Disclaimer: The names and places mentioned in this article have been changed to protect the guilty, the powerful, and the litigious alike, not to mention myself (a being of remarkable innocence and purity of heart). None of these things actually happened, John Scalzi probably isn’t real, and I was at a Violent Femmes concert the whole time, anyway.
John Dies at the Beginning
“I need you to fly down and come to a meeting with me,” said the cheerful voice on the other line. “The only problem is that it’s a 10:00 AM meeting, and I know you don’t want to fly in the night before.”
“I’m game,” I said. “I’m useless by 10:00 PM, only good for drinking and snacking and watching Below Deck on Peacock. At 4:00 AM? I’m a golden tiger. Book the flight.”
So it was that I found myself back at a Chicago airport at something like 4:00 AM, desperately hunting for a coffee shop that opened before 5. I didn’t find one, but the 24-hour bar was happy to serve me a rum and coke, which I figured had enough caffeine in it, and would be sufficiently watered down, to qualify as a stimulant.
It had been less than 24 hours since I’d heard news that my friend John had been killed. One story was that a Tesla had run him over while his motorcycle was stopped, waiting to make a left turn. Another was that a drunken teenager in a clapped-out Kia had run a red light at full speed and t-boned him into the next world. Regardless, it was done — and it had left me feeling beaten and terribly alone.
There is nothing exactly like the feeling that comes from finding out that the three-headed rabbit god you’ve been sacrificing chickens to this whole time was just a hallucination from the leaky gas line behind your toaster, but John’s death hit me kind of like that. The lies you tell yourself when you decide to ride a motorcycle in spite of the warnings from your mother, your children, your doctor, and every third idiot you run into trade heavily on their own sort of primitive religiosity, after all: if you perform the ritual correctly, wear the right jacket, tie on the right boots, strap in the right helmet, and promise to keep the rubber side down, then you can ride a motorcycle as fast as you want (but never in a hurry) and you’ll get to where you’re going in one piece. That’s the deal. That’s always been the deal.
And John? John was the guy who always made sure your chin strap was tight and your tires had air in ‘em.
Hell, John. I’m not sure if John ever even liked me — but, as is the funny way of things, he was always there for me and for everyone else who needed him. At 2:00 AM, on the side of a country road two hours from home with a busted motorcycle in the ditch? John was the guy you’d call. But now John is dead. He did everything right, but he is still dead, and maybe the rituals and the lies we tell ourselves to keep riding are all bullshit, after all.
It was at about this point that I began to wonder what sort of meeting I was about to walk into.
I was flying out on the whim of my friend, Mark, who isn’t actually named Mark. Not Mark rides a Triumph Bonneville. A real one — not one of those 2001-up revivalist deals. “Dress up,” Not Mark had said. “Jacket AND pants.”
I showed up with a light linen jacket, well fitted, with navy dress pants, blue denim shirt, and woven leather Olukai slip-ons. I felt good about the outfit, too — until Southwest’s serving wench spilled the tea on me. Literally. Hot tea. From an uncovered container. All over my linen coat and another woman in a white Puma hoodie. “Oops! I thought that was covered,” she said, shuffling back to the front of the plane without apology.
After it became clear that she wasn’t coming back, I pressed the service button. One of the other flight attendants took our jackets and absconded to the back of the plane with club soda and wet naps and miraculously undid the damage, but my new friend and I visibly sneered whenever the original one walked by.
My life has become relatively easy, of late, and this experience was enough for me to declare to my Lyft driver that I’d had a horrible flight, before he dutifully dropped me off at the address Not Mark had given me, and — oh, you’ve got to be f**king kidding me.
In the Belly of the Think Tank
As I arrived in the lobby of The Conservative Think Tank (a building less than ten years old, but built to look at least a hundred), I was ushered up the stairs and into a conference room, the meeting already underway. There were lots of dark blue blazers (I had made the right choice with the linen).
It’s worth noting, at this point, that the politics of climate change and cleantech and electric vehicles have made for some pretty strange bedfellows recently, so I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself seated at a heavy table, inside the granite walls of a well-funded conservative think tank, surrounded by a number of, as they called themselves, “center-right” types talking about the EV revolution, autonomous vehicles, and what the government’s role in all that big, scary, capital-c “Change” that was heading our way might be.
