Home

The Morality of Ice Cream

October 6, 2020

John Stuart Mill

I was thinking today, in what context I don’t remember (maybe the context of a would-be dictator encouraging Americans to ignore a deadly virus he fostered?), about the most important subject for humanity. I decided it was moral philosophy. Because that’s, like, the guiding principle for everything we do, right? In the would-be dictator’s case, the philosophy is Me First, then Me Second. For most of the rest of us, it’s more complicated, involving our notions of responsibility to others.

It’s too complicated, really. Moral philosophy is both most important and most impossible.

Why impossible? Well, you have to start with assumptions about what’s valuable. Should our morality focus only on human beings, for example? Or also on dogs and dolphins and elephants and other intelligent life? If the latter, where do we draw the line? Are mosquitoes exempt from our care? (Remember that animals we used to assume were mindless have been shown to have sophisticated brains. I have no love for mosquitoes, but it may turn out that they’re really smart.)

Even if we focus on humanity alone, what should our morality promote and what should it avoid? To me, the only formulation that makes logical sense is the utilitarian one, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” or in Jeremy Bentham’s formulation, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” but the logicality proves bankrupt when we try to put it into practice.

To follow a utilitarian creed, we have to know what “good” or “happiness” means, which almost makes the argument tautological. But, okay, try to define this good or happy state: Do you choose freedom from hunger or freedom from tyranny? Maximum total pleasure (which would also have to be defined) or minimum suicides? Ethnic pride and dignity or less frequent war?

Even John Stuart Mill, who became the chief apostle of this philosophy, had to distinguish between “higher” and “lower” pleasures—again, it seems to me, begging the question.

And even if you could precisely define what you meant by “good” or “happiness,” how would you measure it—not just in one person but across the 7.8 billion people on Earth?

And then, if you could define it and measure it, you’d still have to be able to predict the future. That is, in order to decide whether to do something, you’d have to judge what effects that action would have—and what effects it would prevent from happening. You’d need to envision the infinite number of possible timelines emanating from your single choice. Infinitely impossible.

So, to adopt utilitarianism in daily life, we must cut that infinity down to size by making assumptions about what’s likely to have a beneficial effect on whatever portion of the population we happen to be considering. And, for me, this process often ends up more or less with the golden rule, the do-unto-others thing. Which itself is a poor guide to questions such as “Should I tell my sister that her husband is cheating on her?” and “Is it okay to give my grandkids ice cream though their mother forbade it?”

Sigh.

All this, plus laziness, explains why I haven’t actually studied much moral philosophy. It relies too much on unprovable assumptions. Plus it’s less entertaining than a good detective story.

Yet I would love to be more certain. I’d love to believe in a principle as easy to operate as the TV.

Being a person who knows little about politics and misunderstands much of that little, I feel it’s incumbent upon me to share my predictions about the upcoming U.S. election. Clearly the experts are befuddled, so the responsibility for commentary falls on us ignoramuses.

Here’s what I predict:

  • President Twitterman will survive the coronavirus. If he suffers mental impairment from the disease, no one will know the difference.
  • He’ll lose the popular vote by a large margin (though not nearly as large as he deserves).
  • He’ll lose the electoral vote by a frighteningly small margin.
  • While making lots of noise about fraud, he will ultimately retire from the fray rather than mount a coup—because, like a typical bully, he’s a coward at heart.
  • Though Biden will promise healing, outrage will continue to multiply on both sides, and some people will get killed.
  • Ultimately the deplorables, as Hillary Clinton called them, will fade from sight, skulking underground like cicada nymphs until their next chance to emerge. Which they will do, in time.

The Fear Election

July 27, 2020

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Reading dozens, maybe hundreds, of articles and surveys and projections about the 2020 presidential election, I’ve been battered by waves of hope, apprehension, suspicion, confusion. It feels like trying to surf in a hurricane.

For better or worse (mostly the latter), I have a simplifying type of mind, the kind that searches for a small number of principles to explain a giant mess. This inclination points me to one basic force behind this year’s politics.

Fear.

The 2020 election will turn, I believe, on what the voters, or those in swing states, are most afraid of.

