Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Freedom Isn't Free

The bravest thing I’ve ever seen was when an ordinary citizen in support of democracy and in open defiance of the Communist Chinese government stood up to a tank in Tiananmen Square. Alone and unarmed, in a tense situation in which the government had turned weapons of war on its own citizens to quell dissent, this one man blocked the tank’s path. The military leaders didn’t know what to do. They realized the entire world was watching and they knew what the optics of a 48-ton tank crushing a man on live international television would look like to the world. Finally, the tank commander blinked first, and the tank pivoted to swerve around the man. The man then rushed in front of the tank again.

One man can make a difference. Imagine if he had been joined by millions of others, not just the thousands protesting beside him, but millions willing to actually put their lives on the line for democracy and freedom.

Freedom isn’t free. No one gives you freedom: not the government, not the Founding Fathers, not the truisms you studied in history books in school. It has to be earned, and not just once but repeatedly like a license that must be renewed. Earning means you have to do something, not just sit on your ass, and sometimes it even requires sacrifice. Our generation has forgotten that. Ironically, we’ve had the luxury to forget because of the sacrifices of previous generations.

In the words of Janis Joplin, “Freedom isn’t free. You’ve got to pay the price, you’ve got to sacrifice for your liberty.”

It is shameful that members of Congress, and other employees of the federal government, all of whom swore an oath to protect democracy and the Constitution of the United States, are standing by doing nothing while the Constitution is being violated on a daily basis by a mentally unhinged man in the employ of a foreign hostile government.

The rest of us didn’t take an oath of office to protect the Constitution, but we did grow up pledging allegiance every day “to the flag and to the Republic" it represents. The future of that Republic, and democracy itself, is in jeopardy. One man cannot stop what is happening in Washington, DC. Those of us who speak out on public forums are standing in front of the tank. But I have to wonder, as I did watching that brave man in Tiananmen Square back in 1989, where are all the other people? Where are the ordinary citizens willing to stand up and march to Washington, not in protest, but to physically remove any and all threats to democracy? Drag them right out of office and don’t let them back in. 

American Exceptionalism

And now, on this Fourth of July, an appropriate excerpt from my new book, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger:

On this day commemorating the founding of our republic, it is appropriate to take a moment from our barbecues and fireworks displays and reflect on the state of our country and our society. Recently, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts backing political campaigns and spurred the development of superPACs, effectively ruled money equivalent to speech. But speech can take many forms, and depending on the nature of that speech, past courts have found it necessary and indeed advisable to place certain limits on it. There is a distinction between information and political propaganda (misinformation and lies). When massive amounts of money are spent to distribute misinformation to an uneducated, and frankly, ignorant populace, the result is not democracy but aristocracy. Our society had devolved into a citizenry so poorly educated that when surveyed, 40 percent thought the Civil War preceded the Revolutionary War. Americans knows more about the Kardashians than the Kennedys. American society is composed of "low information voters" who make decisions based on snippets and soundbites instead of researching and learning about the important issues of the day. The plutocrats are now spending untold millions on such snippets and soundbites to misinform and misguide poorly informed voters.

There has been an enormous transfer of wealth in American society, from the middle and upper-middle classes to the highest stratum of the upper class, on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. But what the plutocratic billionaires have yet to realize is, once they have filled their coffers to the brim by draining the financial blood from the rest of society, there will be no one left to afford to purchase their goods and services, and their financial empires will crumble. They seek a return to 19th century economics, when the plutocracy grew rich through a cheap labor supply and a growing nation of consumers to purchase the goods they manufactured. But long before America outsourced its jobs, it had outsourced its manufacturing base to Japan,  Korea, and China. America is no longer a manufacturing nation; it is a consumer-based nation, and the consumers - whose jobs have been shipped overseas or made obsolete by technology we embraced too rapidly without regard to consequence, whose wages have fallen, whose benefits have been cut, and whose incomes have failed to keep pace with greed-driven inflation - can no longer afford to consume.

