Monday, June 19, 2017

A Question of Priorities

I mostly agreed with this piece by FAIR's Janine Jackson up until the last couple of sentences.
... And that’s the thing to remember: Every person you see on air is there because someone chose to put them there, and is taking the place of someone else who might be there.  So when they, say, trot out the “n-word” and say it’s less “a race thing than a comedian thing”; when they ask an Indian-American spelling contest winner if she’s “used to” writing “in Sanskrit” because they’re “joking”; when they lament a commemoration of the now, they care about pop music and going to the beach”—the thing to keep in mind is that Orlando Pulse shooting being used to agitate for gun control because “most gay people aren’t political. Most gay people, you know, they care about pop music and going to the  beach" -- the thing to keep in mind is that freedom of speech is not the same thing as a guaranteed right to a megaphone. It is always appropriate to ask media outlets why they have chosen these people over others to fulfill their obligation to serve the public interest.
I think it's at least arguable that freedom of speech is the same thing as a guaranteed right to a megaphone.  Having the "freedom" to say whatever you like while you're alone in a soundproof room, or to write whatever you like as long as no one but you ever sees it, is not what I'd call freedom of speech or the press.  This has always been a problem with the implementation of freedom of speech, and the proprietors of today's commercial media would, I think, basically agree with Jackson here: Sure, you have the right to say whatever you like, but we're not obligated to give every tinfoil-hat wacko a soapbox and a megaphone for his crazy ideas.  So buy your own megaphone!

It was the part about the media's "obligation to serve the public interest" that bothered me first, though.  I agree that it's appropriate to challenge the media over the criteria by which they choose the people they provide with a megaphone, not because they aren't entitled to put anyone they like in front of the microphones and cameras, but because the corporate media posture as much about their responsibility to the public as Jackson could wish.  Even the most degaded and reactionary of our media claim to be telling the public what it wants and needs to know.  They wave the flag and prattle about their sense of duty to Truth, and their eternal quest for Objecdtivity.  It would be better to acknowledge that all media are partisan, that the corporate media report the news "through the eyes of the investor class" as another writer at FAIR put it very aptly a few years ago.  Non-commercial media are often no better: I happened to hear BBC commentary the morning after the recent UK election, and it was pretty appallingly partisan: even the pundit from a nominally Labour paper was upset by Labour's victory, saying younger voters voted for Labour because Corbyn had simply promised to give them money, and the woman from a Conservative women's website kept giggling about how Corbyn was like ninety years old, even after she was corrected.

The question is, what is the public interest?  Who knows it, and how do they know it?  Again, the corporate media would protest that they do so serve the public interest to the best of their  ability.  The principle underlying liberal, Enlightenment mandates like freedom of the press is that no one does know where the true public interest lies, so it is important that as many viewpoints as possible be available.  This may be invalid -- a surprising number of liberals and progressives jeer at it -- but if so, we should just repeal the First Amendment.

I think that consumers / users of media also need to take responsibility for their choices.  Everything you see on media is something you've chosen to watch or listen to, and it means that you're not listening to or watching something else.  There are many options available, probably more than ever before.  Even better, there are media criticism resources like FAIR, and unlike the media generally, they show their work: why is this statement dubious, what could this story contain that it doesn't, and so on?  No one can really do your thinking for you, so you have to evaluate the information you take in.  No media source is infallible, and every media source must be used critically.  If you prefer not to do that, it isn't the fault of the media (as a whole) if you end up misinformed.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Feverishly Patriotic and Irrational Effusions": Fake News in the Eighteenth-and-a-Half Century

I recently read Benjamin Franklin, Politician: The Mask and the Man (Norton, 1996) by the late Francis Jennings, a historian whose work has been very instructive for me.  The book is a relatively brief, revisionist (though not hostile) take on Franklin's rise to prominence before the American Revolution; Jennings dug around in the archives and found some information that hadn't been taken into account before.  It describes the history of the colony of Pennsylvania, which was a relative enclave of religious liberty in that period, complicated by mismanagement both of its founder, Wiliam Penn, and his son Thomas.

