Friday, June 15, 2018

Killing Me Politely With His Norms

Last Sunday's Doonesbury was appalling.  Embarrassing.  Repellent... I'm trying to find the right epithet, but you get the idea.  I've been trying to find a way to read it as sarcasm, but can't find a handhold.  "Did I mention that I was polite?"would give it away if it were the Onion, but Trudeau's not the Onion.  The same applies to the way Norm appears as a Rainbow Coalition parade of Diverse faces; could Trudeau be referring to the will.i.am Obama campaign video featuring multicolored celebrity dreamers?  If only.  No, Trudeau's been hammering a pretty solid DNC beat since Trump became president, as subtle as a MAGA hat.

I thought that Corey Robin had posted a tweet to the effect that norms are conservative, in intention and function.  Which is not always a bad thing.  But I can't find it now.  I did, while looking, find this article by Robin at Jacobin, in which he invites the reader to imagine
that it’s 2020, and Sanders is elected with a somewhat radicalized Democratic Party in Congress. Or if that’s too much to swallow, imagine some version of that (not necessarily Sanders or the Democrats but an empowered electoral left) in 2024. Or a realignment of the sort the US saw in 1932. Realignments always involve a contestation over norms; realignments change norms; realignments erode norms. And all of these counsels against norm erosion and polarization — which many people in the media and academia are invoking against Trump and the GOP — will now come rushing back at the Left.

And how could they not? When you set up “norms” as your standard, without evaluating their specific democratic valence in each instance, the projects to which they are attached, how could you know whether a norm contributes to democracy, in the substantive or procedural sense, or detracts from it? How could you know whether the erosion is good or bad, democratic or antidemocratic?
As I've said before, it's not enough to stand by your principles: first you have to have good ones.  Norms gave us the 3/5 clause of the Constitution, the Fugitive Slave Act, the expulsion of Indians from their land, the restriction of the franchise, right down to endless war, state surveillance of citizens, and so on and on.  The furious protests of pundits and politicians, liberal and conservative alike, that Trump's behavior on this or that issue is unprecedented, are in large part attempts to deny the norms that characterize this country by denying history.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

False Equivalence for Dummies

I heard a lot about supposed false equivalence during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, and in almost no case were the allegations accurate.  I believe, however, that I've been seeing some genuine specimens lately, in connection with the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.  Here's a good example, from a reasonably sober commentator:
As someone who supported Trump-Kim summit it’s important to stop referring to outcome of Singapore as a “nuclear deal.” It was a handshake based on a few understandings between two men with few, if any, expert input on the details that typically cause most real deals to collapse.
It's the "two men with few, if any, expert input" that I want to draw your attention to.  I don't dispute that Trump had no expert input from his side, though that was because he wasn't interested in it.  I don't know what input, expert or otherwise, Kim Jong Un drew on, and I doubt this writer does either.  But North Korea has a long history of negotiating with the US, and until there's some evidence to the contrary, I see no reason to suppose that Kim didn't draw on it.  Kim definitely appears to have prepared for his earlier meeting with ROK President Moon Jae In, and behaved sensibly even while he was staging a performance for the cameras. 

And this is milder than most discourse I've seen, which routinely calls both Trump and Kim "deranged" and the like.  I think that's wrong about both men.  Trump is an evil clown, and the cascade of accusations about his mental health have been mere abuse; deserved abuse, but not accurate because of that.  About Kim Jong Un we know less, but I see no reason to think that he's insane either.  Yes, he postures and provokes, as North Korean leaders have often done in dealing with the West (and so did Hugo Chavez, who wasn't insane either).  Similar claims were made about Kim's father, Jong Il, and he definitely wasn't crazy: he also managed negotiations with the US, getting an agreement that only "collapsed" because of US refusal to keep its commitments.

