Thursday, July 11, 2019

What Americans Do

     I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about The Wise and the Mad. Not all of it has been positive. Some of the comments have castigated me for “approving” of the recently much-discussed phenomenon of transgenderism. Some of the castigations have verged on condemnations. Yes, really.

     You’d almost get the idea that a writer must believe, with absolute fidelity, what each of his characters believes, and would do what each of his characters would do if put into their particular situations. Hot Flash To the Slow Of Uptake: It isn’t so. It’s never been so. And it is particularly distressing to hear any of my readers express an attitude that ignorant of what a fiction writer struggles to do.

     Wait, strike that last: “What a fiction writer struggles to do” — ? Naah. What an American tries to do...and, God willing, succeeds.

     “Thank you for this, Miss Holly.” Fountain buckled herself into the passenger seat as Holly started the engine. “I enjoy cooking, but my lord has always reserved the grocery shopping to himself. He’s allowed me to accompany him to the supermarket only once.”
     “Did you enjoy it, dear?” Holly pulled out of the Sokoloffs’ driveway and headed toward the Wegmans at the edge of the city of Onteora.
     “Greatly, Miss Holly. It was a place of wonder. Even now it seems I must have imagined it, that such a dream of abundance could not have been real.”
     Holly chuckled as she turned onto Grand Avenue. “It was no dream, dear. America is a place of fabulous abundance. More than those who abused you dared to let you see or know. Think of all the other wonders you’ve witnessed since Larry found you. The comfortable homes and furniture. All the cars. The beautiful music you’ve heard and the instruments it was played on. All the books, movies, and television shows. All the kitchen gadgets that make cooking easier. The gorgeous clothes and shoes Larry and Trish have bought for you. Those things weren’t produced by miracles, but by men who wanted them to exist and labored to make it happen.” She reached over to caress Fountain’s cheek. “Just as you have labored to create your marvelous dishes. It’s what Americans do.”
     “Am I an American, then, Miss Holly?”
     Holly pulled into the Wegmans parking lot, quickly chose a space, and carefully positioned her car in its exact center. She killed the engine and turned to her companion.
     “You, Fountain, are as American as any of us,” she said. “More than I am, really. Many years ago I left America for another place far away, out of a need to escape from my family. I should have stayed and fought for myself. I’m back now, and may I never again feel the urge to flee my native land, where I have always belonged.” She smiled. “Do you have a list of ingredients in mind yet, dear?”
     “I do, Miss Holly.”
     “Then let’s grab a shopping cart and be about it.”

     Throughout the novel, transwoman co-protagonist Holly Martinowski speaks in an upper-class English idiom. Her lover is an emigrant from the Sceptered Isle. Their most important guest is a British nobleman: the Duke of Norfolk, which was at one time a very powerful military position that ranked the holder just below the royal family. But her conduct is American: when she sees something as a problem, she undertakes to solve it. As she tells Fountain in the above, she regrets her teenaged self’s departure from that standard sixteen years before: it wasn’t an American thing to do.

     Americans are a problem-solving people. Indeed, we’re the problem-solving people. We don’t always “get it right;” a glimpse at our political morass would be enough to tell you that. But we don’t sit around whining and lamenting. We act.

     To be an American worthy of the name, you must be predisposed to action. Even our “don’t try to help me with my miseries; I just want to talk them to death” women are more action-oriented than the women of other lands. I wrote Holly that way.

     Yes, she was born male. Yes, she elected to change her presentation to a feminine one. Even in that, you can see her American-ness: she acted to change a situation she found intolerable, rather than merely lamenting her condition. My backstory perspective on her incorporated that action-orientation. I saw it as the principal reason for her decision to return to America.

     Was Holly’s decision to change her presentation “the right course?” What does it matter? It was her course. As I’ve constructed her character, it improved her life. She’s not intended to represent all transwomen; she stands only for herself.

     And in this is expressed the core thesis of the novel, which my castigators have missed.

     If there’s a single, conclusive knock against the tide of illegal aliens swarming over our southern border, it’s that they are not Americans and have no intention of becoming Americans.

     No one who intends to fatten on the fruits of our welfare state has any “right” to enter this country. The odious Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, a.k.a. Pope Francis – and I really wish he’d taken some other ecclesiastical name – should have that tattooed on his eyelids – the inside of his eyelids. He’s one of the reasons for my invention of Pope Clement XV. Clement embodies the attitude an American placed on the Throne of Saint Peter would bring to that job: identify the problem and solve it. That, of course, is why the Curia finds him difficult to cope with.

     If there’s a single, conclusive knock against the American welfare system, it’s that it imposes no obligations upon its beneficiaries:

  • They are not required to work for what they receive.
  • They are not required to engage in any kind of self-improvement.
  • They are not required, should they ever become capable, to make restitution.

     Indeed, they’re not even required to be grateful...and most of them are not. But most damning of all, they’re not required even to contribute to the solution of their personal problems.

     It is in our welfare system that we’ve departed most destructively from our founding principles. For liberty, as George Bernard Shaw has told us, implies responsibility. (“That is why men dread it!”) Shaw, be it said, was a socialist, and no fan of individual freedom. Yet he pinned the matter more accurately than many an ardent libertarian. There’s a lesson in there.

