I wish I’d read HIDDEN FIGURES: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly before the movie made the basic concept — that a number of black women “computers” (originally a term for human number-crunchers) helped plot the necessary math for the space program — familiar to me. That said the details are quite interesting, going back to WW II and the military’s need for computers to help figure out the complexities of air flow and pressure in aeronautical engineering. Black women with math skills had no future outside teaching, so they seized the opportunity as a better-paid, more challenging alternative. When Sputnik made the space race a priority, many of the women jumped to NASA (I’d never realized how much precise calculation is involved in sending a capsule into orbit and landing it in the right spot in the ocean), culminating in math whiz Katherine Johnson helping review the computer calculations for Apollo 11. This an interesting slice of history, including the always amusing tech details of ancient computer tech (high-speed data transmission of 1 kilobyte a second!) though it’s not exactly dramatic: the women did grapple with sexism and racism but they didn’t have the kind of turning points that make for a character arc (that is not the book’s fault, of course).
In the opening of Walter Gibson’s THE GHOST MAKERS a seance for wealthy patrons goes wrong when someone ends up stabbed; Det. Cardona suspects the killer was anything but a spirit, but which of the attendees did it? Fortunately the Shadow is on the case, which turns out to involve a network of phony mediums pooling their resources to pull off bigger scams, like having multiple suckers invest in the same crap stock. A couple of years after Gangdom’s Doom assured us the Shadow doesn’t kill and he’s still not as murderous as I envision him, frequently shooting guns out of hands rather than killing crooks. This is a solid series entry; there’s at least one more ghost-busting tale in the series, House of Ghosts.
While Scott and Amundsen taught me scurvy was an ugly disease, I had no idea until reading SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail, by Stephen R. Bown how nightmarish it was. Because the loss of vitamin C affected collagen, for instance, broken bones that had previous healed would suddenly un-knit in serious scurvy cases. This had disastrous effects on the British navy in an age when shipboard conditions could weaken even strong, healthy men but the admiralty stubbornly resisted treating seamen as anything but cannon fodder; the medical profession’s antiquated view of how disease worked made it next to impossible to think coherently about the problem. Ship’s surgeon James Lind and Captain Cook saw the light but couldn’t dent official dogma, so it was left to physician Gilbert Blane, who had not only good research but good social connections, to win the fight. A good medical history.
I presume the protagonists of Edward Eager’s MAGIC OR NOT mentioning Half Magic as a favorite book of theirs is meant to signal the new story is not in that continuity. In contrast to the blatant magic of the first four books, here the wishing well they’re using to help people is so subtle they wind up wondering if it was their imagination. Probably not (as they point out that would take every adult in town being in on fooling them), but this remains a fairly ordinary children’s adventure, not up to the earlier tales.
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HANCOCK (2008) stars Will Smith as the drunken, reckless, possibly immortal metahuman whose interventions cause more property and collateral damage than they’re worth, only he can’t seem to care. Jason Bateman plays a PR Man who offers to give Hancock a makeover into the kind of hero people want to be around — but why does his wife find Hancock so familiar? This is mostly a collection of familiar comics cliches — Hancock himself amounts to Superman with Guy Gardner‘s personality — but I’d suggest double-billing it with the superior The Old Guard for another immortal hero. “Do I have permission to touch your body? It’s not sexual.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND (1945) stars Ingrid Bergman as a pychoanalyst who falls for Gregory Peck as the new head of the clinic she works at, replacing her mentor Leo G. Carroll. Unfortunately it turns out Peck is an imposter and an amnesiac whose traumatic memory loss may be in response to murdering the real doctor; can Bergman find out the truth before the cops catch up with them?
Lovers On The Run (and posing as married) is familiar Hitchcock stuff but this lacks the tension of Thirty-Nine Steps or Young and Innocent; the police are ineffective so the real tension lies in Bergman’s efforts to break through to Peck’s repressed memories. It doesn’t work but the surreal nightmare sequence designed by Salvador Dali (see below) is certainly memorable.
