If There’s No Crime…

In the latest issue of Time, the attorney Robert Ray argues that President Trump should not be impeached and convicted on the grounds that Trump committed no crime. This is already the basis of some Republicans’ defense of Trump. Ray’s argument rests on two bases. First, that the “quid pro quo” offered by various Trump appointees and subordinates was not a “corrupt arrangement” under the law because the law requires a specific benefit and because an investigation of the Bidens by Ukraine would have provided only a “nebulous” benefit. Second, that because the Office of Management and Budget had no authority to permanently withhold the aid appropriated and authorized for Ukraine and because the aid was finally released [after newspaper reports of withholding surfaced] no harm was done. Therefore, there was no crime.

The first contention is an incredibly ingenuous argument, and one that a great number of convicted criminals would like to be able to use. “Because I didn’t know what I might get, it wasn’t a crime.” And law, in fact, recognizes this problem because we have penalties for attempted crimes that were never completed. In addition, even Trump’s attempt to ask for such a favor has damaged the future credibility of the United States as well as pointed out that Trump will do anything for his personal gain, regardless of the impact on the U.S. national interest, and suborning the national interest to personal interest is in fact a form of treason.

The second base ignores the fact that the White House did in fact freeze the aid. The fact that it didn’t have the authority to do so is immaterial to the fact that the freeze was ordered. Also, there’s no basis to assert that no harm was done… or could have been done. Ukraine may well have been able to use that aid against the Russians, for which that aid was intended. Even the slowing of that aid harmed Ukraine and benefited Russia, which, again, is an act against the national interest.

Then Ray goes on to argue that, in any case, it was only a case of bad judgment. In the case of most criminals, it usually is. Trump’s no different, but because he’s a white Republican [for the moment] male, the white male Republican Senate may well use a different [and far more lenient] standard for him.

Think about it.

Big Voices

The other day, my wife, the professor of voice and opera at the local university, took her students to a collegiate state-level voice competition. When she returned, I asked her how it went. She said that it had gone close to what she expected, although she was initially surprised that one of her very best students hadn’t placed. I asked why, and her response was that, as sometimes happens, the judges in that division hadn’t seemed to judge the contestants so much on technique, diction, and musicality as on the size of their voices. For whatever reason, some judges highly reward the size of the voice, the sheer volume and projection, even if it results in impaired diction and a lesser degree of musicality than presented by other singers. In short, some supposed professionals reward volume over everything else.

I got to thinking, but only for a few instants, before it struck me that a certain segment of our electorate reacts in the same way. They like big-voiced and strident politicians, so much so that they ignore facts, context, unpleasant character traits, and outright lying. These people seem to think that volume equates to truth, that shouting makes something true, even when it’s not.

But it doesn’t stop with politicians. It’s why so often television commercials run at louder volume than the programs that they’re interrupting. It’s why men so often talk over and shout down women, especially those with whom they disagree… and why women often have difficulties in getting heard in political debates. It’s why companies place large advertisements in magazines or online.

The fact that so many human beings react favorably to volume, even in the world of classical vocal music, suggests the trait is at least partly hard-wired, at least in Caucasians, but I have to say that this response troubles me, especially at a time when we need to pay more attention to facts and quiet reason and not to loud appeals to emotional prejudice.

Awards Season

Last week was the World Fantasy Convention, which I attended, as I usually do, and I couldn’t help but reflect on book awards. No matter what anyone says, book awards are essentially popularity contests. The award may reflect the popularity of books among a large number of readers, as in the case of Goodreads awards, or the popularity among a small number of judges, as with the Pulitzer Prize, or by some combination, as in the case of the World Fantasy Awards. Now… judges of more prestigious awards may protest mightily, and cite various criteria, but the bottom line is whether they like it… and that’s popularity.

Sometimes a book wins awards, and after all the furor, it vanishes, like Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer. And sometimes a book that’s ignored by every critic and award giver hangs on… and is eventually recognized… like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was seen as mere light reading and critically panned for almost a century.

And sometimes, the controversies aren’t about the books, but the awards.

For the last two years, the Nobel Prize for Literature has also been plagued with scandal. In 2018, a series of sexual assault charges against the author husband of one of the Literature Committee members resulted in such disruption that no prize was awarded in 2018. Then, this year the 2019 Prize was awarded to Peter Handke, an Austrian writer and firebrand “infamous for his Serbian nationalist sympathies.” In 1996 Handke published two essays that blamed the media for presenting Serbs as the “evil” party in the Yugoslav Wars and Muslims “as the usual good guy,” despite the fact that Serb forces killed an estimated 100,000 Croatian civilians and Bosnian Muslims. Handke even spoke at the funeral of Serbia’s President Slobodan Milošević (Nickname: “Butcher of the Balkans”), who had died before his trial for genocide and war crimes was completed.

F&SF has had its own “award” dramas. The World Fantasy Convention had for years presented its annual awards in the form of a bust of H.P. Lovecraft, a noted U.S. fantasy author who died in 1937. With the rise of a more diverse community of fantasy writers who became increasingly vocal about an award depicting a writer known not only for horrifying fantasy, but for stridently racist and xenophobic views, in 2015, the WFC announced it would replace the “Lovecraft” award statuette with another trophy, and in 2017 a “fantasy tree” award was adopted. Now, there’s a controversy about the John W. Campbell Award (for best new writer) given at the World Science Fiction because of Campbell’s anti-Semitic and misogynistic views.

