Saturday, November 9, 2013

However briefly, a blog about something that might really matter

There's this friend, whom I will call John Johnston because that's his name, with whom I share very little in the way of politics, a great deal in the way of artistic tastes, and kind of a mixed bag on hobbies.  It happens one hobby we share is spy-watching; I'm assuming most of you know that much of what determines humanity's future happens in little administrative offices and cubicles,  or in quiet offices on university campuses or military bases, or overhead in space, and very occasionally leads to some action here and there but mostly is just an endless unacknowledged game between all the nations of the Earth.  If there is going to be genuine autonomy and liberty for the species, ever, it will have to close down some day, but it seems very unlikely to happen within my lifetime or even that of my grandchildren.

Most of the time, spy watching is rather like trainspotting, or bird watching; oh, look, there's one now, talk to your friends about whether everyone saw it, that's that, no consequences.  Neither John nor I is a particularly keen spywatcher; we both have other hobbies we give more time to.

But now and then something interesting happens and even more rarely it comes leaping out onto the front pages, and just as the birdwatching community wigged out and let everyone know a few years ago when it looked like the ivory-billed woodpecker might still be with us after all, the spywatchers get excited enough to talk about something.  This time, for Americans anyway, it might actually be something important, and since the USA tends to be a pivot point the world swings around, maybe for the rest of you.

So let me lay it out as I see it.  Today's Washington Post revealed that the DNI -- Director of Naval Intelligence, #1 spy guy in the US Navy's Office of Naval Intelligence, which for historic reasons tends to be the seniormost and most influential of the US armed service intelligence agencies -- Ted Branch, has been suspended and his access to classified information at least temporarily shut down, due to the rapidly widening corruption and bribery scandal surrounding Glenn Defense Marine, a Malaysian company that seems to be rather spectacularly corrupt.  Branch's chief deputy/assistant, Bruce Loveless, director of naval intelligence operations (the guy who makes sure the DNI's orders are carried out) was suspended at the same time.

That's the highest the scandal has reached, but that's plenty high; the DNI reports directly to the head of the DIA and to the Secretary of the Navy, each of whom report directly to the Secretary of Defense, and it's a level at which it's not unusual to be asked to testify before the secret Congressional committees or the Cabinet, or to brief the President.

Branch and Loveless have not been convicted of anything, yet, of course, but the Washington Post is doing that ambiguous dance they do when they know charges are pending but can't quite say so.  Other people who have already been charged -- including one from the supposed-to-be-the-watchdog NCIS -- are accused of having passed on information about ship and submarine movements to Leonard Glenn Francis, a Malaysian often called "Fat Leonard," who heads up Glenn Defense Marine.  His ostensible reasons for buying the information is that his company is a major supplier of services (tugboats, fresh food, etc.) to the US Navy in the Far East, and he was buying his way to an unfair competitive advantage.

Here's the catch, which gets us spywatchers really interested: the Malaysian corporate world is absolutely crowded with overseas Chinese, who in turn have a web of family connections back to the mainland.  What you say to a Malaysian shipping, harbor services, or other maritime company exec on Tuesday morning is going to be discussed in Beijing by Tuesday lunch.  

Please note I have no kick against any Malaysian or Chinese involved in this. They have their interests and purposes, they're pursuing them, international politics is not a game of Candyland, and they're doing what any cunning businessperson or smart spy would do for his or her company or nation.  

But I do have a kick with their American suppliers.  Because the information they were selling was not just about getting towing and salvage contracts for an ambitious foreign company; it's about the movements of the Seventh Fleet (and probably the Third and Fifth as well), and if things go bad in the Pacific, that could make an enormous difference. 

And although the Navy is saying, right now, that Branch and Loveless broke the rules back before their present appointments ... well.  You don't go to DNIO and DNI straight from aircraft maintenance, or the Seabees.  Anyone in either office has been a spy or a spymaster most of his career.  The dangers of sharing any information with a Malaysian business has to have been screamingly obvious; there's no way this was unwitting.

Nor do I suggest that Branch and Loveless were directly working for Chinese intelligence. I'm perfectly willing to believe they simply sold information to a leaky third party for the money.  Money is historically the most common motivation for American traitors.

Ooh. Ugly word. Should I be saying that word?

But look, folks, here's what's right there in public: two admirals who must have spent most of their careers in naval intelligence (whether openly or not) are being investigated for having taken money from a foreign company  that, if it is not actively aiding Chinese intelligence at the corporate level, is surely so penetrated as to make no difference, and they can hardly have avoided knowing it.  It was their business to know it, for most of their careers. And the information shared included ship and fleet movements -- the very core of what are usually considered defense secrets.

Just on the face of it, what they did is far more prosecutable than anything Snowden did.  Ethel Rosenberg went to the electric chair for less.

Now, there's a constitutional argument about whether or not "giving aid and comfort to the enemy" is a separate requirement for treason from "adhering to the enemy," and it's relevant because these guys very likely committed the former but not the latter (assuming they haven't been framed or there aren't other mitigating circumstances as yet unknown to the public).  There's another argument about whether giving intelligence to a third party that you know is going to leak to what is, after all, a major trading partner and a nation with which we have fairly good relations, but which would be our most dangerous enemy if things change, is at all the same thing as doing it with "the enemy."  So maybe a charge of  treason is a step too far.
But we were at peace with the USSR when the Rosenbergs were electrocuted, and we'd been allies with them when they committed their offense.  And Snowden, after all, distributed the information to the world, trying to put an end to something he saw as unjust; in no way could he be construed as trying to assist in an attack on the USA, or even in making it more likely.  If the treason laws can stretch as far as them, it can stretch to these two admirals.

So here's what I'd like to think might be happening: President Obama and the leadership of both parties in Congress -- (Boehner and Pelosi, Reid and McConnell) ought to be having a quiet conversation that will go something like this: we have, or probably have, deep, dangerous, and pervasive rot at the top of our professional defense/intelligence community.  We must know how far it goes.  Just to sift the evidence is going to take (if this case is typical) at least most of the rest of the Obama Administration, and prosecutions and trials may well continue till 2020 or so.   So here's the deal: no deals, and no politicization.  Obama and Holder start the investigations and work them as hard and as long as it takes. Next administration takes over and continues them.  Whether anyone has a D or an R after his/her name, we keep catching rats till there are no more rats to catch, and we clean this up.

Because, if you haven't noticed, dear readers, and everyone else: this is really, really bad.  I'm not a lawyer, but it reeks of treason.  And if our highest ranking officers are let off the hook for it ... well.  the eagerness and ease with which some high ranking French generals joined Vichy? the movement of so many senior Army officers into the army of the Confederacy? the German judges who let the Nazis go free? the speed with which Franco made the army his own?

