Don’t Hate Me Because I Look Like Them

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 10, 2017

I’m a liberal atheist who’s always voted Democratic – but I look like a Republican – an old white guy. That’s getting to be a problem. Women and people of color are being political disenfranchised by the current political regime. I don’t think I’m being paranoid when I think they’re starting to hate old white guys. I don’t even blame them. Not only that, I’m getting tired of old white guys coming up and immediately telling me their weird-ass political ideas assuming I’m a member of their secret fraternity. I’m totally freaked out people will think I’m a Trump supporter because of my looks.

13 white guys

It’s a good thing I don’t want to be a politician because this country doesn’t need any more old white guys wanting to run the joint. I do want to be a writer, and unfortunately, there’s a long legacy of wordy old white bastards hogging the literary canon. I write for a site that works very hard to promote diversity in reading. I feel guilty even submitting essays. Yet, I’m very thankful to be their token old white guy. I’ve always been for diversity but I’m learning even more by hanging out at Book Riot.

The trouble is there’s a large segment of our country that wishes we all looked alike. Yesterday, The Atlantic reported “It Was Cultural Anxiety That Drove White, Working-Class Voters to Trump” and not economic anxiety. These people want to return to a paternalistic white past where women and people of color don’t disturb their vision of a homogeneous America. Recently, I’ve heard second-hand personal stories and read many reports in the news about people going up to Hispanic folks and telling them they should go home. That’s incredibly shameful. Knowing the president and leaders in Congress inspires such horrendous behavior makes watching shows like The Handmaid’s Tale unnerving. I thought climate change was dooming our future, but alt-right politics is going to destroy us first.

Not only do the Republicans not see anything wrong in having all old white guy committees, they take pride in claiming they don’t play identity politics. They even jockey with each other to out-do their denials claiming nothing is wrong. But it’s very wrong! The fact they can’t see their evilness is equal to Trump’s own anosognosia. Their blind spots are so huge it’s surprising they can see at all.

What really bothers me is their claim to be Christians, a religion based on teaching compassion. If these old Republican white guys are really going to church every Sunday they should stop. If they haven’t gotten the message after all these years then they are wasting their time. I’m an atheist that quit the church when I was twelve, but I did learn this in Sunday school at age five:

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in His sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Obviously, they didn’t. Women are half the world, and the whole world is diverse. Why can’t they see that? I think I know why, but it’s a terrible thing to think about another human being. Women, minorities, and immigrants tend to vote Democratic. Republican’s in their single-mindedness to lower their taxes will do anything, and I mean anything, to achieve that goal. In other words, greed has driven them blind, even to the point of abandoning their faith and becoming hateful.

They have sold their souls to lower their taxes.

I just want people to know that I might look like those zombies, but I ain’t one of them.


All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, May 9, 2017 (reprinted from SF Signal)

[Because All the Birds in the Sky is up for a Hugo award I thought I’d reprint my review from last year.]

“Too late, too late” the birds chorused.

Our futures are different in every generation. Back in 1966, my generation, the Baby Boomers, feared nuclear annihilation, hoped for colonies on Mars among other dreams, but nothing was certain, and we were surprised by the Internet and the Hubble Telescope. In 2016, I am concerned for the current generation, because their futures of climate catastrophe and mass extinctions do seem inevitable. How do young science fiction readers find hope in their futures? And what unexpected amazements awaits them?

Is science fiction ever about the future? Isn’t it always about the present? Science fiction represents the hopes and anxieties of each generation about their future. Science fiction set in the far future, like stories about interstellar travel, represents a kind of extreme optimism, whereas science fiction set in a middling distance of interplanetary travel, represents another kind of hope, a hope that we can build that future today if we only would. Science fiction set in the near future, often explores our fears more than our dreams. Writing near future SF requires juggling the hard cold facts of today against dreams for better tomorrows. Science fiction is each generation’s barometer measuring its faith in their futures.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane AndersAll the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders walks the razor’s edge of a very near future science fiction, confronting the obvious dooms while still offering hopes. Anders impressed me with her faith in our future. She accomplishes her task with a light touch, producing a novel that is a joy to read, yet is as deep as you’re willing to dig. I expect many to speed along in this story because of its shiny science fiction bits, but those who read slower, analyzing its fantasy and literary symbolism will find deeper concerns to contemplate.