In the meantime, the awards go on, and sometimes great books are often ignored, and sometimes fair but wildly popular books win awards… and, in the end, the fact that a book won an award, or didn’t, is lost, and the book has to stand or fall on its own.

Body Count?

Every so often I get a comment, either from a reviewer or a reader, about how my seemingly “nice” or honest protagonist is either really ruthless or kills too many people… or words to that effect. I understand that such readers want the “ideal” protagonist to accomplish his goals, or even just effect his survival, neatly, and with a minimum of bodies lying around. But real life and realistic fantasy and SF are often messy. Even so, I have to admit that, in some of my SF books, if one looks closely, my protagonists have left body counts that dwarf Game of Thrones. Some have wiped out whole planets, and in one case, essentially sterilized an entire solar system.

Human history has been replete with arguments about ends and means and to what degree the particular means to an end effectively negates the end, including the idea that waging massively lethal wars as a method to ensure subsequent peace never seems to work out that way. And there’s a great appeal to that argument.

The problem in real life and in realistic novels, however, is that each individual and each culture has a different idea about what the “right” way of doing things happens to be, and this makes life difficult for whoever doesn’t fit the mold. Add to this the fact that there are always zealots, who really do believe that they’d rather be dead than change or allow any compromise… and when such zealots have great power, someone who has a different view usually only has three choices: (1) agree/surrender; (2) flee; or (3) fight. Given the mindset of zealots, often agreement is impossible, particularly if the zealot believes, for example, that blue-eyed redheads are the tools of evil and must be exterminated… and you happen to be a blue-eyed redhead. As with the mass migrations we’re seeing now, flight is sometimes possible… at least until the countries to which one can flee close their borders. Which means that, more often than we’d like, the only choice left is to fight.

And if one fights, it’s because one wants to stay alive and hopefully to protect one’s family and community… and in such cases, the individual either breaks a great number of laws and rules or fights, if not both, and whether the individual or protagonist wins or loses, there’s going to be a body count.

After that, should the individual [or character] feel great remorse? My feeling is that some regret is necessary that people were killed, but that great self-flagellation is not required. If the survivor isn’t all that good a person, he or she won’t feel great regret anyway, and if the character or person is otherwise [besides having to kill to survive] a decent being, in most cases, regret is wasted on those who set out to exterminate or conquer others.

Life, of course, is never quite that clear-cut, but when an individual or character or a people is chased and persecuted to the point of death, largely for merely existing, or for being an impediment to the ambitions or beliefs of others. I have to question the need for regret or great hand-wringing over the deaths of the chasers and persecutors.

But then, there’s always the question of why someone is chased or “persecuted” and whether such claims are valid… but that’s another story, perhaps similar to one on the front pages.

Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be

The other day I read an editorial/article talking about the good old days of the early 1960s, where the author reminisced about how the middle class family could make it easily on wages of $10 an hour. At that point, I lost all patience, because no one in what I’d call the middle class was making $10 an hour back then.

In 1962, the minimum wage was $1.15/hour, equivalent to roughly $10/hour today, but a $10 an hour wage back then meant an annual income of $20,000 – equivalent to an annual income of $168,000 today. That summer, after my first year of college, I’d managed to get a job as a lifeguard at a commercial pool that paid $1.75 an hour, equivalent to $15.00 an hour in today’s dollars, in order to earn money for the next year of college expenses, and I knew I had a great summer job. I also worked every extra hour I could get, because there were no benefits, and no limits on overtime and no additional pay for overtime. Federal overtime regulations were phased in during the mid-1960s

In 1962, the average factory worker made around $2.50 an hour ($22 in 2019 dollars) or about $5,000 annually, equivalent to $42,000 today, not including any benefits. Auto workers made more, on average somewhere over $3.00 an hour for an annual wage of $6,000 – $51,000 or more in today’s dollars. And they had generous benefits in addition.

By 1965, I was an ensign in the U.S. Navy, married and making about $5,800 a year with quarters and subsistence allowances on top of basic pay. We lived in a rented one bedroom apartment in Chula Vista, California, and had one car. We didn’t go into debt, but we certainly didn’t save anything, nor did we splurge on luxuries, and we certainly didn’t eat out much. Now… today, to get the purchasing power of that $5,800, you’d have to make $46,000, and a great many costs of living have gone up more than the inflation rate. We paid $110 a month in rent, equivalent to $900 now, but the cost of renting a one bedroom apartment in the San Diego area now averages just under $2,000 a month.

The reason why I’m “reminiscing” isn’t because the good old days were good or bad. As is the case now, times were good for some people and not so good for an even larger number. But I also wanted to point out to those who haven’t really thought about it that a dollar doesn’t go near as far as it used to, and my calculations understate that inflation, because the CPI has been tweaked so that it doesn’t reflect the full costs of inflation, particularly in the costs of housing, medicine, and higher education… and too many older people who point out how little they made tend to forget just how much more one of those old-time dollars bought.