Pick your analogies where you will.  But we've got rats, and they're not Republican or Democratic rats, they're just rats.  You all can fight about guns and abortion and health care later. Get on the big job, make the deal, and preserve the country.  That's what we hired you to do.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Jak is even more back

Open Road has now made Kindle editions available for the first 3 Jak Jinnaka books.  Unlike the old cleaned-up-downloads-from-the-Warner-Books version, these have had an actual editor, and they have covers that have something to do with what's in the book!

Readers who approve of courtesy to living authors will read these and no others!

Pop on over and look at the new versions of
The Duke of Uranium
A Princess of the Aerie
In the Hall of the Martian King

AND ...

sometime in the spring, look for Jinnaka #4, Mutiny on Umbriel's Glory. 

Because something I've said in the newsletter is proving to be true: in this new age of publishing, no series is dead until both the writer and the fans want it to be. 

More about this soon, including some cover images, but since I'm feeling pretty happy about all this, I thought I'd put it out here to celebrate.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Jak is back, and on the track, and that's not whack

One benefit of being back in the saddle of a real teaching job (and an interesting one, too, these kids are fascinating in so many ways) is that I have many more ideas and more interesting ones than I did. One major drawback is that I no longer have time to write them down.

So, for the moment ... a bit of news: Open Road Media, the same people who brought Encounter with Tiber back out, are re-launching my old Jak Jinnaka series, beginning with The Duke of Uranium

And because Open Road is a genuinely innovative place where they're actually doing a lot of the kind of things I talked about in "Author, Market Thyself" a couple years ago, and they have eagerly used my marketing research and share my basic philosophy about marketing books, I am quite certain that ....

Well, actually I'm quite certain that I know absolutely nothing about how it will turn out. 

But I am also certain it's much more in line with what I wish book publishers had been doing all along. 

Newsletter readers received a rather lengthy discourse about how I thought Jak Jinnaka was mismarketed (and how it happened to be) when he first appeared 11 years ago.  I guess if any of you who don't subscribe to the newsletter but want to read about book mismarketing at length were to drop me a note I'd shoot you a copy of that back issue.  But the super-short version is this: marketing of course directs readers to books they are likely to buy, but its more important function is to tell them how to read and like the book -- accurately.  Any time a reader is tricked into something they won't enjoy, it hurts all of us writers and readers; any time a reader is steered away from something they would like, or worse yet coached into reading it as something they won't like, that's an absolute disaster.  The marketing is as much a part of the work of art as the work itself (see my articles in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance on Publicity, Playbills and Programs,  and on Posters for a somewhat technical discussion of all that).

So hurray for the new Jak. I don't know if you'll like him, or if anyone will, but this time he's being marketed, promoted, and sold as what I intended him to be: an amoral rascal perpetually surviving on single-minded selfishness, low cunning, and a hopefully-comic amount of dumb luck.  And The Duke of Uranium is his origin story, not the beginning of a YA franchise. 

Here's the new cover, which I think says all that very well:

And by contrast, here's the old cover, which said "Heinlein YA pastiche about a likeable young man with potential" in the way that only Howdy Doody in a high school band uniform can.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Mainly of interest to collectors

I've given the newsletter subscribers* 90 days with the new catalog, so now it's everyone else's turn. 

For those of you who don't know but do care**, I sell signed first editions (and foreign editions and other editions as well) from my stock of author copies, and given that I don't go out to bookstore or convention events much anymore, this is probably your surest way to get a signed copy.  I'm actually out of many older and more obscure titles, so I may not be able to help, but it's worth a try if , say, you are having trouble completing a signed set of first editions of the Giraut books.

The catalog is just a reasonably cleanly formatted list of what I've got and what I charge to sign one and ship it to you, plus a few odd bits of memorabilia and other things that a fan might like but is just gathering dust with me. (Or would be if I didn't keep them in clean, tight storage boxes in a cool, dry storage space). 

I should add that although my prices are somewhere just a bit below  that of a new book (sometimes a bit higher or lower due to scarcity or abundance), if all you really want to do is read it, once you figure in shipping, it's almost always cheaper to just get a used one from any of the many fine places that sell them.

But ... if you're a collector ... and especially if you want a signed first, possibly a personalized signed first -- then use the email link and just tell me you'd like a catalogue.  And off it shall fly to you, for your perusal and my delight, for it contains instructions both for obtaining the books, and sending me money.

Next post up will be much less commercial ... sorry for the interruption of brief low commercialism in the high falutin' intellectuable*** tone hereabouts. I shall falute upwards again soon.


*Want to be one? I might send out another newsletter sometime, really! Just drop me a note and ask to be added to the mailing list.

**all other permutations are loved but I'm not talking to you right now.

***Why, yes, I did read Pogo obsessively when I was a child. How did you know?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A riff in time with some silly lines

So I just had an idea for a blog post and thought, I could write that one in fifteen minutes, and that's about how much time I ever have nowadays, because dealing with a group of  accurately-said-to-be-difficult gifted and talented 9th and 10th graders is turning out to be a wee bit time consuming, and I'm in the middle-to-last stages of finishing a new mainstream YA novel, which I hasten to say is only as much like Madman Underground as any two books by me are like each other.  (Longtime fans just laughed, and thanks for the support, guys!)

Riffing rather than writing a footnote, the reason I hastened to say that bit about the current YA mainstream not being a sequel to Madman Underground  is that when a sometimes-reclusive writer makes a too-brief announcement, out in the blogosphere it tends to go like this:

Fred Ferd Dref, author of Space Duck (in personal blog or fan newsletter): I'm working on a new science fiction novel, and I'm getting close to done.

Over at, there follows:

Perfectly Reasonable Fan: Dref is writing a new novel!  Gee, I hope it's a sequel to Space Duck, because I loved Space Duck!

Another perfectly reasonable fan: I'm not sure whether  it was just that I was in the mood for Space Duck when I read it, or if it was that great cover it had by Duncan Deceased, my favorite sf artist ever. I wish he was still around!

(Snip, now, an enormous number of people talking about the Dref and Deceased oeuvres, with a bit of politics and some silly puns and occasional harmless pretensions and even more occasional genuine insights).

Then over at, we get:

ModeratelyGoofyFan1: Dref is working on sequel to Space Duck! I hope he doesn't screw it up because apparently it will have a posthumous cover by Duncan Deceased, and Deceased deserves better than that!

MGF2: You're crazy! Duncan Deceased should have been shot for that cover he put on Space Duck!  He totally drove people away from the finest novel since Les Miserables!

MGF3: I loved Les Mis.

MGF4: Your a dumshit nobody was talking about les mis we were talking about how Dref shot Duncan Deceased and stole his best cover for this stupid sequel to stupid  Space Duck. And anyway you should say Les Miserables because the book is Les Miserables and when you call the book by the nickname of the musical  it sounds all pretentious and theatre-person snob arrogant --

MGFn: And you're the kind of shithead that hated Space Duck, doesn't get that Duncan Deceased totally had it coming, and pronounces it all fake French like LAY MIZZER OBBLES!

