Thursday, May 23, 2019

Remember Pearl Harbor! or, When in Danger, When in Doubt

I know we're doomed, but I do hate being reminded of it.  In large part I must blame myself for giving in to clickbait.

This article exemplifies so much that's wrong with a lot of public discourse.  To begin with, let me say that I have read Marie Kondo's book but have not watched her TV series.  As an accumulator if not a hoarder, I look from time to time at books on de-cluttering, so when I saw The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up at the library a few years ago, I checked it out and read it.  The only notable things about it were that the author was not an American, but I supposed that was a selling point; and that Kondo is a paid de-cluttering coach, who comes to your house and helps you get rid of your excess stuff.  Other than that, her advice was about the same as any other author I've read on this subject.

A couple of months ago the socialist-feminist writer Barbara Ehrenreich set off a shitstorm when she posted a couple of mildly snarky tweets (now apparently deleted) about Kondo.  She suggested, for example, that the fact that Kondo works in her native Japanese rather than learning English indicates a decline in US imperial prestige.  Though I basically agree, I'd have put it somewhat differently, as a reflection of increased confidence by non-English speakers in our sphere of influence.  Ehrenreich also suggested that there's some Orientalism at work among Kondio's American fans, attracted by her winsome style (I believe Ehrenreich used the term "pixie-like").  Not having seen Kondo's show, I can't say for sure, but I find the suggestion highly plausible.  The response from Kondo's fans was a freakout: they accused Ehrenreich of demanding that Kondo learn English, when she was actually praising her for not doing so, and of Orientalism for detecting their Orientalism.  This response was, to my mind, the typical white-liberal, culture-of-therapy response to unacceptable statements: Oh how can you say such awful things you're a terrible person!!!  USA Today titled its piece on the brouhaha "In deleted racist tweet, author Barbara Ehrenreich attacks Marie Kondo."  That's how it's listed in the results of a search I did, and the URL indicates it was the original title of the story, but somewhere along the line "racist" was changed to "xenophobic."  I find this very significant, because in their coverage of actual racism by right-wing figures, corporate media almost never use the word "racist": they prefer euphemisms like "racially tinged," and even "xenophobic" is unusually direct in that world of discourse.

But that's by the way.  What got me started on this post was the article I mentioned before, linked by some bookstores I follow on Facebook.  Published on the UK Independent's website (though at the end there's a copyright notice for the Washington Post), it extolled some "book hoarders who defy Marie Kondo."  Yeah, it's probably clickbait and shame on me for clicking through, but I thought I recognized a not uncommon pattern of reaction, not just in corporate media but in many people in other areas.
On an episode of her smash-hit Netflix special, Kondo advised a couple to edit their shelves, maybe get rid of a few. The Internet did what it does best: It went bananas. How dare she come for books! #TeamClutter, meet #TeamCensorship. Of course, there was a backlash to the backlash, with the expected explanation from Kondo that not all books gotta go.

The visceral reaction, even without the social-media hyperbole, was hard to ignore. Books are more than objects. They are filled with ideas, stories, versions of ourselves, memories. Bookshelves are like your wardrobe: they send a message. And the message these famous book-lovers shared with us is loud and clear: Books spark joy. 
Well, of course they do.  I have several thousand books myself, and I wouldn't really feel happy in a home that didn't have at least one wall lined with them.  But I never felt as I read Kondo's book that she was telling her clients, let alone me personally, to get rid of all of them.  Even the linked article says only that she "advised a couple to edit their shelves, maybe get rid of a few."  The problem for me is that books are the heaviest possession, taken collectively, that I have.  Like most renters, I don't own the stove or refrigerator in my apartment.  It's the books that make my upcoming move a daunting prospect.  If I had more money, I could hire movers to shlep them for me, but I don't.  I have to decide how far to "edit" my library, and even if I were the kind of person to pay a coach like Kondo, she could not make that decision for me.  I have to decide which of my possessions "spark joy," and there was nothing in her book that indicated that all my or your books have to go.

