Politics Then and Now

The nefarious British. What subsequent damages can not be laid at their feet? It was they, after all, who re-armed the surrendered Japanese soldiers in Indochina at the close of World War II to fight Ho Chi Minh, who had helped the allies defeat the Japanese in the first place.

I’ve always had a fascination, though, for T. E. Lawrence, one of the truly great Britons—and not only because of the name-based taunts I got in grade school when Lawrence of Arabia was filling theaters. I even used a well-known quote of his as the epigram for my science fiction trilogy, and I’d be lying if I pretended that Seven Pillars of Wisdom didn’t contribute to the shaping of my own fictional vision. Now I’m reading an outstanding new book by Scott Anderson: Lawrence in Arabia. It deals not only with Lawrence but with several of his contemporaries—also machinating in the desert in World War I—and the tragicomedy of deceit, incompetence, and hubris that shaped the middle east for the ensuing century. The British diplomats promised the same real estate to the Arabs and the Jews while simultaneously planning to share it out with the French and, to a lesser extent, the Russians. The Russians were still Czarists, then, so it was all right. However, they became communists before that war was over, so they had to be cut out of the deal.

In that war, the politicians quibbled, schemed, and plotted while millions—millions—were consigned to the flames. Governments sacrificed their generations in their pursuit of imperial ambition.

Sound familiar?

So our own congress—though the immediate consequences are less horrific—plays craps with the nation’s wellbeing through that selfsame level of deceit, incompetence, and hubris. John Boehner, apparently unwilling to chance a rebellion from the tea-party Republicans, would sacrifice the country to preserve his job. The tea-party Republicans—self-avowed libertarians—take their paychecks from the taxpayers while they work to dismantle government and do away with taxes.

Do these people actually believe the sewage that spills from their mouths? Or have we become so much a culture of soundbyte and tagline that thought and dialogue have ceased to matter entirely? If a line polls well, say it. If you say it often enough and loud enough it will become true. Truth is not an objective reality but a reflection of numerical acceptance, a construct of the human mind.

Orwell understood that. He wrote a book about it. He was British, too. Dichotomy is a wondrous thing.

After World War I, the British drew the map of modern-day Iraq, where no actual nation existed before. Most of a century later, they were in on the invasion—carried out for a cause that turned out not to exist.

George Orwell—and T. E. Lawrence, for that matter—were capable of looking ahead and considering the possible consequences of decisions made. Is there in fact some prohibition against elected officials exhibiting the same trait? Is it a disqualifying condition to public service?

Shortsightedness, if not actually a virtue, has certainly become a mainstay of American politics. Or maybe I’m being overly harsh: maybe it’s just a human trait, perpetuated through the centuries. Because look at the British. They botched the management of the American Revolution, the administration of India, and the strategy of World War I magnificently—not only in hindsight but in the view of learned contemporaries. And they’re still around, aren’t they?

Maybe failure is the new success.



The Rim Fire, having incinerated almost four hundred square miles in and around Yosemite National Park, is approaching containment. The carnage in Syria, having killed better than a hundred thousand Syrians and created countless more refugees, is not. Because the last fifteen hundred or so were killed with chemical weapons, America is waltzing with the notion of military action: not war, precisely, but something . . . appropriate.

One event resonates environmental damage, the other geopolitical. Inevitably, the two intersect, but whether that conjoining is causal or metaphorical is tough to say. The cosmos is rife with metaphor, with parallel, with miraculous connectivity; but it is easy to find pattern or purpose where none exists or is only imagined.

How, then, do things begin? The Rim Fire was at one point a hunter’s campfire. Before that it was an anticipated outing. It has become, as of this writing, the fourth largest fire in California’s history.

Syria was likely longer in the ignition. Perhaps if a Tunisian street vendor in despair and outrage hadn’t immolated himself, the Arab Spring wouldn’t have spread its crimson flowering around the Mediterranean. On the other hand it might have been inevitable: a conflagration built, tindered, fertile for any spark to ignite it.

Apparently there’s no more apt metaphor than fire to contemplate the mechanisms of change. Things catch. Things burn. Things go out. I woke early one September morning and heard a first tentative radio report that a plane had flown into a building. In my mind I pictured a tiny Cessna gone astray. The world, we knew, must be forever changed. Two wars and a recession later I’m still at the same job, still riding the same commute.

Of course, everything does change. Once a nation woke to find itself at war. That was 1941. Or maybe it was 1914. Nations have stirred to the same rude alarm down through human history: the eventuality so often unimaginable—until it happens.

But this isn’t about war or environmental catastrophe—it’s about that moment: the moment when causality and consequence balance on a knife-edge, when the unknown looms imminent, seen or unseen. Any moment can be that moment.

For instance, I remember the moment many years ago—the precise synaptic firing—when my first novel was conceived. Not born, but conceived, because it wouldn’t be a novel for a long time and it wouldn't be a finished one for even longer. And it wasn’t even the novel that day, but just its title: an image: but like the most hapless zygote it held within itself the potentiality to become.

And all the moments along the way, each bifurcation of choice and happenstance. The knife-edge between stability and chaos, attainment and surrender, reconciliation and conflagration: the duality inherent in existence. The book might never have been written; the fire might never have slipped beyond control; the war might never have begun.

We live in a hurricane of these moments, perhaps more so now than at any time in history in this increasingly smaller, more crowded, more kinetic world. On some forthcoming dawn we’ll wake to discover—something. Something momentous. War will have come; an earthquake will have struck, or a tsunami; the aliens will have landed; nuclear fusion or the cure for cancer will have been discovered. Momentous. Of the moment.

And when we’re done grieving or wailing or celebrating or burying the dead, we’ll pick ourselves up and get on with the other moments—the little strung-together ordinary or extraordinary moments—that make up our perpetually momentous lives.

Adventures in Cyberland

With some trepidation I’ve dived into the century. So I am a latecomer while most anyone reading these words—you, that is—presumably is anything but.

While I spend many of my waking hours with screen and keyboard—the accoutrements of my day job—I spent years eschewing the entanglement of social media. I even resisted cell phones—still do, though I have one, issued by my employer, that goes frequently uncharged. It has not been fear of the technology, per se, that has kept me so disconnected, but a conscious, deliberate, and perhaps just a smidgeon self-righteous lifestyle choice.

But I’ve spent more than a decade writing a science fiction trilogy—a fictional construct of more-or-less linear narrative—with an already completed novel sitting idle on my hard drive the while. So when I finally decided to e-publish the earlier one while editing the later, it became clear—and my trusted advisors so advised me—that I would have to take a deep breath and plunge into the icy river of the modern world.

Question: can one drown in virtual water?

Here’s the thing. There’s a learning curve, no doubt. Inundation is absolute. But perhaps more daunting than the how-to-do-it challenges is the lack of linearity: the matrixlike randomness of data, platforms, threads of converse, webbed cantilevered catwalked gantries and scaffoldings like some multiplied nightmare that Dali dreamed but dared not paint. Maybe you, reading this, will laugh at my anachronistic befuddlement, but tell me: tell me, please: though you navigate this digital multidimensional (and at the same time curiously spaceless) jungle with alacrity, can you actually get your head around it? When any destination is only a click or two away, is it possible to truly take hold of the geography entire?

I break surface, spluttering. The frigid waters of now. And here’s the dichotomous allure of water: it sustains life. Submerged, we drown. Contaminants pollute it and special interests appropriate it.

Oh, yeah—and a few pure drops don’t go amiss in a smoky glass of single-malt Scotch.