You can all probably construct the chain of messages across many more blogs until somewhere out there in the LoudmouthCreepBlog, there's a proclamation that Space Duck contains a confession to the brutal murder of Duncan Deceased, and the sequel will be about how Dref feels sorry for himself because he's a socialist dick that voted for Obama and sucks up to women and that the next work will be titled I'm So Miserable and the publisher will bring it out anyway because big publishers only publish books by writers they have already published and it's just not fair.  Also at IAmTooAnInsiderSoThere, there will be a pre-review of I'm So Miserable declaring it to be a major advance far, far beyond Space Duck, and in fact the best novel of all time, which will show those jerky right wing military sf fans who just want to read trash, so there.

And there went my fifteen minutes.  So, as it turned out, it was all riff.  Maybe I'll write that first idea I had sometime later. Back to the YA book. 

No, it's not a sequel to Space Duck.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Now this is fornication! The newest irregular newsletter; getting one if you didn't

A story is told of a little boy who came home from school and proudly said, "I spelled a word right on a test and I didn't even know what it means."

"Well, I'm very proud of you," his mother said, "What's the word?"

"Fornication!  So what does it mean?"

"Uh, ask your dad."

So he goes to his father and says, "I spelled a word right on a test and I didn't even know what it means."

"Bravo! Well done!," his father said, "And what was that word?"

"Fornication!  So what does it mean?"

"Uh, ask, um, you know, I bet grandpa would know.  Why don't you go upstairs and ask him?" He figures this will be safe because Grandpa is an old immigrant with limited English.

So the little boy goes up to grandpa's room, and Grandpa says, "Ya, ya, good to see ya little one, ya, you gon' school, you get smart, ya?"

"Very smart. I spelled a word and I don't know what it means and I don't think Mama or Daddy do, either."

"This word, it would be what?"


"Oh, yeah, yeah, I show you, I show you so you see.  Come over here by my closet."  He takes out a plain blue suit.  "You see, this, this is what they mean when they say for everyday. Everyday is like, day you just do what you do every day, you got?  But this ... " He takes out a splendid black three-piece with gold buttons, "... now, this is fornication!"

As it happens, my occasional newsletter has had occasion to come out, and on this occasion, contains some occasional news about me, some deals for collectors, and a long essay about a fairly big careerish/future books event that I'll be talking about here later on when the time comes.  So since the newsletter is something I only do fornication, I did it for this occasion.

If you either never asked for it (subscriptions are free, just email me at the link over to the side) or you didn't get yours (possibly a changed email or some such?) if you drop me a note anytime in the next week or so, I'll send you a copy and put you on the mailing list.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Smart people who make themselves dumb by acting like a dumb person's idea of a smart person

Seeing Open Road Media do a great job with the reissue of Encounter With Tiber, the first of two novels I wrote with Buzz Aldrin, made me think of something mildly amusing (now; then, it was galling). Way back when Buzz Aldrin and I were working on that book,* the project was so large and went through so many revisions that Betsy Mitchell occasionally would bring in another editor to be a fresh set of eyes/note-giver. So on one occasion, an editor who had spent quite a few years working on media franchise novels (I was told only "one of the franchises with Star in the name") sent us anonymous notes about the work in progress.

Some things balance so perfectly between hilarious and outrageous that you simultaneously feel like laughing out loud and punching the person in the head. (Best of all might be to laugh out loud while punching the person in the head, but in the modern world distances are long, anonymity is protected, and we are held down in a web of regulations).

The editor who apparently was fresh from Star Goats or whatever sent us a note listing all the places where engineers (the real heroes of Encounter with Tiber, as they might arguably be in some of real life as well) were trying to solve a problem—usually a very difficult one against a very tight clock, because that's one of the things the book is about, a celebration of  pilots, engineers, explorers, and scientists, and people tend to be most worth celebrating when they are dealing with the hardest parts of their job.**

Now, the unknown editor definitely got that we liked engineers, no problem there, and therefore advised us: "In all these scenes, the tech people either try something wrong first or say they don't know what to do, or both. This makes tech people look stupid. If they're so good they should know the answer."

Star Bongos Editor was trying to enforce a convention of media sci fi that has been around at least since Flash Gordon took up with Dr. Zarkov (I've always assumed Dale Arden was just a beard). The brainy characters in movie/tv/comics sci fi are not usually realistically depicted smart people; they are "what dumb people think smart people are like," to use a phrase that has been slung around quite a bit lately.

Now, about that slinging around. If you Google the phrase, "dumb people think smart people," or some close variation, you'll find about 50 instances, all after 2006; it seems to be a minor semiotic replicator*** slowly making its way into the Internet Anglosphere. Google will also give you results for the synonyms "stupid people" and "intelligent people." In nearly every use it's a subordinate clause modifying a grammatical subject which is most often what, how, or the way, and the verb or verb phrase following is often are like, sound like, do, think, talk, etc. The idea hasn't really taken final shape in a cliché  yet, though it seems to be converging toward one since August 2010 when Bhaskar Sunkara blogged, with both accuracy and precision, that "Paul Ryan is what stupid people think a smart person sounds like."****

Something about the idea of Dumb's Concept of Smart has gained real traction in our culture, and as we sophisticated cultural critics often mutter darkly, culture changes for a reason, and there is something about that reason that gives me the creeps.

A Don McLean song that gives me similar  creeps is "The Pride Parade," which I think of as being sort of what it would be like to be (rather than just mock) a very self-aware, desperate-to-hold the act together version of Dylan's Mr. Jones or the Beatles' Nowhere Man.  (Put those three songs together and you've got the basis of a great short novel. Hmm.)

And in that McLean song you'll find the phrase "your talents of a minor order seem to stretch too far."   Now, that's reasonably clear English, but let me draw your attention to that word talent.  The word derives through several paths of language development from the ancient Greek talantou, which was a unit of weight equal to about 34,300 grams. 

You have probably never said that a fine painter really had a ton, or that a brilliant mathematician had a hundredweight, though you may have said that certain operatic stars had plenty of pounds. What's weight got to do with ability?

Well, there's a hint in that lame joke about pounds. In the ancient world, very large payments were often figured in talents of gold or silver; at today's price, a talent of pure gold would be about $1,457,750, which most of us would agree is a substantial sum, and even a "mere" talent of silver would be $22,609.79, which would certainly buy some pizzas.

So you can blame the etymological tangle on a well-known preacher.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the Parable of the Talents, in which a master goes on a journey and leaves his money with three trusted servants. Larry (names not in original) is given five talents to take care of, Moe is given two talents, and Curley, who is apparently trustworthy but not terribly smart, is given one talent. Larry and Moe each invest the talents, and when Master gets home (I somehow hear Igor hissing "Master!" here), they have doubled the money, so he is understandably pleased with them.  Curley, being scared to death he'd lose it, buried his one little talent in the woods, and when he brings that to Master ("Nooo! Don't hit Curley! Curley take care of Master's money! Nooo!"), Master says, (I paraphrase here): "Why you ... you knucklehead!" and presumably squeezes his head in a vise and hands that talent over to Larry, who goes on and smugly invests that too.

