Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Around Cape Horn at Seventeen

Last week I read quite a good book.  In fact I think Ruth Moore's The Walk Down Main Street (William Morrow, 1960) is one of the best books I've read this year.

I found out about The Walk Down Main Street from a mention in one of May Sarton's late journals.  Sarton also lived in Maine for many years, but she apparently didn't know Moore or her work until she picked up this one near the end of her life.  Sarton said she "had not been so taken by a novel in ages."  By the time I finally got around to the book, I'd completely forgotten why Sarton's description had appealed to me.  It is, she said,
about the wreckage in a small town when the basketball team in the local high school wins a local championship and goes on to a bigger test, how the boys become arrogant and obsessed, and the men take to betting on the game and become more and more involved, a corrupting process.
This accurately describes the occasion of the novel, but doesn't really do it justice.  Certainly the novel's criticism of basketball hysteria has a lot to do with why I enjoyed it -- it fit in my comfort zone -- but it has more going on than that.  While Moore is unsparing about Boy Culture, it's not only "the men": the women in the town are also gaga over the team's success.  They're pushed to the sidelines, but they give what support their role allows them.  There are exceptions in both camps, of course: the science teacher, for example, who is more concerned with getting his students into college for academic reasons than because of success in sports; and the chief protagonist, a widow whose son has become the star of the team when he runs a hot streak in one game, along with a knee injury that the local doctor (another booster) treats with novocaine so that the boy can continue to play while aggravating the tissue damage.  It's also not the basketball fever that is responsible for the corruption, arrogance, and betting; rather it's an outlet for them.  Moore shows that they've always been present in the community.

The widow I mentioned, Susie Hoodless, married a sweet but rather feckless Coast Guardsman from Arkansas, who drowned in a pointless accident at sea.   The town, and her father Martin in particular, has never really forgiven her for marrying a "foreigner."  (Ironically, Martin himself had married a real foreigner, a Swedish woman.)  Racism is pervasive among the townspeople: the science teacher, also a "foreigner," is Jewish, and there's a lot of eagerness to classify all "foreigners" as black, either by blood or by mystic essence.  There's an extended flashback about Susie's honeymoon with her husband Brant, when they traveled to Arkansas so she could meet his family.
[Brant's father] said nothing at all.  He stood there, looking at Brant; his hands on the rifle might have been carved out of wood.

Brant said, "I got married.  This here's my wife."

The old man didn't move his head, bu the slits of his eyes flicked a little, flicked over Susie, flicked back to Brant.

"Whar she come from?" he said.

"She come from where my Base is," Brant said.

"What to hell kind of foreign country is that to come from?" said Brant's father.  "She white?"

Susie couldn't help it.  It was so exactly like Martin Hoodless, here she and Brant had crossed practically the whole United States to listen to the exact same thing.  Susie laughed.

She said, choking, "When Brant and I got married, Mr. McIntosh, my father said, 'Where's Arkansas?  Who ever heard tell of it?  What to hell kind of foreign country is that to come from?'"

The old man didn't even look at her; he was looking at Brant, and Brant's face was wooden.

"You ma'ied a Yankee," the old man said [90-91].
On the trip back to Maine, Susie realizes that the immiserating poverty that at first shocked her in Arkansas is also present at home, though its familiarity there had kept her from noticing it before.  I noticed that small-town Maine is not importantly different from the small-town Indiana where I was growing up when The Walk Down Main Street was published.

Susan's father Martin is another holdout from the basketball fever, but for different reasons.  He wants to keep his family, including his basketball-playing grandson Carlisle, at home and under his control.  (We're told that all his daughters save Susie married and moved far away from him as soon as they could.)   There's an amusing exchange between Martin and one of the town fathers, who objects to Martin's saying that Carlisle can work his way through college:
"What's the sense of that?  Why put a young kid that far behind the eight-ball?  You work him too hard, you'll warp his whole future.  Why, a young kid, he ain't ready for too much rugged stuff, Mart."

"Hell's pink-whiskered, blistered bells!"  Martin said.  "Carlisle's great-grandfather took a vessel around Cape Horn when he was seventeen."

"Different time, Mart, different times.  Nowadays, thank God, a kid don't have to get out and hustle.  I wouldn't want my boy to have to work the way I did, the way his grandfather did.  It don't make sense.  What I want for him is the best there is, and in this world, Mart, thanks to you and me, there's some pretty good things.  By gum and by gosh, my kid wouldn't take a ship around Cape Horn.  Be damned if I'd let him!"

"Well, another thing," Martin said.  "Your kid couldn't."

A slight flush came into the pale skin over Jed's temples, but he went smoothly on [261].
Moore knows all the cliches of reactionary bullshit, but she plays around with them for her own purposes.  On the next page Martin reflects:
If there was any reason, he thought, for an educated man to talk like a hick, it was just to show you that he was on your side, he was a hick, too.  On jury duty, which Martin had had a good many times, he had run into the same thing, and it had always annoyed him.  The lawyers, addressing the jury, at times would drop so far into countrified speech that the jury themselves had difficulty in understanding them.  Jed was an educated man, a college man.  Why in hell didn't he talk like one? [262]
If he did, Martin would despise him for that, of course.