At the surface of this novel is a love story between Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead that begins in their troubled childhood. Patricia survives by discovering the old religion of magic, while Laurence endures by mastering technology and science. They cope emotionally by sharing their misery, until outside forces split them up. Years later they rediscover one another only to find they have taken radically divergent philosophical paths. Their beginning reminds me a of Among Others by Jo Walton, and how children of genre find themselves by finding people like themselves.

All the Birds in the Sky is getting great reviews and buzz. How you read this book will determine how you label it, fantasy or science fiction, because the story apparently asks us to take sides. All the Birds in the Sky is a horse of many different colors, making it hard to categorize.

At first, I thought All the Birds in the Sky as three weddings: a marriage of science fiction and fantasy, a marriage of YA and adult, and a marriage of genre and literary. The novel makes us feel Cory Doctorow and J.K. Rowling should have tied the knot long ago. It also feels quite natural to bolt a YA section onto the beginning of a novel that’s meant for adults.

All the Birds in the Sky is a fast, fun read, but it’s about children being bullied by their parents and peers, who become adults during the climate apocalypse. How fun can that be? It is. The story does have talking animals and intelligent computers that are enchanting, and a serial killer assassin that feels like someone from The Grand Budapest Hotel, which for me was the only weird thing in the story that didn’t work (but I might change my mind in later readings).

Because All the Birds in the Sky is set in San Francisco, it makes me wonder if it’s a counter-culture novel too, but not the counter-cultures I knew, of Beatniks and Hippies, but Geek counter-culture from Silicon Valley startups and Maker subcultures. I also wonder if the novel isn’t a jab at Silicon Valley, who some San Franciscans believe is destroying their city. (Watch San Francisco 2.0 on HBO to see what I mean.)

All the Birds in the Sky are about two forces at war: magic and science. The novel begins with Patricia as a small child learning she can converse with birds. This is a very strange way to begin a science fiction novel, but Anders eventually makes it work for me. I totally get the Wired-Maker-SF side of this story because of my background. I just didn’t understand Patricia’s story at first, of talking animals, magic and secret covens of witches and wizards. I never played Dungeons and Dragons or read The Lord of the Rings. My only knowledge of magic comes from reading the Harry Potter books. The whole magic angle didn’t work for me until I reread some chapters. Then it clicked. I don’t believe Anders added magic to her story just to have a genre mashup, its integral to her message.

Good writers make their stories ambiguous, which allows readers to find their own meaning. However, that leaves us never knowing if we found the meaning, if there truly is one. But once I found a symbolic way to interpret the magic in All the Birds in the Sky, I was quite satisfied with this novel. I’d love to read how others interpreted the magic, but to do so in public would create spoilers.

I believe Anders is offering philosophical inspiration to young people. She knows they face grim futures. She wants young people to have faith they can solve the problems they’ve inherited. To understand how we must save ourselves is to understand how we must change ourselves. Any current science fiction written about the near future needs to involve ideas from books like This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. Not only is mankind the cause of our future doom, but so are our intellectual approaches to politics, economics, sociology, spirituality, psychology and self-expression.

Climate change is such a large bump in the road to the future that I’m not sure science fiction can ignore it. Anders knows that. To stop climate change requires changing ourselves, and how we interact with reality. There will be no wizards or scientists that can work that kind of magic, but Anders does offer hope in her ending. At least in the way I’ve read her story. I wonder what younger readers make of it. Birds and animals do have a say in Anders’ novel. Has Anders read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert? Not only is human society altering the biosphere and climate, but we’re killing off all our fellow species. If animals could talk, what would they say? My guess is Anders knows about such books, but doesn’t feel the need to weave their heaviness into her story. Both rising seas and dying animals are on the perimeters of her plot. The real conflict is between two people who love each other but embrace opposing philosophies. So the story becomes fantasy v. science fiction, but not really. Isn’t it nature v. science?