The standard Christian interpretation of that parable for millennia has been that it is not about how to evaluate your broker, nor Jesus's attempt to get across the idea of opportunity cost centuries before the Austrian school of economics. It is rather a metaphor for the abilities which the Christians assert God gave us for a reason, or which secular folk would tell you persisted in the population because they were useful.  People who put their abilities to work become more able; people who huddle protectively around their abilities are subject to that general rule expressed by "use it or lose it."

And Western culture found this idea so well expressed by the parable that talent became a catachresis, which is usually described as a metaphor that is used so commonly that it becomes the main or only name for the thing it describes (like the arm of a chair, or the mouth of a river).  In those semiotic-replication terms I'm fond of, the original sign (representamen=the word talantou, object=other expressions for large quantities of real money, interpretant=innate ability) collapsed over time in the vocabularies of most people into something more like representamen=the word talent, object=abilities specifically which are partly innate but require development or use, interpretant=an innate quality of always being right or deserving reward. 

And innately deserving a reward, rather than training for it, seems to be culturally speaking the way to go these days. You might consider that Cinderella used to be a disciplined, effective, and uncomplaining fireplace-scrubber (presumably with a lot of natural talent and patience and kindness, honed by all that time in those cinders) who therefore knew how to be nice and genuine with a prince (ever wonder what they talked about? my guess is he was one of those princes like the ones from Saudi Arabia or the UAE who come to a democratic republic to get chemical engineering degrees, and the two of them babbled on about creosote-detergent reactions while nobody else got to dance with her), whereas her stepsisters were presumably gold-digging ditzy-about-fashion-and-clueless-about-everything-else party-chick uptown skanks.  But not any more; now poor old Cinderella  is the marketing showpiece for the four-year-old ball gown industry, and her rags are stuffed into the closet (along with any little boys who like the gown better than that lame military-school band uniform the prince wears)  Today's Cinderella wouldn't know how to get burned-on barbecue sauce off a grate if her life depended on it, and unlike her mythological predecessor's, her life never would.

All right, now here's what started all that chain of associations, and let's see if I can work my way to a point:

Recently I've begun to work in an innovative school for at-risk gifted and talented students (that is, people***** with unusual abilities who for various reasons are apt to do badly both in regular school and in the traditional G&T programs). My particular job is implementing  a high school program to help them move out into college and the real world, so the mission is, effectively, strengthening the rescued person without suppressing the rescued talent. It's one of the most interesting problems I've ever encountered.

One of my very smart bosses pointed out that you rarely hear of "gifted adults," though obviously talented people don't suddenly become "regular" when they leave school, and that one of our socialization problems is in helping students find a way to explain who they are without the affectation, humble-bragging, arrogance, condescension, apology, or even shame that can all be big problems for gifted people and everyone around them.

One of many sources of that problem is that most people don't have a very good model of what a gift is and isn't. There's often an expectation that if the person were really gifted they'd just know everything, right then, about any subject, not unlike a certain stepchild of mine (hey, your mom would love a phone call!) who at age 11 decided that everyone else in the family was comparatively a bit dim because they couldn't answer questions about dinosaurs. Gary Larson zeroed in on the belief that giftedness should imply better functioning in all dimensions simultaneously with that "Midvale School for the Gifted" Far Side.

The idea that giftedness means achieving things without effort, or that the gift comes wrapped with a side order of never being wrong, poisons all sorts of relationships and expectations and sidetracks both the people who manage the gifted and the gifted themselves. Especially, if talent does not excuse its holder from needing training, support, mistake-space, second-thoughts, and practice, and doesn't give a free pass from the humiliation of doing something awkward, boorish, or unmindful in front of others, well, then, what the hell good is it after all? That outlook implies a promise by the gifted that no one could possibly keep; they can't even keep it to themselves, because the person who expected effortless perfection and was disappointed is themselves more often than anyone else.

The talent/effort/achievement tangle is hard to unravel, and many people are just as glad not to have to try, even in simpler and less threatening areas than abstract braininess. For the most part, ordinary people are only marginally comfortable with knowing that people with astonishing physical abilities then have to develop them. They tolerate stories of Paderewski's obsessive hours of daily scale-playing, Larry Bird's 500 free throws every morning, Bruce Lee's four hours of katas six days a week, Ben Vereen walking his whole part every evening before every performance, or Picasso's daily hour of realistic drawing just to warm up, because they've absorbed idea that even great muscles and nerves have to be trained and maintained. But that brain-o stuff is supposed to just be there innately, without effort. After that radioactive spider bites him******, we accept that Peter Parker has to spend months learning to use his literally super-human balance, reaction time, strength, speed, and endurance before they do him any good (though we tend to like to imagine he does it in a week or two). But in the versions like the original comic where his web shooters are his inventions rather than glands, we accept that a high school honors chemistry student just knows how to assemble devices and make chemical compounds that would take many thousands of Ph.D-hours at a Westinghouse or Dupont laboratory, and does it in an afternoon, give or take.

And very often, we tell the gifted people that that's how it should be or is supposed to be for them, and if not, then they must be that other kind of genius, the failed one. People's models of the gifted kid tend to be Tom Swift Jr., Jonny Quest, Brains Benton, and Encyclopedia Brown, and when those turn out to be untrue and unrealizable, there is a miserable tendency to lurch in the other direction and see them all as if they were late additional couplets for the late, great Roy Fuller's January 1940 or perhaps at best a real-life version of Ignatius J. Reilly, Samson Shillitoe, Murray Burns, or Mycroft Holmes.*******

Now, none of this is news to the gifted, to their friends and relatives, or to the people who teach them and work with them. University VPAAs, deans, and provosts, or the managers of R&D departments at tech companies, could give you countless examples of the kinds of difficulties I'm musing about, because they manage large numbers of gifted people and they don't survive long if they don't get it figured out.

But I think there's one other way we screw up the gifted that, because it mainly happens to teens and adults, might be less attended to, and could probably be usefully addressed. (I'm thinking about my job out loud here, I guess. That must be why I started writing this. As I often say to students, writing is an excellent way to find out what you think).

