War on crime. War on poverty. War on drugs. War on terror. To call a big initiative a “war” is almost irresistible. The word conjures up determination, mobilization of resources, unity of purpose, and personal sacrifice for a larger cause.
Less consciously perhaps, “war” also conjures up constraints on civil liberties and acceptance of collateral damage. The language of metaphorical war lulls the public to condone these measures, with no clear end point. From the naming of the drug war, all the rest follows: police militarized, no-knock warrants issued, police shot by occupants who mistake them for housebreakers, bystanders killed by police returning fire. Combat and collateral damage.
Words matter. It may be time to declare war on metaphors of war.
“Let’s get a hot dog, Grandma.” Joey’s bare toes dug into the sand. “Why is Pete’s Tasty Dogs so far away? I wish it was closer to home.”
“Me too, Joey, but that would make a long walk for people from the other end of the beach. They might decide not to bother. Pete sells more hot dogs by staying in the middle.”
“You said the city agreed to add sand at this end, to make the beach longer. Then will Pete move Tasty Dogs here?”
Grandma laughed. “No, Joey. Pete will still put his stand halfway down the beach.”
“Then you went to all those meetings for nothing. All your letters to the city went to waste.” Joey scowled.
“Not at all,” Grandma said. “Don’t you see? After this end of the beach is closer to our house, the middle will be closer, too. Pete will move Tasty Dogs to the new middle, and we won’t have as far to walk.”
“Goody! Come, Grandma. I want ketchup on mine!”
Last March when events were canceled right and left, I figured quiet weeks at home should be a great time to write. Instead, my fiction writing has ground to a halt. The hours disappear into reading and long forest walks. Oh, there’s time in abundance. I just don’t have the focus.
Some writers and artists tell me they find the opposite, a relatively empty calendar letting creativity flourish. Others face constant interruptions with their family always home. Still, I may not be the only one who peacefully stretches chores and puttering to fill the day.
Beyond the drabness of my inventions compared to this year’s real life, I suspect the cause is also neurological. Much of the world in 2020 is experiencing heightened levels of threat perception. The chronic fight-or-flight response redirects brain and body to survival, at the expense of calm, clear thought. The rate of mistakes is up. Part of my week goes into correcting errors and making amends.
How is your focus these days?
“I can’t wait!” we say as a vacation approaches, a beloved friend offers to visit, or the theater curtain begins to rise. With reasonable confidence in the joy ahead, the flutter of eager anticipation is part of the fun.
The excruciating waits are the ones fraught with uncertainty. Waiting to hear back from an editor, agent, or publisher. Waiting for results of a medical test or a job interview. Waiting to learn the outcome of an election.
Do you suppose our ancestors waited more serenely before we got spoiled with instant food mixes, satellite communications, and same-day delivery services? Maybe not. I picture supporters of Adams and Jefferson in 1796 biting their nails for weeks, awaiting results of that bitterly partisan contest for president. (Spoiler: Adams won by a hair.) What feels like a short or long time has surely changed, but I suspect human nature stays much the same.
Of the many casualties of this pandemic, large and small, one I grieve personally is the writing program in the University of Wisconsin’s Division of Continuing Studies. Its workshops, classes, spring Writers’ Institute, and week-long Write-by-the-Lake retreat have taught me so much in recent years and introduced me to so many amazing people. Now the program’s big events are discontinued, online services are winding down, and the last of the staff will leave by the end of June.
To grieve is not simply a stronger form of to miss. I miss family members I don’t live with, Door County vacations, eating out. They’ll be back. I grieve the deaths, the abandoned dreams, particular shops and restaurants closed forever. I miss informal interactions over lunch or breaks when a conference has to go online. I grieve how, when budgets get tight, the arts are the first to go.
Will history be the judge? Does the arc of history bend? Figures of speech both reflect and shape our expectations.
My constitutional law professor thought the courts should have ended “separate but equal” education not by finding it unconstitutional, but by enforcing equal funding for all schools, making segregation financially unsustainable. It is easy from this distance to consign him to the wrong side of history. We call “the right side” the one that wins out in the long run as accepted and wise. Three problems with this notion:
When truth is stranger than fiction, a little old-fashioned murder and mayhem offers respite. Crime Writers of Color led me to FIB agent Jade Harrington (Don’t Speak, below) a few months back. Other novels of presidential elections may ease the weeks ahead.
“What was a restaurant, Grandpa? What was it like to go to school with kids who weren’t in your pod?”
If you are tempted to write dystopian science fiction set in the After Time, start now. In the tale playing in my head, food shortages from perpetual fires and hurricanes have driven the United States into a rigid caste system, with the ruling class leaving the rest just enough food to perform essential labors. As loss of habitat increased human-wildlife interactions and resultant pandemics, extended family groups within each caste have withdrawn into fortified pod-housing. Story line: Teens from different castes form a forbidden friendship and scheme to cross the militarized border into Canada.
This is fiction, not prediction. We could just as well emerge into greater compassion, personal and economic security, freedom, justice, and mutual respect. It would be welcome but not the basis for a page-turner. In that world, you might prefer to write historical fiction about the Before Time and how so much, temporarily, went so wrong.
“The court has no troops at its command. It doesn’t have the power of the purse. And yet, time and again, when the court says something, people accept it.”
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg on NPR’s All Things Considered, July 24, 2019
Isn’t it odd how the fate of a major legislative act can hang on a single vote in a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision? People accept it because we envision justices above the political fray, guided only by wisdom, precedent, and the Constitution. Their decision stands until a future court overturns it, perhaps again by a single vote.
Such cases were extremely rare in the 1800s and early 1900s.* Courts strove for unanimity and consensus, debating behind closed doors until they could speak with a single voice. The proportion of closely split decisions rose gradually after the 1930s. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was unanimous; Roe v. Wade (1973), 7 to 2; Citizens United v. FEC (2010), 5 to 4.
I wonder if the rise in 5-to-4 decisions heightens the frenzy around each Supreme Court nomination. Focus shifts from the whole court to individual justices, and from their wisdom and experience to their potential vote on a given issue. Gamesmanship increases. “Settled law” begins to look provisional. Over time, might this trend weaken the court’s perceived authority and our system of checks and balances? Might it be better to defer judicial action until the argument for change is so strong, the evidence so overwhelming, that at least seven of the nine justices can agree?
*A single vote decided an annual average of only 2.6% of cases in 1901-1910, compared to 23% in 1981-1990. Robert E. Riggs, “When Every Vote Counts,” Hofstra Law Review, 1993.
My first case as a juror was a civil suit in federal court. The central question was whether police applied excessive force in using a stun gun to remove a noisy drunk from an icy rooftop after the neighbors complained.
Two lessons stay with me decades later. First, thinking you’re unbiased doesn’t make you so. I hope we all meant it when we promised we could judge impartially based on the evidence. As foreman, I wanted to throttle a juror who insisted whatever a cop said must be true, and another who said the same of any complaint against a cop. We took as many days to agree on a verdict as to hear the evidence.
Second, it’s not always as simple as yes or no. Could the police have restored neighborhood peace without the stun gun? Of the four who testified, we thought one had the skills to talk the guy off the roof. Unfortunately, that cop was down on the street. The less articulate cop on the roof, if he hadn't had the stun gun, might have gotten into a tussle in which he and the noisy drunk would have slid off the roof and broken both their necks.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.