Monday, August 21, 2017

I Was Born Ignorant, It's in My DNA

This was posted as a comment on a meme that opposed the removal of Confederate monuments. The writer is my age and went to the same high school I did, so you can't blame the amazing ignorance displayed here on Our Crappy Schools today:
Yes American should remember the history off our great nation when people fought to make are country a better place to live for all of are people do think people of our older generations would put up with the bullshit that's going on in our country?? I think not!!
I posted a comment pointing out that the monuments being removed are not memorializing Union soldiers, but Confederate generals who fought to make this country a worse place to live, and were willing to tear the nation apart for that cause.  I'm of "our older generation" too, and you can be sure I'm not putting up with this bullshit.

I admit I was stunned at first by the Orwellian transvaluation of values in that comment.  Though it's also possible that this person identifies with the Confederacy, like many Americans all around the country, and believes that slavery and white supremacy "make are [sic, but the misspelling is the least of it] country a better place to live for all of are [sic] people".

Also this morning, a friend linked to this article. The article itself is good enough; it was the title, "How America forgot the true history of the Civil War," that bothered me.

People should learn accurate history, of course. But there are, as always, a couple of problems. One is that history, real history, is almost always contested: there's disagreement among historians over just about everything more complicated than someone's date of death. (And even that can be uncertain.) Which is why history must be taught with that in mind. Teaching the conflicts, as Gerald Graff puts it.  And I find it intriguing that so many liberal pro-science rationalists object to his suggestion.   As I've written before, most people "want students taught propaganda, not accurate history or Civics.  It's so much easier and safer to inculcate flag worship and to regard the Constitution as Holy Writ than to teach the complexities of American history and the controversies over the meaning of the Constitution."

The second problem follows from the first. Imagine the headline "How America forgot the true history of the Iraq War." That war is pretty well documented, of course, and most Americans now alive can remember it personally -- but how many Americans knew what was going on at the time it was happening? As usual with wars, even when the Bush regime and their defenders weren't simply lying in their teeth about why we must invade, they kept changing their story. Most Americans could probably have told you why we were going to war, and most of them are still alive today to remember it (badly, of course), but different Americans would have told you different things, and would have told you different things at different times.  The same is true of the Vietnam War; most Americans I've talked to have no idea how the US got into it, or when; the US propaganda during the war changed as our leaders found it expedient to gin up support.

Now, imagine a time without radio or TV or the Internet, when newspapers were frankly and openly biased in their news coverage, and political discourse was even less civil than now; when most Americans were barely literate and a sixth-grade education was a considerable achievement. The Confederacy was grinding out lots of contradictory propaganda on the issues that motivated it (and Southerners had been doing it for decades), and so was the Union. As always, the aim was to motivate the base, not to inform them. So, Americans didn't "forget" the true history of the Civil War -- they never knew it in the first place, in large part because no one did.

Noam Chomsky wrote about the problem towards the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, in For Reasons of State:
The government does not really hope to convince anyone by its arguments and claims, but only to sow confusion, relying on the natural tendency to trust authority and to avoid complicated and disturbing issues.  How can we be sure of the truth?  The confused citizen turns to other pursuits, and gradually, as the government lies are reiterated day after day, year after year, falsehood becomes truth.

The mechanism has been perceptively described by James Boyd in connection with the strange story of Dita Beard, Richard Kleindienst, and ITT.  The evasions were “transparent and ridiculous,” but that is irrelevant: “The idea is to bring the public to a point of bewilderment. …”  The lawyer seeks “not to convince, but to confuse and weary.”  In the same manner, the state is content to lose each debate, while winning the propaganda war.


Shortly after the Pentagon Papers appeared, Richard Harwood wrote in the Washington Post that a careful reader of the press could have known the facts all along, and he cited cases where the facts had been truthfully reported.  He failed to add that the truth had been overwhelmed, in the same pages, by a flood of state propaganda.  With rare exceptions, the press and the public finally accepted the framework of government deceit on virtually every crucial point [xxv-xxvi].
This doesn't mean that Chomsky was "prescient," of course; he was describing what was happening at the time.  That we face the same flood of government lies obfuscating the facts is probably not surprising; it's business as usual.  And that's one reason why history is so difficult to get right.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Hedge Fund Manager Shall Lie Down with the Miner

I generally only listen to NPR when I'm driving, and since I only drive when I rent a car to travel, that's not all that often.  Yesterday was one of those times, and I was reminded why.