The plutocrats distract the masses with high tech toys, reality TV shows, and political kabuki theater. The Romans had a name for that: bread and circuses. Give the peons enough food and entertainment and they will shift their attention from what goes on behind the curtain by those who govern them.

Did you know that the gulf state of Qatar provides each of its 250,000 citizens with free cradle-to-grave healthcare and public education? All without taxing its citizens. Of course, they can afford to do this because they are an oil-rich nation and they have made trillions of dollars selling that oil to America. We Americans are subsidizing free healthcare and education, not for ourselves, but for the Arabs. Why? Because we continue to cling to an outmoded mode of transportation - the automobile powered by the internal combustion engine, devised in 1806. We could put a man on the moon, but not devise a better transportation system (for example, like the high-speed rail systems of Europe and Japan)? Of course we could. But there are plutocrats whose fortunes are maintained through the oil and automotive industries, providing them a strong disincentive to change the status quo. We need to replace the automobile industry, which is based on a centuries-old technology, pollutes, has created massive sprawl, and ties us to oil, a commodity controlled by our enemies. The only ones benefiting from it are the oil companies and the car manufacturers.

The same is true of pharmaceutical companies, who have the same strong disincentive to devote their research and development budgets to curing diseases, when it is far more lucrative for them to create pills that merely treat diseases. Better to have a perpetual market for their product than to harness their collective scientific brainpower to eradicate disease and eliminate the need for their wares.

Our country is in trouble and needs leaders. Instead, we are presented with buffoons: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry... the list goes on, ad nauseam. Where are the men of the caliber of Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, LBJ, FDR, Hubert Humphrey, let alone men like Lincoln, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, or John Jay. The current contenders have made a mockery of the presidency, just as jurists like Clarence Thomas sitting on the court where John Marshall, Hugo Black, and William Brennan once sat is farcical. Need I comment on the pathetic state of Congress, with its 9% public approval rating, as it fills its chambers with Tea Party nutcases like Rand Paul and Allen West? When Chris Wallace, of partisan Fox News, asked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell one simple question: "You insist on repealing Obamacare - if you repeal it, what will you and the Republicans do to insure the 30 million uninsured Americans who will get insurance under Obamacare?" He answered: "That is not the issue." Wrong answer, Senator Bozo. That's precisely the issue. You've shown you and your clown party don't have answers, just partisan lies and attacks.

The only solution is to work to replace these people, who have slipped into leadership positions of our government, with qualified, responsible, progressive reformers. This entails recruiting such individuals and financially backing them so they can be elected. It also requires those of us who are educated to speak out - publicly, loudly, and often - to debunk the misinformation and lies spread by the plutocrats and their lackeys.

JFK summed it up best in his inaugural address (condensed): "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe: the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God...Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. ...We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty...United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do, for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder...If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich... So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us... And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

The world is very different from the one into which we were born. We have the means to abolish human poverty, yet instead allow our country's great wealth to sit in the hands of less than 1% of its population. Perhaps the new generation of Americans, born in this 21st century can reverse this trend, provide our country with world class health care, education, and public transportation, and restore the liberties stolen from us by the Bush Administration under the guise of protecting us. Perhaps they will produce leaders who, unlike our current congressmen and candidates, realize civility is not a sign of weakness and cooperation, negotiation, and compromise are far from anathema to the proper functioning of government. Perhaps, but I doubt it. As Lincoln said, "A house divided cannot stand." I have been amazed to see so many of my poorer friends reach out to help others in need, while many of my wealthiest friends are quick to adopt an Ayn Rand attitude of every man for himself. The solution to our nation's ills will only come when the plutocrats and those still reasonably well-off join with their less fortunate brethren and ask, as did JFK, not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country and their fellow citizens.