I think that I've known a significant number of people who were constantly playing the role of "genius" (or "gifted" or "talent" or "freaking astonishing polymath" or however you prefer to label it), including playing the infallible-knows-everything, I-am-a-real-life-Encyclopedia-Brown role. The paradox under that whole thing is that although what they're trying to pretend they are does not and cannot exist, it takes enormous energy and considerable intelligence to play the role, and a large part of that energy and talent then disappears uselessly into it, profiting neither the possessors nor the people around them.  Furthermore, because playing the role of talented substitutes for, and to some extent precludes using and developing the talent, the bright kid who plays into the cultural role ends up as a less bright and capable adult than s/he should have been.
  Naturally, you'll believe I'm thinking of all the Manic Pixie Dream Girls out there who identify themselves as the sum of their affectations. It will seem that I'm thinking about all the Wonderful Fun Loving Eccentric Slobby Geniuses, and the various flavors of Strange and Wonderful People, who one way or another have found an act to sidetrack themselves into ostentatiously odd behavior so that their always-rightness and know-everythingness isn't challenged.

But they aren't really the ones that worry me.  The self-proclaimed self-conscious geeks are, relatively speaking, the healthy ones; they've at least found a decent corner to hide in and usually they are not hurting anyone else.  They may be sad, lonely, or frustrated, and eternally feel like they could be doing more and enjoying more, but they do have their pleasures and their friends and they often contribute quite a bit to our society's progress and welfare. That genuinely clever Java coder might not read Mandarin as fluently as he pretends to his friends at work, and maybe doesn't actually grasp topological ideas as thoroughly as he tells the cute engineering student at the bar, so he may be isolated and missing out more than he needs to be, but he's not actively hurting anyone.

Much more desperate and scary cases of pretending-to-be-what-a-dumb-person-thinks-a-smart-person-should-be are probably the self-billed polymathic wizards on the self-help and business-inspiration circuits. They very often have a long list of merit-badge like accomplishments—"Black belts in five martial arts! Olympic pole vaulter! Taught herself nine languages! Published papers in four mathematical journals! Medical doctor! And mother of four!"—and there's a circuit of them who give public performances in which, usually, they're flogging their own or someone's self-help system, health program, or financial product. (But their real product is themselves, both as an inducement and as a deliverable). Generally they're very groomed and polished and have cultivated a "so I just did it" delivery of all their accomplishments, but something leaks around the muscles and tan and teeth that seems to hiss and whisper, "Believe I'm good enough and then you will be blessed by a good enough person. And today, we'll throw in a copy of How I was Totally Amazing Without Trying."

You don't have to go very far beyond those desperate people to meet the even more desperate ones: the ones trying to be them, both by buying the courses and by trying to imitate the act, and not yet able to succeed at it.

And saddest and most discouraging of all are the people locked inside their skulls who might have been perfectly good engineers, but couldn't stand not to be Scotty or Geordie. They're the ones that Jay Russell dedicated his wonderful Brown Harvest to: "all the smart kids who weren't quite smart enough." The thing is, they were more than smart enough for an engaged, playful, hard-working, frustrating-but-satisfying struggle with an interesting, difficult, intractable world. That is an awesome deal to get out of life, and it is indeed a gift. But because it was promised to/demanded of them that being smart would be like knowing all the answers on a quiz, many of them end up as adults sitting at the banquet table munching the stale potato chips they brought from home. 

And many of them are stuck there for decades, sometimes for their whole lives, because they are cut off from taking chances (what if I pick up the wrong fork and someone sees me? what if I move to Germany and my German never becomes good enough to get around?), and they can't admit they haven't already had the experience (I'm so curious about that jalapeno-oyster-cabbage salad but what if it just tastes strange and people see me not appreciating it? I have no idea what all those abbreviations mean and this person sounds fascinating, but if I ask I'll have to admit I've been nodding and not understanding for twenty minutes), but most of all because they can't let themselves admit that there's anything better because then they'd have to do something about that better-ness (the banquet is all stage food, everyone's pretending to eat it, and all there really is in the world is these potato chips, which don't taste very good.  Hah, another pile of jargon concealing pretentious vapidity, these edumatated fakers can't fool me, since I'm pretending they must be). 

Now, my new job involves, among many other challenges, figuring out how to keep kids from building that prison for themselves and moving in. But some of you nice folks out there probably know people who are already adults who need a hand with getting out, and some of you might even be sitting there morosely chomping the stale potato chips. Whatever you can do to help people escape—especially if any of those people are you—would probably be a good thing.  It will necessarily hurt at first, so try not to have it hurt more than it has to, but there's a lot of real ability that needs and deserves engagement out there, and think how sad it must be, from the God's-eye perspective, to look down over the course of lives that might have been rich and varied, and were stunted and hollow, and say, "The act ate them."


*I have never ceased to feel that getting to spend many months of my life talking almost daily to a man who walked on the moon is the coolest and grandest thing ever likely to happen to me, and to be especially grateful that Buzz was absolutely not in any way, ever, the kind of just-there-for-signings-and-checks that many of my writer friends have worked with. People who keep track of what co-authors say should take note: I did most of the typing, but there wasn't a scene or a paragraph, maybe not a sentence, that Buzz didn't have input into. For both the books I conceived my job as using all the skills I had to try to write the book that Buzz would have written if he'd had my skills; I was supposed to be a master builder on a construction job, but it wasn't my job to scribble my initials in the concrete or rearrange the architect's work.

**How much military fiction have you seen about painting the barracks, police procedurals about discovering a call was a false alarm, or spy novels in which all the missions went perfectly?

***the phrase I prefer to "meme" for personal idiosyncratic reasons

****Paul Krugman quoted it and applied it to Newt Gingrich a few months later, and, as so often happens, the better-known  names are rapidly becoming the standard attribution and target for the quote.

*****I have often said that once one gets to know children, they are almost like little people.

******Note to self: arrange to be bitten by radioactive billionaire.

*******Now there's one of those odd things that I'd never noticed until I started thinking of examples here. Modern English-language literature is crammed chock full of grotesque failed geniuses and eccentric misunderstood clever people, descendants of Falstaff, of Tris Shandy's Uncle Toby, and perhaps of the somewhat more real Samuel Johnson. They are brilliant, obnoxious, lazy-but-highly-capable-when-roused, and dedicated both to fleshly pleasures and mental gymnastics. And they are all male. I was able to think of a literal dozen males for that list of instances of the archetype, but the only, somewhat marginal female cases I can think of are Auntie Mame (who is actually far too well-adapted, pragmatic, and capable to count as part of that stereotype) and Maude (but in Harold and Maude she's had a long, highly varied, very real life, and her eccentricity is what she's choosing to do with her retirement).

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Very late and very long thoughts about Trayvon Martin, statistical semiotics, and the length of the arc of history

  Correction, 9/30/2013: The original version of this post said that the "creepy-ass cracker" comment from Martin came from a recording of his cell phone conversation. The actual source was the testimony of Rachel Jeantel. The error has been corrected below.  I am indebted to George Taylor for the correction.