So, OK. I concede: the real surprise shouldn’t have been that I was there. The real surprise, maybe, should’ve been that — after choking back the urge to scream obscenities in the faces of lobbyists who, on another day, might have been coming up with new and fanciful ways to drive gay kids to suicide and force underage girls to carry their rapists’ genetically-deficient babies to term at the risk of their own health, future, and sanity — I genuinely agreed with so much of what this bunch had to say.
On the topic of public safety, for instance, one gentleman asked the table if we’d ever agreed to be a part of Elon Musk’s grand self-driving experiment, or if I’d ever clicked “OK” on a Tesla ToS allowing Tesla’s cameras to record my face and location.
I said I hadn’t.
The theme of the conversation turned to questions of data privacy, biometrics, smart infrastructure, and public safety — all popular topics in the days after Tesla’s Sentry Mode and onboard cameras were labeled “a privacy violation on wheels” and more than 100GB of sensitive customer data had been leaked.
The leak itself, while overhyped, was significant. It contained “more than 100,000 names of former and current employees, including the social security number of the Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, along with private email addresses, phone numbers, salaries of employees, bank details of customers and secret details from production.” It raised the question: How much more was there? And these guys were asking that question — and many, many more.
Can we really trust privately owned robotaxis? Even if you trust the Autopilot and FSD Teslas, do you trust their owners? What about their second owners? Or third? With several “self-driving” EVs now approaching — or exceeding! — hundreds of thousands of miles of use, would you bet your life that the cars’ owners have kept the sensors and cameras and brakes and steering and tires and shocks in tip-top shape?
Would you bet your kids’ lives?
Would my friend John still be alive if a “smart pylon” at the corner he was stopped at could tell the oncoming cars to watch out for a stopped motorcycle? What if they could have sent a remote signal to stop the cars before they hit the bike, regardless of who was at the wheel, be they human or AI or Toonces?
This is what these guys wanted to know, and it felt like a shocking display of sanity from — well, Republicans.
“We consider ourselves ‘center right,’ just like the rest of America,” said one of the more polished young men at the table — a blonde, blue-eyed 20-something who’s photo could have appeared next to the word “Aryan” in a dictionary, if people still had dictionaries. “Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and even Joe Biden are politically more conservative than the rest of the world,” he offered. “Biden even passed laws to prevent labor strikes on railroads — and no one has been really pinned down for what happened after the derailment in Palestine.”
I leaned over to Not Mark, speaking to him for the first time since I had entered the room. “What the hell is this?” I whispered. “They’re actually making a lot of sense.”
“They’re good people,” said Not Mark, leaning in. “They think they’re good people.”
I smirked. “Don’t we all?”
The conversation turned to e-mobility, urban planning, and what their city might look like in a few years’ time. But for a single, exceptionally weird comment about “the Environmentalist Religion,” it could have been a conversation recorded at the CleanTechnica water cooler — and that place is about as left-leaning as it gets.
Some phrases that stood out, if only for shock value:
- There will be fewer cars on the road than there are today — and that’s a good thing.
- There are too many parking spaces, and not enough green spaces.
- People want to get around in different ways, not just using cars.
- We can’t trust that the sensors and safety systems in people’s privately-owned cars are being properly maintained, that safety needs to be built into the infrastructure.
- Safety and connectivity should be built into the roads and buildings.
- Connectivity and access to the internet are essential, which is why we need to push to establish a data utility.
There were a few more minutes of this wholly reasonable line of thought, of conversations about leadership and setting a standard for not just the city we were in, but the state itself, as well as every other state that was simultaneously south of the Mason-Dixon Line and not California.
Hearing all of this sense-making, I began to wonder if these Republicans might actually be making sense about other things, too. Should trans girls and women be allowed to set sports records and compete for scholarships? I’m certainly not educated or informed enough to know. Should minors be prevented from getting gender-affirming surgery until they’re 18? I know plenty of trans people, but I’ve never felt the kind of body or gender dysmorphia that made me feel like traumatic surgery and difficult hormone treatments would be a better alternative. Should we keep underage kids off of social media? I don’t want my kids on social media, but that’s because I don’t want them to be exposed to airbrushed supermodels and impossible standards of beauty, and not because I don’t want them exposed to critical race theory or evolution.