Peck is another problem, a movie newbie who isn’t strong enough to make his role work. Bergman, however, is great. While the movie trots out the standard cliches of the era that as a professional Bergman is a cold fish who can’t be a real woman (“Women make the best psychiatrists until they fall in love, then they become patients.”), she’s the one who drives the action. Despite falling love she remains a good enough psychoanalyst to crack the case and expose the real killer; Peck is the equivalent of the pretty-girl romantic lead who needs the hero to save her. “You are going to hate me a lot before we’re through.”NOTORIOUS (1946) reunites Bergman and Hitchcock for one of the latter’s classics — though before this rewatching, I’ve never really liked it (I’ve no idea now why not). Bergman plays the patriotic daughter of an American Nazi, drowning her shame in wild parties and booze (the Production Code tidied this up a bit). American agent Cary Grant romances her, then reveals he wants her to spy on Nazi Claude Rains, who’s engaged in sinister doings in South America. Bergman agrees, becoming first Rains’ lover, then his wife, but will he catch on? Does Grant care about Bergman or is she just a tool for him to use?
This is a first-rate film all around, though it took a long trail to get there. Hitchcock, screenwriter Ben Hecht and producer David Selznick fought over lots of elements (Selznick vetoed having the Rains and Grant characters go over a cliff together) and the Production Code wasn’t happy with even a hint of immoral behavior (there are hints, but during the post-war period the Code’s Joe Breen loosened up some, particularly on prestigious A-list films). The final results are well worth seeing. “It’s a lot of hooey — there’s nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.”
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Which is to say, this week’s productivity wasn’t an improvement over last week, though the problems were different.
It started Friday night when we decided to keep Wisp in overnight. She doesn’t like being left downstairs by herself — she’s very wary about going upstairs — and around 12:30 her mewing for attention woke me up. I thought she wanted to go out, but no, she just wanted someone to sit with her. There was much petting and belly scritching, then she settled down and went to sleep on the couch cushion next to me. I, however, had no such luck. Sleep was shot for the night.
Sunday, more of the same, plus Plushie had the squirtles. TYG took him outside the first time, then I did, and then he and I settled in downstairs with Wisp. That would make it simpler if he had to go out yet again, which he did; after that, he went to sleep but again, I didn’t. And sleep Saturday and Sunday did not make up for the minimal night sleep. So I started Monday sleep-deprived and never made it up. The sense from last week that my mornings are too busy with pets and I have to get up extra early to get any work done didn’t help. The result was that I spent most of my week a little bit off peak condition.
That being the case, I pretty much dropped my initial plans and focused on the big stuff: more stuff watched for Alien Visitors, some minor formatting for Undead Sexist Cliches and finishing up Questionable Minds. Wednesday, despite all the distractions and lack of sleep, I was optimistic I’d have it done this week, but the last couple of chapter had problems. One was that a key scene involves a convenient oil lamp, but as the house is equipped with gas jets, there’s no real reason they’d have an oil lamp there. That proved relatively simple to fix, but then came the big finish where the bad guy buys it … and for some reason, it doesn’t work. I think I see a way to fix it, but it didn’t occur to me until too late today.
My schedule was also complicated because when Leaf articles were posted for writing it was at odd hours and moments. Normally I adapt to that pretty well but with my brain already foggy that didn’t go well. Still I got some done, and money coming in is always a good thing. And the dogs and Wisp are getting a little more relaxed about having each other around. Only a little, but it’s a good sign.#SFWApro.
I have a lot of little goals in my 2021 list, as I always do. Work my brain by doing puzzles. Observe people in the street — their body language, their clothes, their faces. Walk further; I do a lot of walking with the dogs, but it’s rarely as much as two miles. Take more photos and improve my photography skills. This is stuff I easily fall behind on, but I think I’ve found a way to keep up: make them something I do daily.
Not that I have “do it every day.” as a goal in my list. it’s just that if I shoot for daily, I’m sure to get it done weekly. Well, pretty sure; last week’s chaos almost threw me off but Monday – Wednesday were enough to get ’em done. This is advice I’ve seen in a lot of books: if you need to make $10,000/100 cold calls/write 50,000 words, approach the project as if your goal was $20,000/200 cold calls/write 100,000 words. That way no matter what the setbacks, you’ll have budgeted enough time and effort to make your real goals.
I’ve never found that good advice. Whatever the fake goal I set is, my mind insist on interpreting that as my real goal. As it’s higher than I can make, that ends up making me feel I failed. In this case, however, it seems to be working (of course, the week’s young). Maybe because they’re relatively simple goals, on stuff that isn’t vital, so I’m not stressed. And they don’t require the same level of thought and creativity as setting really steep writing goals does. So I doubt there’s a lesson I can apply to my bigger ambitions.