So where does this nonsense about "defying" Marie Kondo come from?  As if she went around to random residences, flanked perhaps by two armed Japanese grandmas, breaking down doors and bagging possessions for disposal while her victims stand by, wailing helplessly.  As if she even said that people had to get rid of all their books. Would anyone read her book or follow her show if they didn't have it mind to pare down their belongings?  Most ridiculous is that the bookstores that linked to the Independent article on Facebook are used bookstores.  That means they rely on people to "edit" their libraries for the books they stock.  Yet they linked to the article not to encourage people to sell them their unjoyful books, but to stir up panic that Marie Kondo will come for their books, as Obama in the minds of Trump supporters is coming for their guns.

Granted, the article is clickbait, and only one of the book lovers they interview even mentions Kondo, but as the Trump example indicates, paranoia that some evil figure wants to take your cherished stuff away is a real tendency.  So is the fantasy that the same evil figure wants to force birth control pills down your throat, or make you gay-marry even if you're not gay.  But so is the weird word-fu by which many people misread simple statements until they mean the opposite of their plain sense, or no longer make sense at all.  This particular example is harmless enough in itself, but it keeps the paranoia muscles toned up for other imaginary threats.  People aren't this stupid just over trivia; they are also stupid over things that matter.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Moral Exemplars

I want to post a slight revision to part of an earlier post that dealt with questions of what, if anything, happens to us after we die.  It won't affect my larger point, but I think it's worth bringing up.

That earlier post was inspired by the notice on Twitter of the death of an elderly Jesuit, James Schall, "a great, good, and holy man ... the best of men, and a good and faithful servant."  The name seemed familiar to me, but I couldn't think how, so I merely said that I'd never heard of him before that morning.  I was wrong, but it's not surprising that I'd forgotten him.

I've been meaning for some time to read The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest by John Gerard, a sixteenth-century Catholic priest who'd fled persecution under Queen Elizabeth I.  I don't remember how I first heard of it, but I was intrigued by the prospect of a glimpse into the mind of such a person, so I picked up a copy of the 2012 Ignatius Press edition at the library book sale.  I hadn't gotten further than the 2011 introduction, which lamented "the utter brutality of the English Protestants determined to stamp out the traditional faith of the English people" (x).

It was a fair enough complaint, but the writer was significantly silent about the utter brutality of English Catholics determined to stamp out religious dissent among the English people.  I suppose the writer considered Protestantism a novelty and therefore unworthy of toleration or humane treatment.  But then one would have to remember the utter brutality of Catholics around the world determined to stamp out the traditional pre-Christian faiths they encountered.  The mistreatment of Jews in Christian Europe is a prominent, scandalous example of such cruelty.  Father Schall must have been aware of this history; but only the martyrdom of Catholics by Protestants outraged him enough to mention.  "The list of English martyrs from this period is long and distinguished," as he remarks, but only Catholics count as martyrs for him.

"The legal penalties against Catholics lasted into the nineteenth century and some minor form still exist," he laments.  "The Church of England is but a shadow of its former self."  This brought me up short at first -- he seemed to be regretting that the Church of England no longer tortures or executes Catholics; but then I realized that he was referring to the Catholic Church of England, the only true faith, which isn't what it used to be.  (In general Schall's writing in his Introduction is just that sloppy.)  True that -- as Berlioz once observed, now that the Catholic Church no longer inculcates the burning of heretics, her creeds are charming.  I don't see this falling away as a bad thing, but I'm not an elderly Roman Catholic who presumably never got over the heretic Pope John XXIII and his assaults on traditional faith.

It was only when I came to the end of the Introduction, which I'd decided to reread for its moral myopia, that I noticed the author's name: Father James V. Schall of Georgetown University.  I looked at my post from April, and behold, it was he!  I suppose Schall was not obliged to balance out his denunciation of the English Protestants with an acknowledgment of the contemporary cruelty of their Catholic countrymen, and I wonder if a hardcore Catholic publisher like Ignatius would have permitted it anyway.  But I doubt it ever occurred to him.