Bruce Cumings wrote about Kim Jong Il in North Korea: Another Country (The New Press, 2003):
Way back when, Kim Jong Il was the same Mad Dog he is said to be today [2003]: a drunk, a womanizer, a playboy, Stalinist fanatic, state terrorist, unstable, psychotic, another David Koresh, Jim Jones, or Charles Manson—“Public Enemy Number One,” running a country always making “one last lunge for survival.” When the father died, the American media dredged up all these things, but Newsweek perhaps outdid them with its racist cover article: “Korea after Kim: The Headless Beast” (July 18, 1994). According to “one U.S. diplomat,” the son was “irrational, far more dangerous than his father.... No one in his right mind wants to see Kim Jong Il in charge of a nuclear-armed North Korea.” South Korean “experts” told the magazine that the end of the regime was nigh; “great turmoil is on the way.” As for the deceased father, Newsweek’ s intrepid researchers had uncovered what no one else ever did: Kim’s presence with “Stalin’s military” in the Soviet Far East in the 1930s. But “whether he actually fought against the Japanese is a matter of debate.”

Then, six years later, top American officials actually met the Dear Leader, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in preparation for President Bill Clinton’s (aborted-by-Bush) summit with the younger Kim: “He is amazingly well-informed and extremely well-read,” an American who met him related to a reporter; “he is practical, thoughtful, listened very hard. He was making notes. He has a sense of humor. He’s not the madman a lot of people portrayed him as.” A State Department official said, “He can talk about almost any subject . . . market economics, the Internet, coming technologies.” Madame Albright presented him with an NBA basketball signed by his basketball hero, Michael Jordan; Jong Il immediately wanted to take the ball out and dribble it around [Kindle edition, location 796ff].
I quoted this at length partly because I couldn't resist including that bit about Michael Jordan and basketball; the interest in the sport evidently runs in the Kim family.  Cuming's book is out of date by now, but it's short and readable, and if you read it you'll still be better informed about North Korea than most people in the US media or government.

I wouldn't want to take too seriously the "top American officials'" evaluation of Kim Jong Il, but at least they make it clear he was not the cartoon that South Korean hardline and American mainstream propaganda made him out to be.  We don't know much about his son, but I suspect he also is smarter, more serious, and better prepared than Donald Trump.  Obviously that sets the bar quite low, but equating the two men is almost certainly mistaken, another example of the enduring American tendency to underestimate and caricature Koreans, both in the North and the South.  (The US media aren't terribly happy with South Korean President Moon Jae In, either, for presuming to put the interests of his own country and people ahead of American wishes and fantasies.)

It's difficult to find the right balance here.  I'm not denying that Kim Jong Un is a dictator, presiding over a horribly repressive state with many serious human rights abuses.  One can say all that without caricaturing him or lying about him; isn't the truth enough?  Not, it seems, for the American mainstream.  The same could be said of Trump, after all: he's quite bad enough that it shouldn't be necessary to lie about him. It could be said of Obama, or Hillary Clinton.  I find it interesting, though also profoundly depressing, that so many people prefer the fantasies to the truth.

Ignorance about North Korea by Americans is understandable: it's a closed society, and reliable information is hard to come by.  Ignorance about South Korea, which saturates most American coverage of the peninsula, is inexcusable.  But again, it appears that most Americans prefer fantasy to reality in politics.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Crooked Timber of Pyschological Man

A quick note:

Pocket referred me to this article about Philip Zimbardo's infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment today.  It's very much worth reading.  I wrote a post on an interview with Zimbardo some years ago, and found a lot wrong even with his official account of the experiment.  That much of the official account was actually lies is startling, but I don't think it has much effect on my critique; some the article even confirms my suspicions.