Eventually if they become regular enough I can stop listing them as goals. With meditation, for example, it’s now part of my regular routine, even if I don’t write it down as a goal. Ditto bread-baking: I resolved to bake bread (including muffins, rolls and scones as an option) at least twice a month last year; I think it broke me out of a slump, so that’s not on the list this year either.
Now if only I could be as efficient in my writing goals …
To wrap up, here’s a photo showing how shaggy Trixie is these days, and one of Wisp sprawled in her favorite snooze place, on the back of the couch.#SFWApro.
Slacktivist blogger Fred Clark has been discussing for years the degree to which racism is part and parcel of white evangelical theology. Case in point, the Southern Baptist Seminary decided not to remove slave-owning Southern Baptist names from buildings on campus: after all, we’re all sinners, right? Clark: “This is where we flinch, quaver, and look away. It’s almost impossible not to. Al Mohler’s inability or refusal to cast more than a passing glance at such horror is perfectly understandable. But if we do not make ourselves look, we will never come to see.” Clark also discusses and ponders how slaveowning shaped the SBC founders’ theology. “There is work to be done. For all of us. And it won’t be easy, or simple, or pleasant. But it is necessary.”
“For many white evangelicals, the 2016 election represented a last-ditch effort at preserving a way of life that seemed to be coming to an end.” Which may be why one legal effort claims supporting Black Lives Matter violates conservative Christians’ freedom of religion. As Fred Clark says, this is what happens when powerful people imagine they’re the persecuted ones.
“Andy Stanley reminds me a lot of Earl Stallings. Stallings fretted about Bull Connor the same way that Stanley frets about Donald Trump. He wanted to make sure people understood that he did not approve of that sort of thing. Not that he actually condemned it, mind you, but that he did not approve of it at all. Like Stanley, Stallings lived “in a time of intense political anger” and so his attempts to “put faith before politics” involved “grasping uncertainly at the line between speaking prophetically and making everybody mad.”
Some Trump advocates insist the Bible requires Trump’s enemies to pray for him. At the link, Libby Anne points out the Bible says the opposite in some places.
“White Southern Christians argued that any unbiased reading of the Bible proved that slavery was as legitimate a domestic relationship as marriage and parenthood.” As Frederick Douglass once said, “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”
Libby Anne also argues that when you deny reality enough to embrace creationism, it’s only a short step to conspiracy thinking.
Republicans say it’s wrong to attack religious faith — until they go after Democrats. No surprise: the fundamental tenet of right-wing American Christiniaty is that they have the right to punch down, but nobody has the right to punch back up.
“Most of us are not exceptionally virtuous and heroic. Recognizing that is the first step in learning to become better, learning to speak out on behalf of others before it is too late for them or for us.”
“There’s so much potent, culture-shifting wokeness afoot, they complain. Democrats have no choice but to…reject it?”
A city uneasily decides it can’t win a First Amendment fight over a white supremacist church.
“This performance of piety in the face of evil is empty, because it does not deal with the core issue: white evangelicalism’s own racism.”
A false prophet insists as he and his ilk prophesied Trump would win, it must be true.
“I have never seen so much mobilized prayer in my life. If prayer was going to do it, Trump would be president until he was 90.”
“Public opinion surveys reveal a more deeply disturbing truth: that the lie of white supremacy — that white people’s lives are more important than those of others — continues to be one of the primary ties that bind Trump and the white evangelical world.” And evangelical support for Trump’s attempted coup suggests that instead of changing society by changing hearts and minds, they just want to win.
Others see the pandemic as an opportunity to sell their extremist views.
For season 17 of Doctor Who, the series went big. All six serials are part of one composite story, involving the Doctor and his new companion’s quest for the Key to Time.
In the first episode, the Doctor gets yanked out of time to meet the White Guardian, one of two entities representing order and chaos (that’s the Black Guardian). The Guardian explains that while the two opposing forces normally keep the flow of time and existence in perfect balance, once in a while, it needs a reset. That requires the Key to Time, an artifact capable of giving one of the Guardians absolute control of reality. Because of the potential for abuse, the key is scattered across the universe in six separate, indestructible segments. The White Guardian explains that it’s necessary for him so he’s recruiting the Doctor to collect the pieces. Doctor: “What happens if I refuse?” “Nothing will happen, Doctor … ever again.”