Moore subtly but clearly depicts school and town politics, and treats all of her large cast of characters with empathy if not sympathy.  The town "eccentrics" provide some comedy, as usual in regional fiction, but they also have some complexity and surprises in store.

To add an extra fillip of pleasure, though I didn't learn this until after I'd finished the book: Moore's longtime companion from 1940 until the latter's death in 1981 was Eleanor Mayo, also a novelist.  Were they lesbians?  I have no idea, but clearly they weren't heterosexuals as we think of them today.  I just got hold of another of Moore's novels, Speak to the Winds, published in 1956, and will probably track down the rest of them. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

No!

I stumbled today on a news story about a volunteer fireman in Minnesota who's been suspended for flying a Confederate flag on a city firetruck during a Fourth of July* parade.  He's not racist, of course, because he says so.
“I’m sick of the politically correctness, because they are trying to change too much in the United States,” Nielsen told KARE 11. “Me raising that flag had nothing to do with slavery. It had nothing to do with disrespect towards our vets. It was more of a statement against the PC. I’m sorry that I hurt my city and hurt the fire department. It was my decision and I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but boy was I wrong.”
He says he'd do it again, "just not in a public vehicle."  It was cruel of KARE to quote Brian Nielsen's inarticulate babble so exactly.   It would be interesting, and not only because I'm a cruel person (though I am), to ask him why it's "chang[ing] too much in the United States" to object to the display of the flag of a defeated enemy that waged war against the United States, a flag that has been used to symbolize resistance to the equal treatment of all American citizens.  If Brian Nielsen really wanted to show the "politically correctness" how truly bold an independent thinker he is, why not fly a North Vietnamese flag, or an ISIS flag (a real one, not a parody), or -- damn the torpedoes and Godwin's Law -- a Nazi flag?  I'd love to see Nielsen yatter about political correctness  to the people who'd dogpile him if he did such a thing, in a Fourth of July parade no less.  It's a mark of how corrupted the American collective memory is that there are many people who can't see what the CSA battle flag has to do with slavery, white supremacy, or "disrespect towards our vets."

I suppose it would be understandable for a twelve-year-old to want to do something just because somebody somewhere said it shouldn't be done, but not for a forty-three-year old "father of one."  (Notice, by the way, that the Colorado teenagers who included guns and a Confederate flag in their prom photograph did so with the support, and in the presence of their parents.)  But I'm being unfair to twelve-year-olds.  Brian Nielsen thinks like a two-year-old.

Speaking of that ISIS dildo flag that confused seasoned CNN commentators during a Pride parade in London in June, the guy who made it is not a lot more clear-minded than Brian Nielsen.  He wrote an article for the Guardian explaining what he thought he was doing.
Previously, I’ve attached dildos onto postcards from each country where homosexuality is still illegal to point out that the laws of these places regards its gay residents as mere sex objects. Previously, I’ve attached dildos onto postcards from each country where homosexuality is still illegal to point out that the laws of these places regards its gay residents as mere sex objects. 

The decision to make the flag was a simple one: a sense of outrage at Isis’s brutal advance across North Africa, Libya, Syria and Iraq. Medieval ideologies and barbarism were being spread and recorded through that most modern of expressions, social media, with that flag ever-present. It has become a potent symbol of brutality, fear and sexual oppression. If I wanted to try and stimulate a dialogue about the ridiculousness of this ideology, the flag was key.
I see.  Leaving aside the artiste's stilted diction and uncertain syntax, how do "the laws of these places regards its gay residents as mere sex objects"?  I don't think Paul Coombs understands what "sex object" means.  The term refers to treating another person solely as an object to be used for one's own sexual pleasure -- which is not what Islamist regimes are doing to their gay citizens.  (Nor is it how the sodomy laws on the books of numerous US states until 2003 regarded gay men. Am I reaching far back into "medieval" times if I also mention Britain's antigay laws, repealed in 1967 but brought back in other forms by the Thatcher Regime?  Or Germany's infamous Paragraph 175, finally repealed only in 1994?  Perhaps the scientific "treatment" of gay men like )

I too am outraged by ISIS' "brutal advance across North Africa, Libya," etc.  But I can't forget the brutal advance of the United States and Great Britain over Africa and Asia, whether in the past (India's law against gay sex, for example, was imposed by the English, though it's still in force after independence) or in the present: hundreds of thousands dead, wounded, tortured, driven into exile, while the coalition of the willing set up and propped up Islamist regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere.  (Hamas, you'll remember, was assisted at first by Israel -- which also means by the US -- in hopes of undermining the secularist PLO.  The best-laid schemes. like satire, gang aft agley.)  The US and Britain are currently supporting Saudi Arabia's brutal advance through Yemen, with great loss of life already and much more to come.  Given the limits of our time and energy, we have to choose what we'll yell about, but it's far too easy to condemn an official enemy like ISIS from afar while ignoring what one's own government is doing.