For example, I wrote that Zimbardo "played his own role to the hilt, probably as he'd learned it from old movies," and that he "seems to have relished playing The Warden from a Jimmy Cagney movie while the game lasted."  I also suggested that, far from spontaneously creating their roles as tough guards and prisoners, the student subjects were also drawing on cultural cues they'd grown up with:
Plus, as my reference to old movies suggests, we've grown up seeing these roles played, even practiced them in "play" as children. (In a smart review of the 1990 movie version of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, an allegory of Original Sin and innate human depravity in which pubescent boys are stranded on an island without adults and turn into Savages, Gary Giddins pointed out that the boys were not blank slates: they knew from stories and TV shows and movies how Wild Indians and African Savages were supposed to behave, and followed the script.) By the time we are adults we've had two decades of training in exercising and submitting to authority.
 It turns out that at least one of the student guards was studying acting, and treated the experiment
as a kind of an improv exercise,” Eshelman said. “I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do, and I thought I’d do it better than anybody else by creating this despicable guard persona. I’d never been to the South, but I used a southern accent, which I got from Cool Hand Luke.”
Also, one of Zimbardo's main assistants "explicitly corrected guards who weren’t acting tough enough, fostering exactly the pathological behavior that Zimbardo would later claim had arisen organically."

It's fascinating to learn how much Zimbardo has lied about the project over the years, and I'm inclined to view his claim that he regrets its prominence in his public reputation as a lie too, since he worked long and hard to publicize it and to block criticism from colleagues, including a replication of the experiment that came up with very different results.  It makes me more inclined to doubt the validity of his later work, including a trendy book in the downtrodden-males genre.

There's much more to the article, and it's worth reading.

Legitimize Me All Night Long

The US/DPRK summit has enraged a lot of people in the US, and one of their favorite themes is that Trump "legitimized" Kim Jong Un by meeting with him.  I've seen many complaints about North Korea's undeniably bad human rights record, almost all of them from people who have nothing to say about the undeniably bad human rights records of so many US friends, allies, and clients.  When Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia visited Washington, for example, he was fawned on by Democrats and Republicans alike, by the full range of American corporate media, and hailed as a "reformer."  (This is typical of elite US reception of right-wing dictators for a century or more.)  Justin Trudeau and the Canadian establishment followed suit. The word "legitimize" was not to be heard, as far as I know, though it surely applied.

So, Glenn Greenwald wrote contemptuously today: "US foreign policy elites have invented a whole slew of meaningless phrases to justify a state of permanent militarism & aggression in the world, then trained people to recite them. That US should avoid negotiating with Bad Guys because it gives them 'legitimacy' in a good example".  He continued: "It's critically important that the country which lavishes the Saudi regime with weapons, intelligence, diplomatic cover, and constant praise not do anything to give legitimacy to dictators."

Someone calling himself "Vincent Adultman" riposted: "So is giving weapons, intelligence, diplomatic cover and praise to Saudi Arabia wrong, or is legitimizing dictators OK? Which lane are you picking?"

The most obvious point is that Greenwald doesn't endorse "giving weapons, intelligence, diplomatic cover and praise to Saudi Arabia."  Not only Trump, but most of the American political and chattering classes do favor doing so, however.  The question for such people, then, is why they don't favor giving the same benefits to Kim Jong Un; as a brutal dictator with no regard for human rights, he would seem to qualify.

Nor, as far as I know, does Greenwald believe the US should treat North Korea like Saudi Arabia.  Nor do I.  The Onion recently mocked the very idea.  The two cases are dissimilar in many ways.  Unlike Saudi Arabia, North Korea is not attacking another nation or creating a vast humanitarian catastrophe with US support.  The only country North Korea has attacked is South Korea, which is not a separate nation, in 1950; that was a civil war, not a war between nations.  I would certainly oppose the US giving or selling weapons or technology to North Korea, but I doubt Trump or most of the US political and business community have any such reservations.  I think the only nation, except perhaps Japan, that feels threatened by North Korea's nuclear weapons is the US, because of our own paranoiac fantasies.  Like much (most?) of the world, North Korea has much better reason to feel threatened by the US.

I believe that Vincent Adultman was trying for a version of a popular attempt to flummox those who oppose the US starting another aggressive war: Don't you libs want the US to "intervene" in Saudi Arabia?  Aren't you always complaining about the human rights in American client states? So why do you now object if the US bombs Kosovo, Iraq, Libya?  You have a double standard.  This line is often accompanied by a admission that America has not always got it right before, but this time we'll do it right.  Shouldn't we at least try?  Can't you just give America another chance?  I've heard this sort of thing at least since the US invasion of Panama in 1989, though I'm sure it's older, and every time it quickly became clear not only that America had blown another chance to get it right, but that our leaders didn't care.  They had other concerns on their agenda.