Initial apology: A completely unqualified opinion for which it is likely you will have very little use, and even less likely that you will want so much of it

I like thinking slowly; it might be the only way in which I actually think.  (And I've talked about that quite a bit, and recently). Often I don't see, know, or have any clear idea of what matters to me within any reasonable response cycle in the modern internet world.  When I do have an idea I like, I prefer to chew on it and rethink for a long time, and by the time I present it, it's way too long for most internet-trained attention spans anyway. Nearly everything I blog could be responded to with tl;dr, which is another reason not to have a comments section, as my answer to that tends to be well, it was as l as I wanted it to be, t bad if you only read shorter things, so it's fine with me that you dr it.

Besides, I also have very few original ideas, and Samuel Johnson's old jab about what's original isn't good and what's good isn't original often seems, to me, to apply to things I've written, which makes it advisable to let ideas cook long enough so that more of them can just go away and stop bothering me before they annoy anyone else. 
I don't think that I think particularly deeply but I do like to ruminate for a long time, and though rumination doesn't guarantee either depth or thoroughness, it does seem to lead to elaboration and all those buts and ifs and howevers that proper modern decisive netizens are supposed to eschew. So after all that ruminating, I end up saying something that's complicated and self-contradictory enough to take quite a bit of explaining, which then does not reduce to something small enough for the flash-the-idea/trash-the-sender world of tha interwebz.

So the Trayvon Martin case has come and seems to have mostly gone without my doing or saying more than some retweeting, and I thought, well, there goes another current event about which I never found anything to say other than an occasional "right on" to identify which side I was on (which the retweets took care of). 

But now, when people are mostly done with it (and yes, I know, people are trying not to be done with it, but I think the odds are against them), to my mild annoyance with myself, I find I do have something or other to say, not quite like what anyone else seems to have said or be saying. Given how unoriginal I tend to be, probably all that indicates is that I don't follow current events like a responsible, properly behaved twitching neuron in the global net. I dip in and out at irregular intervals and resist the whole idea that there is anything "essential" about much of anything I read, on line or off.  So I probably missed some famous and/or fully qualified responsible person saying all this before.

So, anyway, here goes, down a somewhat different road, or at least one where I haven't seen others walking. 

A warning about authority and mainstreamness and whether you'll know any more when you're done than when you started

There's a heavy semiotic aspect, because intellectually that tends to be the stance from which I attack any problem, and along the way I'll slide in some of the kinds of semiotics I practice (Peircean, Lotmanian, and statistical) which are usually not regarded as mainstream in the discipline.

I'm also doing what I think an essay is for: playing around with ideas, chopping and recombining like salad or breaking and gluing parts from different kits the way Hollywood special effects guys used to do. Eventually I wallop the ideas into whatever shapes please me for the moment, without anything like the rigor I'd use for a commercial client, let alone for an academic paper, where I might be more worried about permanence.

Therefore: WARNING nothing I say here should be quoted, or more likely misquoted, with any preface along the lines of "Semiotics reveals that ..." or "Semioticians think." One mostly commercial, not notably original statistical semiotician had the following not particularly original thoughts, okay? No science here. Just an angle I haven't seen anyone else talking about.

A semiotic angle on the Trayvon Martin case: there were at least two stories, and they served different purposes

I'm going to assume you're at least sort of familiar with the facts and the trial: Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17 year old who was staying with his father, in a gated community, had gone out for candy and a soft drink, and was walking home on a rainy night, was noticed by George Zimmerman, a member of the Neighborhood Watch, who called in the sighting of a black kid in a hoodie to the dispatcher.  Contrary to the dispatcher's instructions, Zimmerman followed Martin, apparently lost track of him for a time, and eventually got out of his car, taking his personal handgun with him.

Not long after, he fatally shot Martin.

The best available evidence consists of:

  • the testimony of Martin's friend Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with him at the beginning of the conversation, and who testified that he  knew he was being followed and was angry about it, at one point referring to Zimmerman as a "creepy-ass cracker." 
  • recordings of Zimmerman's conversation with the dispatcher.

Zimmerman claimed he got out of his car to try to read a street sign (rather than to pursue Martin), that Martin then surprise-attacked him and was beating him severely enough to make him legitimately fear for his life, and that he shot Martin in self-defense.

Zimmerman's story was supported by some superficial wounds on the back of Zimmerman's head, police who said they saw water and grass on the back of his jacket, and the testimony of witnesses:

  • a neighbor who described one man straddling another such that the description of the man on top is a better fit to Martin
  • the autopsy revealed a point blank shot in the heart that apparently occurred while Martin's clothing was sagging away from him, i.e. consistent with his being on top and leaning forward.

There are a number of inconsistencies and points of confusion that don't need to detain us here.

A brief pause for some semiotic terminology

Slinging some Peircean semiotics around here: the two stories are representema (singular, representamen), a "thing that stands for something else."

The meanings given to them (and fought about by lawyers in front of a judge and jury), are interpretants, the "thing stood for."  A representamen may of course have more than one interpretant. A sounding smoke alarm may stand for a smoldering fire in the house, a forest fire a long way upwind, a guest trying to sneak a smoke inside your hourse, unremembered toast, or your obnoxious child having fun with a broom handle.

If you're a European semiotician, you stop at the representament/interpretant pair and call them signifier/signified. In the Peirce-inflected semiotics I prefer, there's a third component, the object, which took Peirce a long time to understand himself (the theoretical logic that underpins his semiotics demands that signs behave as if they have three parts, but it took him most of his life to see what that third part did and why it was essential*). 
The meaning of object that Peirce eventually settled on, according to his letter to Lady Welby dated 12 October 1904, seems to have been his final (and I think correct) position: The object is whatever lets you know that the representamen exists/happens and makes you aware that it is a representamen, that is that it stands for something. For example: 
  • the silence of the smoke alarm most of the time
  • the frame around an object on the wall that tells you that what it encloses is art rather than just a stray object hanging there
  •  the lights dimming between scenes of a play
  • the difference in shape between  mandatory, octagonal road signs and triangular, advisory ones
  • the white space around a black letter on the page
  • the scent added to natural gas so that it doesn't just smell like air

Looking ahead, I'm thinking the following: people have spent a great deal of time dickering  about the representema in this case (the two stories). They have largely assumed and loudly expressed the interpretants (the innocent-Trayvon-was-murdered and the innocent-Zimmerman-defended-himself.  But the objects have been mostly ignored, or not thought about, and before the case fades totally from memory, I want to say a bit about those.  I'll get there eventually, but first, let's think about:

How the interpretants of the two stories shaped their representema

By any reasonable judgment, George Zimmerman is guilty of something, whether legally or not. He created the situation, entirely on his own, by deciding to behave in a threatening way toward a teenager who was walking on a public street with every right to be there.

All the firmly documented escalation—that is, the things we can be quite sure happened, like his continuing his pursuit and his ignoring the dispatcher's telling him to stop—were committed by Zimmerman. At every point where we have a clear-cut sign that the evidence has not been tampered with, e.g. in the dispatcher's recording, every time there's a choice between escalating the situation and leaving it as it is (or de-escalating), Zimmerman chooses to escalate.

