Magic Answers

In our increasingly complex and technological world, politicians, executives, and voters are confronted more and more with problems that have multiple causes and complicated interactions. Most of these problems didn’t just occur overnight, nor will solutions be quick or simple.

Unfortunately, because of that reality, a great majority of people, including all too many Americans, are grasping for quick, simple “magic answers” and embracing simplistic slogans.

Build a wall! Deport ‘em! Tax the Wealthy! Free College for Everyone! Medicare for Everyone! Black Lives Matter! All Lives Matter! The Three Steps to Success! Three Strikes and You’re Out! Freedom Dividend! Pro-Life! Pro-Choice!

And those are just the some of the “magic answers” flying around, largely courtesy of the internet, and the politicians, charlatans, and unrealistic idealists who employ it to get their messages across, a welter of simplistic slogans purveying everything from impractical idealism, commercial hucksterism, political bullshit, pure deception, to malevolent hatred.

The problem is compounded by three factors. First, there’s no effective way to remove inaccuracies, untruths, and patently false assertions and claims, and, even if there were, such a mechanism would soon be abused. Second, there’s no cost to those who purvey them. Third, too many people believe things that are not in fact so because, with the huge access to information, a smaller and smaller percentage of people actually are capable of analyzing that information, and the human “default” is to judge by feelings.

But when the medium is the message and can influence feelings, feelings become less and less accurate in making judgements, particularly when they become overwhelmed by the complexity of modern problems.

That’s when people fall back on magic answers… but magic answers don’t solve problems. What they do accomplish, however, is to empower the demagogues, politicians, and dictators most adept at employing such simplistic slogans.

The simpler and more appealing the slogan, the more likely it’s either totally unworkable or impractical, if not both… or outright wrong… yet very few people seem to understand that… or want to.

Predicting All of the Future

The other day I came across an old review [August 2012] of my novel Flash, in which the reviewer wrote:

“Jonat finds himself on the wrong end of an enormous corporate conspiracy. This is the point where most protagonists would find some way to expose the malfeasance and cleverly put their enemies into a position of harmlessness. Jonat, on the other hand, embarks on a bizarre rampage of assassination and murder when confronted…”

In reading this review, I realized that in 2012 many Americans had, and some still do, the naïve assumption that merely exposing corporate or government wrong-doing is sufficient to right the situation. In the past, this may have been at least partly true. Given what’s occurred in the last four years, it’s clear [at least to me] that this is no longer a valid assumption. And given that Flash takes place more than a hundred years in the future, I’d submit that my assumption – that mere “exposure” wasn’t going to solve the problems Jonat faces – is far more accurate than the reviewer’s opinion.

I don’t cite this as an “I told you so” theme, but as a reminder that both authors and reviewers often carry unconscious assumptions about how society operates and project those assumptions into the future, without considering how technological change, either forward or backward, and social change may change basic personal assumptions about society.

Too often, reviewers make that mistake, even when an author, as I believe I did, depicts a society with different social and cultural mores, and, in this case, where mere “exposure” is meaningless, because no one knows whether that “exposure” is accurate or fabricated… as seems to be the case more and more today… a mere eight years after the review I cited… and not one hundred.

Writers work hard to depict future societies, or fantasy worlds, and the impact technology or magic can have on society, but it’s also a good idea to show how those changes impact individual behavior and personal assumptions, to predict all of the future, if you will, but that can be a challenge when the changes an author projects go against current deeply-held and almost unconscious assumptions of readers… and even reviewers.


For most people in the world, “freedom” is very limited, if not a total illusion, at least if they don’t want to pay an inordinate price.

Take “freedom of speech.” Even in the supposedly liberal or protected sphere of higher education, it doesn’t exist in all too many institutions. I personally know of three tenured faculty members who no longer have academic jobs because they spoke out against a university president. It turns out that revealing unflattering “confidential” information, especially if reveals administration acts against university rules and policy, is apparently cause for dismissal. In another case, a university brought assault charges against a professor because he fought an unfair dismissal, even after all the review boards exonerated him, most likely because he’d earlier protested university policies. The court dismissed the assault charge as totally unfounded. But he still doesn’t have his job back, after more than three years, because this public university keeps dragging out the matter legally.

Then there was the tenured choral director at prestigious private university. He upset people so much that the university abolished the entire choral program to order to fire him, because he hadn’t done anything remotely wrong, except for what he said – and then reinstated the program several years later. Or the dean of a university library who was removed from his position because he told the university provost that the library couldn’t provide all the services demanded without more resources and people… something about the fact that longer hours require more staff or overtime.

Or the recent revelations about Placido Domingo, who made unwanted advances toward young female singers for decades… and because of his power, those women, if they wanted a career, couldn’t say anything and had to avoid him as best they could and endure it when they couldn’t.