Here we come to another popular buzzword, "whataboutism" (or "whataboutery").  It comes in handy when someone points out real hypocrisy and double standards in US policy and conduct.  Given that we're not talking about parallels that are distant in time but are quite recent, it seems entirely fair to ask why it was horrible for Trump to meet Kim Jong Un but not Mohammed bin Salman, especially when meeting and praising Kim Jong Un is decried as an atrocity unprecedented in American history.  Some of these preachers get a bit testy when they're corrected as to the American record, too.  But then they never meant to be taken literally.

Admittedly, nobody can denounce, let alone work effectively against every bad thing in the world.  But think of all the nice, sincere liberals I interacted with online who were distraught over wounded Syrian children and asked why America couldn't do something about them.  When I asked them, they mostly said they didn't know what we could do, though some were up for bombing Syria (and some others didn't say so, I suspect, because they knew it would sound bad).  I then asked them what they thought about wounded Yemeni children, since the US is partly responsible for their suffering and could mitigate or even stop it simply by stopping our direct support for Saudi aggression.  None answered, and most of them stopped posting even about Syrian children before long, thanks to the famous American short attention span.  Even granting that nobody can do everything, how hard could it be to admit that US involvement in killing and starving Yemeni children is a problem, and maybe post a meme denouncing that involvement?  And pretending that Trump's behavior is unprecedented makes life easier by erasing all the other evils you need to keep track of, doesn't it?

Whataboutism has an honorable history, going back to Martin Luther King Jr.'s declaration in 1967:
I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
It becomes a dishonest tactic when the comparison is invalid, as they often are. Vincent Adultman provided a good example: he seemed to think that Greenwald was being inconsistent in denouncing US support for Saudi aggression while favoring peace in the Korean peninsula.  Another example is someone who responded to Greenwald's criticism of US commentators who "really believe that the US owns, or at least is entitled to exercise supreme dominion over, the Korean Peninsula."  Someone called Bohique replied: "I have not heard you reporting on the concentration camps Trump is setting up in Texas. Have you seen thebimages [sic] of children in cages? Maybe that will give you better context."  Of course Greenwald has criticized the viciously inhumane US immigration policy, going back at least to the days when it was Obama's policy.  I presume that Bohique was alluding to North Korean prison camps, on the assumption that US should exercise supreme dominion over the Korean peninsula because of them.  Leaving aside that there's no reason to believe that the US government or most mainstream pundits care about human rights (except when the pretense is useful for propaganda purposes), I don't see how US Korea policy has, or could, produce any improvement in North Korea's behavior.  But then it's not meant to.

You could go with Arash Karami, who very properly wrote today, "I can’t believe North Korea negotiated with a regime that just helped launched another catastrophic bombing campaign against Yemen."

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Marilyn Monroe Died for Our Sins

I've just begun reading what looks to be an interesting book, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell (Holt, 2004).  Churchwell's an academic, and her aim is not "to reveal the real woman behind the image, the truth behind the myth", but to tell "the story of the stories of Marilyn Monroe" (10), the mythology that has been constructed around her. 

So far, she's doing a good job.  For instance she notes the popular trope that Monroe was a "natural" woman, perhaps the last sex symbol to to be "'allowed' to be 'womanly': ... 'She would be told now to go on a strict diet and sent for liposuction, because we are no longer supposed to look womanly'" (28).  This particular version comes from an essay by Marge Piercy, who's one of my favorite writers, but flat wrong this time: she knows very well about whalebone corsets, and has written about the days of her mother's youth, when flappers bound their breasts and tried to have boyish figures.  As Churchwell shows, Monroe was attacked throughout her career for being messy, "overripe," overweight; Churchwell quotes a 1953 anti-fan letter which denounced Monroe for being fat, and "waddl[ing]" (29).  Once again, nostalgia is just amnesia turned around.