“That’s how they get you,” the little angel on my shoulder said. “They say things that sound kind of OK, and the next thing you know, you’re talking about prayer in schools and banning books and marching in the streets carrying a TIKI brand Luau Bamboo Torch (©)!”
I instinctively reached for the hand-cannon I keep in my desk drawer, but I wasn’t at my desk, and my hand brushed awkwardly against one of the Aryan’s calves. Whether he liked it or not, he gave no indication.
I eyed him suspiciously as the Republicans went on, talking about the rights of the individual to their own data, and the opportunities presented for responsible government oversight and regulation on topics like AI, a self-driving vehicle infrastructure, and individual data monetization.
Throughout it all, I was surprised to hear real, “humanity first, technology second, profits last” sort of stuff that seemed, in the moment, to be eminently reasonable — and not at all something I expected to hear from the laissez faire crowd.
I said as much, but admitted something my stepdad taught me: that labels exist to divide people, and to create “others,” and others become marginalized. I appreciated being seated in a room full of people who seemed interested in finding real solutions that worked for all people (behind closed doors, anyway).
“We’ll work with anyone to do good,” he said, nodding. “And no one to do bad.”
As the talk continued, my thoughts wandered onto Rachel Spiegelman.
Rachel was a survivor of the German bombing of Warsaw at the start of World War II. She was among some 500,000 Polish Jews who, having survived the bombings, were initially concentrated into a Ghetto, an area approximately one square mile. Between July and October of 1942, nearly 300,000 of these people were deported to concentration camps — Treblinka and Chelmno — until only about 40,000 Jews were left in the Warsaw Ghetto.
In April of 1943, the Nazis stormed the Warsaw Ghetto, murdering thousands of Jews. Heroically, they fought back, in a battle that lasted nearly three weeks. Nearly all of them were killed — but Rachel was one of the survivors.
From John Scalzi’s “shareware” novel Agent to the Stars:
In pre-War times, Rachel and her family were well-to-do professionals; the daughter and granddaughter of physicians, Rachel herself had studied law and worked as the office manager of her husband’s law firm. In addition to Polish and Yiddish, she spoke German and English, and had even been to America as a child, to visit family members who had emigrated there. She was a daughter and wife of privilege, and the fall from having servants and summer homes to living six to a room in the ghetto was a long one.
And yet, inasmuch as one can in the circumstances, Rachel thrived. She was tough-minded and sensible — and also formidable. When the Nazis informed the ghetto residents that they were to form Jewish councils that would oversee housing, sanitation and manufacturing production, she forbade any member of her family from joining the councils, declaring that those who worked with the Germans were leading the rest to the slaughter. When her husband disobeyed her and served on a council, Rachel threw him out of the room that they shared with Rachel’s parents, her brother, and her brother’s wife.
From April until the beginning of August, Rachel slaved in the camp; on August 3rd, it was decided that she was no longer needed. She was sent a mile up the road to Treblinka II, where the “bathhouses” were. These bathhouses were connected to huge diesel engines that pumped in carbon monoxide — deadly, but not very efficient. It typically took nearly a half hour before the hundreds crammed inside the “bathhouses” died. It was a long and terrifying death, and between 700,000 and 900,000 people died that way, in that camp.
On August 3rd, however, there were some surprising deaths at Treblinka II; namely, an SS officer and several guards. They were killed by some of the Jews who worked at the camp, performing the executions, excavating the corpses for gold teeth and other valuables, and transporting the bodies to mass graves. The Jews chose that day to attempt a revolt, and while it was not successful, over 200 Jews escaped the camp during the chaos. Rachel was one of them. Most of the escapees were eventually recaptured or killed. Rachel was not. Rachel went north, eventually finding passage to Sweden. After the war ended, she emigrated from there to the United States.