“Almost too late,” the pigeon said.

I Was Wrong

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 8, 2017

Yesterday I wrote, “Are Republicans the Party of Darwin?” accusing conservatives of applying their understanding of Darwin’s observations on nature to justify the laws they were creating. Their laws always seem to back the strong against the weak. But I had a revelation in the middle of the night.

Everyone acts on their instincts, and those instincts are Darwinian by nature. Duh! Darwin’s theory is the most widely accepted explanation for our behavior. I was crediting Republicans for consciously using Darwin’s ideas in the formulation of their political philosophy, and this is where I’m wrong. It wasn’t a conscious decision. My essay was based on the irony that conservatives profess to be Christians but enact laws that reflect Darwin’s theory rather than Jesus’ teachings.

heaven and earth

My point being there’s no compassion in nature or Darwin’s observations about how nature works, and there’s no compassion in the laws Republicans want to support. You’d think people who follow a personal philosophy based on compassion would enact compassionate laws. This conflict of action and belief troubles me and I keep trying to figure out what causes it.

My revelation last night is everyone acts Darwinianly, despite what they profess philosophically. I am an atheist, but I give Christianity credit for inventing many compassionate philosophical concepts. I attribute those ideas to Jesus like we attribute other philosophical ideas to Plato or Aristotle, but I’m not sure they came from the man we historical think of as Jesus. Many of the ideas were developed by his followers and attributed to him in the first few centuries after his death.

Organized compassion for the weak is a relatively new idea in history. Limited forms of compassion have been around in evolutionary terms for a very long time, even in plants and lower animals, but to develop a religion, philosophy, or political system to protect the weak wholesale is relatively new.

I just think it’s ironic that the political party that claims to be the most Christian reflects it least in their laws, and the party that folks general assume is least Christian reflects compassion the most in their laws.

Our political divide really comes down to how much we want to support the common welfare over the freedom of the individual. The more socialistic we are, the more we want everyone to contribute to improving society, the less socialistic we are, the more we want to give the maximum freedom to individuals and ignore the suffering of the masses. Such socialism counters Darwin’s observations on animal behavior.

Thus Christianity is inherently anti-Darwinian. For twenty centuries it seemed like Christianity was catching on, especially in the Western world. But that’s probably an illusion. What really caught on was a belief in life after death via easy salvation. The idea of heaven on Earth hasn’t.

In other words, conservatives are Darwinian on Earth, but Christian in their hopes about an afterlife. Which might explain why liberals are more socialistic. Many of them doubt the afterlife, and thus they’d want to create heaven on Earth. The conservatives are more pragmatically Darwinian, they want all they can get while living, and then assume things will magically go great after they die despite what they do while living. Liberals evidently feel this is all there is so we better make the best of it.

This is a huge problem for liberals. To get more people to vote for social welfare might require convincing people to think less about an afterlife. In other words, the concept of heaven has corrupted people’s attitude towards Earth. This might also explain climate change deniers. They might unconsciously realize to think more about Earth means to think less about an afterlife.




Are Republicans the Party of Darwin?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 7, 2017

As a lifelong atheist, I find most of my political convictions comes from the words printed in red in The New Testament. Shouldn’t unbelievers use Charles Darwin’s scientific insights to model how society should be governed? Yet, as I study Republicans, the party I oppose, I wonder why they act the way the do. I can only conclude they base their philosophy on the survival of the fittest.


I hate Republicans for not carrying about suffering, whether it’s the suffering of people, animals, plants, or the biosphere. If you study Darwin’s observations you realize that nature ignores suffering too. The Republicans work with all their might to create a political system that helps the strong while ignoring the weak. In fact, Republicans are the strong feeding off the weak. Yet, publically Republicans claim to be Christians. Shouldn’t a Christian political party promote the way of life Jesus taught? And wouldn’t that be anti-Darwinian?