     But this, too, shall pass away. Doesn’t everything?

     The Wise and the Mad was a great struggle to write. My distant friend Amy, who is a transwoman, helped by providing feedback as I pulled it together. It was vitally important help, in that it reassured me that my characters were acting in ways consistent with their construction and their respective backstories. As those backstories are threaded through several other novels and novelettes, it was a task that required awareness, discipline, and quite a lot of effort. I’m very grateful for it, which is why Amy’s name appears on the Dedications page.

     (Yes, I’m a tricky bastard. When I need help, I go to someone who has, or could be seen to have, a natural interest in whatever I need help with. But what else would you expect from a Certified Galactic Intellect, eh, hero? Besides, no one’s complained...yet.)

     Amy is clear-eyed about the downside of the transgender phenomenon, despite being a part of it. Those who are evangelizing for it among impressionable youngsters are doing great harm: intolerable harm. The harm done by evangelists for some “cause” is part of what I strove to delineate in the novel...and that, too, far too many readers have missed.

     At the conclusion of her efforts on my behalf, Amy wrote:

     In the end, I think I've got a good grasp on the message behind The Wise and the Mad. In the varieties of human experience, there are some that are commendable, some that, though seemingly distasteful, are in the end at least tolerable, and some that are utterly beyond the pale. But no one group or organization has the same perspective on these things. Many of them, like Inclusivity, are far too willing to overreact one way; others, like the pre-Clement Catholic Church, overreact in exactly the opposite way. Ambassador Kosh Naranek tells us, "Understanding is a three-edged sword." Those three edges are: your side, my side, and the truth. The truth always lies somewhere in between...and it's up to us to find it. And sometimes, when the truth is found, the hard part is convincing everyone to believe it.

     Indeed. Wherever there is public controversy, one can find at least some departure from objectivity. It becomes the task of an American to determine not only what the truth is, but also – and in my not-at-all-humble opinion, far more critically – what is tolerable and what is not.

     Lines are being drawn, just as William Blake has told us:

     “Wise men see outlines, and therefore draw them.” – From Songs of Innocence
     “Mad men see outlines, and therefore draw them.” – From Songs of Experience

     I’ve used that pair of seemingly opposed insights once before this:

     “A very smart man once said that imagination is more important than knowledge.” Redmond guided the truck out of the parking lot and onto NY 231. “It was an overstatement, and context-free to boot. Still, he had an important point in mind. He wasn’t the first to make it, either. What is an outline, Todd?”
     The conversational swerve jarred Todd into a curious state. His thoughts seemed to drift free of mundane reality. He struggled to discipline them.
     “The boundary around an object?”
     “Have you seen any outlines lately?”
     “Huh? I don’”
     “In the world outside our heads.” Redmond piloted the truck smoothly down Kettle Knoll. “Did you see anything you could point to and say ‘there’s an outline,’ at any time recently?”
     “I don’t think so.”
     “And why is that? Every object has a boundary, so it must have an outline, right?”
     Todd was overwhelmed by the sense that he was being introduced to a higher realm of thought, a sphere of concepts and relations whose existence he hadn’t suspected.
     He’s way beyond me.
     He fought down his distaste at the admission.
     If I’m going to learn anything more from him, I have to accept it.
     “Outlines are imaginary, then?”
     Redmond pulled into the Iversons’ driveway, stopped, and set the parking brake. “Not quite. It depends on whether you’d say an image—a picture of the world you have in your brain—is imaginary. When we look at the world, we see...things. Objects we take to be bounded and separate from one another. Most of us view the world that way, most of the time. We have to. It makes organized thought possible. And it’s what moved a great writer to write that ‘wise men see outlines, and therefore draw them.’”
     “Who was that?”
     “William Blake. A poet of the late Enlightenment.” Redmond’s eyes twinkled. “He wrote something a bit different a few years later, though.”
     Todd waited.
     “‘Mad men see outlines, and therefore draw them.’”
     Redmond held up a hand for patience. “It was an important insight, centuries ahead of its time. Modern physics tells us that there are no absolute boundaries between things, that boundaries and outlines are only tools of thought.” The engineer’s smooth, solemn face seemed to acquire the weight of centuries. “They exist, whatever that means, only as long as we insist on them. And there are subjects where we can’t make any progress at all unless we refuse to see them.”

     Outlines matter because they qualify and condition our responses to what’s inside or outside them. The most important outlines of all are the ones we propose to separate what is tolerable from what is not. That deserves to be presented in a really big font:

Nearly every social problem can be solved by drawing the right outlines.

     That is the peculiar art at which Americans have historically excelled. We confront many venues for its employment today. Transwoman Holly Martinowski is tolerable, even if you think her choice irrational, because she asks nothing of others except to be allowed to go her own way in peace. The activists of Inclusivity are intolerable by virtue (?) of their diametrically opposite attitude and orientation. We must tolerate the former, even if condoning it is difficult or impossible, just as we must condemn and oppose the latter. It’s the American way.

     If I have any insight of greater importance to offer, I can’t imagine what it might be.

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