It occurred to me as I was mulling over this post that there's a lot of indignation in this country about "guilt" -- white guilt, male guilt, over discrimination and oppression that happened long ago (say, fifty or fewer years).  Most of this spleen seems to be vented by Christians, usually conservative Christian males.  Yet recognizing, repenting, and making atonement for guilt, both individual and collective, is a traditional part of Christianity and Judaism.  By their own standards, why shouldn't Christians feel guilt over the offenses they and their forebears have committed in the name of their faith?  Instead we get the saintly George H. W. Bush, who declared that he would never apologize for anything America had done ("I don't care what the facts are") and dear Joe Biden, who complacently declares he's not sorry for anything he's ever done.

Am I saying that James Schall was a bad man?  I still don't know enough about him to say.  What I'm saying here is that he evidently was "a good and faithful servant" to some of the less edifying tendencies in the past of his church, and that led him to forget, conveniently, matters that were relevant to his topic of persecution and martyrdom.  Catholic persecution of Protestants doesn't, of course, excuse the Protestant persecution of Catholics -- or the Protestant persecution of other Protestants, which was going on at the same time.  Such internecine violence is not unique to Christianity, but it does seem to be endemic to it.  That's what led to the rise of religious toleration in Europe: as I've said before, in order to end persecution of themselves, Christians had to forgo the pleasure of persecuting others.  Some Christians today are still nostalgic for those days of moral relativism, when you could burn someone else at the stake and be outraged if someone burnt you.  I suspect that Schall was one of these.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

May Day

For International Workers' Day, as it's known in most of the world, let me commend to you Park Kwang-su's 1996 biopic of the South Korean labor activist Jeon (or Chun) Tae-il, who in 1970 immolated himself as a protest against the oppressive and illegal conditions in the garment sweatshops of Seoul.

A Single Spark was my introduction to South Korean film.  A Korean friend, a student at IU, rented it on VHS from a local Oriental grocery to show me.  He told me it was important for me to see, and he was right. I'm very grateful for his guidance.  The videotape had no subtitles, and my friend interpreted for me -- not just the dialogue, but the history and politics, about which I knew little at the time.  I later learned that the film had been partially crowdsourced; if you watch to the end credits, you can see a long list of contributors.

Later, I read the biography of Jeon Tae-il that had inspired the movie.  It was translated into English by Jeon's sister Soon-ok, who after his death went to university and became a professor of Labor law.  The Korean original was written in the 1980s, during the dictatorship, and circulated semi-clandestinely.  The frame story of the film, involving a writer and his worker wife, is fictional, but on Jeon's life the story stays remarkably close to the book.  It remains one of my favorite films.  Eventually it was released on DVD in Korea, with some good extra features, but that, like the book, is out of print.  I'm glad it can still be seen on YouTube.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Am Too, Are Not

On the whole I'm fond of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, despite her lapses, for who among us is perfect?  And I realize that she probably had little choice but to slap back at Kellyanne Conway for this attempted slur:

But still, public disputes about who's a good Christian and who isn't discredit everyone involved.  (Which applies also to Pete Buttigieg.)  A politician's religious affiliation or lack of it is not a qualification for office. The Constitution (Article 6, par. 3) explicitly rules out religious tests, and while that's not binding on voters, we should be able to balance personal creed with political judgment.  "Should" is the catch, of course; "should" and a transit pass will get you on the bus.

One of the very few matters on which I (an atheist, remember) agree with C. S. Lewis was his refusal in Mere Christianity to define "Christian" in any but a very formal sense, "to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity" (xii).  (It's almost a behaviorist definition.)  He didn't do this because he didn't think that heartfelt faith was important, but because:
It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served. 

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to ‘the disciples’, to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were ‘far closer to the spirit of Christ’ than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian [xiv].
This is worth quoting at length because of that dig at unbelievers who will, Lewis believed, "cheerfully" use "Christian" as a compliment, to mean a good person.  I'm one unbeliever who won't. For one thing, I don't think "Christian" has any moral content. (The same applies to "atheist.")  For another, as an atheist, I'm not interested in judging who's a real Christian and who isn't.  If someone "identifies as" a Christian, to use the current buzzword, I'm not going to tell them they aren't.  But many believers and unbelievers still do, and Lewis here shows why they shouldn't.