Satire is difficult, of course.  A single object, like Paul Coombs's dildo flag or Brian Nielsen's battle rag, is especially ambiguous and easy to misunderstand.  Yet so many would-be satirists take for granted that their brilliant and complex, many-layered symbolism will be instantly understood by their audiences, no matter how many times they learn otherwise.  Some people simply can't grok satire.  Coombs, however, is too easily satisfied:
On a message board someone posted: “Whenever I see the Isis flag anywhere, all I can see is dildos!” Mission accomplished.
Yeah, ISIS, take that!  Gay Brits won't be fooled by your sinister secret agenda.  It won't help the people being slaughtered by your tanks and bombs, or by American bombs intended for ISIS but going just a bit off target, but Paul Coombs laughs you to scorn.


*Actually, a "Third of July" parade, according to the article.  I have no idea why.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Capitalism Helps Those Who Help Themselves

I've been reading David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle's The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools (Perseus Books, 1995), which is good but slow going since it contains so much useful information.  The part I was reading today addressed the American myth of individualism and self-reliance and its role in hostility to public schools.  But that myth has influence in other important areas of public concern as well, and I think I noticed something about it that the authors didn't.

They write:
Americans tend to assume that most social outcomes are generated by the characteristics of individuals -- rather than, say, by unfair laws, structural forces in the society, industrial greed, accidents, or divine intervention.  And we also believe that schools are given broad responsibility for molding individuals so they are more likely to experience positive outcomes.  This is all very well, but what happens when social outcomes are negative?  And what happens when, as in the past twenty years, social problems escalate in America?  What happens when American industries lose out to foreign competitors, when more and more people lose their jobs, when crime rates soar, when the country must deal with high rates of violence and drug addiction, when the divorce rate shoots up, or when Americans suffer in increasing numbers from sexually transmitted diseases?  By extension of the above logic, the individuals experiencing those social problems are (obviously) responsible for their fates, the schools those individuals attended have (obviously) failed in their missions, and those schools should be brought to account [152].
Not very surprisingly, research finds that
beliefs about individual efficacy were weaker among people who were most likely to have experienced economic failure or discrimination -- namely, those who were young, black, female, impoverished, or from poorer sections of the country.  The researchers commented. "The picture of the prototypical believer in the [myth of individualism that] emerges quite clearly and, perhaps not coincidentally resembles Ronald Reagan: an older, white, male, Westerner with a relatively high income" [153-5].
Believers in individual efficacy can rebut this easily enough, by saying that of course losers will try to blame someone else -- the system, society -- for keeping them down, while winners will modestly and correctly credit themselves or their innate genetic superiority for their success.  And (though I don't agree as a general principle) it's quite plausible that people prefer to blame the System, or other people's malevolence, instead of their own shortcomings for their failures; who hasn't known people who do just that?  I'll return to this in a moment.

Berliner and Biddle distinguish between this myth of individual efficacy and the myth of unbounded instructional responsibility, the belief that "schools can and should assist students in intellectual tasks AND political tasks AND economic tasks AND social tasks" (156).  I'd like to rename the second myth the myth of unbounded institutional responsibility, since it prescribes not only for schools but for our society as a whole.

What they (like those they are criticizing) seem not to notice is that these myths contradict each other.  This turns up in the second sentence of my first quotation from The Manufactured Crisis: blame for failure isn't laid solely on the individuals who failed, but on the institution that should have molded them into winners, but for some reason didn't.  This is important because so much of the debate over white and male privilege has focused on individuals: Nobody gave me anything, I worked hard for everything I have, and look at Oprah or other rich minorities -- if the system is rigged against them, how did they succeed if not by pure grit and determination and hard work?  The losers are just making excuses for not trying hard enough.  But if the fault lies with the schools, who failed in inculcate the traits and habits of Success, why blame the individuals?  The fault can also lie with the Dang Government, which has fostered habits of dependency with its welfare programs.  And so on.

The answer, I think, lies in what happens to privileged people when things don't work out as they wish.  "When American industries lose out to foreign competitors," do the corporations and their CEOs admit they didn't work hard enough?  Do they tighten their belts, hitch up their britches, spit in their hands and put their noses to the grindstone?  They do not.  First they vote themselves higher salaries and stock dividends; then they demand that the Dang Government help them, with trade barriers against the foreign competitors, with tax cuts, with subsidies to facilitate the offshoring of production, and if things get bad enough, with bailouts.

Here's a famous example (via), by no means unusual:
In the 1981–86 period, Prestowitz says, [Steve] Jobs and his executives “had the funny notion that the US government had an obligation to help them…. We did all we could, and in doing so came to learn that virtually everything Apple had for sale, from the memory chips to the cute pointer mouse, had had its origins in some program wholly or partially supported by US government money…. The heart of the computer is the microprocessor, and Apple’s derived from Motorola’s 680X0, which was developed with much assistance, direct and indirect, from the Defense Department, as were the DRAM memory chips. The pointer mouse came from Xerox’s PARC center near Stanford (which also enjoyed government funding). In addition, most computer software at that time derived from work with government backing.”

