• Allan Dyen-Shapiro

Sanity is relative, reality is consensual, and SF readers and writers are the only ones who notice


A colleague in my non-writer, day job, a Moroccan immigrant, delights in discoveries of American pop culture that I had encountered so long ago, I'd almost forgotten them. Last week, it was Gil Scott-Heron. One of Scott-Heron's early 1970s, pre-rap poems set to music included these lyrics: "I can't pay no doctor bills, but Whitey's on the moon; ten years from now I'll be paying still, while Whitey's on the moon; you know, the man just upped my rent last night, cause Whitey's on the moon; no hot water, no toilets, no lights, but Whitey's on the moon... " The accepted truth in mainstream culture of the time, the culture of TV, the culture in which Marcia Brady's biggest problem was being resented after she landed the lead role in the school play, was that travel into space was marvelous, a triumph of the human spirit. Sure, it was expensive, but it was human destiny to explore. Yet this radical poet didn't buy into the mantra, finding the deprivations of life in the ghetto, which hadn't found their way onto TV sitcoms yet, real in a way that middle America could not, would not, because it was too easy not to see. For them, an entertainer like Scott-Heron was "crazy." Sanity was accepting that landing on the moon was wonderful, the country that did it, America, was wonderful.

In the afterword to a novel I just finished reading today (Pat Cadigan's cyberpunk classic, "Mindplayers"), a minor sentence included as a step in a larger argument struck me. "Sanity, like customs and manners, seems to have a strong basis in the accepted standards of a particular time and place." The sentence was minor, not needing defense, because this book was published in 1987. Questioning reality--what seems real generally not being what is real--had been a leitmotif in much science fiction since the 1960s. Phillip K. Dick had been the poster child for questioning reality, for questioning what is sane. As movies were made of his stories--Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly--and now TV with The Man in the High Castle, these ideas infiltrated into the broader culture.

Cadigan's line resonated, because the day before, back in my day job, I had gotten a look from an eighteen-year-old African American kid that seemed to imply a questioning of my sanity. To back up a bit, a particularly horrific incident--one that involved high school football players, a bathroom, and a mentally unbalanced girl who had formerly been a victim of child sex trafficking--had led to the conclusion that all students must be watched and tracked at all times. The schools have security cameras. The classrooms have doors that lock. But a perfect system to distinguish grudgingly allowed movement from potential evil-doing has alluded the system police.

I suggested to one school administrator that RFID chips would allow tracking of students just like a factory tracks raw materials and finished goods through an assembly process. All the kids needed was a bar code attached to their arms. I suggested bar codes were a conceptually minor upgrade from mid-twentieth century German technology that used ink. He stared at me blankly.

Sarcasm falls flat when it transcends the boundaries of consensual reality. I decided not to offer any "Modest Proposals" for streamlining cafeteria operations.

But I digress ... the new security culture had led to a mandate of uniform instruction in procedures that stretched over two days. But, in a sop to the previous year's stress on anarchistic, constructivist ideas for education in which kids help construct their own knowledge base, the kids had been grouped into clusters who illustrated sections of the student handbook. One group had just finished presenting their picture on the pledge of allegiance. The students were dumbfounded that they were not forced to say the pledge, especially one African-American student, whom I believe was a JROTC cadet. So, taking it as a teachable moment, I led them through the history: the pledge's start as a loyalty oath for the American Communist Party, the addition of the words "under God" in the McCarthy era, the banning of the pledge as an affront to religious liberty in classrooms when I was little, its reinstatement back in the Reagan era.

But how could the ideas of liberty change so much with the times, one student asked. Another teachable moment sensed, I made the statement that the Constitution means what nine (now eight) old people think it means and switched to the second Amendment. The kids knew the wording included the idea of a "well-regulated militia." I asked them what they thought the militias were doing with their guns in the region of the country in which we live, the South. Completely blank looks. I asked what might have differed between Southern states and Northern states at the time the Bill of Rights was first written. Tentatively, a hand went up: "Slavery?" And why do you think the slave states felt they needed militias?

Nobody had ever told these kids, not even the African-American kid who had seemed most adamant that questioning saying the pledge was "crazy," what those well regulated militias did to Black people. When I next stated that the second Amendment only started to be interpreted as a personal right to own a gun during the Reagan era, that kid was shaking his head up and down. He got it.

In some ways, the role of a teacher is much like the role of a science fiction writer: to facilitate questioning of a culture's consensual reality. Is it really sane that soldiers sit in air conditioned offices in San Diego controlling drone aircraft that carpet bomb most of Pakistan back into the stone age, with the broader US culture oblivious to the civilian casualties, indeed, not even hearing about the casualties most of the time, while the headline news obsesses about the risk from Muslim "terrorists"? Is it really sane that in certain wealthy neighborhoods of the US, rich parents are causing the return of long vanquished diseases by refusing to vaccinate their children, while in poor neighborhoods, kids' teeth rot from lack of access to affordable dental care?

Is it really sane that in Fort Lauderdale, America's Venice, so nick-named because of the extraordinary number of canals, that the housing code demands new construction be only twelve inches above sea level? The population is expected to increase by over 30%, so a construction boom is in progress, and yet when the sun, moon and earth align to give the maximal tides, water rushes in to eighteen inches above sea level. And that's today! With global climate change, nearly the entire city will be under water.

Except for the poor areas. They are far away from the beach, built on land that's of somewhat higher elevation. So what's expected is climate change induced gentrification.

The roles will reverse: Whitey will want the ghetto. Will they tell the poor brown and black folks they can have the moon?

Naw, that would be crazy.


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© 2016 by Allan Dyen-Shapiro

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