If it had ended there, Rachel’s life and survival through the Nazi Holocaust would have been remarkable enough, but it didn’t. She went on to work in Selma, Alabama, as a lawyer, representing black victims of police violence in the wake of the civil rights protests of the 1960s — themselves a response to decades of Jim Crow laws. Just before she died in 1975, she told TIME magazine, “I feel the work I have done was the work I was destined to do. I know what it is to lose my rights and to be told that I have no right to exist, to see my family, my friends and my humanity stripped away from me. These are hard memories, couched in sorrow and anger. But I also know what it is to see others begin to gain their rights and their humanity, to be told, yes, you are our brothers and sisters. Come join us at the family table, and be welcome. My work, though such a small part of a larger whole, has helped to make this a reality. It makes those hard memories a little easier to bear, because these memories – they are glorious.”
If you’re inspired to learn more about Rachel Spiegelman and her superhuman efforts to champion the rights of marginalized “others,” don’t bother looking in Wikipedia. Rachel is a fictional character created by author John Scalzi. Scalzi seems to specialize in light, fun, sci-fi stories that play with TV tropes and make for fabulous airport reads. Spiegelman, though, is a bit different from Scalzi’s Star Trek-inspired Red Shirts or sympathetic Godzilla, who gets treated like an exotic endangered species. Rachel’s life story, meanwhile, is heavy, dark, and feels all too real — despite being fictional.
Rachel Spiegelman, then, isn’t quite the hero we deserve. But surely she’s a hero that’s needed now, as much as ever.
I snapped back. The talk in the room had, by now, turned to people not wanting to work and the homelessness “crisis,” and how it could be “fought” by eliminating government handouts and programs that “give people fish instead of teaching them how to fish.”
“People become marginalized when they no longer see themselves as part of the greater good,” said — let’s go with “Randy.”
I thought of telling Not Randy that the people who’d died on the Trail of Tears might disagree with calling Manifest Destiny a part of the greater good, and that piling legalistic horrors onto confused teenagers praying that it does, indeed, “get better,” might not be either — but thought better of it. It wasn’t time to burn the place down.
Not until I had a clear run at the exits, anyway.
Besides, on my good days, I like to tell myself that I’m a journalist, and journalism is a ticket to a very exclusive show. If you’re good enough and stick with it long enough and you make the right friends and show up at the right meetings (in the right blazer), that show will give you a chance to see the news happen right in front of you, while everyone else watches helplessly from the well-worn dents in their sofas. It’s exciting, but it doesn’t always pay the bills (just ask BuzzFeed).
This talk around this table on this day, in this blazer — it seemed like news, but I couldn’t tell if it was good news or bad news. Or, frankly, if I should help these people or flip the table and storm out, name names, and do my damndest to make sure these people never passed a law or won an election again.
It weighed on me. Was this what it was like to work with the Germans? “We need the three legs of the stool,” said one of the men at the table, just on the other side of the Aryan guy. “We need the right, the left, and the technology. That’s the only way this works.”
I had my doubts, but nodded anyway. My time was up. We shook hands, traded business cards (I have a QR code on my phone instead of paper cards — cards are bad luck), and was on my way.
“What did you think?” asked Not Mark.
“It was surprisingly sensible,” I said.
“I wanted you to go in cold,” he said. “Throw you into the deep end and see what you think of what they’re saying. I think there’s an opportunity there.”
There is. There is, in fact, a real chance that a city like Austin, with its progressive, tech-forward population, could do something good. Charlotte, Atlanta, Tucson, too. There’s no shortage of opportunities to get this right, and get “the three legs of the stool” to work together and deliver a public policy initiative that’s not just smart, but which places the human experience and quality of life and sustainability at the forefront.
“Not sustainability. They don’t like that,” said Not Mark. “Say, ‘efficiency.’ It’s about reducing costs, in a sense, and about control, too, but efficiency saves money. It’s good for everyone.”
Sure it is — and there is no way this could go pear-shaped either and turn into the worst parts of 1984, The Return of the Archons, and The Terminator all at once.
“All the more reason to stay involved. To make sure that doesn’t happen.”
I hope he’s right.
Original content from CleanTechnica (who remind you to pour one out for the homies who might have been saved if we’d started talking about this five years ago).
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