The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Getting the Joke

I just exchanged emails with a pair of old friends, folks who had weight issues and constantly used one reason or another to explain why they couldn't. Now he's blind with diabetes, and she's had multiple heart and other problems. Good, sweet people. All I can do is pray for them, and hope that life will be kind. And get my ego out of it: it wasn't my responsibility, it wasn't my fault, everyone has to walk their own path.

It still hurts.


Only one day until District 9! My prediction: I'll wince over a couple of things, but in the end, love it. As to the racial stuff: I don't know many South Africans, but if they are like Southerners, there is literally NOTHING like a Southerner who "gets it" in terms of race. They have huge hearts and open minds, as well as an appreciation for the way life has actually been in America if you aren't white. They're wonderful. And maybe, just maybe, SA'ers are the same way. The reality is that almost every country was founded on the bones of the previous inhabitants. No one's hands are free of blood. The problem is when the people who benefitted by the oppression blame the oppressed for their circumstances. That drives me a little nuts, I have to confess. But just a little.


One of the things about "Health Care Reform" is that in many ways we don't currently have a health care industry. We have a Sickness Care program, where we wait until someone breaks down to provide them services. The "go to the emergency room" approach makes as much sense as waiting until your engine seizes up to change the oil. I am appalled how little most people know about taking care of their health, and when I hear people complaining about preventable diseases (heart disease, many cancers, stress and obesity related disorders, other lifestyle stuff) being part of the problem of America's health statistics, my jaw wants to hit the ground. That is EXACTLY the point to me! To provide people with the support necessary to prevent these things before they happen. Wow. All I can figure is that this is an expression of the "Nature/Nurture" split I see across political lines, that some believe, deep in their hearts, that if you are poor you want to be poor. If you're sick you want to be sick. If you are alone you want to be alone. I've had too many conversations with people who said just these things not to believe them. And they tend to be on the Right. Because I believe that there is no monopoly on decency, intelligence or compassion on either side, to me, this is
Existential Ethics, and not really politics. Politics is secondary to world view.

To me, it is like someone trapped in a burning house, unable to see because of smoke and flame, confused by the noise. Hiding in a closet. If you found that person, one might claim that they "wanted" to die in that closet, but it would ignore the fact that they saw no way out that did not seem more dangerous, more painful, than crouching in the smoke.

That's how I see it, and I know I'm dogmatic about that. I just don't believe people want to be in pain. We're smarter than worms, and any worm will move away from pain. When you see people in emotional, physical, or financial pain it ain't because that's what they wanted. We get trapped in a maze of conflicting beliefs, fears, moral strictures, conflicting is so sad, because happiness on all these levels is so available to us.

Because every other industrialized country has socialized health care, and gets better results than we get with a smaller expenditure, it is impossible for me to believe we aren't going to get through this. And on the other side, I think we'll be able to speak with our brothers and sisters and understand more about what they were afraid of. And start being a country again.


I was speaking with a Kenyan neighbor who wants to take his family back to Africa. A brilliant man, he has seen some ugliness in his job (a high-level profession I won't go into) that he attributes to racial issues. I commented to him that America is probably less racist than it has ever been. The problem is that the masks are slipping. It's a lot like Southern towns where all is peaceful and harmonious as long as blacks stay on their side of town, don't protest bad treatment and don't want to go to the good school. The second they do, "trouble" starts--but the trouble was always there, don't you see? And in the Town Halls and pale corners of the blogosphere we can see what happens when a group begins to realize that they AREN'T any better than others. And that they have reason to fear being treated the same way they've treated others. It isn't funny, and it isn't really pleasurable to watch happening. The fear is so strong its choking.

These are the same people who insisted that a judiciary or legislative branch can be composed exclusively of white males, and represent everyone well...but if a brown person approaches power, why then of course whites will be disadvantaged. This kind of thinking is like saying whites are better because they don't think they're better. I love that kind of warped thinking, but anyone who shakes their heads at it would be better served to wonder where they, themselves, are equally deluded.

Trust me: the more amazed, shocked, disappointed or whatever you are about these things, the less you understand human nature, and the less likely you are to really grasp why you yourself have done the things you've done in your own life. The people I've known who were the most judgemental had the most glaring holes in their own behavior and results. Those who have been best-balanced tend to be empathetic and open-hearted. Not all, but most, and I notice stuff like this.


