a moment

Anyone who has heard me wax eloquent about politics (and not run away at the first opportunity) knows I’m hardly a huge fan of the democrats, and this especially includes Barack Obama. I’ve listened to and read his actual policies and he strikes me as a center-right politician of above average oratorical skills. I don’t agree with him on much. I obviously think he is vastly preferable to George Bush, but I wish that I didn’t have to compare my political candidates to murderous tyrants who should be impeached.

Last night I forgot about all of that. I tried really really hard to be the grinch that stole christmas. I did. I tried to remember Obama’s stance on Iran, and his weird middle line on gay marriage and the hundred other issues that I care about. But it didn’t matter. I got on the phone with my sister and I cried. My father was born in 1942. He participated in sit-ins in rural, segregated Virginia. He was the defendant in the seminal civil rights case, Johnson vs. Virginia, which went to the supreme court and desegregated the court systems a few years after Brown vs. Board of Education. He told me stories, growing up, of how he had to sit in the balcony of his town’s theater, because the gallery was reserved for whites. He didn’t mind, because the balcony had the better seats anyway. My dad saw a black man get elected president yesterday. My mom walked home from school during the DC riots after MLK was assassinated. She saw a black man get elected president yesterday.

I’ve had none of those experiences, but I saw Jesse Jackson in the audience during Obama’s speech and I thought: my god, none of us really thought this would happen. None of us. So, I’m happy. Inasmuch as Obama represents a moment utterly beyond himself, beyond his actual positions on actual issues, beyond any sort of mundane partisan victory: I’m proud that America managed to get here.

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empathy

Sorry I haven’t been posting much lately. Scrambling to write a few short stories and finish editing a novel. Something more regular should resume soon. But in the meantime, I thought I’d direct you to particularly moving post about the intersection of a very personal loss and the more abstract knowledge of the loss several orders of magnitude larger occurring right now in Iraq. It’s a much noted facet of the human condition that while we are capable of profound empathy for those close to us and with whom we share certain in-group bonds, we are also adept at distancing and dehumanising those with whom we don’t share ties. Thus, the million-plus Iraqi deaths are disputed and trivialized and the death of the 4,000th American soldier is met with appropriate solemnity and mourning.

But before you think humans are hard-wired into this destructive combination of in-group empathy/out-group demonization, read IOZ’s post. We’re capable of overcoming the tendency with enough self-examination.

I once had an idea for a (dys/u)topian science fictional society where the Great Overlords simply enforced empathy on the population, thereby ensuring that they’d be reluctant to fight bloody, tragic, costly things like wars. A little like in Buffy, actually, when Spike’s chip zaps him every time he feels predatory. Would that be a free or fair society (terms of arguable use, but fine)? If every time you hurt somebody you felt that same hurt, would the choice to abstain be your own? But maybe I’m being too Puritan. What does Personal Responsibility matter when countless millions are dying in wars across the world, and billions are starving and suffering in the kind of extremity I can only imagine? If most humans can’t extrapolate their own pain onto others, then maybe it’s to the greater good to make them.

But then, I’ve always had this thing for benevolent tyranny.

The wounds we give our children

Boy wizards are all the rage around the world. In America, a few religious loonies seem to believe that waving a stick and shouting “Accio!” really will make their children’s broomsticks wobble towards them before they go out for a bacchanal in the night, but mostly those in the first world seem to agree that it’s all in good fun. (Unless you’re Kathleen Duey, out to write the most grim, bleak and awesome book about boy wizards ever penned).

And then we come to Nigeria:

Evangelical pastors are helping to create a terrible new campaign of violence against young Nigerians. Children and babies branded as evil are being abused, abandoned and even murdered while the preachers make money out of the fear of their parents and their communities

Sam Ikpe-Itauma is one of the few people in this area who does not believe what the evangelical ‘prophets’ are preaching. He opened his house to a few homeless waifs he came across, and now he tries his best to look after 131.

‘The neighbours were not happy with me and tell me “you are supporting witches”. This project was an accident, I saw children being abandoned and it was very worrying. I started with three children, then every day it increased up to 15, so we had to open this new place,’ he says. ‘For every maybe five children we see on the streets, we believe one has been killed, although it could be more as neighbours turn a blind eye when a witch child disappears.