Someone else had a good take on the proper response to personal attacks, namely C. P. Snow in a postscript to his book The Two Cultures:
However, the problem of behaviour in these circumstances is very easily solved. Let us imagine that I am called, in print, a kleptomaniac necrophilist (I have selected with some care two allegations which have not, so far as I know, been made). I have exactly two courses of action. The first, and the one which in general I should choose to follow, is to do precisely nothing. The second is, if the nuisance becomes intolerable, to sue. There is one course of action which no one can expect of a sane man: that is, solemnly to argue the points, to produce certificates from Saks and Harrods to say he has never, to the best of their belief, stolen a single article, to obtain testimonials signed by sixteen Fellows of the Royal Society, the Head of the Civil Service, a Lord Justice of Appeal and the Secretary of the M.C.C., testifying that they have known him for half a lifetime, and that even after a convivial evening they have not once seen him lurking in the vicinity of a tomb.

Such a reply is not on. It puts one in the same psychological compartment as one’s traducer. That is a condition from which one has a right to be excused.
But then, as self-admitted, card-carrying Christians, Ocasio-Cortez and Buttigieg predictably will see their claim to good standing, indeed to goodness (though there is none good but God, as somebody declared), on the line.  In the US, it's only what their fans will expect, since they no less than their opponents put a high premium on religious affiliation and proving their superior spiritual discernment.  That, as Lewis and Snow both said in their different ways, is not on.  It would be nice if Americans paid more attention to matters of more importance, but we're not likely to change overall in the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Man of Destiny

So I've been trying to find the context of Pete Buttigieg's remarks, delivered in Nashua, New Hampshire last week, which have been interpreted as a comparison, if not an equation, of Donald Trump voters and Bernie Sanders voters. It's not an entirely unfair reading, but what Buttigieg said appears to be worse than that.

As I say, it's been hard to find the context.  What I first saw was a 20-second video clip that obviously needed filling out.  The most I've found is this New York Post article, drawing on reporting by the Washington Examiner, which quotes Buttigieg at greater length.
“I think the sense of anger and disaffection that comes from seeing that the numbers are fine, like unemployment’s low, like all that, like you said GDP is growing and yet a lot of neighborhoods and families are living like this recovery never even happened. They’re stuck,” Buttigieg told high school students in in Nashua, N.H.

“It just kind of turns you against the system in general and then you’re more likely to want to vote to blow up the system, which could lead you to somebody like Bernie and it could lead you to somebody like Trump. That’s how we got where we are.”
Buttigieg has just about everything wrong here, which is a minor achievement in itself but not a reason to vote for him.

First, while some of his younger and more excitable fans might have mistaken his "Revolution" slogan for a promise to "blow up the system," Bernie Sanders is a thoroughgoing reformist in the mainstream New Deal tradition.  Far from blowing up the system, he has worked for decades within the system, in elected office, and seeks to bring about his goals through legislation, not revolution.  Medicare For All, student debt forgiveness, tuition-free education through college, raising the Federal minimum wage to $15/hr., extending Social Security, raising taxes on the richest, even withdrawing support for the US-Saudi war in Yemen, all are either extensions or returns to established American practices associated with the post-WWII period viewed by many people as the fulfillment of the American dream.  They are also very popular with voters as far as we can tell, and I don't believe Buttigieg is unaware of that.  As with so many centrist hacks, I wonder if he is unaware, in which case he's incompetent, or trying to persuade voters that they don't want what they do want, in which case he's trying to mislead them.  Trump and his fans were more likely by all accounts to really want to blow up the system, which is typical of American conservatives of the Goldwater-Buckley-Reagan stripe.