He’s also provided the Doctor with a new companion, Romana (Mary Tamm), a Gallifreyan Time Lady. It proves to be one of the classic odd couple pairings: Romana has better education and technical skills, the Doctor has better education in the school of hard knocks. While Tamm is stiff as an actor, her knowledge enables her to hold her own with the Doctor in a way most companions can’t.
The first story, The Ribos Operation, has them hunting for a segment on the eponymous planet. On this medieval-level world, the overcast sky has left them unaware of the rest of the universe; a would be galactic conqueror, the Graf Vinda-K, seeks a priceless chunk of a rare mineral to finance his coming wars. Guess what the Key-detector the Guardian gave the Doctor shows to be the first segment? This one is well thought-of, but I’ve never really liked it; the acting is good but like Curse of Peladon it’s close to pure costume drama only not as much fun. And K9, as he often does, makes things a little too easy for the Doctor. “You can’t be a successful crook with a dishonest face, can you?”
Douglas Adams’ The Pirate Planet, by contrast, is a delight, even though I’d remembered it as over-the-top silly. Seeking the second segment, the Doctor arrives on a planet ruled by a cyborg pirate captain (with a cyborg parrot, no less); as we eventually learn, the planet sustains itself by jumping through space, engulfing other worlds, then strip-mining their resources. It turns out the captain isn’t as crazy or silly (“By the beard of the sky demon, the jaws of death were around your throat!”)
as he seems and there are multiple other players in the game … This one’s first-rate. “Use your tongue, Doctor — it’s the only weapon you have left.”
I also really like the third serial, The Stones of Blood, for its effective use of British stone-circle folklore. The Doctor and Romana arrive in present day England, where something’s going on involving an old circle of stones that supposedly move around so that nobody can count them accurately. And hmm, something seems to be crushing people in the area to death … Does it have anything to do with the mysterious Vivian Fay whose family have held the land for centuries (if I were watching cold, that folklore-laded name would have been a big Warning). While this takes a too-comical twist near the end with the Megaera, alien judge/executioners, it still works. “I think of modern Druidism as a joke perpetrated by John Aubrey.”The Androids of Tara is less successful. Arriving on a planet where despite a generally 18th century lifestyle, the technology allows for android servants, the Doctor and Romana get caught up in a Prisoner of Zenda remake: Romana’s the exact double of the local ruler, kidnapped by the scheming Count Grendel, so can the Time Lady fill in for an important ceremony? I like this one more than it deserves: while Grendel’s a good villain, the androids seem more like a plot device than anything integral to the planet’s culture (in contrast to, say, The Robots of Death). And once again, K9 is a little too handy. “I don’t think I’ll refuse the crown a second time — it might create the wrong impression.”
Power of the Kroll involves an offworld chemical refinery in conflict with the local alien tribes, so the Doctor’s arrival is obviously some scheme by the activist Sons of Earth to side with the “swampies,” right? That conflict proves secondary when it turns out the fifth segment has turned a local squidlike creature into the Swampie’s giant god, Kroll; the creature is impressive as a shadowy outline or when it’s just ginormous tentacles, much less so when we see more of it. Overall, this one’s so-so. “Somehow this lake is producing enough protein to make this operation possible.”
The season wraps up with The Armageddon Factor, taking place on war-ravaged Atrios, which is locked in a losing battle with another world. Here the Black Guardian makes his play, manipulating the power-mad Marshal who leads the war for Princess Astra (Lala Ward, who became Romana’s next regeneration), but the Shadow, his hand-picked agent to obtain the Key of Time. On top of the imminent destruction of Atrios in the war, the Doctor discovers Astra is the final segment: assembling the key will destroy her.
Ultimately the Doctor and Romana do assemble the key, but when the White Guardian asks for it, the Doctor decides it’s too powerful to trust to anyone and wills the segments to disassemble (Astra will live!). Smart move: the White Guardian has been the Black Guardian all along (at least that appears to be the case) and him with the Key would be Very Bad. However the two Time Lords are now on the Black Guardian’s shit list: to prevent him following them, they completely randomize the TARDIS time jumps (the Doctor’s been able to control it perfectly this season, unlike usual). Overall, this didn’t quite work: the Marshal’s a nicely fanatical villain, the Shadow much more stock, and Lala Ward has zero screen presence as Astra. There’s also another Time Lord character who’s too much comic relief. So overall a decent season, but not as stellar as the previous few. “Well of course I’m all right… but supposing I wasn’t all right?”