A fund-raising spot on the Indianapolis affiliate I was tuned to featured a young woman (some managerial person at some other station) who gushed that NPR includes everybody, hedge-fund managers and miners!  It reminds us that we're all in this together! ... A laudable sentiment, but how often do miners appear on NPR?  Not very often.  NPR has at least one program devoted to "business," but none, as far as I know, to Labor.  That would be showing favoritism to special interests, I suppose.

It was easy for me to think of this, because I'd been listening for more than an hour to one of NPR's main morning news programs, 1A, which I'd heard before on other trips.  Not only were no miners on hand for the discussion, all of the discussants were from commercial media: the New York Times was well-represented, and one was a former Olympic Gold Medalist who's now an "ESPN analyst."  I always thought that one purpose of public broadcasting was to provide an alternative to the Usual Media Suspects; instead the corporate media have been colonizing the alternative.  FAIR has documented this repeatedly over the years.  News sources like Democracy Now and The Intercept aren't perfect, but they do provide alternative viewpoints and voices, with DN especially hosting people who'd never be given space on NPR.

1A let me know from its opening seconds that Charlottesville would be discussed, but aside from the Times reporter, who'd actually been present at the vioence, no one had much of substance to say about it.  One guy, an NPR White House correspondent named Geoff Bennett, was the only person who addressed the historical issue, that the Confederate memorials were erected as part of a campaign to rewrite the history of the war and as propaganda for white supremacy after Reconstruction.  There was no followup to his remarks, though: mostly the discussion was about how the controversy would affect President Trump.  There was a brief bit about Heather Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, and her denunciation of Trump.  Good for Trump?  Bad for Trump?  You decide.

A surprising amount of time was devoted to the two police pilots who died when their helicopter crashed as they returned to headquarters after the rally.  According to one report, the helicopter had been damaged years before, and this was thought to have some bearing on its failure.  There doesn't seem to be any connection beyond the chronological between the Nazi rally and the policemen's deaths, but the framing seemed to be intended to cast them, along with Heather Heyer, as victims of white nationalism.  Typical journalistic balance, I guess.  But while their deaths were tragic for themselves, their families, and their colleagues, the pilots were not martyrs.

The second, international, hour of 1A was more of the same.  It was the morning after the terrorist attack in Barcelona, which also involved driving a vehicle into a crowd, so that was the lead story.  Once again the aimed seemed to be to fill time, with relatively little substance, and the substance revealed the usual tunnel vision. The Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Arabiya rightly spoke of the horror of families being targeted while they were just out enjoying a summer evening.  It wouldn't have done, I suppose, to notice parallels to families in other parts of the world being killed by US missiles and drones while they were celebrating a wedding, or children killed by drones while they gathered firewood on a cold day.  It's one thing to compare the Barcelona attack to the Charlottesville attack, and quite another to notice that killing innocent families living their day-to-day lives is standard operating procedure for the American imperium and its allies and clients.

There was also a disapproving reference to Trump's fondness for dictators.  There was no acknowledgment of President Obama's fondness for dictators and military coups, let alone the long history of Washington's fondness for dictators and military coups.  It wouldn't do to notice that; NPR never has.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

I Knew I Shoulda Taken That Left Turn at Albuquerque

I have always secretly admired people who could read a newspaper while eating.  It bespeaks co-ordination, dexterity, and automatic digestion, none of which attributes I seem to possess.  It also gives one an air of being a man of affairs, and I long ago abandoned the attempt to look like a man of affairs.  I even find it difficult, some mornings, to look like a man.
-- Robert Benchley, "Read and Eat"
So I was reading Robert Benchley's 1936 collection My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew tonight while I ate dinner, and I was amused by his references to his foil and imaginary friend Mr. MacGregor, who always seems to be handy though Benchley carefully states that "he doesn't sleep here."  On the other hand, Benchley complains that MacGregor always leaves "a lot of work undone (I am always the fall guy who ends up by doing the work around the house)".  I began to muse on subtexts.  I don't know (or care) anything about Robert Benchley's innermost desires, though I know he was heterosexually married; I'm talking about the milquetoast persona he created in his humorous writings.  I'm sure "Benchley" and MacGregor were just good friends, homosocial as could be.

