “not human” or “not having the qualities of a human being.” Yet, obviously, it’s very human for human beings to slaughter other human beings. As far back as archeologists have been able to find human remains that can be analyzed, they find a significant percentage, roughly fifteen percent, of the individuals died violent deaths from weapons.

Today, we use the word “humane” to denote kindly or civilized conduct toward others and showing a lack of cruelty toward animals, but isn’t that almost a combination of wishful thinking and hypocrisy?

The Anger Vote

Despite predictions that his support will fade, polls show Donald Trump well ahead of all other contenders among Republican voters, despite his boorish and brusque ways. More than a few political pundits have asked how that can possibly be. To me, the answer seems obvious, despite my personal uneasiness with simple or obvious answers [which so often turn out to be neither].

Trump is articulating all the concerns that millions of Americans have – that the political system is broken, that career politicians are only interested in themselves, that excessive concern for those at the very bottom and very top of the economic ladder has resulted in screwing the middle class, especially the working middle class, and that corporate leaders and politicians have conspired to destroy millions of American jobs by allowing those jobs to be outsourced overseas while allowing millions of illegal immigrants to flood into the United States to get both welfare and take jobs from Americans by being willing to work for less under miserable conditions.

The people to whom Trump is appealing aren’t just angry, they’re furious, and they feel no one is listening to them.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is appealing to similar concerns, except his platform also includes appeals to minimum age workers and to minorities by doubling the minimum wage and taking on the economic structure that creates barriers for the financially disenfranchised. Over the past two decades, minimum wage workers have seen their purchasing power decline more than any other economic class in the United States, which has resulted in some cities and states increasing state and local minimum wages, but those increases have had a limited effect so far. Sanders is also talking about reforming Wall Street, making the very wealthiest Americans pay more in taxes, universal affordable health care, and affordable college.

The political pundits thought Sanders didn’t have a ghost of a chance – except he’s already raised more than $15 million exclusively from small donations, is drawing crowds in excess of 10,000 people, has enlisted more than 100,000 in support efforts, and is within ten points of Hillary Clinton in early primary states.

If these two very different campaigns don’t tell you that there are a lot of angry Americans out there who want change… you’re not seeing what’s really there.

While I still doubt that either Trump or Sanders can capture a nomination, history shows that angry and unhappy voters can totally change the political calculus. There was this mountebank candidate, a racist anti-Semite that no one took seriously in a faraway time and place… Germany, I think it was…

“Common Sense”

In the first Republican Presidential debate, Donald Trump reiterated his proposal to build a fence between the United States and Mexico, and even said he’d get Mexico to help pay for it. Given Trump’s current polling figures, millions of Americans believe that it’s a “common sense” proposal.

The fence issue illustrates one of the big problems with so-called common sense ideas. Often they’re anything but sensible. The land border with Mexico stretches 1,969 miles, and the Department of Homeland Security has already fenced some 651 miles of that border, mostly near urban areas and international bridges. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, with over 58,000 personnel and a budget of $4 billion, also patrols that area and the more remote borderlands in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, using 16,875 vehicles, 269 aircraft, 300 watercraft, and 300 camera towers, as well as aerial drones.

While the number of illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico annually has declined more than sixty percent since 2000, the Border Patrol still apprehends more than 100,000 illegals annually, and agency cost estimates to fence the entire border top twenty billion dollars, not including annual maintenance. And even fences are not secure, since each year the agency repairs more than 4,000 breaches in the existing fencing. To effectively seal the U.S.-Mexico border would require the equivalent of a 1,969-mile Berlin Wall, and maintaining and staffing it would likely cost well over $100 billion over the next ten to fifteen years. And illegals would then take to the seas, or tunnel under it. Also, does anyone really think Mexico can come up with that kind of money when they can’t even control the crime syndicates in Mexico?

In the meantime, there are over eleven million illegal immigrants in the United States, and trying to apprehend and deport them would require the equivalent of Nazi Germany’s SS troopers. Gee… a Berlin Wall and the storm troopers… what ever happened to America, the land built on the hopes of aspirations of immigrants, the land where 95% of the entire population consists of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants?

Likewise proposals to “bring back American factory jobs” are nonsense. The United States manufactures far more than it did twenty years ago – and it does so with far fewer workers through the use of computers and automation. Those kind of jobs are never coming back.

Yet tens of millions of people swallow such simplistic political promises. Yes, we need a better handle on immigration and better jobs for millions of Americans, and a lot of other improvements, but simplistic political promises based on wishes and so-called common sense aren’t going to do anything effective to deal with either.

Widespread Myths about College

1. Almost everyone is suited to college.

2. College’s principal function is to prepare a student for a specific occupation.

3. Everyone should complete college in five years or less.

4. Colleges should meet all student needs.

5. Popular professors are good professors.

6. College courses should be entertaining.

7. Student evaluations improve college level education.

8. Colleges should accommodate all ranges of personal beliefs.

Each of these “myths” is widely held by a great number of college students and their parents, as well as by a significant segment of the U.S. population. Each has a grain of truth behind it but is effectively misleading if not totally false.

Not everyone is suited to college, either in terms of intellectual ability, ambition, inclination, and determination. While everyone needs a skill set to succeed in providing for himself or herself, the traditional college education isn’t always the best place for each individual to obtain that skill set. Often, for some individuals, it’s absolutely the worst place.

With the increasing cost of college, more and more students have to work to pay for their education. Working means they have less time to devote to studying an often these students either take lighter course loads or drop out for a semester here and there to obtain the money to continue. Others, such as in Utah, often take off several years for various reasons, including church missionary work, voluntary “sabbaticals,” or even just to “find themselves.”

College is not a vocational school. Most college-educated young people graduating today will change jobs and/or fields at least several times after graduation, yet some state legislatures and others, such as accrediting bodies, are now “grading” colleges on the percentages of graduates employed in their undergraduate field of study.

Colleges are now required to provide an ever-greater range of “personal” services to students, going far beyond course advisors to counseling, special arrangements for test-taking, study-abroad programs, even design-your-own course/major options. This proliferation of “services” is a significant factor in increasing college costs. At the same time, students are less and less willing to spend time outside the classroom in pursuit of their studies. Even so, the demands for more “services” and options continue to grow at the same time as colleges and universities are trying to reduce the instructional costs by utilizing more adjunct professors and fewer full-time faculty.

There are good professors and popular professors. Some few popular professors are good, and quite a few not-so-popular professors are good. Studies show, however, on average, that the very most popular professors are the least demanding and easiest graders.

Likewise, education is about widening the students’ knowledge bases and skills, and for most students, that process is often uncomfortable. Courses that are primarily entertaining seldom stretch the students to improve their capabilities and understanding.

A rather wide range of studies show that the more student evaluations are employed as an evaluation tool, the greater the likelihood that the curriculum is being dumbed down. The age period when most students attend college is that period of their life when they’re the most self-centered and, therefore, the most resistant to change. It’s also the period when they need to come to grips with the fact that they are not special and that they are not the center of the universe. That’s a large part of what a good college education does. Students at this age evaluate based largely on what they want, not what they need. Giving them what they want is the easy way for colleges to fill seats… and create empty and/or closed minds.

When I taught, I had students who were offended by the beliefs and the words in certain assignments, and who wanted special assignments in place of those works assigned. There have been numerous court cases of students demanding not to have to read passages that conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs. A college education is not about restricting knowledge, but about exposing students to a wider range of information and opinion. They’re not required to agree with it, only to be exposed to it so that they know what it is and what it represents.

If these “myths” continue to proliferate, colleges will continue to become more like high schools… and neither the students, nor society, need another four years of high school.