His behavior clearly alarmed Martin, and reasonably so. Someone you don't know following you, persistently, on a dark night is surely alarming to a reasonable person.

Most importantly, even if it's not law, as a point of either moral or prudential judgment, Zimmerman should have said, "Excuse me, sir, I'm with neighborhood watch, just checking to see if everything's okay," loudly, from the window of his car, when he first saw Martin. If he was trying to keep the streets safe from vandals or burglars, simply politely identifying himself and checking to see who the teenager on the street was would have more than taken care of the situation.

(The science fiction writer in me, who can never shut down apparently, can't help wondering if in some alternate reality, Zimmerman rolled down that window and asked, then offered a ride home because it was raining; Trayvon Martin accepted, every so often they see each other on the street and wave, and nobody has ever heard of either of them.)

From the first sighting onward, Zimmerman's behavior is much more consistent with a youngish man playing cop than with what is supposed to be the function of Neighborhood Watch, i.e. making the area safer.

So Zimmerman made a series of choices, some of them reckless and all predicated on a "need" to harass a citizen who was doing nothing illegal, that eventually created a situation in which that citizen was killed by Zimmerman.

Now, not least as a teacher, a manager, and a step-parent, I have come to see a great deal of value in the principle that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. Zimmerman created the situation, Martin died at his hands in it, and that's the kind of situation for which the Western legal tradition created the concept of manslaugher, whether or not the exact Florida law and specific evidence would support a conviction for it in this case. The prosecution's job is supposed to be to demonstrate that an act or series of acts occurred, and that they fit the legal definition of some crime and merit some punishment, and the larger purpose of that job is to align law with justice, thus enhancing everyone's security under law.

Creating a situation in which someone is killed is the essence of manslaughter, which normally covers things that range in moral culpability from deaths in bar fights or in fires that were deliberately set, down the scale to things like recklessly riding a bicycle through a red light into a crowded crosswalk, thus colliding with an man and causing fatal injuries.  In Florida, the manslaughter laws appear to be more restrictive than they are in some other states—here's the clearest summary I've found—especially when self-defense is involved, so some things that would be manslaughter in other states might not be in Florida.

The prosecution chose to try to shape the story to fit into the category that seems like a perverse choice: second degree murder. In Florida, second degree murder, as I understand it, requires that the escalations (which, as noted, are well-documented) be accompanied by some intent toward the eventual outcome (and the only direct evidence about Zimmerman's intended outcome lies locked in the depths of George Zimmerman's memory). 

Only late in the trial did the prosecutors begin to pursue the possibility of manslaughter. Because this was a state prosecutor pushed into the job by an unsympathetic governor after the local prosecutor had already dropped the case, there remains in my mind an unprovable but undismissable possibility that the whole thing was a sandbag, i.e. by pushing a charge for which it would be difficult or impossible to win a conviction, the prosecution threw away a conviction they might have won.

This I-think-foolish decision necessarily meant that much more of the prosecution narrative was focused on Zimmerman's unprovable motives rather than on his unquestionably bad judgment. Because the desired interpretant was a more serious criminal conviction, the representamen was shaped around the weakest, rather than the strongest, parts of the prosecution's evidence.

An altogether different problem shaped the defense story: due to the legal concept of reasonable doubt, their story needed to be two things:
one, something that might have been what happened
two, supported by enough corroboration so that at least one juror would consider it too likely to dismiss.

It is therefore no surprise at all that that favorite bugaboo of the law-and-order crowd, "technicalities", (in this case, of self-defense in murder and manslaughter cases), seems to have shaped the invention, selection, or discovery of the details of the defense story:
if the span of time between frightening and harassing a teenager on the street and then getting out of a car with a gun is long enough,
and  if events reverse who is attacking and who is fleeing (but not too quickly or fluidly, as the reversal must be clear),
then the ensuing fight is to be considered separately from the provocative escalation leading up to it,
and therefore the only facts to be considered were that at the moment he pulled out the gun and pulled the trigger, Zimmerman was losing a fight in which he said he reasonably feared death or serious injury,
 and the sparse corroboration of Zimmerman's story  was strong enough for the jury  to think the story could not reasonably be ruled out,
by considering only the small slice of time in which Zimmerman was losing the fight (that he provoked, and we only have his word that Martin started it long enough after Zimmerman's initiating aggression),
it might be possible
for a willing jury to acquit him.

So the defense story was shaped somewhat by corroboration, but mostly by plausibility; the desired interpretant was only that the defense story had a reasonable chance of being true, because if a jury that wanted to acquit decided that the story was undismissable, that was enough "reasonable doubt" to make Zimmerman unconvictable.  (Go ahead and drop me notes, lawyerly folk, and in a future blog post I'll correct or amplify this as needed).

Thus the representamen, i.e. the defense story, need only be "plausible argument for doubt."

Or, in short, the prosecution's story needed to be a tight focus on a few critical undismissable facts, mostly of the who/what/where variety, and the defense's story needed to be a collection of potential evasions and slip-outs, because they were representema for two very different interpretants.

The objects of the stories, and their migration into general discourse

An important part of what an object is, in Peircean semiotics, is what it is not.  (This is not unlike Derrida's argument about the presence of an absence, for those of you more comfortable with the Continental school). If you type in black on a black page, the lack of an object (the boundary with the contrasting white) means there's no sign that can be interpreted. If the smoke alarm is always on, it doesn't tell you when there's a fire or not. (Also, I'm not coming to your house). 

An object can also be a clear, intentional withholding of the expected, or fulfillment of it. In James Thurber's "The Little Girl and the Wolf,"  one of the objects of the story is its difference from Little Red Riding Hood. The object tells us Thurber is satirizing fairy tales and children's literature, rather than gun rights for little girls, the plight of senior citizens without food, or the adoption of subterfuge by wolves. Many modern horror movies mock the older conventions in their dialogue precisely to signal "not a story" just before something frightening happens. And so forth.

Now, one reason why I like Peirce is because I like Walter Koch and Yuri Lotman, and Peirce's ideas are more compatible with theirs than the Continental arbitrary two-part sign. Koch and Lotman both hit, in their different ways, on the idea that we actually respond more to populations of signs than to individual ones, and to population characteristics like modes and patterns of relationships (that's the statistical part of statistical semiotics), and that although people manipulate signs, to paraphrase Karl Marx in a similar context, they don't manipulate them just as they please. 

If the Continentals are right and signs are completely arbitrary, then you might say  "It's Wednesday" to mean it's raining, just because you were enjoying your arbitrary power, or as an artistic comment on how too many people worry about the weather or what day it was, or because you got a wild hair up your ass.  It's a Humpty Dumpty world with all of us as a hapless Alice.