So I switched to my old posts on the Birth of the Modern Homosocial, and the rather overwrought defenses of various historical and fictional figures' Kinsey Zeroness.  Which in turn reminded me that I'd heard reports that a recent biographer had suggested that Franz Kafka might have been That Way.  I did some searching to see if there was any substance to these speculations and found a few reviews of the historian Saul Friedlander's brief biography Frank Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt (Yale, 2013), which told me what evidence lay behind Friedlander's speculations.

That evidence turned out to be a bit more substantial than I expected, but there doesn't seem to be much of it.  For example, this passage from Kafka's diary, which his friend and executor Max Brod censored in the English translation (the censored bits are in brackets):
Struggle on the road to [the] Tannenstein in the morning, struggle while watching the ski-jumping contest. Happy little B., in all his innocence somehow shadowed by my ghosts, at least in my eyes [, specially his outstretched leg in its gray rolled-up sock], his aimless wandering glance, his aimless talk. In this connection it occurs to me—but this is already forced—that towards evening he wanted to go home with me.
It sounds like Kafka wanted B. to want to go home with him.  Again, this isn't much, but it seems to make clear that Kafka was erotically drawn to another male and knew it.  "There are also," the novelist John Banville wrote in his review of Friedlander's book, "some admiring glances thrown in the direction of a couple of handsome Swedish youths. It is hardly a damning testament. What is perhaps most significant is the fact that Brod felt it necessary to make these quiet elisions, since it suggests he had definite suspicions about his friend’s sexual inclination."

Where on earth does "damning" come from?  The striking thing here is that Banville treats Friedlander's speculations about Kafka's possible bisexuality as accusations.  A decent person would see Kafka's desire for B. and the handsome Swedes as rather sweet, and his "struggle" with it sad, just like his complicated, frustrated desires for women.

Here's another bit from another review, quoting Friedlander:
“Today in the coffee-house with [Franz] Werfel,” Kafka wrote in April 1914. “How he looked from the distance, seated at the coffee table. Stooped, half reclining even in the wooden chair, the beautiful profile of his face pressed against his chest … His dangling glasses make it easier to trace the delicate outlines of his face.”
Hey, can't a bro admire another bro's beautiful profile without somebody making a federal case out of it?  But this isn't all.
Later again, in mid-November 1917, Kafka wrote to Brod about a dream, the ambiguity of which he himself commented on: “If I go on to say that in a recent dream I gave Werfel a kiss, I stumble right into the middle of Bluher’s book. But more of that later. The book upset me; I had to put it aside for two days …” Bluher, a leading figure in the German youth movement, wrote about male erotic bonding in his 1917 work The Role of Eroticism in Male Society.
Ah yes, a manly kiss between normal manly guys.  And it was a dream, waddaya want anyhow?

The same reviewer continues:
Long before these confessions, Friedlander notes, Kafka was writing in his diary about posing for an artist in the nude at age 19 as a model for St. Sebastian. The picture of Kafka the serial womanizer stripping off his clothes in a Prague studio in 1912 and allowing another man to tie him to a post and paste fake arrows on his chest is slightly jarring even in the 21st century (actual pictures would be yet more jarring still – do they exist? If they ever surface, will we claim we were unprepared?). Friedlander shows that he knows this by presenting it all with becoming gravity, and he has a deeper purpose in doing so at all: his contention is that deep sexual ambiguities and doubt form yet another instructive layer in the complex literary gift prudish Brod bequeathed to readers everywhere.
Apparently there was more homoeroticism in Kafka's life (and perhaps his work) than this, but these examples are what the reviewers I found quoted.  Of course some gay writers and bloggers got all giggly about this, and treated Friedlander's speculations as gospel.  (I refuse to link to them.)  I hope I can fit Friedlander's book into my busy reading schedule sometime in the next century, but for now: What Kafka himself thought about his lust for other males isn't clear, and most likely we'll never know.  I think it's important, though, that he recognized what his feelings were, and it doesn't seem to me that he struggled with them quite as much as Friedlander and Banville, among others, wish he had.  Were these little stories really "confessions," I wonder?  On the surface that word is right down there with "damning."  I suppose one would have to read the diaries at length to get a sense of what Kafka meant by recording them, and whether these epithets come from him or represent the hangups of these guys who are writing about him.