But this bit brought me up short:
Monroe also posed for what were then euphemistically referred to as "art" photographs, which was a code for pictures of nudes (the pinup would tend to be in a bathing suit, or at most seminude).  Art pictures were not pornographic; in fact, the difference between art photography and pornography at that point was whether pubic hair was visible; art pictures would reveal breasts, and perhaps nipples. (Playboy would make history when it first published a picture in which the model's public hair was barely visible, in January 1971) [36].
I'm not sure about this.  I think the distinction Churchwell wants to draw is between "pornography" and "obscenity."  Pornography is as imprecise a term as obscenity, of course, but I think Merriam-Webster's definitions would still fit the 40s and 50s, the period Churchwell is referring to: first,  "depictions of erotic behavior ... intended to cause sexual excitement"; second, any material that "depicts erotic behavior ... and is intended to cause sexual excitement."  The third is more metaphorical: "depictions of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction."  I suppose that even just standing there buck nekkid could count as "erotic behavior."  In this sense, even the pinups were pornographic.  But the big legal controversies of the twentieth century involved the legal category of obscenity, and many lines were drawn in the sand, only to be erased and replaced with newer ones.

What causes sexual excitement is highly variable and subjective, after all: those relatively chaste pinups of girls in swimsuits were meant to produce sexual excitement, so as to remind Our Boys what they were Fighting For.  It's a commonplace, which may or not be true (though it's supported by a famous episode in James Joyce's Ulysses, published in 1922), that in the Old Days of long skirts, a man could be excited by the mere sight of a woman's ankle, even though it was covered in stockings.  Half a century later, young women still chanted, "We must / We must / We must work on our bust / We better / We better / So we can wear a sweater!"  A pair of breasts covered -- though not concealed; rather enhanced -- by bra and sweater could still excite a man.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that the European edition of Playboy, whose models had smaller breasts and bigger hips than the US ideal, also broke the pubic hair barrier before the American one did.  I could well be wrong.  And this isn't important to the interest of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, I'm just thinking.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Old Balancing Act

I've been ruminating about a post on the Rosanne Barr / Samantha Bee foofooraw, and I may yet do something more extensive.  But the AV Club had a post yesterday, about Jon Stewart's reaction: "Jon Stewart Says the Samantha Bee Outrage Was Bullshit."  Stewart says that the Trump administration
"don’t give a shit about the word cunt,” Stewart said of the Trump administration, adding that he expects Trump himself “say that instead of ‘please.’” That comes from The Daily Beast, which says Stewart also implied that Bee should never have apologized, saying that the phony outrage game conservatives love to play is a “strategy” and “it’s working.”
Well, he's entitled to his own opinion.  What interested me was what the AVC writer, Sam Barsanti, had to say, namely that "it should be clear to everyone that saying something racist is worse than saying a bad word."  This, I think, indicates a what liberals / progressives fail to get about a lot of matters.  "Cunt" is not just "a bad word," it's a misogynist insult, fully as nasty as a racist epithet, and Samantha Bee used it as a misogynist insult.  She doesn't get a pass on it because she's a woman.  I'm a bit bemused by the way so many women see the word as ultimately, soul-destroyingly horrible in any context, but that too has to be taken into account in evaluating Bee's remarks.

Sally Field got it right, I thought:


(If you want to groan and bang your head against something, though, read some of the angry responses by Rosanne Barr fans to Field's tweet; the first one is typical.)

Should Barr's show have been canceled?  Should Bee have apologized?  Should she have been fired?  I've been thinking and writing about questions like these for a long time now, and I am no closer to answers than I ever have been.  I don't think there is a simple answer to the questions of when someone should lose their TV show or their job and when they shouldn't, of what is going too far, and the like.  But I also think that most people, regardless of their political affiliation, jump to demands that whoever offends them should be fired, and that alone is a good reason to reject those demands on principle. 