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First a couple of John Romita’s romance covers. Ruben Moreira shows why doing jigsaws is a dangerous pastime.Mike Sekowsky mourns the deaths of DC’s Metal Men.Dick Dillin gives us an unusual courtroom scene.And Barry Windsor Smith gives us Conan in a scene from “The God in the Bowl.”#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.
“These people don’t look like Trump supporters. Trump supporters don’t do these things.” — a look at conservative pundits denying Trump supporters were behind the assault on the Capitol last week. No surprise: whenever I wrote about right-wing terrorism as a newspaper columnist, I could count on angry Republicans writing it to declare no way, it’s all a left-wing/Islamofascist thing. Never mind the concrete examples I posted. After last week I think I see why: they support terrorists, as long as they’re on the correct side.
Similarly Rod Dreher thinks this is bad only because Democrats will use it to oppress freedom-loving Trumpers. Michele Bachman blames the left. Rush Limbaugh does too, while supporting the sedition and encouraging more (a terminally ill man has nothing to lose if everything goes to hell). Kellyanne Conway concludes the solution was for more people to vote Trump, then his efforts to steal the White House won’t be necessary. Clarence Thomas’s wife Ginni was cheering them on. Steve M. points out this fits into Republican rhetoric going back years.
Ezra Klein emphasizes the GOP’s role: “The Republican Party that has aided and abetted Trump is all the more contemptible because it fills the press with quotes making certain that we know that it knows better. In a line that will come to define this sordid era (and sordid party), a senior Republican told The Washington Post, “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change.” What happened on Wednesday in Washington is the downside. Millions of Americans will take you literally. They will not know you are “humoring” the most powerful man in the world. They will feel betrayed and desperate. Some of them will be armed.” Paul Krugman points out that Republicans have been ignor
Nevertheless the guy who occupied Pelosi’s desk is not an antifa plant. And social media is turning up even more hard-core right wingers. If your right-wing acquaintances are writing about the facial recognition company that identified antifa militants in the crowd, well, it’s not true: “the company does not seem to have any relationship to the facial recognition industry or academia. Unlike many other companies operating in the space, it has not published research publicly, it has not seemed to appear at recent academic conferences, it does not appear to have public federal government contracts, and it does not list any information about clients or its technology online.” And the company, XRVision, says it never claimed to have identified anyone. But never fear, QAnon believers have a theory that explains everything: it’s a conspiracy organized by … Italy?
It seems the revolutionaries were blatant about what they were doing and posting it on social media because they really never imagined they’d face any consequences. They seem shocked it didn’t work out that way. Paul Davis, a Texas attorney for an insurance form posted a photo of himself online; he’s now been fired. And apparently he’s quite stunned. So is the woman who said “they’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.” And there’s the young woman sobbing that “it’s a revolution” and wondering why the cops maced her. Doesn’t mean some of them weren’t ready to kill. Does explain why the Proud Boys and other right-wing groups are switching from Blue Lives Matters to Blue Lives Only Matter When They Support Us.
On the plus side, there are at least some consequences. That attorney got fired. Shopify has shut down two Trump stores. Simon and Shuster has canceled Josh Holloway’s book. Other terrorists are losing their jobs. A lot of them need to see jail as well; as Paul Krugman says, “Once again the attempt to appease fascists will surely end up encouraging them. So far, the lesson for Trumpist extremists is that they can engage in violent attacks on the core institutions of American democracy, and face hardly any consequences. Clearly, they view their exploits as a triumph, and will be eager to do more.”
It’s probably a good thing the Capitol Police chief has resigned. Some of last week’s security failures may be explained by bad planning — it seems they didn’t anticipate a crowd, let alone a violent crowd — but still, to have the Capitol Police out without even riot gear? Luke Russert imagines what could have happened with foreign agents among the terrorists. It’s hard not to notice that Vanilla Isis got kid-glove treatment compared to Black Lives Matter. The DOD’s claim it worried about the optics wasn’t in evidence when BLM was protesting; is it that getting tough with white people looks worse? Or was the Trump administration deliberately holding back. The Maryland governor says he asked for permission to send in the National Guard; the DoD said no.
Personally I think Trump’s a threat as long as he’s in office, but apparently talk of the 25th amendment or new impeachment charges is going nowhere. Instead, his top security officials are trying to negate the threat by staying away so he can’t give them any illegal orders. Pelosi’s discussing what to do if Trump orders a nuclear strike somewhere. And looking at impeachment, though I doubt even last week’s attack will budge the Senate.