It is impossible not to hear good news about the economy. For two months now, I've heard expert after expert suggest that "green shoots" are showing through the rubble, and now it's better than that. But economics ain't my long suit. Some of you are far better. Opinions?


One of the most important things a writer can do is fall in love with his characters. To look deeply enough into their hearts to understand why they do the things they do. I've known some terrible cynics who are good writers...even excellent writers. But it has always seemed to me that under the cynicism was a deep well of frustrated optimism. I've known writers, even had them as students, who saw nothing but ugliness in the world, were warped into pretzels trying to make the outside world mirror their inner pain. Some succeed, if they are very very clever indeed. But to me the better path is to fall in love with the world. With its citizens, who are just bits of protoplasm doing the best they can. If you can't do that, you can't really love yourself, because under it all we sense that we're all part of the same situation. And without self-love we are lost. I base my teaching on the concept that story structure is not separate from life itself, and characterization is an externalization of our own feeling about ourselves.

If you have no ability to resolve problems on one of the three basic levels, you risk joining the legion of mediocre philosophers who believe that their own limits are the limits of all reality. That if they cannot find love, love is impossible. If they are at war with their bodies, that reflects the total human condition. If they cannot balance their checkbooks or make a living doing something they love, that all ambition is corrupt and bound for failure. It is so sad. They write stories in which their characters make stupid, obvious mistakes, but act as if it was the universe who doomed their efforts. It is sad, and I've seen this defeat even talented people. Who wants that kind of depression? Do you really believe that you can despise humanity and simultaneously produce uplifting work? Or are you going to aim at the lowest common denominator, figuring that we deserve nothing better?

No. I find this genuinely sad. Pitiful, even. Such writers are often quite smart, but they wear their intelligence as a shield rather than establishing it as a core. Some of them grow up, or heal. Some do not. I always live in hope...but that is because, at the base, I believe in us, and that belief is unshakable. We are no more, and no less, than the stars. We are insignificant before the majesty of the universe...but the universe itself is insignificant in the endless pulse of expansion and collapse over stretches of time beyond comprehension. We are, each of us, as important as the universe itself. And as trivial as a grain of sand. It's all very very good indeed, once you get the joke.


Anonymous said...

"... in the Town Halls and pale corners of the blogosphere we can see what happens when a group begins to realize that they AREN'T any better than others."

I'm not sure I understand this. The "Town Halls" are public discussions, being held by members of Congress, about the current health care proposals being considered by that Congress. Among the constituents attending these meetings, there happen to have had an unexpected number of critics who are loudly unhappy with those proposals.

Are you really claiming that the only motive for people to oppose those health care proposals is racism?

--Erich Schwarz

Anonymous said...

Well,Erich, how about Larouche's people showing up with pictures of Obama photo-shopped with a Hitler mustache on his face. That's not exactly reasoned debate. I think that's what Steve's talking about. I don't want our country to be bankrupted by the health care plan. On the other hand we seem to be headed there anyway. lots of hospitals are hurting because of low reembursment rates from medicare. and the slice of my check thats dedicated to medicare slowly goes up every year. Ok you say, buy private insurance, 1600 bucks a month up here in Maine. Thats insane. clearly market forces aren't the answer when you have unlimited demand and prices jacked thru the roof to pay for ungodly insurance premiums. we need some kind of change.

Ethereal Highway said...

The green shoots are just weeds. People do not want to see it, so they pretend. It's what people do. The banks only had decent earnings because they don't have to mark to market anymore. They are building a house of cards on a sand dune. Apparently, we have learned nothing. Foreclosures are up and they will continue to go up with so many out of work, unemployment is up if you count those who are no longer able to collect benefits, and with so many businesses in such poor shape the commercial real estate market is about to join the train wreck. The stock market looks the way it does due to irrational exuberance (and the fraudulent accounting). No one can stomach looking at the underlying fundamentals and reporting about them honestly. They are too afraid. It's a shame. We can't do anything about things that we are not supposed to look at and be honest about. I predict another crash and it will happen by February 2010. Probably sooner.


Bobbe Edmonds said...

As a person who spent the last year fighting to get on Medicaid because I had no insurance in the first place, let me state here and now: IT CAN NOT POSSIBLY GET WORSE. as it stands, its a nightmare to navigate without a lawyer. But with a pre-existing condition, you ain't getting insurance, no siree Bob. And that's one of the things Obama has stated that he wants to change.