Second, if you're going to compare Trump to anyone, Pete Buttigieg himself is a better choice.  He has only slightly more political experience (mayor of a small midwestern city) than Trump, and part of his appeal, like Trump's, is the image of outsiderness.  (The same was true of Barack Obama.)  Buttigieg wants to be the (white) man on a white horse, riding into town from nowhere to fix everything.  Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has worked for decades in political institutions, and he's been fairly consistent in his positions and policies.  The attempt to cast him as a long-shot dark-horse outsider makes more sense about his 2016 run, and indicates that someone is still stuck refighting a lost battle.  Trump also had a long, well-documented history, and his actions as President haven't been very surprising to anyone who knew anything about his career.  For what it's worth, though, the more time Buttigieg spends in the glare of national publicity, the worse he looks.  He's also ready and eager to work within the system that brought us to "where we are", as shown by his participation in a private meeting of Democratic insiders seeking to block Sanders from getting the nomination.  He's not in the elites yet, but that's clearly how he sees himself and what he wants to be.  To paraphrase Huckleberry Finn, we been there before.  Even if Buttigieg were to win the nomination, and against all likelihood the election, we'd be back in 2016, only worse off.

I rather think that Buttigieg is projecting.  He himself has said he favors expanding the Supreme Court, abolishing the Electoral College, and over the weekend he endorsed impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump.  These may be worthy goals, but they're more of an attack on the system than Medicare for All.

Third, the rhetorical strategy in Buttigieg's remarks is reprehensible.  My first response was to substitute some other terms for "Trump" and "Sanders."  People are upset about racism.  Their anger could lead them to support the White Citizens Councils, or it could lead them to support Martin Luther King.  This is not an unfair analogy, I think, because Martin Luther King was demonized by white self-styled moderates as an extremist from the beginning of his public career, a label he ambivalently embraced in his letter from Birmingham Jail.  Perhaps I'm unfair to the White Citizens Councils, who no doubt presented themselves as the middle road between the extremes of the Klan on one side, and Martin Luther King on the other; if so, I can live with it.  On a strictly literal level, Buttigieg didn't actually say that Trump and Sanders, or their fans, were alike, but he certainly wants to be viewed as a reasonable voice of civility and unity in our troubled times compared to those emotional, misguided souls who want to blow up the system.

Buttigieg isn't alone in working this line; most establishment Democrats have used it against Sanders (and now Elizabeth Warren, who as Doug Henwood says is a liberal but has good ideas and is making the right enemies), and will again in the coming year.  By using it, though, he shows where he stands.  He sees himself as entitled not only to prominence but to the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, despite his lack of qualification and experience.  I hate to be so negative about anyone, but these are perilous times, so I wish a decisive and humiliating defeat for Mayor Pete.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Your Get-Out-of-Hell Free Card

Here's an unremarkable, everyday example of what I mean when I insist that religion is a human invention and should be evaluated in that light.
A great, good, and holy man has passed. Friends know well, he would sign every note, “pray for me.” I ask the same - please pray for the repose of Fr. James Schall, S.J., the best of men, and a good and faithful servant.
I had never heard of James Schall before this morning, but this memorial to him turned up in my Twitter feed this morning.  I don't doubt that he was a great, good, and holy (whatever that means) man, though any Christian ought to remember that their Lord said that no one is good except God.  (On "the best of men," see my recent reflections on that kind of inflation of merit.)  What interests me are the assumptions underlying the request to pray for Schall's "repose."  One is that death is like sleep, and that the person somehow is still there.  Another is that the default of the after-death state is restlessness, whether it's conceived as a hungry ghost craving revenge on the living or torment in some placeless place. Yet another is that the living can help the dead find repose, either by appeasing the vengeful spirit or, as in this case, praying for them to receive an upgrade to first class, where they'll be able to rest.

It's common for infidels like me to explain such beliefs by claiming that those who hold them have been "brainwashed" (people keep using that word) by the Church, by wicked Priests, by fairy tales written by Bronze Age shepherds.  (Those shepherds are evidently immortal, and amazingly powerful.)  I don't think that explains anything.  Why did those wicked people invent the belief, and more important, why is it so durable?  Christian churches have been trying for two thousand years to brainwash believers to do or refrain from doing many things -- calling people good, for an easy example -- but without much success.  In many cases the offenders feel no guilt at all.  I think it's reasonable to suspect that when believers conform, it's less because they were brainwashed than because they are the kind of people who'd invent those beliefs in the first place.  Either they feel strong anxiety about their own lives, or are full of resentment toward others they'd like to see punished.