But here’s something amusing: Eric Trump says he’ll personally “work to defeat every single Republican Senator/Congressman who doesn’t stand up against this fraud – they will be primaried in their next election and they will lose.” The amusing part being that a)Trump would ever work that hard and b)that anyone would care who he supports once his father leaves office. Hell, they don’t care now.
Even more amusing, Military Times mocks the terrorists’ combat gear (“The mismatched camouflage from all eras of combat dating back to Vietnam, the red, white and blue dog tags, the flak jackets — all perfectly curated items that came together to serve as the official uniform of the surplus store Army.”).
“The religious right showed no mercy and no charity toward these groups when it had the power to impose its will, but when it lost that power, it turned to invoking the importance of religious tolerance and pluralism in a democratic society.” Adam Serwer on how some on the right, having failed to win that way, now reject democracy.
Rereading THE POLITICS OF UNREASON: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab confirms my memory that rejecting democracy is not anything new in America. This history of extremist movements shows there’s nothing new about status anxiety, backlash, anti-immigrant paranoia, alliances between the down-and-out and rich elitists and fear of the Illuminati (there’s at least one book out already blaming them for the Satanic pedophile conspiracy QAnon is fighting against). Reading now, it feels depressingly prescient.
It does make me wonder how well QAnon will work out in the long run, given the authors argue that truly powerful conspiracy theoies require both a Shadowy Cabal and Vulnerable Targets (e.g., the Papacy and Irish Immigrants or the Elders of Zion and American Jews); does a conspiracy identifying prominent Democrats and Tom Hanks as the face of the Satanic Pedophile Cabal do the trick? I guess we’ll find out.
LICENSE TO HARASS: Law, Hierarchy and Offensive Public Speech by Laura Beth Nielsen looks at how the law handles panhandling, racist street harassment and sexual harassment, and how victims think it should be handled. Nielsen finds that even most victims aren’t in favor of restrictions for reasons ranging from freedom of speech to fear of being seen as a victim to cynicism about the law, favoring instead options such as not letting it get to you or talking back. Except, as she points out, harassment victims don’t talk back and do indeed let it get to you.
The point that stuck with me is that Nielsen’s surveys show targets of panhandlers feel much less harassed than if someone throws the n-word or a sexist come-on (regarding the undead sexist cliche that women are criminalizing harmless compliments, women report far more offensive than innocuous cat-calls) yet it’s much more widely regulated. If yelling “suck my dick” is free speech, if regulations have to be content-neutral (i.e., you can’t simply ban sexist or racist speech — as the book reminded me, you can’t even ban cross-burning completely) why is it okay to have content-specific bans on people saying “please give me money?” She concludes it’s because this is the type most likely to affect high-ranked white men, if not directly then by driving people away from businesses (women altering where they go and when to avoid harassment doesn’t trigger the same worries. Big surprise). Probably the best argument I’ve seen that unrestricted free speech works in favor of the established hierarchy.
THE POWER OF THE POWERLESS was a 1978 essay by Czech dissident, playwright, political prisoner and later president Vaclav Havel about the nature of dictatorship and the role of dissent. I read it last year hoping it would give me some insight into our current political moment (it did) and how to fight it (not much help). Havel argues that the Eastern Bloc dictatorships of his era are “post totalitarian,” a thing apart from the military dictatorships of the past. The old-school totalitarians simply seized power through brute force; their government had no real roots in the country or the culture, or any ideology beyond the will to power. The Communist states, by contrast, draw on their nations’ pasts — Russia’s pre-existing tendency to authoritarian government, for instance — and they’re rationalized by ideology that explains whatever they’re doing is justified and righteous. “The center of power,” Havel says, “is identical with the center of truth,” which does indeed sound like the Age of Trump.
In such a setting, and given the increased ability of the state to crush the opposition, Havel sees dissidents as the best shot at destabilizing the regime, not because they represent a rival political force (“Why was Solzhenitsyn driven out of his own country? Certainly not because he represented a unit of real power, that is, not because any of the regime’s representatives felt he might unseat them and take their place in government.”) but because simply by writing, saying and doing the things they want to do, they create cracks in the government’s vision of reality. While I can see how that works — just by walking around being normal people, gays undercut the myth that they’re some monstrous regiment of perverts — I’m not sure it translates into anything I can practice in my own life. An interesting essay, nonetheless.
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