Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Dates with Destiny

This is a cross-posting with my book blog.

Coming up with titles for a book or a story can be either easy or frustrating.

In the case of the first two installments of the Dallas Green trilogy, the titles came fairly easily. In fact, I had the title Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead in my head for a long time before I seriously tackled the book itself. It was something a good friend of mine quipped during a discussion about Mexico, and it stuck in my head for years. When it came time for the sequel, the idea of Lautaro’s Spear came to me fairly easily, keeping consistency with the mention of major historical figures of Latin America. The third book, though, was a real struggle. I considered all kinds of figures from Irish history and legend but found them all unworkable. I ended up on settling for Searching for Cunégonde, which referenced a fictional character from French literature.

As for the fantasy books, I had had The Three Towers of Afranor in my pocket since high school. The Curse of Septimus Bridge was likewise straightforward, and I had the title of that book’s sequel settled (for now anyway) before I even started writing.

When coming up with titles for books, I try to come up with something that hasn’t been used before and which aspires to being unusual or unique. The goal, which may or may not be misguided, is to have something that would be easy to find in a web search.

Interestingly, coming up with a title for my recent short story proved to be one of the more frustrating experiences in coming with a title. I liked the idea of having a French word in it since one of the two main characters is French. Since the plot essentially consists of a meeting, the word rendezvous lent itself. As a title, though, it is hardly unique. If you search that title on the Internet Movie Database, you find there are no fewer than 150 feature films, short films, TV episodes that have the title Rendezvous, Rendez-Vous, Rendez-vous or some other variation as an original title or alternative (e.g. foreign language) title. The good news is that titles cannot be copyrighted, so there is nothing to stop writers like me from reusing them. The drawback is the risk of having one’s work overshadowed by a better known one with the same name.

It’s not just films and books that have titles though. Something one may not think about is that political cartoons can have titles. I was reminded of this fairly soon after I released my short story as a small e‑book. One morning I glanced at The Times of London to see a cartoon by Peter Brookes lampooning U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s high-level meeting on climate in Shanghai in mid-April. Provocatively, it portrays Kerry and his Chinese interlocutor meeting cheerfully over the body of a Uighur while power plants belch out smoke in the background. The title is “Climate Change Rendezvous.”

This cartoon is a blatant homage to the famous Evening Standard cartoon by David Low which appeared in September 1939. That one was called simply “Rendezvous,” and in that context the word harkens back to its original meaning (before the French began using it to mean appointment or date): a place for troops to assemble.

Low’s cartoon depicted Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin meeting with exaggerated gestures of politeness over the body of a fallen Polish soldier. The cartoon was published 27 days after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact containing a secret protocol dividing Poland into “spheres of influence” between the Soviet Union and Germany; 19 days after Germany invaded Poland; and three days after the Soviets invaded the country. This joint military action was the official beginning of World War II.

It seems harsh to draw a parallel between talks over climate change and a cynical accord to carve up a sovereign nation, but if political cartoonists know anything, it is that subtlety and nuance are not friends to those trying to get a point across in a single image. Also, shock has a certain value when it comes to attracting eyeballs—and hopefully, brains. In the end, the cartoon is not really about climate change.

The plight of the Uighurs, referenced in Brookes’s cartoon, has been ongoing since the region was forcibly incorporated into China in 1930 but has escalated since 2014 when the Chinese government began the internment of more than a million Muslims, mostly Uighurs, in state-sponsored camps. Testimonies have described suppression of religious practices, political indoctrination, forced sterilizations and abortions, and infanticides. Critics have labeled Chinese policy both ethnocide and cultural genocide and have compared it to the Holocaust. So the cartoon’s comparison to the Hitler and Stalin regimes is not that far off after all.

Still, it may be unfair to imply, as the cartoon seems to, a moral equivalence between the U.S. and China, given that the Chinese government bears the responsibility for its brutal treatment of the Uighurs. Still, the suggestion that the U.S. government may be turning something akin to a blind eye to the atrocities in pursuit of a possibly quixotic climate deal with the Chinese is arguably fair comment. A century from now, will history celebrate John Kerry’s efforts at climate negotiation—or will the question loom larger of why the world left Uighur men, women and children to their fate?

That recalls another use of the word rendezvous. Politicians as dissimilar as Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan have at critical moments memorably invoked a moral crossroads with a common phrase—rendezvous with destiny.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Personal Truth

Study Finds Connection Between Believing Russia Rigged 2016 Election and Believing 2020 Election Was Foolproof
 —Headline on the satirical newspaper web site The Babylon Bee, November 17
Ages ago during my thrifty student days in Europe, I found it beneficial to be open-minded and flexible when traveling.

Transportation was kept cheap by holding out my thumb on the side of a road. For a two-month period I used a Christmas gift from my parents, a Student Rail Pass, for both transportation and shelter by scheduling overnight train journeys whenever possible.