Prestowitz points out that Apple also assumes the US government is obligated to stop foreign pirating of Apple’s intellectual property and, should supply chains in the Far East be disrupted, to offer the comforting support of the Seventh Fleet. “And those supply chains. Are they the natural product of good old free market capitalism, or does that scalability and flexibility and capacity to mobilize large numbers of workers on a moment’s notice have something to do with government subsidies and the interventionist industrial policies of most Asian economies?”
 A few years later (boldface added),
When an Apple team visited, the Chinese plant’s owners were already constructing a new wing. “This is in case you give us the contract,” the manager said, according to a former Apple executive. The Chinese government had agreed to underwrite costs for numerous industries, and those subsidies had trickled down to the glass-cutting factory. It had a warehouse filled with glass samples available to Apple, free of charge. The owners made engineers available at almost no cost. They had built on-site dormitories so employees would be available 24 hours a day.
This didn't keep Jobs from snarling at President Obama that he was on his way to being a one-term president (this man must be a prophet!) because he wasn't "business-friendly" enough, because "regulations and unnecessary costs" made it "difficult" for corporate welfare moochers to squeeze out a few measly billions of dollars of profit.  To repeat: did Jobs blame his own parasitical tendencies and laziness for those difficulties?  He did not; he blamed the system.  Ditto for the Koch Brothers, who admit they are leeches on the American taxpayer, but it's not their fault!  They couldn't "remain competitive" without the government handouts, because everybody does it!  Nothing is their fault!   If they could just get The Man off their back, not only they but everybody would be better off!  American society, especially the investor class and the media that report the news from their perspective, scorns the excuses made by the poor, but is intensely sympathetic to the same excuses made by the rich.

So it seems that the myth of individual efficacy, like many if not most basic cultural principles, is invoked only selectively, when it can be used to justify one's privileges.  But how interesting that even such astute critics of the myth fail to notice the contradiction in its application to American education.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Judgment for Thee, But Not for Me

I've noticed that some of the same people who reacted to the Charleston shootings by waving the Confederate battle flag and whining that their "heritage" was being slandered, are now waving around the Stars and Stripes.  Whatever else you can say about it, there's a contradiction there.  The Confederacy sought to tear apart the Union; for those who now try to defend the CSA to claim that they support the Union is absurd hypocrisy, to put it gently.  If I were a jingo of their stripe, I could rant that they are spitting on the fine young men who gave their lives to preserve the Union against the Confederate rebellion and treason -- not too strong a word in this case, since the Confederacy was a declared enemy of the United States, so defending and supporting it is giving aid and comfort to an enemy -- a defeated one, true, but one that has never ceased to continue the rebellion ever since it was defeated.

Even pretending to take such a stance makes me giggle uncomfortably, so I don't take it very far.  I have been hammering at one person in particular who's been simultaneously posting memes that flaunt the battle rag and memes that posture moistly about Our Flag.  Unfortunately I didn't make notes on everyone I know who posted pro-Confederate material so I could hammer on all of them; this person has just had the bad sense and bad faith to go on doing it.  You can't serve two masters, I've told her, wondering if she'd get the biblical allusion.  Since she's a Christian who also posts religious memes, I doubt she does.

To celebrate the Fourth of July, the programmers on our local community radio station have been choosing songs that reflect the occasion.  One of the best, to my mind, was the one who played Jello Biafra's version of "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" this morning.  This afternoon, a guest DJ announced that he'd googled "cool patriotic songs" for the upcoming set.  One of these was "The Bumper of My SUV" by the country singer Chely Wright.  In one sense I'd never heard it before; in another sense, I'd heard it thousands of times before.
I've got a bright red sticker on the back of my car
Says United States Marines
And yesterday a lady in a mini-van held up a middle finger at me
Does she think she knows what I stand for
Or the things that I believe
Just by looking at a sticker for the U.S. Marines
On the bumper of my SUV


... But I guess I wanna know where she's been
Before she judges and gestures to me
'Cause she don't like my sticker for the U.S. Marines
On the bumper of my SUV

So I hope that lady in her mini-van
Turns on her radio and hears this from me
As she picks up her kids from their private school
And drives home safely on our city streets
Or to the building where her church group meets
Yeah, that's why I've got a sticker for the U.S. Marines
On the bumper of my SUV
The first question I had as the words whimpered past me was whether this incident had actually happened; Wright says it did, in mid-2003 right after Bush's criminal invasion of Iraq, and that the woman "screamed 'Your war is wrong. You're a baby killer.'" You can never go wrong vilifying and defaming opponents of The War, as the inventors of the "hippies spat on Vietnam veterans" myth knew.  But suppose some woman did flip a bird at Chely Wright and call her a baby killer because of her bumper sticker.  One of the recurring memes that annoy me most are those which accuse others of being judgmental, like this one:

No doubt the people who judge these whiners also have reasons why they do the things they do, and why they are who they are.  It might be that whoever made this meme, and those who share it, couldn't handle half of what their judges have dealt with.  I'd have to hear both sides, and then cross-examine them, as I'd love to do with Chely Wright and Our Lady of the Finger.