The belief in a painful afterlife is not only Christian, after all.  It may not be universal, but it's very ancient and widespread.  Even biblical Judaism, which supposedly has no doctrine of the afterlife, imagines the dead in a dark, shadowy place called Sheol; if you want to invoke Bronze Age shepherds, that seems to have been how they thought of it.  I've written before about Korean Buddhist beliefs and practices that were not very different in principle from Roman Catholicism.  I once read a scholar who claimed that in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which revels in fantasies of eternal post-mortem torture, Jesus didn't mean to describe the geography of the afterlife but simply borrowed imagery from Egyptian sources among others.  It's a false distinction anyway, but I would ask why Jesus preferred that imagery.  Why not imagine both Lazarus and Dives comfortable, reconciled, at an eternal and joyful banquet?  Why believe that anything happens to them after their deaths at all?

But not only that: along with belief in Hell (or whatever you want to call it) goes the belief that the living can help the damned to escape from it by what I can only call magical means, by prayer, by Masses for the dead, by baptizing the living on behalf of the dead, and so on.  Christianity, like other religions of salvation, is at its core preventive magic to keep you from being sent to Hell in the first place.  I don't know how accurate the accounts I've read of ancient Egyptian religion are, but the idea that the hearts of the dead will be weighed to decide their posthumous faith can hardly be blamed on Christianity, and the basic principle is the same: to learn the password, the secret handshake, the necessary bribes to get past the gatekeeper to eternal safety.  But the default setting is torture; "punishment" may not be the right word, because the suffering is free-floating, apart from anything the sufferer may have done.

So: why all this?  Death is scary, whether it's our own or the death of other creatures.  Nobody knows why we die, nobody knows if there's any kind of existence after we die.  When I've raised this point with some believers, they often invoke a version of Pascal's Wager: well, we don't know, so we're playing it safe, it does no harm to pray for Father Schall, etc.  Like the original form of the Wager, there are problems, highlighted by the variety of beliefs and practices people have.  What good will it do to light lanterns so the dead can find their way to paradise more quickly, if they're going to Hell anyway because they weren't baptized in the name of Jesus, the only name in which we are saved?  If there is a real danger of posthumous suffering, we need accurate information about how to avoid it, and there is none.  (If we knew that this was the geography of the afterlife, it would be different, but we know nothing about it.)  Yet many (most?) people cling desperately to belief that the danger is real.  Some get very upset at the idea of giving up the belief, of admitting that no one knows and that there's no reason to believe that we go on existing after we die.  Certainly my skepticism about the call to pray for the dead will upset some people.

A common reaction is to demand "respect" for the dead.  I am not sure what that means, but I have as much respect for Father Schall as it's possible to have for someone I've never met and know nothing about.  I don't think he should go to Hell; I don't think anyone should go to Hell.  Demanding "respect" is just flailing around.  My point is that we should be aware of and examine the assumptions that lie behind these beliefs and practices.  Getting rid of "religion" -- whatever that would mean, given that no one knows what religion is, where it ends and not-religion begins -- won't help.  In principle you could have religion without these strange and (I think) malign assumptions about death, but I think there would be powerful resistance to getting rid of them.  Many, probably most people, prefer to think of the universe as a giant booby-trap, laid for us by a Cosmic architect who loves us and wants to see us slip on the banana peels he put in our path, and you can't change that preference simply telling them they're stupid, brainwashed, and superstitious.