One thing I learned was that a free bed could be had for a night or two if I was willing to undergo a bit of proselytization. My diverse array of friends included young born-again Christians who were firmly convinced I belonged in their community. The problem was that I was raised with no religion and my analytical nature found it impossible to accept one religion over another (or atheism for that matter) without some sort of hard objective evidence. My friends’ response was to recommend various clergymen and lay people who might be able to help me sort out my thoughts. An extra enticement was that some of these people would kindly lodge truth-seekers for free.

I took advantage of a couple of these offers, and to be clear, I did so with a completely open and curious mind. One was an Anglican minister and his wife who had a lovely, large apartment in the city center of Paris between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. Another was a community called L’Abri which was operated out of the home of its founder, American-born theologian Francis Schaeffer, in a picturesque spot in the Swiss Alps southeast of Lake Geneva. I spent several days there, reading, discussing and asking all manner of questions.

In the end I did not have the life-changing breakthrough my friends were hoping for, but I did come away with a huge appreciation for the science of epistemology. That’s a branch of learning which poses the question, how can we actually know anything? When you start thinking about it deeply, you find it’s a lot harder than you’d think. A lot of what we “know” is really belief accepted on faith. A lot of self-described atheists like to attribute their rejection of religious doctrine to science, but one of the most profound insights I gained from my brief time at L’Abri was the realization that it takes every bit as much blind faith to believe there is no God as it does to believe God exists.

A clear understanding of the limits of knowability is relevant these days when we have media outlets and pundits accusing others of willfully ignoring the truth. In fact, the manner in which some groups, parties or publications proclaim that they are delivering The Real Truth reminds me of nothing so much as the history of my ancestors in 16th-century Europe when the Christian church split into multiple sects, each certain unto death what the nature of God was and what He wanted. As I listen to what passes for political discussion today, I sometimes wonder if we are not in such a time again and if politics is not merely the modern equivalent of religion.

An article I read in The New York Times in February has become stuck in mind. It is a detailed piece requiring 14 minutes to read. It recounts an incident at Smith College in the summer of 2018 when a woman ate her lunch in a lounge of a deserted dormitory. A janitor noticed her in the dormitory, which was closed for the summer, and did as he had been instructed. He notified campus security that he had seen an unauthorized person there.

“A well-known [unarmed] older campus security officer drove over to the dorm,” continues the article. “He recognized Ms. Kanoute as a student and they had a brief and polite conversation, which she recorded. He apologized for bothering her and she spoke to him of her discomfort: ‘Stuff like this happens way too often, where people just feel, like, threatened.’”

The piece goes on to tell how the student, whose family had immigrated from Mali, subsequently made accusations of racism against the cafeteria worker who had provided her with lunch, even though the cafeteria was only supposed to be serving students in a summer camp program at the time; the janitor who had called security; another janitor who whose shift had not yet begun at the time; and the security guard.

After a lengthy investigation the college president “released a 35-page report from a law firm with a specialty in discrimination investigations. The report cleared Ms. Blair [the cafeteria worker] altogether and found no sufficient evidence of discrimination by anyone else involved, including the janitor who called campus police.” The janitor who had made the call had been put on leave for three months. The other one left his job after his photograph was circulated widely on social media. The cafeteria worker was later furloughed because of the coronavirus pandemic and found that notoriety over the incident hindered her search for a new job. Accusations of racism against her continued to be posted by visitors to Smith College’s Facebook page.

The incident is clearly unfortunate for all involved. What struck me was this paragraph from the Times article: “This is a tale of how race, class and power collided at the elite 145-year-old liberal arts college, where tuition, room and board top $78,000 a year and where the employees who keep the school running often come from working-class enclaves beyond the school’s elegant wrought iron gates. The story highlights the tensions between a student’s deeply felt sense of personal truth and facts that are at odds with it.”

Personal truth? I do not judge or question what went through the student’s mind and heart when confronted alone by a man in uniform, but isn’t there a logical disconnect in speaking of “truth” together with “facts that are at odds with it”? If the facts are at odds with it, in what sense is it truth? If something feels deeply and personally true to someone, does that qualify as truth?

These questions are important if, as a society, we are going to get the shared understanding of reality that is necessary to coexist and work out our differences. If The New York Times accepts that something deeply felt is a form of truth, then what are we to say to the 47 percent of voters who told Rasmussen in December that “it’s likely that Democrats stole voters or destroyed pro-Trump ballots in several states to ensure that Joe Biden would win” and, in particular, the 36 percent who said that voter fraud was “very likely.”

Doesn’t that highlight the tension between millions of people’s deeply felt sense of personal truth and facts that may be at odds with it?

The more our politics is based on diverging tenets of blind faith, the sooner we are likely to find ourselves in a new epoch of religious wars.