I especially liked this passage, about an attack on the colonial government written by a young Anglican priest, Thomas Barton, a protege of William Smith, who was in turn a protege of Franklin's.  Franklin didn't know that Smith later spied on him for Thomas Penn.  In 1754 Smith wrote anonymously "an incendiary pamphlet, entitled A Brief State of the Province of Pennsylvania, intended among other things to "induce the Parliament to take measures for the future security of this Province by excluding the Quakers from the Legislature."  The pamphlet "aroused a great future in Britain" (99).
Barton brought copies of [William] Smith's Brief State pamphlet, already in circulation in England, attacking the Assembly, the Quakers, and the Germans. It made such a "prodigious Noise," and was so far-reaching in its intended and unintended effects, that it deserves in some detail.  Its title page describes its author as "a Gentleman who has resided many Years in Pennsylvania."  This set the keynote for the pamphlet's deceptions; Smith, at the time of writing it, had visited Philadelphia for several weeks in 1753, and had resided there less than eight months in 1754.

The pamphlet opens with a brief review of population statistics on the generous side, and lays down maxims of government.  Popular government is all right for infant settlements, it says, but as communities grow their government should become less popular and more "mixt."  Pennsylvania has become more of "a pure Republic" than at its founding.  A "speedy Remedy" is needed.  The province has too much toleration: "extraordinary Indulgence and Privileges" are granted to papists.  (They were allowed to celebrate mass openly.)  The Quakers conduct "political Intrigues, under the Mask of Religion."  (As all the organized religions did, in England as well as America.)  For their own ends, the Quakers have taken "into their pay" a German printer named Saur, "who was once one of the French Prophets in German, and is shrewdly suspected to be a Popish emissary."  (Saur was an Anabaptist, fiercely independent.)  The "worst Consequence" of the Quakers' "insidious practices" with the Germans is that the latter "are grown insolent, sullen, and turbulent."  They give out "that they are a Majority, and strong enough to make the Country their own," and indeed they would be able, "by joining with the French, to eject all the English inhabitants ... the French have turned their Hopes upon the great body of Germans ... by sending their Jesuitical Emissaries among them ... they will draw them from the English ... or perhaps lead them in a Body against us."  The Quakers oppose every effort to remedy this evil state of affairs, attacking all "regular Clergymen as Spies and Tools of State."  Thus the Quakers hinder ministers from "having Influence enough to set them right at the annual Elections."  The greatest German sect is the Mennonites -- people like the Quakers.  A quarter of the Germans are "supposed" to be Roman Catholics.  (Even Thomas Penn understood that there were only about two thousand Catholics in the province.  But he did not make that knowledge public.)  [106-7]
Smith's diatribe should sound familiar to observers and consumers of American political discourse today: furriners who refuse to learn our language are taking over, to impose Canon law on decent Christians. and pacifist surrender-monkeys not only want them to succeed, they are actively in the pay of Putin!

The other day someone shared this meme on Facebook:

It turns out, surprisingly enough (it's a meme spreading like a radioactive virus on Facebook, after all) to be a genuine quotation.  One commenter called it "prescient," which was, um, stupid since Bonhoeffer was not talking about the future but about Nazi Germany in his present and recent past.  I pointed this out, and the commenter replied that he didn't mean it "foretold" anything, which was probably a lie, or to put it more nicely, apologetic invention; he proceeded to tie himself in knots trying to justify it.  It was as if he'd found a passage where Bonhoeffer referred to sunrise, and kvelled that the sun came up this morning, so Bonhoeffer was prescient about that.

Of course it's a common and "natural" human tendency to take literary or other material from the past as not just relevant to the present as well, but as a specific reference to the present: Christianity, for one major cultural force, was built on such appropriation of the Hebrew Bible.  And like the ancient Christians, today's American liberals think of all history as a prelude leading up to themselves, the crown of creation and the fulfilment of all human hope, as foretold in the scriptures.  Liberals love to jeer at fundamentalists for thinking like this, but they are treading the same path every time they claim that today's Right is completely unprecedented.

The reason why the Bonhoeffer quotation should give Americans pause is not that he was foretelling American's future, but that he was describing a problem that was current then, had a long history worldwide, and has not gone away since then.  Thinking otherwise helps foster the dangerous illusion that things used to be different, the media used to tell the Truth, people used to be good to each other, America was the land that didn't torture, Barack ended the wars, etc., and all the Democrats need to do is take America back.
 