For some, it’s an amorphous but overriding panic that those people—those who differ from traditional Americans—are taking over the country: i.e., non-whites, non-Christians, non-straights, non-English-speakers, non-male-supremacists, non-rugged-individualists. To liberals, that fear seems so absurd as to be unfathomable, and yet it keeps growing like a poisonous mushroom.

As for the liberals, they (or we, for I’m clearly one) believe the country is on the verge of a fascist dictatorship, even though the president and his cronies have proved massively incompetent at pursuing their agenda. We fear they will intensify the destruction of the rights, and the very lives, of people of color, immigrants, gays, and all other historically marginalized groups (and maybe some new ones they invent). Conversely, we fear their incompetence and stupidity will help the coronavirus kill us all. We can’t decide which is scarier, their actions or their inaction.

1968 was a fear election, at least for Nixon voters, but this year seems even more intense. As anxieties on both sides build, there’s talk—and more fear—of a violent takeover by the other guys, a revolution by the left or a coup from the right. The result is a much fiercer test of our institutions than Nixon ever managed.

George Will just published a column contending that 1942 was just as disruptive as 2020. Perhaps luckily for FDR, that wasn’t a presidential election year. America was hardly unified then, Will points out, even with Hitler and Tojo as looming external threats. “In 1942’s off-year elections, the president’s party took a drubbing.”

Still, this year seems worse in at least one respect: Americans can scarcely agree on a single common enemy. My hero is your enemy—and don’t you dare tear down my statue!

So I wonder, is our democracy, which some say no longer deserves the name, resilient enough to survive, or is it already stretched to the snapping point? I admit to being a sucker for traditional American optimism, but this year, I just don’t know …

Blue Light

June 30, 2020

Blue LightLately I seem to be posting only when I have a new publication to promote. Guess I’ve been too depressed by Trumpism, police violence, virus deaths and the like to have many thoughts worth sharing.

However that may be, there’s another new piece of mine out there, a short story called “Blue Light” in Coal Hill Review. It has nothing to do with Trump.

Many thanks to Fiction Editor Christine Stroud for including this story in the latest issue.

A Dog for the Season

April 21, 2020

Despite nagging from the Spirit Animal who presides over this site, it’s been a while since I published a story in which a dog plays a major part. I hope the piece just issued in Cagibi, “The Goodbye Dog,” will make up for that dereliction of duty.

Since canines are one of our comforts during the ongoing pandemic, this is a perfect time to give one a title role.

The story did present a special challenge in that it required translations from two foreign languages: Italian and Boerboel. For any clumsiness therein, I apologize to Dante and to the Spirit Animal, respectively.

Elsewhere in the April issue, I recommend the essay by Robert Close. And the graphic here links to the cover page.

Baseball Magic

April 15, 2020

For those, like me, who are pining for baseball during our quarantine, a just-published story of mine relates to the game: “The Magic Ball,” included in the April 2020 anthology Onward! issued by Wordrunner eChapbooks.

I have to admit that the story doesn’t include much about the game itself, but it does feature a single signed baseball that has magic in it. Maybe.

You can download a PDF of the entire anthology at the main page. The publishers also invite comments on their Facebook page.

Meanwhile, the Phillies, my home team, remain undefeated.

According to a news headline today, President Twitterman is breaking from “GOP orthodoxy,” adding a few progressive ideas to his agenda to bolster his chances for reelection. The Gridleyville Editorial Board would like to congratulate him for this evolution in his thought, and specifically for the following new policies he now advocates:

  • Ignoring, like other Republican presidents before him, the GOP mantra of a balanced budget, so that the nation’s deficit will soon set a record at over $1 trillion
  • Compromising with Congress on money to Build the Wall, instead of stealing it from military funds
  • Increasing air holes in children’s cages along the border, for greater comfort and less suffocation
  • Compensating property owners whose drinking water has been contaminated by fracking: at least 1 case of Pepsi per family of 4
  • Leniency for those who have witnessed war crimes by the U.S. military: they will not be executed for testifying

If the president continues at this rate, he will soon qualify as an ordinary, corrupt, lobbyist-bought politician, the sort with which we have grown quite comfortable. This is progress indeed.