Happy Birthday, America. Enjoy your Fourth of July fireworks and barbecues. They fiddled while Rome burned, too.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Born in the USA

I recently attended a naturalization ceremony. The last time anyone in my family became a naturalized American citizen was four generations ago, back at the turn of the nineteenth century, so this was a unique experience for me. It took place in a government building, in a large room filled with prospective citizens and their guests. A little boy, whose mother was becoming an American citizen, sat next to me in the guest section. Two television monitors were positioned on either side of the stage at the front of the room. A Statue of Liberty replica stared out at us from its perch on the table beside the monitor closest to me, surrounded by dozens of miniature American flags. I smiled at the little boy. “I think you’ll get to bring one of those home with you.” Sure enough, a woman came by, passing out flags to the children.

Music played through the speakers, as we waited for the ceremony to begin. A black man sung an odd rendition of America the Beautiful, off-key and adding his own improvisations. But the strangest song on the playlist was Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, perhaps both the most unlikely and inappropriate tune for the occasion. The video monitors displayed an articulate welcoming message from President Barack Obama, followed by an inspiring message from former UN Ambassador and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She described how she had fled her native Czechoslovakia as a child to escape the Nazis, and returned to her homeland later, only to have to flee again as a teenager when the communists took over. She became an American citizen, earned a PhD, and rose to be one of our country’s most distinguished diplomats.

Her visage was replaced on the monitors by a slideshow while the Star-Spangled Banner played in the background. It was a song filled with great meaning, but as with many songs, people often repeat the words without truly appreciating what they mean. As the crowd around me blindly mouthed the words, I looked down at the little boy next to me. I wanted to explain to him what it was we were hearing. I wanted to tell him how Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner, inspired as he sat aboard a ship in the harbor watching the bombs bursting in the air. It was during the War of 1812. He was aboard the British warship HMS Tonnant to negotiate the release of American prisoners. While they were on board, the British attacked Baltimore, bombarding Fort McHenry. When dawn came, Key saw the resilient American flag waving above the fort. He wrote a poem later set to music that became the Star-Spangled Banner, America’s national anthem.

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

It means something. It’s not just a bunch of words or a catchy tune. Our young nation was at war, invaded by the mightiest army in the world. A month earlier, in August 1814, the British had set fire to the White House, forcing President James Madison and his wife Dolley to flee the presidential residence, never to return. The capitol had also been set afire, and for the first time since the American Revolution, a foreign power had captured and occupied Washington, DC, the American capital. The Battle of Baltimore could have signaled the end of the American Experience… But “by the dawn's early light” the “broad stripes and bright stars” of an oversized American flag were “gallantly streaming” over Fort McHenry, having replaced the smaller, tattered storm flag that had waved defiantly through the 25-hour “perilous fight”. I wanted the little boy next to me to know that.

The slideshow sped past an image of the plaque on the Statue of Liberty. The neoclassical sculpture on Liberty Island in New York Harbor representing the Roman goddess of freedom was a gift from France. It was a magnificent gift, but it was quite large and needed a pedestal on which to be placed. A fundraising effort was started to procure money to construct a pedestal. Jewish poet Emma Lazarus donated a sonnet entitled “The New Colossus” to be auctioned off. In 1903, her poem was inscribed on a bronze plaque on the pedestal’s inner wall. This child of immigrants described the statue: “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome…”

The most famous words of Lazarus’ sonnet are: “"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me…” Could any words be more meaningful and significant to a room full of immigrants moments away from being granted full citizenship? I wanted to pause the slideshow on that image of the plaque and read the entire sonnet so the little boy next to me, and everyone else, could appreciate the enormity of the sentiment expressed so eloquently by Emma Lazarus.

But the image passed in a fleeting moment, having appeared on the screen before us for only the briefest of instances, in keeping with modern America’s impatient, fast food, finger-on-the-remote-control, limited attention span culture. Each year, Americans celebrate their freedom on the Fourth of July with fireworks and barbecues, seldom pausing to reflect on the origins and meaning of the iconic symbols representing the holiday. Perhaps this year, all Americans, new or as Bruce put it, “Born in the USA”, might ruminate on their significance.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

As the Sun Sets on Mount Kilimanjaro

Harlan Ellison died today. He had written long ago that he wanted his epitaph to be “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.” And matter he did. I’m probably not alone when I say I would not be the writer I am today if it were not for Harlan Ellison.