But it's also dangerous to think of "stupid people" as the Other.  I am stupid, you are stupid, we're all stupid here, or we wouldn't be here.  I told another liberal commenter on the Bonhoeffer meme that I too have given up on talking to stupid people, but that was just rhetoric.  It's always important to answer, rebut, and try to refute positions and statements we think are stupid.  True, we probably won't convince the people we're criticizing, but we might persuade someone else who reads what we've written.  That's the point of debate -- to persuade not our opponent, but our audience.

So that's why I liked Jennings's book and the passage I quoted here, though I suppose it could just as easily make people feel hopeless: if people have always been dishonest and irrational, then why even try to oppose them?  It's a question I don't have a good answer for, especially since dishonesty and irrationality so often win.  But it's possible to make them lose too.  If we remember how persistent they are, though, we won't be surprised when they bounce back.  We might even be able to think of ways to resist and stop them before they get the upper hand again, instead of wailing, "Oh no, this is unprecedented, where did these people come from, why are they being so mean?"

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Cart Before the Horse


This tweet made me feel a twinge of despair.  What I think we need is not hope but reason for hope.  And there is some of that, in the wake of Labour's resurgence in last week's election.  But this confusion of the word with the thing itself is magical thinking, the kind of linguistic determinism I associate with the Culture of Therapy, and the reponses to the tweet indicate that I recognize it correctly.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Human-Caused Climate Change

It's going to take time to sort out everything about today's shooting of several people at a Republican Congressional baseball practice by an apparent Bernie Sanders supporter and volunteer, and I could use that as an excuse not to write about it now.  But one thing seems clear to me.  For the past year and more I've been watching liberals, progressives, and leftists fantasize aloud about and even endorse violence against Republicans and other right-wingers, from the video clip of a football player tackling a Trump lookalike (shared on Facebook by my friend A, who unfriended me soon after I called her out on it) to the widespread kvelling over the punching of Richard Spencer.  Whatever the facts about James T. Hodgkinson turn out to be, I think it's indisputable that liberal Democrats have been energetically fostering what they call a "climate of hate" when it's fomented by the Right.

They'll do their best to evade responsibility for their words, of course, just as the Right did after the shooting of Gabrielle Gifford.  They'll try to claim that Hodgkinson was mentally ill, a lone nut, and that the vitriol liberals and some leftists have been spewing in public for the past year -- and especially since the election of Donald Trump -- had nothing to do with his crime.  Maybe so, maybe not: Hodgkinson died in the hospital after he was shot by police, so he can't speak for himself; but apparently he had a rather vivid social-media presence.

I believe that we are responsible for our actions and our words, and that words mostly are not actions.  We can't be held responsible for everything that happens after we've acted or spoken, because it's not always certain whether something like this crime was a consequence of public rhetoric.  But it's notable that liberals and progressives have insisted often that the Right's rhetoric made such crimes more likely -- that "climate of hate" -- while giving themselves a pass for their own intemperate and often hateful rhetoric.  The denial that is so by many liberals, like the person in the photo that heads this post, is not only illiberal but a declaration of war on the principle of free speech.  I've often told liberals who claimed that "hate speech" isn't constitutionally protected that they should be glad it is, because otherwise they themselves would be in deep shit.

But then the rest of us are in deep shit too, as both mainstream US political factions gleefully drag the country (and the rest of the world) down.  "The creatures outside looked from pig to man," at the ending of Orwell's Animal Farm, "and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

P.S. Yes You're Racist has been active in fostering a climate of hate on Twitter, joining hands with the white supremacists he purports to despise, so this morning's retweet was almost funny:

It is okay to spread toxicity if it gets retweets and favorites on Twitter apparently.  Some of us don't need to "rethink things," though.  A rich white lady got hurt a few years ago, after all -- has YYR already forgotten Gabrielle Giffords and the eighteen other people shot during a constituent meeting in Arizona six years ago?  Six of them died, including a rich white guy and a little girl.  YYR and his ilk are paradigm examples of what so many left writers call "tribalism," the belief that only our side's lives matter.  If it's not okay to spread toxicity, it doesn't matter who gets hurt.