In a nearby village The Observer came across five-year-old twins, Itohowo and Kufre. They are still hanging around close to their mother’s shack, but are obviously malnourished and in filthy rags. Approaching the boys brings a crowd of villagers who stand around and shout: ‘Take them away from us, they are witches.’ ‘Take them away before they kill us all.’ ‘Witches’.

The woman who gave birth to these sorry scraps of humanity stands slightly apart from the crowd, arms crossed. Iambong Etim Otoyo has no intention of taking any responsibility for her sons. ‘They are witches,’ she says firmly and walks away.

I’ve visited Nigeria. I drove from Port Harcourt through Lagos to Accra, Ghana in a taxicab during the height of the Harmatan winds. It took us over two days, and I will never forget my experiences there. I saw many things that I’d previously only encountered in novels: child amputees from tribal wars, lepers, polio victims, endless corrupt public officials, and a particularly violent, bloody form of animistic Christianity. I also loved it– the people we encountered, the fufu and kenke sold on the side of the road, the kola nuts, the women selling water and live fowl and anything else they could find from baskets on their heads. Nigeria is a beautiful country, but most of its people are numbingly poor, in a way I’m sure I still don’t understand. They are also very religious. When we first left Port Harcourt, our taxi driver was a taciturn man with a particularly gory crucifix hanging on his rear view mirror, and a bumper sticker in a cheesy-yet-disturbing blood drip font that read: “The blood of Jesus drenches this car.” I had the strangest feeling that he meant it literally.

And so, horrifying as it is, this story doesn’t really surprise me. Nigeria has the perfect combination of extreme poverty and extreme religiosity that makes it sadly easy for unscrupulous child-murderers like these pastors take advantage of their “flock”. Imagine, these parents are paying the pastors to murder their children! I’ve emailed the Observer to ask if there is any method of donating to the child refugee farm referenced in the story. I’ll post the details here if I get them.

For knowledge’s sake

ERV

There’s a really interesting article about endogenous retroviruses and their implications as regards human evolution (in brief: invaluable shards of evolutionary history scattered throughout our genome like a Sumerian rubbish pit) in the most recent issue of the New Yorker. You should really read the whole thing, but my brain kind of snagged on one bit in particular, which I think raises some thorny intellectual and ethical questions about the nature of science, knowledge and research. This is obviously relevant to researchers and scientists, but also pertinent to folks like me, who just like to invent and extrapolate upon what those former hard-working individuals discover.

First, the article discusses the burgeoning and promising new field of paleovirology, wherein scientists of various disciplines use the reconstructed genomes of millennia-extinct viruses in order to learn more about the nature and process of evolution. It’s a novel way of learning about our prehistoric past, with serious shades of Jurassic Park. And like Jurassic Park, this new technique has serious dangers lurking just beneath the surface. Exhibit A, a group of students who used commonly-available materials and information to reconstruct a working version of the polio virus:

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I love you too, Chicago

How cool are you, Chicago? Let’s do some arithmetic (everything I need to know about math I learned from the quizzes in Seventeen Magazine, apparently…)

— You have a marvelous magazine (of the Time Out variety) that just so happened to give a really GREAT review to my novel, Racing the Dark. And an interview! Where I sound vaguely intelligent! (+10) (Shut up.)

— You are the host city of my publisher and editor, which is one smooth small publishing operation. (+5)

— You are going to be hosting yours truly at an event in one of your local bookstores. However, I reserve judgment on precisely how cool this makes you, since you had better rustle up a few people to actually sit in the audience. (+4 for the event, +8 if people actually show – 7:30 pm, Wednesday November 14th, Women and Children First)

— I could have gone to school in you, if you weren’t so fucking cold. Though, actually, when I visited my would-be alma mater, it was warmer there than it was in New York, where I ended up going. Maybe that should have told me something… (+4 for probably being much better than the school I ended up attending)

— But you still are fucking cold. (-5)