Lotman's fundamental insight is that because there's an enormous pre-existing noosphere, some signs replicate much more easily than others. Koch would add that they replicate most easily into sites that are ready for them. Peirce's tripartite sign, to me, does for Lotman and Koch what Mendel did for Darwin: it explains the individual mechanism under the grand pattern. Some signs are less arbitrary than others, less-arbitrary signs replicate more easily, and there's the mechanism for the evolutionary shaping of sign-populations in Lotman. 

If a sign from one discourse/population sheds any one of its three parts, and then replaces it with a sign in another discourse/population, that "mutation" or alteration is the exact process by which it migrates effectively into the new discourse, and that is what Koch was talking about in his enormous, complex ELPIS model; he used a lock-and-key metaphor rather like the receptor sites of modern molecular biology.**

So, in the present ideological climate of the United States, well before the trial opened, the prosecution and defense stories migrated out of the courtroom  and into the general culture, where they replicated into something that had fairly little to do with the original case.  Specifically, I think they shed their objects and acquired new ones.

The prosecution's story's object had been the correspondence between the attested events and the legal requirements for second degree murder (that is, that was the frame intended).

The defense's story's object had been a place inside a genre that might be called "believable and likely self defense stories."

But out in the world, the objects of those signs fell away, and new objects replaced them (leaving the representamen/interpretant, or story/justice links relatively intact).   In the larger sphere of political discourse, the object of the prosecution's stories morphed into a relationship to the very numerous genre of stories of harassment of young black men, and of young black men being killed with impunity.  That, for example, is the genre in which President Obama placed it when he talked about his own experiences.

The object of the defense's story, out in the public and political realm, not only phrased Zimmerman as the victim (initially of Martin, then of public outcry and the prosecutors) and did not stop at declaring his behavior as wholly innocent (which again, I don't see any way that the facts of the case can bear out), though either of those was bad enough by itself. It phrased Zimmerman as the good guy, the force of order protecting society from a scary, frightening, and barely recognizable version of Martin. The new object shoved the story and its implied verdict into a context that included Dirty Harry, Falling Down, Death Wish, and every other image of the brave lone white guy against the black thug.

Rationalized racism

When that became the object, the maneuvering of the defense to include evidence that showed that like a very large number of young men (including quite a few young white men and just possibly even including Zimmerman), Trayvon Martin was somewhat enamored of/fascinated by/emotionally engaged with street-thug culture***, in turn, became something far more sinister in the wider distribution of the story into political discourse: the object of that was no longer simply a defense attorney exploring anything that might make a jury excuse his client, but instead a rationalization that Martin, and not Zimmerman, had been the guilty one, that Zimmerman had not merely been a pseudocop far overreaching his mandate, but a defender of us all correctly recognizing a real threat.  The object became a set of stories and symbols in which suspicion, fear, and a readiness for violence toward African-American was normal, expected, rational, even praiseworthy.  The phrase "rationalized racism" is harsh, but as many people have observed, once you perceive the big flat bill, the webbed feet, the feathers, and the quacking, "duck" is pretty much the only word that will do, however hurt the duck's feelings may be by the term.

You can hear rationalized racism echoing in Juror B-37's quoted remarks about Zimmerman "having his heart in the right place," (what someone else might call being a good goon for his masters). I'm not a big fan of the sardonic "Really?" but there are times when no other reply will do.

The object of the defense story in the courtroom was a choice made by a defense attorney doing his job, which is often a distasteful job, but a fair world demands that there be defense attorneys, and that they use any tool they are allowed to, and that sometimes they succeed perhaps more than they are entitled to. But the object of the same story, migrated out to the political world, is a specific rationale for hatred, fear, and pre-emptive violence against African-American citizens who have, after all, been central to our culture one hell of a long time. It has been very close to fifty years since Martin Luther King stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and pointed out that it had been a hundred years since the Emancipation Proclamation.

It will still be sixty-some more years, by what I think is the most reasonable way to count it, before African-Americans on our part of the continent will have had as many years of putative freedom as they had of literal slavery.  That is, let me repeat, a hell of a long time, and I mean both the hell and the long emphatically.

And the swift, easy adoption of that version of the story in which Martin had it coming and Zimmerman was the defender and all the rest shows that the racist object "genre of white defense against black savagery" is waiting and ready to go in an enormous portion of the white population.  As Koch might say, that lock is always already there, waiting for its next key; or Lotman might compare our white conservatives to an immuno-compromised population, where any new racist infection will spread like lightning, because the object has attached itself to notions of reasonability and rationality, like a piece of malware on a download of some popular useful program.

The potential of rationalized racism was there, waiting, the day  Trayvon Martin was born.  It was still there when, bored because his parents had relocated him to get him away from what looked like the beginning of trouble****, he went out to get a bag of candy. It grows stronger every time another story like this is picked up and spread through the same channels.  And it will be there, waiting, again, for the next one, and for dozens and hundreds yet to come.

The readiness with which very large numbers of Americans fastened onto the revised object of Zimmerman's story makes me think that at the rate we are going, in 2078, when the "free" years pull ahead and begin to exceed the "slave" years, things may not have changed very much from the present. The poll data shows that the people who bought into that version were about what you'd expect nowadays: mostly white and mostly Republican/conservative.  It's encouraging, though, that younger white Republicans seem to be buying into it less.  After all, Abe Lincoln, U.S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia, Wendell Wilkie, Nelson Rockefeller, and John L. Lewis, among others, were white Republicans, and I suppose in the long run of time there's hope for anyone.

But the hope has not been gleaming very brightly, lately.


*And being extra-super fussy for all the Peirce fans out there, Peirce thought the representamen was the first part of the sign, the object the second, and the interpretant the third, so I could more accurately have said he knew there must be a second part, which he dubbed the object, but it took him decades to arrive at his eventual identification of the second part, whereas the first and third were identified in the 1870s. The resemblance between intellectual puzzles and crossword puzzles is sometimes closer than intellectuals are comfortable with.
**Koch, I think, is one of those ahead-of-his-time guys like Reich, Turing, Blake, or Tesla, or for that matter Peirce: clearly brilliant at the beginning, harder and harder to understand later, and it will be up to posterity to figure out exactly where (or if) he went off the rails.

*** wisely and justly quashed by the judge for exactly the same reason that we don't allow defense attorneys in rape cases to discuss the height of a woman's heels. the color of her underwear, or whether she likes dirty books, because a young man romanticizing fighting no more gives you the right to kill him than a young woman liking to feel sexy creates a right to rape.
**** Another one of those little things that says too much: parents moving a kid away from getting into a bad crowd, experimenting with pot, hanging around with friends who like to talk about violence (though the most quoted one is a friend telling Trayvon to chill out about it): that situation with white kid=good proactive parents of spirited, slightly wild kid. With Trayvon, that situation=parents feebly attempting to exert some authority over their proably already irredeemable street-thug brute of a son.  It's astonishingly painful to think about what it must be like to be his parents, right now or any time for the rest of their lives.