Reiner Stach, another recent Kafka biographer, told the Guardian that Kafka's fears and obsessions about sex were "perfectly normal."  I'm not persuaded.  Yes, fear of venereal disease and unwanted pregnancy were widespread, and quite reasonable, and in that sense normal.  Yet those fears didn't stop men from going out and having sex anyway.  There were many brothels in Europe and the US back then, and syphilis and gonorrhea were epidemic scourges.  One might almost call having a sexually transmitted disease "perfectly normal."

Stach said:
“I don’t know why it persists. Kafka had homosexual fantasies, but everyone does. He had a really intense access to his own subconscious, more than we might have, and this is why he is such a great writer. So, he had homosexual, bisexual, sadistic, masochistic and voyeuristic fantasies and all of these appeared in his works, which is typical for writers like Kafka. But you can’t conclude that he was any one of those things himself.”
I think this is nonsense.  Even if "everyone" has homosexual fantasies, that wasn't accepted in Kafka's day, and probably not now.  I'm always suspicious when someone tries to brush aside potentially embarrassing information with "everybody does that."  "Typical for writers like Kafka" is also a red flag: how many "writers like Kafka" are there?  His fans generally treat him as sui generis, and he was certainly very unusual.  I don't know that he had more access to his subconscious than most people, or how that in itself would make him a great writer.  And if someone has, and cultivates, homosexual, "bisexual," sadomasochistic and voyeuristic fantasies, it's not damning or an accusation to say that he was homosexual, bisexual, sadomasochistic, or a voyeur, even if he didn't act them out.  Stach reveals himself here to be, not a sophisticated, cosmopolitan observer, but a rather crude and provincial one.

The idea that it doesn't count if you don't have overt sex is one of the older "defenses" in the book, used by the crudest most bigoted sexual cops when someone they like turns out to be not quite the paragon of purity they want him to be. "You don't have to be one to play one" is also standard.  At least no one -- that I've seen so far -- has invoked "The modern homosexual hadn't been invented yet."  Kafka lived in the milieu of the newborn Modern Homosexual, and he was evidently well-read enough to know it.

I find it depressing that this embarrassment over, yes, "perfectly normal" areas of human experience is still so much with us.  Of course the embarrassment is perfectly normal too.  It's just nothing to be complacent about.  Meanwhile, I'm saying nothing about "Benchley's" confessed relationship with his imaginary dachshund friend Friedel Immerman.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Would You Like a Nice Progressive Punch?

This meme baffles me.  At times I wonder if it was intended as a Zen koan, a saying that deliberately makes no sense in order to frustrate and derail one's logical thinking, and ultimately force one into Enlightenment.  But most of the time I think it's just another glitch in human thought.

I regularly encountered another example of this sort of thing during and after the Sixties, when people would dismiss the hippie slogan that you should do your own thing as long as nobody gets hurt.  Someone would triumphantly riposte: "But what about Altamont?  What about Charles Manson?"  Yeah, what about them?  People got hurt in those and other cases, so they didn't show that it's a bad idea to do what you like as long as no one gets hurt.

I suppose the idea was that someone will always get hurt when human beings aren't policed and regulated and overseen and held in check by Authority.  But even in the most tightly patrolled societies, people get hurt -- often enough, by the Authority.  And who watches the Watchers?  One important lesson of history surely is that people given power over others will often abuse it.  I don't think that "Do your thing as long as nobody gets hurt" implies that there shouldn't be consequences when you do hurt someone, though as we also should know, there are rarely consequences for Authority when it hurts people.  You're just not supposed to notice it.  (What, your unarmed child was shot to death by a policeman?  Oh, look over there -- a Mexican took your job!)

I admit that the Sixties counterculture, at least its rank and file, didn't seem to think much about what consequences should follow from breaking its golden rule.  It's the kind of question that most people don't like to engage, because it involves judgment and gray areas and other messy complexities; the kind of core philosophical question that children ask and adults can't answer, because like most core philosophical questions there is no simple, firm answer.  But in one form or another, that maxim is virtually proverbial.  "Your freedom ends at the end of the next person's nose," for example.