— But while I’m at it, Chicago, your school districts have some serious issues. Like, some school administrators who seem to think we are living in a proto-facist state. Hell, I think we’re living in a proto-facist state, but at least I’m not trying to speed along the process. Listen up, Superintendent Ben Nowakowski: the right to non-violent protest is one of the foundations of this country. These students cut class to protest a horrifying, illegal war. If you want to give them detention for cutting class, knock yourself out. But you want to expel them for exercising their constitutional rights, after administrators had already promised them that they would only be given detentions? Then I think that you, and your sorry, clueless school board needs to lose your damn jobs. What’s particularly sad about this, to me, is that these kids are using their education in a profoundly relevant manner. When I went to high school, you would have thought that the only purpose of the grinding hours of classes and homework and after-school activities was to get into the right college. That’s all I heard anyone talking about, anyway. “My Dad’s legacy, but I still have to be president of at least three clubs my senior year so I can get into Yale.” Community service was rarely about serving the community, it was about ticking off a box on an application. And apparently this soul-numbing view of education and its ultimate purposes has infiltrated the thinking of the highest officials in our school system. I can think of no other reason why these protesting students would be punished so harshly, vindictively and stubbornly (in the face of such public outrage). It’s a message: education is not about learning, or following your conscience, or applying your intellect to current problems. No, it’s about the personal essay, the supplementary materials and the teacher recommendations. Why else would they have given the “better” students more lenient punishments?

I admire these Morton West students more than I can say. I never did anything like that in high school. I’d caught the prep school bug, I guess. Kids these days? About a hundred times cooler than I ever was.
(-15 for a lousy school district, and +20 for kids with the guts to stand up to them).

(btw, if you support what these students did and are horrified at what’s happened to them, please take a moment and sign the petition in their support. The school board is apparently going to decide on their fate in December).

— And, finally, you are the subject one of my favorite songs on earth: Chicago by Sufjan Stevens (+5)

And if you add it all up…

Chicago is 28 whole points of very, very cool. 32 if I don’t just give a reading to the bookstore staff. (And any scale that gives Chicago a 28 gives New York at least a 40 and DC about 38).

Look, now I’m all excited about going there tomorrow. Chicago, here I come!

Andrew Meyer: The latest in a venerable American tradition

As if the Andrew Meyer case couldn’t depress me more, we now have this to contend with. He has now, I hear, apologized:

In society, as in life, there are consequences for not following the rules. In this instance, not following the rules has imposed consequences for many people other than myself, people who have seen their school, and perhaps their degree, tarnished in the eyes of others through no fault of their own.

This could not be more Orwellian if he were being frog-marched to the glue factory. Elections stolen? Illegal wars? Torturing? Wiretapping? The probable death of any hope of real democratic change? Fuck that, guys, he didn’t follow the rules.

Suddenly, all is clear to me now. The University of Florida might have been embarrassed by their unconscionable treatment of a harmless student asking a question, and thus Andrew Meyer– the lone student wrestled to the floor and assaulted with a painful, dangerous weapon–has to apologize.

You know, this reminds me of something…

Oh yes, I remember now.

In his statement, Whittington said the past weekend had encompassed friends and family in “a cloud of misfortune and sadness.”

“My family and I are deeply sorry for everything Vice President Cheney and his family have had to deal with,” he said.

Don’t you just love this country? When in doubt, blame the victims.

Dear Orson Scott Card: Get your religion out of my secular society

I just read this little gem, from our eminent Mormon Science Fiction Grand Master. You can tell a lot just from the title: “Hypocrites of Homosexuality.” (Thanks–or not– to PZ Myers for blogging about it first). I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been reading a lot about prejudice the last few days, what with the whole “James Watson is a flaming racist” brou-ha-ha and the dozens of moral invertebrates crawling out of their caves to defend him. (Just read the comments on that Pharyngula thread, and tell me that it doesn’t make you depressed about the possible future for fair social policy in the world and in the States.) And reading this utter bullshit from one of the most respected and beloved Science Fiction authors in the world has pushed me over the edge.

Listen, Orson Scott Card, if you want to belong to a religion so filled with racism and sexism and homophobia that it’s become sort of famous for it despite all the competition from other religions, then fine. But dear god (ha), given your position in the community, given the fact that I’m sure thousands and thousands of your fans are homosexual (or somewhere along that LGBT continuum), couldn’t you at least manage to be diplomatic? Disgusting as I usually find “love the sinner, hate the sin”‘ sort of thinking to be, it would be a vast improvement in your case. Come on, can’t you let a little light of understanding and common humanity, and, well, humility shine into that bigoted mass of neurons you use for a brain?

Am I exaggerating? Am I being too harsh? Let’s go to the source:

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