If you study the Sermon on the Mount, you know it’s impossible for a Christian to own an AR-15. The meek will not be carrying Glocks when they inherited the Earth. Darwin’s red tooth and claw philosophy would embrace such weapons. Darwin would be pro-gun, but not Jesus. Yet, typically Republicans express a hatred for Darwin and a love of Christ.

The Democratic party which wants to feed the poor and heal the sick is labeled the Godless party. However, if the beliefs in The New Testament were converted into a political system it would be socialistic, and look much like the political goals of the DNC.

Is it possible to create a political system that reduces suffering while still encouraging all its citizens to become stronger? If Republicans were honest they’d admit they believe far more in Darwin than Christ. Yes, helping people can make them weak, but ignoring their suffering also makes you heartless.

Isn’t there some kind of compromise we could make? Can’t we start the competition for survival on an equal playing ground? Wealth inequality shows the competition isn’t equal like what Darwin saw in nature. Human intelligence allows us to multiply and horde our strengths, which is why we’re destroying all the other species, and why those humans on the receiving end of wealth inequality can so easily destroy those on the losing end.

Republicans appear to totally embrace Darwinism, including ignoring suffering. Democrats want to create a political system that eliminates some sufferings. I would think any political system that ethically allows for some members to become billionaires should allow for universal healthcare. How can any system that allows for some players to have everything and others nothing be Christian?

Isn’t Christianity about compassion? I can understand why conservatives embrace Darwinian actions. Republican ideals are very close to nature. And don’t Christian beliefs defy the natural? Isn’t The New Testament all about protecting the weak?


A Precise Moment of Political Polarization

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 27, 2017

Last night on the PBS Newshour Judy Woodruff interviewed Mick Mulvaney, Donald Trump’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget. When Woodruff pointed out that Reagan’s tax cuts didn’t lead to big economic growth Mulvaney looks at Woodruff and pauses. In that moment we see why we’re politically divided. Mulvaney stares at Woodruff as if she had just said the world was flat. Then Mulvaney says she was wrong and quotes figures about GDP growth. Woodruff doesn’t press the point and goes on to other questions.

Who is right? Both views can’t be right. Did Reagan’s tax cuts help the economy or not? Is it a matter of seeing two sides of a coin? Didn’t Reagan’s tax cuts have countless impacts and each side is now using figures from specific impacts to support their political beliefs? Can any one indicator predict future complexity?

Our reality is infinitely complex. The economy is not that complex, but the number of variables is so great that it’s hard to grasp. Liberals are focused on social equality, conservatives are focused on the freedom to get ahead. They each use evidence to support their beliefs assuming reality works the way they want to see it.

For us to ever solve our political polarization problem will require both sides studying the evidence in new ways. Think of understanding the economy like a science experiment. Any scientific journal that ran studies by current liberals and conservatives would be deemed biased. You can’t go into an experiment looking for an outcome. You can’t cherry pick the results to meet your hypothesis. But that’s what polarized politics does all the time.

If you watch the video closely, you can see that Mulvaney’s conviction that the tax cuts will work is equal to any pope’s conviction that God exists. He’s also confident that GDP growth will pay for the tax cuts in the same way liberals are convinced they will only grow the budget deficit.

Basically, conservatives will embrace what Mulvaney says, while liberals will question it. Is there any evidence to support or deny his claims? This is where it gets hard. One of Mulvaney’s basic assertion is we want a 3% GDP growth rate, and under Obama that never happened. Here’s an article from CBS News that supports his claim. That article included this graph:


And if you look at GDP growth rate after 1982 when Reagan’s tax cuts took effect, GDP growth rates did eventually grow above the 3% rate. The Reagan-Bush era ran from 1/81 through 1/93, and before it was over growth rates had fallen below 3%. We had 3% plus growth rates under Clinton, and briefly under the second Bush administration. Isn’t this evidence that growth rates aren’t tied to taxes?