Lately I've been seeing the same kind of diversion being used in the wake of the Charlottesville killing, as people try not to grapple with the limits of free speech.  Apart from the misconception that "hate speech" isn't free speech, people have trouble applying their own limits consistently.  Speech is free as long as it doesn't carry into action that hurts other people -- most people I know agree with that in principle, but their next move is to point to acts of violence.  Violence hurts other people, so it doesn't count as free speech.  Yeahbut the Nazis in Charlottesville pepper sprayed other people!  Yeahso that's violence, not speech -- where's the problem?  There are hard questions that can be raised about freedom of speech, but this isn't one of them as far as I can see.

On the other hand, sucker-punching a Nazi is so good that it's probably protected speech, all peace and love and shit.  So many liberals and progressives squealed with delight when Richard Spencer was punched that I believe their confusion over the boundary between speech and and action (which, I admit is another one of those messy complexities) is willed.  As the philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote, "Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal."

As I wrote yesterday, I could be classified a nihilist in certain realms, like the heat death of the universe.  Choosing, deliberating, and applying principles is hard; but to throw them out altogether at the human level is nihilism at the human level, of the most destructive sort.  Yet the people who are now agitating for further restrictions on freedom of speech fancy themselves principled advocates of justice.  It never occurs to them that the government at all levels is much more likely to suppress their speech than the speech of the Right; that's how it has always played out before. (They disagree with what you say, but they will defend to the death the right of the Trump gang to crush them like bugs.)  They'd be more honest to admit that they want a war of all against all, which (typically) they assume they'll win, and people caught in the crossfire will be glorious martyrs.  No, thank you.

It appears that I've never quoted this passage from Jean-Paul Sartre's essay "Anti-Semite and Jew" here before.  It was written in 1944, just after the Nazis withdrew from The anti-Semite as Sartre analyzed him stands for all anti-rational people, as you'll see:
Do not think that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of these answers. They know that their statements are empty and contestable; but it amuses them to make such statements: it is their adversary whose duty it is to choose his words seriously because he believes in words. They have a right to play. They even like to play with speech because by putting forth ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutor; they are enchanted with their unfairness because for them it is not a question of persuading by good argument but of intimidating or disorienting. If you insist too much they close up, they point out with one superb word that the time to argue has passed. Not that they are afraid of being convinced: their only fear is that they will look ridiculous or that their embarrassment will make a bad impression on a third party whom they want to get on their side. Thus if the anti-Semite is impervious, as everyone has been able to observe, to reason and experience, it is not because his conviction is so strong, but rather his conviction is strong because he has chosen to be impervious [13-14].*
I've encountered such people from the political right -- but also, alas, from the center and the left.  Sartre wasn't being "prescient," of course; he was describing people in the France of his day, who also exist in all countries and eras.

What Sartre described here is also what Patricia Roberts-Miller calls demagoguery.  If it worked as a way to bring about social justice, we wouldn't be in trouble now.

*Anti-Semite and Jew.  New York: Schocken Books, 1948.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

I noticed this poster in the window of a local business I patronize: hip, edgy, liberal-lefty.  Their hours of operation are rather limited, so I couldn't ask where it came from just then.  Most of the stuff in their windows announces events, with institutional or other affiliation included somewhere; there doesn't seem to be any such information on this one.  This isn't any kind of deal-breaker for me -- I'll certainly keep supporting them -- but I am curious.

To be blunt, this poster is pretty damn stupid, a word salad of buzzwords.  I expect better from my counterculture.  Which "lies of the alternative truth" should I reject?  There are so many to choose from these days.  The propaganda use of the word "alternative" is high on my list right now; it's the latest Newspeak for "politically correct" and "doubleplus ungood."

"Believe the evidence of your eyes and ears" is worse: it's painfully obvious that someone wasn't thinking.  Urging the marks to believe what is right in front of their eyes is one of the oldest cons in the book.  (Nothing up my sleeve!)  It's used by the Right ("Obama looks like a terrorist, it's his name") as much as by the Left.  Any political or other ideological position will be based not only on visible evidence but on interpretations and theories that offer to connect the dots, drawing the hitherto invisible lines depicting the Truth that They don't want you to see.