Chely Wright, if she were willing to walk a mile in another's shoes and see the world through her eyes, might find that the woman in the mini-van had what she considered very good reasons to be angry at people with US Marine bumperstickers on their SUVs.  Maybe the woman had lost relatives or friends in other US wars of aggression.  Maybe she had spent time in countries that had been devastated by US violence, trying to help our victims there.  Or maybe not: maybe she just had sufficient empathy to be upset by the suffering Wright's military relatives had inflicted on innocent people far away.  I would not give the finger to Wright, or anyone else with such bumper stickers on their vehicle, but I don't know what drove the woman to express her anger that way.  Neither does Chely Wright; I doubt she knows that the woman sends her children to a private school, or what kind of church group she belongs to.

I know more about Wright, since she proceeds to tell more about herself and reveals her own bad faith.  She's been to Iraq, she says, and to Hiroshima and the DMZ.
Yes, I do have questions
I get to ask them because I'm free
That's why I've got a sticker for the U.S. Marines
On the bumper of my SUV
If Chely Wright is "free," it's not because of any war the US has fought since 1945.  All of them were wars of aggression, against countries and people who had not actually attacked the US.  And in fact she (along with all the rest of us) is less free because of George W. Bush's wars, which were used to increase already intolerable government surveillance of all citizens, to make sure we don't hold or express unacceptable political stances.  That's standard operating procedure for wars: the government uses the national peril as an excuse to curtail civil liberties, and the current war, which is intended to last forever, is no exception. 

Wright sings, "But that doesn't mean that I want war / I'm not Republican or Democrat."  What does party affiliation have to do with it?  Both parties want war, though like Wright they deny it.  The question to put to partisans and to self-proclaimed non-partisans like Chely Wright is: What wars have you ever opposed, and did you oppose them on principle or because a President of the wrong party was in office?  Opposing war, or specific wars, on principle, is totally uncool; so is objecting because of the suffering Our Boys and Girls will bring to innocent civilians in the country we attack.  If all Wright can do is talk about her allegiance to the people she knows, then give me Natalie Maines, even if she's "vulgarly anti-war." 

I don't know nearly enough to judge the woman who yelled at Chely Wright, though on the face of it I think she acted without knowing enough about Wright.  But Wright has told the world more about herself (and I'm not talking about her 2010 coming out as lesbian): she's vulgarly pro-war, and I feel no discomfort about judging her for that.  "A gay American hero"?  Hell, no.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Spock Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It!

After Leonard Nimoy died, I saw a flood of memes based on one of his character Spock's famous lines.  Here's one of the more complete ones; most I've seen omit the first clause.

One of the things that increasingly turned me off the more I watched the original Star Trek series was that the character of Spock was written by people who weren't particularly logical themselves and didn't know much about logic. I suppose you could argue that "logic" was a sort of fetish for the Vulcans, and that they were never very logical either; like those who claim to champion love, they could well have been deceiving themselves.  It was part of the Vulcan backstory, if I recall correctly, that they adopted their cult of logic because of their history of irrationality and violence, not because they had any 'natural' predisposition to logic.  Be that as it may, what was touted as logical in the TV show often was not; it was "logical" purely by fiat, usually spoken ex cathedra by Spock.

Logic doesn't dictate, clearly or murkily, that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  If someone wants to make this claim, they need to support it with an argument of some kind, and I haven't seen one.  One reason to reject Spock's diktat is that Kirk counters it by declaring, equally without supporting reasons (though Kirk isn't expected to be logical), that the needs of the few, or the one (namely Spock), outweigh the needs of the many, and this formulation is supposed to win the day.  One could say that the conflicting statements cancel each other out; I'd say that they are both true, because moral judgments are not logical.

When you encounter two clashing claims that both seem valid, you have to start thinking.  This, of course, is too much trouble, but let's do it anyway.  Spock sacrifices his life in The Wrath of Khan in order to save the Enterprise and its crew, his comrades and friends.  In The Search for Spock Kirk and some of Spock's friends take great risks to bring Spock back to life.  (Remember, Spock cheats: he doesn't really sacrifice his life, he downloads his Self into Dr. McCoy so it can later be uploaded to a new Spock body. Would he have chosen to save the Enterprise if he'd known he really would die in doing so, or if he wasn't also saving himself along with the others? Logic, it seems, dictates covering your ass.)  Logic can't really help us here.  These are choices that people make, not conclusions dictated by logic.  (I therefore disagree with this Randite commentary on Spock's choice.  But then, Rand was another person who claimed to be rational but was not.)