The True Samaritans

December 22, 2019

During the holiday season, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, Americans give a lot of lip service to the values of charity, compassion and care for the less fortunate. A few shining exemplars of these virtues are held up by the media, with cheery pictures and sentimental language. Typically, though, we fail to recognize the most charitable of all, the true Samaritans among us.

Whom do I mean? Which people are the greatest self-sacrificers?

Actually, they are the people you’d least suspect: the white working- and middle-class straight Americans who support conservative politicians and a right-wing agenda. For short, since their current Great Leader in the White House is President Twitterman, I’ll call them the Lesser Twitters, or LTs.

What’s compassionate about their agenda? you may ask. How can people who favor holding immigrant children in cages be considered Samaritans?

Let’s look at what LTs are giving up and on whose behalf.

Obviously, by supporting policies aimed at benefiting the rich, LTs sacrifice their own prosperity, since the idea that wealth trickles down from top to middle to bottom has been proven a hoax. Nor is it possible that obsolescent, polluting industries like coal mining can ever make a comeback. The “jobs” that right-wing politicians claim to preserve or resurrect will never again be a major force in America. If such activities persist at all in the future, they’ll be done by robots.

On the surface many LTs refuse to accept these truths, but in their hearts they understand, and they realize they are making a sacrifice. They don’t believe, of course, that they are giving up their well-being for the sake of obscenely wealthy corporate leaders, hedge fund managers, and lobbyists. No, in their view they are acting to preserve important social values, such as the right to life and the sanctity of marriage, the issues that Republican politicians have played up for at least two generations, since Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew (both later disgraced and chased from office) began appealing to the “silent majority” in 1969.

What’s interesting is that these so-called family values do not generally affect LTs themselves. If you’re against gay marriage, for example, you won’t marry another person of the same sex, and probably your family members won’t either. Similarly, if you’re against abortion, you don’t have to have one, nor does your partner. These are issues that pertain to other people. By opposing liberal laxity on these matters, LTs are trying to save the rest of us from sin.

Arguably, this is true for even the hottest of hot-button issues, immigration and refugees. Most LTs have scant personal experience with immigrants. Maybe, speeding past in their SUVs, they’ll glimpse a Latino mowing a lawn, or on occasion, through a swinging kitchen door, they’ll catch sight of a swarthy person washing dishes in a restaurant. Hardly a threat in either case. Again, this is a matter that applies to other people, and in screaming their support for cruelty at the border, LTs are acting to save the rest of us who might actually need those jobs mowing lawns or washing dishes, at least until the robots move in.

Let’s take a moment, then, to recognize the LTs as the true Samaritans among us. Yes, they may be rewarded at Armageddon—and at that point they’ll certainly get to shout “I told you so”—but we should offer some appreciation in this life as well.

Let’s each light a holiday candle for the LTs. If you don’t celebrate a holiday involving candles, you can make a cross of two sticks, set it on fire and plant it on a suspicious person’s lawn. It’s the least we can do.

My friend Nathaniel Popkin recently published The Year of the Return, an extraordinary novel in which he gives ten separate characters a first-person point of view. They range from young to very old, from a business owner to a truck driver to a journalist to a deeply troubled war vet. To me the undertaking seemed admirably ambitious, and his ability to pull it off impressive. The characters come vividly alive on the page, each with a distinctive voice.

The one technical problem that caused him the most worry? It was not merely technical but social: namely, that he’s white and about half of the characters are black. Here’s what he said in an interview with Mitzi Rapkin for First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing:

Rapkin: Did you have any trepidation at all about writing half the book in the voice of an African-American family, being a white Jewish man?

Popkin: I had terrific trepidation, I still have trepidation. I still worry. I still wonder if it’s the right thing to do or if it’s my privilege or my entitlement to do it. I wonder if it’s right.

As a fiction writer myself, I see two questions here: (1) Can white authors genuinely understand any African American’s perspective or experience? and (2) Even if the authors understand and create believable black characters, do they have any right to publish such work? Is it cultural appropriation?

The first question links to a larger problem for all writers, especially in fiction. Race is only one of many boundaries we have to cross to bring characters to life. Women often have to write about men, and vice versa. Older people write about younger folk, and Millennials take on the Boomers. Same for natives/immigrants. Upper/middle/lower class. Straight/gay/trans. Married/single. War veterans/non-vets.