I'm inclined to say that Bee was not only indulging in misogynist abuse, which in itself is certainly free speech and therefore protected, but incredibly tactically stupid.  Calling Trump a cunt was self-indulgent, but it also played into the hands of the Right, and pandered to widespread misogyny among liberals.  I don't believe she should be fired for that; I do think in addition to pandering to specific audiences' prejudices, we need more rational discussion of just about everything in politics today, and that neither Bee, Stewart, Comedy Central, nor the media in general are interested in that.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Remember Why the Good Lord Gave You Eyes -- Medicalize!

The latest (so far) American mass shooting has produced the usual confused back-and-forth -- no, make that a free-for-all -- about What Must Be Done.  After President Trump declared in Tokyo that mass shootings are a "mental health problem at the highest level", many people were outraged.  (One intelligent response to Trump's statement that "We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries" was that it was true, but mental illness doesn't produce frequent mass killings in other countries.)  Glenn Greenwald tweeted angrily, "When Muslims use violence, they're evil 'animals.' When white people do it, it's a 'sad' problem of 'mental health'".

I'm afraid I couldn't resist replying mischievously, "Well, we wouldn't want to criminalize a medical problem, would we?" That was because I remembered (though I can't now find, and I've been looking) an earlier tweet in which, addressing the failure of the US War on Drugs, Greenwald said that it's a bad idea to criminalize a medical problem like drug addiction.  Even if I misremembered and he didn't tweet to that effect, the line is a commonplace in discussion of drug problems in the US today.  The trouble is that drug addiction isn't a medical problem.

That doesn't mean that I think drug use should be criminalized.  Putting the situation in those terms -- criminalization vs. medicalization -- sets up a binary that is at best debatable, as though there were only two options, jail and a doctor's care.  The main reason I say that addiction isn't a medical problem is that "treatment" doesn't work, and most of the reasoning behind medicalizing drug use is flawed at best.  In the US and in other countries under our influence, treatment is often part of the criminalization of drug use, with users and addicts ordered to get treatment, as an alternative or supplement to jail. It should be obvious that forced "treatment" for behavior is not likely to be very successful, and ethical practitioners shouldn't go along with it - but they do, which casts serious doubt on the ethics of those practitioners.  So we get the worst of both models, the criminal and the medical.

For the same reasons, I find myself skeptical about the legalistic approach to gun violence, which is a very serious problem in the US.  Why not medicalize the problem?  For one thing, it wouldn't work either; for another, as Greenwald indicated, treatment would be applied in a biased manner, since there are no objective measures for distinguishing between criminal gun violence and gun violence commited as a result of mental illness.  I noticed after the Sandy Hook massacre that there was a lot of confusion about this: it was liberals no less than rightwingers whom I saw trying to tie access to guns to mental health.  Even people I knew who'd previously denounced the stigmatizing of mental illness leaped to do just that after Sandy Hook.  Some argued that the behavior of the shooter, Adam Lanzer, before the massacre showed that he was "deranged"; others pointed out that he planned the killing methodically well in advance, which is not what one would expect from a psychotic.  Various mental health advocates pointed out that most mentally ill individuals, even the severely ill, are not dangerous to others.  It doesn't appear that we have good, objective psychiatric criteria for spotting dangerous people in advance.

I also find myself ambivalent about the explosion of activism by high-school students demanding action by their government.  I'm glad to see them speaking out, and I can't think of a better cause.  It's fun, and very gratifying, to watch them stand up to conservative politicians and pundits who want them to shut up, since so many of their elders believe that you're supposed to crumble and collapse when you meet opposition and criticism, especially from the Right.  They're bright, articulate, and inspiring.  I'm only uneasy because I don't believe they know, any more than anyone else, how to fix the problem.  But I don't think they know any less than their NRA-loving critics.

I began drafting this post last November, as readers may guess from the reference to Trump's Asia tour in the first paragraph.  It's horrifying and depressing to find that it's still timely.