But can you explain the economy with such simple numbers? I’m not trying to explain economics here, I’m trying to explain belief systems. We all suffer the Dunning-Kruger effect when it comes to economics, even economists with PhDs. The above chart might have been all Mick Mulvaney needed to support his faith in tax cuts. But it’s not enough.

Look at these charts that break down GDP in various ways. Instead of looking at one number, overall growth rates, we’re looking at several numbers. And this approach is still incredibly simple. To really understand the problem we need to be an economist working with several supercomputers analyzing trillions of numbers.





Here’s a comparison to world GDP, which shows GDP growth is related to world GDP growth. In other words, there are many outside factors we have to consider.



This is enough charts to make my point that the issue is more complex than one number. Mulvaney has an undergraduate degree in international economics, but his graduate degree is in law. Then he became a politician. I don’t think he can know what the tax cuts will do. But then, neither will liberal politicians. We’re literally gambling.

I would have trusted Mulvaney more if he had presented 20 factors and charts to make his case. But how many citizens want to sit through such a presentation?

If the average citizen tried to understand the economic evidence they would be quickly overwhelmed. When Mulvaney replies “That’s not true,”  when Judy Woodruff tells him the Reagan tax cuts didn’t work I believe he believes that. But I don’t think he knows. I’m not sure anyone knows.

Watch the above video closely. Is it ever about facts and evidence? Isn’t it about one ideology versus another? We tweak the economy every new administration, but how much does that really do? Isn’t the economy really a pinball machine with a quadrillion balls and bumpers? Aren’t major changes dangerous?

I’m tired of meaningless evidence. We need AI minds and armies of supercomputers to analyze the economy. I might trust them, but I don’t think I can trust humans anymore. I can’t even trust my own beliefs. I don’t think humans are smart enough. I’m quite confident that conservatives are wrong, but I can’t prove it. And I’m tired of people with absolute faith in their superiority running the country. Such vain egotism is scary.

What divides us politically is how we react to what we think we know, even though we don’t.


Comparing Where-To-Retire Strategies

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, April 24, 2017

My wife Susan and I have been talking about possible places to retire. Right now we each have completely different thoughts on the subject. It would help if I laid out the possibilities. Making this decision feels like climbing a mountain. Quite often I want to turn around and go back down.


The Least-Effort Lazy Plan

Our house will soon be paid off. We could just stay here. We’ve recently bought a 30-year roof. Since the Social Security Life Expectancy calculator predicts we’ll live another twenty years, we’re covered so-to-speak. Twenty years seems like a long-time and not-too-long time. To give perspective, the film Titanic came out twenty years ago.

Retiring in place has many advantages. We know the city. We have our friends. We have our routines. We know all our doctors, dentists, plumbers, and such.

The main disadvantage is it’s the same old place and we could be living somewhere much more exciting — or secure.

The Secure Low-Maintenance Plan

Maintaining a house, especially while getting older, is a pain-in-the-ass. My idea for the perfect low-stress retirement is to move to a 55+ community and rent a nice apartment. It would need to be well-built and soundproof. I don’t want to hear neighbors or they hear us. But the idea of having no yard is overwhelmingly seductive. I’d also love to live somewhere where we didn’t need a car. I imagine moving to a retirement community near a small city would be a safer place for aging. The bustle of a big city is probably scary while aging.

Living in a 55+ community would also offer lots of social outlets and activities. Plus all the support services would be geared to people our age. Such a lifestyle would maximize free time by reducing chores to a minimum.

The Atomic Ranch Plan

I love old 1950s ranch style houses, like those profiled in Atomic Ranch magazine. If we wanted to keep a house and car, it would be cool to move to small Florida retirement community, find a corner lot with a ranch house, buy a vintage 1950s car, and then recreate a beautiful recreation of our childhood. I could collect 1950s science fiction books, pulp magazines, and old vinyl records. I could put in a 21st-century large screen TV to show old movies and television shows. If I wanted to get really weird, I could drop off the net, and cut the cord to cable.