It's odd for Kirk to dismiss Spock's choice, since in a military situation like Starfleet individuals are expected to sacrifice themselves for the good of the many: their comrades, the folks back home, their country.  (It's notorious that in Star Trek many hapless crew members are sacrificed by the writers for the needs of the Plot.)  Heroes are generally people who've done just that.  At the same time, the team doesn't abandon its fallen comrades, even if great risk to the team is involved.  So decisions, judgments, choices must be made.  You might fail, you might die yourself and your comrade might be lost, but that doesn't mean you made the wrong choice: it only means you weren't able to carry it out.  Within the world of Star Trek and most popular entertainment / propaganda historically, this is hardly controversial.  Not either/or, the many/the few, but both/and.  The two films, taken together, make the point explicitly.  It's interesting that fans never seem to give Kirk's version any credit, though it triumphs in the end with Spock's resurrection: a Google image search turns up no memes using it, but many based on Spock's, even when I searched for Kirk's.

I might have ignored these memes if it weren't for the "discussion" they inspired, mostly of the "Take that, Republitards!" variety.   

Well, no, it doesn't.  It was funny to see liberal Democrats taking this line.  Unlike the Stoopid Republitards, surely they're acquainted with the US Bill of Rights and the concept of the tyranny of the majority?  Once again, protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority isn't a universal rule: the needs or wishes of the many do not always trample the needs of wishes of the few, but the needs or wishes of the few do not always overrule the wishes or needs of the many.  They must be weighed against each other, and the decisions made are not final or forever.  The history of Supreme Court rulings shows this: in 1896 Jim Crow was acceptable, in 1954 it was not; in 1985 sodomy was not a civil right, in 2002 it was.  (It's also funny to see Democrats and Republicans alike celebrating an "activist" Supreme Court when it hands down a decision they like, and denouncing it when it hands down a decision they dislike, but that's another topic.)  Luckily, logic doesn't dictate Spock's principle.  But even if it did, logic would have to be defied.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Onward, Christian Soldiers

This image has been making the rounds lately, and I must say I agree completely.  If you're using the Bible to hurt people, you're using it wrong: you should be using a sword, or a battle axe, as the Lord intended. You can't do any serious, God-breathed damage with a floppy leather-covered book. Geez!

This is basically the "No True Scotsman" move, which isn't an argument but an attempt to distract your attention.  Since there are numerous passages in the Torah and Prophets where Yahweh commands Israel to murder all the pagans and their livestock and burn their cities to the ground, it seems that "loving thy neighbor and even thy enemy" is perfectly compatible with mass slaughter.  One Christian told me that God had to do this, because otherwise the Israelites would have enslaved the people, and that would be worse than killing them. He forgot that in other Canaanite cities, Yahweh commanded that at least some of the inhabitants (virgin females, usually) should be enslaved.

In the New Testament, love is evidently compatible with Jesus verbally attacking his fellow Jews and condemning people to eternal torture if they didn't meet his impossibly high standards of attitude and conduct. Sometimes he just insulted people at random, like the pagan Syrophoenician woman he called a dog when she begged him to heal her sick daughter. Yahweh and Jesus can hardly be dismissed as marginal figures, bad apples who make Judaism and Christianity look bad.

It's ironic to see this meme citing Paul, who wrote, or rather dictated, the letter to the Romans, because Paul is a popular whipping boy for liberal and especially for gay Christians.  Even a lot of self-identified non-Christians denounce Paul as the original betrayer, worse than Judas, who replaced Christ's simple and beautiful message of Love with a bunch of Jewish stuff.  In any case, Paul talked pretty sometimes, just as Jesus did sometimes, but he could also be harsh when his congregations got out of line or he had to contend with other Christian missionaries whose teachings conflicted with his.  Love, for Paul, must therefore be compatible with sayings like
You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.
Love must also be compatible with the outpourings of rage I've seen from LGBT and allied people in response to the antigay Christians who denounced last week's Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, since their reactions generally accuse their opponents of "hate."  This implies that the pro-gay side is motivated by "love."  They could've fooled me.

Is "hate" compatible with authentic religion?  I'm an atheist; it's not for me to say, and I really don't have an opinion on the matter.  Personally I think that hate is as valid as love, and I'm not the first person who's noticed that they aren't that far apart, whether in sacred or secular domains.  It seems obvious to me that not only ordinary believers but the great exemplars of religions have spoken and behaved hatefully as often as they have spoken and believed lovingly.  If you take the Bible as an account of the wishes of Yahweh, which seems reasonable to me, there's no question that he often wanted large numbers of people to be butchered to appease his wrath; if you don't take the Bible as an account of the wishes of Yahweh, I don't know what evidence there is that he disapproves of slaughtering whole populations who worship the wrong gods, or worship the putatively right one in the wrong way.  The popular way out of this problem is to insist that when Yahweh commanded mass killing, when he erupted into paroxysms of misogynist abuse, when Jesus threatened the mass of humanity with eternal punishment, they did so in a spirit of Love that is so far above the pathetic human standard that we can only contemplate it with awe and humble self-abasement at our failure to be as holy as they.  It's impossible to prove such claims wrong, since they have nothing to do with reason; but one can still reject them.  One can still say, with Huck Finn: All right then, I'll go to Hell.