It’s been revealed that some of the hedge fund and banking middle managers who protested against overleveraged, securitized bad loans were told either to approve them or leave. And if they left, who was going to hire them?

Now, I’d be the first to admit that not all universities or opera companies or businesses are that restrictive, but I’d wager that most are, if only in places. I also could come up with more examples, as I suspect almost anyone who’s spent time in academia, professions, government, or business could as well.

Outside of the professional fields, it can be even worse, as recently documented work practices at Amazon have shown. Yes, you can quit, but that assumes there are other jobs… and that someone will hire you.

What’s even more insidious is that it’s often more dangerous for one’s career to speak out the higher up you are… and correspondingly more difficult to find another comparable position once one is past the age of fifty, especially for women. And yet, as the new saying goes, this is a “first world problem,” and sadly doesn’t even compare to the lack of freedoms people face in developing or underdeveloped nations.

Or, as Janis Joplin sang in Me and Bobby McGee, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…”

The Latest Hot Writer

The other day I read an interview with yet another hot new [comparatively, at least] writer, in which the writer made a comment about being “frustrated with the way fantasy worlds have this stasis… a medieval stasis for ten thousand years.” Then the writer’s subsequent comment dealt with that writer’s latest work that included inventors and social change, which, while not groundbreaking, were new to the writer.

Needless to say, my first instinct was to seek out and strangle the younger [and well-selling] hot writer, given that for thirty years I’ve been writing best-selling fantasy with settings that have been anything but static, and which include technology well beyond the medieval, multiple government systems, and diverse cultures.

My second thought was to do a little research. Even a brief stint of researching suggested that, while there was a period lasting into the mid-1990s where there were some number of medieval-stasis-type cultures in fantasy, it seemed to me that fantasy writers, for the most part, tended to focus on periods in specific historical eras and riff off them, sometimes medieval, sometime Byzantine, sometimes Renaissance, sometimes Regency, as well as, in more recent years, riffs on non-European history and cultures, etc., and that very few of those writers created endless static societies(although there has been a notable and excellent recent SF novel about an apparently endless and static empire).

Very few writers (and I will claim to be one of them) create their worlds from whole(r) cloth. I use the qualifier “wholer” because what we know comes from our own background, education, and experience, and there’s likely no way to create a new world from totally “whole” cloth, so to speak, but I do know of other writers who do the same, and none of those worlds are “medieval” or “static.”

Yet this hot writer is either dismissive or unaware of a fair number of books already out there which have already accomplished what this writer has so recently completed. I have not met this writer, but my first impression is less than auspicious.

For those of you aspiring to be the next new hot writer, I suggest that a bit more humility and little more knowledge of the field would be most useful. But then, I’m just a curmudgeonly old writer who broke in using that obsolete word-setter called a typewriter and who has the equally old fashioned idea that it’s helpful to know the past of one’s field and what other writers have done and are doing.

Electoral Racial/Gender Diversity?

Senator Cory Booker has just dropped out of the Democratic Presidential campaign, following the departure of Julian Castro and Camilla Harris. Except for Andrew Yang, the remaining men and women are all white.

According to various polls, none of the black candidates succeeded in gaining more than a few percent of the support of Democratic voters, despite the fact that there are more than forty million Americans classified as black. Even with nearly sixty million Latinos in the United States, Julian Castro couldn’t raise enough funds and support to stay in the race.

In short, with over a third of the U.S. population comprised of minorities, not a single minority candidate garnered more than a few percent of Democratic voters, even though over 80% of black voters have historically voted Democrat. Although less than ten percent of black voters have voted for Republican presidential candidates in the past, and the higher levels of the Republican Party effectively remain a white male preserve of privilege, polls show that Trump has higher levels of black support than any previous Republican candidate.

Since 1980, a higher percentage and a greater number of U.S. women than men have voted in every election, and in 2016, ten million more women than men voted, and that likely accounted for the all-time high in female U.S. Representatives and Senators in Congress, but women still only account for roughly a quarter of the Senate and of the House of Representatives.

As I have noted before, gerrymandering certainly accounts for the diversity discrepancy in national offices, but I have trouble understanding it being the cause of the diversity discrepancy in Democratic Party politics. Poll after poll shows that roughly half of black Democrat voters favor Joe Biden, and more black Democrats favor Bernie Sanders than any of the black candidates. If Bernie and Joe aren’t old white males, no one is.

All of this suggests to me, old white male that I am, that diversity isn’t what black Democrats, or indeed the vast majority of Democrats, are looking for, and the fact that Biden, the most “centrist” of the remaining candidates, has the greatest support among black voters also suggests that an ultra-liberal Democrat nominee, particularly a female ultra-liberal, may well spell disaster for the Democratic Party in the Presidential election.