And, of course, some in the liberal media are blaming Putin for Hodgkinson.  Why not?

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other


https://twitter.com/davidsirota/status/871475629631258624

I doubt it myself: More likely Americans will just hope for a new president they can deify, while demonizing the one currently in office.  Republican loyalists always found it easy to remember that Obama was human, and Democratic loyalists can see Trump's feet of clay without corrective lenses.  The hard part is not to deify the president you support, and most people seem to find it not just hard but impossible.

This meme, whose creator apparently removed it from Twitter after it was criticized, fits in nicely here:

The most obvious point the meme's maker overlooked was that he or she was describing Donald Trump.

I have to wonder whom it's addressed to.  Many liberals and progressives took exactly these points into consideration when they voted for Clinton.  Clinton won the popular vote; she only lost in the Electoral College.  Those who voted for Trump and tilted the Electoral College in his favor were mostly not, as far as I know, liberals or progressives.  So this appears to be just one more party-loyalist attack on the thought criminals who Let Hillary Down, though it's not clear just how they (we) did so. Things have come to such a turn that a loyalist like this could admit, if only rhetorically, that Clinton was not a very inspiring candidate, and so on.  That's of no importance.  More important is that whoever made this still has no idea what went wrong.

Some responses on Twitter indicated that the mememaker, faced with these and other criticisms, has deleted the tweet in which it appeared, saying that all they meant was that we should be good to each other, or some such vacuous prattle.  But this sort of barely passive-aggressive attack on the voters he or she pretends to be appealing to is the exact opposite of being good to each other.

... Posting has, I confess with tears and in sackcloth and ashes, been sparse around here lately, and I'm afraid it's not going to improve much very soon.  I may be moving to a new residence, and while everything is up in the air I'll be even less likely to write.  But I'm still alive and functional, at least in principle.

P.S.  Seth MacFarlane reposted the "Dear Liberals and Independents" meme on Twitter.  Someone replied with a corrected version:

https://twitter.com/cit_uprising/status/872063334551506944
Of course, that won a scolding from a Clintonbot.  Maybe a meaner version of the meme is called for.  I'll give it some thought.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Does Not Nature Itself Teach You That a Woman Should Not Shave Her Pits?

This item appeared in my newsfeed this morning because my Diversity-Manager friend commented on it.  (Names, except mine, are obscured to protect the guilty.)  In a way, his ex cathedra pronouncement was predictable, and of course I myself agree that women shouldn't be required to shave their body hair, any more than they should be required to wear the hijab or cover their heads when they meet a supreme religious leader.

What messed with my mind was DMF's simplistic appeal to Natural-Law doctrine, which I don't think he'd invoke in most contexts, and certainly not with regard to transgender issues.  (He may well not have realized he was doing so: he's not the most careful thinker.)  Quite apart from the fact this doctrine is a mainstay of antifeminist, antigay and antitrans bigots -- though the Born-Gay argument also relies on it -- it can't be applied consistently to human beings.  Nor does anyone do so: I alluded to the apostle Paul's decree that "nature" teaches that women shouldn't cut their hair but men should do so.  The passage is a marvel of incoherence, which is what one usually finds when people invoke Nature for any reason, for any cause (via).  (It's fascinating to me that some arbitrary religious requirements inspire contempt, while others inspire awe, with no criteria for the difference that I can discern.)

People shouldn't be required to modify their bodies in certain ways, but cutting or shaving hair, trimming nails, covering or uncovering themselves, painting or otherwise adorning themselves, are so ubiquitous in human cultures that such practices can reasonably called "natural," though no particular modification should be mandatory.  And anyone who denounces one given modification almost certainly will favor another.  Which practices (if any) should be forbidden can only be decided by deliberation and judgment, not by appeals to Nature or any other fixed rule. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

But Some of My Best Friends Are Cock Holsters!