The state, which can't pave a fucking road worth a damn, is right now in charge of whether or not I'll ever walk again. And it took 8 months of fighting (while paralyzed) just to get considered for a hearing to see if my MRI was a lie. I keep waiting for Rod Serling to pop out from behind my couch soon, because this couldn't get any weirder if he did.

Writer's responsibility: I'm still an unworthy noob, but my current trend of thinking is that I disagree with you about WHAT we write represents WHO we are. I believe it could be that way sometimes, but writers (in my limited experience being one) cover up who they are and explore what they are NOT just as often. I'm not saying a certain amount of responsibility doesn't fall on our shoulders, but...I just killed off a toddler by stray gunfire from an assault rifle in one of my short stories. Now, I don't WISH that would happen, that isn't me, and it's the first literary child who's died on my watch. But it was important for me to explore it, and it made me grow in my writing. Also, it played a crucial turning point in the story.

But I agree with the rest, especially about art being an expression of the deep self.

Lastly; I'm in so much anticipation for District 9, the youtube trailer is my new porn.

Shady_Grady said...

People are bringing guns to town hall meeting events, comparing the President to Hitler, and making threats to the life of the President and his family.

So is the only motive racism? No.
But I think that racism is definitely a motivating factor with a large number of people.

I simply do not remember large numbers of black people protesting Bush by showing up at public events armed and making noises about "The tree of liberty requires the blood of tyrants".

Many of the people making the loudest noises seem to be the least informed so I think it's fair to wonder what else might be driving this extended and increasingly threatening temper tantrum.

Anonymous said...

A completely anonymous person wrote:

"... how about Larouche's people showing up with pictures of Obama photo-shopped with a Hitler mustache on his face."

Yes, that would be a reasonable point if the Larouche people were in fact representative of the bulk of people showing up to these things. Is that what you or Steve are claiming? More generally, are you really claiming that the only motive for people to oppose the health care proposals currently before Congress is racism?

Shady Grady wrote:

"So is the only motive racism? No. But [etc. etc. etc.]"

Yes, I'm aware that there do exist racists in America, and that they're likely to be disproportionately among those against rather than for Obamacare.

However, if Adolf Hitler says "2 + 2 = 4", that doesn't make it 5; and if there exist some critics of Obamacare who aren't motivated by racism, that raises the logical possibility that a majority of critics at the town halls might, in fact, share the viewpoint of this gentleman:

"Of course, if Obama were a WHITE socialist, we'd say 'Sign me up!' You see, we don't mind scarcity, rationing, poverty, despotism and despair, as long as the boot on our neck belongs to a white guy."

--Erich Schwarz

Reluctant Lawyer said...

I think that part of the problem with the comments by many in the media is that they seem to paint people's reacts as all or nothing. Either the reactions are perfectly reasonable OR the reactions are racist.

Some people have well reasoned concerns (it is your healthcare that we're talking about - a pretty big deal). Some people are just racist nuts. Some people are just anti-government and/or anti-democrat. However, it seems that there is frequently not enough of a push to seperate the two.

Marty S said...

Two comments. One with respect to preventive care. My wife and I have health care coverage and a visit for a checkup to see how we are doing cost us $0. I go regularly for well checkups, but my wife refuses to go for well checkups. She only goes when she is experiencing a problem. So problem of not enough preventive medicine is partly coverage and partly peoples not taking advantage.
As to the nature of people attending the town halls, most of the people I see protesting in video coverage appear to be my age and older. I suspect their motivation like mine is concern about the quality of health care they will get under UHC. My annual premiums plus copays are approximately ten times what I pay in federal taxes. I suspect UHC would save thousands of dollars a year, but from what I read and from son's experience , who lives in Canada, with Canadian UHC I would rather stay with what we have for those who have coverage while finding a solution that extends coverage to those who have none.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Played yesterday morning with my basketball buddy, who's black. "Awful lot of angry white people out there," was his comment.

I don't think white conservatives are just angry about potential changes to how medical care is insured. I don't think they're just angry about Obama talking to our enemies. I don't think they're just angry about abortion, or gun rights, or the color of the President's skin, or immigration ...

They sure are angry white people, though.

Unknown said...

unemployment is up if you count those who are no longer able to collect benefits

Unemployment's consistently one of the last economic indicators to improve, when a recession turns to recovery.

This is worth remembering for two reasons. One is that it is, yes, possible for there to be real grounds for optimism when you see an economy where unemployment remains high. The other is that it is a really bad idea to start telling your friends who are looking for work that they're in luck, the minute the newspapers start reporting that the economic indicators are starting to look good, while unemployment is still at its peak (I've heard people actually do this in the past).