As far as I've ever seen, though, no religious teacher, ancient or contemporary, explicitly preaches Hate.  They all insist that they are preaching Love.  Even the Westboro Baptist Church, as far as I know, claims that God hates fags; if they also hate us, it's because they must stand with God, and hate what he hates. And why not?  But most believers call their teachings Love.  The liberal gay and pro-gay allies who expressed their eagerness to see a Texas preacher immolate himself in protest of same-sex marriage being legalized, don't seem to have thought they were preaching hate; they thought he was the hater, so by the simple process of elimination they must be full of Love.  It doesn't seem that he actually said he would do it -- like a true War Wimp for Jesus, he said that other people should put their lives on the line for traditional marriage -- but who cares about facts?  There's no time to be accurate, honest, or rational!  We're fighting a war against Hate here!  Ironically, the only Christian minister who's actually set himself on fire in response to this issue was a pro-gay Methodist who burned himself to death in 2014, leaving a suicide note explaining that "the self-immolation was an attempt to die a martyr for the black and LGBT communities." 

Arguing about whether hate is compatible with true religion (or true atheism, for that matter) seems to me a distraction from more important questions.  It's so much easier, though, than thinking.

But back to the meme that set me off.  I know it's no fun to have other people tell you that you're going to Hell, or that you're a bad person because of your sexual tastes and practices, and if you're unlucky enough to be isolated in a hostile community, it can be very unpleasant.  People who've been wounded emotionally by such communities can be excused if they have trouble discussing these issues rationally, but they're in no position to condemn others for irrationality -- especially if their responses consist mainly of "Oh yeah?  Well, you're going to Hell!"  Which they mostly do.  See you in Hell, folks!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Meeting Cute

Yesterday I read Joshua F. Speed's Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, and Notes of a Visit to California, originally published in Louisville in 1896 but now available as an e-book.  I'd had it in mind to try to find a copy ever since I first heard of it years ago, in Charley Shiveley's Drum Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers (Gay Sunshine Press, 1989).  The only copy I could locate was in the Lilly Library's rare book collection, which couldn't be checked out, so I never quite got around to reading it on-site.  Over the years Speed got more attention, thanks to C. A. Tripp's book which argued that Lincoln might have been gay and then Larry Kramer's book on the same theme.  Neither of which I've gotten around to either, I confess, which I rationalized with the notion that I should read Speed's book (pamphlet, rather) first.  The Reminiscences seems never to have been reprinted until it was scanned and published as an e-book.

Joshua Speed (1814-1882) was born and raised in Kentucky, but spent seven years in Springfield, Illinois running "a large country store, embracing dry goods, groceries, hardware, books, medicines, bed-clothes, mattresses, in fact everything that the country needed" (page 13 of the e-book) before he returned to Kentucky, where he spent most of the rest of his life.  He married, and farmed with his wife and slaves near Louisville for about nine years; served one term in the state legislature; and finally moved into Louisville, where he went into the real-estate business very successfully with his brother-in-law.  Though he was a slaveowner, he worked to keep Kentucky in the Union, and his efforts to that end renewed his friendship with Lincoln, which had largely lapsed when he left Illinois.  According to the sketch of his life that introduces the Reminiscences, Speed "made many trips to Washington" (4) and worked with Lincoln, his Cabinet, and the army there.  After the war he moved back to the countryside with his wife; they had no children.

Speed first noticed Lincoln, he says, in the spring of 1836, when he was deeply impressed by a speech Lincoln gave while running for re-election to the Illinois legislature.  But they didn't get to know each other until a year later.
It was in the spring of 1837, and on the very day that he obtained his [law] license, that our intimate acquaintance began. He had ridden into town on a borrowed horse, with no earthly property save a pair of saddle-bags containing a few clothes. I was a merchant at Springfield, and kept a large country store, embracing dry goods, groceries, hardware, books, medicines, bed-clothes, mattresses, in fact every thing that the country needed.  Lincoln came into the store with his saddle-bags on his arm. He said he wanted to buy the furniture for a single bed.  The mattress, blankets, sheets, coverlid, and pillow, according to the figures made by me, would cost seventeen dollars.  He said that was perhaps cheap enough; but, small, as the sum was, he was unable to pay it. But if I would credit him till Christmas, and his experiment as a lawyer was a success, he would pay then, saying, in the saddest tone, "If I fail in this, I do not know that I can ever pay you."  As I looked up at him I thought then, and think now, that I never saw a sadder face.

I said to him, "You seem so much pained at contracting so small a debt, I think I can suggest a plan by which you can avoid the debt and at the same time attain your end.  I have a large room with a double bed up-stairs, which you are very welcome to share with me."