There is a speck of truth here, though: when something looks, feels, seems wrong to you, you should take the intuition seriously.  But that is only the beginning.  From there you must apply the canons of critical thinking.  I collected some of them here; you could begin with the educator Deborah Meier's version, taught over decades to kids at Central Park East Secondary School:
They are: the question of evidence, or "How do we know what we know?"; the question of viewpoint, in all its multiplicity, or "Who's speaking?"; the search for connections and patterns, or "What causes what?"; supposition, or "How might things have been different?"; and finally, why any of it matters, or "Who cares?"
Now I can add a passage I didn't quote last week from Patricia Roberts-Miller's Demagoguery and Democracy:
Trying to be fair in an argument -- enforcing rules, including the rule that the rules are applied to everyone equally -- will lead to arguments about the rules.  And that’s a good sign. Participants often need to argue about how we should argue, what we will count as relevant evidence, what constitutes disruptive behavior or unfair moves, and what “stases”are the most relevant. In fact, arguments about how we should argue most interfere with demagoguery, especially if those arguments concern whether the rules are being applied to all participants equally—if argument by insult is allowed for us, then it is also permitted for them ... We can be mean, angry, vehement, and highly critical, as long as we don't whine if they are just as mean, angry, vehement, and critical with us ... We need to enter the conversation willing to be wrong, willing to admit the limits of our own knowledge, willing to reconsider our evidence, sources, and premises.  That is self-skepticism [15-17].
Of course I realize that this goes against common sense, the evidence of our eyes and ears, the foundations of all civilization.  But common sense, the evidence of our eyes and ears, has brought us to the pass we're in, where we've pretty much always been, unable to see why They (you know, Them) are screwing things up for everybody, when all We want is to just get along.  Why do you have to insist on not letting me and mine have all the goodies? Can't we all just get along? ... No, we can't, until we start looking beyond our clan, our tribe, all our granfalloons, and recognize that they're made up of people too.  What Roberts-Miller, Meier, and others I've quoted and discussed offer are ground rules for moving beyond Us and Them; they can be debated too, but they have to be debated.

Somewhat curiously, someone -- a Facebook friend, whom I don't know at all in the meat world -- commented yesterday on something I'd posted by depositing a verse he'd composed.  (I long ago unfollowed him to keep his smug doggerel out of my feed; I'd forgotten that we hadn't unfriended each other.)  His reaction on the Charlottesville killing was to declare the final supremacy of Us and Them, and if You are Them, you ain't shit.  I disagreed, saying that Us and Them is always an invalid move; he disagreed with me, and declared that we must leave it there.  I agreed, and asked him not to post more of his verse on my page.  He then unfriended me; big of him.

Some readers will certainly conclude that I'm denying that white racists are a threat (much as some of the same people concluded that because I didn't think the US should invade Afghanistan, I didn't consider Al Qaeda a threat).  I'm not doing anything of the kind.  Because white racism is a pervasive, endemic threat, we need to come up with better ways of confronting and blocking it than we have so far.  Some people can't be argued with or compromised with.  But I don't see a "bloodbath," as one commenter on a post at the Intercept argued recently, as a sane way out of our situation.  As usual with wars, the people who initiate the war will probably be among those who suffer least.  We tried that approach in 1861, and even though white nationalists lost on the battlefield, they fought their opponents to a standstill in the years afterward, and took control of America by working within the system.  (It didn't hurt, of course, that white nationalism wasn't confined to the Confederacy.)  We're still living with the consequences.

In the end, I suppose I'm something of a nihilist.  To the universe it doesn't matter whether human beings blow ourselves up, enslave each other in some dystopic system, become extinct through natural selection, or are immolated when the sun goes nova, or an asteroid hits the earth.  There's nothing in Darwinian theory (or in religion) to say that we will have a happy ending, and in the long run we are all dead.  But it matters to us -- doesn't it?  It matters to me, and to some others, how things go while we are still alive.  Frankly, I'm not sure it does matter to most people.  The poster I saw today is, to me, one more slice of evidence that it doesn't: that they can't think ahead any farther than the next ragegasm.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

At Least He Didn't Live to See Reddit ...

I saw this image posted to Twitter yesterday when Daniel Larison retweeted it, though it turns out it was posted to Reddit a couple of days before that.  The guy who posted it remarked, "Carl Sagan wrote this in 1996, and now I think he’s either a time traveler or a witch."  Well, that tends to confirm Sagan's totally cliched forebodings about superstition.