I think that resentment is a major factor in that resistance.  If Donald Trump or Ilhan Omar isn't going to be punished horribly, if the bully who took your lunch money in third grade or the stuck-up girl who didn't invite you to her birthday party is just going to get away with it, then what is the point?  Again, this resentment can't be wished away; I feel it myself.  The trouble is institutionalizing it in our moral systems, as all the systems that postulate punishment after death do.  Nor will you find it only among fundamentalists: think of the liberal Christians who fantasized violence against Paul Ryan for his views on poverty.  Think of this biblical scholar, showing his superiority to an antigay Christian who spoke against Pete Buttigieg in Iowa.  Such resentment is a cause of (certain aspects of) religion, not an effect.  It's easy for me to see why it's so tenacious.  Making the world better (by ending poverty, for example, which you recall Jesus had no interest in doing) is hard, perhaps impossible.  Making it worse, by throat-punching a bigot with the binding of your Scripture, or punching Paul Ryan in the face, or - better -- fantasizing about it, is so much easier. If you hang on to an unsupportable belief so doggedly, it's because you like it: you want to see the world that way.  A lifestyle choice, if you will.

To try (perhaps vainly) to make myself clear, I'm not saying that people who encourage us to pray for the dead are wicked.  I'm asking that we, and they themselves, pay attention to the assumptions that lead them to encourage it. They are not benign assumptions. They express some weirdly negative attitudes towards life and the living that I imagine these people would repudiate. But they hold them nonetheless.  Those of us who reject religion need to be aware of those attitudes, in the conventionally religious and in ourselves, if only to understand them in hopes of correcting them.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Nickname Stylists; or, Which of These Two Is Not Like the Other?

What a relief!  I was kicking myself for not having made screengrabs of these tweets, because I thought I'd been blocked.  But so far, no.  Anyway, here's the Progressive Mind at work:
The first tweet is okay, though he's really describing Obama, not Clinton: swift and self-serving political climb, meticulous public image, padded experience like a CEO resume.  (Unless he maybe meant Bill, not Hillary?)  And it's a fair complaint, except that it should have been fairly obvious from Buttigieg's first entrance into the national spotlight, and "dread" doesn't feel like the right word.  But whatever.

It's the second one that got me going.  "[A]nyone making fun of his name will be called a homophobe, like anyone calling attention to Clinton's atrocious record was called a sexist."  So, let's see what's on the slab. The first clause is exactly what one hears from bigots who've been called out for their expressed bigotry: Just because I called him 'Martin Luther Coon,' that doesn't make me a racist!  You're taking it out of context!  Your Politically Correct purity tests are destroying civil discourse!

In fact, you're not likely to be called a homophobe for mocking Buttigieg's name if you work from the similarity in sound to "Buddha."  Call him "Buddha-judge," say, and you will probably not be accused of homophobia.  Or you can do something with his first name, like this one, which I approve.  But if you work with "Butt," as so many do ... well, you may just be betraying the straight-boy panic/obsession with buttsex that is endemic in this kind of discourse, and symptomatic of homophobia.  It's been entertaining to see so many people protesting that straight people do anal sex too, so it's totally not homophobic to bring it into a discussion of a gay politician.

What's downright hilarious is Yusuf's equation of making fun of Buttigieg's name with criticizing Hillary Clinton's policies. Jon Schwarz has claimed that conservatives, as against liberals and progressives, can't do good analogies; I say that liberals and conservatives can't do them either, and Yusuf's tweet is evidence for my position.  I noticed, and disparaged, the Clintonite habit of accusing critics of Her policies of sexism, just as Obama cultists accused critics of his policies of racism, whether or not sexism and racism were actually evident.  But a name is not a policy.  If you have objections to Pete Buttigieg's policies -- and many people do -- then state them, and be prepared to defend them.  If you can't do so without referring to him as Buttchug, Buttface, etc., then you are not in control of your own discourse.  If homophobic epithets just naturally burst to the surface when you're talking about politics, then it's probably accurate to say that you have some unresolved issues about gay men.

Twitter is the home of quick, relatively thought-free writing.  Donald Trump's fondness for abusive schoolyard-style nicknames has often been deplored and mocked by his opponents.  It's okay when they do it, of course, because Trump Is Worse; letting him be the benchmark is the very emblem of liberal/progressive moral and intellectual bankruptcy.  If you're working in a longer-form medium and you can't edit out these little blorts of revelatory anxiety, then get someone to do it for you.  If nothing else, you're putting in a distraction that will allow your opponents to discredit you without answering your well-considered policy criticisms -- and you don't want to do that, do you?  (Or do you?)