"Where is your room?"  said he.

"Up-stairs," said I, pointing to a pair of winding stairs which led from the store to my room.

He took his saddle-bags on his arm, went up stairs, set them down on the floor, and came down with the most changed countenance.  Beaming with pleasure he exclaimed, "Well, Speed, I am moved!" [13]
It's a sweet story, isn't it?  It's easy to see why Shively singled it out.  Its import, however, isn't all that clear.  Speed doesn't say anything more about their friendship in Springfield.  They shared that double bed for four years, which can hardly be explained away as a convenience dictated by Lincoln's poverty.  That Lincoln continued sleeping with Speed for several years after he could have afforded a bed (and probably a room) of his own indicates that the arrangement was comfortable and probably pleasant for him. It doesn't necessarily mean they were copulating, but it can't be assumed that they weren't, at least at times. That upstairs room was also inhabited by Speed's clerk (and later Lincoln's law partner) William Herndon and Mr. Beverly Powell, which would have put a damper on the hot man-to-man sex sessions Shively (and Tripp and Kramer, and to be fair, I) fantasized.  According to Herndon, Speed told him Lincoln had patronized female prostitutes in that period, though the accuracy of that report is disputed, perhaps correctly; but if true, it also wouldn't rule out congress with males.

Shively also cited a report that as President, Lincoln sometimes shared a bed with his male bodyguard, who sometimes wore the great man's nightshirt.  The truth of this story is also disputed, and we probably will never know for certain.  Wishful thinking plays a major role on both sides of the disagreements.  This writer, for example, argues that "if Lincoln and Derickson did sleep together, it may have been a singular or uncommon occurrence dictated by some unusual circumstance rather than a regular part of Lincoln's routine during the month or more that Mary was away".  True, it "may be" -- but it's one thing to have to share a bed when you're young and broke, and another when you're the President of the United States.  It's hard for me to imagine the circumstances that would have forced the latter situation, but who knows?  Maybe Lincoln liked friendly company in his bed since the days he shared one with Speed, and (perhaps paradoxically, from today's point of view) a male bedfellow would be less scandalous than a female one.

To my mind, though, there's a good reason not to read Joshua Speed's account of sharing a bed with Lincoln as a reference to an erotic relationship.  He didn't write it in a diary, or in a private memoir not intended for publication: he wrote it as a lecture for public delivery.  I don't find it plausible that Speed meant his story to be understood by his audiences as a declaration that he and the martyred President were Sodomites, which is how two males' loving erotic relationship would officially have been regarded in the nineteenth century.  I'd like to think that the two young men had sex, if only because I've had a schoolboy crush on Lincoln since I was in first grade, but I also wonder if Speed would have told that story in public if he knew that the relationship had been sexual.  He would have known that his audiences wouldn't take for granted two young males who shared a bed would be having it off together, but I doubt he'd have cared to risk the "misinterpretation" or "misunderstanding," as such correct surmises are often called.  I'm not going to say definitely that neither Speed nor Lincoln was homosexual or bisexual, only that I don't think Speed's account of the beginning of their "intimate acquaintance" is evidence one way or the other.

One more thing about Joshua Speed: the second lecture bound with the Reminiscences is an account of Speed's visit to California with his wife in 1874.  It's interesting in its own right to read about cross-country travel in those days, and Speed's descriptions of the scenery are vivid.  He apparently loved flowers -- his country houses had notable decorative gardens -- and was attentive to details of the landscape.  It's also more entertaining than his eulogy for Lincoln, with a sense of humor that was surely influenced by Mark Twain.  I was especially impressed by what he had to say about the Chinese, of whom there were about 100,000 in the US in those days:
[The bigotry toward the Chinese in California] reminded me of the story of our Puritan forefathers.  When they met in council they had some religious misgivings about their cruel treatment to the Indians.  The council passed two resolutions:

"I. Resolved, That the earth and the fullness thereof belongs to the saints.

"2. Resolved, That we are the saints."

These were compromise resolutions, and passed unanimously.  If there be any saints in California, however, we did not see them...

Insignificant as is this number, our two great political parties, jealous of their rights – shame, shame on them! – at their last national conventions both passed resolutions indicative of their fears lest this handful of people would overrun our country, undermine our institutions, and endanger the liberties of forty millions of free white men and women.  Ours is the land of the free and the home of the brave, and every man and boy in California is ready to show his bravery by stoning a Chinaman [39]
As I mentioned, Speed owned slaves before the Civil War, but he expresses no nostalgia for those days in his reminiscences of Lincoln, and explicitly justifies the actions Lincoln took against slavery.  I think it says something good about Speed that he was so contemptuous of anti-Chinese racism as well, at a time when inciting panic against the Chinese was a safe and popular political position among American whites. There's a tendency to 'defend' bigots and racists of the past by saying that they were people of their time, and couldn't have known any better.  Speed seems to have been better than his time in numerous respects; there aren't many people of his time whose writing makes me wish I could have known them, but he's one.