I don't remember what, if anything, I thought about this passage when I read The Demon-Haunted World twenty years ago, but this doesn't make me want to reread it now.  On the whole I remember liking the book, though there were some things, like a stupid denigration of pre-literate people's intelligence, that annoyed me.

As usual with apocalyptic "predictions," Sagan was describing his present and recent past, especially the Reagan regime.  I was about to say that the panic over Donald Trump has wiped out memory of Ronald Reagan's ignorance, superstition, racism, and appeal to the Common Clay, but then I remembered that the human historical memory has always been short, and Reagan was rehabilitated by Barack Obama.  I"ve been wondering if I"ll live long enough to see Trump, like George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, embraced by liberals: hugged by Michelle Obama, schmoozing with Ellen DeGeneres.

Do I need to point out that the US has been moving towards a service economy since the 1800s?  (And what's wrong with an information economy?  Why did Sagan hate Science?)  Like many of his generation, and mine as well, Sagan may have thinking of the brief manufacturing boom during and just after World War II; that was a blip, not the normal state of US economic activity.

The stuff about dumbing-down is also standard, and speaks badly for Sagan, because it's mere demagoguery in the sense Patricia Roberts-Miller described and criticized in Demagoguery and Democracy.  I immediately thought of another critic's remarks about a 1932 lament over the emptiness of Popular Entertainment In Our Time, that I've quoted before: "It is surely a great deal better to like the trashiest fiction than to enjoy seeing a witch burnt, or to go to the silliest cinema than to soak in an eighteenth-century gin-shop."

But maybe Sagan had a point.  I like his science popularizations well enough, and I still remember fondly his appearance on a TV panel after the original broadcast of the 1983 nuclear-war movie The Day After: the political pundits who participated with him were in a state of panic and nearincoherence, and Sagan was sardonic but sensible.  Or so I remember it; I just found that the broadcast has been reconstructed and posted to Youtube, but I haven't re-watched it yet.  Maybe it will disappoint me when I do.  But compare Sagan to some of his science-for-the-masses predecessors: Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein.  There were giants in the earth in those days!  And then think of who followed him: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye.  Maybe we are going downhill.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Blood Will Tell, Roots Will Show

I'm reading a fascinating book by the anthropologist Circe Sturm, Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century (Santa Fe: School For Advanced Research Press, 2010).  It's about controversies over who is and isn't Cherokee, mainly involving the federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma and North Carolina on one hand, and other tribes elsewhere, some of which are state-recognized and some of which are self-recognized.  These latter, who often claim Indian ancestry but can't always document it, are generally considered "wannabes" by federally recognized (or "citizen") Cherokees, and Sturm spends some time explaining the complicated categories involved.  She doesn't pretend to resolve any issues; what she seeks to do, and does very well, is talk to people on all sides, trying (in words she quotes from Clifford Geertz) to "figure out what the devil they think they are up to" (14).  She's not afraid to point out the contradictions and inconsistencies in everybody's positions, and to recognize how inextricable they are - not just due to bad faith, though they are often that as well.  I was deeply gratified, for example, when she criticized one Cherokee informant's gleeful account (pages 113-114) of his viciously misogynist takedown of a white woman who'd claimed to be a descendant of "a Cherokee princess."  To do this takes some guts, and my respect for Sturm went way up when I read that passage.