At a reading once, I heard Elise Juska, who at that point had already published (I believe) three novels, express worry about her novel-in-progress, which required her to imagine the perspectives of older men. My reaction was—I don’t think I said this aloud, but I thought it—that old guys are just like everyone else, only crankier. And any good writer can do cranky. That novel-in-progress became The Blessings, which I consider one of the best American works of fiction of the past decade.

For me, the male-female boundary feels like the easiest one to cross. My male characters too often share my own neuroses, but a woman protagonist is more likely to become her own person. Age is a little harder, class even more so. Occupation often stumps me—when I imagine a character who has a job I don’t know much about, I wonder what that person does all day. The point is that we all have our limitations of experience, and unless we want to restrict ourselves like Jane Austen (who famously avoided male-only scenes because she’d never witnessed one), we need to let imagination carry us past our borders. Bravely or stupidly, we have to venture beyond the comfortable. If the result is a work like The Blessings, the risk will be justified. If we blunder, well, we move on, try something else.

After all, science fiction and historical fiction wouldn’t exist if writers stuck to what they knew. And as Kit de Waal has asked (The Irish Times, 6/30/2018), “Was Gustave Flaubert a woman who committed adultery before he wrote Madame Bovary?”

The second question—the one about cultural or racial appropriation—is trickier. As historically oppressed or undervalued groups raise their own voices, an outsider’s view seems less justified, especially if it comes from a patriarchal, colonial, or privileged background. Kit de Waal, in the article just cited, puts it like this:

So when people who have lost nothing, people from the dominant culture that has colonised half of the world, reigned over an empire, raped, butchered, enslaved, taken language, lands and people as cargo, when those people say there is no such thing as cultural appropriation and insist that we can do what we want, we need to think again of the impact of taking another’s story and using it as we want.

One writer put it this way. Do not dip your pen in somebody else’s blood.

The powers-that-be have told the stories for far too long; it’s time to invert the pyramid. My friend Popkin is a sensitive person who sees many sides of every question, so it’s no wonder he fretted over the matter of entitlement.

But how far should we take this? If we happen to be straight, should we omit LGBTQ characters from our fiction? Should a writer of European heritage shy away from portraying the thoughts and emotions of a Latinx character?

I confess to sinning in these respects, and I don’t think any fiction writer should need to defend the imaginative act of crossing borders, whatever they may be. The resulting work, of course, is ripe for critique. If we stray into new territory and fail to understand it, or leave muddy footprints where they don’t belong, we should get roundly scolded.

Another friend of mine, David Sanders, has published a novel, Busara Road, about a white Quaker kid in Kenya. He himself was once a white Quaker kid in Kenya, so in that respect he was writing what he knew. But for the sake of the novel he also had to create half a dozen major black characters, both old and young, male and female, and that could be considered a violation of boundaries. The result? On a return trip to Kenya, he was told he’d gotten the characters exactly right.

We shouldn’t forget, too, that the insight of an “outsider” can be useful. As Zadie Smith has remarked (The New York Review of Books, 10/24/2019), “For though the other may not know us perfectly or even well, the hard truth is we do not always know ourselves perfectly or well. Indeed, there are things to which subjectivity is blind and which only those on the outside can see.”

To sum up, consider this from Hari Kunzru (The Guardian, 10/1/16):

Good writers transgress without transgressing, in part because they are humble about what they do not know. They treat their own experience of the world as provisional. They do not presume. They respect people, not by leaving them alone in the inviolability of their cultural authenticity, but by becoming involved with them.

Becoming involved with people: after all, that’s what fiction is about.

Many triggers

November 4, 2019

A story of mine has just appeared in Storgy Magazine, with a very appropriate illustration.

Those who know me may be amazed that a rose could be relevant to any of my fictions. It is truly so, however. You’ll have to read the story to find out why. Click on the image to go to the Storgy site.

Trigger warnings: gruesomeness, religiousness, anti-religiousness, dysfunctional family, gunfire. And probably others I haven’t noticed.

Many thanks to the editors of Storgy who somehow weren’t triggered.