Just as I was about to let Stephen Colbert's unfortunate "joke" about Trump and Putin sink slowly into the past, various people kept kicking it back to the front of my consciousness.  So, for example, Roy Edroso dismissed US Representative Jason Chaffetz last week as "a little bitch who remained lashed to his great white Hillary whale long after everyone else abandoned ship because pretending to be a tough guy is all he knows how to do."  Edroso got his metaphors a bit mixed up there, but these are troubled times and we've got to do something.  Then, yesterday, Edroso mocked country singer Toby Keith, who performed for an all-male audience in Saudi Arabia during Trump's visit there:
I like to imagine Keith getting a call: "Hey Tobe! It's me, Faisal. How'd you like to pick up a quarter mil easy money? All you have to is change some lyrics -- you know, 'Pellegrino for My Horses, Mango Nectar for My Men.'" Or maybe it's not that kind of relationship, and Keith came wrapped in a rug?
The link goes to a clip from the 1963 Hollywood blockbuster Cleopatra, in which Elizabeth Taylor has herself delivered to Rex Harrison wrapped in a rug, thereby signaling her sexual availability or something.  So Edroso wants us to think of Keith as Faisal's little bitch.

Then this morning liberal tweeter Yes You're Racist invited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to "eat my entire ass."  YYR is a better person than I am; being rimmed by McConnell would just make me feel dirty.  (Or as the lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel had a character say in one of her early strips, "I thought sodomy meant having sex with a Republican.")

These examples, which of course could be multiplied, are useful partly because they disprove the straight-liberal-guy protestation that calling somebody a faggot is not a reference to gay sexual practices, that they are totally cool with gays boning gays, they totally support gay marriage, they just don't like "Servants of power.  You know - faggots."  But as Colbert and Edroso and YYR show, they equate being a servant of power with being penetrated sexually, which they regard with visceral repulsion.  So how do they think of the women in their lives?  I probably shouldn't ask.

Another reason I almost didn't write about all this was that Brandon U. Sutton wrote an excellent piece about the controversy at Progressive Army.  Sutton said most of what I'd intended to say.  For example:
First, and while this may seem churlish, what Colbert said was not even particularly clever or funny. Arguably, it was barely even a joke, since jokes have a certain structure from which they derive some of their humor. Colbert saying that the only thing Donald Trump’s mouth is good for is as a “cock holster” was just an insult that people found funny.
"Funny" is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but I think he's right.  "Cock holster" is the kind of epithet sixth-grade boys consider hilarious: not because they have any personal experience of fellatio from either end, but because they're extremely anxious about bodies.  Which reminded me of a couple of sketches from Colbert's show during last year's campaign, in which a young boy played Trump's "nickname strategist."  It appears that Colbert took the boy on as one of his writers.

That many conservatives objected to Colbert's insult was unsurprising -- not because it was "homophobic," which they would normally consider a good thing, but because it targeted someone on their side.  If, during the 2008-2016 period, some comic had called Barack Obama a cock holster for Benjamin Netanyahu, would liberal Democrats have considered it just a joke?  For that matter, I recall Colbert himself adopting a stance of unironic submission to then-President Obama, who ordered him to get a military buzz cut to show his solidarity with Our Troops in Iraq. "Servant of power" would have been a perfect characterization for Colbert in those days, and depending on whom he's bending the knee to, it still is.

I don't want Colbert fired.  I just want to name what he's doing.  His liberal defenders have had to resort to right-wing insults against his critics, such as "virtue signalling."  But virtue-signalling is Colbert's stock in trade.  One Colbertista on Twitter responded to me in those terms: "Thanks for another example of our virtue signaling culture where everyone is perpetually offended."  To which I replied, "I'm not 'offended' by his homophobic insults; I'm a faggot, they just roll off. They just undercut his signalled virtue."

But there's another thought: one reason we're not supposed to say such naughty things is that they'll drive gay kids to suicide.  So why does Colbert get a pass on it?  Because he's on Our Side, one of the Good Guys, and anyway, liberals are happy to use homophobic / misogynist rhetoric against their enemies.  (Don't imagine that kids wouldn't hear about what Colbert said, even if it weren't freely available the next day on YouTube.  That's another right-wing fantasy, that children will know nothing of homosexuality if we can just keep Teh Gay out of the media.)  I'm not seriously worried about Colbert affecting youth-suicide rates, of course: I'm just savoring the smell of hypocrisy in the morning.