Becoming Indian is relevant not just to Native American cultural conflicts, but to most confusions and squabbles over "identity," drawing boundaries and gatekeeping.  I was struck by one citizen Cherokee of the Eastern Band's take on the role of "blood" and upbringing in the debate:
Consider, for example, what [Robert] Thompson said about interracial adoption: “Let’s just say I found this little white baby, and I fell in love with this little white baby and raised him as my child, and I spoke to him in Indian, and I told him the stories, and he knew my whole family history.  He played with his so-called pseudo-cousins.  When he’s all grown up, don’t tell me he’s not a Cherokee” (October 22, 2003) [144].
In an endnote, Sturm remarks:
In this hypothetical example of interracial adoption, the baby who becomes Cherokee through a family’s love and devotion begins life as white, not black or some other explicitly marked identity, such as Hispanic or Asian.  Not surprisingly, white seems to operate as the default normative category, second only to Cherokee [228 note 14].
But something occurred to me.  "Interracial" adoption is a vexed issue in many contexts, and much of the controversy involves the notion that a baby has not just an explicitly marked identity but an explicitly marked essence.  A baby is already "Hispanic or Asian" or "white" or Indian by "blood," and it's raised outside of its ancestral culture, it will feel alienated and displaced as it grows up.  This is a recurrent theme in Becoming Indian, after all: many of the wannabes, no matter how little Cherokee ancestry they had, felt lost in white culture; and felt that their "blood" called them "home." The citizen Cherokees, no matter how dismissive they were of wannabes and "Thindians," tended to agree that if these unfortunates did have Cherokee blood, they would certainly have felt that something was wrong.  In another context, Sturm tells how, when confronted by some very white-looking Cherokee claimants at a public event, many in the audience clucked, "Well, if you've got the blood, it'll call you home" (150).

From this standpoint, wouldn't it be wrong for Robert Thompson to raise a little white baby in a Cherokee environment?  Surely when he grew up, his blood would call him back to his real people, no matter how hard Thompson tried to assimilate him.  Wouldn't that be just as wrong as taking an Indian baby and raising it white?  I don't think so, because of my white, European, postmodernist, homosexual values, and Thompson seems to be less obsessed with blood than most of the Cherokee Sturm talked to, but the idea of blood as an almost sentient racial essence runs through most of the debate about Indianness in this book, among both the wannabes and the citizens.  But so does culture: it's not enough to have the blood, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk.  Part of Sturm's achievement is that she bears down very hard on the contradictions.  (Does this remind anyone else of the debates over whether Barack Obama, who had a black father but was mainly raised by his white grandparents, was "really" black or African-American, because he wasn't a descendant of slaves and hadn't grown up in a black community?)

Yet I do have a bone to pick wth Sturm.  Early in Becoming Indian she writes:
Although the term “queer” is often [!] used simply to denote same-sex desire and sexuality whether lesbian, gay, or bisexual, in this instance I borrow Eve Sedgwick’s (1993:8) definition: “The open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” If we apply this definition to the case of racial shifters and examine the way in which they narrate and construct their own Cherokee identities, then we can see how their very refusal of normative definitions of Cherokeeness might be considered queer.
I decided to look at the context of Sedgwick's "definition," which Sturm quotes from Tendencies (Duke, 1993).  First I noticed that what Sturm quotes is "one of the things 'queer' can refer to" (Tendencies, 8); there are a couple more.  Then I noticed that Sedgwick referred to "the constituent elements of anyone's gender," etc.  Which means, for everybody, pretty much all the time: Everybody's queer, including me and thee.  I believe Sedgwick was aware of this. I'm not sure any human category signifies monolithically: the differences within a category are almost always more numerous and more significant than the average differences between categories.  Having invoked queerness, Sturm never mentions it again, and I think that's just as well.  Some of the wannabes / race shifters refuse normative definitions of Cherokeeness; others want their definitions to be normative, even though they may be more inclusive than those of citizen Cherokees.  The final question might be where those normative definitions (of Cherokeeness, or of any human group) come from.  As Sturm shows, the citizen Cherokees know that their definitions don't really have a firm indigenous foundation, especially insofar as they include being recognized by the white Federal government.  The blood quantum was originally imposed by the whites, too.  As for walking the walk and talking the talk, the Ojebwe/Dakota scholar Scott Richard Lyons wrote in his brilliant X-Marks (Minnesota, 2010):
That is precisely the “problematic” part of the peoplehood paradigm.  If you do not conform to the model – land, religion, language,and sacred history , ceremonial cycle, and so on -- if you happen to live away from your homeland, speak English, practice Christianity, or know more songs by the Dave Matthews Band than by the ancestors, you effectively “cease to exist” as one of the People [139].
According to Sturm, some Indian scholars are now trying to resolve this conundrum by describing "Cherokee identity politics as 'a battle over sovereignty'" (181). The Cherokee anthropologist Michael Lambert, whose discussion of sovereignty she quotes, argues that "A sovereign people [does] not have to meet any cultural expectations" (ibid.).  I think that's a good point, but I wonder how many Cherokee will agree with him.