This retro-retirement-recreation appeals to me, but I don’t think it does for Susan.

atomic ranch

The Cool City Plan

If we’re not quite ready to mosey off to the elephant graveyard to wait to die, we could pick a trendy city to live in and attempt to stay young for another decade. This would appeal to Susan more than me. I already consider myself old. She still loves going to parties, eating out, rock concerts and baseball games. If we chose this path I’d like to find a very liberal city, but on the small side, maybe a college town. I like living in flat cities but wouldn’t mind being near mountains or oceans.

The Not Likely Adventurous Plan

If I had the guts to be adventurous I’d love to live in several interesting cities before I died. I feel bad about not trying to see more of the country or even the world than I have. I traveled around a lot when I was young, but have been in the same city for the last 46 years.

It would be far-out to get a 1-year lease in a new city every year for ten years, and then settle down in a 55+ plus community. Such a plan would require pairing down our possessions to a minimum. We’d have to learn to make new friends quickly, and how to find new doctors and dentists wherever we went.

The Least Likely Political Activist Plan

It bothers me that conservatives have taken over the nation. Conservatives have worked for decades at the grassroots political level to achieve their goals. If liberals want to regain power they need to duplicate those efforts. It would help the cause if liberals living in urban areas would move to red counties, districts, and states. It would help even more if they got involve with local politics and social activities.

The Most Rewarding and Scariest Plan

I have a friend who plans to move to Mexico. I’ve been watching films about expat life with her and reading newsletters and books about living abroad. I’ve never traveled outside the U.S. If I really wanted to enrich my life before I die, living abroad would be the way to do it. It could involve living in a city, an expat community, or even an overseas retirement community.



We Don’t Even Give Half-a-F*** Anymore

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 8, 2017

Many of my retired friends have expressed the same sentiment to me lately. It’s a variation of “I can’t believe how lazy I’ve become.” I feel that too. Although I don’t think I’d diagnose our conditions as laziness.

For some reason, we all just don’t give half-the-f*** that we used to give.


At first, I thought this malaise was brought about by the lack of discipline from not going to work every day. But I’ve also heard from friends nearing retirement about their struggles to care about their jobs. Before I quit work, I remember how little I cared for each new project. A rigid schedule didn’t make me care more.

This makes me wonder if our condition is age related. It’s as if vitality is slowly leaking from our souls. That would be quite disturbing if we still gave a full-f***. Does aging mean dwindling drive? How sucky that would be! Ironically not giving a full-f*** makes it easier to take.

I feel like Henry Bemis in that old Twilight Zone episode about a guy who gets all the time in the world to read but then breaks his glasses. Retirement meant I had all the time in the world to pursue by ambitions but my goddamn fuel for giving-a-f*** is running out! Instead of hoarding minutes to get something done, I hoard gives-a-f*** energy.

It scared me recently when I read people over 65 watch the most TV. There’s a fine line between loving TV, TV addiction, and TV mindlessness. And so many of my friends have become political news junkies. Could obsessive worry about Donald Trump be zapping our ability to give-a-f***?

I really want to find a cause that’s not aging. If I’ve got ten or twenty more years, I want to use them, not waste them daydreaming in my recliner.

Not only do we care less, but we’re moving slower. If you’re over 65, have you noticed that? Do people tell you that you’re slow? Did you see the interview with Ted Koppel and Sean Hannity? Wasn’t it so visible that Hannity was impatient with Koppel because was so slow? Is thinking half-as-fast related to only giving half-a-f***?

The weird thing about not giving half-the-f*** I used to give is it doesn’t hurt. It’s as if I hear the Sirens and don’t care about being seduced. I don’t know if this essay can help us rally.

Does noticing you care less make you care more?