I don’t know how old I was when I read my first Ellison short story. By the time I was ten I had gorged myself on a steady diet of the older science fiction masters: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, C.M. Kornbluth… but somewhere along the way I stumbled onto this young buck, this angry young man: Harlan Ellison. His stories, both in concept and execution, were unlike any I had ever read: “A Boy and His Dog” (later turned into a movie starring a rather young, pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson and Jason Robards); “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman;” “Jeffty Is Five;” “Paladin of the Lost Hour;” “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”… Far too many to name, yet all leave a lasting impression.

And of course, there were the TV shows. Although Harlan was never pleased with their final results once all the diverse hands in their production had left their marks, he gave us “The City on the Edge of Forever” - the single best episode of Star Trek ever written; ; “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand” for The Outer Limits, and the TV series The Starlost, the final result of which Harlan hated yet one I enjoyed watching at the time; as well as episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Route 66, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Flying Nun.

Harlan was one of the New Wave of science fiction writers -- he bristled at being called a science fiction writer and would always insist he wrote speculative fiction instead – such as Joe Haldeman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel “Chip” Delaney, Philip K. Dick, Michael Moorcock, Theodore Sturgeon and many others who were determined to take the staid space opera we had grown up with to the next level. Harlan helped them do that by editing and publishing a phenomenal anthology of New Wave speculative fiction entitled Dangerous Visions. He followed up with an even more massive, two-volume anthology entitled Again Dangerous Visions. He promised, but never delivered, a final volume The Last Dangerous Visions, A sore point for him and others as he had collected first publication rights from many authors for their stories which languished because the volume never saw print.

I was 15 when I read Dangerous Visions but it changed the way I thought about writing. Harlan  had told his contributors to send him the stories other publishers thought too controversial to publish. It was a permission slip to explore the outer limits of the writers’ creativity unbound by the stifling voices of the editors and publishers in their Brooks Brothers suits in offices in Manhattan skyscrapers who self-assuredly deigned themselves the arbiters of what was or was not good writing. But at 15, it was a lightning bolt charging me with an entirely new form of creative stimulus to push the envelope as Harlan had, as these other New Wave writers had, to boldly go where no author had gone before. Controversy was to be embraced, not eschewed. Writing technique was fluid and an art form itself. Decades later, I published my own attempt at speculative fiction that pushed the boundaries, Shards: The Omnibus Edition. At 750 pages, it was even more massive than Dangerous Visions but before any of the short stories, on the acknowledgments page, I gave special thanks to Harlan Ellison for blazing the trail for myself and all the other writers like me who would also take his permission slip and run with it.

As all writers know, all good stories are about the human condition. Harlan understood the human condition because he had lived it. He described some of the odd jobs he had taken while traveling around the country: cab driver, short-order cook, door-to-door salesman, circus hand, crop-picker, dockworker, tuna fisherman, and even a stint as a truck driver… hauling nitroglycerin. At one point, he even joined a street gang as research for his 1958 novel Rumble (republished as Web of the City).

Harlan was brash and unapologetic. He routinely criticized the television industry as he was writing for it; if he didn’t like what the producers had done to his script he always exercised his contract clause to have his screen credits listed not under his own name but as Cordwainer Bird – as in this is for the birds. He was a champion of creators’ rights as well as human rights. His youthful arrogance and creativity were a wonder to behold, especially when on view during his frequent appearances on the exceptional Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show. The 5’2 writer stood up to a bullying Frank Sinatra one evening in a Beverly Hills nightclub, as recounted in Gay Talese’s spellbinding Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Then there are the tales, apocryphal yet most likely true, of Ellison mailing a dead gopher to a publisher who had breached a clause in their contract by printing a cigarette ad in one of his books; and his expulsion from college for his response to an English professor who had criticized his writing. Harlan described that experience:

“There was an English professor named Shedd at Ohio State University in 1954. He told me I had no talent, could not write, ought to forget ever trying to make a living from the craft of writing, and that even if I did manage to eke out some sort of low-level existence through dint of sheer, dogged persistence, I would never write anything of consequence, would never make a name for myself, and would sink into the dust of oblivion justifiably forgotten by lovers of properly constructed literature. I told him to go fuck himself.”

Starting in junior high, I tried to buy everything Harlan Ellison wrote; I got a lot of his books over the following decades, but not all. I don’t know of anyone who could keep up with such a prolific output. I can only think of two men who might own Harlan’s complete works – and I envy them for that – Ellison himself, of course, and Dr. Shedd. You see, Harlan sent every single published story to Dr. Shedd at Ohio State. As he put it, “One should never say ‘fuck you’ unless one is prepared to back it up.”

By 2001, Harlan had written or edited 75 books; had more than 1,700 short stories published in magazines, newspaper columns, and articles; and authored more than three dozen award-winning films and TV scripts. He was nominated for Emmys and Grammys; won P.E.N.‘s Silver Pen for journalism; and won more awards for imaginative literature than any other contemporary author. He was called “one of the great living American short story writers” by The Washington Post and “the 20th century Lewis Carroll” by The Los Angeles Times.

Harlan had an attitude: he was a short, Jewish kid from Cleveland and he wasn’t about to take crap from anyone. I can relate. But despite his reputation he was a wonderful man, and undeniably one of unique talent and fecundity. Somewhere, as a teenager, I had read Harlan’s account of meeting his idol, renowned science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. He wrote of coming up to him at a public appearance (perhaps a book signing?) and rogitating in an effusive tone, “Are you really Isaac Asimov?” so much  that Asimov blushed and finally admitted he was; at which point Harlan replied, “Eh, you’re not so impressive in person” (or words to that effect). It was a great conversation starter and the two later became the best of friends. With that in mind, when I first met Harlan I asked him when he would be publishing The Last Dangerous Visions, a question tantamount to waving a red flag at a bull. He perused my countenance to discern what sort of alleged fan would have the chutzpah to bring up That Which May Not Be Mentioned and, noting my grin, smiled himself and replied, “Aw, go fuck yourself.” We then spoke for another 25 minutes and he revealed himself to be a down-to-earth, humanistic man. But I’ve always treasured being able to say those were the first words I was able to elicit from Harlan Ellison: not a mundane “hello” or a prosaic “nice to meet you;” I had provoked the quintessential Ellison and somewhere from beyond the grave Isaac Asimov chuckled.

Harlan autographed a copy of his book The Essential Ellison (a 35-year retrospective of his work) which I treasure almost as much as the book that sits beside it, a well-worn copy of Dangerous Visions signed by Harlan and many of the book’s authors, the book that launched my passion for writing short stories. Harlan later published an updated version The Essential Ellison that encompassed stories representing his 50 years as an author. Reading the latter edition in chronological order, one goes through the three stages of Ellison. He bravely includes his first stories written as a teenager and I read them thinking they reminded me of my teenage attempts and how my writing was so much better than this. In the second stage he had clearly mastered his craft, and I thought this is much more like my writing. But then I reached the third stage: Ellison’s later work -- his apotheosis as a writer. “Oh my god!” I whispered softly after each tale, realizing they had been constructed at a level far beyond any I had reached, and possibly beyond my reach. The author had reached the pinnacle of his career and from Mount Kilimanjaro was looking down to see if we readers/writers could make the climb.

Harlan Jay Ellison was born in Cleveland on May 27, 1934. He died on June 28, 2018 at his Los Angeles home in his sleep, presumably dreaming of still more creative thoughts and stories, his last dangerous visions.