In this case, I'm cautiously optimistic that the stimulus did its job in starting to turn things around. A double dip recession's still possible, and recovery may be slow, but I think the green shoots really are starting to show.

Ethereal Highway said...

This week's edition of Bank Failure Friday.

"The 77 bank failures nationwide this year compare with 25 last year and three in 2007."

Marty S said...

Judging the economy is a difficult thing to do. Let's take the Dow. It has recovered about 30% of it losses recently. Good news? Maybe. The Dow today is not the same Dow we had in May. The Dow uses 30 top companies as its measure. When a company does poorly it is removed from the Dow as were GM and Citigroup at the end of May. They are generally replaced by fast growing companies that have reached market prominence. This biases the Dow upward. So the use of the Dow to measure the economy as a whole is limited. Almost all economic indicators are just that indicators not predictors.

Steven Barnes said...


I think there are many good, sound, honorable reasons to be against Universal Health care (but in my opinion, MORE reasons to be in favor of it). My point is that combined with the reasonable folks, we also have the people motivated by racism, the sense that white people are losing their country, and in my opinion they aren't hard to spot.

Steven Barnes said...

I don't think that the specific images in a particular story reveals something about the writer--but the WAY the writer twists and turns the structure says a lot about the way the writer views the universe itself (is honest labor rewarded? Is love futile?) and over the course of a career, if for instance a writer divides women into Madonnas and Whores, yes, I think we can make some guesses about the health of his relationships. I don't believe we can hide ourselves half as well as we think we can.

Steven Barnes said...


racism is universal (can be found in all groups). White Americans have been wealthy and powerful enough during the 20th Century to really reinforce the sense that "we're the best" that ALL groups want. As the rest of the world rises, and America stumbles (and I certainly think we'll get back up) and the country browns, and a black man is in the White house...yes, you get a rise of racist Militias, an increase in racist rhetoric, and race-baiting. This doesn't mean that there aren't legitimate reasons to reject Obama, but rather that that 10% asshole factor is showing its face more clearly than it has since the 60's. I look at it as the last gasp of a particular, noxious world view. But it most certainly doesn't mean everyone on the Right is racist...just that the majority of the white racists I've known were on the Right.

Anonymous said...


Kenneth Gladney, a black man, was beaten and hospitalized at a town hall meeting in St. Louis. Did you hear about that? He is described as a conservative and was (apparently) peacefully selling Don"t Tread on Me Flags outside of the meeting when several SEIU members attacked him. Oh yes - they hurled racial insults too. Gladney's assault is recorded on U-Tube. A few of the attackers were arrested. Other peaceful protesters have been threatened or attacked too. But the only racial violence that I know of at these meetings was inflicted on a conservative black man.

If a gang of conservatives at a town hall event had attacked and hospitalized a black man, the story would have dominated the U.S. media for at least a week and been used to smear the reputation of all those who protest at town halls and who hold tea parties. The ACLU, NAACP, Jesse Jackson, and others would have spoken out against what occurred and condemned the attackers. Such an incident might even be addressed from the White House. But for some reason, Gladney's assault has largely been ignored my the media and by those who claim to abhor racial violence. Have you heard about this incident, Steve? If it is the protesters who are so angry and scary, why are they the ones who are being attacked?

It is perfectly reasonable for those who can legally carry concealed firearms to be armed at these events. They have been attacked before, for the crime of exercising their 1st Amendment rights. They can be silenced, or they can protect themselves. And if potential attackers know that some protesters may be armed, perhaps they'll be less likely to go on the offensive next time.


Marty S said...

Steve: I watched part of Obama's town hall meeting yesterday. As the supporters of government health care love to do they trotted out a person,Nathan, for whom the current system didn't work and said see the system is broken. We need to fix it. Well, my niece is 5" 7" and weighs 98 lbs because of digestive system problems. Her husband has abandoned her and is divorcing, her.Her house is in foreclosure. She has letters detailing her medical problems from several doctors. Over nine months ago she applied for Social Security disability. She was supposedly put on an expedited list for a hearing. She is still waiting. So I drag her story out to show why I have little faith that health care under a government system will really be better and more efficient than the current private system.

Marty S said...

Oh and in case you might think my niece is some unusual case check out this link.

one of many you will find if you google the subject on lengthy waits for a hearing.